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Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has…
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Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us

by Philip Rieff

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This is one of the most bizarre books that I’ve read in a long time, and not only because it earnestly defends a point of view that can in many respects be called pre-modern, but because it does so in such a sophisticated way. Philip Rieff may be best known today for being the husband of Susan Sontag during the 1950s, and fathering David Rieff, who in turn became an established writer in his own right. He taught sociology at the University of Chicago (where he met and married Sontag after a very short courtship) and the University of Pennsylvania. He sustained a career-long attack on what he calls in this book and others “therapeutic culture,” which he expounded upon in earlier books including “Freud: The Mind of the Moralist” and “The Triumph of the Therapeutic.” This book wasn’t written by Rieff. He knew out of the cultural mainstream his ideas were, and even admitted that this kind of book “wouldn’t have a constituency.” Two of his sociology students, Aaron Manson and Daniel Frank, cobbled together some of the notes that Rieff made and this book is the result.

Another peculiar thing about this book is that, despite its cover and accessible introduction, it is essentially a book-length response to the sociology of Max Weber, and essentially his writing on the concept of charisma, to which contributions were influential. Rieff thinks that culture is thoroughly interdictory – that is, that it is built around negative demands made on the people of that culture. (Think, for example, of the Decalogue, with its liberal use of “Thou Shall Nots.”) In fact, life under Mosaic law is one of the examples that he discusses in particular detail. He calls cultures that recognize a common set of interdictory themes as “creedal cultures.” In fact, a culture’s creed is what makes it a culture in the first place; without a creed, there can be no culture. While Rieff never pinpoints a time in history, we as cultural animals (I assume he’s talking about Western European culture specifically here) began to question and eschew this interdictory motif. He largely blames this on the writings of Weber, but not only him: he also has some pretty harsh things to say about Kierkegaard and, of course, his favorite hobby horse, Freud. One of the biggest signs of an anti-credal cultural (not really a culture at all) is the changing nature of charisma. Charisma, Rieff claims, used to refer to the power of moral transformative moral authority; Moses and Jesus are two preeminent examples. Now when we hear the word charisma, we think of someone who has merely personal panache and appeal. The moral aspect of the word has been subtracted from its contemporary use. And again, this is all Max Weber’s fault.

None of this seems especially controversial. Every culture, even “liberal” ones (a word, as I show below, that Rieff bandies with never a dearth of disdain) have interdicts and prohibitions. Is there anyone that deny that our culture is not based on at least some interdictory forms? Don’t murder, don’t commit incest, don’t be a traitor to your country, et cetera, et cetera. But Rieff manages to say some pretty reactionary, and even anti-intellectual, things in the course of the book. Perhaps they might not seem too reactionary, considering what he thinks about the basis of culture, but I’ll let the reader judge. These are some of the passages that I highlighted from the first forty pages of the book.

“The modern guru [the charismatic in the modern sense] represents the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent. It is in this sense that he is an exemplar, someone to follow” (p. 4).

“Weber is himself the culminating expression, I think, of the Protestant pathos, which turns into evolutionism and progressivism, with its mystique of breaks with the established order as its highest expression of the intellect and of soul. This Protestant pathos, this mystique with breaks of the established order, is less than a revolution and more than a reform. It is that relentless lusting after progressive social change that characterizes the liberal era and leads straight into the Marxist pathos, with its generalized species man, who turns into an apparatchik and party functionary” (p. 7).

“It is the rejection of rejection, by transgressive movements, of the entire notion of dangerous situations that has become the special object of fear and hatred in modern society. The liberal defense of these transgressions must itself bring liberalism itself crashing down, for in that defense, the liberals are defending the destruction of avoidance mechanisms which are necessary to the practice of liberalism itself” (p. 12).

“Egyptian culture was the fixing of all possibility, including death, in certain forms. This is an entire society aspiring to be exactly as it is, in love with itself” (p. 17).

“The moderns of Israel, especially the literary moderns, have accepted the terrible idea that they themselves can become as gods, to other persons, especially in the sexual encounter. Thus, in the modern novel there is a vengeful destruction of all limits on the sexual relation, its utter transformation into a coming struggle for power between one person and another” (p. 18).

