Norman O. Brown, a soft-spoken philosopher whose revolutionary blend of Freudian analysis and New Age mysticism attracted a large intellectual following in the 1960s and ‘70s, died Wednesday in Santa Cruz. He was 89.
A former humanities professor at UC Santa Cruz, Brown had Alzheimer’s disease and died at an assisted-living residence, according to his son Thomas.
Brown, the author of “Life Against Death” and “Love’s Body,” had a profound effect on the youthful counterculture that blossomed in America during and after the Vietnam War. His books, which sold widely, captured a prevailing mood of rebellion against America’s political order and a deep-seated yearning for personal creative freedom.
So great was Brown’s popularity that Time magazine in 1966 described “Life Against Death,” a Freudian interpretation of world history, “as one of the underground books that undergraduates feel they must read to be with it.” His works were found on bookshelves and in backpacks along with those of Albert Camus, J.R.R. Tolkien, Herman Hesse and Jean Paul Sartre.
Large audiences regularly assembled on the Santa Cruz campus for Brown’s weekly lectures, and he had to find increasingly larger lecture halls to meet the demand. Graduate students, occasional reporters and longhaired devotees flocked around him as he strolled the campus. But for all his colorful celebrity, Brown remained a quiet, introspective man, whose personal life bore no resemblance to the tumult surrounding him.
“I don’t want to be a leader,” he said on publication of “Love’s Body” in 1966, stressing his ties to a serious life of academic and philosophical inquiry.
Born in Mexico and educated in Europe, Brown studied classical literature at Oxford University. But he was drawn to American academic life and got a doctorate in classics at the University of Wisconsin. Although he began teaching at Nebraska Wesleyan University, Brown interrupted that career to work as a research analyst for the Office of Strategic Services in World War II.
After the war, he taught classics at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the University of Rochester. His first book, “Hermes the Thief,” was published in 1947. Blending a sociological interpretation of mythology with Marxist analysis, it was a harbinger of later works that would marry the worlds of social science, philosophy and poetry.
As a young student, Brown had been greatly influenced by Marxist thought in the 1930s and ‘40s and he worked in the 1948 presidential campaign of the progressive candidate Henry Wallace. But Brown grew disillusioned with Marx in later years, gravitating toward what he called “the intense honesty” of Freudian thought and its often dark view of western civilization.
One of the central themes of “Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History” is the repressive nature of western society and the individual’s need to throw off such shackles. Although Freud himself espoused a strict sense of morality, Brown used his rigorous body of work as the basis for an almost ecstatic--and highly revolutionary--view of life.
Indeed, Brown’s lectures eventually included ruminations on his dream life, which he said he had learned to interpret through the power of Freudian self-analysis. “Until I wrote ‘Life Against Death,’ I was a perfect sleeper,” Brown said in a 1970 interview. “But when I learned to interpret my dreams, the power of sleep was taken from me. Freud said he came to disturb the sleep of the world. In my case, he succeeded.”
In “Love’s Body,” a collection of poetic mediations, mini-essays and aphorisms, Brown probed what he saw as the tension between the erotic forces of nature and civilization, lamenting man’s fall from a state of natural innocence. Many of Brown’s observations in “Love’s Body” have become classics in their own right, such as: “Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense. Freedom is violence.”
Brown joined the UC Santa Cruz faculty in 1968, just as the campus opened, and was the only member ever given the title of professor of humanities. He was praised by many academics across the nation, and criticized by others who found his thoughts and conclusions either dangerous or simply naive.
Either way, Brown viewed his status humbly and always seemed to envy those who were engaged in the hurly-burly of the outside world. In a 1969 letter to a prospective student, for example, Brown said that “anyone with your proposed reading list has real work to do, and the Great Work of World Transformation needs every hand.... It may be that you need a teacher or guru; I don’t know you well enough to say. But these are to be found outside the university in increasing numbers and in proliferating forms; the disintegration of the established university proceeds apace.”
“Nobby,” as he was known, retired from teaching in 1981, and wrote two additional books, “Closing Time” in 1973 and “Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis” in 1993, a collection of essays written over 30 years.
“He was a liberating, visionary scholar, the successor in the 20th century to Blake and to Nietzsche,” said Jerome Neu, a professor of philosophy at UC Santa Cruz and a longtime friend.
He was also a memorable teacher. On a rainy afternoon in 1969, Brown held a large audience spellbound with a description of the Roman poet, Virgil, on his deathbed. Virgil had written the “Aeneid,” a long poem celebrating the triumph of the Roman Empire. But in his final moments, Brown said, the poet was filled with despair, wishing he could rewrite--or undo--the bloody events he had described.
“He wanted to reverse everything,” said Brown, scribbling the word “Roma” on a blackboard. “And if you reverse the word ‘Roma,’ it’s ‘amor.’ ”
In addition to his son Thomas, Brown is survived by his wife of 64 years, Elizabeth P. Brown; another son, Stephen; two daughters, Rebecca and Susan; and five grandchildren.