Rieff: The Triumph of the Therapeutic

September 14, 2009

The Triumph of the Therapeutic
The Uses of Faith after Freud
Philip Rieff (Harper & Row, 1965)
274 p.  First reading.

Imagine a flute girl was to stumble into an Athenian plaza just as Socrates was rising to deliver a final summation and critique of a days-long dialogue.  It would be obvious to her that something important was at stake, and the master would probably appear admirably sagacious. On the other hand, Socrates, taking little notice of a newly arrived flute girl, would assume that his hearers had heard and understood a great deal of what had come before.  He would not define his terms all over again, and he would reason from conclusions previously established.  The flute girl would be obliged to piece together the background as well as she could even as she tried to understand the new points that Socrates was making.  This, I imagine, she would find quite difficult to do.

My friends, I am the flute girl.

This book is a study of Freud, his influence, and his leading disciples.  It has attained classic status in certain schools of thought, which was the main reason that I chose to read it.

In the background of Rieff’s discussion, serving at least as a backdrop and perhaps as a foundation, is a theory of culture and personality.  Culture, he says, is a system of controls and releases in tension with one another.  A cultural revolution occurs when the releases, the permissive elements, overwhelm the stabilizing controls. In such circumstances, the moral commitments of the culture falter, its institutions weaken, until, normally, a new configuration of controls and releases arises.  A fine example of such a revolution was the rise of Christianity in the ancient world, and another is our own time — with one significant difference: in our case, it is not clear that anything new can arise to replace the crumbling past, for the corrosive, permissive element is hostile to all authority and settled convictions.  We are delivered from something to nothing.

This is important for Rieff because culture affects personality.  Personality and self-understanding, he argues, are rooted in culture, and when the latter changes the former cannot but change as well.  Our understanding of good and evil changes, as does our conception of the purpose of life, our duties to others, the importance of social institutions, and so forth, all of which affects our understanding of our own lives.  In the old culture, the self attained stability and purpose by identification with and commitment to ideals and communal purposes. This commitment, which integrates the individual person into a community, is “therapeutic”: it provides stability for the self, protecting one against various psychological problems. Membership, in a word, cures. This Rieff calls a “therapy of commitment”.  Perhaps this theory seems a little odd to you (as it does to me) but Rieff argues that it is simply a re-statement of the classical Western ideal: only by participation in the common life can one’s capacities be fully realized; the healthy person is a good citizen.

This entire model has been challenged and slowly eroded by the modern ideal of the autonomous individual.  This new ideal pits the individual against tradition and authority.  It breaks communal ties and is suspicious of institutions.  The new center is the self.  “By this conviction a new and dynamic acceptance of disorder, in love with life and destructive of it, has been loosed upon the world.” In this climate, binding commitments begin to look too extreme, and even pathological. Because it has unencumbered itself of the weight of history and traditional loyalties, the new culture — if the word can properly be used in this context — is simultaneously more inclusive and more detached.  It prides itself on its tolerance and openness to criticism, but it hunts down settled convictions and keeps all truth claims at arm’s length.  It has proven itself remarkably powerful as an agent of cultural change. “Nothing much can oppose it really, and it welcomes all criticism, for, in a sense, it stands for nothing.”

The punctiliar individual who is the final product of this revolution is without a place to lay his head.  He is alone with himself in the void, and it is into this void, says Rieff, that Freud comes, like an opportunistic infection, for it is Freud’s belief that, precisely because there is no community into which modern man can integrate himself, the former model of a “therapy of commitment” is no longer feasible.  Instead, Freud proposes “analysis”, the purpose of which is to help one live in this state of social detachment.

Analysis endorses a quasi-scientific objectivity, with the self as the object of interest.  It counsels one to observe, but not to judge, one’s own passions and faults.  Rather than see life as a challenge of self-discipline and purification (as with the older ideal), analysis seeks understanding and acceptance of the way one is.  It assumes a peculiarly democratic concept of the soul: within each of us, interestes and desires jostle for attention, but without a natural hierarchy, and the role of analysis is not only to negotiate between these competing interests, but to keep the negotiations from breaking down. (Settling them, remember, is not on the table.)  It is for this reason that, for instance, moral indignation is frowned upon, for enthusiasms of that sort imply an underlying moral commitment.  “The analytic attitude expresses a trained capacity for entertaining tentative opinions about the inner dictates of conscience, reserving the right even to disobey the law insofar as it originates outside the individual, in the name of a gospel of a freer impulse.”  From an analytic point of view, inner maturity does not mean virtue and love, but rationality and self-consciousness.  (“One difficulty with the criteria of rationality and consciousness is that Eichmann, for instance, might well be considered without need of treatment,” Rieff wryly observes.)

