On the Aesthetic Structure of Sublimation: Re-Reading Marcuse V. Brown through the Birth of Tragedy

By Holman, Christopher | PSYART, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

On the Aesthetic Structure of Sublimation: Re-Reading Marcuse V. Brown through the Birth of Tragedy


Holman, Christopher, PSYART


This essay will reread the debate between Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown in terms of each author's conceptualization of the aesthetic structure of the psychoanalytic process of sublimation, using as a starting point Brown's association of sublimation with the figure of Apollo and his consequent embrace of Nietzsche's Dionysus. Brown will criticize the theory of sublimation for separating the individual's mind from her body through the transformation of sexual into soulful energy. As a consequence of the creation of this repressive boundary between soul and body Brown will associate sublimation with Apollo. In contrast to Brown, Marcuse sees in the reactivation of narcissistic libido in sublimation the potential for a new and liberatory mode of activity in which sexual energy is neither deflected nor blocked from its objective: not Apollo, but a dialectical fusion of Apollo and Dionysus.

keywords:Marcuse, Nietzsche, Norman Brown, aesthetics, sublimation

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2007_holman01.shtml

In 1966 Norman O. Brown published his Love's Body. The work became a point of immediate theoretical contestation on the Left. One of the most vociferous attacks on the book was launched by Brown's friend Herbert Marcuse, who criticized Love's Body for surrendering to mysticism and for abandoning the liberatory potential of concrete human practice in the sphere of the political. This essay will critically re-evaluate the debate between Marcuse and Brown in terms of each author's conceptualization of the aesthetic structure of the process of sublimation, using as a starting point Brown's association of sublimation with the figure of Apollo and his consequent embrace of Nietzsche's Dionysus. In Life Against Death, Brown criticises the theory of sublimation on the grounds that it is always based on a disembodiment, an alienation of the individual from her body and a transformation of sexual into soulful energy. This transformation contributes to the development of a repressive mind-body dualism, and by virtue of the creation of this boundary is associated with Apollo. In contrast to Brown, Marcuse sees in the reactivation of narcissistic libido in sublimation the potential for a new and liberatory mode of activity, a form of sublimation in which sexual energy is neither deflected nor blocked from its objective: not Apollo, but a dialectical fusion of Apollo and Dionysus. Only such a fusion, only an interjection of the mediating power of the Apollonian into the Dionysian mass, is capable of giving a form to and hence actualizing not only material human practice, but stable consciousness itself.

Before turning to each's account of sublimation, though, we should briefly recapitulate the form of the relationship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, as it is outlined by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy. The development of art, Nietzsche tells us, is dependent on the structure of the interaction between Apollo and Dionysus, those two Greek gods who respectively symbolize the opposed artistic wills of dream and intoxication: "these two very different drives run in parallel with one another, for the most part diverging openly with one another and continually stimulating each other to ever new and more powerful births" (Nietzsche, 2000, 19). Dionysus is the Greek god of music, darkness, and dance, best associated with, as mentioned, a state of intoxication. Dionysian impulses "in their heightened form cause the subjective to dwindle to complete self-oblivion", as various elements of particularity become liquefied in the great amorphous mass which is the Dionysian (Nietzsche, 2000, 22). Apollo, by contrast, is the god of the plastic arts, the "master of the beautiful appearance of the inner world of the imagination" (Nietzsche, 2000, 21). Under the guidance of Apollo we create in sculpture and painting a world of beauty and appearance modelled on the formal images that we experience in our dreams. …

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