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Susan Sontag Was Not the Sole Author of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist

Susan Sontag Was Not The Sole Author Of Freud: The Mind Of The Moralist

They were a couple that at first blush must have seemed a shotgun wedding: thin, pear-shaped Philip Rieff, with his three-piece suit, bowler hat, watch fob, and affected aristocratic accent—a 28-year-old going on 60—with his 17-year-old bride, the tall, beautiful, brilliant lioness Susan Sontag. After a ten-day courtship in the winter of 1951, the two would begin an eight-year marriage that ended with a bitterness matching the intensity of their first passion. At the time of their divorce, Rieff published Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959).[1] Seven years later, Rieff, building off of the momentum of that first, widely acclaimed study, published The Triumph of the Therapeutic.[2] Despite the praise heaped on his second book, Rieff would thereafter begin his slow withdrawal into the project that would occupy him for the rest of his life: a labyrinthine new social theory of culture. He cultivated a small group of devotees and rarely published. Sontag, meanwhile, enjoyed a triumph of her own in 1966: with the publication of Against Interpretation, she launched her long and successful career as a public intellectual.[3]

In his 2019 biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work, Benjamin Moser champions Sontag’s sometime claim that she wrote “every single word of” Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, even though it was published solely under Rieff’s name. In the New York Times, reviewer Parul Sehgal calls this the book’s “juiciest claim.”[4] Sontag has long been presumed the co-author, and this, as Moser shows, by Rieff’s own admission.[5] Indeed, were Moser simply to have asserted Sontag’s unacknowledged co-authorship of the work, his biography would have had nothing new to offer in this regard; Sontag scholars have made this assertion for decades.

But Moser goes beyond co-authorship. Though he prefers to quote Sontag’s correspondence or interviews with her friends as evidence of her sole authorship in his book, he has made this assertion quite directly in interviews promoting the book.[6] In the Guardian, Allison Flood writes, “Moser acknowledges in the biography that Freud: The Mind of the Moralist is based, at least to some degree, on Rieff’s research and notes, but claims: ‘He almost certainly did not actually write the book upon which his career was based.’”[7] Even more boldly, Moser continues, “In the course of my research, I discovered that she had indeed written it.” Likewise, regarding the Mind of the Moralist, Moser told the New York Times, “I’ve read enough of her writing to know that this is her writing, it’s her voice, it’s the way she thinks.”[8]

The idea that Sontag—a caged bird trapped in domesticity with the dour Rieff—was the “true author” of Mind of the Moralist, dexterously spinning out the well-received book that launched Rieff’s career, is an alluring one. However, we do not believe the claim stands up to close scrutiny. And we are not the only ones. Joyce Malcolm, writing of both Moser’s biography and Sontag’s published diaries in The New Yorker, finds Moser’s claim both unsubstantiated and skewed by his personal bias against Rieff. Of Sontag’s 1950 letter to her sister, which tells of her new job ghostwriting book reviews for Rieff—a source key to Moser’s argument—Malcolm writes that it “doesn’t reflect well on Rieff, but it hardly proves that Sontag wrote ‘The Mind of the Moralist.’”[9] Malcolm takes a similar, skeptical view that Moser’s interviews with contemporaries who knew that Sontag was working on the book prove Sontag’s sole authorship. She cites Sontag biographer and admirer Sigrid Nunez, who presumed Sontag’s claim to have written Mind of the Moralist “to be another one of her exaggerations.”[10] In a review in The Critic, Christopher Bray pointed out that Sontag was not a strong student of history and never wrote a book-length treatise; these would make her an unlikely sole author of a book so long, and so steeped in history, as Mind of the Moralist.[11]

Elaborating on some of these arguments and adding some new objections, we add our voices to those skeptical of Moser’s claim that Sontag wrote “every single word of” Mind of the Moralist. Moser’s assertion has two key flaws: first, it is motivated by his outsized personal loathing for Rieff and his desire to delegitimize Rieff’s later work; second, Moser ignores Rieff’s 1954 dissertation on Freud, large portions of which appear verbatim in Mind of the Moralist.

