It was in a Chicago classroom in 1950 that he met and was instantly smitten with his beautiful student the seventeen-year-old Susan Sontag. Autres temps, autres mœurs, they were married ten days later. In the annals of miserable American literary marriages, only the misalliance of Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy can match this one for marriage-of-true-minds interest and, perhaps, reciprocal influence. She followed him as half graduate student, half faculty wife, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they had one child, the writer David Rieff. But they separated and were divorced in 1959, and the tenor of the marriage may be judged by Sontag's comment, years later, that after reading Middlemarch at age eighteen she "realized not only that I was Dorothea but that, a few months earlier, I had married Mr. Casaubon"…
Sontag’s putdown is so very awesome that it almost removes its sting – if one of my lovers could abase me with one punch like that, I’d be awful damn proud.
I want to discuss Rieff’s conservative social vision in another post. From LI’s perspective, the review brought home the troubled trajectory of the American sage – again, reminding me of Herzog. The American sage is well aware of being the peculiar object of an exterior negation at large in the culture. That negation is a characteristic compound of two of the enduring features of American life: anti-intellectualism and worship of success.
That awareness drives the angry movement from sage to buffoon, gets into the sex, the clothes, the dialogue with so called old neighborhood friends, the longing for power, the vendettas which figure in Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, Mosby’s Memoirs – so many of Bellow’s novels.
However … before I get to Rieff and Bellow, perhaps I should finish up the Rameau thread. I will do one more post on that, translating two anecdotes that Rameau tells which contain a certain dreadful touch of the historically premonitory.