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Volume 45, Number 2 (Spring 2007)

Philip Rieff, Modern Prophet

book cover imageThe Triumph of the Therapeutic by Philip Rieff. ISI Books (Wilmington, Delaware) 325 pp., $18.00 paper, 2006.

James G. Poulos

“For the last time psychology!” Kafka urged, already amid a Western civilization doomed to repeat the mistakes of psychological man. Once it was believed that to learn from history was to engage in a saving act; since Freud, we learned that our histories, public and private, were instead archeologies of errors. Deep within us, taught Freud, a permanent tension between unconscious desire and conscious culture made neurosis the narrative of life. Not until Philip Rieff published The Triumph of the Therapeutic, at the height of the 1960s, was the Freudian legacy in America held to account, and damningly so. Now, in fitting tribute, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has reissued Rieff’s seminal work. The fresh edition comes complete with new essays by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and Stephen Gardner, with a closing word by Jeremy Beer.

The reprint, inaugurating ISI’s “Backgrounds” series, is well worth the forty-year wait. The bracketing authors join a yearlong rediscovery of America’s most obscure critical genius, making for a remarkable new resurgence of interest in Rieff’s intellectual legacy. It comes at precisely the proper time. Rieff’s small oeuvre—four books and a collection of shorter pieces—will nearly double in size over the next two years with the publication this year of two new works and a third in 2008. With several decades of almost complete silence behind him, in ill health, Rieff told me last May he had felt it was time to publish again. As a result of that decision, he shall be perhaps the most prolific posthumously published thinker of modern times.

And this, too, comes just at the right moment. Rieff’s central preoccupation—the collapse of the social order maintained by Western culture—is the crisis of our time, and a community of resurgence versed in his insight may yet save us from the interminable vulgar banality of what our psycho- therapeutic civilization has become.

Among this growing community one finds two types of feeling thinkers: religious and academic. Presently the church and the ivory tower continue a rot from within and from the top that no longer surprises many traditionalists but disgusts and discourages them all. But some theologians and sociologists, aware that culture retains the power to speak with authority toward an adherence to moral order, work to reconquer the terrain that has been lost to the relativist nihilism of the age. 

These faithful have anticipated ISI’s re-release of Triumph. Theology and sociology, inherently (in their historicity) conservative disciplines, overlap where conservatism faces a fundamental question of how to best live in the present world. In a society where genuine community seems withered and perverted, and where the wisdom and habit of the traditional culture is often repudiated by popular publicity, is the moral dissident to fight or flee? Put more specifically, is it our duty to struggle to engage a culture that has soured to our taste, or are we better off abandoning, in Rieff’s term, the anti-culture that surrounds us?

Jonathan Imber, Professor of Sociology at Wellesley, is known as one of Rieff’s preeminent students. He recognizes the profound ambivalence of cultural change that faces theologists and sociologists alike—indeed, that faces all of us. As Rieff has written, Imber remarks, forward-looking sociologists like Saint-Simon and Comte conceived of and “even named” the “new ruling elite” of the future utopia as “sociologist-priests.” The dilemma, he continues, lies “where sociology seems to have settled . . . between a rhetoric of advocacy and an analytical acumen of minds like Rieff’s.” According to Rieff himself it was Freud who made of the analytical attitude a model for the repudiation of cultural control. But what thinker is not an analytical, and which one of us trying to decide how to live in the world can do so without thinking it through? The dilemma reaches to our heart.

Imber insists nonetheless that “theology and sociology are not simply a matter of some elaborate division of labor. A sociology without a theory of culture is just an arm of the bureaucratic state.” For Imber, the despairing interpretation of Rieff as a prophet of despair is “nonsense.” He suggests that “some of the most recent observations about Rieff and the view of our present culture, by such notables as Richard John Neuhaus,” are too quick to lose faith in “the culture of faith” itself.

“Despair,” says Imber, “is the nonsense of the intellectuals. Hope, when it is not silly, is much more difficult to keep a grip on.” Imber explains that he knows firsthand how Rieff “endured tremendous bouts of despair,” but points to “his affection for students, his insistence on guiding them, his interest in them—all this is about what we Jews call ‘dor v’dor’ from generation to generation. That is all about hope. He knew that best of all, and I expect [. . .] some will recognize the stakes of renewal in all of it.”

