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The Saving Remnant

The Feeling Intellect: Selected Writings by Philip Rieff
edited with an introduction by Jonathan B. Imber
(University of Chicago Press, 416 pp., $55, $19.95 paper)

“Why publish?” Philip Rieff asked himself not long ago. “With so many authors, who remains behind to read?” Almost twenty years have passed since Rieff brought out his last book, Fellow Teachers; evidently he meant what he said when he urged authors to file away their best ideas instead of adding to the “babel of criticism” that threatens to deafen us all. If others exercised the same self-restraint, we might have less reason to regret it in Rieff. Since there is little hope that his example will become contagious, however, it is a good thing that Jonathan Imber, a former student and now a teacher of sociological theory at Wellesley College, has given us this anthology of Rieff’s uncollected essays to set against the rising flood of books that continue to clamor for ill-deserved attention. We need this book at a time when we are besieged by lesser books—books announcing breathtaking methodological and conceptual breakthroughs, recycling old ideas in new jargon, rediscovering the obvious, refusing to acknowledge any predecessors or worse, betraying no awareness of their existences.

Readers who have not yet made Rieff’s acquaintance will find in this collection something of what makes him indispensable, and will be led to read not only Fellow Teachers (1973), but also his earlier books, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) and The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966). Those who already admired him will find that their admiration was not misplaced. These essays reveal an intelligence at once biting and unfailingly courteous; generous to adversaries and demanding of allies; solemn and playful; pessimistic and hopeful.

According to Rieff, the collapse of religion, its replacement by the remorselessly analytic and critical sensibility exemplified by Freud, and the degeneration of the “analytic attitude” into an all-out assault on ideals of every kind—an impulse to drag everything lofty into the dust—have left our culture in a sorry state. He does not expect immediate improvement, nor does he advance a program of cultural renovation, but he seldom speaks in the voice of doom and despair. Bad as things are, he thinks it is still possible to make a modest contribution to the cause of truth and justice. It is possible, for instance, to find honorable employment as a teacher, provided that teachers do not give in to the temptation to become “armchair prophets.” The university, notwithstanding its present disarray, is a “sacred institution,” and teachers can set an example for others if they approach their calling in a spirit of reverence.

A certain ambiguity lurks in this exalted conception of the intellectual life. Is it the teacher’s calling itself that is sacred, or the culture historically preserved in the university? Rieff is at his best when he leans to the first of these positions, when he argues that the office of the devoted teacher is not to deify or even defend a “dying culture” but to resist the “downward identification” that threatens any form of culture at all. His advice to teachers, which consists largely of negative commandments, reflects his belief that intellectuals betray their vocation when they give in to the temptation to become gurus or entertainers. Avoid “idea-mongering,” the “marketing of positions.” Refuse to join the ranks of “public men”—intellectual entrepreneurs and celebrities. “Abjure prophecy.”

It is fitting that Rieff addresses his fellow teachers so largely in terms of “what is not to be done.” The heart of any culture, as he sees it, lies in its “interdictions.” Culture is a set of moral demands, of “deeply graven interdicts, etched in superior and trustworthy characters.” This is why Rieff can describe the United States today as a “cultureless society.” It is a society in which nothing is sacred, and nothing, therefore, can be effectively forbidden. An anthropologist might take the position that a cultureless society is a contradiction in terms, but Rieff objects to the way in which social scientists have reduced the concept of culture to a “way of life.” In his view, culture is a way of life backed up by the will to condemn and punish those who defy its commandments. A “way of life” is not enough. A people’s way of life has to be embedded in “sacred order”—that is, in a conception of the universe, ultimately a religious conception, that tells us “what is not to be done.”

Those who regard tolerance as the supreme virtue, and who confuse love with permissiveness, will find these propositions forbidding, if they bother to read Rieff at all. But if they allow themselves to be drawn into his argument, if they suspend their prejudice against unduly “judgmental” procedures and policies—against the very concept of punishment—they will come to see the justice of his deliberately provocative assertion that “repression is truth.” Every culture has to narrow the range of choices in some way, however arbitrary such limitations may seem. To be sure, it also has to see to it that its controls do not reach too far into people’s private lives. Still, if it allows every impulse a public expression—if it boldly declares that “it is forbidden to forbid,” in the revolutionary slogan of 1968—then it not only invites anarchy, but abolishes the “sacred distances” on which the category of truth finally depends. When every expression is equally permissible, nothing is true. “By the creation of opposing...ideals, of militant truths, a seal is fastened upon the terrific capacity of man to express everything.” Such is the burden of Rieff’s argument, his indictment of modern society.

His unfashionably “maximal” definition of culture, advanced in opposition to the minimal definition favored by anthropologists and other sociologists, results in a sweeping condemnation of the American way of life; but it also offers a ray of hope. If Rieff is correct in his contention that culture rests on willingness to forbid, then a “remissive” culture like our own cannot be expected to survive indefinitely. Sooner or later our remissive elites will have to rediscover the principle of limitation.

