Life Against Death

Front CoverMy first exposure to the ideas of Norman O. Brown’s was his book Love’s Body which I read back in late 90’s. This classic book remains on my top shelf of insightful and provocative reads. It’s trippy – condensing the entire history of humankind into a Freudian-based mythology in which he sees that the “only contrary to Patriarchy is not Matriarchy, but Fraternity, or an alliance between Mother Earth and the band of brothers led by Cronus to castrate Father Sky.

Through many of the great writings of Western culture Brown cruises through our collective history re-telling the tragedy of war and aggression that carries through to this day. Rooted in the conflict between what Freud called instinctual bodily desires or “undifferentiated primal unity with oneself and nature” vs. the constraints of the super ego in which we become differentiated and alienated from that self and nature, Brown, in sparingly poetic phrasing, shows us the generations of humanity caught in a cycle of youthful rebellion repetitively seeking to replace the corrupt authority of Kings and Popes, our senix-driven fathers. But Brown makes clear that the tragedy of war and aggression between brothers, tribes, states and nations, also reflects an inner conflict within each of us.

Currently, I am enjoying his earlier book, Life Against Death, the Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. In a much more traditional writing style, Brown walks us through Freud’s early ideas and later revisions with an emphasis on his idea of the death-instinct, it’s relationship to the pleasure principle, and its splitting from consciousness. Where there has been a technological drive towards increasing comfort and pleasure, there is also a tendency towards “inactivity, rest or sleep, death’s brother.” In other words, increasing unconsciousness and a “hostility towards life.”

From the preface:

“To experience Freud is to partake a second time of the forbidden fruit; and this book cannot without sinning communicate that experience to the reader. But to what end? When our eyes are opened, and the fig leaf no longer conceals our nakedness, our present situation is experienced in its full concrete actuality as a tragic crisis. To anticipate the direction of this book, it begins to be apparent that mankind, in all its restless striving and progress, has no idea of what it really wants. Freud was right: our real desires are unconscious.

It also begins to be apparent that mankind, unconscious of its real desires and therefore unable to obtain satisfaction, is hostile to life and ready to destroy itself. Freud was right in positing a death instinct, and the development of weapons of destruction makes our present dilemma plain: we either come to terms with our unconscious instincts and drives—with life and with death— or else we surely die.”

In reading Life Against Death, I am struck by Brown’s discussion of Freud’s idea of the infant, the “polymorphous perverse infancy,” its experience of no-time, or eternal time through which an adaptation to the family and culture results in a repression of our experience of eternality in favor of an agreed upon cultural sense of linear, historical time. The idea of trading off awareness of eternal time for historical time seems an insightful way of understanding our modern dilemma. Especially with a compounded insistency that the linear perspective is the only one, an objective literal truth to which we are bound and against which all else is measured.

Perhaps as technology and access to knowledge increases, many of us are becoming aware of how much the historical perspective tugs at our hearts, leaving us apocalyptic, despairing, guilty, or passionately political towards endings, whether it be all the wars and bloodshed, hunger, disease, religion or government. There is upon us the unhappy realization that the wheel of human history is indestructible, still out of reach, frustrating further our desire for restful sleep. Our response, once we have exhausted ourselves in a playpen of technology is perhaps madness, euphoria, apathy or naiveté.

Brown complains about the postmortem loss of Freud’s ideas which interestingly happen because of the very problems of the nature of consciousness that Freud described; the fraternity of Freudian’s have killed him, moving away from the discomfort of his ideas.

Life Against Death (Wesleyan University Press edition).jpg“It is easy to take one’s stand on the traditional notions of morality and rationality and then amputate Freud till he is reconciled with common sense— except that there is nothing of Freud left. Freud is paradox, or nothing. The hard thing is to follow Freud into that dark underworld which he explored, and stay there; and also to have the courage to let go of his hand when it becomes apparent that his pioneering map needs to be redrawn.”

Brown’s observations of the fate of Freud and other visionaries rings true, from Jesus, to Jung, but if Freud is correct that we are cyclically murdering the unbearable paternal authorities only to replace them with new unbearable authorities, then murder itself is a result of incorporating an aversion to authority. Then the question becomes, how do we break this cycle of insanity?

I agree with Brown, and will leave it to the experts to draw both their paychecks and their conclusions from the dayworld perspective because as Gil Scott Heron reminds us, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Any change in consciousness big enough to affect the broad spectrum of culture is an underworld experience which happens in the hearts of individuals. In regaining our natural instincts with an embrace of life that, rather than fighting death with death, might then honor the mystery that we can all live in rather than against.

“We, however, are concerned with reshaping psychoanalysis into a wider general theory of human nature, culture, and history, to be appropriated by the consciousness of mankind as a whole as a new stage in the historical process of man’s coming to know himself.”

All quotes from Brown, Norman O. (2012-04-15). Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History . Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.