One summer's day in 1980, I was in the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library time-traveling back to the '60s. My reason for the trip was an anthology I was compiling of nonfiction pieces from and on the decade. My vehicle was the bound volumes of magazines at that branch, which I thumbed through page by page, month by month, year by year, in search of what was even then disappearing time. It was while doing so that I stumbled across a piece in a special supplement in the October 1961 issue of Harper's on "The College Scene" that was so astonishingly acute and prescient that I've never forgotten it. Titled "The Mirage of College Politics" and written by a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, it nailed, in a mere eight closely argued pages, everything that was unusual, attractive, jejune, and potentially disastrous in the nascent student politics that would very shortly convulse American higher education and the entire nation. American students, it explained, had historically been a privileged, sheltered, resolutely apolitical group, unlike their European counterparts. It granted that this rising new generation was indeed more politically aware and active than its '50s predecessor but found its politics still somewhat apolitical—which is to say, anti-intellectual where it might be analytic, more intent on opposition than achievement, more concerned with demonstrating authenticity and moral superiority than with the exercise of actual power. The writer did not mock the students' stance of alienated idealism but found that, "lacking direction from any group above, most of our own political youth remain stranded. They can only devise attitudes of protest against the possibility of dying without a cause they deeply believe in and without leaders they can love." (This was in 1961, remember, four years before Bob Dylan was to sing, "I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.") Indeed, the decade to come stunningly bore out the writer's prediction that "the more aware among our college students will continue to act out their kind of rejection of all power and politics," a generational refusal that would eventually devolve into futile violence and disillusionment.
Well. The writer was someone I had barely heard of: Philip Rieff. I wondered: Who was this professor, and how had he known, so early and so accurately, how the agon of my college generation was going to play out?
My ignorance was widely shared then and continues to be so today. When I told people that I was working on a piece about Philip Rieff, either I would receive blank looks or he would be mistaken for Philip Rahv. This is a shame, for Rieff, who died this past year at age eighty-three, was indisputably one of the most powerful American intellects of the past century, a man of almost staggering erudition who developed a faith-based critique of modernity and postmodernity that we ignore at the peril—let me say it—of our souls. 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 since The Education of Henry Adams, whose author shared Rieff's yearning for a world lit by the fires of faith.
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 and with a specialized vocabulary derived from the social sciences, his sentences gravid with learning and self-importance. He once claimed that only seventeen 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 was legendary, but it was earned in the seminar room, in classes that have been described both as tyrannical and as 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 Fellow Teachers (1973) and The Feeling Intellect (1990). His presence in our culture has been felt largely as a kind of intellect in exile, a semireclusive 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, and he is in the midst of something like a gathering "moment." Last year brought volume 1 of what will be his posthumous three-volume summa, "Sacred Order/Social Order," My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority. This month brings us his long-awaited—very long-awaited—Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us, his reconsideration of one of the key concepts in the sociology of religion and the completion of a trilogy begun with Freud and The Triumph of the Therapeutic. (The reader should know that I work for the corporation, Random House, whose Pantheon imprint is publishing the book.) The vagaries of publication dates aside, 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. The moment is right, in short, to take his measure and weigh what it is he has to tell us.
Philip Rieff was born in Chicago in 1922 of Eastern European Jewish extraction, the son of a butcher whose given name, Gabriel, was changed to Joseph at Ellis Island, a symbolic shift that Rieff made much of. His grandfather Kivas Rieff survived a Nazi slave-labor camp and after the war immigrated to Chicago. His first ambition was to be a sportswriter (Cubs and Bears fans have been spared much), 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 his beautiful student the seventeen-year-old Susan Sontag. Autres temps, autres moeurs, they were married ten days later. In the annals of miserable American literary marriages, only the misalliance of Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy can match this one for marriage-of-true-minds interest and, perhaps, reciprocal influence. She followed him as half graduate student, half faculty wife, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they had one child, the writer David Rieff. But they separated and were divorced in 1959, and the tenor of the marriage may be judged by Sontag's comment, years later, that after reading Middlemarch at age eighteen she "realized not only that I was Dorothea but that, a few months earlier, I had married Mr. Casaubon"—George Eliot's soul-deadening pedant. Lethal kiss-off lines aside, it is tempting to read the dual tracks of their postdivorce 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. In the other direction, Rieff's disapprobation of the "deathworks" of twentieth-century culture finds an echo in Sontag's demolishment of Leni Riefenstahl in her essay "Fascinating Fascism" and her late-blooming puritanism of the image displayed in On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others. Intriguingly, My Life Among the Deathworks is dedicated to, of all people, Susan Sontag. Whether this was meant sincerely or ironically we cannot tell, but if you know that Rieff expunged his acknowledgment of her help from all postdivorce printings of Freud, it does take on the aspect of a gesture of reconciliation.
