Thursday, June 21, 2012

Philip Rieff and the Curse of Modernity

"Rieff’s first book (his best, in my opinion) was a penetrating and imaginative study, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959). At the time, most people considered Freud an immoralist—a proponent of liberation. Morality was supposedly what made us ill, posing unreasonable demands on behalf of “civilization” and forcing our healthy instinctual passions underground, into the unconscious, from which they tried to escape by way of “symptoms.” These symptoms were strangled protests against the tyranny of culture over nature. The psychoanalytic cure was a protracted guerrilla campaign, aiming to take over one inner stronghold after another without provoking an all-out counterattack in the form of a nervous breakdown...The Mind of the Moralist was a vigorous dissent from this standard interpretation. Rieff’s point was not just that, unlike his noisier disciples, Freud was temperamentally conservative, rating order as highly as freedom and restraint as highly as expression. This stance could be (and regularly was) dismissed as reflexive Victorian/Viennese caution. On the contrary, Rieff argued, Freud’s caution was well-founded. He understood that he had not really explained away our primal, nameless sense of guilt, which lay beneath the more superficial and intelligible constraints imposed by culture, with the implausible hypothesis of a primal crime. And yet, for this resolute unbeliever, such guilt could have no rational basis—who, after all, was humankind accountable to?
Rieff’s explanation of what there is to be guilty about was repeated in many books over many years, with increasing urgency (and, it must be said, portentousness). Human possibilities are limitless; about this he seemed to agree with Freud’s liberationist successors. But what excited them terrified him—and, he claimed, everyone else, at least before the triumph of the therapeutic ethos. Our primal endowment—formless, destructive, uncontrollable instinct—paralyzes and isolates us. We cannot trust ourselves or one another until a firm structure of interdictions has been installed in everyone’s psyche. These must be expounded by an interpretive elite, ratified through a calendar of rituals, and enforced by stern authority. Every culture is a dialectic of prohibition and permission, renunciation and release. Freud would have agreed; but whereas his followers concluded that the original “yes” of instinct was silenced, or at least muted, by the “no” of repressive authority, Rieff countered that instinct was cacophonous and only the original, creative “no” gave it a distinct voice. As he put it in The Mind of the Moralist—his style, already a little melodramatic, foreshadowing his later, full-blown apocalyptic abstractions—the primal self is “in a panic to express the fecundity of its own emptiness” and must be mastered by “unalterable authority.” For if “everything could be expressed by everyone identically,” then “nothing would remain to be expressed individually.” Hence the “irreducible and supreme activity of culture” is to “prevent the expression of everything,” thereby precluding “the one truly egalitarian dominion: nothingness.”
For most educated (and even many uneducated) Westerners, however, all formerly unalterable authorities now lie in the dust, like Ozymandias. Science has banished the supernatural, technology has vanquished scarcity, and so, having lost its parents, ignorance and misery, morality is now an orphan. This is the triumphalist view of modernity, and Rieff shared it; only instead of a triumph, he thought it a catastrophe. The dimensions of this catastrophe dawned on him gradually. The last chapter of Freud is “The Emergence of Psychological Man,” a tentative sketch of what modernity had wrought. Until the twentieth century, in Rieff’s account, three character types had successively prevailed in Western culture: political man, the ideal of classical times, dedicated to the glory of his city; religious man, the ideal of the Christian era, dedicated to the glory of God; and a transitional figure, economic man, a creature of Enlightenment liberalism. Economic man believed in doing good unto others by doing well for himself. This convenient compromise did not last long, and what survived of it was not the altruism but the egoism. Psychological man was frankly and shrewdly selfish, beyond ideals and illusions, at best a charming narcissist, at worst boorish or hypochondriacal, according to his temperament." - from George Scialabba, "The Curse of Modernity" in The Boston Review.

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