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Norman O. Brown

Norman O. Brown
Born (1913-09-25)September 25, 1913
El Oro, Mexico
Died October 2, 2002(2002-10-02) (aged 89)
Santa Cruz, California
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Marxism, psychoanalysis
Notable ideas
Symbolic consciousness, polymorphous perversity

Norman Oliver Brown (September 25, 1913 – October 2, 2002) was an American scholar, writer, and social philosopher. Beginning as a classical scholar,[1] his later work branched into wide-ranging, erudite, and intellectually sophisticated considerations of history, literature, psychology, culture, and other topics. Brown advanced some novel theses and in his time achieved some general notability.


Brown's father was an Anglo-Irish mining engineer. His mother was a Cuban of Alsatian and Cuban origin. He was educated at Clifton College, then Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., M.A., Greats; his tutor was Isaiah Berlin) and the University of Wisconsin–Madison (Ph.D., Classics).

In 1938, Brown married Elizabeth Potter.[2] During the Second World War, he worked for the Office of Strategic Services as a specialist on French culture. His supervisor was Carl Schorske, and his colleagues included Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann.[3] His other friends included the historians Christopher Hill and Hayden White as well as the philosopher Stuart Hampshire. At Wesleyan University, he befriended the composer John Cage, an association that proved fruitful to both.[4][5][6][7][8] Brown became a professor of classics at Wesleyan. During Brown's tenure there, Schorske became a professor of history and the two engaged in a mutually beneficial interdisciplinary discourse.[9]


Brown's commentary on Hesiod's Theogony and his first monograph, Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth, showed a Marxist tendency. Brown supported Henry A. Wallace's Progressive Party candidacy for president in 1948.[2] Following Brown's disenchantment with politics in the wake of the 1948 presidential election, he studied the works of Sigmund Freud. This culminated in his classic 1959 work, Life Against Death. The book's fame grew when Norman Podhoretz recommended it to Lionel Trilling.[10] In May 1960 Brown, who was then teaching at Wesleyan University, delivered a Phi Beta Kappa Address to Columbia University.[11]

Love's Body, published in 1966, examines "the role of erotic love in human history, describing a struggle between eroticism and civilization."[2]

In the late 1960s, following a stay at the University of Rochester, Brown moved to the University of California, Santa Cruz, as professor of humanities, teaching in the Boards of Studies in History of Consciousness and Literature.[3] He was a highly popular professor, known to friends and students alike as "Nobby". The range of courses he taught, while broadly focused around the themes of poetics, mythology, and psychoanalysis, included classes on Finnegans Wake, Islam, and, with Schorske, Goethe's Faust.

Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis, published in 1991, is an anthology that includes many of Brown's later writings.[12]

In The Challenge of Islam, a collection of lectures given in 1981 and published in 2009, Brown argues that Islam challenges us to make life a work of art. Drawing on Henri Corbin's The Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, he argues that "Muhammad is the bridge between Christ and Dante and Blake.”[13]

Personal life

In 1970, Brown was interviewed by Warren Bennis and Sam Keen for Psychology Today. Bennis asked him whether he lived out the vision of polymorphous perversity in his books. He replied,
I perceive a necessary gap between seeing and being. 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. And this is a way of paying the price for saying or seeing things. You will remember that I discovered these things as a late learner. Polymorphous perversity in the literal, physical sense is not the real issue. I don't like the suggestion that polymorphous perversity of the imagination is somehow second-best to literal polymorphous perversity.[14]

See also


  • 1947. Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • 1953. Hesiod, Theogony. Translated and with an introduction by Norman O. Brown. Indianapolis : Bobbs-Merrill.
  • 1959. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
  • 1966. Love's Body. New York: Random House.
  • 1973. Closing Time. New York: Random House.
  • 1991. Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • 2009. The Challenge of Islam: The Prophetic Tradition. Ed. by Jerome Neu. Santa Cruz, California: New Pacific Press.


  1. ^ Thornton, Bruce S. (1997). Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality. Westview Press. p. 47. ISBN 0-8133-3226-5. 
  2. ^ a b c Obituary in the New York Times
  3. ^ a b Zaretsky, Eli (Mar–Apr 2003). "Norman O. Brown, 1913-2002". Radical Philosophy 118: 50–52. Retrieved 7 December 2013. 
  4. ^ Perloff, Marjorie (1994). John Cage: Composed in America. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-66056-7. 
  5. ^ "John (Milton) Cage, (Jr.) Biography". 2010-11-02. Retrieved 2013-08-01. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ John Cage (1981). Empty Words: Writings '73–'78. Wesleyan University Press. p. 123. 
  8. ^ "John Cage and Norman O. Brown photographs" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-10-20. 
  9. ^ William Palmer (2001). Engagement with the Past. University Press of Kentucky. p. 100. 
  10. ^ Podhoretz, Norman. (1999). Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Helman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 0-684-85594-1. 
  11. ^ Michael S. Roth, EDUCATION, FREEDOM AND DISTINCTION Remarks at the Phi Beta Kappa Initiation (2008)
  12. ^ Brown, Norman. (1991). Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07298-7. 
  13. ^ "New Light on the Art of Islam | Reviews | Seven Pillars House of Wisdom". 2010-04-27. Retrieved 2013-08-01. 
  14. ^ Keen, Sam. (1974). Voices and Visions. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-064260-2. 

Further reading

  • In Memoriam: Norman O. Brown, ed. by Jerome Neu, New Pacific Press, 2007
  • David Greenham, The Resurrection of the Body: The Work of Norman O. Brown, Lexington Books, 2006
  • Dale Pendell, Walking with Nobby: Conversations with Norman O. Brown, Mercury House, 2008

External links

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