Don't they know we're bringing them the plague? —Sigmund Freud, on the boat to America
To immerse oneself in Rieff and read him front to back is to perceive what his irregular publication history has obscured: that his preoccupations have been remarkably enduring and the development of his thinking logical and consistent. The fons et origo of Rieffian thought, the key to all his mythologies, is his masterful first book, Freud, the glorious byproduct of Rieff's labors as the general editor of the Freud papers and one of the most lucid interpretations of a major thinker ever written. These days, the grand Freudian edifice is looking more like an abandoned castle. But to read Freud today is to renew one's grasp of Auden's valediction "he is no more a person / Now but a whole climate of opinion, / Under whom we conduct our differing lives."
There are many Freuds, of course. Norman O. Brown (one of Rieff's bêtes noires), Wilhelm Reich, and the Freudian Marxists saw him as the unwitting prophet of instinctual liberation and the victory of the pleasure principle. Rieff's Freud, in contrast, 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. If Freud is a moralist, as Rieff asserts, "he is not only the first completely irreligious moralist, he is a moralist without even a moralizing message." Psychoanalysis, "the most disenchanting of sciences," did to our Enlightenment-spawned confidence in reason what Copernicus did to our place in the universe. "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."
It is one of the great ironies of cultural history that the deviser of such an unconsoling philosophy should have found his most enduring and widespread influence in a country that enshrines the pursuit of happiness in its founding document. It is well known that Freud was appalled by the America that he visited in 1909. Did he foresee how this bustling, vulgar, incorrigibly optimistic country would adapt and distort his invention for its own profoundly un-Viennese purposes? Whatever the case, it is here that the idea of psychotherapy took kudzulike root. In 1959, Rieff applauded the Freudian takeover, purring that "Freud's ascendancy among the American educated classes indicates further that our culture still has some use for its critics." (Intellectuals of the '50s loved to hold up the American acceptance of the Freudian gospel as a metric of cultural maturity.) He would not hold this approving note for long.
Most of Freud is devoted to a brilliant tour through "the labyrinth of implication Freud left behind" in matters of character, identity, sexuality, religion, ethics, power, and elsewhere. The tone is sure and straightforward, the scope of reference and allusion breathtaking, the prose crisply efficient—very much a product of high-'50s intellectuality. Rieff is, in fact, a characteristic figure of the '50s—a decade when social scientists, in their self-appointed task of understanding mass culture and society, rolled new social types off the presses the way GM rolled V-8s off the assembly line. But in ushering "psychological man" onto the stage in the final chapter of Freud, a note of foreboding enters Rieff's writing—concerned, a bit censorious, almost prophetic.
Here is how Rieff introduces his new antihero: "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." Ta-da. He goes on to enumerate the 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" ("The analyst may be seen as an investment broker of the emotions," he observes elsewhere), but in all other ways he is unprecedented, the unintended and unforeseen consequence of the Freudian revolution.
Psychological man carves deep furrows in Rieff's worried brow. His anxious gaze is ever directed inward toward the self, which tends to "produce [more] pedants of the inner life than virtuosi of the outer one." In the psychoanalytically saturated culture that Freud bequeathed ("the emergent democracy of the sick"), "the hospital is succeeding the church and the parliament as the archetypal institution of Western culture." 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. Universities went on war-production footing to mint legions of new technicians of the secular, armies of mental-health professionals enlisting in the battle for a sounder American psyche. Psychology was the default major of the decade; dorm rooms were stocked with the works of Carl Jung, Rollo May, Erik Erikson, Carl Rogers, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, et al. and adorned with posters featuring vapid apothegms by Fritz Perls. Inner was the new outer. 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.
