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Sacred Order / Social Order, Vol. 1, My Life Among the Deathworks:
Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority

by Philip Rieff. University of Virginia Press, 234 pages, $34.95.

Reading Philip Rieff is hard work. In Sacred Order/Social Order: My Life Among the Deathworks , he develops a deceptively simple typology that takes some getting used to, and he uses it to rummage his way through modern Western culture like a man possessed. Brilliant insights are mixed with the kind of ranting one usually hears from a faculty office down the hall after hours.

Rieff boldly divides human history into three cultural epochs. This is a sly appropriation of the language of the three worlds of economic development”terminology many academics try to avoid because it sounds condescending. Rieff has no such compunction.

Rieff’s first cultural world roughly corresponds to ancient paganism. The second cultural world is characterized by the Jewish insistence that social interdictions are divinely commanded. The third cultural world is harder to describe, but think of Joyce’s gleefully impenetrable irreverence in Finnegan’s Wake combined with the homeless Ahab’s single-minded quest for death in Melville’s Moby Dick.

In other words, the third culture is composed of everything that infuriates the Freudian scholar who famously launched the critique of what he called “therapeutic man.”

Cultures, in Rieff’s definition, function to translate sacred order into social orders. This process is not without a struggle, but when it is successful, culture renders the armed enforcement of social norms unnecessary. What the first and second cultures have in common is their belief that our identity comes from a vertical axis of authority; we cling to powers above in order to keep from falling into the horizontal heap of permissive indifference below. The third culture, which Rieff argues is unique in human history, beckons us to jump.

Rieff, who was eighty-three when he died July 1, 2006, published his last major work, Fellow Teachers , in 1973. Those who remember him for the ascetic quality of his prose will be surprised to find so much promiscuous moralizing in this first volume of a trilogy that was more or less finished at his death. Rieff declares that third-world elites de-create culture in the deluded hope that social order will take care of itself. His term for their cultural productions is deathworks , and he means it literally. As much as he often blames Freud, he is still beholden to a fundamentally Freudian framework”and the third culture is the revenge of the death instinct.

In fact, one of Rieff’s most original lines of analysis is his interpretation of Freud’s master concept of repression. Repression is a puzzling psychological state in which one simultaneously knows and does not know something. Rieff shows how Freud repressed the truth in all repressions, which is that the self can lie to itself only if it answers to a higher authority. Otherwise, how would we know that the truth is not just another, more creative lie? Freud, whom Rieff calls “the greatest post-Jew of the third culture,” endowed the psychoanalyst with religious authority in order to abolish the interdictory culture of Judaism.

He spelled out his intentions in his greatest deathwork, Moses and Monotheism , where he enacts the literary murder of the greatest lawgiver.

The attempt to unmask systematically every repression represses the way third-world elites have not come to terms with their dependence on authority. Suspicion is just another form of repression, which is why, as Rieff puts it, the one kind of knowledge forbidden to us today is of sacred order. What passes for religion in the age of suspicion is the sacred landscape of subjectivity. In Rieff’s biting prose, “Particular interiors are to be examined with the meticulous attention that was devoted to the art of the interior in the Dutch and Flemish schools of seventeenth-century painting.” Nonetheless, our inner lives cannot sustain such cultural weight, even when we treat the petty as if it were profound.

Without sacred order, the death instinct is set loose. Rieff thus connects the Kulturkampf struggle between second- and third-world cultures to the Holocaust. Third-world culture can never defeat the second world on its own grounds, since it rejects the authority of reason as well as the reasonableness of tradition, so it resorts to the shooting war that culture is meant to prevent. Third-world culture is, in fact, anti-culture, so it lacks the resources to enforce order without violence. It is also essentially anti-Jewish, since Judaism represents the unmovable and absolute nature of divine interdictions.

Much of this book is taken up with analyses of how modern deathworks, from Duchamp to Wallace Stevens, illustrate Rieff’s recurring themes.

He acknowledges borrowing his motif analysis from the Swedish Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren, but those who know Nygren’s work will recognize a deeper affinity. Like Nygren, Rieff adamantly resists mixing the divine order of agape , or sacrificial love, with the natural fecundity of eros. Rieff is a thinker of divisive spaces.

