"True barbarism has never existed before. We are witnesses to the first true barbarians." Ms. Sontag wrote in a 1996 reflection on the triumph of consumer capitalism and expressive individualism: "Barbarism is one name for what was taking over. Let's use Nietzsche's term: we had entered, really entered, the age of nihilism."
But in a more important sense, the two scholars went on to move in very different directions. Ms. Sontag had a much more hopeful view — although always ambivalent — toward feminism and other liberal and radical cultural currents. Her 1966 collection, Against Interpretation, praised Norman O. Brown, whom Mr. Rieff regarded as a utopian "left-Freudian." In 1985 she wrote an appreciative introduction to a volume of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. Mr. Rieff is far more skeptical: His new book includes a meditation on one of Mr. Mapplethorpe's photographs, which culminates with the declaration that "homosexuality as a social movement is not a movement of love but a movement of hatred and indifference."
At the recent Prime Retreat for the Diocesan Apostolate on Youth Ministry, we had our fill (largely my own fault) of pessimistic assessments of the future. I should have thrown in this remark of Rieff's on barbarism, which he prefaced with the reminder that every human culture had a "bedrock of authority" that is absent today.
And how do you like that antiquated description of homosexuality as a movement of "hatred and indifference"?
Of course, I'm all for thinking things antiquated.