The modern project, that is, may have run its course. The “idea that men need not submit to any power . . . other than their own” is by no means discredited, but it is losing its capacity to inspire heady visions of progress. In the face of accumulating evidence to the contrary, it is more and more difficult to believe that modern men “are becoming gods.” The therapeutic movement, moreover, has “not yet penetrated deep down” into the class structure. In Fellow Teachers, Rieff cites the persistence of old-fashioned moralities among the “less educated” as “another reason for hope.” The masses’ resistance to the “religion of criticism” enables us to “hope for a renaissance of guilt.”

Optimism about our prospects would be foolish—even more foolish in 1990 than it was in 1973. Modernity may be drawing to an end, as Rieff suggested almost a decade ago, but the postmodern sensibility that claims to replace it is not an improvement. Still, Rieff’s appeal for patience and hope continues to serve as a useful corrective to apocalyptic discouragement. “We can only have faith and wait; and see.”

Over the years, Rieff has written on a remarkable variety of subjects. Imber’s collection shows the range of his interests. In addition to work on Freud and the emergence of “psychological man,” it contains essays on Disraeli, Orwell, Oscar Wilde, Charles Horton Cooley (Rieff’s favorite among American sociologists), the sociologist Kelly Miller, the Oppenheimer case, and many other matters, all treated with intelligence, flair, and often with a good deal of humor. But Rieff’s central preoccupations—the displacement of religion by therapy, the conflict between moral and aesthetic attitudes toward experience, the “hypertrophy of criticism, by which the character disorder of psychologizing intellectuals is best diagnosed”—seldom recede very far from view.

Thus, the point of his essay on Oppenheimer (1969) is that both Oppenheimer and his detractors accepted a therapeutic frame of reference. Instead of debating Oppenheimer’s record on its political merits, they argued about whether his association with Communists exposed psychological flaws that should disqualify him from public service. His essay on Disraeli (1952) argues that Disraeli (like Freud) refused to disclaim his Jewish heritage and thus escaped the “ultimate risk” (as Rieff says elsewhere in connection with Freud) of “cutting himself off from the devout practice of its creed.” Something of the same idea informs his essay on Orwell (1954), another intellectual who lost his religion but managed to keep up the “essential Christian action of brotherliness and compassion.” Modernism continues to live off the capital of the creeds it has rejected, and the most admirable among modernist intellectuals, in Rieff’s view, have always been aware of this dependence—even when, like Freud, they were urging their readers to outgrow it.

Rieff’s point of view has remained quite consistent over the years. Yet both the tone and the substance of his work have undergone a subtle change. In the ‘50s and ‘60s he wrote as a public intellectual, for an audience of general readers who presumably shared a common vocabulary and a common frame of reference. Many of his essays appeared in general magazines like Commentary, Encounter, and Partisan Review. His books were published by houses prominent in the commercial trade. Even when he wrote for scholarly journals, Rieff’s prose exemplified the analytic, critical attitude that he recommended (in spite of his awareness of its disintegrating effect on traditional beliefs) as the only attitude available to intellectuals living in a world “spent of sacred forces.”

His early essays were informed by an ideal of “committed” scholarship, “passionate subjectivity.” He praised Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros, in 1954, as an “exemplary case of committed history, partial and yet thorough in the exhibition of the other side.” He quarreled with Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism but commended the author’s “prophetic intention.” “Better a creative error than the uncreative truth.” He deplored the “German disease” in scholarship, inveighed against footnotes, and found virtue in unobtrusive erudition. In a review in 1952 of John T. McNeill’s History of the Cure of Souls, he wrote that “McNeill has the final, moral virtue of the historian . . . he is not neutral.”

Between The Triumph of the Therapeutic and Fellow Teachers, however, there is a significant shift in Rieff’s tone. In the later work, he warns against “play-acting of the prophetic role” and urges “objectivity.” He no longer writes as a public intellectual or addresses himself to the “general readership” that he was addressing, in his own words, in 1951. He insists that “it is our duty, as teachers, not to be public men.” The public has ceased to exist for Rieff. There is only a literary market, dominated by the traffic in cultural entertainments (which include “criticism” and “prophecy”). Communication even with fellow teachers is beset with misunderstanding.

Fellow Teachers took the form of an open letter to Robert Boyers and Robert Orrill, the editors of Salmagundi, who had invited Rieff to submit to a public interview at Skidmore College. “Is it possible,” Rieff asks, “that my invitation to come to Skidmore...was based upon a happy misunderstanding? Did you imagine that I am a herald of the therapeutic?” He is “neither for nor against” a therapeutic culture, Rieff asserts. He is a “scholar-teacher of sociological theory.” The disclaimer is not very convincing, but it is symptomatic of a change in the intellectual climate that Rieff feels obliged to make it. It is likewise significant that he rejects a public interview, on the grounds that it cannot serve to transmit the kind of “privileged knowledge” teachers pass on to their students. Instead of engaging in public exchange, intellectuals who are serious about their work need to withdraw into their “academic enclaves” and to encourage the “slower understanding” of the classroom. The forum is a place only for theatrics.

