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  • Writer's pictureRobertson Work

Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown: My Commentary

The Myth

In the beginning was Primal Unity. The God of the day was Dionysus. Humanity was a child. There was of yet no time to speak of; there was only play – the free play of the natural, primordial, unified instincts. We will call the play polymorphously perverse, for indeed people enjoyed all of life; there was a universe of sexuality. We cannot say that a person enjoyed his own body as well as objects in the world because there was of yet no such distinction.

So, people lived an eternally reoccurring life of innocence and pleasure. Everything was good; everything was right; there was no striving, no discontent, no progress. There was simply the all in all. And that was good.

But then it happened. From this Ontological Oneness, there appeared a split and the split was the psyche and through the psyche humanity fell. This split then was not in the Ontological Oneness itself but was in humanity. People fell into themselves. Or humanity became humanity as we know ourselves today. Thus, this split was psychological rather than ontological.

In the event of this split, humanity’s primordial instincts were separated one from the other: the Eros (which had been all in all) was separated from the Thanatos. And this was the psychic conflict in and for humans. People were now made of two parts, seemingly at war with one another.

We shall call this state after the Fall from Primal Unity: Differentiation through Antagonism. Here there were two gods: Apollo and the Devil. In other words, because of humanity’s fall, Repression came into the world and in so doing, established Reality; humanity’s first principle of pleasure now came into conflict with his second principle of reality; Life was against Death. Here people developed a self as something separate from the world, a culture separate from nature, and a history separate from eternity. And each of these was the result of the coming of Repression; all of a person’s life was neurosis.

Here people found that they were ambivalent toward these two instincts; they liked and did not like both. And it was in this Reality, with their unconscious desire for play repressed, that humans developed language, money, work, genital organization, and, in a word, all their cultural and historical devices, the most recent of which is technology. This process of diverting a person’s sexual (play-full) energies into societal work, we will call Sublimation. So, all of humanity’s cultures were sublimated because they themselves were first repressed. And the greatest of those things sublimated – Anality.

It is here that a person strives in time, forever discontent with what she is and has now, to reach a complete satisfaction such as she had known in Primal Unity, which even yet she carried with her in her unconscious as the most basic of her desires, wishes and purposes. But because of the coming of Repression, this can never be reached; and by the same token, the striving can never be let up. So here we see that humanity is caught in an absurd historicity called “progress” which is nothing more than people’s endlessly frustrated attempt to regain their state of Primal Unity. Thus, people are prisoners of their own pasts, prisoners unaware of the nature of imprisonment.

But Nature did not set humanity a goal without endowing it with the equipment to reach it. And it is precisely the same equipment which came with the Fall that now acts as the beginning of people’s redemption: self-consciousness. By making the unconscious conscious, people can objectify and therefore overcome the results of Repression. And this making the unconscious conscious by projecting it into the external reality, we shall call Art. And the science which deals with humanity’s original sin and its own salvation, we shall call Psychoanalysis.

So, through and with, psychoanalytical consciousness, a person can re-establish the source of every aspect of his life: the human body itself. By accepting that all of a person’s social and cultural creation and his historical striving is grounded in and on the human body, everything comes into its proper perspective for humans. That is to say that if we accept and affirm sublimation for what it is, we can return to the source of a person’s adult life: his own childhood – the state of enjoyment-going-on. Thus, we have the possibility of reunifying ourselves with ourselves – the overcoming of the antagonism between life and death – the avoiding of repression and sublimation by affirming our animal natures, and therefore, our reaching the final and rightful state of humanity’s becoming love’s body.

Through the dialectical movement of psychoanalysis and art of affirming all that they discover and illuminate, a person can bring her own neurotic history to a halt, destroy time for eternity and re-establish herself as she ought to be – as she was. This final and third stage of humanity’s life, we shall call Final Harmony. Here all is pure poetry; pure dance; pure play. All of life is immediate and sensuous. The body has been resurrected out of its own self-negation. The Eschaton has broken in and saves all who have eyes to see and ears to hear, who have a self-affirming body, a self-affirming self as what it is: natural, animal, excremental, pleasurable, and ending in death. Death now is seen as part of life itself; living is dying and dying is living. There is no false antagonism, no false striving after immortality, and hence, there is Eternity: time-less-ness. Pure present. Ripeness is all.


And so, we have Norman Brown’s Poetic Myth which must surely take its place along side all the other great myths people have created through the ages to explain humanity’s deplorable state and offer the possibility of a New Order.


