Piss Christ by Andres Serrano (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Among the deathworks

On culturing culture

Artillery Row

A “thin, heavy-thighed, balding man who talked and talked, snobbishly, bookishly, and called me ‘Sweet’”. These are the words of Susan Sontag, the philosopher and filmmaker whose name hangs proudly in Sarajevo’s “Theater Square of Susan Sontag” after she produced Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot during the long siege of the capital. 

Sontag was describing the man she met and promptly married at 17 in 1950, Philip Rieff. Although the marriage didn’t last the decade, her biographer, Benjamin Moser, unearthed evidence of a lively start: 

They stayed in bed most of the first months of their marriage, making love four or five times a day and in between talking, talking endlessly about art and politics and religion and morals. 

Her marriage to Rieff marked a strange settling after a string of relationships with the cultural vanguard of her time. Painters, poets, models and directors, both male and female. So, if not his looks, what was it about Rieff? 

Rieff is much less famous — primarily known for being married to Sontag — but otherwise he taught sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. The most peculiar aspect of their pairing is Rieff’s disdain for the cultural elite, among whom many would number his wife and her friends. 

The artists are satirical and addicted to sacrilege

“Disdain” is probably not strong enough. The “deathworks” is Rieff’s snappy name for the works of art produced in the early and mid century. According to Rieff, the deathly thing about the work of James Joyce or Pablo Picasso is how they subvert that which was held sacred by past generations. Rieff tracks the shift from alignment to dealignment with a sacred order: from the first “world cultures” of paganism and monotheism, to the third, which does not recognise gods, God or any kind of sacred purpose for creation. 

Instead, cultural elites seek to end the legacy of the first world cultures by a process of de-creation, forsaking man’s given role as steward of a created, sacred order. The artists are satirical, mocking and addicted to the project of sacrilege. As Rieff says, “every deathwork represents an admiring final assault on the objects of its admiration: the sacred orders of which their arts are some expression in the repressive mode.”

Did Rieff consider Sontag a master of deathworks? The pair seemed to be in a mysterious and remote dialectic after their divorce. Having removed credit to Sontag in his book on Freud (rumoured to be part of a bitter custody settlement despite Sontag’s friends claiming she is the true author), his posthumous work, My Life Among the Deathworks, is dedicated to her. Clearly, an extreme hopeless romantic.

The book is not straightforward. The introduction by James Davison Hunter writes “His is a strategy of concealment”. But the “image entries” laced throughout the book offer the reader a chance to notice the deathworks for themselves. Serrano’s Piss Christ is the obvious work of death. Rieff describes the artist’s photo of a crucifix inside a small tank of his own urine like this: 

The sacrament as fusion with the highest authority is inverted to the image in Piss Christ as a fusion with the lowest. The highest is identified down in an act of incredible crudity. It amounts to an assault that lowers the Catholic identity [of Galatians 2:20] to the level of excrement. Christ is in you, and so you are piss.

So, a handful of artists produced some weird shit. What’s the big deal? To make this point, Rieff makes an unholy alliance with chief weirdo — Sigmund Freud. Perhaps Freud was the glue that held Rieff and Sontag together for eight busy years. The very tragedy of the deathworks is exposed through a Freudian reading. For most of us, the Freudian slip is the awkward moment when you reveal your subconscious (or secret) desire for the transgressive or absurd by accident. Rieff leaned into the Freudian imagination. Freud was incessantly drawing links between our hopes and fears, how they shape behavioural norms in sex or faith; and then armed with this psychoanalysis, testing the true function of the principles that govern society. Theologian, historian and author of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman makes Rieff’s Freudian approach sound extremely sensible.

Like Freud, Rieff understood cultural norms to be shaped by a transcendent authority which gives rationale to a social order. But this authority has been challenged in recent decades. Trueman puts it like this: 

Third worlds, by way of stark contrast to the first and second worlds, do not root their cultures, their social orders, their moral imperatives in anything sacred. They do have to justify themselves, but they cannot do so on the basis of something sacred or transcendent. Instead, they have to do so on the basis of themselves. The inherent instability of this approach should be obvious.

If a social order is rooted in a sacred order, then when mass sacrilege through deathworks is complete, the social order — its culture — is in ruin. 

There is more bad news. Notice Freud in Rieff’s pronouncement of the end of culture: 

Culture and sacred order are inseparable, the former the registration of the latter as a systemic expression of the practical relation between humans and the shadow aspect of reality as it is lived. No culture has ever preserved itself where it is not a registration of sacred order. There, cultures have not survived. The third culture notion of a culture that persists independent of all sacred orders is unprecedented in human history.

