Forerunner of New Age Madness:
A Critique of Norman O. Brown
When revolutionary unrest stirred up college students in America and Western Europe during the 1960s, Norman 0. Brown was considered a major social theorist by the young rebels against the "establishment."1 Born in 1913, he was educated at Oxford, the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin. During World War II he taught languages at Nebraska Wesleyan University and served for three years in the Office of Strategic Services. He then taught classics and comparative literature at Wesleyan University, the University of Rochester, and finally at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His two books which made him famous as a revolutionary thinker and are still influential in academic circles are Life Against Death (1959) and Love's Body (1966).
Brown's message is an intellectual witches' brew of Freudianism, his own brand of wildly heterodox "Dionysian" Christianity, and big doses of Zen Buddhism. He calls for the abolition of all distinctions and boundaries in a united universe of mad chaos:
The body to be realized is the body of the cosmic man, the body of the universe as one perfect man. ... As in schizophrenia: "What happens to the person's own body, is identical with what happens in the universe. ...Freedom is fire, overcoming this world by reducing it to a fluctuating chaos, as in schizophrenia; the chaos which is The eternal ground of creation.2
This passage along with many others anticipates the New Age terminology of the 1980s. The goal, cosmic oneness, is the same as well.
Because the Bible teaches creation out of nothing (not out of chaos) by a sovereign, transcendent and personal God who is not one with but other than his creation, it cannot be reconciled with Brown's identification of the self with the universe. Brown's frequent quotes from the Bible and occasional references to orthodox Christian thinkers must hence always be suspect as deliberately and perversely taken out of context. As is to be expected, Brown opposes "literalism" in the interpretation of Scripture. His notion of "Truth" is radically unbiblical and irrational: "The mad truth: the boundary between sanity and insanity is a false one. The proper outcome of psychoanalysis is the abolition of the boundary." Then Matthew 10: 39 is misquoted in support.3 Brown also asserts that "The real world ... is the world where thoughts are omnipotent, where no distinction is drawn between wish and deed." Then Matthew 5:27-28 is quoted in support of this magic wish- fulfillment world, but Matthew 5:29 containing Christ's warning of hell if sin is not forsaken is omitted.4 These and many other examples are consistent with Brown's desire for a Dionysian Christianity, in which the scripture is a dead letter to be made alive by spiritual (symbolical) interpretations; in which meaning is not fixed. but ever new and ever changing " . Meaning is made from the Abgrund (abyss). from the unconscious of the reader past the conscious intention of the author to the unconscious meaning; breaking the barrier of the ego and the barrier of the book.
For Brown; man's fall is not disobedience of God's truth and command and acceptance of Satan's lie as Taught in the Bible (Genesis 3). Instead "The fall is into language.... And overcoming the consequences of the fall is speaking with tongues. ... a second fall into the second innocence; verbum infans, the infant or ineffable word. "~ Brown often uses German and Latin phrases, a technique adding to the incantatory effect of his high-flown pronouncements. He asserts that "To restore to words their full significance ... is to reduce them to nonsense.... Get the nothingness back into words ... Empty words, corresponding to the void in things."7
Brown's running attack against meaningful language is often clothed in sexual symbolism. His notorious idea of "polymorphous perversity" means that each and every part of the body should be used in sexual play. The pornographic practices all around us today. Brown fully supports Freud's postulate of the unconscious, from which man's innermost instincts and desires allegedly arise. While Freud still believed that some of these desires and drives needed to be suppressed or sublimated (transformed into socially useful endeavors), Brown would impose no such restrictions and approves of them all. This is in total opposition to the words of Jesus Christ: "From within, out of the heart of man, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man (Mark 7:21-23)," Christ clearly makes a difference between evil and good, defilement and cleanness. Brown wants to confound them utterly:
Overthrow the importance principle: turn it upside down. Put down the mighty from their seats, and exalt them of low degree (another perverted quote from Scripture, in this instance the prayer of Mary the mother of our Lord in Luke 1:52). Every throne a toilet seat, and every toilet seat a throne. The distinction between the sublime and the vulgar is abolished.. As above, so below (this is the motto of occultism and sorcery)... The way up is the way down; the penis a symbolic head, and vice versa."8
Here is another typical example of Brown's call to madness perversely using biblical terminology including the name of Christ Himself:
The Pentecostal darkness: the sun shall be turned to darkness. To overcome the opposition of darkness and light, cleanliness and dirt, order and chaos, the marriage of heaven and hell (a concept borrowed from the heterodox mystic William Blake). To seduce the world to madness. Christ is within the wall of paradise, which is the wall of the law of contradiction, and the destruction of the law of contradiction is the supreme task of higher logic.9
Brown claims that the life instinct, called "Eros" by Freud, urges men to unification with each other one the universe, while the death instinct, Freud's "Thanatos," separates or divides. We must therefore "construct en erotic sense of reality. (To do so is) to become conscious of symbolism. Symbolism is mind making connections (correspondences) rather than distinctions (separations)."10 Now symbolism is an integral part of traditional language Os "a figure of speech" or "metaphor." Thus it makes perfect sense in traditional language to soy that old age is to life Os evening is to day, and Therefore to speak of old age as "life's evening" or Iife's "sunset." Symbolism used in this manner, that is properly .n conformity with created reality, may indeed provide great insights. joys and aesthetic pleasure, and it is a powerful tool of lawful human creativity. As Kathy Lynn Hutson has ably stated it,
In both the creation and evolution models (of the origin of man and language) ... man is dependent on metaphoric activity ... The difference n the models is the nature of that foundation. In evolution that word- foundation consists of arbitrary human sounds with no verifiable correspondence with the true nature of things. In the creation model, the base is the audible (not mystical) spoken words of God to men;
Brown adheres to the evolution model of origins and therefore sees nothing wrong with words as "arbitrary human sounds with no verifiable correspondence with the true nature of things." On the contrary, he deliberately uses symbolism to confound concrete and logical opposites: birth is death, male is female, the son is the father, the hero is the scapegoat, the criminal is the victim, human creativity is human excrement (the theme of two important and lengthy sections in Life Against Death), and so on. As in Freud, sexual symbolism is used indiscriminately everywhere
The Freudian Marxist Herbert Marcuse, who also greatly influenced the young revolutionaries of the 1960s, parts company with Brown over his use of symbolism when it comes to social and political action
Revolution, freedom, fulfillment in turn become symbolic - symbolic goals and events, Symbolic of what? The answer remains, must remain, shrouded in mystery, because Brown envisions an Absolute, a Totality, a Whole which swallows up all parts, and divisions, all tensions and all needs, that is to say, all life.12
Marcuse senses the reductionism which underlies Brown's monism and robs it of all value. Brown in turn frequently distances himself from Marxism and 5 determinedly apolitical in his condemnation of all human action as nothing but satanic and "excrement." Of course his rejection of all social and political action also extends to Western free enterprise capitalism. Many leftist and anarchist pronouncements may be gleaned from his writings (for instance, the final chapter, "Filthy Lucre," of Life Against Death). There 5 a difference here between Christianity, Marxism and Brown: Christianity agrees that Western free enterprise capitalism is not perfect due to man's sinfulness after the fall, but it does not condemn free enterprise as such. On the contrary, it recognizes that man's biblical creation mandate (Genesis 1:28) is To each individual man and woman and very much includes economic creativity one stewardship under God. Marxism denies God, blames free enterprise ("private property") for all man's economic and social ills, and asserts that these can be cured only by the abolition of private enterprise and decision-making in a communist totalitarian state. The failure of this view ought to be clear To everyone from the dismal record of communist societies through history, especially since 1917 Brown denies both God and human action, reducing both to nothing.
Brown's peculiar style, especial y in Love's Body. is reminiscent of Nietzsche and the turgid writings of New Age "saint" Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. and hence very difficult to understand. Theodore Roszak. himself a leading "New Age" thinker, cannot help commenting that
Love's Body ... is, feel, a silly-brilliant effort... Brown has tried to discover a language beyond language. unrestricted by.. logicality, continuity, or even normal sentence structure. The result is a witch's caldron of puns, rhymes, etymological prestidigitation. and oracular outpouring.. . which could mean, at too many points, everything and nothing.13
Brown would counter that his entire work is designed to undermine reliance upon human reason. Unlike Brown, Christians consider human reason when submitted To God's lordship and revealed knowledge and wisdom to be capable of great contributions to man's welfare. Brown would discard reason altogether because it is contrary to his irrational view of the self as equal to or absorbing the universe.
