“The world is so full of a number of things/I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” That human life is not paradisal we all at times find faintly puzzling and scratch about for some hypothesis to explain the wretchedness of man. “The wretchedness of a king who has lost his crown,” says Pascal. The hypothesis of Original Sin, the idea of a primal fault, a going wrong without which all would now be well, this has always had a plain appeal. Again, we may feel that some decisive event, or set of events, within our power to bring about, will establish the conditions for paradise. Time may be made to run forward rather than back to fetch the age of gold. Such has been the appeal of a thousand chiliastic sects, a thousand utopian communities. After the American and French revolutions Tom Paine wrote: “Monarchical sovereignty, the enemy of mankind, and the source of misery, is abolished; and the sovereignty itself is restored to its natural and original place, the nation. Were this the case throughout Europe, the cause of wars would be taken away.”
If men no longer feel that all will be well when the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest, or private ownership of the means of production abolished, this must be put down in part to an enlarged historical consciousness, in part to a by now fairly extensive experience of radical social experiments. We turn once again to the hypothesis of the primal fault, find the disease from which we all suffer coming out of an inner darkness of man. This inner darkness has been explored and given a structure and a dynamic pattern by Freud, or so it is widely believed, notably in the United States, less so today in Britain, not at all in the socialist countries (outside clandestine circles). That Freud’s explorations, rightly understood, help us to design the key to the garden of paradise was the belief set out by Norman O. Brown in a singular book, Life Against Death, which had a vast success on the campuses, and has now been succeeded by the work under review.
Life Against Death is a book in which enormous muddles are interwoven with brilliant aperçus (among the latter are the chapters on Swift and on the Protestant era). Brown sees quite well that the success of Freudian analysis consists, not in its being vindicated through the empirical verification of hypotheses, for in this sense it is worthless—it has built into it the logical impossibility of these hypotheses being falsified, but through its capacity to bring about a new understanding, and a self-understanding for the individual neurotic and (perhaps) psychotic, in particular cases. Freud is not the Newton of the world of mind, though it may be that on occasion he himself saw this as a suitable role, as many of his followers have certainly done; his role is closer to that of the poet or…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.