by Norman O. Brown.
Random House. 109 pp. $5.95.
In 1959 Norman O. Brown published Life Against Death, an attempt to take Freud's principles beyond Freud, to explain how man had been enchained by his repressions, and how he might be freed from them, to be resurrected into a kind of pan-corporeal sexuality. The book scanned the entire history of modern Western thought, but its special emphasis was upon those concepts which lent themselves best to the use of literary-psychoanalytic technique. Thus, the concept of anality, for example, explained man's use of money, his need to accumulate savings, his sense of sin and guilt, and the meeting of all these in religion and capitalism. Essentially, Brown's analysis laid Freud upon Max Weber, with some help from the economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi. Its conclusions, though, were strictly the author's own.
Life Against Death was not immediately popular—for this it had to await the furious middle 60's. But it contained the ingredients which were to make of it the first super-successful post-modern apocalyptic work: political and sexual radicalism coupled with academic respectability. In its appeal to the mood of the 60's, Life Against Death shared the spotlight with Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization, which also, though in somewhat differing proportions, combined Marxism and Freudianism with pan-genitalism. Freud's phrase, “polymorphous perversity,” popularized by Brown, became a catchword of sorts, just as Marcuse's “non-repressive sublimation” had, and in the minds of many the two may very well have been inseparable, the one serving as a kind of cryptic explanation for the other.
Love's Body (1966) was a product of the culture anticipated by Life Against Death. For this reason, and perhaps also because Brown was by now a sort of culture hero himself, the second book did not seem to require the kind of arguments and explanations which are standard in works whose intention is to persuade. The author's entire effort, after all, had been directed toward liberation from the tyranny of Western reason, so he could now practice what he had preached, uniting form with content, and letting “the body” take over from the brain. This second volume was couched entirely in free-verse epigrams, on the assumption, apparently, that the kind of liberation it preached could only be expressed through poetry. The attempt to get form and content together once and for all superseded any attempt at conventional communication—and also, incidentally, prevented it.
Now, in Closing Time, his most recent book, Brown has grown more cryptic than ever, though this time the “poetry” is not his own but a collage which he has put together out of fragments from the work of James Joyce and the early 18th-century philosopher, Giambattista Vico. The book's title, Closing Time, signifies that Western civilization is over, but the combining of Finnegans Wake and Vico's New Science—two books which concern the cyclical nature of history—is intended to convey the information as well that a new age is dawning, one which will be marked by a return to primitive simplicity, where life will be totally free, and human expression will be a “sounddance.” In this new era, language itself will have returned to an earlier, more perfect form, the form of the hieroglyphic, which combines sound, structure, and meaning in one elemental symbol. The perfect utterance will be a kind of stutter: “Half a sylb, helf a solb, holf a salb onward,” as Brown, quoting Joyce, puts it. Throughout his exposition, Brown tries to emulate Joyce by shooting puns at us (“Etyms are atoms,” etc.), forgetting that Finnegans Wake, inspired though it may have been by Vico's philosophic theories, was not itself a philosophic tract, but a work of literature.
So far as Vico himself goes, his greatness lay not in his speculations about cyclical return, nor in his theories about the recurrent stages of world history, but rather in his method. The general assumption of the Enlightenment had been that the physical universe was accessible to understanding because it was external to the observer, uncomplicated by the factor of his presence. Human behavior, too, as expressed in the various social, political, and economic arrangements that made up human society, could best be studied—as John Locke and Adam Smith did—in the light of the supposed clockwork regularity and predictability of the physical world.
Vico's combination of reason and empiricism changed all this. To Vico, knowing was not only perceiving, but also doing or making, and man could learn best to understand what he himself had fabricated. Vico went from objects back to subjects—therein lay his greatness. American instrumentalism is in his debt, as was Marx, as are the modern disciplines of anthropology and psychology, and even the sociology of knowledge. Brown, however, ignores this large contribution and prefers to locate Vico in his own “hermetic tradition.” He takes Vico's one eccentricity—the belief in cycles—and makes it seem central to his thought, thereby turning Vico into a kind of ideologue.
In fact, Brown practices precisely the kind of ideological dogmatism against which Vico rebelled when it was practiced by the 18th-century philosophers in their attempt to fit human social behavior into predetermined patterns. In Brown's earlier books, he practiced the same approach to Freud. Freud had seen Eros, the pleasure principle, as only one of two instincts perpetually at war with each other. The other impulse—Thanatos (from the Greek word for death)—worked in the opposite direction to Eros; restraining the impulse toward abandonment of all restraints, and making possible—indeed unavoidable—that complex series of efforts which we call civilization. Freud had despaired over the duality and the pessimism contained in his own vision. Brown, going “beyond” Freud, simply threw out the problematic part of Freud's vision and proved to his own satisfaction that Freudian theory led straight to Eros.
All teleological system builders—whether Hegel, Marx, Vico, or, for that matter, Norman O. Brown—are haunted by a common problem. They create a universe, set it in motion, observe it in godlike detachment, and then step outside of it, forgetting in the process that they themselves are a part of the very thing they have created. They become Cartesians without the Cartesian cognizance that they are Cartesians. Why should Marx's dialectic stop with the dictatorship of the proletariat and the withering away of the state? Why should Vico's cycles end where Brown wants them to?
Brown's progress as an apocalyptician has now gone through three stages, of which the third is a mere re-enactment of the second. Life Against Death used the elements of Western reason to analyze the course of human history and paradoxically point up the need for transcending rationality. Love's Body was an attempt to show by example how the need could be fulfilled, and thus an announcement that the desired state was already halfway here. Closing Time, spuriously leaning on the authority of an 18th-century philosopher and a 20th-century novelist, is intended as further demonstration of this proposition. In Marx's view history's repetition of tragedy is farce; Marx neglected, or perhaps he found it superfluous, to say what we should call it the third time around.