“For then men no longer grasp their own limits; they become destroyers and worship only under the principle of power, which can only be fulfilled by breaking up ritualization as defensive similitudes of power in the struggle against power. The cool, analytical rejection of ritual, as “uncivilized” and “irrational,” is one with the hot, romantic yearning to bring down the roof of civilization. The rationalist rejection of ritual is one element in the large compound of anti-culture. The other element is the deritualizing of intimate relations, the dissolution of all manners and reticence, so that men leap upon one another, to achieve their own persons in the submission, unto death, of another” (p. 19).

“Science needs its own Sabbatarian movement, an insistence upon what it is not to do, a time and sphere of constraint. The insoluble social condition of the scientists is that they are uncovenanted, without an interdictory form” (p. 25).

“The case histories for perversion that pass for modern literature and theater, by failing to transform private into public, are not art, but transgressive assaults upon the public, mounted in public. An anti-credal play could be a man opening his fly, and inviting an audience to do the same. In such an artistic condition, there can be no disobediences. No act needs justification because it means nothing whatever – like a Pinter play” (p. 37)

If any of these quotes appeal to you intellectually, then you’ll probably enjoy and agree with Rieff’s thesis, assuming that you’re willing to navigate his prose, which too often consists of elliptical bloviating. For committed liberals – and Rieff is so anti-liberal that this has nothing to do with the modern political usage of the word, but would include almost anyone who thought there was anything redeeming about the Enlightenment – his thesis is drawn in such overarching, bombastic language (as can be seen from the quotes) that your Weltanschauung will probably not be radically changed, but I found mustering the counterarguments to be fun and stimulating. In many ways, this book reads like it was written a century ago. I find it odd that people can still believe such things. But I’m glad I read this. ( )
  kant1066 | Aug 9, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375424520, Hardcover)

Charisma has come to be understood today as a special gift or talent that celebrities–artistic performers, athletes, movie stars, or political leaders–possess, a quality that makes their lives exemplary and transforms them into objects of universal appeal or attraction.

In Charisma, Philip Rieff explores the emergence and evolution of this mysterious and compelling concept within Judeo-Christian culture. Its first expression was in the idea of the covenant between God and the Israelites: Charisma–religious grace and authority–was transferred through divine inspiration to the Old Testament prophets; it was embodied by Jesus of Nazareth, the first true charismatic hero. Rieff shows how St. Paul transformed charisma into a form of social organization, how it was reworked by Martin Luther and by nineteenth-century Protestant theologians, and, finally, how Max Weber redefined charisma as a secular political concept. By emptying charisma of its religious meaning, Weber opened the door to the modern perception of it as little more than a form of celebrity, stripped of moral considerations.

Rieff rejects Weber’s definition, insisting that Weber misunderstood the relation between charisma and faith. He argues that without morality, the gift of grace becomes indistinguishable from the gift of evil, and it devolves into a license to destroy and kill in the name of faith or ideology. Offering brilliant interpretations of Kierkegaard, Weber, Kafka, Nietzsche, and Freud, Rieff shows how certain thinkers attacked the very possibility of faith and genuine charisma and helped prepare the way for the emergence of a therapeutic culture in which it is impossible to recognize that which is sacred. Rieff’s analysis of charisma is an analysis of the deepest level of crisis in our culture.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:32:48 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Charisma has come to be understood as a special gift or talent possessed by celebrities--artists, athletes, political leaders--a quality that makes them objects of universal appeal or attraction. Sociologist Rieff explores the evolution of this compelling concept within Judeo-Christian culture, from the covenant between God and the Israelites: charisma--religious grace and authority--was given to the Old Testament prophets, and embodied by Jesus. Rieff shows how St. Paul transformed charisma into a form of social organization, how it was reworked by Protestant theologians, and, finally, how Max Weber redefined charisma as a secular political concept. In emptying charisma of its religious meaning, the modern perception is stripped of moral considerations. Invoking Kierkegaard, Weber, Kafka, Nietzsche, and Freud, Rieff argues that without morality, the gift of grace becomes indistinguishable from the gift of evil, devolving into a license to destroy in the name of ideology--part of the deepest level of crisis in our culture.--From publisher description.… (more)

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