When the legendary cultural critic Susan Sontag was 17 years old, she married a sociologist around a decade her senior, with whom she had a son. Her husband, Philip Rieff, published Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, widely considered a landmark text, in 1959. For years, rumour held that Sontag had such a large role in the work that she was practically its co-author. Now, her latest biographer claims to have evidence that it was her work all along, and that she had signed over authorship out of desperation to keep her ex-husband from gaining custody of her child in their divorce.
History doubtlessly contains more erasures like this. I recall once watching the cellist and poet Kevin Gillam perform Bach’s beautiful cello suites. But which Bach did they belong to? He cited scholarship by the conductor Martin Jarvis that it was Anna Magdalena, the composer’s wife, who wrote them. Perhaps this memory surfaced because I’ve been rationing the final few episodes of the cancelled TV show Mozart In The Jungle. I adore it. It “has blood”, to paraphrase the maverick maestro Rodrigo De Souza (deliciously portrayed by Gabriel Garcia Bernal) at its heart. He is irresistible – therefore, best on screen and as far as possible from in the flesh, please. Please! Brilliant, and potentially brilliant, women spin into disorder following affairs with him. One of them begins to receive visits from ghosts of musicians past, just like he does. But it’s women who come to her, beginning with Nannerl, Mozart’s thwarted sister. Then others: women forgotten because they weren’t allowed to shine. They come as warnings.
And there are those left to wreck themselves, supernovas self-imploding, as the profoundly feminist and beautiful Savitri Ganesan biopic Mahanati (which I watched to avoid finishing Mozart) illustrates.
It’s something I think about a lot in relation to #MeToo. A monster’s art isn’t as interesting to me as the art that they suppressed. Many women went underground, remained footnotes, lost confidence and disappeared with nothing to their names. They only came into the orbits of monsters because they had some spark of talent in them too. There must have been more Sontags who didn’t manage to surface again. Maybe their work was stolen. Or maybe it was never made. It might be better to be celibate than to be someone’s muse.
Actually, to be honest, there’s one more alternative. The much-married Lawrence Durrell wrote (this quote is famously misattributed to his friend and fellow rake – I mean writer – Henry Miller): “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” Well, speaking as the woman, let me rephrase. Replace with the pronoun of your weakness and try again: love them, suffer for them, and turn them into literature. I prefer to do it all, do it bleeding, and put my name on it too.
Come to think of it, it’s a sweet irony that Durrell is rarely credited for these words of his either. I wonder what Sontag (or her ghost, appearing to an ingénue on the cusp of a mistake) might say about that.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 16th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.