Life Against Death - Background


Brown, whose background was in classical studies, became interested in psychoanalysis because of the influence of Marcuse, a philosopher associated with the Institute for Social Research based in Frankfurt. Marcuse had little direct concern with Freud while in Frankfurt, but devoted more attention to psychoanalysis in the 1950s, and in 1953 suggested to Brown that he should read Freud. Brown wrote in Life Against Death that he had begun a careful study of Freud in 1953, because he felt the need to reconsider both human nature and the human race's future prospects. Commenting that he had inherited from Protestantism a conscience which dictated that intellectual work should be directed toward ending or minimizing human suffering, Brown addressed the book to everyone ready to consider new ideas and possibilites. Brown proposed a synthesis of psychoanalysis, anthropology, and history, calling Géza Róheim's efforts in that direction pioneer work of significance second only to Freud's. Brown also paid homage to Marcuse's Eros and Civilization, "the first book, after Wilhelm Reich's ill-fated adventures, to reopen the possibility of the abolition of repression."

Paul Robinson writes that radicals such as Reich and Róheim represented a minority current of opinion within psychoanalysis, which by the 1940s was viewed as fundamentally conservative by the European and American intellectual community. Critics outside the psychoanalytic movement, whether on the political left or right, agreed in seeing Freud as a conservative. The left-wing writer Erich Fromm had argued that several aspects of psychoanalytic theory served the interests of political reaction in his The Fear of Freedom (1942), an assessment confirmed by sympathetic writers on the right. Philip Rieff's Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) portrayed Freud as a man who urged men to make the best of an inevitably unhappy fate, and admirable for that reason.

Life Against Death was one of three books published in the 1950s that challenged this prevailing interpretation of Freud as a conservative, the others being Trilling's Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955) and Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (1955). Their authors believed that Freud showed us that we have paid a high price for civilization and that his critical element was to be found in his late metahistorical studies, works considered unscientific by orthodox analysts and reactionary by the neo-Freudians. Robinson credits Brown and Marcuse with systematically analyzing psychoanalytic theory in order to reveal its critical implications and of going beyond Reich and Róheim in probing the dialetical subtleties of Freud's thought, thereby reaching conclusions more extreme and utopian than theirs. He finds Trilling's work of lesser value than that of Brown and Marcuse.

Robinson notes that Eros and Civilization and Life Against Death have often been compared, and he finds them similar both in general outlook and in the specific Freudian concepts to which they devote the most attention. They both attempt to show that the ultimate implications of psychoanalysis are critical rather than conservative, see Freud's greatness in his metahistorical analysis of "the general neurosis of mankind", argue that modern man is sick with the burdens of sexual repression and uncontrolled aggression, attempt to make explicit the hidden trend in psychoanalysis that promised a nonrepressive civilization as a solution to the dilemma of modern unhappiness, and accept the most radical and discouraging of Freud's psychological assumptions: the all-pervasive role of sexuality and the existence of the death instinct. He writes that Brown, unlike Marcuse, had strong mystical inclinations and drew effectively on revolutionary themes in western religious thought, especially the body mysticism of Jakob Böhme and William Blake.

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