A few more final words, for now, putting these earlier on Lincoln in sharper relief. There is the strange phenomenon today of Lincoln both disappearing generally and becoming ever-more-totemic specifically. As he ascends to uncriticizable heights among those who think at all well of him, and becomes all-too-easy to kick around for his dwindling detractors, he slips like a receding ghost out of the truly public eye. Why?
Those who criticize Lincoln sometimes have a difficult time countenancing his greatness of soul; they want him to be not just a tyrant but a petty tyrant, and then only a petty tyrant. The cognitive dissonance aspect of this is clear, but there is something more. Those who praise Lincoln most praise him politically, thereby, imaginatively, praising him best. It's uncomfortable enough a reckoning nowadays with the awesome depths of his Christianity, only in which context can we understand his fakir-like faith in America, and thus too the astonishing capacity of his soul to take up -- and set up others upon -- the political crosses of the suffering sovereign.
And this is what Lincoln's small-l liberal fans least want to acknowledge: the suffering of the scourge. War in the terms of the Lincoln myth acknowledges suffering only insofar as it is purified through the greatness of Lincoln's, the slaves', and the 'volunteered' Union Army's glorious political heroism. The movie's called Glory for a reason, Halleluja neatly repressed; the 'local flavor' of the Colored Regiments' hosannahs are clearly staged to give whiteys everywhere a satisfyingly vicarious experience of visceral communal rhythm. The solidarity that Christianity provided slaves and ex-slaves, thin gruel that it was among solid humans deprived of all other (the insinuation is fuller) tools to develop the capability of human solidarity, serves in this fashion as merely the motif of what really matters: political freedom, won by blood against its foes. O happy day.
But of course for Lincoln it was no happy day at the last moment of triumph he could politically enjoy -- his re-inauguration, and from beginning to end his administration brought horrible after horrible year, because Lincoln decided to act as he did. Only Providence could account for the particular horror that the horror played out as long and deep as it did, but Lincoln's courage of action, though he acted politically, was not political courage, at least not as someone who won't cheerlead both for Lincoln and Machiavelli (and a certain, unpopular kind of Machiavelli at that) can understand it. This is because Lincoln's courage to scourge was sacred, not political; that he was President when presented with an inescapable crisis of American legal, political, and moral epistemology meant that the vertical distance between the sacred and the political collapsed in the vacuum of power and authority, which stand in truth in a hierarchical relationship which can only be restored by its reassertion, this even if by force.
The complexities and uncompromising reckonings of this fact -- and, most, its inescapability, unchanged since Lincoln though diligently and ever-more-expertly repressed -- are offputting to moral pragmatists elite and common alike. What Alasdair MacIntyre called a pragmatism and a nominalism of the philosophers and a pragmatism and a nominalism of everyday life takes in the first case "the form of theories" and in the second case "the form of a socially powerful way of reimagining the self." The theory that we may become what we imagine is anti-Lincolnian in every sense -- the strongest in its parodic and lying appropriation of Lincoln's theology of redemption. So the strange complementary hardening of Lincoln worship and disappearance of the public Lincoln looks specifically like what I have started to discuss generally -- Constantian usurpation, which teaches itself that most modern lesson most useful to moderns: the best way to seize power away from those whose power is authorized and to seize the appearance of authority from authority itself in a single stroke is to invert the hierarchical relationship of authority to power. In short, make authority the slave of power, the flattering subject at your royal court, just one of several noble fops among the courtiers, indeed, one with a special little booster seat at the royal table, a special name, that is, conferred title. When authority becomes Polonius, the Claudine usurper has usurped. Lincoln-worship becomes a certain form of court etiquette within the salon society of (small-l) liberal Americanism meant to flatter the particular power of the American political creed.
