Three Worlds, One Book: Rieff Tries to Explain It All

The form in which we most often encounter sociology is David Brooks or Malcolm Gladwell, taking us on a stroll through our works and days and discontents. Tom Wolfe is simultaneously more entertaining, because he dresses his observations in fiction, and grimmer.

But sometimes we meet a practical sociologist who is engaged in more alarming work: Walker Percy (Lost in the Cosmos), George W.S. Trow (Within the Context of No Context), Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae). They take a big bite of homo sapiens, with shreds of philosophy or art attached. Their tone of voice is bracing, but also a little angry, a little bullying, even a little nuts. They have reason to be hyper, because they are trying to explain what the hell is wrong with everything. My Life Among the Deathworks by Philip Rieff may be such another book.

Mr. Rieff has an academic résumé as long as your arm. Once upon a time, he was married to Susan Sontag (the book is dedicated to her). The author photo shows him wearing a derby and a pinstripe suit with a gray vest: not your usual C-SPAN Booknotes garb. His message is that Western man—what we used to call the Orient is not his concern—lives in three contending worlds, or cultures: pagan, Jewish/Christian and modern.

The first world is populated with ancient gods and godlets, though it’s ruled not by them, but by fate. “Fate teaches no moralities; nor does it teach immoralities. It is merely remorseless.” The second world is ruled by the God of Judaism and Christianity. Like any devout Jew, Mr. Rieff is leery of Christianity—maybe this Saul of Tarsus guy and his idol really started all our problems—though he gives high praise to certain Christian artifacts, and believers: “The Gulag Archipelago is the greatest book of remembrance, the greatest martyrology, ever written.” Mr. Rieff’s third world—producer alike of great art and a great many martyrs—is modernity.

The deathworks of Mr. Rieff’s title are masterpieces of third-world genius aimed at the second world: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (on the front cover); the philosophy of Nietzsche; the poetry of Wallace Stevens; the poetry (once called science) of Sigmund Freud. Mr. Rieff ranges widely, picking fights with everyone: Harold Bloom’s Book of J is dismissed as “fiction,” and John Paul II is chided for calling totalitarianism a “substitute religion” when it really opposes “all sacred orders” (you have to like a man who lectures the Pope on his job).

Mr. Rieff’s most audacious claim is that Hitler was “a great third world artist,” because he attempted a “clean sweep”—not only against second-world ideas and morals, but against a whole chosen people. Mr. Rieff returns to the Nazis again and again: “Remark the cut of the German uniform in the Nazi time. No more erotic uniform has ever been created.” Nazis made common cause with various Christians, even as modern artists borrow pagan props, like Picasso’s masks, but in neither case do they really mean it. The third world is liberated from both faith and fate. In it, men must make themselves. All too often, this involves unmaking Jews.

Mr. Rieff’s counterideal is that we should know where we are. We can only know this if we place ourselves in a sacred order superintended by the Almighty. This gives us both a local habitation and a name. God’s separateness guarantees our identity.

This is certainly unexpected, considering the source. Flip through the academic press ads in the New York Review of Books; you won’t find many that say this. There are several reasons, though, why My Life Among the Deathworks might not make a splash.

Mr. Rieff admits that he has little to say of Islam, because it has “scarcely more than started up in America.” Oops. Islamists have been making a mark far out of proportion to their numbers, from the Iranian who drove a Jeep Cherokee through a crowd at the University of North Carolina this month to 9/11. Are they legitimate defenders of a second-world culture, as they believe? Or are they, as Paul Berman argues, a demented modernist riff, owing as much to fascism as to Islam? This, one of the big questions for the rest of our lives, is outside Mr. Rieff’s purview.

Curious readers will have to contend with Mr. Rieff’s prose. Most of it is like chewing ball bearings; every once in a while, there is a cherry. Marching through this book, I considered the possibility that the jawbreakers were deliberate, an ironic invitation to Mr. Rieff’s fellow academics: I am as dense as Heidegger—read me. I could only finish the book by murmuring it aloud; I haven’t done that since See Spot Run.

Mr. Rieff won’t play well on Hannity and Colmes because he has no program, no action items, no plan to save America. We live in all three of his worlds simultaneously, and we can’t disentangle ourselves from any of them. The war against Hitler, Freud and their friends “cannot be won,” Mr. Rieff explains. “But it can be lost.” His best hope is to hold off defeat by showing people what they are up against, in the ads they see, in the TV they watch and in their own minds. Even “the current debate over curriculum in the university [is] pointless; you can only offer [kids] whatever they want, a smattering of everything/nothing.”

There is ample precedent in second-world religion for such quietism. For centuries, Jews had to make the best of ghetto and shtetl. Hermits sat on pillars, nuns took the veil, Quakers would not fight or swear. But the sacred orders that Mr. Rieff honors were also orders of this world. We are supposed to do a variety of concrete things—help the poor, spurn graven images. Judaism and Christianity have also thrown up a variety of political leaders, from Abraham to George W. Bush. Some of them were monsters or nuts. But if any of them weren’t, maybe we are obliged to go and do likewise.