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Patrick Nathan | Longreads | September 2019 | 30 minutes (8,235 words)
“The only review of Under the Sign of Saturn would be the eighth essay — an essay describing me as I have described them. The pathos of intellectual avidity, the collector (mind as every-thing), melancholy & history, arbitrating the moral claim versus aestheticism, and so forth. The intellectual as an impossible project.”
Susan Sontag, journal entry, May 1980
Differently, we buy and borrow, and steal, our ongoing educations. American writers tend to forget this, even dissuade it. There is an assumption — general, if not unconscious — that “we” have all read Raymond Carver and Joan Didion, seen Dazed and Confused and The Princess Bride, and exhausted “prestige” television from Lost to Big Little Lies. That these works are canon in a post- or anti-canonical culture highlights the need for inexhaustible and pluralistic inspiration against the deprivation of that need. What’s worse, if you are labeled — black, queer, immigrant, disabled, trans, or a woman — those expectations constrict; the canon tightens. To be a gay writer means one must have read Edmund White and seen Mean Girls; to write as a black woman means one must have read Angela Davis and seen Kara Walker’s silhouettes. What was supposed to liberate our literary sensibilities has reduced us, clinically, to trained specialists. Under this pressure, so carefully curated and categorized, it’s difficult to will one’s own work into being. To learn passively, and ultimately write passively, is the great cultural temptation.
Yes, I have been reading — and reading about — Susan Sontag. There is nothing passive in her legacy. In her combined erudition, ambition, and seriousness, she has few peers, and for several years she has symbolized my aspirations as a writer — the uncompromising rigor with which she approached her essays; her self-proclaimed interest in “everything”; an urgency in dissenting, when ethically necessary, from received opinion; her energy in consuming art constantly; and the esteem, to the end of her life, in which she held literature, above all fiction. Her passion is contagious. Sontag’s narcotic approach to art and experience is, for a provincial writer with little access, renewably invigorating; and because Sontag’s lifetime of work is willed, Nietzscheanly, from her passions, reading about her life is its own invigorating project. In this, Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work, at 832 pages, is certainly her legacy’s largest complement.
The temptation to ask, What would Sontag think? intensifies as her life recedes into the past. In a loud, reductive, wounded, atomized, knee-jerk culture where “nuance” and words like it have been tainted by racist, misogynistic dog-whistling, her work is more than relevant: it is urgent. In his critical study, Mind as Passion, Liam Kennedy refers to Sontag as the last of the “generalists” in an age of specialists, where common culture is eclipsed by “a plurality of cultures and tastes” and “the intellectual’s address to a public is accordingly provisional and circumscribed.” It’s difficult, in other words, to feel as if any one voice matters. But reading Sontag in 2019 is a tonic against this malaise — a reminder that, even if our backgrounds and interests are so fragmented, an author can nonetheless will her authority on any subject into being, and write about it definitively. In our relationships with one another, with technology, and with government, there truly is a right and a wrong; and it is a moral failing to allow wrongs to perpetuate simply because they fall under someone else’s intellectual or professional jurisdiction. The consequences of that, in western nations across the globe, are becoming quite clear. This is why Sontag is so illuminating. It’s precisely her wielding of authority — moral authority — that encourages the contemporary reader to seek out what is right, and to imagine a path toward it.
Sue Rosenblatt was born on January 16, 1933. When she was five, her father died while traveling in China. Her mother, Mildred, withheld this information for four months. “After she finally told Susan,” Moser embellishes, “she sent the first grader out to play.” The Rosenblatts moved from Long Island to New Jersey to Miami Beach to Tucson; and it was in Tucson where Mildred met a war veteran, Nathan Sontag. Sue took his name. In this early chapter, Moser quotes In America, Sontag’s final novel, in which her protagonist anglicizes her Polish syllables: “Impossible to feel like the same person after changing one’s name.” For the rest of her life, Sontag created and recreated herself. Her late interviews even have a vocal inflection missing from her earliest recorded lectures and TV appearances, à la Madonna.
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After Berkley at fifteen and the University of Chicago at sixteen; after marrying at seventeen, having a child at nineteen, and divorcing in her mid-twenties; after disillusionment and boredom at Harvard and Oxford; and after a tumultuous same-sex affair in Paris, Susan Sontag arrived in New York. She published a philosophical novel, The Benefactor, as well as several essays in small intellectual journals — including “Notes on ‘Camp’” in the Fall 1964 issue of Partisan Review. It wasn’t until the following spring, when Time mentioned “Camp,” that Sontag became a celebrity. Her image became so popular, Moser observes, “that Saturday Night Live had a Sontag wig in its wardrobe department — a comic synecdoche for the New York intellectual.”