One who also has recognized Rieff’s renewing spirit is Ken Myers, executive producer of Mars Hill Audio and former editor of This World, where he worked with Neuhaus in the runup to First Things. A veteran of National Public Radio as Arts and Humanities editor, Myers seeks through Mars Hill Audio to “assist Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of modern culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement.” This is to be no flight from culture into tight corners of false community. Though Rieff wrote in Triumph that the “most congenial climate for the training of the therapeutic has been in a waning ascetic culture like that of Protestant America,” Myers believes that the dilemma of engaging the culture without being lost in it (and to it) can be fought and eventually won. For the culture is teeming with what Rieff calls “negative communities”—at the expense of positive ones.

Positive communities, explains Rieff, “are characterized by their guarantee of some kind of salvation of self,” with salvation meaning “an experience which transforms all personal relations by subordinating them to agreed communal purposes.” Negative communities, by contrast, “almost automatically by a self-sustaining technology, do not offer a type of collective salvation;” instead they inform and permit always-changing lifestyles. Allegiances that seem like communities are fleeting, grounded only in whim, no more or less enduring than the desires that call them into being. The analytic attitude of Freud, Rieff writes, “developed precisely in response to the need of the Western individual, in the Tocquevillean definition, for a therapy that would not depend [on] a positive community; at its best, analytic therapy creates negative communities.”

“Freud,” he concludes, “taught lessons which Americans, prepared by their own national experience, learn easily: survive, resign yourself to living within your moral means, suffer no gratuitous failures in a futile search for ethical heights that no longer exist—if they ever did.” That quintessential American questing for new community, forged from individual striving, provided an all-too-fertile soil for the growth of negative communities.

Having worked toward an answer for years, Myers wishes he’d had the benefit in seminary of assigned passages from Triumph. Rieff’s “idea of an anti-culture,” says Myers, “his observation that cultural institutions have been mechanisms of restraint and are now mechanisms of release,” are key to understanding “the consequences of modernity”—how deeply people have “absorbed many of the root causes” of our cultural disorders “without even being aware of it.” Repentance, Myers asserts, is deeply countercultural. The greatest challenge is to get people to move, in the reconciliation of the soul, to an idea of the culture that surrounds them as a legacy of implied obligations rather than a series of fashion statements fashioned into commodities.

There is enough in Triumph alone, much more in Rieff’s whole corpus, to educate a generation on the transformation of culture into an anticreed of acted-out fashions. But Rieff is a notoriously thick writer; he has been called gloomy in the mainstream press, and Richard Brookhiser compared reading his latest, My Life among the Deathworks, to chewing ball bearings. Density is the price of gravity when it comes to social thought, however, and nary a philosopher worth his readers’ while has emerged pristine from decades of interpretation upon misinterpretation. The very real danger exists that Rieff, for reasons of style as well as content, will be appropriated for ends that miss the mark of his own dead aim. Myers is most pessimistic about Rieff’s wisdom being carried over into a common conception of culture “as a kind of inert stage set, where what really matters is the script or the quality of the actors.” In fact, he insists, “cultures are like ecosystems”—and it is impossible to put Rieff’s insight to use without grasping his central insight about what culture is.

Fortunately Rieff is clear as crystal on this point. “To speak of a moral culture,” he writes in one of the many aphorisms present in Triumph, “would be redundant.” Culture is a received inheritance of moral precepts, reflected in the doings and not-doings that make up a social order. In the present anti-culture, however, the doings hold all the trumps, and all the sources of restraint—guilt foremost among them—are junked as oppressions.

This is by any standard a perversion and exaggeration of Freud. Rieff explained Freud’s analytical attitude as “a doctrine developed for the private wants of private men,” that “shifts with the individual.” In Freud’s day and for some time after, an “anti-doctrine” was enough to help individuals hedge privately against the demands of a culture that could no longer convince. But it seemed only a matter of time before the final demand of privacy collapsed along with all the others, and the right to publicity tore therapy out of the hands of Freud and threw it to the swine of the perpetual group grope. Welcome to postmodernity, where the schizoid plurality of private identity and the desire of the all-you-can-eat buffet line is vomited back out into the public square, that in the modern era first invaded the private mind and soul with its mediated exhortations and sales pitches which played increasingly to the base instincts themselves.

