The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 04, 2015

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The End of Criticism
(from IR 42:1, Spring 2007) - 01/01/09

My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority by Philip Rieff. University of Virginia Press, 2006.

Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique, Charles Péguy once observed. Everything begins with religious sensibility and ends with the agitations of political life. Péguy’s affirmation of the primacy of the sacred cuts against the general currents of the modern age. The dominant thinkers of our time have been much more inclined to say that everything begins with economics and ends with politics. Karl Marx may have been characteristically dogmatic when he insisted that economic relations directly determine political loyalties and institutions, but we still tend to accept the idea that economic classes, corporate interests, and the overall economic climate decisively shape politics and society.

On those occasions when we do not tacitly reduce politics to economics, we usually turn in the direction of modern liberal theory for a different sort of reductionism. From Hobbes through Kant and from Mill through Rawls, the basic dynamic remains the same. Essential truths about the human animal, if properly understood and analyzed, will provide us with a genuinely humane, satisfying, and just politics. Everything should and, with enough reformist zeal, will begin with reason and end with politics.

The late Philip Rieff was a thinker not unlike Péguy. For many decades the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, Rieff in his writings was as likely to refer to Dostoyevsky as to Durkheim, to Oscar Wilde as to Max Weber. A gifted writer, Rieff was the master of bold, aphoristic summaries, and his striking characterizations of late modernity as therapeutic and theatrical have become commonplaces on the lips of a legion of postmodernists. He sought to understand himself as part of our strange, late-modern and perhaps postmodern world, and he wrote for an intelligent, well-read public that shared his interest in self-knowledge. In sum, Rieff was, to use a word now increasingly colored by nostalgic longing for a lost time in American academic and literary life, an intellectual.

After two widely acclaimed books early in his career—Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) and The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (1966)—by the 1970s Rieff had largely stopped publish- ing. What little he released was couched in a sometimes playful, sometimes bitter and denunciatory, but always idiosyncratic style designed to defeat easy assimilation into the usual modes of academic discussion and classroom teaching. His earlier facility with the bon mot turned into extended, usually dark and joking literary conceits after the fashion of Kierkegaard. For example, he introduced Fellow Teachers: Of Culture and Its Second Death (1985), an earlier, extended reflection on the perversions of pedagogy in the emerging postmodern culture of academia, as a “postmortem letter to the dead, myself self-addressed among them.” It takes a sense of humor to survive intellectually and spiritually in the halls of our higher ignorance.

Rieff’s recursive, paradoxical, and hyperbolic style is on full display in My Life Among the Deathworks, the first installment of a promised multivolume study of the sacred sources of social order. Rieff wrote, and rewrote, and rewrote this book through his final decades. It is a difficult, complex, and elaborately rhetorical book, and readers unfamiliar with Rieff’s larger project may easily become discouraged. I do not gainsay that reaction, but in this case, I must warn against putting down what puts off. My Life Among the Deathworks is one of those remarkable books that are both indigestible and indispensable. At once confirming and overthrowing the modern project of sociological self-understanding, My Life Among the Deathworks exhibits a mind approaching that most elusive and essential of conservative goals: reflective piety.

In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver observed that certain words enter into public discourse surrounded with a plentitude of authority. They function as “god terms” that organize and sanctify our cultural and political outlooks. By Rieff’s analysis,whether for good or ill, we cannot do without god terms. They are the truths that we serve rather than question, the imperatives we honor with obedience—or with disciplining self-accusations of guilt when we transgress. “Culture,” writes Rieff in a transformation of Clauswitzian wisdom, “is a continuation of war by other—normative— means.” On the fields of battle both social and psychological, god terms command. They draft the young into their service, fashioning personality into a weapon in the great ongoing struggle for world rule.

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