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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 Two Everything Profaned


Ah, you who wish for the day of the LORD! Why should you want the day of the LORD? It shall be darkness, not light! – As if a man should run from a lion and be attacked by a bear; or if he got indoors, should lean his hand on the wall and be bit- ten by a snake! Surely the day of the LORD shall be not light, but darkness, blackest night without a glimmer. – Amos 5:18–20 R’Nechemiah says: In the generation when the Son of David will come, insolence will increase, honor will dwindle, the vine will produce its fruit, yet wine will be ex- pensive, the entire kingdom will convert to heresy, and there will be no rebuke. – Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 97a Israel had a debt to discharge, the debt incurred by its election to creedal nation- hood. This is a very special, debt-ridden superiority. The only way to discharge this debt was to confirm their election as “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” [Exo- dus 19:6]. – Philip Rieff, Charisma 2.1 Dark Nights Culture and the forms of life it generates, principally the expressive instantia- tions of law and community, mark the vestigial sites of messianic activity for Rieff: culture allows us to do the work of the Messiah by encouraging us to the threshold of the kingdom, through negating necessity and power. In less exalted terms, Rieff simply has in mind the idea that when fulfilling its sacred function, culture (in...

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