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A Tale of Two Plagiarists

Did Susan Sontag’s
husband steal credit
for her first book?

October 11, 2019 in

Did Susan Sontag write her then-husband Philip Rieff’s first book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959)? That’s the assertion in Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work, published last month by Ecco. It’s a serious accusation. As an admirer of The Mind of the Moralist, I was intrigued by what the newly opened question of its authorship might mean for both Rieff’s and Sontag’s legacies. What I discovered was unexpected, and a little disconcerting.

Sontag needs no introduction, although Rieff might: He is probably better known now as Sontag’s one-time partner than as an intellectual in his own right. The two met when Sontag was a 17-year-old student and Rieff a 28-year-old sociology instructor at the University of Chicago; married, after a very brief courtship; had a son, the journalist David Rieff; and parted ways (bitterly, by all accounts) after eight years of marriage. Rieff’s scholarly reputation rests primarily on two books, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (based on his doctoral dissertation and completed during his marriage to Sontag) and his second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (1966), a dyspeptic polemic against modernity in the guise of a study of post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory. 

Much of Moser’s evidence is compelling. In a letter to her younger sister, Sontag, not yet married to Rieff, describes a highly questionable arrangement: “I will take over most of the book-reviewing that Rieff does for various popular + scholarly journals: I’ll read the book + make a précis of it + write the review. Then I’ll give him the précis + the review, which saves him the trouble of reading the book + he corrects what I have written + submits it under his own name.” Later on — a year before The Mind of the Moralist was published — the religion scholar Jacob Taubes wrote to Sontag: “Did you, by the way, relinquish all rights on the Freud? It would be a crime.” And in the 1990s, Rieff himself inscribed a copy of the book to Sontag: “Susan, Love of my life, mother of my son, co-author of this book: forgive me. Please. Philip.”

Although Moser acknowledges that, “at least initially,” Sontag must have worked “in collaboration” with Rieff, he is so confident that she should be considered its true author that, in his discussion of the book itself, he attributes all of its ideas, and all of the passages he cites, to Sontag, full stop. 

Sontag: Her Life and Work was reviewed widely, and most critics seemed to accept Moser’s charges. There was one prominent exception. Janet Malcolm, in The New Yorker, attributes Moser’s certainty to his personal distaste for Rieff. “Moser in no way substantiates his claim,” she writes. “He simply believes that a pretentious creep like Rieff could not have written it … By Moser’s lights, every writer who has been heavily edited can no longer claim to be the author of his work.”

She’s right that Moser is unsympathetic to Rieff, which leads him to underestimate Rieff as a thinker. The Mind of the Moralist, Moser writes, “is so excellent in so many ways … that it is hard to imagine it could be the product of a mind that later produced such meager fruits.” But Rieff is at least as well remembered today for his second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, as for his first. A sweeping sociohistorical analysis of “the dynamics by which Christian culture has been displaced” since the French Revolution, Rieff draws on Freud and his successors to launch a grand theory of secular modernity. Its mixture of social theory, prophecy, and conservative pessimism will not be every reader’s cup of tea, but “meager fruit” it is not. 

As it turns out, at least a couple
passages weren’t written
by Rieff or by Sontag.

For his part, Moser feels that Malcolm ascribes a stronger version of the authorship claim to him than he really makes — “I was careful to contextualize it and to allow for Rieff’s input,” he recently told me. But he insists that “she did write every word of it.” Even if some of Moralist was “based on” Rieff’s thinking, “it seems clear that he wasn’t a writer, and she was.”

But what about The Triumph of the Therapeutic? Moser allows that “it’s a good book in a lot of ways. But it’s more ax-grinding, finger-wagging, polemical.” This is certainly true, although to my ear Triumph’s hortatory tone develops a strain already present, in places, in Moralist. Style is in the ear of the beholder, though, and Moser’s intuitions are different than mine. “It’s hard to pin down,” he says, but Mind of the Moralist “just sounds like Sontag.”

Moser also points out that Sontag was “vehement” about her authorship of Moralist “until the end of her life.” But both Rieff and Sontag emerge from Moser’s biography as intense, narcissistic, and  unreliable. Is Sontag trustworthy here? “I don’t buy her story on everything,” Moser says. “I’m very aware of her tendency to exaggerate and to make claims that are sometimes over the top. I do believe her on this, though. I just do.”

