“I think I’m American in all sorts of essential ways,” said the 52-year-old war journalist David Rieff the other day, “but I never understood this American wish to look on the bright side. I just don’t get it.”
Dubbed “Mr. Pessimism” by Time magazine in 2002, Mr. Rieff, the son of the late Susan Sontag and the distinguished sociologist Philip Rieff, is a rare and at times maddening sort of public-intellectual aristocrat. He’s spent most of his career shuttling back and forth between the cushy enclaves of New York highbrows and the miserable war zones trawled by eccentric reporters. He considers himself a critic and a realist. “I never understood why people think these tragic events are going to have happy outcomes,” said Mr. Rieff, who is tall and broad and wears his Sontagian gray-black hair long. “It seems to me some post–World War II fantasy.”
He has written seven books. A Bed For The Night (2003) and Slaughterhouse (1995) offered a bleak, eloquent and angry perspective on war and humanitarian relief. In a new collection of essays, At the Point of a Gun (Simon and Schuster), Mr. Rieff goes even further, repudiating his former stance in favor of liberal imperialism, copping to theoretical mistakes with world-weary grace. “I have debated in public or private with most of the anti-war types, and he’s the hardest one to beat,” said the notoriously pro-war writer Christopher Hitchens, a long-time friend (Mr. Rieff was best man at his wedding). “He’s smarter, and better informed …. The downside of his cleverness is, he can argue things from any position.”
In contrast to, say, Mr. Hitchens, it’s striking how low-profile Mr. Rieff has remained over the years, especially given his upbringing. No stranger to Page Six, Susan Sontag was perhaps America’s most glamorous novelist and intellectual, the handsome, undaunted critic of everything, a European impossibly sprung from the American exurbs. David was born when she was only 19, and their lives were fascinatingly entwined. Sontag died just four months ago, and in his chaotic Tribeca loft, Mr. Rieff is stowing two big duffel bags filled with her unpublished notebooks. “I haven’t quite had the courage to look through them yet,” he said, padding around in stocking feet, green corduroys and a white button-down shirt, with tinted glasses from Paris on his nose. Nearby, a closet was packed full with a large collection of well-worn cowboy boots.
For the past few years, Mr. Rieff has divided his time covering the Iraq war for The New York Times Magazine and caring for his mother while she underwent leukemia treatment in Seattle. Sontag’s condition left her severely vulnerable to germs, so Mr. Rieff became a compulsive hand-washer to stay healthy. By the second of two visits from The Observer, he had contracted pneumonia, which he was self-medicating with a dainty glass filled with Lustau sherry. “On some primitive level,” he said thoughtfully, “I’m not surprised that now I’m sick.”
Wild Child of Aveyron
Born in 1952, Mr. Rieff was brought to New York at age 6 from California, after his parents went through an acrimonious divorce. “My mother was a leftist,” he said. “My father was to the right of Attila the Hun.” Now 82 and retired, speaking from Philadelphia, Philip Rieff remembered his son as “an equable boy” who tried to restore the peace. “He was always calm,” he said. “He rarely, if ever, had a temper tantrum.” At 7, David wrote his father “the sweetest and most insightful letters out of his troubled soul …. He was pleading to be left out of the middle of the conflict.” Regarding his differences with Sontag, the elder Mr. Rieff said, “I think what I wanted was a large family and what she wanted was a large library.” But, he added, she was very devoted to David.
Little David and his mom first lived on West End Avenue between 74 and 75th streets, then in the Village on Washington Place, later on 106th Street. He attended the Lycée Français and the New Lincoln School. “I was falsely precocious,” Mr. Rieff said. Sontag and son were poor for some years, then later, as her fame skyrocketed, “prosperous.” As a young boy, David spent summers with his father-though unathletic, he enjoyed their outings to target ranges-but at some point they drifted apart. “There was a decade in which I didn’t see him at all in his boyhood,” said Rieff père. (David now visits frequently.) “That was not a pleasant experience. I was wrong. I think [Sontag] never denounced me as I denounced her to him, and that was my blunder-and a shortcoming of character. He found my hostility to Susan, which was a form of bitterness, very hard to take.”
But from an early age, David sought out areas of siege beyond the one between his parents. At the age of 14, he traveled to Bolivia; in high school, Africa. In 1973, he accompanied his mother to Israel in the midst of the Arab-Israeli war. Sontag worked three jobs and once told The New Yorker that her son “grew up on coats” at parties. “My mother was a person with truly boundless energy,” Mr. Rieff said. “It was her single most distinguishing characteristic. I used to joke that she had a 24-hour day folded up inside the first one. She just wanted to have every experience: go to every movie, every dance performance, every club.” However, he added sardonically, “If I’d really grown up on coats at parties, I’d be the wild child of Aveyron. I may look like a woolly mammoth, but I’m perfectly civilized. Those stories are incredibly exaggerated. I mean, I managed to go to school.”