For many intellectuals of integrity, the cultural revolution of the late ‘60s, so called, discredited the idea of “committed” public scholarship. The concept of the public became indistinguishable from the phenomenon of publicity. Under these circumstances, Rieff’s decision to write less, to publish with university presses and scholarly journals, and to devote his energies to “strengthening our enclaves” can hardly be condemned. Still, he has paid a certain price for his strategic withdrawal. Not that he has succumbed to the “German disease.” Just the reverse: his writing has become not more academic but more oracular, more “prophetic” the more he warns against the prophetic role.

In his early work, Rieff spoke with force and conviction but always in a direct, candid, unaffected tone of voice. Now he prefers to speak, much of the time, in cryptic aphorisms, paradoxes, and double meanings. He himself refers to his characteristic tone as “guarded.” He writes too many footnotes—not pedantic bibliographical footnotes, to be sure, but long expository asides that seem to betray an unwillingness to engage the reader more directly. His writing has become, by design, less accessible and at the same time more portentous and apocalyptic, even though Rieff is constantly warning himself against these very pitfalls.

Now that the public arena seems to have been irreversibly corrupted by the aggressive marketing of ideas, the decision to think of oneself as a teacher rather than a public intellectual is one that many others besides Rieff have reluctantly made. In Rieff’s case, it seems to be associated with a substantive change in his thought—a new emphasis on the university as a “sacred institution,” in which “privileged knowledge” is stored and “guardedly” transmitted. This view of the life of the mind strikes me as inconsistent with Rieff’s observation that the worst way to defend culture is to deify it.

It is also inconsistent with his contention that modern intellectuals should not aspire to become successors of the clergy. It tends to make a religion out of culture—something Rieff condemned in his earlier work, particularly in the splendid chapter on religion in The Mind of the Moralist. Freud’s attack on religion, Rieff pointed out, rested on a “misunderstanding of religion itself as social.” Like Kant, Freud saw religion as the “solemn air of sanctity” (in Freud’s words) that gave moral duty the status of divine commands and thus perpetuated the “laws of culture.”

But religion is not culture, and the best interpreters of Christianity, as Rieff pointed out, have always distinguished “between faith and the institutions and attitudes by which it is transmitted at any given time.” Thus Kierkegaard “diagnosed the malaise of the nineteenth century” as the “confusion between religion and culture,” Christ and Christendom. Freud, on the other hand, “assumed religion to be conformist,” as if its only function was to guarantee social order. For him “Christianity meant always the church, a repressive social institution”—not the prophetic tradition, which exposed the corruption of the church and accused Christians of identifying God’s purposes with their own. Freud lost sight of the difference between “prophetic denunciation” and “civic submission,” according to Rieff.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud posed the question of whether society could get along without religion in the form of an imaginary dialogue. His interlocutor emphasizes the “practical” value of religion in enforcing morality. He concedes that religion is a “hoax” but defends its necessity “for the protection of culture.” Freud himself believed that men and women could now dispense with religion; but the important point is that he posed the question in this way. It was the wrong question, as Rieff makes clear. The issue is not whether religion is necessary, but whether it is true. Since the publication of Fellow Teachers, however, Rieff has begun to sound more and more like Freud’s interlocutor, defending religion as the necessary source of social order.

It takes nothing away from the dignity of the academic calling to remind ourselves that the university is not a sacred institution, and that God, not culture, is the only appropriate object of unconditional reverence and wonder. Culture may well depend on religion (Freud’s contrary view notwithstanding), but religion has no meaning if it is seen merely as a prop of culture. Unless it rests on a disinterested love of being in general, religious faith serves only to clothe human purposes with a spurious air of sanctity. This is why an honest atheist is always to be preferred to a culture-Christian.

Freud and Weber, Rieff’s masters and models, were admirable in their determination to live without this particular form of consolation—without the illusion that human purposes coincide with those of the Almighty. Precisely the same illusion, however, has always been the principal target of religious prophecy. Indeed, it is their common enmity to the cultural pretensions of pious folk that reveals the kinship between the prophetic tradition and the exemplary tradition of secular intellectuals like Freud and Weber.

Rieff belongs to this tradition too, except when he forgets himself and identifies a sense of the sacred too closely with institutions and the “interdictions” they enforce. We need institutions and interdictions, God knows. But they are not, themselves, sacred. Nothing but confusion, as Luther and Calvin pointed out a long time ago—and as Rieff has reminded us on many occasions—comes from equating faith with submission to the moral laws that mankind makes for its own governance. Submission to the laws is usually a virtue, but it is not the same thing as faith.