Moser makes Philip Rieff the villain in Sontag: Her Life and Work. His desire to demonize Rieff is very clear, especially in his presentation of the aspect of Rieff’s and Sontag’s early lives in which he finds them to have been most alike: their projects of self-transformation. Moser takes great pains to limn each part of Sontag’s “project of self-transformation.”[12] In her early teens Sontag confronted lesbian desires with which she was not at all comfortable, then undertook what she called “The Bi’s Progress,” reinventing herself first as a bisexual, and then, with her marriage to Rieff, as a conventional married heterosexual.[13] When that marriage began to fail, Sontag took refuge in bisexual promiscuity and, around the time of the end of her marriage, in a heartbreaking series of unsuccessful relationships with women.

Sontag’s self-transformations encompassed more than her sexuality; she undertook them in the service of her burning ambition as well. Moser describes her: “In high school she already thought of herself as a liar, and in Chicago she pursued her campaign to reinvent her origins.”[14] This extended to fictions about her mother and her social background in California; it extended to relationships with friends. Through striving and mythmaking, she ultimately realized a place as a public intellectual. Indeed, she was so successful that she would later feel burdened by her public persona, “this ‘Susan Sontag’ thing.”[15] Moser portrays these self-transformations skillfully and sympathetically.

Moser shows that Philip Rieff also engaged in an ambitious project of self- transformation, but his treatment of Rieff constitutes an almost perfect inversion of his treatment of Sontag. In Moser’s telling, Sontag’s social station, difficulties with her mother, and struggles regarding her sexuality led her toward the most important themes in her work. Rieff’s upward striving and self-reinvention, however, provide the ground upon which all of his later work can be belittled and dismissed.

Rieff, Moser writes, was the son of “folks-yidn,” regular Jews hounded into America by the terrible upheavals in Europe.[16] His father was a butcher, and the family was so poor that one child slept in the bathtub. Their poverty extended to education and culture: David Rieff, Susan and Philip’s son, said he did not remember any books in his grandparents’ house, and Philip’s brother, like his father, worked as a butcher his whole life. As Moser admits, Rieff’s immigrant family was “two generations behind” Sontag’s, socially, making Rieff’s erudition and intellectual ambition seem almost miraculous.[17] Yet, these circumstances elicit neither sympathy nor admiration from Moser. In more than one place, Moser takes an approach to Rieff, his life and work, which falls somewhere between highly rhetorical and deliberately dishonest.

Moser has a formula to which he repairs in his treatment of Rieff. He starts with an outrageous claim. Then he backtracks in order to maintain his credibility. Then he proceeds with his argument as though he has proven the original outrageous claim. Moser introduces Rieff:

Philip Rieff joked grimly that his epitaph ought to read: “Book smart, life stupid.” It was an acknowledgment of failure. Unlike the shattered figures in the pages of Dickens and Balzac, Rieff never quite failed; he died, in fact, bedecked with a grand title—Benjamin Franklin Professor of Sociology and University Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania—in a grand Philadelphia house. That house, where he lived with his second wife, the lawyer Alison Douglas Knox, had an important collection of British art, and Rieff had a devoted coterie of faithful admirers among his former students.”[18]

Moser suggests Rieff was a failure using Rieff’s words, which themselves do not, in fact, concede failure. Having set this “failure” in the mind of the reader, Moser then backtracks—Rieff “never quite failed.” Then he must concede Rieff’s successful academic career.

Moser goes on to summarize Rieff’s “arduous” class journey from his “slum” origins in Chicago’s north side to the University of Chicago, but states—without evidence—that Rieff was “never entirely reconciled” to this class leap. He then contemptuously describes Rieff’s aristocratic dress, mid-Atlantic accent, and exacting standards, calling him an “an Ivy League grandee.”[19] Moser concludes: “Those who did not admire Rieff found his interest in status, in class – in what he eventually called “order” as obnoxious as his clothes. But such a rigorous insistence on order, which he later assigned the dignity of a sociological principle, could only have come from one profoundly unsure of his own place”[20]

Thus Moser dismisses Rieff’s lifelong scholarly project of attempting to understand what he called “Sacred Order,” and how it related to social order, as a mere infatuation with “status.” We are to understand that Rieff’s theoretical work is nothing but the contemptible expression of a jumped-up butcher’s son’s social pretensions. The traits that Moser finds so admirable in Sontag, ambition and self-invention, are precisely those he holds against Rieff.[21] Sontag’s discovery of “a cultural elite” among the gay underground in Los Angeles is praiseworthy,[22] but when the ambitious slum kid takes his place among a different elite at the University of Pennsylvania, Moser pours scorn on Rieff’s invented life and uses his social ascent to pathologize his intellectual work.