Moser’s biography arrives at a critical time. Perversely, it’s become a minor convention to reduce Sontag — a writer who distrusted images as accurate portrayals of reality — to a consumable image. This began during her lifetime — a consequence of celebrity, a status Sontag likened to being a living image — but reached its low in the years after her death with Terry Castle’s 2005 essay, “Desperately Seeking Susan” — in which Sontag appears as a gesticulating cartoon of an insecure, horny intellectual — and Phillip Lopate’s callow Notes on Sontag in 2009, where he cannot decide if it’s “tragic or comic” that Sontag “came to undervalue her essay writing and insist she be honored for her novels, like the clown wanting to play Hamlet.”
Of course there have been forgiving memoirs — her son David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death and Sigrid Nunez’s incredible Sempre Susan — and two previous biographies: Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock’s Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, in 2000, and Daniel Schreiber’s Geist und Glamour, translated into English in 2014. That same year, a documentary — Regarding Susan Sontag — introduced a familiarly ambitious but newly severe person, an accurate if rushed glimpse of a writer better served by, as Moser provides, hundreds of pages of attention.
Even for the obsessive, Sontag offers a wealth of new material, including a bombshell: her first book, Moser claims, was not The Benefactor in 1963 but Freud: The Mind of the Moralist in 1959, under Philip Rieff’s name. Until now, the understanding has been that Sontag assisted her professor and husband. But beyond the book’s being “so excellent in so many ways, so complete a working-out of the themes that marked Susan Sontag’s life,” Moser suggests that Rieff, who conducted research and produced a great deal of notes, “almost certainly did not actually write the book upon which his career was based.” Susan, according to a friend Moser interviewed, “was spending every afternoon rewriting the whole thing from scratch.” This isn’t too great a leap to make. Sontag was, after all, “ghostwriting his reviews.” In an endnote, Moser further examines one “ghostwritten manuscript” which survives “in a private collection”: “On the backs of several pages, both typewritten and in Sontag’s handwriting, are drafts of letters from Philip Rieff, submitting the work as his own.” The review is “so learned,” Moser writes, “so conversant with Renaissance history and philosophy, that it is suggests [sic] that Sontag’s mind, even then, was fully fledged. It requires no effort whatsoever to imagine this author producing The Mind of the Moralist a few years later.”
By the time Moralist was complete, however, Sontag had announced her decision to divorce Rieff, who in turn used her sexual relationships with Harriet Sohmers and María Irene Fornés against her in an attempt to take custody of David. To placate him, Sontag not only refused alimony but renounced any claim to authorship. Forty years later, Moser writes, “the doorbell rang at Susan’s apartment in New York. A package was delivered. She opened it to find a copy of The Mind of the Moralist. It was inscribed to ‘Susan, Love of my life, mother of my son, co-author of this book: forgive me. Please. Philip.” For their relationship, it makes a beautiful, and dramatic, third act.
After the success of Moser’s previous book, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, Rieff and Sontag’s agent, Andrew Wylie, approached him with this project in mind. As her first official biographer, his interviews with friends and family (and enemies), fortified by exclusive archival access, place Sontag in a unique position — one that is, admittedly, difficult to write about. In the opening pages, he quotes her most famous essay: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’” What is more central to Sontag’s life, Moser asks, “than the gap between Susan Sontag and ‘Susan Sontag?’” As with any public figure, there is both an image and a person, but with Sontag the gap between them is especially wide. Moser’s book is the first to explore, at length, this distance and tension. Nothing else has so dramatized the contradictions of her personality, nor been so measured and fair about her writing. Each of Sontag’s major works and most of the minor ones, including her films, receives careful attention. Supplemented by private papers, as well as interviews with Annie Leibovitz, Rieff, and others close to Sontag who’ve been reluctant to share details in the past, the amount of information in Sontag borders on the sensational.
