Skip to content

The Secret Life of Philip Rieff

By Blake Smith, at The Tablet

Photo by Sasha • Stories / Unsplash

Philip Rieff is remembered today—if at all—as the one-time husband of his former student Susan Sontag, and a crankily conservative observer of American society, which he saw as violent, stupid, and doomed. The sociologist is appreciated by some thoughtful figures on the right today as an advocate against what he perceived as the misguided “liberations” of the 1960s and ’70s, for a return to “repression” and respect for the “sacred.” He invited readers to imagine himself as a dour, lonely prophet castigating his age, appealing to an unknown but surely small number of fellow “Jews of culture” to save whatever could be saved of our vanishing civilization from the barbarism of its novelty-seeking, omni-tolerant elites.

From this vantage Rieff resembles other apparently tediously moralizing “Jews of culture” of his era, like Allan and (no relation) Harold Bloom, who fixed themselves in the American mind as public intellectuals by defending the traditional literary canon against the supposedly conjoined threats of multicultural proto-wokeness and mass-culture ignorance. He resembles, indeed, no one more than his ex-wife; in the last years of her career Sontag transformed herself from an enthusiastic analyst of the avant-garde and popular entertainment into a loftily isolated mandarin speaking as if she alone could uphold the standards of literary culture (which seemed to mean writing a long stream of shallow prefaces to New York Review of Books publications of novels by dead European writers).

These critics deserve rescue from the humorless role of prophet into which they were sometimes seduced. Upon them should be performed the reverse of the operation that Rieff, with the help of Sontag, carried out in his first book, Freud: the Mind of the Moralist (1959). Rieff argued that Freud had presented himself in his writings as a man of science, soberly working towards a disinterested truth that had nothing to do with what he contemptuously dismissed as the “worldviews” that promised meaning and orientation to believers. But, Rieff insisted, we should no more take Freud at his word than he took his patients at theirs. Freud was really sneaking morality back into respectability under the noses of self-consciously enlightened, secular readers, giving a new, only ostensibly “scientific” basis to the old injunctions and restrictions that had safeguarded the family and shored up the individual as a self-constraining ethical agent. Science and critique are the masks that old-fashioned moralism must wear in an age no longer capable of faith.

Rieff (with Sontag) thus revealed himself to be one of the 20th century’s most skillful practitioners of a method of reading too often exclusively associated with Leo Strauss (whose influence, to be sure, was at work at the University of Chicago, where both Rieff and Sontag were educated). This method assumes that the arguments, claims, or dogmas that thinkers most vigorously assert are not the real content of their teaching. Rather, they are the tribute they pay to prevailing prejudices. Beneath this surface, the writer aims to awaken thinking among (perhaps only a select minority of) readers. For this, he assumes masks, perhaps of the comedian—or man of woe.

Rieff found Freud’s moralism beneath the mask of science. So what can we find beneath Rieff’s mask of moralism? For one thing, one of the sharpest accounts of the pleasure of teaching, and its intimate connection to eros—something perhaps a man who married his own brilliant, beautiful undergraduate student knows with particular intensity. In his 1973 essay Fellow Teachers: Of Culture and Its Second Death, Rieff gave what was, ostensibly, a jeremiad against American society and education, their new “democratic” and “tolerant” permissiveness by which everything appeared possible—except the refusals and commitments that alone make character and culture.

Here and in his later writings Rieff glowered with special hostility at the sexual expressions of the new laxity. He warned that Americans were returning to the barbaric era of the tribal “orgy,” undoing the lessons in self-denial and sublimation in which “our teachers” from Moses to Freud had schooled us. One cannot, he suggested, be a “Jew of culture” at an orgy. The gravest expression of this orgiastic barbarism was homosexuality—a position one might write off as a bit of pique on Rieff’s part, given that Sontag had left him for a woman.

Rieff was not, however, a conservative in the sense of wishing to wrench the course of history back to some earlier, ostensibly less degenerate age. His ideal society was not one of virtuous citizens believing and doing what they ought, but as he put it, with painedly moderate hope, one of “vast public networks by which secrets lives are linked … remote enough for each life to remain as it is, inviolate, secret from all others.” For a homophobe, he had an unusually keen sense that we all might benefit from having a closet to hide in.

Read the rest