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Rude Torso

Love’s Body

by Norman O. Brown
Random House, 276 pp., $5.95

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 the novelist whose powers show themselves above all in the increase of understanding they bring. If life can never be the same after one has read The Brothers Karamazov, this is also true of The Interpretation of Dreams. But Brown’s general discussion is vitiated by a radical confusion of categories. He wishes to use terms such as repression, neurosis, conflict, and the rest both in the sense which they are given in the corpus of Freud’s work and also in a sense incompatible with this. For example, neurotic symptoms can only be given a sense if they can be contrasted with a postulated normal behavior. Schizophrenia is in part defined by the rejection in the subject of rational criteria. If one then goes on to speak of, for example, the universal neurosis of mankind, or if one wishes to portray the schizophrenic as having more understanding of life than the sane, then the force of such terms is simultaneously affirmed and denied. Not that this worries Brown. In his Introduction he tells us that in the book “paradox is not diluted with the rhetoric of sober qualification.” This is to cheat, to say: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.” At the end of the book he tells us that “formal logic and the law of contradiction are the rules whereby the mind submits to operate under general conditions of repression.” Here Brown strangles himself with the cords of his own dialectic; for this statement is either true or false.

Further, Brown’s program is: the abolition of repression, with the result that the adult human body would be polymorphously perverse in its pleasures; but the entire book is an argument, appealing to the usual formal and empirical criteria, designed to convince us that the abolition of repression is possible and good. Once again he strangles himself. A polymorphously perverse human life could no more be something that people brought about as a consequence of their being convinced by an argument than the present genital organization of adult sexuality (deplored by Brown) is the result of an argument.

Love’s Body is not so plainly scandalous to the philosophical reader as Life Against Death. It has something of the style of a commonplace book; in form, though emphatically not in content, it could perhaps be described as lying in between La Rochefoucauld and Amiel. In its content it is in part a continuation, in part a rejection of “The Resurrection of the Body,” the final chapter of Life Against Death. The influence of Lévi-Strauss is more marked and the theological orientation is firmer.

WHAT IT ALL AMOUNTS TO is hard to say, though it is plain that the affinity between Brown and Marcuse that one might have inferred from the earlier book scarcely now exists. (The differences between the two have recently been set out in Commentary in a review by Herbert Marcuse and a reply by Brown.) It is, in a way hard to explain, a very moving, and even an important book—in part because the sophistical gymnastics of Life Against Death have been for the most part abandoned. It resembles Wittgenstein’s Investigations in that it is a collection of remarks, not a treatise, though it would be far-fetched indeed to claim that Brown’s book had anything approaching the supreme intellectual importance for our time of Wittgenstein’s work.

Certain characteristic themes may be disentangled from the remarks. The revolutionary optimism, ill-grounded in argument, that seemed to pervade Life Against Death, has been abandoned for one of the most ancient speculations: the belief in the eternal cycle. Revolution is “circular,” that is, as Brown illuminatingly put it in his reply to Marcuse, “the reality of Marx cannot hide the reality of Nietzsche.” Of course, as always, he plays both partners in the dialogue and in the very passage in which he affirms the circularity of revolution, he ends with an affirmation (derived from Joachim of Flora) of a totally noncyclical view of human history, the doctrine of three periods, those of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is itself a very dark doctrine, appealing greatly to the chiliastic sects of the Middle Ages, and it suggests, one conjectures, that for Brown the period of the Son is to be contrasted with the period of the Spirit, the former representing the regime of repression that follows upon the primal conflict between the Son and the Father, the latter corresponding to the period of uninhibited delight that is for Brown the paradisal condition. Of course, all this raises the difficult and, it may be, unanswerable question as to how far Brown is a believing Christian. He tells us in the Preface that “God found an opening for the unexpected; that was the way this business turned out.” However this may be, Brown’s faith, such as it is, is far indeed from that of Pasteur’s Breton peasant.

One is now compelled to try somehow to deal with the problem of how to take the many formulations about religion, ritual, psychology, morals, and the rest to be found throughout the book. My guess is that the author’s standpoint could very roughly be summarized as follows. Every linguistic formulation means what it says (a truism that belongs to the logic of repression); but also in virtue of what it overtly means it has a covert meaning that is the source of its power (the dialectic of the free spirit, the super-ego dethroned, the genital organization of our neurotic sexuality dissolved by the polymorphous energy of bodily delight).

