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Subject: Norman Brown, Playful Philosopher

dies at 89
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Date Posted: October 04, 2002 1:45:38 EDT

Norman O. Brown, an erudite and spectacularly playful philosopher whose attempt to psychoanalyze nothing less than history itself entranced intellectuals, beguiled New Age seekers and sold many books, died on Wednesday in Santa Cruz, Calif. He was 89.

His son Thomas N. Brown said he had Alzheimer's disease and died at an assisted-living residence.

Dr. Brown was a master of philosophical speculation, mixing Marx, Freud, Jesus and much else to raise and answer immense questions. Alan Watts, the popular philosopher, sang his praises. His works joined David Riesman's ``Lonely Crowd'' and J.R.R. Tolkien's ``Lord of the Rings'' on the reading lists of undergraduates aspiring to the counterculture.

Scruffy pilgrims streamed to commune with him, only to discover a short-haired man who lived in a split-level house and avoided drugs. A meticulous student of ancient Greek who was given to long, meditative walks with his golden retriever, he was not a little perplexed when magazine and newspaper articles linked him to the new left, LSD and the sexual revolution.

``I have absolutely no use for the human-potential movement,'' he said in an interview with Human Behavior magazine in 1976.

His books were nonetheless gobbled up by scholars eager to respond to hip-sounding ideas that combined erudition and a poetical mysticism.

``Reading Brown was a little like taking drugs, only it was more likely to lead to tenure,'' the sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote in The New Republic in 1991.

In his ``Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History'' (Wesleyan University Press, 1959), he said individuals and society were imprisoned by an essentially Freudian ill: repression. He argued that the only escape was to face death head-on and affirm life.

Maurice Richardson wrote in The New Statesman: ```Life Against Death' is a running dive off the Freudian springboard into history's deep end. It is a fascinating book, discursive, inconsequent, sometimes preposterous, but full of interesting ideas, product of a learned man in a tight place, one of those rare genuine stimulators.''

Dr. Brown's book ``Love's Body'' (Random House, 1966) discussed the role of erotic love in human history, describing a struggle between eroticism and civilization. He voted against civilization, a stance that elicited praise and criticism.

Among his critics was Brigid Brophy in The New York Times Book Review, who called Dr. Brown's assertion that schizophrenics might be saner than those without the disease ``the most preposterous ever made in serious print.''

His ``Closing Time'' (Random House, 1973), an interweaving of quotations from James Joyce's ``Finnegans Wake'' with excerpts from the works of the 18th-century philosopher Giambattista Vico, was ``an extraordinary tour de force,'' Library Journal said.

Norman Oliver Brown was born in El Oro, Mexico, on Sept. 25, 1913. His father was an English mining engineer, and he was mainly reared and educated in England, where his tutor at Balliol College, at Oxford University, was the eclectic historian Sir Isaiah Berlin. He earned his doctorate in classics at the University of Wisconsin.

From 1943 to 1946 he served in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. He became a friend of Herbert Marcuse, another intelligence analyst and later analyst of society, and those philosophers later engaged in spirited intellectual debates for many years.

In 1938 he married Elizabeth Potter, who survives him. In addition to her and his son Thomas, of Santa Cruz, he leaves another son Stephen, who lives near Armstrong, British Columbia; his daughters Rebecca Brown of Monte Rio, Calif., and Susan Brown of Iowa City; and five grandchildren.

Dr. Brown was a professor at Wesleyan University, the University of Rochester and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

He was a Marxist by sensibility and intellectual inclination in the 1930's, and worked in the leftist presidential campaign of the Progressive Party's Henry Wallace in 1948. By the early 1950's, he decided that politics did not answer the important questions, and became enamored with Freud. He even learned to interpret his dreams, which had the unwanted side effect of ruining his sleep.

Sir Stuart Hampshire, an English philosopher who had known Dr. Brown since they were students at Oxford, said yesterday in a telephone interview that Dr. Brown was ``a victim of theories,'' whether those of Marx or Freud. He said Dr. Brown's idea that it was possible to abandon Freudian morality in choosing an unrepressed life was ``not really his life or anybody's life.''

But Sir Stuart praised many of Dr. Brown's intellectual insights, mentioning in particular his recognition of Jonathan Swift's hatred of the physical functions of the body.

``Nobody had ever said that before,'' he said. ``It was very, very intelligent.''

Jay Cantor, who teaches a mix of literature, philosophy and psychoanalysis at Tufts University, said yesterday by phone that Dr. Brown was brilliant at connecting seemingly disparate subjects to form new insights. A typical example: ``If Freud is true it is because of connections with the Gospel, and if the Gospel is true it is because of connections with Marx, and if Marx is true it is because of connections with James Joyce.''

Dr. Brown typically used memorized quotations to make the connections, Dr. Cantor said. He added that Dr. Brown had a modern poet's sensibility in his writings, allowing ``the symbolism and the history of the words he used to lead his thoughts.''

``Everything is only a metaphor,'' Dr. Brown wrote in ``Love's Body,'' ``there is only poetry.''

His favorite poetic sentiment was about how we all die with unlived lives in our bodies. Dr. Cantor suggested that this referred to ``the difficulty of breaking the mental chains we carry within us.''

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