(Unherd) Park MacDougald reexamines the work and insights of Philip Rieff

Rieff thought Freud’s admission — of the existence of an unconscious ego repressing intolerable thoughts — should revolutionise our understanding of the psyche. It meant that the “interdicts” are not merely “social morality” but are sunk so deeply into the structure of the self as to effectively constitute it; they are what shape a formless mass of instincts into a person. They represent a primal, unconscious morality whose origin Rieff traced to the sacred commandments at the heart of our culture’s religious tradition. We can obey or transgress them but never abolish them.

All this may seem quite esoteric, but it is important for understanding Rieff’s account of therapeutic culture. The modern West, in his telling, is the first culture in history that has attempted to deny the legitimacy of the interdicts and to live without some form of sacred authority. Therapy is our means of getting away with this denial. The therapeutic ethos teaches us to overcome the guilt and shame, especially around sexuality, prompted by what we have come to regard as the unrealistic, unhealthy, and oppressive moral prohibitions inherited from Christianity. But because, for Rieff, these prohibitions are a core part of our psyche, therapeutic culture can only ever lead to their transgression or negation, never to their genuine overcoming. He believed, for instance, that sexual liberation was seen as a positive ideal purely because it transgressed the inherited Christian virtue of chastity. It was good because it was the opposite of what our religion used to teach; it had no positive value in itself.

Indeed, this is how Rieff came to understand our culture war. He believed that the Western elite had abdicated its responsibility to continue transmitting moral commandments, instead embracing an ethic of liberation and transgression designed to free themselves from the too-strict demands of the interdicts. But because this cultural shift had penetrated deeply only among elites, the result was a constant war between the “officer class” and the population at large, who still clung to a basically traditional conception of the moral order. Elite cultural output — both the modernist high art that Rieff analysed and the pop culture of our own day — had become a series of “deconversion therapies” attempting to train the lower classes out of their supposedly primitive superstitions, which in his telling were actually the vestiges of a sacred impulse toward transcendence.

For Rieff, of course, such efforts were doomed to failure.

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Posted in * Culture-Watch, Books, History, Philosophy, Psychology