132 The Surre(gion)alist Manifesto
Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis: A Surre(gion)al View
Norman O. Brown's new book1 is about philosophy and madness. And just in time, since the world has been almost destroyed by information and sanity. In fact, it is a book about several madnesses, all of which deserve careful study. According to Brown, "Freud is the measure of our unholy madness, as Nietzsche is the prophet of the holy madness, of Dionysus, the mad truth." (p. 2) In the course of the essays included in this book, Brown at times sheds some light on all this madness, and at times leads us into the beautiful dark night that requires no illumination.
Brown has the rare courage to venture consciously into the politics of the imagination. To dream awake. "Very few are the Actaeons to whom destiny gives the power to contemplate Diana naked, and the power to become so enamored of the beautiful harmony of the body of nature that they are transformed into deer, inasmuch as they are no longer the hunters but the hunted." (p. 45) Beautiful harmony? Or fearful symmetry? Or beautiful disharmony? Or fearful discord? Or sublime cacaphony? Brown points us to one good myth—one of a multitude of equally and oppositely significant myths He understands myth, and therefore he can play with it. The Left that can clench its jaw at the sound of "myth," yet salivate at the tocsin sound of "revolution," neither understands nor plays. Brown directs us to myth as the negation of all monotheisms, from Ra-theism, its dawn, to A-theism, its final truth.Atheism, the monotheistic will to disbelieve in the One and Only True God.
Brown understands that as long as Psyche exists, there will be neither the Triumph of God nor the Death of God, but rather the battle of the swarming deities and spirits that inhabit our vast multitude of psychoregions. This spiritual realm is where Anarchy reigns, despite the desperate efforts of serious priests, theologians, and materialists. The Daemon of Freedom springs out in the strangest of places! As Brown shows, it even appears in one of its most striking forms as a kind of Islamic anarchy or anarchic Islam. In the Koran itself—and in many traditions stemming from it—"there is a mysterious regression to a more primitive statum, archetypal, folkloristic, fabulous, apocryphal. Historical material is fragmented into its archetypal constituents and then subjected to displacement and condensation as in dreams." (p. 88) The Koran merges with Finnegan's Wake, with a "systematic violation of the classic rules of unity, propriety, and harmony; bewildering changes of subject; abrupt juxtaposition of incongruities." (p. 89) This could have a revolutionary effect on Middle Eastern politics: from "The Party of God" to "The Dionysian Orgy of God."
Brown helps uncover the liberatory dimensions of the history of philosophy and religion. Don't abandon Islam to the Ayatollahs (Christianity to the Church, Hinduism to the Brahmins, Shamanism to the New Agers, Zen to the Psychotechnologists, etc.). The world of spirit always retains a subversive dimension. For Brown, much of Islam remains in touch with "the dream-life of the masses, the escatological imagination of the lowly and oppressed." (p. 92) His analysis contributes to the continuing archaeology of revolutionary spirituality.
Brown writes above all of prophecy, a topic of urgent historical (and transhistorical) importance. In the West, the Left had a past in large part because it was a prophetic and visionary movement. Not because it had a blueprint for the future. Not because it had a good line. As prophetic and visionary, it was in touch with the immense but dormant powers within people and communities. Anyone can promise a great future, but only a prophetic and visionary movement can promise a great present. It also delivers (being the Midwife of Revolution), and thereby makes history. It transforms and makes sacred what is integral to life, what is most real to people—to take a pertinent example, the struggles and even the smallest victories of the oppressed. It creates things of infinite value in the midst of life. Prophecy is rooted in this reality and this creation.
Appropriately, therefore, much of Brown's most interesting analysis—one fourth of the book, in fact—deals with Spinoza. In his imaginative reading, the philosopher becomes "Spinoza The Communist, "the prophet of a democratic communism yet unrealized. In a pertinent text, Spinoza quotes Moses' words: "Would to God that all the Lord's people were prophets!" And he comments, "that is, would to God that the right of consulting God resulted in the power being in the hands of the people." (p. 111) For Brown, this means that democracy is the ultimate "theocracy," as the "will of God" is finally transmuted into "the natural light of reason." (p. 111) Of course, this "theocracy" would be the negation of both theos and kratia. The ultimate "theocracy" would become—perfecting and transcending democracy—"acracy" or "anarchy." This is no news, for as Brown elsewhere notes, it was the message of Joachim of Fiore's Third Stage of History, the era in which the Spirit moves within, and no external authority has validity. The Age of Spirit, the Age of Anarchy, the Age of Holy Communion/Holy Communism within/between Humanity and Nature.
For Brown, Spinoza is also a prophet and a "philosopher of the future" because he was the first to question the "notion of the individual self, soul or person as a substantial reality" that is fundamental to modern capitalism, state and bourgeois culture. (p. 123) He rejected the dualism that proposed "individualism, pluralism, and lofty idealism on the subjective side" and "monism and materialism on the objective side." (p. 123) Spinoza inaugurates a great critical tradition extending through Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.
In fact, though for some reason Brown fails to mention it, Spinoza vaguely touched on surre(gion)alism in comprehending that there are no discrete realities, places or beings. Things are regions. Indeed, they are spaces and times in which many regions overlap and interpenetrate, giving the reality and illusion of fullness of being. Reason (as also passion and imagination!) leads us both inward toward these ontological sites and outward through the multitude of converging regions. Spinoza follows only a few of these paths and therefore makes a very limited contibution to surre(gion)alist thought. As a rationalistic lens grinder, he merely ground lenses for the Ground of Being. It was left (perhaps even ultra-left) for an Electrician of Being like Blake to unground the Ground of Being.
