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My Life Among the Deathworks by Philip Rieff

My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority
by Philip Rieff
University of Virginia Press. 234 pp. $34.95

Forty years ago, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, the sociologist Philip Rieff described the predicament of modern culture in terms so comprehensive, spacious, and authoritative that they were swiftly detached from their author to become part of the general understanding of things. Many who do not know Rieff’s name—including even most well-educated people under fifty, I suspect—or those who know it only because of his turbulent early marriage to Susan Sontag will recognize the general line of his argument. It is that, ever since Freud, the psychological understanding of man has displaced every other understanding.

Instead of being guided by an overarching structure of authoritative values, Rieff wrote, and instead of striving for “some communal superior end,” modern culture was rapidly reaching a state in which atomized individuals pursued in isolation their personal sense of well-being. The consequences of this were devastating not only for religion—which modernity had decided it could do without—but for politics of any sort. As Rieff had put it in an earlier study of Freud, “No politics can be very ardent once the psychological man discovers how symptomatically he is acting”—discovers, that is, that public activity for the sake of some ostensibly noble goal is merely a reflection of inner wants that can and should be satisfied by other means.

Like all of Rieff’s work, Triumph was a difficult book, and however quickly its title became a catchphrase, one may doubt that many made their way through it or absorbed the thorough bleakness of its vision. To some young radical academics, indeed, imbued with the spirit of the times, Rieff seemed one of them, his highly nuanced and basically conservative critique of Freud all too adaptable to the late-60’s campaign to “question authority” of every kind. Rieff himself gradually withdrew from public life soon thereafter, publishing nothing since 1973.

Instead, he concentrated on his teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, where both his lecturing and his sartorial style (the latter of which might be described as Savile Row, anno 1925) made him a campus legend. Now, at the age of eighty-two, he has published My Life Among the Deathworks, which is dedicated to Sontag and in which the psychological focus of his earlier works has been widened to take in literary and artistic culture, and much else besides.

This, too, is an exceptionally demanding book, and will likely win Rieff few new friends. Which is a great pity, for it is a specimen of a type of sociology that has fallen from fashion: an attempt to ask the largest possible questions about the meaning of society and its institutions.

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The focus in this new book is on culture as an instrument not of personal expression (as in Triumph) but of social order. For Rieff, every such order, whether it is an aboriginal band of hunter-gatherers or a high technological civilization, is predicated upon a “sacred order”: that is, a universe of meaning from which society derives its authority—internally, so as to give force to its rules and interdictions, and externally, so as to assert its validity against competing universes of meaning. But since a sacred order is something intangible, it can only sustain a social order if it first assumes palpable, visible form. Such forms constitute what we know as culture, an “arrangement or order of words, images, bodies” comprising what Rieff designates, in the subtitle of his book, “the aesthetics of authority.”

But not every work of literature or art upholds the authority of the sacred order; some can also serve to undermine it. For a century or so, the most celebrated ones have been of the latter category. These Rieff refers to as “deathworks,” his term (he is a great coiner of terms) for a work of art that poses “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.”

Not all deathworks are necessarily bad art. They include some of the works that Rieff most admires, such as Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In these the assault on sacred order is veiled and oblique, and couched in exquisite form. But in others the assault is explicit and purposeful, as in some of the coarser images shown by Rieff: Andres Serrano’s notorious urine-immersed crucifix; the Italian artist who canned and labeled his own feces; Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic self-portrait in the act of buggering himself with a bullwhip.

If a social order has no binding authority other than that provided by culture, what to make of a society whose most celebrated cultural objects are deathworks? The outlook, for Rieff, is not good. We are now moving into what he dubs the third in a series of world cultures. The first world, that of primitive and pagan society, was ruled by fate and ordered by taboos; the second, that of the great monotheistic religions, was ruled by faith and ordered by commandments. The third world presents something new under the sun: a social order that rests on no preexisting sacred order, and whose cultural artifacts serve mainly to transgress, debunk, or deconstruct. Here Rieff sees the career of Freud as one long extended deathwork in itself. By promulgating the psychological understanding of man, Freud, in this reading, helped to demolish the sacred order of the second world without creating a new one in its place—indeed, Freud made the creation of any new sacred order nearly impossible.