THERE IS is in Love’s Body a whole theory of symbolism that is the key to what may strike us as excessively vatic utterances. (Many examples of this will be found in the very beautiful section on “Fire.” Here he takes themes out of the whole range of world literature and is able to bring them to a point where the title of James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time can be associated without incongruity with a variety of references to fire; from the fire that mysteriously flickers in the works of the pre-Socratics, the fire that torments the damned in Augustine and Dante, the fire that burns in Blake’s tiger, to the fire that may in our time devour the world.) One has the feeling that if only this theory could be set out formally one would grasp the rationale of the work. Of course, just this, according to Brown, is the indication of one’s citizenship in the kingdom of repression; for how could one set out the theory formally without treating a contradiction as the sign of where one’s exposition was going wrong? He has to presuppose the validity of the rules of our ordinary two-valued logic in order to say what he has to say; and this means that, like everyone else engaged in the enterprise of explaining himself to others, he has to treat the conjunction of p and not-p as a sign of absurdity. Many times he understands this perfectly well. For instance, he has excellent things to say on the history of Biblical criticism and interpretation. He tells us that “the basic assumption of modern hermeneutics, the organic unity of the document, is a commitment to univocation; and was elaborated by Protestantism to set up the one true meaning of scripture.” He then shows the dessicated character of this doctrine by stating the classic doctrine that the scriptures have the Holy Spirit for their author in his own terms:

the unconscious is the true psychic reality; and the unconscious is the Holy Spirit. The opposite of the letter is the spirit. “The sensus plenior is that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author.”

Once again, one wonders how far in the play of ideas Brown is committing himself to anything remotely like what is intended by those who use these terms in the main theological tradition. There is certainly something very strange in saying that “the unconscious is the Holy Spirit.” Again, there is surely a profound error in the reference to the opposition of “the letter” to “the spirit” in this passage. The contrast between the letter and the spirit shows not in different levels of meaning, for at whatever level of meaning one is speaking, one is speaking and therefore one is standing by the letter. Those are the prisoners of the letter who misunderstand what the letter requires. Observing the spirit rather than the letter is a matter of style and action, not of meaning.

Later, he advances the interesting idea that Protestant fundamentalism and Catholic scholasticism (one takes it he has in mind not Aquinas or Scotus but the systematizers of the Silver Age and their degenerate modern descendants) are “exterminators of symbolism,” with a consequent thinning of the modern historical consciousness. This “thinning” can be illustrated by the almost universal tendency, especially since the Enlightenment, to write the history of culture in such a way as to presuppose some form of the foundation and superstructure theory. One particular type of thought or action is taken to be indubitably real, the rest is mere epiphenomena. In consequence one is inclined to say, without even reflecting, that something is “only a myth” or “only a dream” or “a primitive way of looking at things,” and so on and so on.

There is undoubtedly some truth in Brown’s theory, in part derived from De Lubac and Eliade, that deserves systematic treatment; but what he has to do is to show that his jaunty linking of the Spirit with the unconscious of psychoanalytical theory, his linking of the consequences of the Fall (war and private ownership) with the Oedipal situation and the primal killing of the Father, his identification of the resurrection of the body with the abolition (exemplified in schizophrenia) of the distinction between one’s own body and the universe, and so on, are capable of producing a plausible thinking through of the apparently quite distinct problems of psychoanalysis, scriptural hermeneutics, cosmic history, typology, critical theory (in the sense of a “poetics”), social anthropology, and epistemology. Brown’s thought is never so feeble or so unwarrantably ambitious as the thought of, say, Teilhard de Chardin, never so falsely profound as Tillich at his weakest, never so merely rhetorical as the most of Reinhold Niebuhr’s writing; but it is at times uncomfortably close to these constructions, at once brittle and woolly. The reason is that he does not value enough that ethos of the scholarly life which shows itself through all the shifts in the history of the academic consciousness, from the great moment when Abelard drew the young men of Europe to Paris by the sounding of the true music of the dialectic down to the modern period when the radiance of humble, arduous, tenacious scholarship shows itself (I avoid trying to list contemporaries, for obvious reasons) in the work of Ranke, Maitland, Tawney, Max Weber, and in the heroic and tragic dedication of Sigmund Freud himself.

The great virtue of Brown’s work, of this fragment, this rude torso, that is too ambitiously entitled Love’s Body, is that it is on the whole salted with the irony that comes from Socrates and from the New Testament writings. It brings home to us the ambiguities and self-deceptions that may underlie our fits of moralism and righteous indignation; it shows us that the distinguishing of spirits is a hard business, that many who think they live by the Spirit are the sport of demons, that many who believe themselves given over to damnation are, beneath the surface of their own subjectivity, instruments of the Spirit. The great types of the latter are tormented spirits, who, loaded down (in part) with the burden of fictitious guilt, nevertheless accomplish great things in their vocations. Such a man was Cowper, such a man was John Bunyan; but there are without doubt multitudes of such men who accomplish much in ways that make no visible mark on history.

Above all, let us be clear that the genre to which the book belongs is not, emphatically not, that of the usual vulgar, slipshod, eclectic and fundamentally suburban compilation of Marx, Freud, Christianity, and Zen Buddhism. It is serious work for which one has to be grateful. What can with profit be sifted out from it and what can be developed from it, these are questions that require the thoughts of many minds as they live through what is great and trivial, agonizing and consoling, in the events that have been, now are, and are still to come in what Jacob Burckhardt, prophesying, called “the terrible twentieth century.”

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