This is not to be confused with the phrases 'meant to send a message about' or 'meant to send a strong signal about' the 'sense of respect' paid to the particular power of the American political creed. This is real fealty to real power, the political power of enforcing political freedom, the ass-kicking quality of progressive American perfectionism that sees its eternal and present common configuration among optimistic interventionist internationalist neoconservative-neoliberals and neoliberal-neoconservatives. How much do these people really have a repressed disgust for authority? Sometimes only the practical reasons are thought through -- look over there, some human beings just as human as you and I are suffering under the yoke of absurd, primitive, false, and crippling doctrines -- but sometimes it's more than that, a bedrock conviction that all authority external to human power is a fraud and a lie cooked up to keep people from learning and actualizing their full capabilities. All this is inimical to Lincoln, who set the terms of the good life not according to full human capacity but far beyond it and thus beneath it, at the Godly life. As President he could think but not act solely in those terms, and as politician he thought politically too anyway. But saving the union was a frankly Providential mission for Lincoln; he inherited an American political creed as much as through him it was born again. His sacred truths that have now been studiously half-translated (so as to encompass and domesticate the sacred as 'religious-ness', just one of many aspiration-based sets of attitudes about the choices we should make together on Earth) into political optimism, political interventionism, and so forth, and the result of this is that Lincoln is both necessary to have around in a token sense -- in a pinch the gimp of authority may always be trotted out -- and also necessary to keep locked up and gagged in the basement, where in 'normal life' he is of little use and some guilty embarrassment.
* * *
All of this is a particularly pulpy factual exegesis of Philip Rieff's diagnosis of Lincoln as contemporary Polonius in My Life among the Deathworks (2006). "Lincoln suffers for being a scourge and minister of the American social order," he wrote.
[...] He knows that he must pay for the massive bloodletting he has released. Lincoln is still, 140 years after his death, being scourged. Lincoln is the last, and perhaps only, sacred messenger and figure of grace in U.S. history. His memory is a casualty of the war against sacred order and its embodiments. He has been wiped out, replaced by President's Day. The displacement of Lincoln by such a vaguery, meaningless to most Americans, is part of the kulturkampf.
Cultures without sacred messengers are in trouble. Lincoln himself rose from the lowest social classes -- his parents could not read. How is the population to understand the vertical, the rise that is always possible, without the supreme figure of Lincoln?
Lincoln's removal from American mythology -- the elimination of his birthday, the typical criticisms in contemporary documentaries -- is part of a scourge of Lincoln, the minister of highest authority. [...] ironically, this tragedy inverts the real tragedy of the Civil War. It is as a scourge that Lincoln is scourged by highest authority; he pays for the war he believed was just and necessary, as it may have been. Nevertheless, like Moses, he must be scourged. To unleash mass killing, whether just or not, is to be a scourge, which is inevitably transgressive because it is uncontrolled and allows human vanities and excesses to be expressed. But Lincoln's present scourging by [contemporary] elites is for his office of minister, not scourge (171-2).
So can a person rightly and truly mourn the murder of Lincoln in turn while also rightly and truly confessing "sic semper tyrannis." The crucial line between religion/authority and politics/power is kept intact -- not a horizontal Berlin Wall but a vertical chain link that separates in hierarchy. But this mode is entirely inimical to moral pragmatists of the town or gown variety.
but isn't this analysis [of mine, below,] of the interconnection of a Weberian nihilism (at least as Strauss views it) and therapeutic religiosity and consumerism already in chapter 3 of Alasdair Macintyre's "After Virtue" [?] -- scriblerus
Glad you asked. In several respects clearly yes, particularly the bit about emotivism and management, and MacIntyre's analysis of how social science methodology is the same as management ideology runs like a babbling brook through much of what there is to read here on related topics.
But there are important differences. First, MacIntyre is very firm that a tradition, and thus authority, begins to die when it stops changing, and that Burkean conservatives do woeful harm to the theory of tradition by arguing that we must not get too conscious of our traditions. For MacIntyre, unconscious heirs to a tradition help kill it off by not re-performing it constantly, and indeed re-performance requires in MacIntyre's estimation a healthy exercise of critical reason. I think this is a little overdrawn, and that the survival of traditions and authorities is not hostage to their moment-to-moment performance by human agents; following Geertz and Freud (and Rieff, I think) I judge that authoritative shared truths, and shared convictions in the verity of traditions, virtues, and so on, can fluctuate in their degrees of presence in the world.
In Geertzian terms, cultures, by their patterns of ritual, play up certain verities at some times and keep them in the background in others. There are seasons of urgency, and in societies with organized religions these take the form of holy days, fasting months, etc., etc. In Freudian terms, and on a longer time line, certain important contents of the unconscious (which is already collective to begin with) can and do stay latent for significant periods; they then appear as the 'return of the repressed.' Crucially, for Freud, the traditions contained in the collective unconscious -- and certainly we cannot be comprehensively conscious of everything contained in our past and its intersection with our present at every moment (or even most) -- only can become conscious because they have been incubated in latency; there is no other way to carry traditions, or to see them expressed, than for large, even decisive, portions of them to be latent.
