Philip Rieff — Moralist and Plagiarist

October 15, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1960s, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist by Philip Rieff was an important book.

The original paperback edition. I have added the
red asterisk for a reason discussed below.

Freudian ideas were still influential back then, not just in clinical psychology but more generally in liberal intellectual and academic circles. University bookstore shelves were stacked with required books like Eros and Civilization (Marcuse), Love’s Body (N.O. Brown), Childhood and Society (Erikson), heavily steeped in Freud, along with Civilization and Its Discontents.

Now, an article by Len Gutkin in the latest Chronicle questions the authorship of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. The subhead asks “Did Susan Sontag’s husband steal credit for her first book?” The husband in question is Philip Rieff. They met when Rieff was teaching at the University of Chicago. She was seventeen, an undergraduate. He was 28. They married ten days later. The marriage lasted eight years.

Sontag as the author of the book is not a new idea. I’d first heard this rumor in 1966 when I was a graduate student at Penn, where Rieff taught the required course on theory. Most of us were willing to accept the rumor. As Benjamin Moser, whose recent book on Sontag is the source for the information in the Chronicle piece, says (here).

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.

Moser got it right. “Presumptous veneer . . .  Dressed like a British grandee” and with an undertaker’s lack of color — charcoal gray or black suits, double breasted or with a vest, shirt always white, necktie solid, striped, or patterned but always gray. As one of my professors at Brandeis said (Reiff had been on the faculty there), “all so that nobody would think he was Rieff the butcher’s son from Chicago.”

And then there was the comb-over. A broad ribbon of hairs carefully drawn across the front of his forehead to the other side, never quite covering the baldness just behind them.

He told us that he did not want to be the students’ “friend” — he said the word as though he were holding a worm at arms length — not that there was any chance of that. His lectures were uninterrupted monologues with many names dropped in — Saint-Simon, Le Maistre, Aristotle, and on and on —  to show his erudition and our lack of it. Sometimes I would keep a list, writing down each name as Rieff dropped it, just to keep my mind from wandering.*

Most of the lectures were talking versions of parts of the book he was working on. The Triumph of the Therapeutic, which Gutkin calls, “a dyspeptic polemic against modernity in the guise of a study of post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory.” Rieff seemed to think that his ideas were original and brilliant. The thing is that on those occasions when he would talk in depth about a specific book or social theorist — no name dropping, none of his own pet terms or coinages — he was actually good. I transferred after my first year.

So did Sontag write the book? The Chronicle headline seems like another example of Betteridge’s Law, which says (I’m amending it slightly) that when an article headline is in the form of a question, the author wants you to think that the answer is Yes, but the more accurate answer is No.

But in this case, the author seems ambivalent, and the correct answer is mostly Yes. My impression is that Rieff had accumulated notes and fragments over the years, including the years before he met Sontag, but it was Sontag, still in her early twenties, who organized the material, added her own thoughts and sources that Rieff had not considered, and did the actual writing. Moser suggests that Sontag, in the acrimonious divorce negotiations, gave up any claims to authorship in return for Rieff giving up any custody claims on their son.

Freud: The Mind of the Moralist was the basis for Rieff’s career. A year or two after it was published, he was offered a position at Penn, where he stayed till he retired. The Times obit  refers to the title as “paradoxical” because Freud’s ideas “ had a corrosive effect on Western morality and culture.” The other paradox — or is it irony? — is that is that a man so apparently concerned with morality and its corrosion would put his name on a book written by someone else. 

* The Times obit had a slightly different take on Rieff’s lectures: “Dr. Rieff often dazzled and occasionally puzzled students with multilayered but always authoritative lectures that blended philosophy, theology, economics, history, literature, psychology and dashes of poetry and Plato like ingredients in a sociological mulligatawny.”


DanBruns said...

Thanks for your personal memories--they make otherwise removed people like Phillip Rieff come alive. I enjoyed Benjamin Moser's book, and I loved Susan Sontag's writings, but after reading several articles (listed on Wikipedia, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist) challenging Moser, I'm not convinced. Moser apparently never read Rieff's dissertation, which included many parts of the book.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for commenting.

I hadn’t read the Wikepedia article when I wrote this. It doesn’t change my overall impression. I certainly don’t think Sontag wrote the whole book. More likely, these were ideas and topics that Rieff had been thinking about for a while. But I would also guess that Sontag’s contributions were substantial — more than just what a good editor would do — and that if she had legally challenged the authorship, her name might also have wound up on the cover. That would have made a nasty divorce even nastier, and I can see why she wouldn’t go that route.

I had the paperback edition of the book, and when I first heard these rumors that Sontag had written much of the book, I looked in the Acknowledgments. Her name was not there. Wikipedia says that in the first edition Rieff had thanked “Susan Rieff” but then deleted her from all subsequent editions.

I’m not saying she was Rieff’s Dick Schaap, but his omitting her entirely was intellectually dishonest.