Moser applies the same formula to the authorship of Mind of the Moralist. He begins with Sontag’s own claim that she wrote “every single word” of the book. He then argues, “The book is so excellent in so many ways, so complete a working out of the themes that marked Susan Sontag’s life, that it is hard to imagine it could be the product of a mind that later produced such meager fruits.”[23] Moser barely acknowledges the success of Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic, which works out many more of the major themes in Mind of the Moralist. He then asserts that Rieff’s later writings failed to enhance his reputation, merely reproducing the same themes, and he concludes with an unsourced allegation that Rieff’s colleagues and students believed him a “scam artist” and his eminence “unearned.”[24]

Moser’s claim that Rieff could not have written the book because his later scholarly career produced “meager fruits” is preposterous, and at odds with numerous academic appraisals. Renowned scholars such as Alasdair MacIntyre hailed Triumph of the Therapeutic as a masterpiece; it was praised by Robert Coles and Frederick Crews, and it has been recognized alongside the original work of Christopher Lasch.[25] In orthodox religious circles, Rieff is known as “one of the most perceptive and creative intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century.”[26] His final set of works, the Sacred Order/Social Order trilogy, published between 2006 and 2008, was widely reviewed, and Rieff’s thought has been the subject of numerous scholarly treatments.[27]

Moser then repairs to the outlandish quotation. He begins by making much of Rieff’s admittedly reactionary views on human sexuality. Having established that Rieff is a Bad Person with Bad Ideas, he continues:

“Rieff’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.”[28]

The work in question is Rieff’s 2006 book My Life among the Deathworks, and Moser’s claim that Rieff made condescending remarks about Lincoln in Deathworks is indefensible. Anyone with any experience of Rieff’s thought knows that the highest praise Rieff can give anyone is to call him a prophet or a “sacred messenger.” In the context of condemning what he saw as revisionist historians and the culture at large forgetting Lincoln, Rieff wrote: “Lincoln is the last, and perhaps only, sacred messenger and figure of grace in US history…. Lincoln himself rose from the lowest social classes – his parents could not read. How is the population to understand the vertical, the rise that is always possible, without the supreme figure of Lincoln?”[29]

By repeating (without context) what Rieff wrote, in the same book, about 2 Live Crew, Moser seeks to cast him as the befuddled reactionary, overestimating the cultural impact of a now-forgotten rap group. If we restore the context of Rieff’s concern with 2 Live Crew, we see Rieff using Freudian theory to address the growing misogyny in popular culture:

In Freudian theory, the first and ultimate world, to which we belong, the not-I, is the mother. The not-I, that which is outside our subjectivities, must be destroyed so that each man and woman can be his or her own world. The group 2 Live Crew and their current derivatives are a matter of world conquest, although the women are not world/women figures. Rather, they are mere objects, the consumption of which confirms, rather than creates, the world man.[30]

After making the outrageous claim that Rieff was incapable of writing Mind of the Moralist and that his later work proves this, Moser backtracks to say that the question of Rieff’s capability is unimportant because Moser possesses evidence that Sontag was sole author of the book.[31] His evidence consists of the 1950 letter home referenced above, along with some statements by her friend Minda Rae Amiran, followed by letters written from 1956-58 that show Sontag working on the book. But this leaves a gaping hole between 1951-54, the years Rieff was writing his dissertation, “Freud’s Contribution to Political Philosophy,” accepted at Chicago in May 1954. It would be odd for a scholar to work on a first book and dissertation at the same time, instead of expanding and converting a dissertation into a book. Perhaps realizing this, Moser writes his account of the genesis of Mind of the Moralist in such a way that he manages to go from “notes” straight to book; that is to say, he strings together a series of quotations in such a way that he conflates references which could be to “notes,” or to dissertation, or to the book into one project:

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, 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.[32]

Note the vague language and the proliferation of pronouns in the excerpt above:  Rieff “strove to put it together into a book”; “Susan tried to help organize it, but when it was completed it was still a mess”; during their years in Cambridge, Susan spent every afternoon rewriting “the whole thing….”  It is not at all clear to the reader whether this paragraph is treating the book alone, or the book and the earlier dissertation.