Mr. Rieff attended Amherst College but eventually dropped out. After a vagabond period-during which he labored for the radical Catholic priest Ivan Illich in Mexico and, according to his father, worked as a cab driver-he finally graduated from Princeton in his mid-20’s. “I was a lot dumber in my 20’s than I was in my teens,” he said. After college, Mr. Rieff worked as an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, his mother’s longtime publisher, for about a decade. He credited his agent, Andrew (“The Jackal”) Wylie-“We’re married,” Mr. Rieff joked-for helping him make the transition to journalist. “He used to come see me and say, ‘You’re not really an editor, you’re a writer,'” Mr. Rieff said. “And I remember being very pleased and incredibly nervous.” After writing for Vanity Fair, The Los Angeles Times and Elle (the last under a pseudonym, of course), Mr. Rieff published his first book, Going to Miami: Tourists, Exiles, and Refugees in the New America, in 1987. “When I became a writer, I was perfectly aware that for the first X number of years and Y number of months everything ever written about me would say ‘David Rieff, Susan Sontag’s son,'” he said. “And you know, yeah, would I have preferred it otherwise? Probably. But there were lots of privileges, too.”
According to Mr. Rieff, when Saul Bellow’s son Adam wrote an article about the anxiety of being a famous writer’s child, Martin Amis and Mr. Rieff were the only ones surveyed to call it an advantage. “Philip Roth once said to me-I’m not sure in an entirely flattering way, though I was his editor and we were very close-‘You’re from a geographical and ethnic nowhere and an intellectual somewhere,'” Mr. Rieff said. “I think that’s right.” Even so, he admitted, “I probably steered away from certain subjects that I felt were my mother’s. When I started out, I was much more of a person who thought he had something to say about the movies or the ballet or whatever. But that sort of stuff seemed too close. And so I didn’t do that.” He churned out Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World (1991) and The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami (1993) and then traveled to Germany, where he found himself drawn to the stories of Bosnian refugees. “At that point,” he said, “I started to construe myself as a person who went to those places.”
Mr. Rieff wrote some pieces for Tina Brown’s New Yorker from the wasteland of Sarajevo. But he shied away from writing a book about Bosnia because he didn’t speak the language (he is fluent in French and Spanish). On the subject of the United Nations in Bosnia, however, Mr. Rieff felt “competent.” The result was the critically acclaimed Slaughterhouse, a deafening indictment of the West for failing to intervene and save Bosnia, named for a quote from the German philosopher Georg F.W. Hegel: “History is a slaughterhouse.” (“That always seemed to me about right,” Mr. Rieff said.) Mr. Rieff said he encouraged his mother to come to Bosnia and take up the cause. Mr. Hitchens, who also reported from there, remembered waking up to the sound of mother and son chattering vividly together. It was a crucial turning point in Mr. Rieff’s career.
While he had demonstrated against the Vietnam War, dragged to protests by his mother, the New Left had never appealed to him. “I was always too pessimistic to find the left very persuasive,” Mr. Rieff said. “In fact, what’s so repellent about American conservatism is that it’s acquired all the worst utopian features of the left.” He doesn’t believe that his parents’ opposing political views had much effect on him. “My mother and I were very close; we talked about politics a lot,” Mr. Rieff said. “And I was usually way to her right.” But this wasn’t a source of conflict, so long as he had the stuff to back up his opinions. “I didn’t grow up in the Chomsky household or the Podhoretz household,” he said. “Politics isn’t a substitute for religion where I come from.”
Not that there was much religion in the house of Sontag. Mr. Rieff flirted with it-visited Jesuits in Boston, went through a Buddhism phase-but he remained an atheist. He found he “couldn’t suspend disbelief.” And while Jewish, he was immediately dismissive of Judaism; he said he always found the notion of a “chosen people” to be “vainglorious.” “My mother didn’t have a religious bone in her body,” said Mr. Rieff. “She was a Voltairean atheist-although she did have a sneaking fondness for the aesthetics of the Church of Rome. She liked the midnight Masses and cathedrals …. ” A smile had crept across his face. “Nah! She wasn’t religious. “It probably sounds very stupid and simple-minded to say,” he continued, “but I just don’t understand how anyone can believe in any of this stuff if they’ve been in a hospital ward. If they’ve seen someone die.”
A Return to Realism?
Mr. Rieff, of course, is no stranger to death in its many forms. In some ways, in fact, his flight from the liberal-hawk crowd, and the position of acute disillusionment he assumes in At the Point of a Gun, suggests someone who has witnessed enough horror to lose faith in the capabilities of men. Certainly, his disdain for the limitations of certain humanitarian groups was sharply apparent in A Bed for the Night, and his new book shares this sense of despair. His next project will be a book about Islam in Europe. “I was never a runner, although I was a lot thinner than I am now, but someone once told me a person only has X number of marathons in them,” he said. “I wonder if people have X number of wars in them.”
