Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History


Alan Gullette

University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Fall 1979

Psychology 4103: Independent Study

Dr. Shrader


In Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (Wesleyan, 1959), Norman Brown carries the work of Freud to its logical conclusions in an attempt to arrive at a general psychoanalytic theory of history and culture.  Making certain adjustments and reinterpretations of Freud's theories, Brown replaces Freud's pessimistic instinctual dualism with an instinctual dialectic that opens up the possibility of a solution to the problem of human neurosis.  He takes us through the theory of repression, the development of Freud's theories of the instincts, the stages of infantile sexuality, and the important theories of sublimation and fantasy.  Finally, Brown offers a "way out" through the reunification of the life and death instincts, a cessation of repression, and the "resurrection of the body" though the reinstatement of the natural Dionysian body-ego.

Brown begins with repression because he claims it is "the key to Freud's thought" (3).  Repress ion creates the unconscious and the conscious as distinct; and psychoanalysis sis "nothing more than the discovery of the unconscious in mental life" (4).  Repression implies conflict and conflict implies conflicting forces, so we must examine Freud's theory of instincts.  In his early theory, Freud's opposing forces were the pleasure-principle and the reality-principle – the first being a natural impulse, the latter the frustrating demands of society.  Where there is society, then, there is repression; and where there is repression, neurosis.  From here, Brown begins his psychoanalysis of history, tracing the development of (repressive) civilization, which distinguishes man as an animal.  In personal psychopathogenesis, the neuroses of the individual are seen to develop in response to the society into which the individual must adapt itself; as ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, the history of neurosis (and the neurosis of history) can be traced in each neurotic – i.e., in each civilized man (13).  The question arises as to whether it is possible to crate an ideal culture that does not require repression. This problem, Brown suggests, is "the central problem confronting both psychoanalysis and history" (15).

Repression of the pleasure-principle is repression of sexual desires.  In earliest infancy, sexuality is unrepressed and is called (by Freud) "polymorphous perversity" because it is not yet organized around particular parts of the body but diffused throughout the body.  All sensual stimulation is pleasurable (i.e., unless it is painful!).  Sexual organization and repression were both thought to be imposed from outside society in this early theory.

In his later theory, Freud sees conflict as between the dual instincts of life and death.  Repression then becomes self-repression, and man is thus seen to create society in order to repress himself (9).  The progressive organizations of infantile sexuality mark the repression and socialization (or self-socialization, as it were, or self-civilization) of the human animal's natural life instinct (Eros), and these self-imposed organizations are a response to family life (the nuclear of society as we understand it).  Therefore, the "solution" to neurosis will be found in the cessation of repression, the reconciliation of the instincts (which must then be dialectic and not dualistic), and perhaps in the (precedent and/or consequent) restructuring of society so as to prevent encouragement of repression in the infant.

In examining Freud's theory of infantile love or object-choice, Brown dissolves the distinction Freud made between identification or narcissistic object-choice and "true" or anaclitic object-choice.  Instead, Brown sees the basic love relation as incorporation or being-one-with-the-world (42-3).  Eros, then, "is fundamentally a desire for union (being one) with the objects of the world" (44).  So, in the natural state, then infant does not distinguish between self and other but is one with the world (52).  Further, there is a primordial instinctual fusion which Brown recognizes as evidence that Freud's dual instincts are not actually dualistic (unresolvable) but dialectical.