In Brown's monistic and even solipsist view of the world as equal to the self, "love" can only be love of self. His "love" is a thoroughgoing narcissism. this is a total perversion of Christ's summary of God's law - to "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart. and with all Thy soul, and with all Thy mind ... and thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22 37,39). For Brown God and neighbor are "thyself." For Christians love is already rooted ontologically in The Godhead as Trinity. three Persons in One Godhead. Brown denies the bin cal Christian doctrine of the Trinity as well as human personality and individuality. For him. "person" and "individuality" are masks donned under social pressure. and The true "Trinity" is the "primal scene" of the father in the act at begetting the embryo in the mother.
While Marcuse perceived the sterility of Brown's monism in practical social action, he overlooked the overall failure of Freudianism in helping supposedly "neurotic" people adjust to society. If adjustment to reality/society is the goal of Freudian psychotherapy. then it clearly does not justify its enormous cost in terms of finance and time. Freud himself was pessimistic about achieving lasting benefits for society through psychoanalysis because he believed that "Eros," the alleged life-giving or pleasure-seeking instinct in man, was not strong enough to overcome or perhaps actually served "Thanatos," The death instinct.16 But Brown, as we already saw, is not at all interested in producing mental health defined as adjustment to the "reality principle" in the form of society. On the contrary, he calls man's normal mental state or common, reality-oriented sense a "prejudice" and asserts that "The proper pasture is to listen to and learn from lunatics (because). The insane do not share `the normal prejudice in favor of external reality."'17
The most striking features of Brown's call for cosmic merger with the self by madness, however. are shared with Zen Buddhism. Brown's idea of making "every throne a toilet seat," that is. the abolition of all respect for authority, echoes Zen Buddhist master Linchi's vehement command to his disciples to "Smash whatever you come across ... the buddha, Patriarchs ... your parents and all your relations.... This revolt against authority certainly appealed to the revolutionaries and hippies in the 1960s and 70s, some of whom are now teaching in American and West European universities and colleges. Brown's attack upon a literal interpretation of the Bible resembles Zen Buddhist convert, spokesman and erstwhile Episcopal priest Allan Watts' statement that "Godmanhood is to be discovered here and now inwardly, not in the letter of the Bible."19
A crucial likeness between Zen and Brown 5 the "turning to inwardness," The very definition and essence of Zen. Lit-sen Chang, a Christian convert from Zen, writes:
This turning to "inwardness" has been the mainspring of all philosophy down through the ages in India, According to the Upanishads, to know "Other is self" ("other" is but the objectification of the self) is the ultimate wisdom or the highest joy. If one could comprehend "Tat Jvam Asi" (a phrase quoted repeatedly by Brown) ... (which means "that thou art" or "the other is yourself, ""the eternal is oneself,"" Thou art the Eternal"), he is delivered from bondage to freedom.20
Zen Buddhism anticipates Brown's goal of insanity as it is "a technique by which to achieve a mental breakdown" and "a piling up intellectual frustrations that lead to the crumbling of the edifice of logical thought."21 Zen is "a revolt against reason, a breaking down of the mere intellectual images of the living reality knowable only by personal experience."22 Again, this precept is fundamental also to Brown's "Dionysian Christianity,"
Brown's use of perverse symbolism is also present in Zen. One Zen adept quoted his teacher assaying that "the practice of Zen is to be described as the gold and ordure method, Before it is comprehended, it is all like gold; after it is comprehended, it is all like ordure."23 Freud, too, spoke in this manner of his own teaching, writing to a friend, "I can hardly tell you how many things l - a new Midas - turn into filth."24 Faithful to his mentors, Brown teaches that all human action and creativity is "excrement."
Freudians including Brown postulate a collective unconscious directing man. Zen teaches this as well:
In Zen, will is more basic than the intellect because it is the principle that lies at the root of all existences and unites them all in the oneness of being. The one great will from which all infinitely varied wills flow .5 "Cosmic Unconscious," which is The Zen's reservoir of infinite possibilities.25
Brown would abolish all "repressions" imposed upon man's desires. Zen does the same, declaring that "to avoid sin and evil by obedience to any moral law is only an idle attempt. Every being must act according to the Nature,"26 For Brown as well as for Zen there is no distinction between good and evil: "Zen admonishes one not only to love God but also to love `devils'; . . a clinging to the `one true God,' the `one true religion,' the `one true principle,' is condemned as `narrow limitation. "`27 Due to their coercive disciplines, their perversion and willful ignorance of rationality and reality, and their assertion of magical omnipotence. "many Zen masters in China got very odd qualities and are called 'Mo-wong' (literally means 'demon- king') which proves that they have become mentally deranged."28
As Marcuse recognized, Brown's mad monism is powerless to bring about political and social improvement. This is also true of Zen and Buddhism in general. Ernest Becker in his Zen: A Rational Critique (New York: Norton, 1961) writes that Zen is entirely "impotent to do something tangible to aid suffering humanity, judging by the cities and slums and rural misery of Asia "29 The American scholar Thomas Molnar visited Benares, the holy Hindu city where tens of thousands go annually for ritual cleansing in the Ganges River. Molnar, a world traveler familiar with poverty in urban slums around the globe, was appalled:
Benares dwarfs everything else I have seen. ... It is not "underdevelopment" which creates the horror, the revulsion, the stench; ii is, when all is said and done, the religion, which tolerates this indescribable squalor, filth, degradation, and animality.
