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.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).