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Chapter 5: Norman O. Brown and the Abolition of Repression
Richard A. Koenigsberg
The entire essay, Freud and Little Richard: Psychoanalysis, Rock ‘n’ Roll,
and the Liberation of the American Body
, appears here.
Alan Freed and Bill Haley
“For two thousand years man has been subjected to a systematic effort to transform him into an ascetic animal. He remains a pleasure-seeking animal. In spite of two thousand years of higher education based on the notion that man is a soul imprisoned in a body, man still secretly thinks of himself as primarily a body. Our repressed desires are not just for delight, but specifically for delight in the fulfillment of the life of our own bodies.” “The question confronting mankind is the abolition of repression—the resurrection of the body. The resurrection of the body is a social project facing mankind as a whole.”
    —Norman O. Brown

Perhaps no thinker played a more significant role in liberating sexuality than Norman O. Brown. This once-obscure classics Professor published Life against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History in 1959. By 1966, it had sold over 50,000 copies. Historians of the Sixties see Brown’s thought at the core of the counterculture.

According to, Theodore Roszak (1968):

The emergence of Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown as major social theorists among the disaffiliated young of Western Europe and America must be taken as one of the defining features of the counterculture. It will be my position that the counterculture begins where Marcuse pulls up short, and where Brown, with no apologies, goes off the deep end.

Brown put forth the “social project” of “abolishing repression.” His belief that “the ultimate essence of our desires and our being” is nothing more or less than “delight in the active life of all the human body” set the stage for the sexual revolution.

The idea of the body as the essence of existence marked a reversal of the Christian point of view that had dominated Western culture for two-thousand years. Whereas once spirit had been idealized and given priority over the flesh, now the body became the object of idealization. The idealization of the body—and of pleasures contained within—became a central theme of the Sixties and Seventies.

Unlike Reich and Mailer, Brown did not focus upon the genitals and orgasm—rather on the pursuit of pleasure through the activity of “any and all organs of the human body.” Brown’s advocacy of “polymorphous perversity” is an important source of the world in which we live today, where each individual believes he or she is entitled to his or her “sexual preference;” where it is considered offensive to morally judge an individual’s sexual “life style,” however eccentric it may seem.

The power of Brown’s advocacy derived from his ability to build upon the idea of Freud and Reich that sexual repression constitutes the source of illness or mental disorder. Brown called man a “restless and discontented, a neurotic animal” whose unhappiness was caused by the fact that he had “desires in nature which are not satisfied by culture.”

In the Sixties, the idea of society as a source of mental disorder became powerful. The “sick society” was conceived as one blocking natural and spontaneous impulses such as sexuality and love. According to Frederick Hoffman: “For the young men and women of the period, repression served as a convenient label for all their grievances against society. Repression became the American illness.” It followed that the achievement of “health” required throwing off the oppressive burden of society.

This Chapter introduces another of Brown’s themes: the struggle against mind, intellect, and rationality. Brown’s Life against Death contains approximately one-thousand reference notes. Yet in a famous Phi Betta Kappa lecture presented at Columbia University (May 31, 1960), Brown spoke of mind as being at the “end of its tether.”

“Order as we have known it”—overdependence upon mind and intellect, Brown said— was “crippling and for cripples.” However, there was a “way out” of our character deformity. To “throw away our crutches,” one had to embrace “Dionysian faith” or “blessed madness.”

“Derangement is disorder,” Brown said, but “it is not possible to get the illuminations without the derangement. The alternative to mind is certainly madness, but our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness.” Brown— one of the great scholars of the Twentieth Century—advocated abandoning the intellect for the sake of madness, and Dionysian faith.

Letting go of mind and the intellect, Brown declared, was the “way down and out” for Western man. If mind were the source of discontent, then perhaps the abandonment of mind would bring human beings in touch with something deeper and more satisfying.

Norman Podhoretz observed (1958) that at the heart of the Beat Generation ethos was a tremendous emphasis on “emotional intensity, this notion that to be hopped-up is the most desirable of all human conditions.” The Bohemianism of the 1950’s, he said, is “hostile to civilization.” It worships “primitivism, instinct, and energy.”

In a famous passage from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1958) the narrator says:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

Where Freud recognized the power of the instinctive and irrational, but seemed to have come down on the side of the intellect and rationality, thinkers such as Brown, Mailer and Kerouac—in the late Fifties and early Sixties—idealized the instinctive life and explored the positive dimensions of irrationality. The intellect was conceived as blocking something deeper, more real.

Scholars like Brown advocated a “Dionysian consciousness” that does not observe the limit, but “overflows.” Writers like Kerouac extolled the “mad ones” who “burned like fabulous yellow candles.” At the same time, a similar form of unrepressed consciousness was coming into being in the form of rock and roll music—with performers such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Don Hibbard (1983) saw “Wanton expressions of freedom, emotional release and physical movement” as the essence of rock and roll: a “sense of freedom, total unrestraint and physical expression. Bumps Blackwell, Little Richard’s manager, provided the following description of a”typical Little Richard show:"

The crowd was unrestrained, and Richard was like a wild man. Richard got up on the piano, took his shoes off and threw them to the audience. They were in frenzy. Then he took off the top of his costume and gestured as if he was going to throw that, too. The crowd went mad.