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Most importantly, Sontag is the queerest book about one of the 20th Century’s most important writers. For the first time, her relationships with other women and the occasional man feel like tangible, integrated parts of her life — not rumors, not secrets, not scandals. As cruel as she could be — particularly with Leibovitz — Sontag was easily wounded, and often heartbroken for years at a time. She scolds herself, “Not to surrender one’s heart where it’s not wanted,” and like any lover ignores her own warnings. She sought either someone to mother her, or someone to mother. In love as nowhere else, she humiliated and debased herself: “I always fell for the bullies,” she wrote of Irene and Harriet — “Their rejection of me showed their superior qualities.” Moser interprets the uneasy relationship Sontag had with “Notes on ‘Camp,’” an essay whose famed preceded and disturbed her and whose original title, her private papers reveal, was “Notes on Homosexuality”: “She was conflicted about the piece because it was about homosexuality: because it was about her.” It also tended to attract younger women as admirers — intellectually, of course. In one passage, Moser introduces a young Camille Paglia, who saw herself as Sontag’s successor. As with any hero, Sontag disappoints her. Much later, Moser refers to Paglia as having “resurfaced” (“GAY SCREAMING!” I wrote in the margin). “I’ve been chasing that bitch for twenty-five years and at last I’ve passed her!” Paglia wrote at the time. Confronted with this in an interview, Sontag “proclaimed that she had never so much as heard of Camille Paglia.” For the first time, Moser provides the missing piece: “She told Zoë Heller she was pretending she had never heard of Camille Paglia. ‘And the reason is I went to this party and I heard this guy say, “Gertrude Stein, who is that?” and I loved that. So I’m using the same thing on Paglia.’” With chapters like “Four Hundred Lesbians,” “The Bi’s Progress,” “The Price of Salt,” and “The Slave of Seriousness”; with its careful attention to the intimacies of Sontag’s life and the way those intimacies informed her contradictions and deflections, Moser’s Sontag is, at times, a flamboyantly queer biography of a queer icon. Gay screaming indeed.
As countless have felt it necessary to say, Sontag was famous. “Her success,” Moser writes, “was literally spectacular: played out in full public view.” She was shockingly photogenic. Peter Hujar, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and — of course — Annie Leibovitz contributed to the Sontag portfolio. Immediately, she belonged among New York’s intellectual circles as well as its society pages: “Sontag was only thirty-two when she was spotted at a table of six at a posh Manhattan restaurant… holding her own alongside Leonard Bernstein, Richard Avedon, William Styron, Sybil Burton, and Jacqueline Kennedy.” Sometime in the ‘90s, Terry Castle told Moser, “A waiter came up and said, ‘I know you’re famous, but who are you?’ And she was delighted by the question.”
This, of course, ultimately stings more than it serenades. That Sontag was so recognized but rarely read confronted her with the cost of her fame. Attention came easy, and her journals in particular betray an increasing awareness, and frustration, of how her deep craving for attention, alongside her ease of access to it, interfered with the artistic commitment to solitude: “Remember,” she wrote after the brutal end of another relationship, “this could be my one chance, and the last, to be a first-rate writer. One can never be alone enough to write.” This was a lesson she never learned: “She wrote with people: she sat next to Don Levine, chomping on amphetamines, gulping down coffee, puffing on Marlboros… ‘Come to my room,’ she would tell Michael Silverblatt. ‘Bring a book. I’m going to be writing. We can babble.’” One of Moser’s skills is to paint Sontag’s fragility, her sadness, as she aged. In another passage, Moser quotes Brenda Shaughnessy, one of Sontag’s protégés. Upon arriving in Tokyo, Sontag pelts her with demands, approaching an overstimulated hysteria: “I finally say to [Susan], ‘You know what? I can’t do this. I’m not going to lunch with you. I’m walking away.’ I turned away and she grabbed my arm, physically grabbed my arm, and goes, ‘Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me here’ … She felt helpless. The truth is she was terrified of being left on that street corner by herself.”
This portrait makes the chapter on her death terrifying. Diagnosed with her third cancer, she ignores the doctor’s warning that there is no hope: “To renounce her exceptionalism would mean renouncing the foundation of her identity.” Instead, she undergoes the most extensive and painful treatment of her life — “Torture,” a friend said, “is not too strong a word.” Not once did she reconcile herself, as Rieff wrote in his memoir, to the actual possibility of death: “She would write in a different way, get to know new people, do some of the things she had been meaning to do.” In Sontag’s vocabulary, this meant another version of the self to create. But “it is no small thing,” Moser writes, “to destroy a person’s entire blood system,” which he recounts in grotesque, even ghoulish, detail. When it doesn’t work, she is reduced to screaming. To die is to be ultimately and irreconcilably alone: “‘Get me out of here,’ she begged Annie on Christmas Day, grabbing her sleeve.” She died three days later.
“The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory,” Sontag wrote in “Against Interpretation,” another of the famous, tectonic essays that would plague her, via audience Q&A, for the rest of her life. The same year she published that essay in the Evergreen Review, she gave a lecture at the 92nd Street Y on “Classical Pornography,” which concluded with a general statement on the opacity or difficulty of rewarding works of art: “I think all great works of art, like all great experiences in our lives, throw up obstacles. They make it hard for us. What we know, what we attain, what we get to, is at a certain cost, and there is a moment when we break through, when there is this shock, this revelation, this unveiling, but it’s never complete and we’re always somewhat frustrated.” Obviously, Susan Sontag was a human being distinct from the works of art — novels, essays, films, a play, and short stories — that she created during her lifetime, but there is, too, a canny awareness, especially in her journals, that “Susan Sontag” was a work of art in itself, a creation she carefully revised throughout her life. This is, in a sense, the operating mood of Moser’s Sontag — to treat her image of herself as a work of art subject to critical interpretation. It is also the book’s immediate weakness.
