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Susan Sontag and the age of celebrity

Was the most recognisable writer of her generation little more than a high-class intellectual con-artist?

 

Susan Sontag’s position as the most respected and name-checked English-language critic of her time was accomplished in the face of some hefty obstacles. In an age of virtuoso performers (Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael), her style could feel dreary – prone to reductive hyperbole, sonorous repetition and what she herself called “armoured generalities”. And though her literary essays covered few obviously central figures, opting instead for practitioners of marginal forms, her contributions as a talent-spotter, a bringer of news, have been wildly overstated. Benjamin Moser reports the claim that when the Bulgarian writer Elias Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1981, Sontag’s “Mind as Passion” was “the only essay about him in English”. In fact, Canetti had been famous for two decades, a shelf of his books were in print in the United States, and George Steiner had written a survey piece for the New Yorker that was published the month before Sontag’s tribute.

I’m not writing these words in a spirit of iconoclasm. I’ve been an admirer, perhaps more accurately a worshipper-with-reservations, of this “freelance partisan of letters” – to borrow her own description of Roland Barthes – ever since I stole a copy of The Susan Sontag Reader from a Welsh farmhouse on a damp Sunday almost 15 years ago. Even then – I’d recently left school – I wasn’t bowled over by her writing, while her more left-field enthusiasms, such as the German film-maker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, would have seemed dated rather than exotic.

What, then, did I respond to? Something rarer, or at least more headily seductive – her authority, the bluntly pedagogical uses to which she put her erudition. To this day, I feel a frisson of excitement on encountering a passage like this – a characteristic bit of drive-by pattern-making – from the essay “Godard” (1968), one of the few truly valuable overviews of a film director’s work:

The great culture heroes of our time have shared two qualities: they have all been ascetics in some exemplary way, and also great destroyers. But this common profile has permitted two different, yet equally compelling attitudes towards “culture” itself. Some – like Duchamp, Wittgenstein, and Cage – bracket their art and thought with a disdainful attitude toward high culture and the past, or at least maintain an ironic posture of ignorance or incomprehension. Others – like Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Godard – exhibit a hypertrophy of appetite for culture (though often more avid for cultural debris than for museum-consecrated achievements); they proceed by voraciously scavenging in culture, proclaiming that nothing is alien to their art.

The appeal to a pretentious teenager of essays on arthouse cinema or concepts like “interpretation” and “style” is fairly obvious. Sontag’s broader appeal can appear harder to explain. Again, her authority – that unflinching arbiter’s confidence – seems key. She expected and commanded total trust. In the biographies of many post-war American writers, the “overnight-success” chapter is taken up by the appearance of a fat war novel (The Naked and the Dead, From Here to Eternity, Catch 22) or at least a collection of path-breaking mass-market journalism (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby). Moser can point to a single, 16-page act of cultural explanation: “Notes on ‘Camp’”, Sontag’s attempt to codify the hitherto casually recognised mindset that sees everything “in quotation marks”. Published in the fall 1964 issue of Partisan Review – the house journal of the New York intellectuals – it was picked up by Time and became a sensation. The appearance of her book of essays and reviews, Against Interpretation (1966), confirmed Sontag’s credentials as an upper-middlebrow tour guide of the modish and avant-garde: structuralist anthropology, the nouveau roman, the legacies of Jean Genet and Albert Camus, Peter Brook’s production of Marat/Sade, the “new sensibility”, artistic “Happenings”.

If Sontag’s power derived at first from her ability to elucidate recent work, she soon established herself as something more ambitious – with the longer investigations collected in Styles of Radical Will (1969) and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980); with Illness as Metaphor (1978), her exploration of the symbolic stigma attached to cancer and tuberculosis; and with her most enduring book, On Photography (1977). But one is still a little surprised to read Nadine Gordimer, in 2001, describing her as “a writer whom I hold among a five-finger handcount as one of the best living”, or to discover that Sontag was disappointed, a couple of years later, when JM Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize, seeming to guarantee no more English-language winners during her lifetime.

Benjamin Moser is forgivably reluctant, while offering up his 800-plus pages, to dispute Sontag’s claims to our attention. He praises her work whenever he feels conscientiously able to. He acknowledges the cogency of Against Interpretation and a couple of later essays, and the power of On Photography. He praises, though not lavishly, her late novels, The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (1999). And he claims that her aphoristic talent was “hardly inferior” to that of Walter Benjamin. But he cannot conceal a sense of exasperation about the four films she made from the late 1960s onwards – a side career he calls “abortive” – and the opacity and laboured earnestness and torturous evasions he identifies in much of the non-fiction. Though his book’s epigraph is taken from a 1964 journal entry stating that to succeed “30 per cent of the time is to succeed always”, he doesn’t think she managed it anything like that often.

And so he ends up positioning her as, to a large degree, a phenomenon of the age of celebrity – the “most recognisable writer of her generation”. Sontag grew up in Los Angeles in the 1940s, and attained something like the fame of a movie star. She had affairs with Warren Beatty and Bobby Kennedy, and posed for artists as varied as Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn and Joseph Cornell. Sontag’s brand recognition was bolstered by the alliterative “trochees” of her name and, after a course of chemotherapy turned her hair white in the late 1970s, for the skunk-like effect in her mane. (A stylist took the decision to dye the whole head black, leaving just “one swatch”.)

“You know what Susan Sontag always sez,” the heroine asks in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge. Her friend replies, “I like the streak, I’m keeping it?” The real answer is that one should pursue an attitude of “deep sympathy modified by contempt” – a phrase from “Notes on ‘Camp’” – but the first reflexive guess speaks volumes. (Saturday Night Live kept a Sontag wig in its wardrobe department.)