Of course, this drives lots of social scientists nuts because of its metaphysical implication that real things can seep into some kind of invisible nether-world, in which no human agents perform them and structures only carry them as sort of forgotten memories, only to reappear later from 'nowhere' in identical or nearly identical form to the way they used to be. I suspect that what makes this possible is that humans are, in a very complex and mysterious way, fundamentally not rational creatures, as MacIntyre might wish them to be, but mimetic -- imitative and contingently memorious -- creatures. (I think Rieff can be read as confirming this in his discussion of why Borges' Zarathustra of the campo, Funes the Memorious, is such an unnatural and disturbing and inhuman being.)
With this settled I can address your question more squarely. The key to my analysis is that what Strauss offers us as an antidote for psychological historicism, which he only roughly grasps, is reason whereas what Rieff offers us is revelation. The MacIntyre of After Virtue is a bit more retroactive than the MacIntyre of today, I think, in so far as the point of After Virtue is that modernity is screwed and ought to be abandoned in favor of premodern virtue, but the point of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and subsequent works is more amenable to moving forward with traditions that can be kept alive despite, and perhaps even in conjunction with, modernity. So my analysis departs from MacIntyre's to the degree that I've got my eye more on the viability of returning (in Rieff's words) repression itself to the culture in the future rather than returning ourselves to the politics of the past.
But this is oversimplified. Tocqueville represents a sort of middle position between Strauss and Rieff in that he reads a certain type of politics as indispensable to enjoying the responsible freedom of equality (as opposed to servitude, or 'truant's freedom', in equality). That is, Tocqueville does not offer us revelation, at least not up front; but nor does he offer us reason up front either. The line he walks is eminently captured in the observation that it "would often be easier to get [lethargic citizens accustomed to obedience] interested in the details of court etiquette than in the repair of their common dwelling." As local political institutions decay and governmental power centralizes administration, the pull of local politics which brings us out of ourselves by obliging us to engage actively in relationships with our strange fellow men and women dies. Replacing it is the pull of delocalized psychology, premature in its intimacy because so disconnected from true relationships. A debased interest in the internal intrigues of emotional virtuosos replaces the healthy interest in the external exigencies of local political administration.
I would suggest, following Tocqueville, that we pay more attention to the significance of political institutions in helping us live in a fashion that psychology mimics poorly and unnaturally. This is an essentially forward-looking posture politically somewhat out of step with MacIntyre's type of communitarianism (which on other grounds I do rather appreciate culturally). But, still following Tocqueville, it is also an upward-looking posture, because it recognizes the important role that revelation plays in undergirding the whole coherence and pattern of local political organization -- namely, the equality of citizens in their capacity as beings made in the image of God. Things get interesting when we compare Tocqueville's Christian essence of religion -- love God above all others and love thy neighbor as thyself -- with Rieff's Hebraic emphasis on Old Testament interdicts, sacred Nos rather than sacred Yeses. But that's a story for another day.
My review of ISI's re-release of Philip Rieff's Triumph of the Therapeutic is up, and out, at The University Bookman. To get you in the mood, read Rod Dreher's fine post on purity and passion written while I was in Greece, and consider George Scialabba's flawed but engaging account of Rieff in the Boston Review. A few points on Scialabba and then on to the fabulous prize.
In the absence of strict, even harsh, limits (to use a plain word Rieff himself, puzzlingly, so seldom used that one is led to wonder whether his elaborately artificial prose style was itself meant as a discipline), we cannot thrive. -- GS
I think the key to the puzzle is that limits describe points at which a particular behavior or type of conduct becomes prohibited on account of its excess. This is an essentially Hellenistic view of ill moral health. Conduct that's virtuous along the mean becomes a vice at the extremes. Limits are the points at which we suffer the disadvantages of too much of a good thing. Rieff might have seen in such a schema a hint of the therapeutic ethos; Martha Nussbaum's Therapy of Desire reads Hellenic philosophy as deeply, quite intentionally, not just medical but therapeutic.
