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Nobby Rising: Nobby, as Norman O. Brown's friends called him, pushed to resurrect the human body--with all its erotic urges freely expressed.

Apocalypse Now

A new book about radical UCSC philosopher Norman O. Brown sheds light on the Freudian scholar of the Dionysian apocalypse

By Mike Connor

Properly, we should read for power. Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one's hand. --Ezra Pound

Commencement Day addresses are often boring affairs, but two exceptions spring to mind. The first--a short story by Delmore Schwartz called "The Commencement Day Address," in which an old history professor confronts the student populace with pessimistic sentiments and a machine gun--is fictional, so it doesn't count.

The second is also written down, but was a real speech, delivered 45 years ago to graduating members of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society at Columbia University on May 31, 1960. The speaker was a brilliant classics professor named Norman O. Brown, or N.O.B. (or "Nobby" if you were his friend, colleague or student), who was already famous for Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Published in 1959, Brown's wildly subversive book was the first in a three-part series that would span more than 30 years.

Not that context is necessary to appreciate the shocking quality of Brown's speech, which was titled "Apocalypse: The Place of Mystery in the Life of the Mind," and indicated from its very beginning that Brown was functioning outside of the framework of tradition, and obeying a different, esoteric set of rules. "I didn't know whether I should appear before you," began Brown; "there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. ... It is because I think mind is at the end of its tether that I would be silent. It is because I think there is a way out--a way down and out ... that I will speak."

Continuing with a breath of comic air--"I can guess what some of you are thinking--his mind is at the end of its tether"--the often playful Brown quickly turned a corner: "Our real choice is between holy and unholy madness: open your eyes and look around you--madness is in the saddle anyhow."

Seemingly out of nowhere, Brown deemed Freud as the measure of unholy madness and Nietzche the prophet of holy madness, "of Dionysus, the mad truth." He also indicted the new culture of academia with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address.

"The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation," said Emerson, 123 years earlier, "is transferred to the record. Instantly the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant ... Colleges are built upon it. Meek young men grow up in libraries. Here instead of Man Thinking we have the bookworm."

This, to a bunch of bookworms.

The turn away from Freud, and away from man as bookworm, represented more than just cheap shots at college kids and their books. Brown was frank with his audience, giving them not necessarily what they wanted or expected, but rather, giving them useful tools they might need. He urged, even taunted them, to fight against the tyranny of science.

"The great equalizers dispensed by the scientific method are the tools, those analytical tools," said Brown. "But fools with tools are still fools, and don't let your Phi Beta Kappa key fool you. Tibetan prayer wheels are another way of arriving at the same result: the degeneration of mysticism into mechanism--so that any fool can do it."

Ultimately, Brown aligned himself with the politically incorrect (and inherently undemocratic) position that the order established by scientific analysis, by the wealth of ideas in libraries, must come second to that which can only be learned from the Dionysian spirit.

"It is possible to be mad and to be unblest, but it is not possible to get the blessing without the madness; it is not possible to get the illuminations without the derangement," said Brown. "And so there comes a time--I believe we are in such a time, when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, the power which makes all things new."

Visionary Scholar

Norman O. Brown, professor emeritus of humanities at UCSC, died on October 2, 2002, from Alzheimer's. The memorial speeches delivered a couple weeks after his death have been compiled in a new book from the New Pacific Press titled In Memorium: Norman O. Brown. In it, UCSC professor and colleague Jerome Neu called Brown a "liberating, visionary scholar, the successor in the 20th century to Blake and Nietzche."

Born in 1913 in El Oro, Mexico, and educated in England, Brown was exposed early to countercultural currents--Madame Blavatsky, Krishnamurti, William Butler Yeats--thanks to his mother's quest for "an ideological framework to support her instinctive dissatisfaction with establishment orthodoxy"--a quest Brown later mirrored in his academic career.

Brown immigrated to the United States to study at Wesleyan University in 1936, where he became intimately acquainted with labor movements and Marxism. Disenchanted by the 1948 defeat of Progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace, Brown began, as he put it, "to explore for a passage to a post-Marxist world." Turning away from politics, Brown embarked instead on a deep study of Sigmund Freud. Or, as Brown later wrote, "I wagered my intellectual life on the idea of finding in Freud what was missing in Marx."

Brown sought to reinterpret Freud's position in intellectual history, insisting that Freud not be regarded simply as the "founder of a method of individual therapy," but as the progenitor of a "new stage in the general evolution of human self-consciousness."

N.O.B. also insisted that Freud had not gone far enough with psychoanalysis. "The hard thing is to follow Freud into that dark underworld which he explored, and stay there," wrote Brown, "and also to have the courage to let go of his hand when it becomes apparent that his pioneering map needs to be redrawn." By 1959, Brown had an idea of what that map would look like. "What is needed is a synthesis of psychoanalysis, anthropology, and history," wrote Brown and spent the rest of his career engaged in an expansive lunge toward a metamorphosis of human consciousness.