As it turns out, at least a couple passages in The Mind of the Moralist weren’t written by Rieff or by Sontag. Rereading Moralist recently, I was struck by the familiarity of a sentence describing the Romantic critic William Hazlitt’s anticipation of Freudian theories of creativity: “The critic William Hazlitt, author of the most anguished erotic confession in English literature, the Liber Amoris, describes in proto-Freudian terms the capacity of art to master, by objectifying, the chaotic press of emotion.” Where had I read this before? 

Google Books had the answer. Here’s the critic M.H. Abrams, founding editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, discussing Hazlitt in his 1953 masterpiece The Mirror and the Lamp: “Under the heading of ‘the sense of power,’ Hazlitt elaborates the concept, which has since become a familiar element in his expressive theories, of the capacity of art to master, by objectifying, the chaotic press of emotion.” The lines rang a bell because I myself had quoted them recently, in a footnote to an essay written last year. Whoever the author of The Mind of the Moralist was, they’d lifted a crucial part of one of Abrams’s sentences and transplanted it, punctuation damningly intact, into one of their own. 

There was more. In the paragraph immediately preceding the one on Hazlitt, the author of The Mind of the Moralist writes: 

Rousseau confessed that La Nouvelle Héloïse originated in the compulsive daydreams in which he compensated for his frustrations as a lover, and Goethe observed that his youthful erotic disappointments transformed themselves into The Sorrows of Young Werther, which he wrote in four weeks “almost unconsciously, like a somnambulist.” He felt “as if after a general confession, once more happy and free, and justified in beginning a new life.” 

Unfortunately, Abrams had already said so: 

Rousseau had already confessed that La Nouvelle Héloïse originated in the compulsive daydreams in which he compensated for his frustrations as a lover, and Goethe was soon to describe in Dichtung und Wahrheit how his youthful despairs and disappointments had transformed themselves into Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, which he wrote in four weeks “almost unconsciously, like a somnambulist.” “I felt, as if after a general confession, once more happy and free, and justified in beginning a new life.” 

Not only has the author of The Mind of the Moralist lifted the whole passage from Abrams, but he or she has edited it, translating the German into English, changing “youthful despairs and disappointments” into “youthful erotic disappointments,” and modifying the introduction of the closing quotation. 

Mind of the Moralist does cite Abrams in an endnote — but only as the source of the Goethe quotation (“Quoted by M.H. Abrams”). This is the only time Abrams’s name appears in the book. But one would need only to follow up the footnote to discover that the entire paragraph, not just the quotation, is stolen. This is like leaving a calling card at the site of a robbery.

These instances of plagiarism are baffling; nothing would have been sacrificed if Abrams had simply been quoted, and the acknowledgment of Abrams as the source of the Goethe passages suggests that the plagiarist wasn’t thinking too hard about concealment. Perhaps this was simply an accident, a consequence of sloppy note-taking or a mix-up resulting from the collaborative back-and-forth between Sontag and Rieff. But if a student tried this in an undergraduate class, they’d have some explaining to do.

Given Rieff’s evident suppression of credit for Sontag’s contributions to Moralist, there’s no reason to think him morally above a deliberate act of plagiarism. On the other hand, in 2000 Sontag was herself accused of plagiarism — by the historian Ellen Lee, who asserted that Sontag’s 1999 novel In America had lifted passages from various works of research.  In that case, Sontag defended herself on the grounds of poetic license, perhaps an acceptable tactic in the case of a novel, though not in a work of intellectual history.

Once authorial attribution becomes uncertain, serious interpretive difficulties follow. If parts of Moralist  are plagiarized, is Sontagthe plagiarist? Can you plagiarize in the name of another? Whether we accept the strong or the weak version of Moser’s argument about Sontag’s authorship of Moralist — that is, whether we think of her as the sole author or as a heavily involved collaborator — we might imagine that the stolen passages from Abrams were meant as a kind of trap, an act of clever revenge. Rieff, committed to exploiting his wife’s labor without recognition, might have found himself tricked. After all, if someone else writes your books for you without getting any credit, they can’t be blamed for the misdeeds they perpetrate in your name. 

Len Gutkin is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review. His first book, Dandyism: Forming Fiction from Modernism to the Present, is forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press. 

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