Rieff's concept of moral health, by contrast, is utterly Hebraic. Limits make little sense in a schema where bad behaviors are bad no matter how mildly they are exercised or how prudently they are moderated. Limits, in fact, are carefully calibrated guideposts for those interested in indulging in therapies of transgression without being caught up too deeply in them. Rather than limits, Hebraic moral law provides interdicts. Nos are absolute; adultery is not a question of a limit on good conduct but a prohibition on bad. Interestingly, Rieff acknowledges in Charisma that Jesus essentially reinterpreted Hebraic moral law as inadequately prohibitive, declaring for instance that committing adultery in the mind was just as much of a sin as committing it in fact. This move reveals how even moral interdicts, when ritualized as law (or Weberian 'bureaucratic authority'), may transform from absolute prohibitions into therapeutic limits. One may eventually read the prohibition on adultery as a license to fantasize about it comfortably instead.
Nonetheless, the distinction between limits and prohibitions, however problematic it may become under the pressure of human sin and human guilt, remains stark and central. Rieff's rejection of the language of limits itself is a discipline. It also reflects Rieff's interest, and, I think, success, in fusing in practice moral philosophy and aesthetics.
Rieff deplores this progressive secularization of charisma and insists on its fundamentally religious significance. “My position is ... no charisma without creed.” For Rieff, a creed is not primarily theological but moral: a “particular order of interdicts and remissions.” [...] Modern American society has so completely forgotten these lessons that one is constantly expecting to hear Rieff exclaim, like Heidegger, “Only a God can save us.”
Yes, but Rieff would read in Heidegger's insertion of the indefinite article a tacit confession that the battle has already been lost. Rieff, frustratingly to some, refused persistently to point the way to an actual theology that would inform the creed he declared indispensable. (So did Emerson, for that matter.) But there is a world of difference between Heidegger's statement and Rieff's equivalent, which might be "Only your God can save you." Rieff seems to me to make it clear that salvation on the us-level requires the social and cultural frameworks of sacred Nos. But, especially in his work on charisma, Rieff returns again and again to the idea that the individual experience of true charisma is nothing but the satisfaction of the human craving for divine love, with divinity as the lodestar of sacred authority that makes Yeses possible only through submission to it.
This seems to me to deflate claims centered around Christopher Lasch's admonition that Rieff misses the central issue about religion: not its necessity but its truth. Rieff's point, I think, is that people, not cultures, renew cultures; though religion, sociologically, is a necessity on his model, sociology points 'simply' to the necessity of truth, leaving it to actual human beings to discover and rediscover how to trust, and how to live, that truth.
* * *
Right. Now that you've made it this far, I'm giving away one copy the ISI edition of Triumph of the Therapeutic, along with a complimentary copy of the current issue of The University Bookman. Rather than being an ass and instructing the would-be winner to tell me what's the last word on the second page of my review, I think I'll just say that I'll mail the goods to whomever seems best suited and most interested. Drop me an email or post in the comments section and enjoy.
Politics has often been viewed throughout history, in the west, as a field of endeavor to be screened from, or inoculated of, morality. The more 'right wing' version of this is equal justice under the law, represented by the dispassionate or merciless or blind scales of justice. The 'left wing' version is Rawls', in which political justice operates in the good society because we are improperly equipped to achieve moral justice on the social level, even if we could all agree on what that is. (The tautological genius of Rawls is that his theory of justice hinges on announcing that this mystical agreement is within the reach of a society full of seemingly radically different people.) This right-left distinction is a crude one, but it works to quickly show how 'justice' has been held up across the spectrum as a properly political, not moral, category.
Naturally there have always been folks on the right and the left for whom any prophylaxis that keeps moral considerations out of the political is an injustice that creates more injustices. Not long ago religion did not fall so neatly into the right-left distinction as it has recently. Even now there is proof that a moral imperative to 'speak truth to power' appeals in a non-religious way, too, for people of both political leanings. And generally the moral claim to be present in politics states that politics cannot be perfected, purely political speech excludes vital speakers and important narratives about justice, and moral discourse reminds us of what in our pride we would make ourselves forget through politics: that neither we nor society is perfect (again, a generally 'left' claim), and neither we nor society is perfectible (a generally 'right' claim).
How does moral discourse ground its claim to authority? How does it capture the attention of political actors and audiences? It appeals either to objective or subjective realities that have analogical significance to politics. It uses comparisons, metaphors, similies: you care deeply about x, but x is a lot like y, and you ignore y. Therefore, pay attention to y!
