22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Bruce P. Barten
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This is a book which seeks a place for humanity in the poetic extremes of intellectual life. Near the end, "Dionysus in 1990," Georges Bataille, author of THE ACCURSED SHARE, gets credit for writing, "Religion is the satisfaction that a society gives to the use of its excess resources, or rather to their destruction." (p. 188). With the thoroughly modern economic ploy of monetary expansion in the late 20th century, the progress of humanity was based largely on the willingness of everyone to engage in deep play, in which "The game that is played with the surplus is gambling, with a built-in risk of self-destruction, a built-in need for competition, and a built-in demand for new goods to replenish the store and be in turn destroyed (as in `planned obsolescence'). A need for hemorrhage is built into the system." (p. 187). This is a culmination of the intellectual approach in these essays, from the years 1960-1990, and, as the Preface puts it, looking back is "partly retrospective, at the end of an era." (p. ix).
APOCALYPSE AND/OR METAMORPHOSIS begins with an outstanding Phi Beta Kappa Speech delivered at Columbia University on May 31, 1960. Already on page 2, this book declares, "Resisting madness can be the maddest way of being mad." Religion is considered "the learned ignorance, in which God is better honored and loved by silence than by words, and better seen by closing the eyes to images than by opening them." (p. 3). The second selection in this book is aphoristic. "Daphne, or Metamorphosis." It seems to be about poetry. "Petrarch says that he invented the beautiful name of Laura, but that in reality Laura was nothing but that poetic laurel which he had pursued with incessant labor." (p. 10). Similarly, the next section considers Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare. "The horn, the horn, the lusty horn, Is not a thing to laugh to scorn." (p. 37).
The fifth section of the book, "The Prophetic Tradition," is an attempt at "Ecumenical prophetic history," (p. 47), which is contrasted with "Hegelian triumphalism." (p. 47). Islam is seen as part of the prophetic tradition. "Protestants should be able to see that the need for a Protestant Reformation was there already in the seventh century C.E., to be perceived by prophetic eyes. Blakeans should be able to see that there is no way to accept `Again He speaks' in Blake unless we accept that again He speaks in the Koran." (p. 48). The anti-philosophical attempt by Justinian to purify Christian doctrine by closing the schools of philosophy in the year 529, and Christian opposition to the Gnostic Judaeo-Christian heresy "which struggled to avoid the catastrophic rupture between Christianity and Judaism" (p. 49) is the background for Norman O. Brown's philosophical attempt to conclude, "Islam is to be envisaged as dialectical evolution, or evolutionary mutation, in the prophetic tradition, in response to the limitations built into the structure of orthodox Christianity by its compromise with Roman imperialism; by its commitment to scriptural canon, creedal orthodoxy, and episcopal hierarchy; and by its consequent scandalous history of schism and persecution (duly noted in the Koran)." (p. 50). Pages 69 to 77 provide the translation of M. M. Pickthall (THE MEANING OF THE GLORIOUS KORAN) of Sura 18 ~ The Cave Revealed at Mecca. "Lo! Gog and Magog are spoiling the land. So may we pay thee tribute on condition that thou set a barrier between us and them?" (p. 76). Gog and Magog are also mentioned on pages 77 and 78. The rest of the book might be considered more philosophical, and "The Turn to Spinoza" (pp. 117-141) is a particularly intellectual approach to "The reality of our life, the reality of which we are ignorant, the reality which we do not want to accept." (p. 129).
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
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Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis is described on its dustjacket, which one hopes Brown is not responsible for, as "the final volume of Norman O. Brown's trilogy on civilization and its discontents, on humanity's long struggle to master its instincts and the perils that attend that denial of human nature." The idea of this book forming part of a "trilogy" (with Life Against Death and Love's Body) should be embarrassing to anyone who admires Brown, "trilogy" being after all a word associated mainly with low-grade fantasy novels. Those who do not admire Brown or his works (and I must now count myself one of them, except where the exceptional book Love's Body is concerned) may find the negative fantasy-pulp associations of "trilogy" only too appropriate.