Moser doesn’t lavish too much attention on his subject’s hairstyle and bone structure, but he is keen to present her career as largely a matter of appearance or image-projection – of wanting to be seen a certain way. In one of many withering but persuasive assessments, he argues that Sontag’s cultural centrality was a product of a kind of dishonesty. Sontag once claimed that one “cannot use the life to interpret the work”, but Moser exhibits no such misgivings when it comes to joining up the dots. Though he never stints the reader on historical detail, the book is at its best as an exercise in psychoanalytic criticism: the story of a woman who developed a persona, in the world and on the page, to defend herself against uncomfortable truths.

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The pattern was established in childhood. “When you didn’t like something,” her mother, Mildred, told her, “you’d just go into your room and read.” And there had been a lot not to like. Sontag’s wealthy father died when she was five and she recalled her mother as capricious, concealing, indifferent. She ran away to university, in Chicago, when she was just 15. As an undergraduate, Sontag met and almost immediately married the sociology lecturer, Philip Rieff, and together they had a son, David. But she always knew that she was attracted to women, and this became one of a number of things she refused to admit to the world. (There are some fascinating pages on the metaphor of the closet.)

Moser thinks Sontag’s childhood left her with what is known as a “cluster B personality disorder”. Among the symptoms are fear of abandonment, rudeness, lack of empathy, emotional volatility and mood swings. Sontag emerges as a frantic, overbearing mother and a cruel, inconsistent partner, most notably in her long final relationship – which she never publicly acknowledged – with the photographer Annie Leibovitz.

And he presents a reading of her work as a product of her character. Sontag, he argues, adopted a posture of austerity, often reacting “coolly or dismissively in public to things that moved her a great deal in private”. A logic of disavowal or double bluff, even of con-artistry, is revealed to govern much of her work. The essays often took the form of unhelpfully covert confession – self-scrutiny camouflaged as rational reflection. The piece about Elias Canetti, which argues for the superiority of the intellect to the body, is described as “so autobiographical as almost not even to be about its purported subject”. And there was a peculiar incident in the 1970s when Sontag wrote an essay on Sartre’s self-destructive use of amphetamines, for which she had little evidence – and at a time when she was herself known to be an addict.

Yet while conducting these experiments – Moser calls the Sartre essay “a work of autofiction” – Sontag resisted conventional opportunities for laying herself bare. Under the pressure of Moser’s biographical gaze, Illness as Metaphor emerges as little more than a series of obfuscations. Sontag doesn’t mention that she was under-going breast cancer treatment at the time she was writing, though her experience would have been relevant. While in the book she lamented that cancer had become mired in symbolism, becoming the disease of “those who have not really lived”, she confided in her journal: “I’m responsible for my cancer. I lived as a coward, repressing my desire, my rage.” (Sontag died, in 2004, of leukaemia.)

She was equally insistent on absolving cancer sufferers of not just metaphorical burden but medical culpability as well. Her dismissive reference to “crude statistics” about what might cause the illness is set beside her own enormous self-neglect: the constant smoking, the lack of physical exercise, the pill-popping, her unusual relationship with food and sleep. (The critic Terry Castle said that when she implied that Sontag had been napping just before she popped over, it was “as if I had accused her of never having read Proust”.)

Moser is tougher still on Sontag’s 1989 coda, Aids and its Metaphors, a text he describes as “thin, dainty, detached”. Sontag’s preference for linguistic analysis and the passive voice allowed her to avoid using “I”, so she never says what the Aids crisis means to her nor, crucially for Moser, does she address her own status as a gay woman.

Sontag emerges less as the heir to intellectual crusaders such as Hannah Arendt or Mary McCarthy than the better-educated cousin of the wily and preening Gore Vidal – another victim of an abusive single mother who was obsessed with renown and recognition, unable to identify as homosexual, and took cover behind a persona largely created in the New York Review of Books. Where Vidal’s contemporary Norman Mailer once hoped that he would go deeper into himself and turn “the prides of his detachment into new perception”, the feminist poet Adrienne Rich wrote of Sontag that “one is simply eager to see this woman’s mind working out of a deeper complexity, informed by emotional grounding”. 

In Sontag’s case, the wished-for development cannot be said to have occurred. The last few hundred pages of Moser’s book are relentless, at times harrowing. Sontag’s reputation was at its height. Her final novel, In America, was the surprise winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Fiction. She was tended to and lavishly supported by Leibovitz – one onlooker estimates an allowance of $15,000 a week – but as Moser says, “love and success and money made her unhappy and unkind”.

***

The divide between public perception and private conduct, role and reality, grew ever starker. During the 1960s, Sontag had written a couple of naive essays on Vietnam, but in her  later years, she made some bold political interventions. In 1989 she organised readings from The Satanic Verses and urged previously tight-lipped writers to condemn the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. She paid numerous visits to Sarajevo during the war in the early 1990s, even staging a production of Waiting for Godot that brought international attention to the Bosnian cause. Her defence of the vulnerable made her a kind of Joan of Arc – her own analogy – to the outside world. But the day-to-day reality, as experienced by those around her – her assistants, her agent’s assistants, Leibovitz and others – was something closer to Joan Crawford, as immortalised by her adoptive daughter Christina in the memoir Mommie Dearest. “Everything was another occasion for a tantrum,” one friend recalled. “You’d think: Don’t go there, Susan. And yet she did.”

While there can be no doubting the brilliance – the sheer explanatory vigour – of Moser’s biography, it makes for a disillusioning experience. Does Sontag: Her Life constitute any kind of tribute? Though Moser is generally sympathetic, the answer is no. But I think it represents something more – a triumph of the virtues of seriousness and truth-telling that Susan Sontag espoused again and again but was conspicuously and often quite consciously unable to force herself to live by. 

Sontag: Her Life
Benjamin Moser
Allen Lane, 832pp, £30

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control