This process of discourse is rhetorical, and simply in virtue of that it sounds political. Not all theories of politics have great love for rhetoric. From Hobbes through Habermas, political scientists have determined that to exclude and to minimize rhetoric is to put the science into politics. Not for the first time I ardently recommend Bryan Garsten's intellectual history of this movement, Saving Persuasion. Some, like Aristotle, viewed rhetoric much differently, not a dangerous outsider but a natural component of the polity (which for Aristotle is much more than just 'the government'). Beyond Aristotle, rhetoric can be viewed as a weapon of the weak, a discourse open to the strengths of those without political power, and powerful in the ears of even the politically powerful. The moral dimension of this dynamic is potent enough. When the talk turns to morality itself, as a source of claims about the good which politics cannot adequately reach, that dimension dominates.
Of the objective realities to which moral rhetoric appeals, in its powerful analogizing, one of the most significant and timeless, because it is one of the most powerful analogies between morality and politics, is health. Since ancient Greek times, good order in the polity was analogized directly and repeatedly to good order in the human body, a point not lost on Martha Nussbaum in her brilliant but misbegotten book The Therapy of Desire. Bodily health, social health, moral health, and political health linked up both thematically and explicitly in Thucydides. Certainly the analogy plays a central role in Catholic intellectual thought, and its appropriation by Hobbes speaks volumes as to the depth of its authority. But Hobbes made clear that healthy living was commodious living, lifestyles of the rich and nonviolent which the single, unquestionable Sovereign guaranteed. The moralists took a different tack, because healthy living by their lights meant not simply arriving at commodious living but doing so in the right way. God, not the State, was the authority against murder. Christ, not Caesar, taught us how to love. Paralleling the Christian narrative are Jewish narratives of moral health (on both, see Philip Rieff's book last year Charisma). And those who fail to understand the current Muslim narrative of health as a link between moral and political life are fundamentally misunderstanding the role of religious faith in a political context.
Yet the key to the moral rhetoric of health as history has known it -- linking moral health explicitly to bodily health, bodily health to social health by deduction, and social health to political health by analogy -- is the objectivity of health. Not only must there be such a natural thing as human health, there must also be objectively held authorities about what components go into it -- components that exceed the merely biological, because a murderous beast and an 'adulterous' beast can be a healthy beast, and we are not beasts.
Since Freud, the objective grounding of the authority of moral rhetorics of health has eroded. This is very far from being all Freud's fault. Rieff pretty conclusively proved (in his first book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist) that Freud, despite his revolutionary moralism, was a moralist, and moreover one who was convinced that health was health and the best we could do in that department was to devise analytical strategies for mitigating the pain of the permanent conflict between ourselves, our instincts, and our world. And Rieff's great intellectual legacy is his indispensable long demonstration of how Freud's legacy has caused new generations of creative and scientific types alike to radically redefine health as a subjectivity -- a therapeutic condition where not realities but feelings are the sliding scales against which we measure 'health.'
This movement has done great damage to the moral rhetoric of health as we have known it by utterly challenging the objectivity of health itself. By undermining the central notion that we can transgress against our selves in ways we must not do in order to be healthy, it has also attacked the objectivity of morality. But it has left rhetoric intact, and it has created a new and now-hegemonic moral rhetoric of health that is therapeutic and subjective through and through.
The evidence is everywhere, but one of its most pointed recent affirmations was made on the 31st of July in this post by Andrew Sullivan:
[...] Virginia Postrel sums up my own view of the matter which is that the traditional notion that "disease" has a bright line demarcating it from stuff about your body you just don't like or enjoy is, well, unconvincing. Or rather, it is as convincing as the distinction between smoking pot for health or for pleasure. The line between the two is a very blurry one. Why isn't a bad day as worth medicating as an upset stomach? Virginia:
Why not treat a biological condition you just don't like? (I'm assuming that you are directly or indirectly paying for the treatment.) We don't have to call Restless Leg Syndrome a disease to acknowledge that it disturbs some people's sleep and that those people would like relief. Contrary to what you may have heard, the only sort of character suffering builds is the ability to suffer--a useful ability in a world where suffering is the routine nature of life but not a virtue that makes the world a better place.
And suffering because you have an ugly face and want plastic surgery applies. [...]
I don't have time to appraise it here now, but R.R. Reno's done a limber and engaging review of Charisma over at First Things. The ambivalence of Christianity in the book flickers occasionally, like a fish in a murky stream, and it's perhaps interesting to probe more carefully what's being gotten at in light of Nietzsche's strange portrayal of Jesus as a radical Doer of Good preaching the impossibility of Being Good. Also in light of the Hebraic partisanship that seems to cherish an institutionalization of Being Good still in the understanding that deedless Good is Good unrefreshed and unintensified, bringing us back to Jesus again.
It never went to press, having been written on a very mainstream subject at a very slanted angle and in very white heat, but I was content to sigh and move on when Time magazine's appointment of You as Person of the Year had receded into the background of our smithereens milieux. Content that was until I discovered that on the ninth of this month friend of this site and pas mal vivant Christopher Hitchens had done for Slate a quickie entitled "Welcome to the You Decade." Not bad, but what about this? Here in print for the first time is "Triumph of the Year," for what it's worth.
alles? We owe it all to You.
Imagine Kierkegaard’s unrecognized one in America. Time would feature him as the Unrecognized Man of the Year. Philip Rieff, Fellow Teachers (1972)
For seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, Time's Person of the Year for 2006 is you. Lev Grossman, Time Magazine (2006)
Behold the new You—everything and nothing, the Idol of our age. If some ideas, rather than being consequences, are them, it takes a Vanity Plate of Record like Time Magazine to repeat eight years late in “real” life what the Coen brothers had tossed off as a waiting-room gag in The Big Lebowski (1998): the cover of Time as a literal mirror. But in 1998—the cocaine-high peak of that shining late-Clintonian moment, all cleverly jaded, wealth-drenched jet-settery—the big book was Bret Ellis’ Glamorama and the big album was Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals; the scourging parodies of your cultural elites in rebellion were too accurate, too entrancing. You stare into the mirror, as Narcissus “learned,” and the mirror stares back.
The patterns laid down for the upper class of the late nineties—incessant
drug use, a public reduction to the status of living image, the ubiquity of
shared sex, constant communication that veered between inarticulate posturing
and unhinged tell-alls—needed only a consummation of the information revolution
to drop the checkered flag on a culture that wanted everything their elites
could offer but elitism itself. Enter You,
a creature everyone and no one knows, as personal and impersonal as one of the
zillions of beautiful web nudes browsable all day for free, working for
nothing, beating the pros at their own game. If only the drug hookers haunting
Craigslist had it so easy. Or do they?
You see that there is fame/money now in the Revolution move […] authority in default raises itself to a pedagogic principle. Rieff, Fellow Teachers
Who is You? So plural that we can no longer supply a single answer to “who are you?”, we must elevate our niches into grand character types. The triumph of psychological democracy means the calculated barbarism of illiterate ghetto culture gets crowned not only by Oscar but Webster. Who is this protean, pelagian beast?
You is sexy. The starting point of all desire is the most effortless of all the attractions. Transactive exchange—the way that at atomized society of selves do stuff with each other—relies on attraction, and sex is the come-hither with a universal adapter on it. What product hasn’t been sold this way already? How close did we come to Paris Hilton actually having sex with a Carl’s Jr. Western Bacon Cheeseburger? The less you hide, the more you are; the culture that invented privacy now sells it for the crack rock of publicity. Careers are not only rehabilitated but simply kept simmering by “accidental” crotch shots of pantieless pueriles. The old taboos against false vows, the sexualization of mothers, and even incest have been hauled into prison and tortured to death, ex post facto, by Madonna/Britney. Increasingly, ugliness is criminal. The fat man with child porn is run down naked on television by policemen/dogs; the lithe thing that films her own child porn meets a different fate. But hotness, which we want because it’s exclusive, must be forced into inclusion: whether on the cheap, by recourse to the popular college threesome, or for big bucks, via the industry fat and “happy” enough to spawn a mirror of its own, Nip/Tuck. Cheapest of all—in both senses—is MySpace and its legion, where whole generations of fatherless join the smithereens of amateur stardom. Sixteen year olds lie about their age and post content just that side of “exploitative.” And how can it be? It’s self-expression. When fame comes first, You’ll wait forever for the money.
You is techy. The human world is not enough. You must be
augmented, because You’ve learned your own limitations, and won’t be held back
by them. What service hasn’t been sold this way already? Technology reaches
beyond machines into chemical engineering. Extend your life. Eliminate restless
legs. Manage the perpetual imbalance of the psyche which is the acceptable
externality of Your making all things internal. Human release must get
increasingly Xtreme—and technical—to compensate for therapeutic numbness. With
your Cadillac you Break Through. With
You is sticky. Everything is social, everything is public. “You” are much too liberated to be restricted to a single self, a single lifestyle, a single slate of experiences. You revel in your scare quotes, which enable you in their contingency. You want to hold whatever you can touch, as long as you want. But not too long. What’s the good of stickiness if you get stuck to first things—first love, first spouse, first house? First principles? Nobody comes first except the Self, that internal wanting-and-getting Thing that appears, after time, where You used to be, in even the most gilded of mirrors.
You is picky. So nothing can be sacred, and endurance becomes neurosis. Durability denies choice. In a rut? In a dead-end job? Dead-end kids? Dead-end sex life? Life itself headed toward—gasp—death? Your “commitment” is a well-thought-out contingency plan. You cannot stand the thought of sacrifice, because nothing is worth sacrifice; this is a lesson well-learned-out: “it is the parents, first,” wrote Rieff, “who must be an obedient people; then it is that the children have someone to obey.” An outrage! Obedient to what? You have long ago picked away God, judge, father, or so you flatter yourself. The addicts return to the survivors’ little cult-god; the generations to their state-mediated custody battles; the children to the loco parentis of Unplanned Unparenthood.
Although it claims no validation beyond the pressure of social necessity itself, the present tyranny of psychologizing may well prove more stable than the older enforcements of guilt. Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist
It’s not whether You win or lose. Life is a game, a beach, a bitch, a highway: the personal costs of being You all pay off in perks and bennies. So “the global media” remains run by vast personages. So “digital democracy” works only to the benefit of those with the patience and knowledge for literate conversation. So the neo-peons of fame work for nothing, get exposure, and get bought out by brands that by nature can’t speak to the people because “the people” they are not. A free market of co-option still keeps open options. You can ride it all night long, coloring outside of the lines so long as you accept a permanent quest for new lines. Your petty defeats, the ways in which you learn to expect a certain brokenness in personal relationships as the price of freedom, the way your forefathers once expected to be called into military service—these things can be managed by a social industry grown up to compensate for a society without grownups.
You can keep this up for a long time. The greatest good for the greatest number—how long it took to “understand” that money doesn’t buy happiness! But the happiness market—now that’s a bonanza. Instead of cash, we pay in attention, we pay in choices. You can look back on your life content in the knowledge that everything we did seemed like a good idea at the time. And what a long life it’ll be. Sexually active, too. By then, the world will be a very different place. Tragedies—even terrorism—are bumps in the psychological road. You can get closure; you can get new organs grown in the lab; you can learn to appreciate the benefits of growing closer to strangers and more distant from familiars.
Person of the Year? Please. You are the Person of the Millennium, the pot of gold at the end of the world-historical rainbow. Whoever you is.
On Friday, April 20, it will be my sweet pleasure to welcome fans, students, enthusiasts, and even critics of Rieff to Georgetown for the Tocqueville Forum's season-closing event, "Philip Rieff: Charisma and Grace." Our roundtable panel features Jeremy Beer, Senior Editor, ISI Books, Jonathan Imber, Department of Sociology, Wellesley College,and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Department of History and Maxwell School, Syracuse University. Patrick Deneen moderates in the Gervase Conference Room at High Noon, 12:00 sharp. Lunch shall be served, you starving graduate students.
All emailed inquiries graciously received.
Adam Kirsch turns in a mostly insightful review of Charisma and Deathworks at the New York Sun which is palsied and coarsened by an utterly tin modern liberal's ear for some of Rieff's harsher verdicts. He's disturbed by the cantankerousness of Deathworks, which, of course, is part fulfillment of its purpose.
More disturbing is the way Rieff, as though in penance for his former services to the therapeutic, turns himself into a violent reactionary, praying for a new sacred authority to put a stop to the excesses of liberal reason.
Only a successful modern liberal can throw around the phrase "violent reactionary" like this, meaning, of course, that reactionariness is a violent posture, toward, specifically, the present, if you push the successful modern liberal for a full answer. Just a posture? I thought violence was an action word; I thought a violent reactionary was somebody who threw rocks through windows, started a war, whatever. If only Kirsch had bothered to alert readers to Rieff's massive and astonishing pacifist peroration in the closing pages of Charisma, he wouldn't have enjoyed writing a diss line that sounded both so glib and so deep simultaneously. In fact, the most blatant point in, as Kirsch emphasized, a repetetive book is that violence is always radical and to be reactionary is to oppose all violence. Strike one.
