Faith Amid the Deathworks

An appreciation of the late Philip Rieff.

By Gerald Howard | One day in 1980, while compiling an anthology of pieces from and about the 1960s, I stumbled on a piece by a Penn professor of sociology in a 1961 issue of Harper’s, “The Mirage of College Politics,” of astonishing acuity and prescience. It nailed, in eight closely argued pages, every salient feature in the rising student political movement of the time. It noted the movement’s stance of alienated idealism and predicted that “the more aware among our college students will continue to act out their kind of rejection of all power and politics,” which was precisely what happened, a generational refusal that eventually devolved into futile violence and disillusionment.

The writer was someone I’d never heard of: Philip Rieff. My ignorance was widely shared then and continues to be so today. This is a shame, for Rieff, who died last year at age 83, was one of the most powerful American intellects of the past century, a man of staggering erudition who developed a faith-based critique of modernity and postmodernity that we ignore at our peril. His theory of the rise of “psychological man,” or, in his somewhat jargonish coinage, “the therapeutic,” is one of the most durable concepts we have for grasping the inner dynamics of our culture. Moreover, what he called his “tragic sociology” offers one of the most balefully persuasive instances of cultural pessimism in our intellectual life.

Yet Rieff’s relative obscurity is not hard to understand. He spent his entire career in the academy and contributed to general-interest publications only infrequently. He wrote in an often opaque and always toplofty style, with a specialized vocabulary derived from the social sciences. He once claimed that only 17 people in the world could really read him, and he wrote at times as if he were trying to whittle that number down.

An intellectual outlier of the first order and an unapologetic elitist and cultural reactionary, he had nothing but contempt for identity politics, vanguard art and literature, and the technocrats of the multiversity. His stature as a teacher at Penn—where he taught for more than three decades, starting as professor of sociology in 1961 and becoming Benjamin Franklin University Professor of Sociology in 1967 before adding Emeritus to that last title in 1993—was legendary, but it was earned in the seminar room, in classes that have been described as both tyrannical and mind-expanding, and he never founded anything like a “school.” Most damagingly, either his writer’s or his publication block meant that his two major books, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) and The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (1966), arrived early in his career. After that came four decades of relative silence, broken only by the polemic Fellow Teachers (1973) and the essay collection The Feeling Intellect (1990). His presence in our culture has been felt largely as a kind of intellect in exile, a semi-reclusive and eccentric figure invariably garbed in a bespoke English suit and a bowler hat, rarely seen in the agora or the public prints.

Paradoxically, however, death has been good for Philip Rieff’s productivity. Last year brought My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority(University of Virginia Press), volume one of what will be his posthumous three-volume summa, “Sacred Order/Social Order.” This year brings us his long-awaited Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us (Pantheon), which completes another trilogy begun with Freud and The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Rieff’s central, even obsessive subject, faith and its place in our inner and social lives, could not be more urgent in a time of fighting faiths and smug, cocksure atheism.

Philip Rieff was born in Chicago in 1922 of Eastern European Jewish extraction, the son of a butcher. His first ambition was to be a sportswriter, but at the University of Chicago he came under the influence of the sociologist Edward Shils, and after serving in World War II became an instructor there in social theory. It was in a Chicago classroom in 1950 that he met and was instantly smitten with a beautiful 17-year-old student named Susan Sontag. They were married 10 days later. She followed him as half graduate student, half faculty wife, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they had one child, the writer David Rieff. They separated and were divorced in 1959. It is tempting to read the dual tracks of their post-divorce careers as being in some sort of dialectic: Rieff’s fierce defense of high culture and the structures and strictures of faith set against Sontag’s taste for the radical, the transgressive, and the mingling of high and low. Intriguingly, My Life Among the Deathworks is dedicated to her.

Rieff’s masterful first book, Freud, the glorious byproduct of his labors as the general editor of the Freud papers, is one of the most lucid interpretations of a major thinker ever written. There are many Freuds, of course. Rieff’s is a stoic culture hero, a “statesman of the inner life” who arrived at the tail end of the age of belief just in time to provide a somewhat bleak morality to replace the older one grounded in faith and guilt.

