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Philip Rieff, 83; Noted Sociologist Wrote Books About Cultural Decline

July 05, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Sociologist Philip Rieff, who wrote erudite analyses of cultural decline and was known in particular for his critiques of Sigmund Freud, died Saturday at his Philadelphia home after a long period of deteriorating health. He was 83.

The longtime University of Pennsylvania professor, who retired in 1992, made his reputation with "The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud" (1966), a difficult work with a pessimistic view of Freud's influence on Western civilization. It was one of three major works on the founder of psychoanalysis, including a 10-volume "Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud" (1963) that Rieff edited.

An imaginative if dyspeptic critic, Rieff withdrew from publishing for 26 years, breaking his silence early this year with "Life Among the Deathworks," which he dedicated to Susan Sontag, the essayist and cultural critic from whom he was acrimoniously divorced in the late 1950s.

Rieff defined a deathwork as a work of art that presents "an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture." His examples included James Joyce's novel "Finnegans Wake" and a sexually explicit self-portrait by the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He cited Freud's theories as an extended deathwork that demolished prevailing world views without offering a new cultural order.

Although he said he wanted to reach a lay audience, his latest book seemed determined to alienate readers with its esoteric language, discursive style and conservative polemics. He called legalized abortion "an odorless flush-away world indifferent to life," denounced gay rights as "a movement of hate and indifference" and dismissed popular music for being dominated by the "black underclass in America."

He said the solution to all of these cultural problems was "inactivism." People of good will should stifle their best impulses because, he said, they will "do less damage that way."

Michael J. Lewis wrote in a review in Commentary magazine that Rieff's "disdain for the symbols of progressive piety is so thoroughgoing and explicit that one must conclude Rieff either relishes the confrontation or simply no longer cares." He pronounced "Deathworks" a "quirky, irritating and frequently profound book."

His dense style was often attacked by critics. Rieff's prose "is like chewing ball bearings; every once in a while there is a cherry," Richard Brookhiser wrote in the New York Observer, adding that he could only finish the book "by murmuring it aloud; I haven't done that since See Spot Run."

Rieff was born in Chicago and aspired to become a baseball writer. At the University of Chicago, he rose to editor of the campus newspaper in his sophomore year but was fired for a sarcastic editorial about seating arrangements in the campus coffee shop in which "fraternity boys" took the choice seats in front, while the rear was occupied by "the Jews, the Negroes, and the independents -- the lame, the halt, and the blind."

Although he still intended to pursue journalism as a career, he was derailed by World War II, when he served as an assistant to a brigadier general in the Army Air Forces. When he returned to the university, his mentor, intellectual historian Edward Shils, asked him to join the faculty, even though he hadn't earned his undergraduate degree. "That was the way Chicago was in those days," Rieff told the Chronicle of Higher Education last year.

He hurriedly completed his studies and received his bachelor's degree in 1946, his master's in 1947 and his doctorate in 1954.

He met Sontag in 1950 when she was a 17-year-old freshman auditing his class on social thought. They were so smitten with each other that they were married 10 days later.

"Whatever I saw when I was apart from him for an hour made me think first of how I would describe it to him; and we never separated for more than a few hours, just the time he taught his classes and I took mine -- we were insatiable," Sontag wrote in the New Yorker in 1986.

In 1952 they had a son, David, now a journalist and foreign policy analyst. They divorced in 1958. Their son, who was estranged from his father for a decade during his youth, ascribed his parents' differences to politics. "My mother was a leftist. My father was to the right of Attila the Hun," he told the New York Observer in 2005.

In addition to his son, Rieff is survived by his second wife, Alison D. Knox, a lawyer, whom he married in 1963. Sontag died in 2004.

Rieff left the University of Chicago in 1952 and over the next decade taught at Brandeis University and UC Berkeley. He joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1961 and became the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Sociology in 1967.

His first book was "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist" (1959), in which he argued that Freud's conceptions of individual, mind and society had revolutionized Western views of morality, with disastrous effects, producing a focus not on doing right but on "better living." His next two books on Freud cemented his reputation as an intellectual force.

His fourth book, "Fellow Teachers" (1973), examined the role of teachers in a "cultureless" era and won a following despite its challenging style. He stopped publishing for the next two decades and focused on teaching.

He was a campus legend at the University of Pennsylvania, where he banned note-taking in some classes, believing that it prevented students from engaging with texts. He also was something of a dandy, and sometimes brought his two terriers to class with him.

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