Philip Rieff has died at age 83, in Philadelphia. We never met, but he would write from time to time, usually a brief note on something or the other that appeared in First Things . I forget what it was that I had written some years ago, but he responded, if memory serves, "I almost wish I could be so hopeful." That stayed with me. I take it he thought I was a mite naïve. He had a very grim view of our cultural circumstance.
He was a sociologist, but the kind of sociologist once more-frequently encountered, taking on the really big picture of the world and our place in it. With his 1959 book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist , he was recognized as a thinker to be reckoned with. It was, however, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud that made a really deep impression. The title and the phrases "therapeutic society" and "psychological man" have become part of the intellectual air we breathe.
Truth, tradition, morals, and manners have been kicked aside to make way for the dogma of dogmas: "It all comes down to me, and how I feel about me." Rieff did not usually put matters so bluntly. His writings bristled with sometimes cranky eccentricities. His last book, published this past January and intended to be the first of four on related themes, is Sacred Order/Social Order: My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority .
I have been reading it with great interest. Reviewers say it is both difficult and rewarding. But of course. That’s Philip Rieff. We’ll be doing something with the book in First Things . The obituary in the New York Times says that he dazzled his students at the University of Pennsylvania "with multi-layered but always authoritative lectures that blended philosophy, theology, economics, history, literature, psychology, and dashes of poetry and Plato like ingredients in a sociological mulligatawny." The last, in the event you did not know, is a Tamil soup of chicken stock sharply seasoned with pepper and curry. Great fun.
For all the intellectual panache, however, there was something more sobering about Philip Rieff, for which the right word may be prophetic . While we were preoccupied with our therapeutic games, it went largely unnoticed that our culture died some while back; the ideas, habits, and traditions that sustained and vivified it have been shattered and can’t be put back together. Culture began with renunciation and ended with the therapeutic renunciation of renunciation.
Rieff, a Jew, believed that Christianity supplied the best bet for a sustainable culture, but that’s all gone now. In a 2005 interview with the Chronicles of Higher Education, he says he does not believe that an authentic religious culture could be resurrected, no matter how hard we might try. Following Marx, Weber, and Freud, he argues that modern prosperity, cities, bureaucracy, and science have completely transformed the terrain of human experience. People who try to practice orthodox Christianity and Judaism today, he says, inevitably remain trapped in the vocabulary of therapy and self-fulfillment. “I think the orthodox are role-playing,” he says. “You believe because you think it’s good for you, not because of anything inherent in the belief. I think that the orthodox are in the miserable situation of being orthodox for therapeutic reasons."
I’m still reading the last book, but I think Rieff is saying that it’s all over. I don’t think he’s right about that. I hope he’s not right about that. But he could be right about that. At the very least, it is a possibility to be considered when proposed by one so thoughtful as Philip Rieff. Christ never said of Western Civilization that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Here are pieces of an interview Rieff did with The Guardian on December 5, 2005.
It’s been three decades since your last book. Why the long silence? Rieff: “I saw no reason to publish. I’m not sure why I’m publishing now.”
What do you mean by "deathworks"? Rieff: “James Joyce mounted a deathwork against the novel and the European tradition. Picasso certainly mounted a deathwork against painting in the European tradition. So, in photography and more recently, did Robert Mapplethorpe.”
What the term "deathwork" implies, in Rieff’s analysis, is deadendedness. They are instances of artistry that perversely annihilate the possibilities of art—and with it, life. If, as Freud contended, there are two basic drives in human civilization, eros and thanatos, life and death, the current triumph of deathwork marks the triumph of thanatos.
Rieff: “It is a critique intended to stop a certain way of writing. Joyce, Picasso, and Mapplethorpe are deathworkers against the kinds of psychologies that were practiced before them. And deliberately so. Their deathwork hasn’t actually stopped anyone, but I think such artists have intended, and achieved, a massive attack on the foundations of literature and art.”
What can people of goodwill do? “They can become inactivists. They’ll do less damage that way. Inactivism is the ticket.”
The interviewer notes that Rieff as a sociologist is a cross-disciplinarian and unorthodox. But he is indelibly marked by the conservative ethos that was dominant in the University of Chicago in the postwar years, producing thinkers such as Leo Strauss, Milton Friedman, Edward Shils, Allan Bloom, and Saul Bellow, who chronicles some of those days in the novel Ravelstein.
Rieff has been the most cross-grained of American neo-Freudians. He believes the psychoanalytic “therapeutic culture,” far from “curing” ills, has brought our world to its third, and terminal, stage. There are three successive cultures or "ideal types." Rieff: “The first, historically, is the pagan, or pre-Christian world. The second, the Christian culture and all its varieties. And finally, the present Kulturkampf, which is the third culture.” Are we, then, in a state of barbarism? Rieff: “No, we’re not. But we’re near it because we treat the past with considerable contempt. Or nostalgia. One is as bad as the other.”
Is there any way back or around the barriers that confront us? Rieff: “I don’t know whether what I’ve called the second culture can survive as a form that is respected and practiced.” And is the third culture the end of the road? Rieff: “I don’t know. It remains to be seen.”
What is it that is so ominous about the third culture? Rieff: “It’s characterized by a certain vacuity and diffidence. The institutions which were defenders of the second world, or second culture—I think cultures are world creations—have not offered the kind of defense or support that would have been more powerful than therapeutic forces. So Christianity becomes, therapeutically, ‘Jesus is good for you.’ I find this simply pathetic.”
So are you a pessimist? Rieff: “I don’t know that I’m pessimistic. Therapies are better than nothing.”
You’re welcome. Just thought your day could use a little sunshine.
Almost all the obituaries gave major attention to Rieff’s first marriage, to Susan Sontag, the celebrated social critic, when he was a young teacher at Chicago and she his 17-year-old student. The dedication page of the new book has this: "Susan Sontag, in remembrance."
I should also mention that James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia, a distinguished sociologist in his own right, provides an extended and very helpful introduction to the book, concluding with this: "The full significance of Rieff’s tragic sociology is not immediately apparent and not quickly grasped. Indeed Sacred Order/Social Order is a thick text that invites and even compels the reader to ongoing exegesis. This is as it should be. Rieff once wrote that ‘the heterodoxies of genius require generations to assimilate.’ This can and will be said of Philip Rieff and his contribution as well." I am very open to that possibility.
I’m off tomorrow for Krakow, Poland, where for fifteen years, at the initial invitation of John Paul II, my friends and I have been running the Tertio Millennio Seminar on Catholic social doctrine. For the next two weeks, Joseph Bottum, Anthony Sacramone, and assorted First Things contributors will, I am confident, provide ample reason to keep this site at a prime spot on your bookmarks.
Last Friday in this space, I did a little sendup of E.J. Dionne’s claim that conservatives think America is a flawless nation. In order to demonstrate the ludicrousness of his assertion that only liberals are critical in their patriotism, I then listed major criticisms of America advanced by conservatives but, in order to reinforce the point, I attributed them to liberals. This is known as a spoof or parody. We received a considerable number of messages vigorously protesting my confusion of liberal and conservative positions. When you have to explain that a parody is a parody you conclude that the parody has failed. The alternative is to think uncomplimentary thoughts about the perceptiveness of some readers, which I would never do.