To understand repression, we said, we have to understand the two forces that are in conflict.  Eros is the name given to the natural life force or life instance.  Freud, in his later theory, thought that there was an instinctual ambivalence, a necessary dualism, between Eros and Death [Thanatos], between the life and death instincts.  In fact, the death instinct is seen as the cause of repression of the life instinct.  As evidence for the existence of a death instinct, Freud observes three sorts of phenomena:  the tendency of organisms toward homeostasis (metabolic equilibrium)_, the so-called Nirvana –principle; the repetition-compulsion, seen here as a desire to return to the inorganic state of rest; and masochism (with its extroversion, sadism/aggression).  Brown questions this evidence.  As homeostasis is a biological urge toward internal harmony, Freud thought it evidenced an inherent instinct for self-annihilation (87).  But really, homeostasis would seem to be the natural and healthy [optimal] functioning level of metabolic life.  The repetition-compulsion is really an attempt to regain the equilibrium that has been lost, the original instinctual fusion.  (In speaking oaf the natural state as involving a "fusion " already implies both the life and death instincts; we are not only questioning their duality but also the instinctuality of what Freud calls the death "instinct".)  Masochism might be explained as atonement for guilt caused by repression of the life instinct (15).  Thus, the death "instinct" is just an alternative name for repression – a repression of Eros that disrupts a natural equilibrium which one then seeks to reestablish through the dynamic of the pleasure-principle (90).

The disruption of primordial unity means discontent and the search for the lost state.  History is thus a story of this search.  And its is this discontent which, urging us on, prevents us from resting in the moment.  (Freud sees the id, the unconscious repressed and the pool of instincts and (sexual) energies, as remaining in a timeless state (94).)  The term Nirvana-principle, here used with more positive connotations and not as a will to death, is rather appropriate; in Buddhism, suffering (discontent) is caused by desire (which is frustrated because direct toward illusion s which are impermanent and so void of reality), and so the extinction of desire frees one form striving and reunifies one with the world.  Here, desire is not the natural expression of the f life instinct but rather the striving of the pleasure-principle activated by repression.  The Nirvana-principle now becomes a conscious tool, not to repress in turn the pleasure-principle, but to achieve the lost equilibrium through understanding and so extinguishing desire.  In mysticism generally (and Brown links psychoanalysis with the mystical tradition (310)), mystical union involves the dissolution of time consequent to the stilling of the movement of desire in the mind.

Returning to the issue of the existence of a death instinct, Brown has the clever notion that the death instinct is an urge to die because it is an urge to be a separate individual (cp. Ernest Becker's Eros) and individuality means death (105) (i.e., what marks one off as an individual is precisely one's finitude).  But this seems absurd; the urge to be an individual (i.e., what one is) need not be a conscious or unconscious but purposeful wish to die.  Nevertheless, separation and death are organic facts, and these facts are usually denied.  Repression is of anxiety – anxiety senses at the recognition of separation (from the mother) (109).  Anxiety "is the ego's incapacity to accept death" (112), and so life itself (of which death is a part) is repressed.  This repression has the psychophysical effect of the sexual organizations, through which erotic libido is focalized and partially denied (112).  Another effect, Brown says, "of the incapacity to accept separation, individuality, and death" is "to erotize death – to activate a morbid wish to die" (115). . This wish is now the explanation given for masochism, sadism, and aggression.

But this would seem to indicate that the wish to die is a response to the absence (through denial) of the fact of death in one's repressed world.  Death is then not an instinct, it seems, but merely a neurotic morbid reaction.  The urge to be separate is not an urge to die but an urge to life (as an individual, which one is); only the denial of life through the denial of its death aspect can be called a "death instinct" and even then it is not an instinct but an anxious response.  It is better to call it an urge not to live rather than an urge to die.

When the infant realizes his separation from the mother in the oral stage of sexuality, he denies separation (and thus external reality) and begins to invest in a dream of regainable pleasurable union.  Negation of the external is an act of the death "instinct" (117).  In the oral-sadistic and anal stages, aggression is directed toward others.  There has now developed an ambivalence of passive dependence (Agape) and active aggression (in protest against weak dependence yet unacceptable separation).  Anality involves the urge to control rather than to depend.  In the Oedipal stage, the infant dreams of realizing a project of self-dependent creation in order to deny dependence on the external world.  The Oedipal or causa sui project is to defy the father (the reality principle and perhaps also a reminder of the fact of separation and the need to develop self-responsibility) and to control the mother and become the father of oneself.  This dream is shattered by the castration complex, the fear that the jealous father will ruin one's narcissistic pleasure and destroy the child's one hope of returning to the mother (through intercourse; thus the localization of the libido in the genitals in this "phallic" stage).

