My Life Among the Deathworks by Philip Rieff
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.
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)