Confessions of a Mystical Freudian

Of all the different directions Freudian-Marxism took during the twentieth century, Norman O. Brown, the American philosopher, stands out as presenting a particularly compelling version. The first thing to note about Brown is that his project is distinctively American. His thought falls in line with the transcendentalists and with a certain strand of American idealism. He is widely influenced by the German idealists and Christian mysticism, and he was a careful reader of Marx as well as of French thought, even though he had a secret aversion to French poststructuralism.

Brown believed that psychoanalysis provided the necessary intellectual equipment for ushering humanity towards a mystical break from the bondage of the death drive. His project has just recently begun to preoccupy my time, and I have just finished a careful reading of his Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. This text is the first in a wider trilogy which includes two other quasi-spiritual titles: Love’s Body and Apocalypse and or Metamorphosis.

Brown’s work is deeply concerned with the problem of the body and its historically situated predicament, under different regimes of repression. Repression is the bug bear of civilization which Brown reads as ‘neurotic history’.  Brown writes: “Repression and the repetition compulsion generate historical time” (93). Only repressed life is in time, and eternity is the mode of unrepressed bodies, for which Brown sees psychoanalysis as being able to arrive at. Brown periodizes the era of Protestantism with modernity and capitalism, however he does not present a theory that we have entered into a new era, whether that be postmodern, or a post-Protestant era. Modernity is deeply Protestant and what remains paramount in this modern period is a suppression of the life instinct (217). The foreclosure of the life instinct is another way of saying a foreclosure of sublimation.

Capitalism captures the drive to work in man which is tied to the death drive to produce a surplus. This drive towards surplus is something that existed in pre-capitalist, or archaic economies, but it was not appropriated into private interests as it is under capitalism. Work is thus split between nonenjoyment and enjoyment, and the drive to surplus is a death drive which man remains stuck with at an instinctual level. Brown states that, “the drive to sublimate is the same drive as that tied to the drive to surplus” (259). Sublimation is thus life (enjoyment) entering consciousness on condition that it is denied (172).

His analysis of the dialectic of life and death is thus mapped onto the field of work and split between thinking work as enjoyment and nonenjoyment. The question is thus how one appropriates the negative side of work as nonenjoyment towards libidinal investments. He finds Mauss’ theory of the gift economy to be one such example of this positive appropriation of nonenjoyment because the gift economy is about forming social solidarity, not about producing private use-value.

Where I found Brown’s critique of capitalism to be most dangerous is in his reduction of the question of power to myth and neurosis. Since repression is in-built, the question of revolution is one bent on overcoming neurotic delusions:

“If there is a class which has nothing to lose but its chains, the chains that bind it are self-imposed, sacred obligations which appear as objective realities with all the force of a neurotic delusion.”

Brown thus reduces the question of power to a set of sacred myths and neurosis. What this does is reduce capitalism to a temporary illness of avarice. This individualizes the problem of capital and it lacks a structural analysis of the way that capitalist social relations operate on commodity fetishism.

Beyond Repression:

In the first part of Life Against Death, he argues that, “Spinoza’s intellectual love of God is identical with Freud’s polymorphous perversity of children” (48). What psychoanalysis indicates is that man is the species that must put aside its own childhood in order to be saved, this is the less on of the Oedipus complex: each child wishes to be their own father. Thus childhood is the origin of the repressive apparatus and importantly, Brown thinks repression as an interiorized relation to the reality principle. He thus sees human liberation as one focused on how to change the reality principle so that one may discover unknown sources of pleasure.

Brown is not naïve enough to suggest that psychoanalysis presents us with a utopia, yet he does want to argue that it offers a way out of repression. This is the launching point of Brown’s work and it is in this regard that he attempts to tie psychoanalysis into Marxism and develop a new theory of sublimation. Brown’s theory of sublimation is non-dualist and non-dialectical, what he refers to as Dionysian. Dionysian existence is one in which negation has been resolved and subjectivity enters into a state of play and there is no longer a repressive apparatus that situates the time of man.

Apollo is the God of sublimation Brown claims, “the God of form, of plastic form in art, rational form in thought, of civilized form in life” (174). Apollo is form negating matter – he is the God of sublimation, while Dionysus is the God of life of complete and immediate. The essence of the Dionysian faith is that he does not negate anymore. Instead of negating, Dionysus affirms the great contradiction of the instinctual opposites.

In the last chapter of the text, Brown develops this idea which he calls his theory of resurrection, where he declares a new form of consciousness that does not observe the limit, but overflows; it is consciousness which does not negate any more.

“The resurrection of the body is a social project facing mankind as a whole, and it will become a practical political problem when the statesmen of the world are called upon to deliver happiness instead of power, when political economy becomes a science of use-values instead of exchange-values—a science of enjoyment instead of a science of accumulation” (317 – 318).

Just what we can preserve of Brown’s project, and what we should reject are becoming more and more clear to me. Let this review be a start of something more to come.

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