We are left with the irreducible question of how to live. Myers understands, in his words, that Rieff “wasn’t advocating any remedial program.” But he remains certain that “damage control” is “a good Christian vocation.” Imber’s sociological approach sees the problem this way: “in late Western culture, it is the elites who play with fire. [Rieff] always said that we teachers were obliged to address the fires, but not be burned by them. And this may lead to a way of understanding theology/sociology.”

Much of this spirit—the fused declaration of living that comes from Rieff’s theological and sociological inheritors—is present in ISI’s edition of Triumph. Stephen Gardner, for example, takes Rieff’s analysis of Freud a step further. Gardner declares that romanticism, “the ‘natural religion’ of democratic culture,” was afforded by Freud “one of its most sophisticated intellectual justifications and forms. The fundamental exigency of democratic culture is the claim to originality, individuality, or genius. In a world of equality, everyone must distinguish himself in order to count. [. . .] Freud’s somatic theory of unconscious libido serves the romanticism of democratic culture in two ways: first, it ascribes this originality or individuality to virtually everyone, in the unconscious ‘poetry’ of their desires; and second [. . .] it underwrites Freud’s own claim to genius.”

Though compelling, Gardner’s analysis reveals how a reading of Rieff can risk subtly shifting away from the original insights. Rieff emphasizes in his first and most academic book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, that “Freud transformed what the Romantics had held as the vice of reason—its power to blight spontaneity—into a therapeutic virtue.” Rather than baptizing the license of the Romantics, “Freud agrees [only] this far: made conscious, the unconscious wish is irremediably tamed. Simply by the act of being brought to consciousness, Freud presumes, the spontaneity of desire will be weakened.”

We now live in the age of spontaneous desires, strong as ever, stoked and stroked by an emotional and identity commodities market. Rieff’s exposition of the intended triumph of the therapeutic charts a course that never happened: “With the decline of a civilization of authority, the therapeutic requirement shifted toward an action which would take place, first, within the circle of personal relations; after this first level of private reeducation had been successfully negotiated, the public life could then be altered. A new kind of community could be constructed, one that did not generate conscience and internal control but desire and the safe play of impulse.” Too immature from the get go, too weak for Freud’s ascetic medicine, the children of the West found themselves unable to do therapy successfully in private. Personal relations, by the 1970s and 1980s, became publicized on a massive scale; public re-education happened before private re-education cohered, and the resultant crisis in the cultural condition of the public life became a central question of social order. Culture—morals—became political.

And in the headlong retreat of judgment that has been, once again, forced upon standards of private behavior by public policy, “quantity has become quality. The answer to all questions of ‘what for?’,” Rieff declares in Triumph, “is ‘more.’ . . . Western culture is changing already into a symbol system unprecedented in its plasticity and absorptive capacity. Nothing much can oppose it really, and it welcomes all contradiction, for, in a sense, it stands for nothing.”

Near the end of Triumph, Rieff attempts to “summarize the nature of those changes which have all but destroyed our inherited culture without having produced another to take its place.” Only a handful of pages in, he warns the reader of his object with a sentence that causes the heart of an individual cut off from real community against his own wishes to leap: “These preliminary studies in the psychohistorical process are not aimed primarily at fellow theorists interested in the problem, but at those troubled readers in whose minds and hearts one culture is dying while no other gains enough power to be born.”

That mission—to rediscover, together, the lessons taught by disgust as well as desire, and hope beyond despair—is the calling of our time. For feeling intellects of Myers’ and Imber’s ilk, theologians and sociologists alike, the return to Rieff’s vital legacy ushered onward by ISI’s new edition of Triumph is more than welcome. For any American still searching, as Americans have, for answers that can bear the weight of the questions at the heart of how to live, the reappearance of Philip Rieff’s beacon of understanding is like the beam of a lighthouse coming into view on dark and choppy seas. Our going forward toward that light, and all true lights, is, in fact, a going back—a reconquest of culture and community for the wisdom of life to which, in its resolute hope, some innocence may return again.

James G. Poulos is an essayist and doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown. His blog is Postmodern Conservative.

Posted: September 8, 2007

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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