Moser is similarly indefinite elsewhere, writing: “From the time she moved to Wisconsin in 1951, when Joyce Farber saw her working on the book, to the time she reached Paris in 1958, where a friend saw her correcting the proofs, she worked on Freud.”[33] In one rare moment in which Moser distinguishes dissertation from book, he writes, “…in Madison they started working on Freud: first on Philip’s dissertation…and then on a book.”[34] But Moser has very little to say about the dissertation (he never cites it directly, instead citing it from a secondary source).[35] Nor does he offer any evidence that Sontag wrote the dissertation, or, in contrast to the book, that her contribution was central to the completion of the dissertation. Despite conflating book and dissertation elsewhere, he does—once—distinguish both works by their content.  When he does, Moser must concede, “Susan seems to have had less influence over his thesis.”[36]

And indeed, we believe it is most reasonable to assume that she did not write the dissertation, which required a thorough knowledge of Freud’s lengthy corpus and which was underway when Rieff, a Freud scholar, met the 17-year-old Sontag. Despite Moser’s portrayal of Sontag in “nearly a decade of monastic seclusion,” he also reveals that she was incredibly busy.[37] It is true that she was editing and writing book reviews for Rieff, and it is a mark against him that she did so. However, the sheer volume of publications (10 scholarly articles and 13 book reviews) that appeared under Rieff’s name between 1951-54 is also the first mark against her also having been able to complete the dissertation as well.[38] In the period between their honeymoon in Europe and the submission of the dissertation, Rieff and Sontag moved four times. Sontag had a child (her second pregnancy) in September of 1952, and by June was enrolled at the University of Connecticut at Storrs in graduate school in English and working as a TA. By 1954, she had transferred to the Harvard English Department.

There is good reason why Moser offers nothing beyond a few vague references to the dissertation upon which much of Mind of the Moralist is based. His claim that Sontag wrote every word of the book is caught in a basic contradiction: he obliquely owns that Sontag did not write Rieff’s dissertation, but if she did not write the dissertation that means she cannot have written every word of Freud: the Mind of the Moralist: the book includes lengthy passages from the dissertation. To defend his position, Moser would have to make the absurd argument that Sontag wrote every word of Rieff’s earlier dissertation, an argument even Moser balks at making.

If we cannot accept that Sontag wrote Rieff’s dissertation, then Moser’s argument that Sontag wrote “every single word” of Mind of the Moralist is disproven by a simple comparison of Rieff’s dissertation to book. Rieff’s dissertation includes most of the book’s structure in its essential elements. More importantly, there are not only sentences, but entire pages and sections of Mind of the Moralist which are derived verbatim from the dissertation. A good example (many are listed below) may be found on pages 123-6 of the dissertation, copied on pages 214-6 of the book, or the passage on 277-8 copied on 292-3. The dissertation had six chapters, broken into sections, most of which became the chapters and sections of the later book.[39] As Daniel Horowitz has suggested, a brief comparison of the structure allows us to make a cursory assessment of both Rieff and Sontag’s contributions.[40] Many of the core ideas of the book are present in Rieff’s original dissertation. These are just a few examples:

  • The mind/body dualism in Freudian theory;
  • Freud as a political philosopher, who begins his psychological study with a critique of authority and uses science as an authoritative myth for a new moral order;
  • the notion of psychoanalytic interpretation as analogical and dialectical, even a return to Stoicism;
  • analysis as interpretation of present fantasy rather than historical past;
  • Freud’s conception of politics as inseparable from love, part of a two-stage genealogy (parricide and submission[41]);
  • the desire of the masses to be ruled (which Freud, in his “misogyny,” compares with women[42]), and the power of the leader through father identification;
  • the new form of secular charisma (and basis for Rieff’s later work) as negation of the old order, with “dangerous” implications[43];
  • Freud’s treatment of Jewishness as part of the old authority of tradition;
  • Freud’s use of Nietzsche’s virtue of honesty for a new ethic, introducing the new personality type of psychological man.

This is not to say that Sontag contributed nothing. Her first contribution was as his editor—and anyone who has been through the publishing process understands this is no small one. Before his turn to ponderous and even esoteric writing, Rieff’s prose style was often choppy and at times disconnected. A comparison of dissertation to book shows that Sontag improved the prose while reducing lengthy quotations.[44] She divided chapters into Roman numerical sections (she organized her own work in Against Interpretation the same way; Rieff did this neither in his dissertation nor in Triumph of the Therapeutic). Sontag likely excised extraneous material and reorganized the basic argument.[45] This last was a mammoth task, reshaping Rieff’s dissertation, lengthy notes and ideas into prose.

