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Fire Backstage

Philip Rieff and the Monastery of Culture


Christopher Cain Elliott

At present, the name and writings of Philip Rieff (1922-2006) hang under a sign of neglect. This book is an attempt to identify precisely what has been lost through this lack of critical attention, arguing that Rieff’s lifework marks a singular contribution to the fields of reactionary apocalyptics and social and cultural studies. Providing a working definition for the horizon of contemporary Jewish philosophy, this book also suggests how Rieff uniquely contributes to this field of speculative inquiry with an insufficiently appreciated, but essential, theory of psycho-theology


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Chapter One The Logic of Sacrifice


[D] He said to them, “If it is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven.” A heavenly voice went forth and said, “What is it for you with R. Eliezer, since the law is like him in every place?” [E] R. Yehoshua stood up on his feet and said, “It is not in Heaven (Deut. 30:12).” [F] What is, “It is not in Heaven”? R. Yirmiah said, “We do not listen to a heavenly voice, since you already gave it to us on Mt. Sinai and it is written there, Incline af- ter the majority (Exod. 23:2).” [G] R. Natan came upon Elijah. He said to him, “What was the Holy One doing at that time?” He said to him, “He laughed and smiled and said, ‘My sons have defeat- ed me, my sons have defeated me.’ ” – Bavli Bava Metsia 59a-59b, translated by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein 1.1 The Reactionary Lexicon Rieff began his speculative vocation at the University of Chicago, where he wrote his master’s thesis on the concept of “clerisy,” taken from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each (1830), which argues for the necessity of bearers of culture (Kulturträ- ger). In the words of Coleridge himself: The Nationality, therefore, was reserved for the support and maintenance of a per- manent class or order with the following duties. A certain smaller number were to remain at the fountain heads of the humanities, in cultivating...

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