The dirty green river becomes bathroom, toilet, mouthwash, laundromat, drinking place for animal and man. Fully or half-immersed, people wash their hair, their underwear, rinse their mouths, and defecate, as the freely floating dung testifies. All this with the utmost matter-of-factness, without embarrassment But the burning corpses in the busy mid-morning along the banks of The Ganges are enough to turn your stomach ... It's the utter degradation of the scene: the squalor, defecation, hashish, the pus-filled wounds on the backs of the holy men .. temples where a sweetish stench dominates aIl that, plus the dead.
Hippies are drawn to this witches' brew .~. from Scandinavia, Holland, America and elsewhere, ... What attracts and keeps them here is the degradation: of reason, of self-esteem, of vital forces, of faith in God and man. Here.. everybody may do his thing just like the monkeys and the cows,.. Intelligence and purposefulness dissolve on the trash heap, the body rots until it becomes one with the road, the grass, the dung. The great nothingness envelops all, and the ashes go into the river.30
Molnar's concluding reference to the "great nothingness" at the end of all things parallels the last chapter, "Nothing," in Brown's Love `S Body. Brown's ultimate counsel comes straight from Zen: "Accept loss forever. To lose one's own soul. 'Satori, when the ego is broken, is not final victory but final defeat, the becoming like nothing. "31
To reduce man to nothingness is Brown's "solution" to man's deepest problem, namely, his own existence. For Brown, as for Freud, "man's superiority over the other animals is his capacity for neurosis, and... Neurosis is an essential consequence of civilization or culture."32 Consistent with Brown's evolutionist faith man is but "another animal," not the unique creature made by God in His own image and likeness with dominion over the earth, as recorded in Genesis 1. Likewise, adherents of Zen "blame God "hat `the real human Tragedy began when nature was to be dominated by man (cf. Gen. 1:28) for when the idea of power, which is domination, comes in, all kinds of struggles arise."'33 Of course Zen, just as Freud and Brown, denies the biblical doctrine of the fall to which Christians attribute the struggles, disasters and pains in this present world. Christians look forward to the restoration of human creativity to the perfection of man's original pure likeness to God in Christ. For the believer this restoration already begins in this life, Brown, however, sees human creativity as producing "neurosis" in man the diseased animal and would therefore eradicate it altogether.
To the extent that the biblical Christian faith in the Triune God and Creator of Scripture has vanished in the West, the conditions Molnar reports from Benares now also prevail here. Descent into filth, degradation and self-destruction marked the drug culture of the 1960s, which aspired to Zen-type "enlightenment" by the psychedelic shortcut. In its consciousness- altering aspects this "enlightenment" resembles outright madness or schizophrenia, which Brown exalts as the right way of life. Schizophrenia is a True clinical illness whose physical causes are still little understood. It consists in the general breakdown of the thinking process. The patient begins to hear voices telling him to jump in front of a speeding automobile. He may see imaginary spirits. He may believe that his Thoughts are not his own but produced by computers or radios. A schizophrenic's symptoms may
barely allow him to exist in his own room ... He cannot easily solve the problems of ordinary living. Many schizophrenics can't even shop for groceries. Sometimes, when a schizophrenic is in a period of recovery, and life deals him a bad turn ... the stress may lead to all his symptoms returning in full force, He then suffers a schizophrenic episode. He may not ~ep h~mself clean; he may wander the streets, talking to himself, shouting at others. Researchers estimate that schizophrenia afflicts half of all the homeless living in the streets,34
To anyone aware of these facts or personally acquainted with a schizophrenic, Brown's idea that schizophrenia should be in any sense a model for normal human behavior is ludicrous. Yet it is precisely the schizophrenic's loss of real~y perception and confounding the self with the other-than-self which Brown knows and recommends. He does so because "Schizophrenics pass beyond ordinary language (the language of the reality- principle) into a truer, more symbolic language" and "attain the mad truth." Brown even asserts that to hospitalize schizophrenics is a device to sustain the "normal prejudice in favor of external realty" and to "insulat(e) the so-called reality- principle from all evidence to the contrary." Brown's hatred of reality may seem absurd or even ridiculous to the average reader, yet this very teaching won him support among the young rebels and dropouts of the 1960s and continues to maintain his influence on college campuses today OS part of the overall "New Age" trend.