Her second contribution was as a coauthor expanding ideas already present. She added erudite analysis and expanded on the ideas already present in the dissertation, such as the mind-body dualism in Freud. Another example of what we suspect to be a Sontag edit is pp. 292-95, where Rieff’s treatment of Freud’s Future of an Illusion is augmented by a comparison with Schopenhauer’s essay on religion.

Finally, Sontag was a true co-author, contributing independent ideas. The book’s lengthy treatment of interpretation, which does not appear in the dissertation, is identical to Sontag’s own view—expressed in Against Interpretation—that literary interpretation is a form of reinterpretation, a displacement of the text.[46] Sontag also likely contributed to the central ideas on the self, and on transference and counter-transference.

However, there are numerous passages, pregnant with ideas, where it must be confessed by anyone analyzing the work that attribution to either thinker is a very murky business. The difficulty is evident even with an objective source, Susan Sontag: An annotated Bibliography, which reasons that proof of Sontag’s co-authorship “can be gleaned from chapter titles alone: ‘The Hidden Self,’ ‘The Tactics of Interpretation,’ ‘The Authority of the Past.’”[47] While passages from “The Hidden Self” were likely Sontag’s, phrases like “the authority of the past,” as well as passages from that chapter, were already present in Rieff’s dissertation; indeed, the chapter was first published separately in 1954, arguably before Sontag ever began work on Mind of the Moralist.[48] Furthermore, this preoccupation with authority would prove one of the central themes in Rieff’s work for the rest of his life. Nor do the book’s references to literary sources simply prove Sontag’s authorship—Rieff included an entire section on Richard III in his dissertation that was excised from the book.[49] Moser suggests, “it is in certain passages, on women and homosexuality, that Susan’s voice can be most clearly distinguished,” but he fails to mention that the original argument on Freud and Nietzsche’s “obvious misogyny,” however much it was later changed by Sontag, also first appeared in the dissertation.[50] The same must be said for the material on bisexuality and toleration.[51] Moser offers quotes from Rieff’s later writings on homosexuality, suggesting that Rieff could therefore not have written the earlier material in the book, but this is a very weak argument. First, over the course of a long writing career, intellectuals will change their mind about all kinds of things, including human sexuality. Secondly, it is simply inaccurate to portray the young Rieff as a simple reactionary in the area of sexual mores at the time the book was written. Rieff had smuggled Henry Miller’s banned novel Tropic of Cancer into the country on his return with Sontag from Europe in 1951. Furthermore, he had welcomed Herbert Marcuse as a live-in guest while Marcuse was writing Eros and Civilization.[52]

To be clear, we have no intention of answering Moser’s sweeping over-statement with one of our own. We are not arguing that Sontag was not the co-author of Mind of the Moralist. Instead, we would suggest that recognizing the co-authorship of the book makes the work more interesting because of its tensions. Ambiguity lies at the heart of the book’s fundamental point, which is that Freud is one of the founders of a new post-liberal culture, and its new personality type, “psychological man.” What ought to fascinate us is that at the very center of the book’s thesis—at its very heart—we can detect disagreement between Rieff and Sontag over the nature of Freud’s role.[53] Rieff had a very firm view of what a prophet is and what a prophet does; the prophet appeals to a sacred order to challenge the political-theological order, which in turn routinizes the new edicts into priestly dogma. Though in one sense prophets were non-conformist “mavericks,” at a more fundamental level they “renewed the basis of community” by renewing its repression, thus reinvigorating the sacred order.[54] Christ, for example, subverted Jewish law, but displaced it with a more stringent ascetic code.[55] Yet Mind of the Moralist is unclear whether Freud’s appeal to scientific authority introduces a new truly moral order. In some places, it answers with Rieff’s no; in others, Sontag’s yes.[56]

For Sontag, modern psychological faiths ever coopted dissent with new prohibitions, against which the artist rebels in self-creation. The writer, challenging the dominant hermeneutical web, attempts to live art. Birthing moral autonomy, she creates herself by exposing herself.[57] Artists resist the urge to “surrender to callow notions of art and of thought and the encouragement of a genuinely repressive moralism.”[58] She extended this protest to feminist criticism that tended to ideological conformity.

But for Rieff, postmodern art was regressive: instead of reinvigorating sacred edicts, the new secular cultural elite was a parasite upon the decaying sacred order and its dwindling repressed energy. From this reservoir for individual and cultural meaning, they shaped ever more life-denying productions, what he called “Deathworks.” Indeed, the first volume of Rieff’s later trilogy could have been called My Life Among Susan Sontag’s Deathworks, as, over the course of her career, Sontag’s ideas came to embody precisely what Rieff would decry as “anti-culture”.