“Many of the apparently rebarbative aspects of Sontag’s personality are clarified in light of the alcoholic family system,” Moser writes early on. “Such children,” he extrapolates, “are often liars: aware that they cannot tell others how things really are at home, they construct elaborate masks.” At Chicago — again, she was sixteen — Sontag “embroidered” her background with “stories about Mildred — who, she told one friend, was half-Irish — and Nat, who was so consumed with jealousy that he tried to kill Susan by running her over with a car.” For Moser, this is neatly pathological: “The notion that Mildred was Irish was a rather literal rendering of Susan’s desire not to see her as she really was… [and] if Nat was jealous of her to the point of wanting to murder her, that meant that Susan — not he — was the one Mildred really loved.”
Later, Moser pathologizes her cruelty and neediness as psychological debris over refusing to “come out” publicly. He quotes psychiatrist Jack Drescher: “Hiding and passing as heterosexual becomes a lifelong moral hatred of the self… a maze of corruptions, petty lies, and half truths that spoil social relations in family and friendship.” Hiding, Moser writes, “made it hard for such people to feel ‘actual accomplishments as reflections of their own abilities’ — since these, like themselves, could hardly be genuine. This made [these individuals] exceptionally dependent on the opinions of others.” For Sontag, this demystifies one of the great enigmas of her personality — that she could be so moved by art and yet remain “a person for whom empathy did not come naturally.” It is against her “Against”: a hermeneutics in place of the erotics she built around her life and work.
“When I understand something completely,” she wrote in her journals, “it goes dead.” The same is true of the psychoanalyzed personality. Freud offers a greedily totalizing worldview into which everything wingèd and wondrous can be pinned, taxonomized. But Sontag won’t be pinned. As with any extensive psychoanalysis, the interpretation begins to reflect more upon the analyst than the patient. But to be fair, Moser does acknowledge this on the book’s final page: “She warned against the mystifications of photographs and portraits: including those of biographers.” It’s an admirable last line to conclude an impressive performance, and it does, like a film’s final frame, inflect another mood upon the whole work — a signature of sorts reminding the reader that, by the way, all of this is one person’s interpretation. Moser’s closing is, in Sontag’s own words, a fair reminder that “the representation of things does involve a certain risk. There is a kind of trespass on being that is represented by making things appear, by making things visible and concrete and tangible to us, and if the artist dares to do this then he must… show us in some way that he knows what he’s doing, that the work is under control.” If this tendency to interpretation were the book’s one weakness, it would be almost fitting — a nod to Sontag’s legacy.
But it isn’t.
Transparently, I have been working on this project for a long time. I initially heard about Moser’s book sometime in 2018, and started begging editors to let me write about it in early 2019. When the galley arrived in May, I read it rapidly and rapturously alongside revisits of several of Sontag’s major works and her journals, as well as a first time reading of The Benefactor. In July, I read Sontag once more. The original version of this essay, submitted in early August, is largely here, within the edges of this one. You have already read most of it, though its tone is now a little different.
However, that same month, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay by Magdalena Edwards called “Benjamin Moser and the Smallest Woman in the World.” Reading it, I felt my original praise of Sontag sort of shudder. An author’s strength is in their authority, and doubt is a powerfully corrosive force authority rarely survives.
In Edwards’s account, Moser’s involvement in her translation of Clarice Lispector’s novel, The Chandelier, begins as an offer of friendly advice from a well-known writer, and ends in Moser denigrating her work and putting his own name on the novel as “co-translator”: “The truth is that Moser tried to get me fired, arguing that my completed manuscript was not up to snuff, that my level of Portuguese was insufficient, and that he would have to rewrite every line of my translation.” All this, she says, despite that her “contract did not name Moser as an editor or give him any official role in the process. Moser and I had not set up a schedule for working on the translation as editor and translator, and at no time prior to the attempted firing did we do any work together on the manuscript.” More than just an unpleasant experience, Edwards says, “Something felt very, very off. My gut told me I had to dig deeper.”
Quickly, Edwards learns about Moser’s history with Lispector scholarship, including the “bad blood” between Moser and Lispector’s Brazilian biographer, Nádia Battella Gotlíb, whose Clarice, uma vida que se conta (1995) seems to have “inspired” the structure and several chapter titles of Moser’s own biography of Lispector. Edwards cites several examples of the similarities between the two biographies, highlighted by Brazilian literary critics. She considers, too, Moser’s claim, without any concrete textual support, that Lispector’s mother died of syphilis, contracted from a rape during a pogrom in the Ukraine.