Little Richard and other rock and roll performers inspired many to experience a “Dionysian consciousness which overflows.”

Charles White, Little Richard’s biographer (1985) says that Little Richard “exploded onto the American music scene in 1955, demolishing established music structure and giving a whole generation a clarion-call to shake off the chains of repression.” He says that Richard “freed people from their inhibitions, unleashing their spirit, enabling them to do exactly what they felt like doing—to scream, shout, dance, jump up and down—or even more unusual things.”

He claims that Richard “changed the way of life for a whole generation,” and was an “uncontrollable genius whose influence on Western culture is incalculable.” This seems a bit much. However, another rock and roll historian—recalling his own experience at the time—says that when Little Richard sang, “we were introduced to an entirely new way of experiencing life.”

Rebellion against intellect, rationality and structures of control flowed, then, from two sources. On the one hand, thinkers and writers such as Brown, Mailer and Kerouac dreamt and wrote about untapped energies within the unconscious that could be released if structures of control were abandoned.

At the same time, rock and roll music—a form of popular culture—articulated this same idea. Musicians like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis broke down structures of control to reveal deeper, more powerful streams of energy within the psyche. Rock and roll “shook the body,” releasing powerful forms of energy that had been buried within.

The breakdown of the ego and irruption of the irrational became a central trend in the evolution of the American character. The world of the Fifties presented itself as a clean, pure place—bright and shiny, secure, and under control. There was pleasure in this stable, optimistic world where everything seemed “knowable.”

Some, however, found stability and predictability stultifying. The world of the Fifties seemed too clear—lacking intensity, mystery, darkness. Psychoanalysis and rock and roll were cultural forms that shook things up; uncovering something deeper and more powerful within the psyche. Through a gradual process, psychoanalysis and rock and roll liberated fantasies and energies from the unconscious and allowed these to be enacted in society. I call this process the “return of the repressed.”

The year 1959 was a watershed, a year of transition—when forces of the irrational and unconscious began to be felt, but came face-to-face with a world dominated by ideologies that denied these forces. In a prophetic essay, David McReynolds wrote about “Hipster’s Unleashed:”

The real reason youth has adopted jazz is that jazz is irrational music. It is music of spontaneity, of improvisation. Jazz appears as something of a social movement in a society which fears the unconscious as a seething maelstrom of incest, murder and the death wish; a society terrified that the unconscious may burst forth and overwhelm the “rational” mind.

A central dynamic of American society beginning in the early Sixties was the “spilling over” of the irrational and unconscious onto the stage of reality. This book will delineate the process of psychic change whereby structures of rationality and control gradually broke down—revealing fantasies and energies that now constitute part of reality.

The writings of Norman O. Brown provided a rationale and justification for abandoning the intellect, exploring the irrational, and permitting desires and fantasies to be expressed in reality. Where Freud saw the “reality principle” as an unalterable structure that required submission, Brown—like Reich—considered another possibility:

Recognition of the world as it is by no means excludes desire or activity to change it, in order to bring reality into conformity with the pleasure principle. In fact, if we hold fast to the Freudian insight into the immortal strength of our repressed desires, changing reality can be the only rational response of the ego to the contradiction between the reality and the pleasure principle.

Brown suggested the possibility of changing reality rather than merely accepting it. If the keynote of the Fifties was “adjustment,” the dream of the Sixties was to change the world to make it compatible with desire. The idea was to make reality (the “reality principle”) consistent with the pleasure principle; to transform reality into a place where the instinctual life (including “polymorphous perverse” impulses) could be expressed.

Brown linked the Freudian ideology of sexuality with the ideology of freedom. In his Phi Betta Kappa address, he stated that “Western consciousness has always asked for freedom: the human mind was born free, but everywhere it is in chains.”

The linkage of sexual freedom and political freedom became a central theme of the Sixties. The fight against oppressive authority was understood as a struggle to free the mind and body from constraints that prevented the experience of pleasure. The objective of the Sixties was to “do one’s own thing;” to “let it all hang out.”

A teen-age girl on Independence Day, July 4, 1993, was asked by a television interviewer: “What do you think ‘freedom’ means?” She replied, “Freedom means being able to do whatever you want to do.” This linkage of political freedom to behavioral freedom is a powerful one. Americans sought to fulfill the dream articulated in the Declaration of Independence: the “pursuit of happiness.”

Psychoanalytic ideas affected the evolution of national character by becoming linked with the ideology of freedom. Freud argued that human discontent was caused by civilization. Human beings were burdened by inhibitions and a sense of guilt caused by overwhelming demands placed by society upon the individual— preventing people from expressing their true desires.

Brown felt there was a “way out;” a way to overcome discontent. Human beings could be released from suffering with the “abolition of repression:” the coming into being of a world where the body’s desire for pleasure could be acknowledged and acted upon.