Sontag answered that the barbarism Rieff fretted over had already arrived, and that Rieff’s conservative diagnosis, advocating the pose of Tory elitism distinguished from the instinctual masses, betrayed his own unbelief—he was, himself, “a symptom of the problem.”[59] Even worse, he suffocated the confrontation with reality that would produce “‘high’ standards” of culture: Rieff’s culture was “plausible only to someone who has never been really immersed in or gotten intense pleasure from contemporary poetry and music and painting.”

If we recoil from the strange charge that Sontag wrote “every single word” of Mind of the Moralist, we can repose in the far more defensible position that the work was a co-authored product of intellectual lovers. The melding of identities that makes one spend unrecognized time on behalf of another is motivated by love, and the book was an erotic production of a meeting of minds. Rollyson and Paddock write, “The book had become [Philip and Susan’s] baby every bit as much as little David.”[60] It is precisely this overlapping interest that makes attribution so difficult. Moser includes a delightful passage by Sontag from her early marriage to Rieff: “They stayed in bed most of the first months of their marriage, making love four or five times a day and in between talking, talking endlessly about art and politics and religion and morals.”[61] Such an intertwining of intellect and body is not infrequent—just scan the acknowledgement sections of any academic book—but only rarely are the lovers so profoundly intelligent. Rieff required Sontag’s genius and drive to finish his first book, but Sontag never wanted to be trapped in marriage with the man she compared to “Mr. Casaubon.”[62] While their parting was extraordinarily bitter, apparently her importance to him never diminished. Jonathan Imber tells a story about Rieff in his later years:

On a visit [Rieff] made to Boston to attend a preposterously organized conference about what to call the era after modernity (without calling it post-modernity), he insisted I drive him to Cambridge, in particular along those streets he had walked while living there with Sontag and their young son. We drove around a specific block five or six times, slowing down again and again as we passed the house in which they had lived together. Here was an occasion, literally driving in circles, of heartfelt regret that explains best of all to me why he dedicated the last book published in his lifetime to ‘Susan Sontag in remembrance.’ In the first set of page proofs for that book, the dedication was ‘To the memory of the second commandment.’[63]



[1] Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (New York: Viking Press, 1959).

[2] Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).

[3] Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Farar Straus and Giroux, 1966).

[4] Parul Sehgal, “In ‘Sontag,’ the Author’s Myth Takes Center Stage,” New York Times, September 17, 2019,; on Sontag’s claim, Sigrid Nunez, Sempre Susan (Atlas Books, 2011), 124-5; see comment by Lisa Appignanesi in The London Review 43, No. 23 (December 5, 2019),

[5] Susan Sontag: An Annotated Bibliography: 1948-1992, comp. Leland Poague and Kathy A. Parsons (Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000), 382, reports that Sontag was credited as collaborator in “Sontag, Susan,” Current Biography 30.6 (June 1969): 41-3; on Rieff’s admission, Moser, Sontag (Ecco, 2019), 122; see Carl Edmund Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 40; Jerome Boyd Maunsell, Susan Sontag (Reaktion Books, 2014), 31-4.

[6] Moser, Sontag, writes beneath a caption in his first section of photographs “…At nineteen, [Sontag] had her only child, David, and began writing a landmark book about Freud that Philip would publish under his own name.”

[7] Allison Flood, “Susan Sontag was the true author of ex-husband’s book, biography claims,” The Guardian, May 13, 2019: “ accessed Feb 4, 2020

[8] Nina Siegal, “A Big New Biography of Susan Sontag Digs to Find the Person Beneath the Icon,” New York Times, September 16, 2019,

[9] Joyce Malcolm, “Susan Sontag and the Unholy Practice of Biography,” The New Yorker, September 23, 2019, : “If Moser’s feelings about Sontag are mixed…his dislike for Philip Rieff is undiluted. He writes of him with utter contempt.” “Moser in no way substantiates his claim. He merely believes that a pretentious creep like Rieff could not have written it.”

[10] Nunez, Sempre Susan, 124-5, writes, “Although her name did not appear on the cover, she was a full coauthor, she always said. In fact, she sometimes went further, claiming to have written the entire book herself, ‘every single word of it.’ I took this to be another one of her exaggerations.”