One publisher, Carrie Paterson at DoppelHouse Press, considered commissioning a translation of Gotlíb’s biography, but decided against it: “I couldn’t see how I could justify paying for a translation of Gotlíb’s huge book when it would be difficult to position it as different enough from Moser’s,” she told me. “In retrospect,” she added, she should have done it anyway: “I could have helped in this situation where the work of female academic writing in another language was used without attribution so indiscriminately.”
Also under scrutiny in Edwards’s essay is Moser’s care and attention with respect to his own translations, which wouldn’t be so damning if he hadn’t published a screed against “the tendency to imprecise language” in the New York Times. Reviewing Kate Briggs’s This Little Art, he states that “As a translator, I reject the suggestion that serious translators take such a lax view of standards.” The translators Moser respects are “keenly aware of the difference between creativity and appropriation.” He derides Barthes’s theories on translation, mentioned lovingly by Briggs — “His book on Japan, Empire of Signs, is interesting — as long as one realizes that it is not about Japan but about Barthes’s projection of himself onto an imagined empire.” This “placing of subjective impressions over objective scholarship,” Moser continues, “makes Briggs’s interest in Helen-Lowe Porter, Thomas Mann’s translator… dismaying.” And yet Moser himself seems prone to a similar carelessness. As Edwards points out, examining two different translations of a passage in Lispector’s Hour of the Star, one of them (Moser’s) is lacking a unique detail: “I doubt that for Lispector the choice of the car’s color, yellow, was an unimportant detail.”
These findings, Edwards says, refract her view of Moser’s new project: “Questions of authorship, appropriation, and uncredited work are critical to Moser’s discussion of Sontag… The Sontag-Rieff conflict over who did what work and who got what credit felt painfully familiar to me, The Chandelier’s translator-turned-co-translator.” And Sontag itself is full of questions.
Earlier, I quoted one of Moser’s details about Sontag’s father’s death — that Mildred “sent the first grader out to play.” But according to Daniel Schreiber, Sontag’s previous biographer, “a comparison of his death certificate [October 1938] and her report cards proves that recollection cannot have been accurate. Susan did not begin school until September 1939.” To arrive at this conclusion, Schreiber cites the biography previous to his own, noting that “Rollyson and Paddock have consulted the official documents but do not point out the obvious contradiction between them and Sontag’s later statements.” To substantiate his own claim, Moser cites “Project For a Trip to China” — an autobiographical short story.
Admittedly, I’m not always this careful or fastidious. But after the publication of Edwards’s essay, my doubts, as I said, greatly diminished my enjoyment of and trust in Moser’s (wholly engrossing) biography of a writer I deeply admire. I decided to thumb through my copy of Schreiber’s book, as well as read through some essays Paterson had sent me, in which Brazilian critics noted all the similarities between Moser’s Clarice and Gotlib’s Clarice. One passage from Benjamin Abdala Junior’s 2010 “Biografia de Clarice, por Benjamin Moser: coincidências e equívocos” was especially pertinent. After interpreting Lispector’s mother’s illness as syphilis derived from a rape — neither of which, Junior points out, are substantiated by any text, and which Moser yet refers to as “happened” [“aconteceu”], and never as “may possibly have happened” [“teria possivelmente acontecido”] — Moser cites a scene from Elisa Lispector’s autobiographical novel, No exílio, wherein the narrator describes a pogrom, Junior says, in which there is still “no specific mention of rape.” But Moser, Junior says, “fills in the narrative’s silences with his own interpretation.” Yet it remains an interpretation, one derived from a novel and “built as a hypothesis that, once more, [Moser] transforms into a certainty.”
While the above detail from Sontag isn’t anywhere near as grave as that in Clarice, it’s difficult to encounter this same blurring of fact and fiction, however autobiographical, without beginning to doubt many of the book’s claims, especially those revealed here, to much celebrated fanfare, for the first time. It really isn’t difficult, as Moser says, to “imagine” Sontag writing The Mind of the Moralist, but it’s another thing entirely, in a serious biography, to tag quotes from Rieff’s book with “she writes,” or “she wrote.” This alluring claim and many like it are, of course, unverifiable to those of us without archival access or the estate’s blessing to interview close friends and family. In most cases, I wouldn’t have this temptation, but nor, in most cases, does an author’s authority crumble the way it has in my third, and final, reading of Sontag.
Also explored in Edwards’s essay are similarities in wording between Moser’s Clarice and the work of other authors. Reading Moser’s introduction to Lispector’s The Besieged City, she
had to stop at the following sentence about Lispector’s use of commas: “Breaking rhythms, adding pauses, shifting emphases, hundreds of commas are sprinkled throughout, changing the music of her prose, clarifying difficult passages — and then, just as often, muddying them further, weird little hairs in the soup.” This sounded terribly familiar. The second paragraph of Katrina Dodson’s “Translator’s Note” for The Complete Stories ends as follows: “A comma trips up the pace where it doesn’t seem to belong, like a hair she’s placed in your soup.”