Unrepentant Freudian

Until I wrote Life Against Death, I was a perfect sleeper. But when I learned to interpret my dreams, the power of sleep was taken from me. Freud said he came to disturb the sleep of the world. In my case, he succeeded. --Norman O. Brown

Widely known for the trilogy of books he wrote reappraising "the nature and destiny of man," beginning with Life Against Death, Brown could have lived a life of scholarly fame. In 1966, Time magazine included Life Against Death in a short list of underground books that "undergraduates feel they must read to be with it."

Indeed, to read Brown can be enervating, nearly toxic. His writing--increasingly poetic over the years--sears the page with the dialectical imagination of a true disturber of the peace. Boston College professor Alan Wolfe wrote that "reading Brown was a little like taking drugs, only it was more likely to lead to tenure." Susan Sontag wrote that "Life Against Death cannot fail to shock, if it is taken personally; for it is a book which does not aim at eventual reconciliation with the views of common sense."

No dreamy optimist, Brown delighted in teasing out the full shock value of his positions in Life Against Death through chapter titles like "The Disease Called Man," "The Excremental Vision" and "The Way Out." The preface to Part One, titled "The Problem," minces no words in its wholehearted embrace of Freud's dark world. Brown writes, "The entry into Freud cannot avoid being a plunge into a strange world and a strange language--a world of sick men, a diagnostic language of formidable technicality. But this strange world is the world we all of us actually live in."

Going further, Brown spells out the sinful implications of hearing Freud out: "It is a shattering experience for anyone seriously committed to the Western traditions of morality and rationality," writes Brown, "to take a steadfast, unflinching look at what Freud has to say. It is humiliating, to be compelled to admit the grossly seamy side of so many grand ideals. It is criminal to violate the civilized taboos, which have kept the seamy side concealed. To experience Freud is to partake a second time of the forbidden fruit; and this book cannot without sinning communicate that experience to the reader."

But Brown believed that the payoff was worth the price of sin--namely, that alienation would be overcome, and the return of the repressed completed, rendering problems of sin permanently moot.

Reluctant Messiah

Life Against Death established Brown, along with his colleague and friend Herbert Marcuse, and later Charles Reich, as an intellectual leader of the New Left. Marcuse's Eros and Civilization became a sort of flag of the New Left, using as it did a Marxist mode of Freudian analysis to parse the political repression du jour.

Brown's eccentric approach sought to psychoanalyze culture as though it were a kind of collective neurosis, delineating in human history the same cycle of individual neurosis--trauma, repression and the gradual return of the repressed--that Freud had laid out in his writings on psychoanalysis. In this framework, the scatological excesses of historical figures like Jonathan Swift and Martin Luther represent glimpses of humanity's churnings against the collective repression of itself.

Brown's push to resurrect the human body with all its erotic urges freely expressed--rather than neatly sublimated, which Freud considered the limit of psychoanalysis--resonated with the members of the Human Potential Movement and the growing number of undergrads they were influencing in the '60s.

But Brown sought to undo what he had done in Life Against Death. After the publication of his next book, Love's Body (1966), Brown said in an interview, "I did feel ... some kind of obligation to undo what I had done in Life Against Death. I wanted to release any followers I had acquired ... I don't want to be a leader."

Instead, Brown chose a life out of the spotlight, half-hidden among the redwood trees of UCSC. An enormously popular and imaginative lecturer, he was known for taking colleagues on long walks along the fire trails above campus, challenging and exhausting them with relentlessly probing conversation.

Or, as UCSC politics professor Robert Meister put it at the memorial ceremony, "Nobby could have defined himself through his relationship to the great luminaries--Marcuse, Cage, Schorske, Jameson, and so forth--with whom he brought me to dinner or on walks." After Brown died, students, faculty, friends and family gathered together to face yet another challenge--adequately expressing the enormity of his impact.

"I have thought about this day since Nobby began his long decline," said Meister, "and still I am not ready.

Exuberant. Erudite. Playful. Unsettling. Mischievous. Revolutionary. These descriptors poured forth from the seven faculty members who spoke at the UCSC memorial. Their remembrances, together with an oral memoir dictated by Brown for his family, have been collected in In Memoriam: Norman O. Brown. More delicate, illuminating and loving than any of the many obituaries written about Brown, the book offers a public glimpse of the private life Brown chose to lead.

Brown's family recently donated his archives--his correspondences, his manuscripts and his library of books: annotated collections of Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud--to UCSC's Special Collections; the bibliography alone is thousands of titles long. Sophisticated biographies will doubtless be produced from this wealth of information, but it will also make the writer's task of distilling such an omnivorous and metamorphosing intellect unimaginably difficult. As Brown himself says in his memoir, "I have thought enough about myth and history, fact and fiction, to know truth cannot be told. There is always another way to tell the story."

In Memorium: Norman O. Brown is available at the Literary Guillotine, 204 Locust St., Santa Cruz; 831.457.1195.

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From the March 23-30, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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