The therapeutic is a seething bundle of needs waiting to be satisfied: "Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago, when 'I believe,' the cry of the ascetic, lost precedence to ëone feels,' the caveat of the therapeutic." And as this new secular religion of the self, ministered to by a priestly caste of therapists, gathers force, it takes on the aspect of historical inevitability: "Nothing much can oppose it really, and it welcomes all criticism, for, in a sense, it stands for nothing."
In Rieff's view, the triumph of the therapeutic has the largest possible 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." "What happens if an entire society grows rich, technologically loaded with bribes, and is dominated by preoccupations that may be best defined as anti-creedal?" Rieff then asks. One of the best and most influential answers to this important question was provided by the social historian Christopher Lasch in his unexpected 1979 best seller, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, which explicitly credits Rieff's work as inspiration. Thirteen years on in the inexorable march of therapy-think, this artifact of the psychic and economic implosion of the Carter years (double-digit inflation, disco music, coke spoons, lowered thermostats, and cardigan sweaters) takes a distinctly Rieffian approach toward the crisis of confidence—famously, a "malaise," the term Jimmy Carter picked up on to his everlasting political regret. Lasch argued that the culture of therapy had culminated in "The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time," a Me Decade of banal self-awareness and retreat from the public sphere.
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 Philipic (sic) Fellow Teachers is an artifact of that onslaught, particularly as it manifested itself in the temples of higher learning. It is gaseous, turgid, hermetic, rhetorically confusing, self-referential, self-aggrandizing—the product of a fine-tuned mind at the end of its tether. Rieff comes across as one of those intellectuals in extremis that Saul Bellow specialized in, an Artur Sammler suffering through the end of civilization as manifested on Morningside Heights. ("No primitive was rude. Our college-trained primitives have been charmed by the idea that rudeness of manner, speech and thought is criticism personified." Und so weiter.) Stylistic touches are occasionally added courtesy of Vladimir Nabokov in his cracked-scholar mode: "My own mother rarely fell into calling me 'Phil,' but in America perfect strangers often do so before the first Scotch or in chummely-whummely business letters." 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: "If totalitarianism does come to America, then it will come sponsored by your friendly Research and Human Development Corporation."
One is irresistibly reminded of another Nutty Professor (and, as Abe Ravelstein, Bellow creation), Allan Bloom, author of one of the most devastating intellectual counterpunches in our recent history, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Fellow Teachers was written in the heat of its moment and is an authentic specimen of the anguished intellection of the period. Bloom's book is far more measured and calculating, the result of a grudge stemming from the upheaval on the Cornell campus in 1969 and carefully nursed for eighteen years before being unleashed. (I was a freshman in Ithaca that year—Bloom had much to be upset about.) What Bloom and Rieff shared—besides a taste for expensive tailoring (what was that about?)—were their profound, sincere, and to me moving lamentations of the decay of the old-school culture of higher learning into the new-school cafeteria-style knowledge factories catering to what they described as a self-consciously multicultural student population and a corporate culture hungry for trained symbolic manipulators.
Noxious as it is at times, I much prefer Fellow Teachers to Bloom's self-satisfied work. Where Bloom's distress seems too chat-show ready, not to mention more ideologically useful, Rieff's distress is authentic, and he never stoops to the egomania that led Bloom to proclaim himself an academic rock star. (Amusingly, in her notebooks, the first Mrs. Rieff relates attending a Parisian cocktail party in 1958 "in the disgusting company of Allan Bloom"!) The alert reader will find, underneath Fellow Teachers's 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 Deathworks display 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 attenuation in and 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. They are both written in the familiar style of the Higher Morose and traffic in defiant despair: "This book I may offer as a life-act, a rattling of dry bones in what is probably a losing war against the radical contemporaneity of our culture; that contemporaneity is the mark of a true barbarian" is how he characterizes Charisma.
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 in our time 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.
Rieff's sense of charisma is inseparable from the concept of prophecy, and in his book he comes on 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: "The social contract is not a charismatic symbolic." Put more 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." And that is why Rieff can divide his political map between the party of inwardness and discipline and that of outwardness and instinctual freedom and make the inflammatory contention that "then we shall find fashionable liberals"—i.e., those who are loath to make any moral judgments—"and fascists on the same side, where they really belong."