“The lot of rational humans is to face up to the comfortless world as it was, is, and will be,” Rieff’s Freud warns. And when “the civil war within the mind” between id/instinct and superego/repression breaks out and overwhelms the frail ego structure with neurosis, it is the task of psychoanalysis not to deliver the patient to some sunny upland of psychological release but, as Freud famously wrote, to transform “your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.”

As “psychological man” is ushered onto the stage in the final chapter of Freud, a note of foreboding enters Rieff’s writing: “In this age, in which technics is invading and conquering the last enemy—man’s inner life, the psyche itself—a suitable new character type has arrived on the scene: the psychological man.” He enumerates three main character types that have preceded him in Western culture: political man, the ideal creature of public life celebrated by the Greeks; religious man, the product of our Judeo-Christian culture of revelation and faith; and economic man, the beau ideal of a liberal Enlightenment culture. In Rieff’s formulation, psychological man emulates his immediate predecessor in “his own careful economy of the inner life,” but in all other ways he is unprecedented, the unintended and unforeseen consequence of the Freudian revolution.

In 1959, Rieff allowed himself the small hope at the end of Freud that psychological man might create an unheroic but viable culture suited to a nation of unillusioned self-examiners properly trained in the Freudian morality of renunciation. By 1966 and the publication of The Triumph of the Therapeutic, though, his worries had exfoliated into a full-blown sense of apocalyptic cultural crisis.

In the seven years between the two books, the mass-cultural adoption of Freudian concepts had spawned a psychological-industrial complex. Rieff viewed this post-Freudian heterodoxy with deep dismay. “Psychological man” was replaced in his vocabulary by “the therapeutic,” a troubling, culturally terminal type who fulfilled the same rhetorical function that “the last man” served for Nietzsche.

In Rieff’s view, the triumph of the therapeutic has enormous implications for the shape of our common culture. Rather than religion or politics, psychology “will probably supply the language of cultural controls by which the new man will organize his social relations and self-conceptions.” Society will be ordered to satisfy, with maximum efficiency, “an infinity of created needs.”

In the years that followed The Triumph of the Therapeutic, the cultural transformation (or was it a nervous breakdown?) that Francis Fukuyama has called “the Great Disruption” gathered force, kicking Rieff and his fellow high-minded ’50s intellectuals to the curb. The alternately disastrous and fascinating Fellow Teachers is an artifact of that onslaught, particularly as it manifested itself in the temples of higher learning. Technocratic college administrators, avant-garde artists, teacher-gurus of the Charles Reich stripe, radicalized Jewish students insufficiently pro-Israel, post-Freudian therapists—all these and more are called to the dock and convicted of trashing the interdictive culture of the past and leading us into a barbarism that may well be totalitarian in character and therapeutically enabled.

The alert reader will find, underneath Fellow Teachers’ perfervid rhetoric, important clues to the formation of the worldview and cultural theories that inform the two new books that will constitute an important part of Rieff’s legacy. Charisma and My Life Among the Deathworksdisplay two aspects of the same urgent Rieffian project: to define the place of faith in human society in general and to assess the effect of its gradual disappearance from our culture in particular. Both books are informed by a sense that the past century has been nothing short of a disaster for the human prospect.

The Greek word charisma, which means “gift” or “divine favor,” was an obscure theological concept until Max Weber adapted it for his own secular purposes to describe a certain quality of individual authority that is uncannily powerful and marks its possessor as a leader. Weber famously described how the unruly power of charisma eventually becomes “routinized” through the institutions and rituals that spring up in the charismatic’s wake, until what remains is a bureaucratic structure emptied of the spirit that first brought it into being. Rieff has a profound quarrel with this notion; he wants to resacralize the concept, put it back in the context of what he calls the faith/guilt order, and show its necessity to the development of true inwardness.

He starts by distinguishing his concept of charisma from what he derides as its degradation into mere publicity—“spray-on charisma.” The familiar villain here is, of course, therapeutic culture, which releases us from the old prohibitions—a spiritually vacant freedom whose void Rieff thinks the “false charismatics” (Jim Jones, Timothy Leary) of our epoch fill in with their own bogus or malign ideologies.