Culture occupies the space between sacred and social order, and the whole point of culture is to grant each individual his own unique space. We can go up and down the vertical ladder of authority, but we cannot go very far toward each other. Third-world cultures corrupt sex by blurring the boundaries of personal identity. “There is always a space between lovers, however close they may be. The pathos of that space, of that necessary and humanizing distance between lovers, is at once its ethos.”

Two works by Michelangelo illustrate second-world spacing and its third-world negation. The Creation of Adam shows how the space between individuals has its origin in the gap between the hands of God and Adam. “In that apparently little space is all the space in which all humanity lives.” The unfinished Rondanini Pieta shows Mary melting into her son, thus substituting “the collective person where the sacred self once was.”

Third-world culture has opted for the Rondanini Pieta rather than The Creation of Adam . Though the gap between the hands of God and Adam is slight, third-world elites feel confined by their creator. Their rebellion takes the form of a “transgression of forgetfulness,” which explains why they are pro-choice rather than pro-creation. The abortion of memory is the necessary precondition for the third-world “deodorized death cultus.”

The critique of abortion is central to Rieff’s argument, but the third-world elite will find plenty of other reasons to dismiss this book. Ordaining women is anti-Christian, Rieff writes. “Homosexuality as a social movement is not a movement of love but a movement of hatred and indifference.” “In America, there are special armies to attack the canon, including young blacks persuaded of a racial mystique.” Rieff’s hyperbolic prose is not for the rhetorically timid.

The problems with this book, however, go deeper than these polemical excesses. By juxtaposing so many cultural artifacts and analyzing them in an abstract manner, Rieff risks using a third-world method to defend his idea of second-world culture. Even more problematic is his argument that the anticultural thrust of the third world is unprecedented. That gives the third-world elites too much credit. Far from being uniquely negational (one of Rieff’s favorite words), third-world culture has continued the discourses of truth and tradition. Third-world theoreticians prattle about ambiguity, pluralism, and undecidability, but they are as committed to a sacred order and its authority as any traditionalist. And their sacred order legitimates a quite effective social order. Just criticize gender feminism, pantheistic environmentalism, economic collectivism, or racial victimization, and their social order will close down upon you.

Rieff’s cultural apologetics sometimes gets the better of him, so that it is not clear what he is defending. Does Rieff think that all second-world traditions will (or can) unite in order to conduct counterstrikes against the third-world elites? Or would the consolidation of second-world traditions in a united front simply signal surrender to the homogenizing forces of the coming cultural wasteland? Rieff can sound like a cultural minimalist who is more interested in the idea of culture than its particular permutations. He can also sound close to despair, as when he writes, near the end of this book, “Silence is now the preferred form of prophecy.” Although he can be classified as a conservative, Rieff has no interest in defending the glory days of Christendom. “Sacred history never repeats itself.” Yet he can say that, when he hears a Bach Mass, “I am an honorary Christian.”

As for his Judaism, Rieff tells us that his father was stripped of his name by a petty official at Ellis Island in 1921, and that his new name meant nothing to him. In seeking to restore it, Rieff writes like a desperate man in search of a patrimony that is lost to history. I hope that the future volumes of this trilogy show that Rieff found cultural identity and personal peace.

In the meantime, this book stands as a declaration of war. Ever since James Davison Hunter, who supplies the helpful introduction to this book, wrote his now classic treatise Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991), sociologists have scurried to disprove his thesis by demonstrating that ordinary Americans are not that divided. These experts in the art of distributing surveys claim to find large tracts of moral common ground, but what they are probably picking up is the politeness of the American people, as well as their general tendency to distrust the abstruse bickering of the cultural elite. Assessing the culture wars by surveying those who are uninterested in culture would be a good joke if it were not such a frequent methodological ploy in the sociological literature.

Rieff’s book shows that the war over culture has dropped off the media map only because we are still in its earliest and most bewildering stages. He leads us to expect this war to heat up, if only because what meager culture we have left makes the battle over the identity of Western civilization truly unprecedented.

Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence, The Divine Voice, Good Eating, and Taking Religion to School.