In fairness to Brown, there are some genuinely interesting things here. Two chapters, "The Prophetic Tradition" and "The Apocalypse of Islam", discuss Islam, and they are intriguing and to some degree insightful. Brown compares the Koran to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and the comparison is revealing. To quote Brown: "Carlyle's reaction to the Koran - 'a wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entaglement' - is exactly our first reaction to Finnegan's Wake. The affinity between this most recalcitrant of sacred texts and this most avant-garde of literary experiments is a sign of our times." Brown's discussion of Islam's roots in Gnosticism and Judaeo-Christian heresy is similarly useful and worthwhile. Unfortunately, these two chapters show that Brown apparently developed a strange and sinister infatuation with Islam. Brown writes about Islam with glowing enthusiasm, praising what he sees as its wonderful "critique of Christianity", and bemoaning "the politics of Orientalism" and attempts to "discredit Islamic revolutionaries." Brown's bizarre enthusiasm for Islam shows that his larger view of the world was at least as delusional as that of most other left-wing intellectuals, and one cannot avoid noting how fortunate it was for Brown himself that he never came anywhere near the "Islamic revolutionaries" he admired so much.
The other interesting thing here is Brown's thoughts on his previous books, in particular Life Against Death, a very famous book that is also one of the most dishonest and mendacious things ever written about psychoanalysis. I am still not quite sure how Life Against Death should be interpreted, but I do know that it begins to make sense only when read against the grain of its author's intentions. Brown tells us that it was part of a response to the limitations of Marxism that he became aware of after the failure of Henry Wallace's 1948 Presidential campaign: "Things were happening in history that Marxism could not explain. Psychoanalysis was to supply Marxism with the psychology it seemed desperately to need." Combining psychoanalysis with Marxism may sound straightforward enough, at least in principle, but that formula does not remotely describe what Life Against Death really attempts. The book is fundamentally an attack on psychoanalysis, one that perversely refuses to admit that that is what it is and strains desperately to conceal awareness of that fact from its readers and from itself.
Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis lets a little light through the shadow cast by Life Against Death. Brown now seems prepared to admit that his book was perhaps not exactly "Freudian" after all; commenting on the change of view that took him from Life Against Death to Love's Body, he remarks: "It was as if the change of direction taken from Freud, resolutely pursued, in the end dictated a massive breakdown of categories of traditional 'rationality' still accepted as authoritative by both Marx and Freud; that massive breakdown of traditional categories of rationality which Nietzsche baptized with the name of Dionysus. Already the last chapter in Life Against Death, not really knowing what it was saying, proposes 'Dionysian consciousness' as a 'way out.'" That Brown announces himself a "Dionysian" rather than a "Freudian" is some kind of progress, but it would have been a better kind had he admitted that his work was never genuinely "Freudian" in the first place.
Brown, not quite candidly enough, repudiates much of the argument of Life Against Death, turning to Georges Bataille to remedy what he sees as the deficiencies of Freud's theories about the life and death instincts. The "madman" and "libertine" Bataille is contrasted with party pooper René Girard, who, though influenced by Bataille, tried to "frighten us back into orthodox religion." At this point a puzzle emerges: how does Brown reconcile his fashionable disdain for "orthodox religion" with his love for certain (unidentified) "Islamic revolutionaries", Islam being, after all, a form of orthodox religion? The only answer that seems plausible to me is that "orthodox religion" is a code-word for Christianity, and that Girard's real offense in Brown's eyes is his loyalty to the Christian civilization whose Islamic enemies Brown hails. Though hard-core admirers of Brown are admittedly the only people likely to read Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis, sensible readers will find its enthusiasm for Islam repellent, and I hope that at least a few of those who do admire Brown will admire him less after reading it.