What makes the current world culture so deadly is that it heralds the end of something — namely, culture altogether. If culture inculcates virtue and represses vices, “by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood”, then the deathworks signal our arrival at the anticulture. 

Yet despite the destruction of deathworks, the flame of the sacred burns bright. A final Rieff quote: 

The faith instinct … simply cannot be killed. That “simply cannot” means that we simply cannot not live — cannot live as if life were meaningless, without purpose; as if life were merely material or mechanical or not spiritual. Such an effort in its deadly futility represents a historical ending time, a time just before the faith instinct will show itself again.

Where does the faith instinct find some partial or imperfect expression in such a desacralised culture? My answer is that a great effort to reify the sacred has taken place. 

We are left in miserable disenchantment

Desacralisation is hard work. The creators of death must force the goodness and creativity of God, grace, out of nature: deny the mountains their majesty and rob the sea of her dignity. This perversion is made culturally plausible by severing the sacred from the social and banishing any trace of the religious to a private sphere of fiction and fantasy, above, apart and without bearing on nature. But whilst nature continues to bear witness to a created, sacred order, another object must be reified to satisfy the wandering faith instinct. This is the human subject, and the social order that flows from this new authority revolves around making the human subject perform increasingly like a Creator. Far from enlightening, darkness descends over the third world.

The new instinct to master nature with nature (that is, with man) constitutes a terrible act of self-destruction — for man is a very part of nature. Nature is no longer for us to steward as an act of self-preservation, but to consume, stretched beyond its bounds to devastation, and so we have the great plagues of floods, famine and fire. The cultural elite that subvert the sacred add injury to the earth by cultivating the anticulture, building a precarious tower of Babel towards deathworks.

What is left of nature when grace is snuffed out? How does it feel to dwell in the anticulture? We are left in miserable disenchantment. Max Weber said:

The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the “disenchantment of the world”.

But nature fights back against sacrilege. After all, the trace of the sacred is in its very DNA, reflections and refractions of grace in nature. Enchantment might be broadly understood as the recognition that myth, perhaps inspired by a perceived yet unseen sacred visitation, is a useful prophet of reality. It is nature’s cry to be in full communion with the sacred order, not the whim of human appetite.

Against the deathworks, G. K. Chesterton denies that “fairy-tale language” is mystical and mockable but is in fact “rational and agnostic” simply because fruit growing from a tree or the moon’s bright glow is undeniably enchanting.

Later writers have also resisted ideas that the fantastic and rational are in perpetual opposition. A short story by David Foster Wallace examines a boy who wishes he could catch the barrel of his toy mixer rotate, apart from his own artificial puppetry. At the same time, the boy considers the horror of observing the magic and thereby expelling the mystery. Wallace writes 

I have never forgotten it, or the feeling in my chest and midsection whenever yet another, even more involved attempt to trap the toy’s magic met with failure — a mix of crushing disappointment and ecstatic reverence. This was the year, at five or six, that I learned the meaning of “reverence,” which, as I understand it, is the natural attitude to take toward magical, unverifiable phenomena, the same way that “respect” and “obedience” describe the attitude one takes toward observable physical phenomena, such as gravity or money.

For Wallace, we need enchantment to cultivate reverence and experience our own man-nature. Just as a small boy is distraught at no longer being under the spell of endless possibility, so Adam and Eve are immediately shamed by their nakedness when they attempt to know the mind of God and seek a social order apart from the sacred order. Indeed, only by our corruption can we be like God. Instead we must observe the fruit, the sacred, and live by its presence with reverence. 

Rieff saw an innate bind on the human subject because we are a created part of nature and therefore subject to ordinances outside of nature. Theologian John Milbank puts it like this: “there is objectively a right way to be human”. To then live in harmony with the sacred order is to ensure our culture places restraint — by shame or honour in the Freduian sense — on the self-destructive desire to subvert the sacred. Instead, we must come to terms with our true creaturely nature, and with a posture of reverence, produce art that triggers a feeling of the sublime: grace in nature.

It is said that Rieff admired the American poet, Wallace Stevens. The editor of his latest posthumously published work chose to open the book with a perplexing yet profound quote from Wallace which warns readers of seeing order where there is in fact disorder.

A violent order is disorder; and,
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)

Wallace Stevens, “Connoisseur of Chaos”

Let this be a lesson to the cultural elite to steer the next world culture towards a genuine social order, culture of virtue and enchanted living. 

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