[11] Christopher Bray, “The all-round smart cookie with a tin ear,” The Critic, January 2020,

[12] Moser, Sontag, 12.

[13] Moser, Sontag, 90.

[14] Moser, Sontag, 100.

[15] Moser, Sontag, 510.

[16] Moser, Sontag, 107.

[17] Moser, Sontag, 107.

[18] Moser, Sontag, 105.

[19] Moser, Sontag, 105, 106.

[20] Moser, Sontag, 106.

[21] Moser, Sontag, 84.

[22] Moser, Sontag, 89.

[23] Moser, Sontag, 120.

[24] Moser, Sontag, 121.

[25] A third edition was published in 2006, with a new introduction by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and scholarly essays by Eugene McCarraher, Wilfred McClay, and Stephen Gardner.

[26] R.R. Reno, “Philip Rieff’s Charisma,” First Things, April 25, 2007,

[27] See Antonius W. Zondervan, Sociology and the Sacred: An Introduction to Philip Rieff’s Theory of Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2005); Christopher Cain Elliot, Fire Backstage: Philip Rieff and the Monastery of Culture (Peter Lang GmbH, 2013); Jonathan Imber, The Anthem Companion to Phillip Rieff (Anthem Press, 2017).

[28] Moser, Sontag, 129-30.

[29] Rieff, Sacred Order/Social Order, Vol. 1: My Life Among the Deathworks (University of Virginia Press, 2006), 171

[30] Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks, 173-4.

[31] Moser, Sontag, 121.

[32] Moser, Sontag, 121.

[33] Moser, Sontag, 122.

[34] Moser, Sontag, 113.

[35] Moser, Sontag, 129n26.

[36] Moser, Sontag, 129.

[37] Moser, Sontag, 122.

[38] Jonathan Imber, “Bibliographia Rieffiana,” in The Feeling Intellect (The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 375-8, records Rieff’s output between 1949-57: 26 book reviews, a dissertation, a book, 12 scholarly articles, two popular articles and two book introductions.

[39] For example, Rieff, “Freud’s Contribution to Political Philosophy,” Chapter 1: The Master-Science is the basis for Mind of the Moralist, Ch. I: Science and Moral Psychology; “Words and Science,” 62, is the basis for Ch. IV: The Tactics of interpretation.

For examples of passages of the dissertation in the book, see “Freud’s Contribution,” Chapter 2: The Freudian Method: “Microcosm and Macrocosm,” 95-99, in Mind of the Moralist, 210-214; “The Sexuality of Politics,” 106-116, in 180-185; “Uses of the Past,” 116-23, 123-6, in 37-43, 214-6; “A Romance of Origins,” 126-36, in 189-197; 136-57, including “Instinct and Tradition,” in 196-219.

Chapter 3: Law and Leadership, esp. 158-9, in 187; “The Foundations of Law,” 166-184, in 223-7; “I am Myself Alone,” 184, 196-210, in 227, 238-45.

Chapter 4: Love, Hatred, and Authority, 211-2, in 152-3, and 213-27 in 228-32; “The Power that Unites,” 227-41, in 232-7; “What One Would Like to Be,” 246, 251-4, in 160-1.

Chapter 5: The Politics of Religion, “Is it not the Destiny of Childishness to be Overcome?” 277-85, in 287-293, and 292-6 in 294-7; “Guilt, Crime, and the Will to Power,” esp. 304-19 in 266-79; “Psychological Jewishness,” esp. 326-7, in 259.

Chapter 6: Society as Patient: “Politics and the Individual,” esp. 355-6, in 246; “The Crisis of Culture,” esp. 363-75, in 306-10; “The Therapy of War,” esp. 375-84, 397-407, in 311-27.

[40] Daniel Horowitz, Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 314-5.

[41] Rieff, “Freud’s Contribution,” 134ff., 194ff.

[42] Rieff, “Freud’s Contribution,” 108-9.

[43] Rieff, “Freud’s Contribution,” 344-5, 396.

[44] On reduction of lengthy quotations, see Rieff, “Freud’s Contribution,” 31, 135, in Mind of the Moralist, 39, 197.

[45] Much of Freud’s lengthy biography in Chapter 1 was excised, as well as the passage on demonic power, 171-4, and the lengthy exegesis of Richard III, 184-200; a difficult example concerning editorship may be found in the dissertation, 136-139, in Mind of the Moralist, 204-6, where either Rieff or Sontag reorganized sentences and paragraphs, often verbatim, from the original.