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Such is the framework of this book, much of which is given over to a whirling procession of “image entries” where Rieff discusses a book or painting in terms of its transgressive relationship to social order. This is not straightforward formal analysis, of the literary or art-historical sort. From a mention of an image of drowning in Peter Weir’s 1977 film The Last Wave, for example, Rieff might jump to Freudian theory, from there to the “pre-Raphaelite” depiction of the drowned Ophelia in Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet, and from there to Primo Levi’s writings on Auschwitz—all in the space of a single paragraph. Well aware of the peculiarity of his approach, Rieff defends it as “Ezra Pound’s ideogrammic method, in which meanings are allowed to arise from juxtapositions.”

At times these juxtapositions can be poignant, or painful. Thus, Rieff pairs a famous photograph of the fall of the Warsaw ghetto, with its tragic image of a boy, dressed in a cap and knickers, raising his hands in surrender, with a photograph of himself at roughly the same age, already a fashionable dandy but bearing a clear resemblance to the boy in Warsaw. This capacity for imaginative identification with images and symbols is Rieff at his best, and it reflects the long process of maturation that underpins this book, many of whose episodes and motifs were clearly first created and then refined in the classroom.

Or, in some cases, over-refined. Here and there Rieff seems to be drawing upon ancient classroom gambits, somewhat cracked and hardened with the years and unchecked lately for accuracy. (He occasionally mangles his German, for instance: the translation of Hamlet’s most famous line is actually Sein oder nicht sein, not, as Rieff gives it, Zu zein oder nicht zu zein.) It is surprising these were not caught, but Rieff’s prodigious learning may have intimidated his editors just as it will surely alienate many a reader.

The compacted density of Rieff’s prose and imagery is something of which he seems proud, insisting that a “thick text is an enduring cultural achievement, like a cathedral.” Yet, to succeed, such a style requires a certain amount of good will from the reader, and a readiness to be carried along by Rieff’s vaulting leaps. For many who embark on the journey even with the best of intentions, those generous impulses will likely evaporate along the way.

Others will disembark for reasons political. It is barely conceivable that a somewhat less provocative version of this book could receive a respectful hearing in establishment circles, but Rieff seems utterly indifferent to praise or favor, and even appears to have gone out of his way to make sure he would not get any. In short order, he attacks the culture of legalized abortion (“an odorless flush-away world indifferent to life”), politicized homosexuality (“a movement of hate and indifference”), and black America (distinguished by “a bizarre and sudden visibility of Jew-hatred”). This disdain for the symbols of progressive piety is so thoroughgoing and explicit that one must conclude Rieff either relishes the confrontation or simply no longer cares. He seems to have determined to state his case in terms as pungent as possible before retreating to the cultural catacombs to await the final advent of the third world culture.

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American sociology has long been divided into a qualitative and a quantitative lobe, of which the quantitative, applying statistical methods and empirical analysis to those questions that can be subjected to numbers and polls, is now largely dominant. But the qualitative lobe is the one that asks the questions that matter. What is the essential shape of society? What holds it together and what makes it fray? What is the place of the individual in the collective?

At present, such questions tend to be asked only by scholars who approach them through the sterile lenses of race, class, and gender. It is highly ironic, a prominent sociologist told me recently, that certain “progressive” young scholars, who have long held Rieff’s academic iconoclasm in high regard, “now pose the greatest threat to any hope of restoring the sociological imagination.” Was it to sever his last bonds of affection with his chosen field that Rieff added the studied provocations that season this quirky, irritating, and frequently profound book? Like its author, My Life Among the Deathworks is a living fossil of a kind of inquiry that has largely vanished.

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About the Author

Michael J. Lewis, a frequent contributor, teaches at Williams College. He is the author most recently of American Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson)




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