Life Against Death  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e



Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History is a work by Norman O. Brown, first published in 1959. A radical analysis and critique of the work of Sigmund Freud, it has been compared to works by Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization) and Michel Foucault (Madness and Civilization), as well as to Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther and Lionel Trilling's Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture. Made famous when Norman Podhoretz recommended it to Lionel Trilling, Camille Paglia it called "one of the great nonfiction works of the 20th century", though some critics have found it of lesser weight than Marcuse's work. On the cover of the first edition is a reproduction of Girl and Death by Hans Baldung Grien.



The book's fame grew when Norman Podhoretz recommended it to Lionel Trilling. After reading Life Against Death on Podhoretz's urging, Trilling "produced a favorable review of this central text of the nascent cultural radicalism toward which he was in general antagonistic." According to Podhoretz, "...Brown issued a powerful challenge to Freud's doctrine that human possibilities were inherently and insurmountably limited. But he did so not by arguing, as earlier critics like Karen Horney and Erich Fromm had done, that the master's theories had been valid only, or mainly, for the particular kind of society in which he himself had lived. Disdaining the cheap relativism of such tactics, Brown set out to show that Freud's pessimistic sense of human possibility did not necessarily follow from his analysis of human nature, an analysis Brown accepted as sound in all essential respects. The brilliance of Life Against Death lay in the amazingly convincing case Brown was able to build for the consistency of that analysis with his own vision of a life of 'polymorphous perversity', a life of play and of complete instinctual and sexual freedom."

Interpretation of Martin Luther

Richard Webster writes that, like Erik Erikson's portrait of Luther, Life Against Death points to "numerous similarities between Luther's view of the human condition and that found in psychoanalysis." In his view, "The resemblances which Brown and Erikson found between Lutheran Protestantism and classical psychoanalysis can scarcely be disputed." Joel Kovel writes that Life Against Death deals extensively with the theme of how "Luther achieved some of his spiritual breakthroughs while defecating."


Paul Robinson describes Life Against Death as one of three books published in the 1950s that brought into question the prevailing interpretation of Freud, the others being Lionel Trilling's Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture and Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization. Robinson dismisses Trilling's work as lightweight in comparison to Brown's and Marcuse's, but writes that all three authors shared "the conviction that Freud's great accomplishment was to remind us of the high price we have paid for our civilization." In his view, they "were in agreement that the critical element in Freud was to be found in his late metahistorical forays, that is, precisely those works which the orthodox considered unscientific and which the neo-Freudians condemned as reactionary. Brown and Marcuse undertook a systematic analysis of psychoanalytic theory in order to reveal its critical, even revolutionary, implications. Both went far beyond Reich or Roheim in probing the dialetical subtleties of Freud's thought, and both reached conclusions which were more extreme, more 'utopian', than those to be found in either of Freud's earlier left-wing exegetes." Robinson initially considered Marcuse and Brown's work of equal importance, but became convinced that Marcuse was "the finer of the two theorists", and that his treatment of Freud in Eros and Civilization is more substantial than Brown's in Life Against Death.

Kovel similarly finds Life Against Death comparable to, but less successful than, Eros and Civilization.


Camille Paglia identifies Life Against Death as an influence on her work Sexual Personae. Paglia calls Life Against Death "one of the great nonfiction works of the 20th century", saying that, "It is what Michel Foucault longed to achieve but never did." Brown's work affected Foucault's reception in the United States; American reviewers of Foucault's Madness and Civilization were quick to note that it shared a "kinship in mood if not in tone or method" with Life Against Death. Kovel calls Life Against Death, along with Eros and Civilization, "ancestors" of his work History and Spirit, writing that they, "drew psychoanalysis away from the clinic because Marcuse (from the Frankfurt School perspective of Hegelian Marxism ) and Brown (from a background of religious Puritanism) saw an emancipatory potential in Freud's discoveries."


  • Preface Part One: THE PROBLEM
  • The Disease Called Man
  • Neurosis and History Part Two: EROS
  • Sexuality and Childhood
  • The Self and the Other: Narcissus
  • Art and Eros
  • Language and Eros
  • Part Three: DEATH
  • Instinctual Dualism and Instinctual Dialectics
  • Death, Time, and Eternity
  • Death and Childhood Part Four: SUBLIMATION
  • The Ambiguities of Sublimation
  • Couch and Culture
  • Apollo and Dionysus
  • The Excremental Vision
  • The Protestant Era
  • Filthy Lucre Part Six: THE WAY OUT
  • The Resurrection of the Body

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Life Against Death" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools