I'm finally reading The Triumph of the Therapeutic and find myself thinking that Philip Rieff was the smartest person of the 20th century. But I revise that thought immediately: "smart" is not the best word, suggesting mere intelligence, a high score on an IQ test. "Wisest," "'most perceptive," "most prophetic" would be better. He was the most accurate and profound analyst, from a somewhat detached, observational, semi-scientific point of view (he was a sociologist), of the cultural revolution (his term) which took place in western civilization over the past several centuries. Notice the past tense: in Rieff's view the transformation has been accomplished.
The book is subtitled "Uses of Faith After Freud," which only hints at the magnitude of its achievement, which is to name and explain the type of civilization which was coming into being after the long twilight of Christian civilization, described by Matthew Arnold as one in which we are
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
("Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse")
Arnold is in fact referred to in the second sentence of the book. And Yeats's "The Second Coming," which unfortunately has now been overused in politics but remains as vivid and significant as ever, is its epigraph.
I'm not qualified to write a broad analysis or critique of the book. It's difficult and in some ways simply over my head. Among other things, Rieff was deeply knowledgeable about Freud and Freud's psychoanalytic procedures, and the greater part of this book is about Freud and his wayward disciples or successors: Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, and D.H. Lawrence. I've read some Lawrence, a bit of Jung, no Reich at all, and as far as I remember no Freud. (I hedge that last one slightly because I may have read some excerpts from The Future of An Illusion in a religion class in college.) And sometimes Rieff is, for me at any rate, simply obscure. He is, by the way, a superior prose stylist.
Fortunately, there is this appreciation by Jeremy Beer. It was published in The American Conservative in 2006 and is included in the contemporaneous edition of the book published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Here is a taste, and that's really all it is:
Rieff now worried that, though Christian culture had been all but entirely shattered, nothing had succeeded it; there were therefore no extant authoritative institutions whose demands and remissions (the culturally regulated relaxation of those demands) could be internalized, thereby acting to “bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs.” This failure of succession was no accident but rather the explicit program of the “modern cultural revolution,” which was deliberately being undertaken “not in the name of any new order of communal purpose” but for the “permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands.”
I'm quite sure there is much in this book that I haven't clearly understood. But much of what I do understand is brilliant. What sets Rieff apart from others who have made similar broad observations is the depth of his insight into the nature and significance of the transition, and his deeply negative, but entirely unpolemical, view of it. Unlike, for instance, many Christian thinkers, he is dispassionate about the civilization which is ending and does not view its restoration as a possible solution, or even desirable. He is relentless in crushing the false hopes of Christians who believe that they can somehow preserve the faith by adapting it to the therapeutic culture, and in that respect he often seems to understand Christianity better than most Christians. Nor does he see any of the strategies and techniques proposed by Freud's successors as providing a solution, a way out of the crisis. The chapters on Jung, Reich, and Lawrence are essentially demolitions of their proposals. Freud, he seems to say, had only very modest expectations, and did not propose a grand solution, only coping strategies.
Over the next few weeks I plan to pick out some specific passages and quote them, perhaps even venture to discuss them. Right now I have on my mind a notion sparked by this sentence, which is really just a passing remark:
After all, Trinitarian Christianity is responsible for our present inclination to attribute an aura of divinity to the person as such--an inclination derived from the original attribution of personality to God.
Out of its context that may not strike you as so important or original, and the context is too extensive to quote. But in light of Rieff's overall effort to explain and justify his title phrase, and his treatment of the collapse of Christianity as a definer of culture, it jumped out at me. What he is pointing out is that in secular modernity, this "aura of divinity" has persisted alongside the quasi-scientific presumption of ultimate meaninglessness.
These two beliefs simply cannot be reconciled. The lame attempts to establish meaning as a purely subjective and temporary thing are only a temporary hedge against the reckoning. And (this is what suddenly struck me) the attempt to maintain both doctrines results in intense psychological conflict which I think is one of the drivers of the politics-as-religion phenomenon we're currently calling "wokeism."
I know it's a cliché to point out that post-Christian civilization is carrying forward various features of Christianity, often in a distorted or corrupted form, but this is illuminating as a specific detail of that process. The "aura of divinity" becomes something to which the term narcissism doesn't quite do justice. The individual will is a sacred will, able not only by its own power, but by the permission and affirmation of (progressive) society, to alter reality--as long as, in the old classical liberal view, it doesn't hurt anyone else. And yet there is ultimately--I mean, ultimately--nothing essentially important or significant about the person as such: he is only an individual of an animal species not fundamentally different from any other, the result of random physical events. And according to current advanced thinking even his belief in his own conscious self is an illusion.
If our future is to be defined by progressive ideas, this tension must eventually resolve itself, perhaps in a recurring tension and release, by means of some sort of scapegoating mechanism, perhaps in the age-old division of people into the significant and the insignificant. I'll leave the possibilities to your imagination.
Yes, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn is Christopher Lasch's daughter, and the connections between the ideas of the two men are clear.
Now I have to admit that I have not actually read the entire book. It's not because I didn't try, but I have an odd problem. I've been reading a review copy of the book that was sent to me years ago when it was re-issued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (I'm sorry, ISI, that I never reviewed it.) I discovered that it's missing most of the Reich chapter (and shows a few other minor physical defects which I presume were corrected before a final printing).
So I ordered a new copy. It arrived on a Friday some weeks ago. I opened the package and laid the book on the dining room table. Early on the afternoon of the next day I went out of town for a night, returning late Sunday. A day or two later I looked for the book and it was not on the table where (I thought) I had left it. I have absolutely no memory of doing anything else with it. Nor does my wife. But I've searched the house, especially the bookshelves, and it hasn't turned up. I'm very much afraid that I did something one hears of old people doing: put it in some place where it doesn't belong, and forgot that I had put it anywhere at all. But if I did that, it must have been an obscure place. Yes, I looked in the refrigerator and the freezer and the pantry. And although I was pretty certain I had not taken the book with me on that overnight trip--I had consciously considered doing so, and decided not to--I had someone check the usually vacant family house where I had stayed. Not there either. And not in the car.
It still hasn't turned up, and my fear is that somehow it got put into the recycling bin, where a lot of paper on the dining room table goes, or the trash. Far-fetched, but if it were anywhere plainly visible I'd have seen it by now. I refuse to buy another copy (although that would probably cause the missing one to return) so I will have to live without the Reich chapter. I do have the first few and last few pages of it, and Reich is discussed along with the other two in an earlier chapter, so I think I got the general idea. I was a little surprised to see Reich taken so seriously, as I had the impression he was rather a nut. And apparently he was, but some of his ideas are quite prominent in our culture now.