Charisma goes on to, at times, 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, a cradle Catholic well versed in the faith/guilt order as administered by a cadre of unyielding nuns and teaching brothers, have ever encountered, a tour de force of what you might call sociological apologetics. It concludes with an equally moving gloss on John Keats's 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 twentieth-century culture. It remains to be seen whether the next two volumes in the Sacred Order/Social Order trilogy will complete some grand edifice in the project of "tragic sociology" or constitute a noble heap of fragments shored up against ruins. On the evidence of volume 1, it might go either way. The book is often willfully abstruse and offensive, featuring a self-generated analytic vocabulary, a fondness for heavy-handed puns and obiter dicta, and a style of composition in the mode of Nietzschean assertion that eschews mere exposition. (In this, it resembles the late work of Norman O. Brown, a comparison that would have driven Rieff nuts.) It is also very angry, though the almost inchoate rage of Fellow Teachers has been dialed down a bit and rechanneled into a fiercely focused polemic.
Rieff proposes a sociohistorical scheme of vast scope 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. Both cultures were hierarchical (Rieff's awkward term for this is "the vertical in authority"), and their social orders were expressed as systems of moral demands firmly based in their sacred orders. "Third world" culture—our culture—is post-Nietzschean (God is dead) and post-Freudian (self is all), and it constitutes, in Rieff's view, 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 does not fail to round 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. In such cases, the category signals Rieff's contempt for the works' assaultive nihilism. In other instances, he assigns to it works he clearly admires: James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Wallace Stevens's "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," even Michelangelo's Rondanini Pietà and Vermeer's Girl Interrupted at Her Music, each being found in some way to flout or violate the sacred interdictions of second-world culture. Rieff has little regard for the artist's intentions, for the particular set of conditions he or she confronted, for the mysterious autonomy and unique historical context (or, for that matter, the implicated sociopolitical situation) of the true work of art, instead conscripting works for his own didactic purposes. He is also impervious to humor, a distinct disadvantage in writing on Joyce and Stevens.
Rieff takes his deathworks idea as far as it will carry him when he calls Auschwitz "the exemplary institution of the third culture," and he 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, from obscurity to being something a child can do, but this is the first time it has been charged with genocide.
After these months of going to school on his collected works, I wished I could sit down with Professor Rieff and have a long student-teacher conference, for I had many questions to ask him and some bones to pick. The contradictions in his own position can be puzzling, bordering on infuriating. How could he have spent all those decades in the sociology department when his work is pristinely innocent of actual social observation? Why did he allow several ugly instances of homophobia to mar his work? Was he himself ever psychoanalyzed, and if so, how did that work for him? Why, with only a couple of minor exceptions, does he let Freud off the hook for creating the conditions for the therapeutic culture he despises? How did he reconcile his fierce and eloquent 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? So nu? I wanted to have a man-to-man talk about this. I once had faith, but my immersion in the modern secular and scientific culture had its usual effect, and now it's as lost as my altar boy's cassock and surplice. The more I found myself convinced by Rieff's polemics on behalf of the sacred order, the more impossible the dilemma of the modern intellectual appeared. I yearned for whatever it was that Flannery O'Connor had: At a dinner party where Mary McCarthy was cooing about the "beautiful symbolism" of the Eucharist, O'Connor famously retorted, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." Where does that conviction come from?
And then, in a most unexpected way, I found myself captured by charisma—the real, Pentecostal thing. On one Sunday evening, I traveled to the United House of Prayer for All People in Harlem to attend a memorial service for a beloved coworker. A potent combination of revival meeting, jazz funeral, and gospel shout, it offered some of the most heartfelt and moving personal testimony and passionately virtuoso singing I have ever experienced, along with an overwhelming sense of sacred community. Out of range of any possible empirical carping, the Spirit had landed and Jesus was in the house. The shared belief of the congregation and the palpable love for our colleague made it so, and even an unbeliever like me was swept away by this gift of grace. Take that, Richard Dawkins.
I wish I could talk to Philip Rieff about it.
Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York City.