Strike two, same sentence, I'm afraid. Characterizing Rieff as "praying" for a new sacred order is a pretty cheeky thing to do when Rieff declaims in Deathworks that church civilization is dead and there is no going back. Too facile by far, the implication that Rieff is some kind of Falangist is serious and nonsensical enough that a reviewer with the patience, intelligence, and good taste of Kirsch must not let it slide.
Speaking of strikes, here's three:
The most striking symptom of this inhumane turn is Rieff's bizarre obsession with homosexuality. At one point, he actually compares the gay liberation movement with the Nazi brownshirts of Ernst Roehm. (A psychoanalyst might also find something to say about Rieff's decision to dedicate this book, in which he calls bisexuality "a perversion and rebellion against reality," to the famously bisexual Sontag.) Finally, Rieff seems to believe, like Naptha in "The Magic Mountain," that the only solution to modern dilemmas is the rebirth of theocracy. He glories in a savage rhetoric of culture war reminiscent of Weimar Germany: "I trust that this work will not be for tourists," he writes, "but rather for those who sense their own conscription into the wars that characterize the present condition of our cultural life."
Unbelievable! Comparing a death-and-discipline fetish cadre of homophiles with the Mappelthorpeans! Where does Rieff get off? But in fact Kirsch's bizarre obsession with psychoanalysis leads him to find bizarre obsessions in Rieff where only refined disgusts reside. I suspect he dedicated Deathworks to Sontag not because she was "famously bisexual" but for the more personal reason that she used to be his wife and is the mother of his child. (As if, I might add, a man experiences only unreasonable irritation when his brilliant bride, several years his junior, turns into a lesbian and divorces him.) Again Kirsch gets "theocracy" wrong, unless he's read the entry for "theocracy" in the Andrew Sullivan Collegiate Dictionary. Rieff time and again points out that theism, conveyed by true charisma, is anti-political and against power.
But back to the against-not-straightness thing. I presume that Rieff is being anti-gay when, in Deathworks, he puts up a picture of Mappelthorpe and scourges the artiste what Mappelthorpe hasn't already scourged himself. It seems to me Rieff is saying "Don't put a riding crop in your anus," then attempting to draw a connection between the rebellion involved in that act and the rebellion involved in getting physical pleasure out of bodies of any sex. I think we are all grown up enough now to admit that not everyone who doesn't have straight sex is a slave to biology. Bisexuality -- whatever precisely that means -- has been democratized along with everything else. Rieff is clearly and unambiguously against homosexuality in the same fashion as the Pope -- namely, as a theorist of what is and what is not sacred. This may be unappealing, but how it is bizarre is beyond me, and beyond argument.
One last bit. I suppose that last one was strike 2.5.
If there is a central objection to be raised to Rieff's indictment, however, it is that he has not really advanced the critique of nihilism one inch beyond where Nietzsche left it, more than 100 years ago.
Already in the 1880s, Nietzsche considered that mankind had killed God, and had nothing to put in His place. This was the burden of his famous parable of the madman, who asks: "What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?" Rieff finally succumbed to the dizziness of that spiritual vertigo, and like the Israelites in the desert, asked for the great chain of being to be reattached. He refused to believe that we could live without it, that meaning created could offer the same sustenance as meaning bestowed. Rieff's late works are really a lengthy paraphrase of Heidegger's famous cry of despair: "Only a god can save us." He would not countenance the alternative, which is that we must save ourselves.
First, Rieff did not advance the critique of nihilism past where Nietzsche left it because that is impossible. Nietzsche had even more time on his hands than Rieff did, worse health for more of his life, and the luxury of writing, from such an advance position in modernity, so many more original things about the signal disease of modern times. Were there more awful things about nihilism I would shudder to realize we hadn't yet reached the bottom of the barrel. No, rather than advancing it, Rieff improved upon Nietzsche's critique. I don't know who has attempted becoming an overman lately, or attempted to adjust their life to the prospect of the eternal recurrence of the same, but it is a considerably more daunting enterprise than, say, keeping the commandments. The colossal failure of Nietzsche to attract a following as a positive theorist -- as demonstrated most bathetically by the legions of gauche and ridiculously serious neo-Nietzscheans parading about the clouds of cloud cuckoo land -- looks to have been outpaced already by the enduring impact of Rieff's still-booming final salvo: a long last-ditch effort to call us back, not in a whimper like Heidegger to "a" god, but to the concept of the ultimate unalterable verity that can only be comprehended as God.