The Shrink’s Links: Review of “Life Against Death”

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I recently finished reading Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History by Norman O. Brown. Since it’s a book that only the most psychoanalytically-minded shrink will enjoy, I’ll summarize it for you, so you don’t have to read it.

It goes like this. Babies experience the world with the same level of intensity, the same level of pleasure and pain, that you, as an adult, experience sex. This is what Freud meant by Infant Sexuality, or the equally misunderstood phrase, Polymorphous Perversity. Freud didn’t mean that babies are sexual in the same way that adults are sexual, only that any sensual stimulation that was not pain was pleasure, everything from sucking your thumb to taking a good dump. In addition, it was easy to take pleasure because you could suck your thumb and take a dump anytime you wanted.

This state of affairs made you, as a baby, the observant, engagable creature that you were. The whole world, including yourself, was your plaything. You learned fast, because you were so open to experience and able to experiment. Furthermore, because your parents sheltered you from many of the realities of the world, childhood was a prolonged period of privileged freedom.

All this had to change.

It began to change the moment your caretaker didn’t come when you called. You found that you were not the master of your domain. Something else, or someone else, was more important than you. You wished you could have whatever they had, so that you could have your caretaker anytime you wanted. This is what is meant by the Oedipal Phase and Penis Envy, two other widely misunderstood Freudian terms.

So, what did you do? You suppressed your desires, especially your desire for your caretaker to come immediately, so that you were not made miserable by your desires. Instead of playing freely, you did the things that effectively brought your caretaker to your side. You performed, not for your own pleasure, but for her’s. Your play become work. So that you are not driven mad with pleasure and pain, you deadened your ability to sense. You eventually concentrated sensation to a single, small, hidden part of your body, your genitals. The pleasure you used to feel wherever and whenever, you now confine to the relatively rare act of sex, in a darkened room, with the blinds shut.

Brown says this is madness.

He says that society represses you, and, to please society, you repress yourself. As a result, you cannot recognize the realities of existence. Erotic energy is sublimated and turned to the production of objects, character structures, and political organizations that yield little pleasure. You alone, of all the animals, repress your true desires, live in continual conflict and guilt, and construct for yourself a corporate neurosis you call civilization.

What does Brown propose you do instead?

Brown’s solution to your problem is the resurrection of the body. You need a science based on eros, a world animated by desire, not on objectivity that detaches mind from body. Therapy would be to return your soul to your body, return your self to yourself, and overcome this state of self alienation.

History is the story of this search to reclaim the lost body. It’s the story of the struggle of the forces of life against the limits posed by death.

Very interesting, Professor Brown, but I think you’re missing something. I’m all for partnering in a more effective way with the body. We often turn our bodies, in early adulthood, into neglected, abused, beasts of burden. We pay the price for this later. In later adulthood, we turn resentful and cantankerous toward our bodies as they begin to wear down from this treatment. Ever since toilet training, we fail to obey instinct, ignore gut feelings, deny our needs, and repress reasonable desires. We’re like masters that mistreat our slaves. The slaves revolt and then we’re in trouble.

So, connect in a meaningful way to the body you have, by all means. Take care of it. Listen to it. Sometimes obey it. You’re not getting rid of your body, so you guys have got to learn to get along. However, you are not repressing yourself just to please society. It is often necessary to repress the immediate needs to the body so that greater gains that you would enjoy can be achieved.

In other words: If you take a dump every time you want, you end up sitting around in shitty pants.

A baby’s babbling is melodious. When you were a baby, you could make every sound that a human could possibly make. Now, you’ve lost that ability because you domesticated your utterances into a language. Baby cooing is cool; but people understand language; whereas they can’t understand babbling.

When you suppress your impulses and follow the rules of a sport, you are no longer playing spontaneously. You may be playing tennis, golf, baseball, or soccer. Playing these sports can give much more pleasure than spontaneous play ever could. Well, maybe not golf.

You can think of repression as you think of the net in tennis. If you played tennis without the net, sure, you’d have longer volleys and not have to stop and pick up balls so often, but there wouldn’t be a challenge and you wouldn’t experience the beauty of meeting that challenge with power and grace.

History, you see, is a lot like tennis. It’s the story of how you play within limits. You can’t do whatever you want for as long as you want with whomever you want. There are lines, nets, and rules. When you accept those rules and play within them, that’s how life prevails over death.

Click here to go to the book’s Amazon website.

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