For Brown, the real revolution is not taking place in history (politics), but rather within humans themselves (their psyches or better yet their bodies). Brown is a man possessed by a vision of the way human life could be, and it is this vision that animates his commitment, zeal, and hope. In this light, Michael Harrington would easily enough call him not only an artist, but a good and great one at that. For indeed, Brown finds his concern within a realized eschatology – a utopia brought into ones very present. Humanity need not wait on history and political and economic revolutions to set things aright. Rather, we can live life the way it was meant to be lived here and now. Only if people will change their ways of looking at things (their modes of consciousness) can human life be renewed. Otherwise, we have only the continued and impossible task of unconsciously striving after the kind of sexuality which the very means of the struggle keep us from ever obtaining. This then is his judgment of culture and history: both are neurotic; both result from repression and consequently from sublimation and both are self-perpetuating. His solution is to destroy culture, stop history, and begin to live life for what it is. His method is psychoanalytical consciousness.

For the individual who has taken on for herself the psychoanalytical myth and worldview, everything is seen anew: the world full of commodities and “modern conveniences” becomes total, involving events of heraldic devices harkening back to the human body itself; the body, then is discovered to be the measure of all things.

In this way, culture itself is resurrected, although this time not as the result of sublimation but as the extensions of the human (McLuhan), as symbolic of the body from which we originated. And history too is resurrected, although this time as no-time: Eternity; reoccurrence; renewal; revolution; resurrection to pure dance, finding meaning and significance not from its goal but from the act itself. The dance is all.

This is, all of it, difficult stuff to sort out (in its parts) or to grasp (as a whole) since it is essentially a call to a new kind of understanding of life which cannot be known except from within. Let us then take Tillich as known with which we can compare some of Brown’s thoughts.

Tillich and Brown

Is Brown aware that, as Tillich would say, all human culture is grounded ontologically in the Ultimate and the Unconditional? Brown does seem to give such a status to Nature, to Primal Unity out of which all things come. But for Brown there is not the ontological break between humans and Nature as there is for Tillich between humanity and God. For Brown, it is rather a psychological phenomenon which can likewise be overcome psychologically. Even so, it seems that what Brown has set up is an ontological distinction, since he admits that consciousness is a radical break with Nature in that humans can never know the unconscious per se but only its conscious manifestations. Even through psychoanalysis, people can, by retracing the process of repression and sublimation, only discover their separation from their source and then take this unconsciousness into account by giving free play to their emotions, dreams, art, and irrationality and accepting and affirming that which these make conscious as part of a person’s inner most being. So, it seems that Final Harmony cannot be equivalent to Primal Unity, i.e., humans are only human because and through the Fall.

But still does humanity for Brown have any ultimate concern? Again, he would say that people are not aware of their ultimate concern because it is repressed. But through psychoanalysis, a person can regain this knowledge and can live according to its spirit and word. All of culture rests on this sexual energy, and it can be reached from any part of culture if there is self-consciousness. This self-consciousness seems to be Brown’s correlative to Tillich’s concept of faith. For Tillich, a person must simply accept the fact that she is accepted (unconditionally) by God, and in this way, she is justified. For Brown, self-conscious affirmation of one’s own animal origin and nature brings everything into proper perspective.

Tillich sees faith as a risk since its object cannot be proven. And for Brown, the unconscious has the same status since it is unknown and unknowable except through the eyes of faith.

Both men see culture as estranged, sick, neurotic as the result of humanity’s separation from its ground.

On both parts, this is a profound ontological optimism: as faith in the goodness of being itself. Both men are willing to give their lives over to a reality which the world of culture and history does not recognize. For the world is in darkness and Christ and Freud have come to show us the light.

For both men, Eros, the energizing principle of the universe, has acted decisively in human history and has brought with it both judgment and redemption. From within the human envelope of sickness arose a saving and revolutionary principle: Self-Conscious Eros – the Christ. Eros takes all into itself and there transforms it. For a human, this transformation is that he can become the very incarnation of Eros itself: Love’s Body.


Bien, Peter. Spring 1965. “Zorba the Greek, Nietzsche, and the Perennial Greek Predicament.” Antioch Review, 25: 147-63.

Brown, Norman O. March 1967. “A Reply to Herbert Marcuse.” Commentary.

_______________. 1959. Life Against Death. New York.

_______________. 1966. Love’s Body. New York.

Cameron, J.M. May 4, 1967. “Rude Torso.” The New York Times Review of Books.

Leary, Daniel J. January 1967. “Voices of Convergence.” The Catholic World.

Marcuse, Herbert. February 1967. “Love Mystified: A Critique of Norman Brown.” Commentary.

Neale, Robert E. April 17, 1967. “Brown’s Body.” Christianity and Crisis.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1911. The Birth of Tragedy. New York.

Tillich, Paul. 1966. 1964. Systemic Theology, Vol. I, III, Chicago.

__________. 1964. Theology and Culture. New York.


I wrote this essay in 1967 at Chicago Theological Seminary. It appears on pages 227 - 233 in my latest book Society, Spirit, Self: Essays on the One Dance. The book contains my essays on societal reinvention, spiritual awakening, and personal transformation. It is available in paperback and e-book on all online sites and through local bookshops. Here is one link for the book:

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