Let’s Get Lost: Rediscovering a radical scholar as art shaman

by Randy Kennedy

  • Mar 19, 2019

When a classicist—even a revered one—decides to decamp from one university to another, it isn’t usually momentous news. This was true even back when ancient letters still carried more prestige in academia. But in 1968, when a professor named Norman O. Brown headed from the University of Rochester to the newly established University of California, Santa Cruz, his arrival there was greeted with the kind of commotion more often associated with revolutionaries.

‘He was incredibly controversial,’ recalled Rita Bottoms, a university librarian, in an oral history of those years. ‘The classics department didn’t want him. Historians didn’t want him. They created a chair of humanities for him. It was really a major thing.’

Brown’s reputation rested on two books that sounded as quietly donnish as he himself was: ‘Life Against Death,’ a reappraisal of Freud, published in 1959; and seven years later ‘Love’s Body,’ a heavily footnoted critique of contemporary culture that wove myth, religion, poetry and psychoanalysis together in collage-like effect.

But both books dropped like bombs on American minds just then opening to visions of counterculture. Taken together, Brown’s writings advocated nothing less than an erotic revolution in political thought, a return to what he saw as a more primitive and deeply human form of consciousness rooted in Freud’s concept of polymorphous perversity, the state of libidinal openness that prevails in childhood before repression tidies things up. The work was mostly ignored by mainstream historians and Freudians, but adventurous intellectuals like Susan Sontag and Marshall McLuhan proclaimed it. Norman Podhoretz, before his neoconservative turn, called Brown, admiringly, a ‘Norman invasion.’ Thomas Pynchon undergirded his masterpiece ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ with Brownian thought. And Time magazine listed ‘Life Against Death’ as required reading for undergraduates who wanted ‘to be with it.’

Little more than 50 years hence, it would be hard to overstate the degree to which that kind of renown has been forgotten. While many of his fellow trailblazers on the sex/psychology/delirium continuum—Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization), Wilhelm Reich, R.D. Laing, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—still factor prominently in contemporary debate, Brown’s name tends to draw a blank even in well-read circles, and if he’s remembered at all, it’s often as a relic of his era, a tweedier Timothy Leary, one who didn’t partake in the revolution he espoused.

But Brown’s influence continues to percolate through one unlikely field, in ways probably even he could not have foreseen: contemporary art, especially first-generation conceptual and performance art and their unruly progeny. This is the first of a series of columns in ‘Ursula’ that will trace the circuitous and often obscure paths by which non-art thinkers—philosophers, poets, songwriters, scientists, folklorists, visionaries, outlaws—have shaped postwar art. And I can’t think of a better opening act than Brown, not only because many of the artists and art-world figures he inspired—John Cage, Allan Kaprow, Paul McCarthy, Carolee Schneemann, Richard Bellamy, Billy Klüver—have been among the most original and fearless of their generation, but also because Brown’s riotous political vision seems newly relevant during a period in which rational institutional change feels increasingly futile.

Marcuse, who admired Brown, criticized ‘Love’s Body’ at the time of its publication, 1966—a year in which the U.S. began bombing Hanoi and Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther party—as a work of literature purporting to be a political manifesto. ‘The roots of repression are and remain real roots,’ Marcuse wrote. ‘Consequently, their eradication remains a real and rational job.’ Brown, he added, was carrying the ‘burden of radical thought to the farthest point: the point where sanity must appear as madness.’ But other philosophers saw some value in that. Sir Stuart Hampshire, writing several years later about Closing Time—Brown’s last major book, a powerful virtual conversation constructed between Brown’s hero James Joyce and one of Joyce’s heroes, Giambattista Vico, who posited that history was wholly man-made and cyclical—wrote that Brown pointed to ‘a way of salvation by changing minds after revolutionary changes of institutions have turned out to be either no change at all or a change toward tyranny rather than a liberation.’

John Cage and Norman O. Brown, c. mid-1980s. Photo: Betty Freeman. Courtesy the John Cage Trust

Brown came to radicality as a late bloomer, after fairly straightforward productions devoted to Hermes and Hesiod’s ‘Theogony.’ His own biography had mythic overtones—born high on a mountainside in El Oro, Mexico, where his English father worked in gold mining; educated at Oxford under the tutelage of the eminent humanist philosopher Isaiah Berlin. After his deep dive into Freud—as well as Blake and Nietzsche—he wrote that ‘the power of sleep was taken from me,’ and he became a different scholar, following a trail through myth and history to find an urgent need for a Dionysian reawakening in language, culture and humankind’s relation to the body, which modern society was putting to sleep.