Again, borne of doubt, I began to see what in most cases I wouldn’t see, and am possibly over-interpreting. But it’s like imagining the contours of a face in the side of a rock — once you do, it won’t go away. Generously, one could call these rhymes:
Sontag was buried at Montparnasse. It was “a homecoming of sorts,” Moser writes: “She would keep eternal company with Sartre, Cioran, Barthes, Beckett — the ideal family of which she had dreamed in Tucson.” Her grave, he adds, “was attracting pilgrims. The black slab covering her remains grew into one of the most visited destinations in a cemetery packed with the illustrious dead.”
In Daniel Schreiber’s Geist und Glamour, “the symbolic significance of this funeral seemed obvious. The author was being laid to rest in that world of the intellect she had longed to be a part of since her earliest childhood in the bleak desert landscape of Arizona. Not far from the graves of Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, Sontag was buried where devotees of post-war intellectual life could now also visit her grave.”
Sontag’s posthumous essay collection, At the Same Time, contains, in Moser’s words, “a moving valedictory… to the cosmopolitan tradition to which she had pledged herself as a girl.”
Schreiber calls the same book “the culmination of the original impulse toward high culture with which she was able to survive a chaotic childhood.”
Summing up her celebrity image, Moser says: “She was the guru in Woody Allen’s Zelig, the genius on the cover of Vanity Fair — as well as the woman who, in 2000, allowed herself to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut Vodka advertisement.”
Pointing to the same idea in Sontag’s New York Times obituary, Margalit Fox wrote: “She was undoubtedly the only writer of her generation… to appear in films by Woody Allen and Andy Warhol; to be the subject of rapturous profiles in Rolling Stone and People magazines; and to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut Vodka ad.”
After her treatment initially shows promise, Moser writes, “She pulled herself together and went back to work” — an introduction to a discussion of Sontag’s “final published essay,” “Regarding the Torture of Others.”
In Schreiber’s account, “David Rieff remembers how hopeful his mother was after she had decided to undergo the bone marrow transplant… She even began to work again and in May wrote an impressively cogent essay on the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib.”
These rhymes aren’t much, but — given all the other circumstances — they are enough for me.
So: what now? As a project, Moser’s biography is certainly flawed; as a portrait one should approach it, perhaps fittingly, as one would Sontag’s own portraits of her heroes, primarily collected in Under the Sign of Saturn: with the understanding that these were taken by a powerful but subjective lens. One reads these portraits not to learn, per se, about Cioran or Cannetti or Barthes or Benjamin, but to glimpse Susan Sontag’s most personal writing. When I first read Sontag on Godard, for example, I had no idea who Godard was. Unfortunately, this mediation by a personal lens doesn’t hold up for Sontag; there just isn’t the same interest in Moser, as a figure. I’m assuming I’m not alone in coming to the book to read about its subject, not to get to know its author.
However, the book itself remains valuable — provided one reads it skeptically and weighs its claims carefully. In a 1981 interview, Sontag mentioned how she was “burdensomely aware that there’s always more to say… This yes. But also that. It’s not really disagreement, it’s more like turning a prism — to see something from another point of view.” You can’t photograph a prism. You can’t see it all at once. This is why Sontag — as both image and writer — is more relevant fifteen years after her death than she was at the height of her fame. This what it means when a writer is “ahead of her time”: even in essays written thirty, forty — fifty! — years ago, she seems to be writing about our culture, about us. This is why, as frustrating as it is to wonder how a more careful and interested scholar would have handled the material, an official biography of Susan Sontag is nonetheless an event to be celebrated. Even mitigated by doubt, there are details here about Sontag’s life from Rieff, Leibovitz, and other close friends that add new dimensions to her personality, and — more importantly — to her work. At the same time, essays on Sontag are appearing in most major literary publications. One has to believe this is introducing Sontag to new readers, some of whom may take it upon themselves to complete more self-effacing, faithful research. Even so, we are having conversations about one of the most exciting writers of the 20th Century at a moment when we badly need her perspective, and new readers will be lucky to have her. Few writers are able to stimulate critical thought, to ignite the dissenting imagination, the way she can.
Moser is right to declare Sontag’s theme “the relation of language to reality.” In particular, she excels at juxtaposing this ancient, Platonic problem against mass media. Never so directly did she address this than in On Photography, her most important and — forty-two years after its publication — most contemporary book.