The three stages of infantile sexual self-organization are three attempts to control the world and so deny one's dependence on one's separation and weakness.  First, one seeks to swallow the world; thumb sucking is a denial of separation from the mother.  Second, one seeks to manipulate the world (through playing with the feces, stubborn retention, and aggressive expulsion of feces); feces are both oneself and one's created world (121).  Third, one pursues the Oedipal project, already described.  The fear of castration forces on e to separate from the mother, but a trauma is involved and one is unable to truly individualize and accept separation; thus one continues the causa sui project on other levels (129).  This brings us to the theory of sublimation.

A principle of repression is that what is repressed does not "go away" – especially when it is a biologically based instinct.  Instead, it seeks to be expressed in altered or disguised form.  This is basically the theory of sublimation, the re-routing of frustrated Eros or libido, which produces, according to Freud, virtually all culture (135).  To be so expended, the libido, which has been withdrawn "from people – and things – that were previously loved" (161), is first "desexualized," its object-directedness and sexual nature stripped off and denied.  For fear of castration, the child represses Eros and the urge to unite.  But since separation from the world cannot be accepted, the "object-lost" is reconstructed in fantasy and projected as if "real."   This "reality" is culture and the whole process is sublimation (163).  The character-structure of the ego is a shield, a set of defense mechanisms, whereby the memory of past gratifications of erotic desire is revitalized in fantasy-projection.  IN such fantasy, the self is conceived in desexualized terms, and so the infantile body-ego of polymorphous perversity is distorted through progressive repressive localization and the self is identified with a non-bodily soul constituted by desexualized ego-libido (162-3).  To see the self as a body-self is to see the fact of separation and death.  But the price of sublimation is, ironically, "a more active form of dying" through negation – negation of world and thus of self.  Life becomes "diluted to the point where we can bear it," but at the cost oaf living a pale reflection of a life (160).

A result of denial is fetishism, the reliance on objects symbolizing the lost objects of sexual desire.  In fact, the sublimated life lived in the fantasy-project of culture is just a life of symbolic satisfaction – "the shadow of a dream" (168-9).  Abstraction and mathematics are the highest forms of sublimation, along with religion, and these constitute the furthest withdrawal from the world of the body – thus Brown's critique of Platonism.  Civilization, based on repression and sublimation, thus "moves towards the primacy of intellect and the atrophy of sexuality" (i.e., life) for Freud; in Ferenczi's terms, "pure intelligence is a product of dying" (173).

A long and tedious section of Brown's book is devoted to "Studies in Anality" (179-304), linking the sublime to the base, money to feces, the Protestant Lutheran Devil to the body and death, and generally strengthens the claim that sublimation involves negation of the body.  Worship of money is sublimated anality.  And main's fascination with excrement (evidenced by the extent of anality) is really fascination with death (295).  By denying the death aspect of life, we dialectically affirm it and our subconscious morbidity comes out in our cultural emphasizes on order, cleanliness, and money.  Analytic is the result of maladjustment to have a body and a denial of one's ultimately organic nature.

Brown's "solution" to man's problem is "the resurrection of the body" (Chapter XXVI) as the seat of the natural body-ego (for Freud, "the mental projection of the surface o the body" (159) – symbolic-sensual activity that does not separate itself as a self from the body).  Sublimation must end in the "dominion of death-in-life" and so does not offer us a solution.  "The way out" is an alternative suggested by the distinction between Apollo and Dionysius (Chapter XII).  Apollo is "the god of sublimation;" Apollonian form is "form as the negation of instinct"(174).  And so we see that sublimation and civilization go back to the Greeks.  The alternative is simply to deny or negate, but to affirm the reality of the unity of life and death (175).  But as self is a self-separated symbolic construct, Dionysian consciousness is "drunken" unselfconsciousness in which the Apollonian ego (or soul-fantasy) ahs been dissolved.  We must assume that symbolization, which is useful and perhaps necessary, is still possible when needed; but this does not necessitate a self-symbol, or at any rate a neurotic identification with one.  I myself find this rather mystical solution to be completely satisfying logically, though it is a difficult one to achieve in actuality.




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