The analytic attitude has the property of sapping the drama of life. “The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence,” wrote Freud, and so the great questions that have animated mankind’s religious, philosophical, and even mystical experience are viewed as blunders, founded on mistakes.  Of course, to one who accepts Freud’s account analysis appears simply rational, saving one from all that pointless bustle which dominated the inner lives of our forebears.  “Throw away all the old keys to the great riddles of life; depth in psychology brings men’s minds around from such simplicities to the complexity of everyday tournaments with existence, to an active resignation in matters as they are, to a modest hope, and to satisfiable desires.  Balance is the delicate ethic Freud proposes. . .”  Therefore Freud’s ideas, says Rieff, serve a very important role in modern Western society, for they are an anti-creed for those who consider themselves post-religious.  He gives, not direction, but structure to the inner life, even if the horizon defined by that structure is rather confining in comparison with what came before.  “Freud proclaims the superior wisdom of choosing the second best.”

All of which, if true, is very interesting.  I confess that I am not equipped to judge the merits of the case.  I have the feeling that certain of Rieff’s views are unorthodox among Freudians — he is writing a critique, after all — but which views those are I do not know.  The theory of culture and therapy that he presents is entirely new to me, and I have no idea whether it has, or once had, a substantial number of adherents among psychologists.  Yet, in its broad contours, his description of “psychological man” is recognizable: morally flacid, tolerant even of the shocking, preoccupied with identity and feelings, suspicious of personal commitment, and irreligious. This is a type whom we have all met, and, more than that, I expect that we can all say, to some extent, l’homme psychologique, c’est moi.

The second half of The Triumph of the Therapeutic is devoted to a study of three of Freud’s leading disciples: Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, and D.H. Lawrence.  I am not going to dwell in detail on this material, but I would like to say a few words.  All three, says Rieff, were poor disciples.  They were no intellectual match for Freud, and neither did they have his spiritual strength.  All abandoned the unique defining feature of Freudianism: its rejection of “therapies of commitment”.  Jung proposed a kind of religious psychology, a “God without God” amalgam of myth and the unconscious; Reich endorsed radical political activism as the means to self-fulfillment; and Lawrence proposed erotic experience as a therapy to integrate the self.  Each is united in rejecting the past, but each seeks something to support a new conception of the human person, and a new definition of his ultimate good; each needs a rock on which to build his church.  Each is also, in my opinion, unconvincing.

Of the three, I had never heard of Wilhelm Reich, but Rieff’s comments about him are very interesting and worth a brief review.  Consider this passage: “For the anxieties behind all politics, Reich blamed all the familiar scapegoats: first, of course, the patriarchal, or authoritarian, family; second, ‘mystical’ religion; third, the division of labor, or ‘requirements of civilization’, which necessitated that there by big and little men, to do the honors and the drudgery of the world…”  Opposition to patriarchy, the traditional family, religion, economic inequality, and big business… Sound familiar?  It seems that Reich may have had some considerable influence on a certain side of the contemporary political divide.  It makes a kind of sense: if a political revolution is to be brought about, the power of traditional institutions must be weakened.  I was startled to read the forthrightness with which Reich attacked the family: “The chief institutional instrument of repressive authority is the family.  As political revolution must overthrow the power of the state, moral revolution must overthrow the power of the family — all families…”  And just how was the authority of the family to be undermined?  First, “hunting the father-figure” (Rieff’s words), and, second, sex education.  “Sex education becomes the main weapon in an ideological war against the family; its aim is to divest the parents of their moral authority. . .”  All of which is, to say the least, startlingly candid.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic is a major work of cultural criticism.  I cannot claim to have understood all, or even most, of it, but I can say that it appears to be a serious and high-minded response to a powerfully  pervasive cultural movement, and as such is worthy of notice.  It is one of those books that could, I expect, be profitably read numerous times, for the ideas are dense and layered, and the prose is compressed and suggestive.  There is much more between the covers than I was able to harvest on this first pass.

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