But what makes Spinoza a Communist? For Brown, it is his view that "men can desire . . . nothing more excellent for the preservation of their being than that all should so agree in all things that the minds and bodies of all should compose, as it were, one mind and one body." (p. 128) In a sense, it was his adherence to the idea that "the True is the Whole," and his ability to remain in some ways true to this truth.
Brown also praises Spinoza for his rejection of mind/body dualism, and his consequent ability to recognize the rationality of the body. "He who has a body with very many aptitudes, has a mind of which the great part is eternal." (p. 129) As social ecologists have pointed out, we should pay close attention to "the wisdom of the body," and, indeed, even that of the cell. Similarly, Spinoza notes that "the body itself, simply from the laws of its own nature, can do many things which its own mind is amazed at." (p. 134) But for Brown, Spinoza's "body" becomes a Deleuzean "body without organs," in which there is no "genital primacy." And it is true that he avoids that particular hierarchy within the self, but there seems nonetheless to be a certain degree of "intellectual primacy," even if rationality is seen to be as much bodily as mental. Spinoza's philosophical psychology points much more toward Civilization and its Discontents and the rational self than toward Anti-Oedipus and the schizo's stroll.
Strangely, Brown wishes to attribute to Spinoza both "a philosophy of organism," and the view that "the human body is not an (Aristotelian) natural growth but a machinelike construction or energy system, a 'high energy construct.'" (p. 136) But what a terrible metaphor that is! Brown seems to be suggesting some kind of "desiring machine" concept. Uh-oh! Perhaps it is true that "as in Blake, the opposition of Body and Soul is overwhelmed in the concept of energy." (p. 136) But for Blake this energy is "eternal delight," the kind that usually smashes machines and breaks out of systems. Brown has slipped into a Bad Mythoregion here!
You've no doubt caught on to Brown's problem. He's temporarily wandered into the murky realm of post-Modernism. Sorry, wrong derangement! Let's stick to the more creative delirium of pre-Ancientism!
A philosophoregion at which he soon arrives. Brown's Spinoza is an often questionable but always stimulating one. He makes a good case for looking to Spinoza for a profound critique of many of the shortcomings—dualism, individualism, etc.—of modern philosophy. Yet he concludes that in the end Spinoza will not do. So in his path back from Freud and Marx, Brown trips over Spinoza and goes flying all the way back to—O blessed Fall!—Heraclitus. As he correctly concludes, Spinoza, for all his insights, lacks "movement," "a philosophy of energy" that is one "of struggle," "violence" and "death." (p. 174) The history of philosophy—that chronicle of oblivion—forgot that "Nature is Heraclitean fire." (p. 174)
And what does this fire burn? In calling his perspective "Dionysian," Brown refers to "the god of madness," a madness that "is also death." The Dionysian, he says, signifies the recognition of realities like madness and death that have been so systematically repudiated by philosophy and civilization. He credits Bataille with helping him overcome dualistic thinking and thereby come to terms with this terrifying Otherness. Bataille revealed to him the "Dionysian or Heraclitean principle of the unity of opposites." (p. 182) A principle, one might add, that is also fundamental to other traditions, from classical Daoist philosophy, through the entire tradition of dialectical thought to surrealism and social ecology.
Once we renounce the battle for victory over the Other, we are free for life, growth and creative self-expression. Though he does not mention it, Brown is reverting to the ancient idea of nature and being as self-manifestation, outpouring, effusion. He exhorts us to recognize ourselves as a part of these processes. We can thereby come to accept the universal drive toward excess and exuberance that has been hidden beneath all the institutional structure and character-armor of history. Brown is implicitly attacking the myth of scarcity that has been so indispensable to all systems of domination. As Bataille pointed out, the basic problem for all societies has been how to expend the excess, the surplus. In fact, it is the problem of every human being also. Despite this, every historical society up to the most over-productive ones of today have indoctrinated the populace with the absurd idea that the issue is "survival." Most historical societies have been so scandalized by the idea of excess that they have redefined it as necessity. But to recognize the reality of excess means recognition of freedom, creativity, abundance, death, wild nature, spontaneity, anarchy. Brown has caught on to a great deal in this area.
He points out a disquieting truth that defies much of what is called "ecological" and "environmental" and perhaps even "Green" today. What hope is there for "conservation" and "limits to growth" in a world in which Dionysian passions have been unleashed as never before? Well, "pseudo-Dionysian," let's say. Perhaps the pseudo-Dionysian can only be vanquished by an authentically Dionysian philosophy and mythology of humanity and nature. This hypothesis also defies much of what has been called "Left." As Brown rightly points out, "capitalism has proven itself more dynamic—i.e, Dionysian—than socialism. Its essential nature is to be out of control: exuberant energy, exploiting every opportunity, to extract a surplus." (p. 189) The Left has to be even more dynamic: more anarchic, energetic, creating unheard of and unimagined surpluses. Advanced capitalism gave up worldly asceticism long ago, but much of the Left has perpetuated a monasticism of militantism and sectarianism. If the Left is to have a future, it must begin thinking again about the almost taboo concept of freedom, and about the wonders of power. (Strange that in the Four Noble Pillars and Ten Key Mandments of the Green Movement, "Freedom" is never mentioned!)
Marx, for all his economism and political centralism, at least remembered that the question for humanity is the liberation of those "essential powers" slumbering within—and among—us. And we surre(gion)alists add: swarming all around and through us, in spirit and in nature. For Brown, the vision of exuberance requires "an identification with the exuberant life of the whole," an achievement that Spinoza called "the intellectual love of God." (p. 198) We might well ponder this challenge: That the hope for regeneration of humanity and nature lies with such a quest for a rational eroticism and/or an erotic rationality.
1 Apocalypse And/Or Metamorphosis. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1991), xi + 200 pp. References in the text are to this work.