In Charisma Rieff presents himself as a self-anointed prophet of guilt (it comes as no surprise that his famous seminars at Penn were often devoted to semester-long unpackings of a single epistle from the Guilt Guy, Saint Paul). All human culture, he believes, is based on interdiction and instinctual renunciation; the faith/guilt order is prior to the social order, which depends upon it. Put bluntly, society does not bring religion into being; religion brings society into being. He maintains that “in the making of a covenant, guilt is the main mechanism.” Culture, if it is creedal or based on shared beliefs, cannot exist apart from it. The power of the true charismatic personality resides in “the gift of denial from which charisma once derived.” That is why Rieff states that the therapeutic is the “ideal anti-type of the charismatic,” because “he hopes for, as his own lifestyle proclaims, a society in which there is no normative order.”

Charisma also features highly technical discussions of matters socioreligious, especially in regard to Weber and his theories of the inner dynamics of Protestantism. But his chapter “The Psychiatric Study of Jesus” is one of the most moving and cogent explanations of the meaning of Christ that I have ever encountered, a tour de force of what you might call sociological apologetics. It concludes with an equally moving gloss on John Keats’ immortal letter on the world as “the vale of soul-making,” a project Rieff considers synonymous with charisma. When he drops his combative pose and speaks directly out of the depth of his sorrow for all that has been lost to us, he touches the profound.

If Charisma reads at times like a modern intellectual’s liturgy for the feast of Pentecost, My Life Among the Deathworks is a Festivus-like airing of the grievances against 20th-century culture. Rieff proposes a vast sociohistorical scheme against which to view the art and culture of the past century. What he calls the “first world” was that of aboriginal and classical pagan cultures, whose motif was that of an inexorable fate administered by fickle gods. The culture of the “second world” was that of the great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; its governing motif was that of faith in a God active in history. “Third world” culture—our culture—is post-Nietzschean (God is dead) and post-Freudian (self is all), and it constitutes a howling, permissive, relativistic moral wilderness whose characteristic artistic mode is “creative destruction,” resulting in the production of what he calls “deathworks.”

Rieff defines deathwork as “an all-out assault on something vital to the established culture.” He rounds up the usual suspects: Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait with a bullwhip stuck in his anus, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, Marcel Duchamp’s found-art urinal, Fountain. The category signals Rieff’s contempt for the works’ assaultive nihilism. As an art critic Rieff is quite deficient. He has little regard for the artist’s intentions, for the mysterious autonomy and unique historical context of the true work of art, instead conscripting it for his own didactic purposes. Rieff takes his deathworks idea as far as it will carry him when he calls Auschwitz “the exemplary institution of the third culture,” and later calls Duchamp’s notoriously voyeuristic final work, Étant donnés—which features a shockingly naked woman viewed through a peephole—“terrible as a proleptic pleasantry of which the inartistic version is the death camps.” Modern art has been accused of many things, but this is the first time it has been charged with genocide.

After months of going to school on his collected works, I wished I could have a student-teacher conference with Professor Rieff. The contradictions in his own position can be puzzling, bordering on infuriating. How could the work of a sociologist be so pristinely innocent of actual social observation? (To be fair, a piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer by a former student, Tirdad Derakhshani C’92 Gr’04, contains the delicious information that Rieff once screened Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video in class and recited the sardonic lyrics from Lou Reed’s “I Wanna Be Black.”) Why does he let Freud off the hook for creating the conditions for the therapeutic culture he despises? How did he reconcile his fierce defense of faith as the force that gives human life order and meaning with his own apparent faithlessness and a personal life devoid of religious observance? How could he have been without faith himself and yet have such faith in faith?

To pose such questions is to experience the impossible dilemma of the modern intellectual, one Rieff had the good grace, as it were, not to pretend to either solve or transcend. He brilliantly set forth his contention that a culture without a sense of sacred order and limits is really an amoral anti-culture lacking depth and dignity, and then blocked off any retreat into either nostalgia or wishful thinking. I couldn’t entirely agree with his pessimism, but I could not shake it off either. As prickly and cantankerous and sometimes unfortunate as Rieff was, he is also invaluable.

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York. This piece first appeared in longer form in Bookforum.

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