[46] Sontag’s argument in “Against Interpretation” parallels that in Mind of the Moralist, 106-9, 133-9, and 351-2 (Aristotle’s defense of art to Plato).

[47] Susan Sontag: An Annotated Bibliography, 378.

[48] Rieff, “Freud’s Contribution,” 160; cf. “The Authority of the Past: Sickness and Society in Freud’s Thought,” Social Research 21, No. 4 (Winter 1954): 645-52.

[49] Rieff, “Freud’s Contribution,” 184-200; see Susan Sontag: An annotated Bibliography, 378: “Many readers…will likely hear Sontag’s voice as part of the book’s conversations with itself and its sources, via references (for example) to William Empson and Kenneth Burke, to Proust and Shakespeare and Mann, to Nietzsche and Goethe, etc.”

[50] Moser, Sontag, 129; Rieff, “Freud’s Contribution,” 108; see Horowitz, Consuming Pleasures, 315: “From thesis to book the treatment of issues of sexuality and gender changed considerably.”

[51] On bisexuality, Rieff, “Freud’s Contribution,” 115-6; on toleration, 189, 302, 401

[52] Moser, Sontag, 111, 142.

[53] Mind of the Moralist, xi, “The days of liberal culture are numbered”; Moser, Sontag, 177.

[54] Mind of the Moralist, 298.

[55] Rieff, “Freud’s Contribution,” 341; Mind of the Moralist, 152-3; in another example, 152-4, Socrates introduced the authority of reason to replace the old gods. This passage captures Rieff and Sontag’s disagreement over the eros of intellectual life. Both agreed that the Freudian dialectic was only “superficially Socratean” (95)—“reason is a mediating aptitude and not an inclusive end.” For Rieff, heretical ideas only acquired meaning against some authoritative revelation transmitted by teachers—“old Socrates” was concerned to “justify his own death sentence rather than escape from the prison of his own inhibitions about the sanctity of the state, which he mistakes for his father” (Triumph of the Therapeutic, Harper Torchbooks, 1968, 59). The loss of this authority disrupted the necessary balance of Western culture. But for Sontag, a crucial virtue of the authoritative teacher was “Socratic pedagogic eros,” the heretical adversary of transmitted culture (Sontag, Robert Boyers and Maxine Bernstein, “Women, The Arts, & The Politics of Culture: An Interview With Susan Sontag,” Salmagundi, No. 31/32, 10th Anniversary Issue (Fall 1975-Winter 1976), 45). The artist’s confrontation with reality was already born of and fraught with rational scaffolding and historical baggage; there was no need to devote more erotic energies to feign supporting them.

[56] For Rieff’s view, see “Freud’s Contribution,” 341, 156-7: “all prophets are figures of repression,” but Freud was a crisis psychologist who championed “the maintenance of self-identity in the face of threatening forces.” While Freud is “close to the prophetic temper,” he is anti-prophetic, meaning that he seeks to “abort tradition.” Rieff recognized Freud’s own claim to “prophesy” in the dissertation, 295-7, but this is removed in the Mind of the Moralist, 296, which adds, “Freud never wanders beyond analysis into prophecy” (328). The prophet has been replaced (281, 357). We also find Sontag’s view in Mind of the Moralist’s self-contradictory statement, x-xi, that Freud “is a prophet nonetheless.”

[57] See Moser, Sontag, 161-2.

[58] Sontag, “Women, The Arts, & The Politics of Culture,” 34.

[59] Sontag, “Women, The Arts, & The Politics of Culture,” 39.

[60] Rollyson and Paddock, Susan Sontag, 48.

[61] Moser, Sontag, 110.

[62] Moser, Sontag, 116.

[63] Jonathan B. Imber, “Philip Rieff: A Personal Remembrance,” Society 44, No. 1 (November/December 2006): 75.

Kevin Slack and William BatchelderKevin Slack and William Batchelder

Kevin Slack and William Batchelder

Kevin Slack is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. He is the author of Benjamin Franklin, Natural Right, and the Art of Virtue (University of Rochester Press, 2017) and William Batchelder is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Waynesburg University in southwestern Pennsylvania. He is a co-editor of a forthcoming edited volume, Fellow Readers: Interdisciplinary Applications and Interpretations of the Social Theory of Philip Rieff.

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