His writing was not particularly effusive about visual art itself; in a short chapter about Freud’s view of art in ‘Life Against Death,’ he comes to the fairly unspectacular observation that ‘art seduces us into the struggle against repression.’ But his general battle cry against literalness and the tyranny of reason, for the power of delirium and carnal knowledge (in ‘Love’s Body,’ he says all true knowledge is carnal, bodily, ‘when thought and speech become re-sexualized—as in schizophrenia’) appealed immensely to artists who were also trying to blow open doors of perception, like Cage, who became a lifelong friend and correspondent.

I got my first inkling of Brown’s importance for artists sometime in 2012, in the passenger seat of a Subaru hatchback that Paul McCarthy used to shuttle between his studios in Los Angeles, during interviews I was conducting with him for The New York Times Magazine. I’d heard of Brown only enough to know that he had some connection to Freudian psychoanalysis, so I was surprised to hear McCarthy list him as a major influence. I asked how. ‘Oh, God…’ he said, meaning that he had no idea even where to begin. Later he told me: ‘Life Against Death said a lot to me at the time I read it, in the early 1960s. It really connected notions for me about what the role of the artist was in relation to the psychology of repression. I still have two or three copies of ‘Love’s Body’ and ‘Life Against Death.’ They’re all underlined almost all the way through and written all over by me.’

In some of McCarthy’s earliest work, performances still disturbing by today’s standards—‘Sailor’s Meat (Sailor’s Delight)’ in 1975, in which he enacted sex with a pile of ground, raw hamburger; ‘Class Fool,’ the following year, a naked ritual with plastic dolls and condiments, inside a shocked college classroom—he followed a no-holds-barred program of what he later described as plumbing the productive potential of derangement. Like the work of some other contemporaries—Schneemann, Mike Kelley, Vito Acconci—those explorations became powerfully influential for the generation of artists to follow, for whom permission was given and a path lighted for pushing experiential boundaries far past what polite art audiences were generally expected to stomach.

‘I was looking through the pages of ‘Life Against Death’ recently, and the word becoming was somewhere,’ McCarthy said. ‘I had underlined it over and over, a big black mark under it. ‘Becoming’ for me became about forming a language of art. We’re kept in this illusion, or delusion, of language and history. The apocalypse is the breaking out of that captivity. Maybe I’d call it finding a state of delirium. It all gets really trite when you start to use the word subconscious—I mean, ‘What the fuck are you talking about Paul?’ But it’s where I was going, and I’m still there. Brown was just the first one I discovered who spoke that language.’

His language had a shamanistic effect on some of its readers, who made uninvited pilgrimages to his ranch-style house just off a golf course in Pasatiempo, California. The Bay Area conceptual and performance artist Paul Cotton—a kind of cult figure who jettisoned his name and began to call himself Adam II (the late Paul Cotton)—took Brown’s philosophical program perhaps as far as an artist could, making his entire career about an attempt to render Brown’s word flesh, a body of cabbalistic work that continues to this day. While Brown was still teaching at Santa Cruz, Cotton—whose work had been included in the landmark 1969 conceptual art exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form’—would stage incursions into his classroom. One involved Cotton riding a donkey, dressed as a kind of cosmic sage, trailed by an entourage, a sympathetic performance Brown did not welcome; he promptly exited the room.

It may ultimately be this disconnect between Brown’s vision and his person—or between the revolution he espoused and its conceivability—that contribute to the shadow presence he now inhabits in contemporary discourse. The filmmaker David Cronenberg, whose 1975 horror movie ‘Shivers‘ was deeply inspired by Brown, once said: ‘Even old Norm had some trouble when he tried to figure out how that kind of Dionysian consciousness would function in a society where you had to cross the street and not get hit by a car.’

But that conundrum might also be why Brown beat such a strong pulse beneath the art world. The only real trouble, Brown once said—and it was trouble for humankind as a species—was the unwillingness of people even to try holding both imperatives in their imagination, the practical and the possible. ‘I perceive a necessary gap between seeing and being,’ he said. ‘I would not be able to have said certain things if I had been under the obligation to unify the word and the deed. As it is, I can let my words reach out and net impossible things—things that are impossible for me to do.’

– Randy Kennedy i_s_ Editor in Chief of Ursula magazine. His essay about the underground influence of the classics scholar and radical Freudian Norman O. Brown on postwar art, is the first column in an ongoing series titled ‘Anxiety of Influence.’