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Thursday, March 01, 2007


LI recommends Gerald Howard’s book review of Philip Rieff’s posthumous My Life Among the Deathworks and CHARISMA: THE GIFT OF GRACE, AND HOW IT HAS BEEN TAKEN AWAY FROM US. Rieff’s sociology was entirely in the domain of what Mills called the sociological imagination - rooted in the novelist's sense of the moment, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other, the latter coming to Rieff via a lifelong engagement with Freud. The review profiles the entire career, and the entire career sounds very much like Herzog’s in Bellow’s novel, down to the young wife – in Herzog’s case, Madeleine - who simultaneously divorces Herzog and starts on the threatening upward academic journey. In Rieff’s case, the young wife was Susan Sontag:

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.


Amie said...

LI, this Prof.Reif is one scary 'sage' with his cure for culture -- the charasmatic figure.
The scene described by Mr.Howard at the end of the piece is pretty scary too -- a scene of communion, communal fusion.

Nothing tragic about such sagesse. It's all very therapeutic and quite deadly for everyone excluded by the figural identification. Isn't the sage who wants to make believe such stuff even worse than the buffoon?

roger said...

Amie, I agree with you on both counts - although I was going to be gentle about that ending by Howard. Myself, I get the same feeling from the restaurant scene in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

But - I am trying to trace these figures, the sage and the buffoon, without pre-determining them in terms of positive or negative values. Which is a little difficult, since I like both the buffoon figure and the sage figure in the abstract.

Actually, this was going to be my little surprise for another future post! If LI and you were in a race, LI would definitely be the turtle - you could circle the field three times before I get my tired old shell around the first time. B-but I am going to get there, I hope.

So, here's my question for you, since this is something I am trying to figure out: what was it that drove the sages so crazy in the sixties? The Herzogs, the Rieffs, the Partisan Review essayists - my suspicion is that their whole cosmology came tumbling down with the advent of feminism. But why? A buffoon like Mailer, openly embracing mysogyny, was much more open to what was happening in feminism, much more eager to talk to feminists, to do the whole Mailer boxing maneuver. But the sages became these crapulous reactionaries, in spite of the fact that they started out as beautiful souls. I do wonder what your theory is.

Scruggs said...

"what was it that drove the sages so crazy in the sixties?"

The tumult of revolution looks much better when experienced by others.

Amie said...

LI, thou doth jest, I'm not lapping anyone on the dusty road to...

I'm not going to pretend to be very familiar with Partisan Review savants or the history of the US in the 60s, but there is a certain 'logic' that is frighteningly familiar.

I'm sure you noticed the Reiff phrase quoted by Howard that the student 'revolt' or protests in the 60s could not amount to anything because they didn't have 'an authority from above'! Ah yes, there has to be leaders, authority, sages, inviolate figures above the fray that stamp and figure protest and revolt, with their official seal, and thereby pretty much foreclose it, dammit!
Your bringing up Mailer seems to me really apt because, as you say, he opened up, exposed himself and all these figures of identifications to the point of being taken for a fool, a figure of ridicule.
you're onto something in not wanting to assign positive and negative values to the sage and the buffoon, because it is precisely their interchangeability that is worth thinking.
It's Diderot's paradox of the actor, the actor who doesn't identify with his role, but who plays it!
But this is kinda improper and 'crazy' (and it does border on madness), a 'fundamental impropriety'. So this is perhaps what drove the 'sages' of the partisan review crazy when thinking of 'culture', something they could not acknowledge or address except by stiffening up and erecting a figure, pure and uncontaminated. and when that happens you can be sure the 'feminine' is going to be aligned with hysterical (dis)identification...

roger said...

"So this is perhaps what drove the 'sages' of the partisan review crazy when thinking of 'culture', something they could not acknowledge or address except by stiffening up and erecting a figure, pure and uncontaminated. and when that happens you can be sure the 'feminine' is going to be aligned with hysterical (dis)identification."

Exactly! This has been routinized into the spectacle we witness everyday - what just happened with Amanda Marcotte (?sp) of Pandagon is an excellent example. Under these conditions, the sage disappears. And so, too, does a certain boundary beyond which shamelessness can't go.