“I find David reverting more to the way I thought of him when I first knew him,” said Aryeh Neier, the president of George Soros’ Open Society Institute and Mr. Rieff’s friend for 25 years. “It seemed to me then that he was cynical about almost everything. And then I remember telling him, at one point during the Bosnian war, that for somebody who was such a cynic, it seemed to me that he was forming somewhat passionate commitments …. But I do think that the cynicism that I encountered in him 25 years ago seems to have reasserted itself. He hasn’t abandoned the engagement, but he is a bundle of contradictions. He wants to do good, but he is suspicious of do-gooders.”
Max Boot, author of The Savage Wars of Peace and one of the neocons Mr. Rieff criticizes in his most recent book, said in an interview that Mr. Rieff is an “observer who throws his hands up in despair at the follies of human nature.” But Mr. Boot respects his opponent “as somebody who pursues truth as he sees it and doesn’t bow to political expediency or the demands of any party-political movement. “We were on a panel together at the L.A. Times Book Fair recently, and he and I were on opposing sides,” Mr. Boot said. “Most of the audience was on the left-and, in fact, they started booing me when I spoke. David went out of his way to say that he didn’t think that reaction was helpful. That’s part of what I like about him. He’s not somebody who believes in spreading the truth with a capital T.”
One of the harshest critiques of Mr. Rieff’s work was published six years ago in Slate by A.O. Scott, the New York Times film critic. In the piece, Mr. Scott pointed to Mr. Rieff’s contradictions and righteous tone: “Which side are you on, David?” he asked. He also suggested that Mr. Rieff had come to serve as America’s genetically empowered intellectual conscience. “If you don’t take your views seriously, why should anyone else?” Mr. Rieff said to The Observer the other day. “By taking your views seriously, you risk coming on in a censorious or a self-aggrandizing way. When you feel passionately about a cause, it’s incredibly easy to be pompous and scolding. I’m sure I did do that.” Clearly, something about Mr. Scott’s piece was still rankling. “I minded the fact that people who, as far as I know, never heard a shot fired in anger describe what I do as if it were easy-or that I’ve come to it cheaply,” Mr. Rieff said. “Or what I’ve written about is the way they write about things: from their study. Or from the screening room. Who is this film critic to condescend to me about what I’ve done in the wars? He can say I’m full of shit, he can point out all kinds of failures of tone-there, I suspect, I might even agree with him. But I don’t think he has the right to say that whatever I’ve earned, I’ve done on the basis of sitting around my office. I’ve spent more than half of the past 15 years in these places. I think that gives me the right to talk and not be condescended to.”
Books ‘n’ Boots
Mr. Rieff may spend a lot of time in international war zones, but it’s the enormous library in his apartment-he calls it “a family vice”-that seems to inspire the most pride, longing and glee. One vast wall consists of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Battered suitcases and boxes lie beside half-covered artwork and heavy leather chairs. Three large windows face a sitting area strewn with periodicals and more books-Hannah Arendt on Kant (in French), a Kissinger tome (in English)-as well as the black spike-heeled boots of Mr. Rieff’s partner, the journalist Joanna Robertson. “These books are all me. This is all me. Yes-every last one,” he said. “They’re all sort of dimly organized. Actually, they’re quite well organized.” He pointed to the end of the wall near the windows: shelves of Nabokov and Poe, Robert Lowell and Herman Melville, Edmund Wilson and, of course, Susan Sontag. “Those are all literature down there, starting with American literature, and then German and French and Spanish. And then there’s American history; then there’s Western history and, oh, Latin-American history; and then there’s sort of Western modern, from the Greeks. And then you actually get to modern Europe, but you have to get through the English Civil War and the First World War and the French Revolution on the way. Then the work stuff starts: humanitarian stuff, stuff on war, relief, the U.N. Then you get Africa-there’s a huge amount of African history down there; Balkan stuff and Middle Eastern stuff; and, at the very end, where I sleep, is English literature, which is sort of a relief.”
Sontag’s own famous library, 15,000 volumes strong, has been described at length in various profiles. She proudly took reporters along the shelves, noting the chronological-not alphabetical!-categorization, the bounty of English literature on her shelves. That library was sold to UCLA, along with her papers, to be part of a special collection. “I think she reserved the right to keep 10 percent of them, and I think I’ll hold on to some of those,” said Mr. Rieff, the estate’s executor, pacing about the room. As for his own contribution to the inevitable stream of Sontag lit, Mr. Rieff plans to edit her journals and letters and write an introduction for them. “My intention is to keep it entirely in a fairly impersonal way, certainly about me,” he said. “If I ever do write anything, it will be for the drawer. I don’t understand why anyone wants strangers to read about one’s reflections about one’s family. It seems to me that if you write the truth, whatever you say is going to hurt a lot of people.” Yet he’s not going to be neurotic about others working on books about his mother.
“I don’t want to be Stephen Joyce or the Beckett estate,” he said. “I’m not going to try to stop them. People will write what want to they write. I think my mother’s work will endure, and that’s what would have mattered to her-and that’s really all that matters to me. As for the rest, frankly, I think my mother would think the best thing I could do is get on with my life. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.”