Young people may be attracted to Brown's "Dionysian Christianity" or New Ageism in general because it seems new and alive compared to the materialism, rationalism and careerism of conventional Western society, and perhaps "dead orthodoxy" in some Christian circles. If so, they are hungry and thirsty for the Living God. Christian evangelism must be based on biblical creation. Only then can it rejoice because God's created reality, even in its present fallen state, reflects the wonder, dynamic life and awesome character of our Lord (Romans 1:1 8ff). Because God created it, reality is not an illusion but is truly there and other than ourselves. There is then ample room and joyful challenge for man to exercise his reason, creativity, physical effort, intelligence, charity and playfulness under God; indeed this is the very dominion mandate God entrusted To man at creation (Genesis 1:28)! The rest of God's created world "also will be delivered into the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Romans 8:23). Ahead of us is not the void but the promise of eternal life in God's world created and redeemed by Jesus Christ. Proclaiming this good news in word and consistent life is our urgent joy and duty today. "Woe to us if we do not preach the gospel" to our lost, seduced and dying generation.
1 Theodore Roszak, The Making of a counter culture (Garden city, NY: Doubleday and co.. Inc., 1969). p.84.
2 Norman 0. Brown, Love's book' (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1966). p.226, p~248
3 Ibid., pp. 160,161.
4 Ibid., p.151
5 Ibid., p.196
6 Ibid., p.257. See a so Norman 0. Brown, Life Against Death (Middleton. CN: Weslayan University Press. Second Edition. 1985), p.270.
7 Brown, Love's Body, pp. 258.259.
8 ibid., p.236
9 Ibid., p242
10 Ibid., p.81,
11 Kathy Lynn Hutson, "Metaphor An Evidence from Design of the Creation Model," Creation Social Science and Humanities Quarterly, 1:2 (Winter 1978). p.24.
12 Quoted in William C. Shepherd. Symbolic Consciousness. A Commentary on Love's Body (Missoula, MT: Scholar's Press, 1976). p.79
13 Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture. p 15.
14 Brown, Love's Body. Chapters III. "Trinity." vs. "Unity." and V. "Person," pp 56-108.
15 See Garth Wood, The Myth of Neurosis (New York: Harper & Row Publishers. 1986). According to Wood, classical Freudian psychoanalysis now costs $90 per fifty-minute hour in New York City and demands sessions four to five times a week except n August for five to eight years (p.89)
16 Rousas John Rushdoony. Freud (Phillipsburg, NJ Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1979), p49.
17 Brown, Love's Body. p.142. pp. 160-161.
18 Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism (Nutley. NJ Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company. 1969). p.6.
19 Ibid., p 7.
20 lbid., p 8
21 Ibid., p.10
22 Ibid., p.33.
23 Ibid., p.42
24 Quoted in Rushdoony, Freud. p.10.
25 Chang. Zen-Existentialism. p.45
26 Ibid., p.133.
27 Ibid.. p.132.
28 Ibid., pp. 48-49,0 so cf. p 133
29 Quoted ibid., p.147.
30 Thomas Molnar. "Oh. Benares" in Spiritual Counterfeits Newsletter, Vol.11 No 2 (Summer 1985), pp.21,22.
31 Brown, Love's Body, p.262. The quote is taken from R. Powell, Zen and Reality (New york, 1962). p.72.
32 Brown, Love Against Death. p.10
33 Chang, Zen-Existentialism, p.143.
34 Earl Ubell, "We Can Cope Wirh Schizophrenia, Parade Magazine, May 18, 1986, p.20 See also Wood, The Myth of Neurosis, pp.215-227.
35 Brown. Love's Body, pp.160, 161.