Maybe a hopeful title, yeah, but this one by Gerald Howard is a loooooooooong and well-done introduction to P.R., by way of next month's forthcoming Charisma (Pantheon), at Bookforum. It also sports the best picture of Rieff I've seen in a while. Alas it ends on this note:
After these months of going to school on his collected works, I wished I could sit down with Professor Rieff and have a long student-teacher conference, for I had many questions to ask him and some bones to pick. The contradictions in his own position can be puzzling, bordering on infuriating. How could he have spent all those decades in the sociology department when his work is pristinely innocent of actual social observation? Why did he allow several ugly instances of homophobia to mar his work? Was he himself ever psychoanalyzed, and if so, how did that work for him? Why, with only a couple of minor exceptions, does he let Freud off the hook for creating the conditions for the therapeutic culture he despises? How did he reconcile his fierce and eloquent defense of faith as the force that gives human life order and meaning with his own apparent faithlessness and a personal life devoid of religious observance? How could he have been without faith himself and yet have such faith in faith? So nu? I wanted to have a man-to-man talk about this. I once had faith, but my immersion in the modern secular and scientific culture had its usual effect, and now it's as lost as my altar boy's cassock and surplice. The more I found myself convinced by Rieff's polemics on behalf of the sacred order, the more impossible the dilemma of the modern intellectual appeared. I yearned for whatever it was that Flannery O'Connor had: At a dinner party where Mary McCarthy was cooing about the "beautiful symbolism" of the Eucharist, O'Connor famously retorted, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." Where does that conviction come from?
Some of these questions ought to have been answered for someone who's read Rieff and understood him. I'm not speaking esoterica here. The "ugly instances of homophobia," for example, are phrased, it seems to me, as descriptions of socio-ethical disapproval of the homosexual act. That whether or not one agrees with the outcome of this intellectual process seems to make it homophobic or not would seem to qualify the seriousness of that epithet as a descriptive category itself. Given a certain reading of the structure of social order at its most fundamental, it's pretty noncontroversial that homosexuality is a perpetual challenge or affront to that order. I think a lot of people in Queer Studies have absolutely no problem with that analysis -- they only come out on the other end at the conclusion stage, opposed to what Rieff is not for the very reason Howard senses. But even on a Rieffist sociological model one has to understand homosexuality, like many other social phenomena, as operating within a perpetually working, perpetually contested cultural authority of interdicts (that which is not to be done) and remissions (that which is not to be done but for which exceptions are occasionally 'granted' anyway). One need not either scorn nor embrace. Thank God that is true about almost everything. Life would hardly be worth the effort. By relieving degrees, we have the profound sovereign freedom to ignore one another.
So there's one example. As for the symbolism question, Deathworks was originally dedicated to the memory of the second commandment. But bravo on issuing this review, Mr. Howard. And stay tuned, sports fans. And please Google "Philip Rieff" within this site, in the search bar down and below on the right, to read more, while I tag my archived hundreds of posts for categories.