Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Book Reviews

Under the Sign of Sontag

Could Sontag the woman ever live up to Sontag the persona?

Charlie Tyson

Susan Sontag, January 29, 1983; photo © Sophie Bassouls/Bridgeman Images.

In a 1993 interview that, if posted on YouTube today, would no doubt be titled “liberal feminist OWNED!!,” Camille Paglia, in her stuttering machine-gun patter, declared the once-great Susan Sontag defunct. Then came a revealing turn. “I am the Sontag of the nineties,” Paglia proclaimed. In coming to bury Sontag, she could not help but resurrect her. Sontag the woman might fail to live up to Sontag the persona. But Sontag as icon—the ardent critic moving seamlessly between Sartre and the Supremes, the raven-haired Athena photographed by Andy Warhol—was a mantle to claim, a social role, a symbol of avant-garde daring and intellectual seriousness.

Paglia’s moment has come and gone. But Sontag, fifteen years after her death, is attracting fresh academic and critical interest. Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough (2017) and Michelle Dean’s Sharp (2018) celebrate her as a central figure in their group portraits of tough-minded twentieth-century women intellectuals. But much of Sontag’s renewed popularity can be credited to the publication of her remarkable and disconcerting journals. The two volumes that have so far appeared, edited by her son, David Rieff, reveal a destructive neediness and sexual anguish behind the formidable mind. Sontag was famously fond of the epigram (“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”) and the list (the numbered statements of “Notes on ‘Camp’”). The diary—loose, self-interrogating—fits her talents. The journals contain, in scattered bursts, some of her most captivating writing. They verify her intellectual ravenousness—she jots lists and lists of books to buy and films to see, and dashes off aphorisms with Wittgensteinian flair—and her erotic suffering (“After THE LAST PHONE CALL FROM NICOLE, tonight / Let it hurt, let it hurt”).

This divide between Sontag and “Sontag”—between person and persona, flesh and image, reality and representation—is the main subject of Benjamin Moser’s authoritative and exhilarating biography. He tracks the painful friction between woman and symbol, the private self and the public face, and shows where the two piercingly coincide. If, to pluck a Sontagian analogy, the journals are as raw and chaotic as a Willem de Kooning canvas—a portrait in sharp fragments—Moser’s study is a Rembrandt, sympathetic and carefully detailed yet uncompromising in its realism.

Sontag is a comprehensive chronological account of the life and work of a significant cultural figure, based on hundreds of interviews, extensive archival work, and years of reading. More than a superb biography, the book is a sumptuous and compulsively readable tour among some of the pillars of twentieth-century American and European thought, with penetrating insights into Djuna Barnes, Walter Benjamin, Ingmar Bergman, Sigmund Freud, and countless other figures who helped form Sontag’s consciousness.

Before Sontag was Sontag, she was gawky asthmatic Sue Rosenblatt, born in New York and raised in Tucson and Los Angeles. Her father, dead at thirty-three from tuberculosis, had only a fourth-grade education. Her mother, Mildred, icy and indolent, was an alcoholic, who “would sip a tall glass of vodka over ice and ask visitors: ‘Would you like some water?’” (Moser convincingly links Sontag’s alcoholic family system with her perfectionism and premature seriousness, and—in adulthood—her flashes of needy regression.) Cowed by Susan’s precocity, Mildred would shove her copy of Redbook magazine beneath the covers when her daughter walked into her bedroom. In literature young Susan found an escape from grim provincialism and familial dysfunction. Reading Jack London’s Martin Eden, about a working-class Californian autodidact who dreams of becoming a writer, she saw a tragic mirror image, and resolved, like Martin, to sleep as little as possible, to live as much as she could. In an anticipation of later metamorphoses, she took the name “Sontag” from an army captain who married the widowed Mildred but never adopted her daughter.

Sontag comes alive in these pages—doing the twist in a dance hall in 1960s Manhattan, walking around the Columbia University campus flanked by admirers, guzzling coffee and smoking Marlboros in front of her typewriter. Robert Kennedy is her lover. W.H. Auden is her drug dealer. Returning to New York from a trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, she flashes an aluminum ring made from the fuselage of a downed American plane. Later, in besieged Sarajevo, she refuses to wear a flak jacket. In the hospital with her third bout of cancer, she waves away her doctor; she’s busy watching Aïda.

