by Norman O. Brown
Village Voice, 1991
by Simon Reynolds
Jim Morrison dug him. Camille Paglia rates him as far superior to the French pomo pantheon of Lacan, Derrida, Foucault et al. Susan Sontag thought he was cool for putting "the eschatology of immanence" back on the intellectual agenda. Who is he? He's Norman O. Brown, the classical scholar whose mind was blown by psychoanalytical theory and whose 1957 masterwork "Life Against Death" was a radical, disorientating re-interpretation of Freud. Brown took issue with the degraded version of Freud perpetrated by American psychoanalysis, and attempted to return to the heart of the Freudian problematic: how can human beings be healed and whole when human culture itself is neurotic?
Brown's obsessions - polymorphous perversity, Dionysian madness, androgyny, the replacement of the work ethic by play - prefigured those of the counter culture and Sixties utopian sects like the Situationists. But, perhaps because of his age or his scholarly temperament, Brown's quest for an end to alienation led him neither to armed revolution nor drug-induced oblivion, but to mysticism. Freud showed that regression to animalism, the beasts' blissful ease with their own sexuality and mortality, was not an option. So Brown's search for "the way out" led him to an idiosyncratic creed of mystical materialism, a spirituality which revelled in the flesh instead of denying it. At the close of "Life Against Death", Brown called for "the resurrection of the body" - a perfect, polymorphous, androgynous body, as imagined in pagan beliefs and certain apocalyptic Christian heresies. "Love's Body" (1967) was a collection of aphorisms whose goal was to end the opposition "between mind and body, word and deed, speech and silence". Brown's renunciation of politics and conclusion that "there is only poetry" , prefigure post-structuralism's post-1968 retreat to the text.
Nearly 25 years later, "Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis" is the final volume in Brown's trilogy. A motley collection of essays and speeches, "Apocalypse" can't be said to complete Brown's life work so much as fine-tune and fill gaps. Many of these pieces are purely of academic interest, in both senses of the word. "Daphne, or Metamorphosis", "My Georgics: A Palinode In Praise Of Work", and "Metamorphoses II: Actaeon" find Brown entertaining himself, and quite possibly only himself, in elaborate, arcane games with etymology and mythology. The aphoristic style of "Love's Body" disintegrates into the barely written condition of lecture notes (which, in some cases, is exactly what the essays are). Brown's intellectual shorthand (lots of sentences without verbs) and punning mental shortcuts often seem like an overloaded brain shortcircuiting.
"Revisioning Historical Identities" is Brown's "intertextual autobiography", the account of "a life made out of books" : a trajectory that takes him from Marxism and modernist poets like Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky in the Thirties, through the political disillusionment of Henry Wallace's failed Presidential campaign of 1948, to his discovery, via Freud, that the arid science of Marxism needed irrigating by the Power Of Love. Again, one suspects that, despite Brown's elegant, elliptical style, this tale of intellectual wanderings has a rather limited resonance; Brown himself describes the essay as a "hermetic game of hide and seek with esoteric erudition". In the opening piece, "Apocalypse: The Place Of Mystery In The Life Of The Mind", Brown calls for a reinvention of the academy, imagining it transformed from the hidey-hole of bookish refugees from life into a forum for scholars drunk on the wisdom of antiquity, infused with enthusiasm (in its root meaning, "god-in-us"). But the atmosphere of too much of the writing in this volume is dusty rather than Dionysian.
The other, redeeming side to Brown's learning is his fervent syncretism: he's continually on the look-out for kindred spirits in unlikely places. "The Apocalypse Of Islam" celebrates a mystical strain within Islam comparable to the utopian offshoots of that other monotheistic, repressive religion, Christianity. Brown compares the bewildering maze of interruptions, collisions, lapses in tone and ejaculations that is the Koran's "Sura 18" to "Finnegan's Wake": both are examples of human language shattering under the force of the Divine Word. Spinoza is hailed as the prototype for all those thinkers (Freud, Nietzche, Marx, and by implication, Brown) who tried to fuse the roles of philosopher and prophet. For Brown, Spinoza's proto-communist, mystical dream of world unity anticipates his own own ideas about "Love's Body," (a body politic without a head, a polymorphously perverse society).
Brown is often eager to make out that all the revolutionary thought of the ages culminates in his own work. But he's also gracious enough to admit when he's been pre-empted. He ruefully hails "El Divino Narciso", a mystery play by the 17th Century Mexcian mystic Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, as a masterpiece that renders "my encyclopaedic scholarship superfluous" . He's also a recent convert to Bataille. In his closing essay, "Dionysus in 1990", Brown uses Bataille's theory of a fundamental human lust for excess and ruinous waste as the missing piece in his intellectual jigsaw. In a final fit of ragged, syncretic exuberance, Brown links Gerard Manley Hopkins, Goethe and the 14th Century Sufi master Hafiz of Shiraz as participants in a continuum: mystics who longed to be consumed in the fire of Dionysian excess. His closing, distinctly woolly contention - that the 1990 revolutions in Eastern Europe were an upsurge of Dionysian consciousness, because the masses were demanding the right to consume as recklessly and extravagantly as the West - is silly but endearing. At the very least, it shows that Norman O. Brown is still capable of being carried away by his enthusiasm for new ideas.