The reader of 2019 will recognize the 1970s Sontag describes: “Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it.” She connects the development of “fun” technology (Polaroids, Super-8s) with its application for “self-surveillance.” Capitalism “requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex.” In place of social change, we get “a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself,” which reduces “free political choice” to “free economic consumption.”
Photography “is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness, continuity.” It is “atomized reality” — moments “frozen” outside of time, and therefore outside understanding: “As Brecht points out, a photograph of the Krupp works [a German munitions factory] reveals virtually nothing about that organization. Understanding is based on how [something] functions. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.” Photography is a surrealist ethos, a democratization of nouns: a human being and an umbrella, say, receive equal attention and compassion. So flattened, each loses its meaning. Photography, as a democratization of seeing — giving equal attention and compassion to a burn victim and the shadow beneath a park bench — empties subjects of their meanings. Images are presented without context, without “time” to understand. So isolated, they do not narrate. They mean nothing.
Reading On Photography in 2019 is important not merely because humankind will upload nearly two trillion photographs in 2020, but because our primary day-to-day experience with each other as human beings has been shattered into an ongoing incoherence of images. Social media is a surrealistic environment that juxtaposes photographs of dying children against a snarky Wendy’s advertisement, a racist remark from the president against a friend who wants a book recommendation. Individual users curate their personalities into personae, clipping parts of themselves or their lives they’d prefer others not see. In short, we have learned to present ourselves as images, to see one another as images. On social media — the primary method by which most people in capitalist nations experience one another every day — we are discontinuous with ourselves and with others; our “friends” resemble a catalogue of images to consume, reject, or discard. As images, any pretense of meaning vanishes from our lives.
In this capitalism-of-seeing, we rob ourselves of the consciousness that human beings exist continuously in time, and that our beliefs, opinions, desires, and deeds shift accordingly. Sontag has already given us the framework for thinking about these problems, and for imagining our way out of them. At the close of On Photography, she conjures the metaphor of conservation: “If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.” It’s an admirable idea, one that obsessed her for decades. Some writers — Teju Cole, Ariella Azoulay, Sarah Sentilles, and many more — have engaged with her work on this subject. Azoulay in particular advances Sontag’s ideas by changing the verb: Rather than “look” at a photograph of a person in pain, she writes in The Civil Contract of Photography, one should “watch” the photograph. The latter word evokes a lapse of time, which encourages the spectator to remember that, despite its brief exposure — often a fraction of a second — the photograph remains a little slice of time; for the subject there was time before the photograph, and — except in the direst cases — time afterward. Willfully placing oneself in a viewership in time is a more ethical way of seeing than focusing on the instantaneity of an image. So, for that matter, is remembering that every image of a person you encounter, no matter how flat or reduced or airbrushed, is another human being existing in time, complete with aspirations, faults, guilt, talents, loneliness, and terror. The photographic ethos encourages a split — that whoever or whatever we’re seeing is somehow separate from us; but in a world where anyone can be transformed into an image, there is no split: We are all the image and its spectator, and we owe it to one another to be watchful.
Along with this “relation of language to reality,” Sontag had another lifelong theme. She was a staunch atheist (she once called herself 200% secular), and yet from her earliest essays, including “Against Interpretation,” there is an understanding and a nurturing of the spiritual impulse in human beings. Shortly before her death, she sat for a televised, three-hour interview on CSPAN. To one caller, concerned over George W. Bush’s admiration of Christ above all other philosophers, she confessed her ongoing temptation to fortify her moral compass with “one of the great religious traditions.” For decades, Sontag engaged the religious imagination and its metaphors — often directly, as in her writings on pornography, silence, and self-destructively ascetic artists. The second sentence of Styles of Radical Will is a parenthetical definition of “spirituality,” a word she places in square quotes:
Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural conditions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)
A great deal of these “painful structural conditions” Sontag attributes, in some form, to “the capitalist world-view, in which the environment is atomized into ‘items’ (a category embracing things and persons, works of art and natural organisms), and in which every item is a commodity — that is, a discrete, portable object.” We are psychically wounded, in a sense, by our confinement into categories, and our poor attempts at healing — bad pornography, mediocre art, a reliance upon religious metaphors, and so on — reflect “the traumatic failure of modern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness. The need of human beings to transcend ‘the personal’ is no less profound than the need to be a person.” To transcend the self, we often seek “total” experiences, which “tend again and again to be apprehended only as revivals or translations of the religious imagination. To try to make a fresh way of talking at the most serious, ardent, and enthusiastic level, heading off the religious encapsulation, is one of the primary intellectual tasks of future thought.” Today, there remains very little room, in language, for the sublime or divine apart from the debris of harmful, often oppressive institutions; even contemporary attempts at “spirituality” are quickly poisoned by slogans, marketing, social media, and cultural colonialism — “mindfulness,” for example, or “being present,” or a white person evangelizing their latest journey into savasana.
