This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education features a long, thoughtful, and well researched article by David Glenn on the return of Philip Rieff. (Unfortunately, the link is restricted to subscribers.) Rieff is a neglected but important conservative thinker, although he can’t be neatly confined to any political category. Rieff’s 1966 book, The Truimph of the Therapeutic, influenced Christopher Lasch and Alasdair MacIntyre. Yet Rieff hasn’t been heard from since he published Fellow Teachers in 1973. Now the Chronicle reports that Reiff is about to publish major new work. The first volume of a three volume opus entitled, Sacred Order/Social Order will be released, in January, with the other two volumes to follow in 2007 and 2008. Rieff will also publish a major book on Charisma in 2007.
Rieff’s early work received significant notice in the broader culture. Yet each book was a more challenging read than the one before. Rieff draws on the now neglected tradition of European social and political theory–thinkers like Durkheim, Weber, Freud, and Nietzsche. And his work is filled with references to novelists, artists, and composers. It’s tough to read Rieff without some sense of that background. And over and above the references, Rieff’s style is decidedly challenging. You don’t go to Rieff looking for light reading. Still, for those so inclined, his work can be tremendously rewarding. I was strongly influenced by Reiff in my undergraduate years, and beyond. Reiff has said that in his new work, he is striving to be read by a broad public. That surely doesn’t mean that Rieff is looking to be a best-seller. But it may mean that the new work will be more accessible than Fellow Teachers.
The Chronicle article discusses Rieff’s famous marriage with Susan Sontag. This odd couple had an at least somewhat similar way of making sense of the modern world. But when it came to their attitude towards the cultural changes of the sixties, Lasch and Sontag parted company. Reportedly, Rieff’s new work will be sharply critical of both feminism and the gay rights movement. Rieff is a religious skeptic with no particular fondness for the Christian tradition. On the other hand, Christian thinkers generally admire Rieff’s scathing insights into the weaknesses of modern secularism. One of the fun things about David Glenn’s article is his uncovering of obscure references to Rieff in novels by Saul Bellow, Chaim Potok, and C.P. Snow. Rieff and Snow apparently became friends after Snow reviewed Fellow Teachers.
Rieff is no political activist. In fact, his profound pessimism about modern culture makes him an “inactivist.” Nonetheless, everyone from cultural conservatives, to the traditionally religious, to cultural leftists like Sontag and other liberals, finds something challenging and of worth in Rieff’s work. It’s impossible to finally judge at this stage, but the advent of four major volumes of new work from Rieff is a development of real interest.