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Book Review: Sociologist Philip Rieff haunts us from the grave

By June 13, 2015January 13th, 2016No Comments


(This review originally appeared in J Weekly)

“Authority cannot die.” This is the message Jewish intellectual titan Philip Rieff leaves from beyond the grave.

It is a culminating insight for the pioneering sociologist, who died in 2006. His last books, the “Sacred Order/Social Order” trilogy, were published posthumously, and the final volume was released in April.

From the 1950s to the ’70s, Rieff was the premier interpreter of Sigmund Freud and cultural change in a time defined by psychology and cultural change. He coined the term “therapeutic culture” to describe our society, and posited that we were losing the ability to believe in anything — even when we wanted to.

He believed once identity becomes therapeutic — a role that you play when it feels good and put down when it feels bad — discipline becomes just another psychological tic for therapy to cure. Authority vanishes, from morality to truth to God — Jewish or otherwise.

Rieff, whose teaching career included stops at U.C. Berkeley and Brandeis University, quit publishing new works in the ’70s. As America’s preoccupations changed, he became an increasingly anachronistic figure, eventually remembered only as Susan Sontag’s first husband. But he kept taking notes, and what he noted surprised him.

We tore down religion but began venerating art as something transcendent. We tore down morality, but asked sociology to tell us how to live. We went from faith in an infinite God through whom anything is possible to faith in an infinite technology through which anything is possible, looking to it for existential answers the way our ancestors prayed to idols for a good harvest.

We replaced everything that once limited our behavior with something toothless, but still we begged it to tell us what to do.

We can, Rieff concluded, destroy ourselves in our fight against authority — but we will never destroy authority. People cannot live by therapy alone. They can only die by it.

These conclusions, along with mountains of supporting evidence and critical thought, are presented in the “Sacred Order/Social Order” trilogy.

The first book is titled “My Life Among the Deathworks.” A “deathwork” — one of the radically new concepts for understanding culture that Rieff unveils — is a product of a culture’s highest values that undermines and destroys the values it came from. Psychology is a poignant example: After emerging from a formal Western culture, it declared that everything formal was neurotic.

Can a culture survive its deathworks? Rieff addresses that in the second book, “The Crisis of the Officer Class,” in which he posits that the therapeutic rot in Western culture comes from the top down, not the bottom up. The masses don’t appreciate culture and tradition, discipline and depth, because the “officer class” — the traditional guardians of society — stopped valuing them.

The “sacred order” (what we believe), Rieff tells us, is the “social order” (what we do). No one will listen to sermons about the need to be less decadent until the cultural elites forgo decadence in their daily lives.

The third book, “The Jew of Culture,” is a collection of essays about the Jewish condition in the modern world — with an introduction by Arnold Eisen, a former Stanford professor and currently the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rieff saw the efforts of modern Jews to reconcile themselves with an ancient authoritarian covenant to be emblematic of the struggle all Western culture faces.

Rieff’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, was Jewish without caveats, something Rieff knew he could never be. Therein lies the dilemma. We can never go back to our old identities. We’ve taken them on and off too many times. If we are to survive, we must create new identities — and new authorities for them to submit to. We cannot pretend our therapeutic culture never happened. We must find something worth renouncing therapy for.

As a younger writer, Rieff was brilliant and accessible. In his final years he was only brilliant. These books are monsters, intellectual jigsaw puzzles filled with difficult language, in no way reducible to bullet points.

In his 1973 work, “Fellow Teachers,” Rieff argued forcefully that people who have ideas handed to them never really understand what they mean. He aggressively practiced what he preached in his final works. Rieff left us much to grapple with, and on many absurdly difficult pages the reader can’t help but lose.

Still, the “Sacred Order/Social Order” books are easily the most insightful works written on social change in our time. They are the kind of books whose lessons will keep haunting us until we learn them. Authority, after all, can’t die.

“My Life Among the Deathworks,” by Philip Rieff (288 pages, University of Virginia Press, $34.95)

“The Crisis of the Officer Class,” by Philip Rieff (224 pages, University of Virginia Press, $34.95)

“The Jew of Culture,” by Philip Rieff (224 pages, University of Virginia Press, $34.95)