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Readings — From the September 2019 issue

Regarding the Pen of Others

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From Sontag: Her Life and Work, which will be published by Ecco this month.

“In the Freudian conception,” wrote one author, “as it gradually emerged through these early years of uncertainty, the body exists as a symptom of mental demands.”

The identity of that author is one of the enduring mysteries in the life of Susan Sontag. The book that contains it, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, was published in 1959 under the name of Philip Rieff. But ever after, the wife from whom he was by that point separated would claim to be its real author. The book is so excellent in so many ways, so complete a working-out of the themes that marked Susan’s life, that it is hard to imagine it could be the product of a mind that would go on to produce such meager fruits.

In 1966, Philip published a further book on Freud, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud, but his later writings were few. After an essay called Fellow Teachers appeared in 1973, more than three decades would pass before he wrote another book. His late writings did not enhance his early reputation. They return, in ponderous prose, to the same gloomy themes of civilizational Untergang that marked his work from the beginning. In his department at Penn, colleagues and students who saw past the presumptuous veneer that overlaid his interactions with them came away with the impression that there was something unearned about his eminence. The slum kid who dressed like a British grandee had something of the scam artist about him. But surely he knew this himself.

Yet the question about The Mind of the Moralist is not whether Philip Rieff was capable of producing it, or whether he contributed to it: the book seems to be based, at least to some degree, on his research and notes. But Susan’s very first account of their relationship was the letter to her sister, Judith, in which she described her excitement at meeting him and the work she was doing ghostwriting his reviews, saving him “the trouble of reading the book.” Perhaps this procedure seemed normal in 1950; but even viewed in the most liberal light, it raises the question of why a twenty-seven-year-old not-yet-professor was hiring an undergraduate to review books he himself had not read.

There are contemporary witnesses to Susan’s authorship of The Mind of the Moralist. It began as Philip’s project. “He had a gazillion notes,” her friend Minda Rae Amiran said, “and he strove to put it together into a book.” Susan tried to help organize it, but “when it was completed, she saw that it was still a mess.” During their years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Amiran said, “Susan was spending every afternoon rewriting the whole thing from scratch.” Even more than every afternoon: in 1956, she wrote her mother that she was “in third gear now on the book—working about 10 hours a day on it at least.” In 1958, when he was trying to get her a job at Commentary, her friend Jacob Taubes warned her not to relinquish her authorship. “I told [the editor] you are an excellent ghostwriter. I wish I would not be bound by your confidence to what degree! Did you, by the way, relinquish all rights on the Freud? It would be a crime.” (“I see you in Cambridge typing on the bed.” He adds, with a wink: “What a waste of time and waste of the bed.”)

She later said that she worked in the bedroom so that their friends would not see her writing; in any case, she wrote Taubes, she had indeed relinquished her rights. “I am without consolation,” he answered. “You cannot give your intellectual contribution as a gift to another person. . . . It could be the ruin of Philip if he dared to come out shamelessly without your signature.”

Susan always regretted signing it over to him: “It was almost like a blood sacrifice,” said Taubes’s son Ethan. “That she was willing to give up the book to get rid of him.” Four decades later—long after the question ceased to matter to either of their careers—the doorbell rang at Susan’s apartment in New York. A package was delivered. She opened it to find a copy of The Mind of the Moralist. It was inscribed to “Susan, Love of my life, mother of my son, co-author of this book: for­give me. Please. Philip.”

Susan claimed she wrote “every single word” of The Mind of the Moralist. Philip belatedly allowed that she was its “co-­author.” And it is in certain passages, on women and homosexuality, that Susan’s voice can be most clearly distinguished. Perhaps their divorce darkened Philip’s view of women, particularly of gay women. But even as a young man, as when he forbade Susan and her friend Joyce Farber to go to the movies in jeans, his notions of female propriety had raised eyebrows.

Susan seems to have had less influence over his thesis, “Freud’s Contribution to Political Philosophy,” accepted at Chicago in 1954. There, the “traditional man” approvingly ascribed to Freud the belief that “there is an inevitable inequality in even the happiest marriages,” in which love becomes “a relation of obedience to authority.” The interest in domination and authority, certainly present in Freud’s thought, is also present in The Mind of the Moralist. But there it is subjected to a strong feminist reading absent from Philip’s thesis.

In his later career, he was notorious for refusing to direct the dissertations of women students. As for homosexuals—to whom he referred as “homosexualists”—they were “disgusting.” Love, for them, was impossible:

Bisexuality is as powerful a perversion and rebellion against reality and its commanding truths of resistance as is homosexuality. For love in the sexual mode must be across the sexes in order to be true.

Philip’s late works are so eccentric—this one warns that the hip-hop group 2 Live Crew was a matter of world conquest and includes condescending remarks about Abraham Lincoln—that it is hard to take them seriously, no matter how seriously they take themselves. Perhaps it is enough to note the distance between Philip Rieff’s opinion on bisexuality and the call for tolerance voiced in The Mind of the Moralist.

The book from which the above quote was taken, My Life Among the Deathworks, was published in 2006, the year Philip Rieff died. It includes an understated, tender dedication: “Susan Sontag in remembrance.”

This was a marked change of tone from the acknowledgments included in The Mind of the Moralist. When it was published in 1959, he thanked “my wife, Susan Rieff, [who] devoted herself unstintingly to this book.” Even this grudging nod would be removed from subsequent editions, but it raised eyebrows when it appeared. “Boy, he hates her,” Joyce Farber thought when she saw the book. “She never in her whole life used that name, ever.” It was an attempt to colonize her identity, to shove his wife back into the traditional role: to reassert his authority, to get back on top.

As in her later writings about illness, in which the vigor of Susan’s polemics swept aside the doubts she herself harbored, her assertions of a woman’s need for an independent identity masked an equally eager need to submit. Freud, and Philip, were not alone in believing that every relationship “must include a superior and a subordinate.” Whether this statement applies to all love relationships is dubious, but it would prove sadly germane to Susan Sontag’s. Her inability to abandon what Freud calls “the sadistic conception of coitus” doomed one relationship after another; and his proffered solution, “an ideal of love purged of parental influences, an exchange of equals,” proved impossible for her to achieve. Her parental influences—what she called her “profoundest experience”—were of affection given and withdrawn.

The result was “conceiving all relationships as between a master and a slave,” she wrote a few years after her marriage ended. “In each case, which was I to be? I found more gratification as a slave; I was more nourished. But—Master or slave, one is equally unfree.”

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