Yet for all her spiritedness, Sontag could be cruel. Moser does not flinch in describing her arrogance and insecurity, particularly in the last years of her life, a period that brought her renown and isolation in equal measure. She had a habit of publicly humiliating her longtime partner, the photographer Annie Leibovitz, repeatedly calling her “stupid” (in one instance mocking her ignorance of Balzac). Sontag’s relationship with her son was even more dysfunctional. She treated David as an extension of herself and administered a strict educational regimen reminiscent of John Stuart Mill’s. At age three, he was marching around the breakfast table chanting “Hegel, bagel, Hegel, bagel”; at eleven, he was reading War and Peace. In the late 1970s and 1980s they became an aristocracy of two, with him serving, incestuously and ill advisedly, as her editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Each would reinforce—then tear down—the other’s grandiosity. At a theater intermission David was overheard saying to his mother, “Who should we be snubbing?”

Sontag often displayed exceptional courage: in the face of recurrent illness, in Sarajevo, in the firm but gentle way she ended her marriage to the Casaubon-like Philip Rieff. (In a letter announcing her desire to leave, she wrote, “I feel a vocation flowering within me”; after the marriage ended, she never spoke poorly of him to David.) But this courage did not extend to all areas of her life. Her reticence about her sexuality was extreme. She lied to her sister. She lied to fact checkers at the New York Times. Her “coming out” remark for a 2000 New Yorker profile—in which she said that having girlfriends as well as boyfriends was “the most natural thing in the world”—was uttered in such a strangled tone that upon hearing it, the gay man transcribing the interview burst into tears.

Sontag wrote on so many subjects—pornography, science fiction, photography, disease (to name only the most famous examples)—that it would be easy to regard her as an idiosyncratic culture-collector or occasional essayist. Moser brings coherence to her thoughts by insisting that almost everything she wrote addresses one grand theme: “the inevitable distortions of metaphor and representation.” He locates this theme not only in Against Interpretation and Illness as Metaphor—where it’s easy enough to find—but also in an essay like “Trip to Hanoi,” in which Sontag examines the difficulty of seeing Vietnam as it is, “independent from the ideology that had grown up around it.”

Another of Moser’s critical innovations is to bring into focus the shaping influence of Freud on Sontag’s thought. From 1951 to 1958 she worked on Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), a book published under her husband’s name (and the foundation of his academic career). Moser argues persuasively that Sontag, not Rieff, was the book’s primary author. Never again did she study any single thinker with such intensity. Her first novel, The Benefactor (1963), discloses its debts to Freud from its opening line, a paraphrase of Descartes: “Je rêve donc je suis.” I dream therefore I am: In this novel, which follows a protagonist who becomes obsessed with his dreams, the world of dreams is “the only reality.” And Against Interpretation, the book that made her a literary star, might well have been titled Against Freud, Moser remarks.

Despite her claims “against interpretation,” in many ways Sontag-the-aesthete was not born but made. She didn’t have a natural eye for art. She would bury her emotional responses under scholarly disquisitions, “a blizzard of pedantry.” In Sontag’s temperament the cognitive and analytical faculties held sway over the senses, and if she criticized metaphor, it was partly because she had to saturate the world in allusion and metaphor in order to engage with it.

In a poignant coincidence, the woman who gave Sontag her first orgasm—the playwright María Irene Fornés—also awakened in her a capacity to appreciate the immediacy of art. Two kinds of ecstasy, both long desired. Her eyes flung open to art’s sensuousness, Sontag developed, characteristically, a feverishness—she would say an avidity—for beauty. The most passionate aesthetes become so through acts of self-creation. What could be more “aesthetic” than the willed reshaping of the self?

Will there ever be another Sontag? The sweep of her career tracks a period of—dare I say it?—cultural decline. Serious art, literature, and philosophy have retreated to the margins of American culture. The connections between specialized criticism and the educated reader are ever more frayed. Even Sontag, by the end of her career, was on the defensive. In her early years as a critic, she was denounced as a coarse and decadent popularizer who had abdicated the critic’s role of correcting popular taste; in her later years, that same woman had become the very symbol of high culture, an ardent defender of a (mostly European, mostly male) canon of “great literature.” In other words, she became vulnerable to charges of elitism, committed to the polarities of “high” and “low” she had worked so hard to overturn.

All this is unfortunate. For what Sontag’s life shows is that culture is not a luxury. The Bosnians in Sarajevo—harassed by bombs, lacking decent plumbing—found in art a means of alleviating humiliation and fear. And Sontag’s own existence, wracked by illness and heartbreak, was given dignity and purpose by literature and ideas. Her appetite for knowledge was unusual in its intensity. But in nearly all of us, I suspect, there resides a question-asking impulse, a desire for expansion or self-alteration—an aspiration, in Sontag’s words, “to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” Sontag’s life was large because of the books she fed on. Her hunger for culture made the narrow walls of her world buckle—then crack—then lift away.