Introducing her ideas on pornography, Sontag mentioned the relationship between the deadpan and slapstick in comedy, both of which produce “a deadening or neutralization or distancing of the audience’s emotions.” So too does this apply in conventional porn: “The principles of underrating and frenetic agitation make the emotional climate self-canceling, so that the basic tone of pornography is affectless, emotionless.” Works of pornography “lack the beginning-middle-and-end form characteristic of literature. A piece of pornographic fiction concocts no better than a crude excuse for a beginning; and once having begun, it goes on and on and ends nowhere.” Porn, like comedy, is — in spirit if not in actuality — interminable, “a perpetual tableau. Even though things do happen, really nothing happens. Everything is repeated again and again and again.” There are no consequences because there is no suffering, there is no change of any kind. She contrasts this with tragedy, in which “we believe in the reality of suffering. We believe in the reality of death.” These are distinctions worth observing: there is something we seek in comedy and in pornography that tragedy does not, perhaps cannot, provide, but as with any form of consumption there are risks. A contemporary risk of this sensibility is — again — found in social media, particularly as it intersects, even enmeshes itself with, the news “cycle.”
The surrealist ethos of social media, wherein an “image” of a mass shooting is structurally equivalent with the “image” of a friend announcing a new job, replicates exactly the kind of ongoing, interminable “frenetic agitation” and deadpan lack of response one finds in Sontag’s characterizations of comedy and pornography. This is especially pertinent under the current presidential administration, whose ongoing spectacle, amplified and magnified by social media, leaves its audience both incredulous and numb. “Even though things do happen, really nothing happens.” Nothing changes. Despite the daily threat of apocalypse, each of those days is almost identical to any other. Caught between affectlessness and total, constant hysteria, it’s difficult to feel like oneself when using these platforms, and yet — participating as one does as an image — that self is increasingly confined. We call this a “brand.” Here, again, is a technology or a sensibility that offers a glimpse at what it might mean to transcend the personality or escape the capitalist atomization of highly specific, specialized categories, and yet withholds that possibility. It fails us. Social media platforms are, after all, built for advertisers; they are profit generating machines, just like the conventional pornography and formulaic comedy Sontag describes. This, again, is the “traumatic failure of modern capitalism.” We still have few outlets, little language, and only the rare subversive system of thought to provide or pursue an ancient and necessary spirituality. This remains, as it did in the 60s, “one of the primary intellectual tasks of future thought.” I read this — as I’m sure would many others — as a challenge, and one I think it’s worth accepting.
Toward the end of her life, Sontag was increasingly obsessed with Literature. Her speeches and essays radiate its capital-L. In interviews, she expressed a hope that she’d be remembered for her novels, not her essays. In Sempre Susan, Nunez remembers Sontag’s frustration in the ‘70s, how “it wounded her that the fiction writers whose work she admired and championed did not admire her work in return.” Then, in 1992, The Volcano Lover was an acclaimed bestseller. In 2000, In America won the National Book Award. “People ate their hats,” Nunez recalls. “I heard that after the National Book Awards ceremony, she could not stop crying.”
Sontag told interviewers she preferred fiction because her characters had room for “the contradictory things in me.” With essays, she said, “I have to make up my mind,” and it took decades for her to grasp “the ethical power that fiction could have.” Of The Volcano Lover, she said in an interview, “I identify with everybody in the novel. I think that’s what a novelist does. You have to identify with everybody because you have to see the humanity of everybody.” Where the essay was a this or that — fiction was a this and that, the prism rotating in the light. While her later works shy away from the overt engagement with spirituality mentioned above, it becomes clear — particularly in the essays collected in Where the Stress Falls and At the Same Time — that fiction became, for Sontag, a spiritual project: “The wisdom that becomes available over a deep, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.”
You’ve probably heard that her fiction is “awful.” In truth, the viciousness with which other writers attack her fiction — even the masterful, if flawed, late novels — is out of step with the petty, capitalist delight one artist takes in another’s failure. It is out of step even with literary misogyny (however much it saturates the majority of Sontag criticism, especially Lopate’s Notes). “There is a terrible, mean American resentment toward a writer who tries to do many things,” she wrote in 1972 — a resentment whose burn, as Moser points out, “she herself was already feeling.” Instead, this hatred of her fiction seems like rage — that an attractive intellectual would step outside the many photographs taken of her and show us a new angle. That she could be more than one could see in a glimpse. That, even as a celebrity, she could make art out of the fullness of her person. That, without attending workshops or writers’ conferences, sitting on faculties, or teaching and writing about “craft,” it was fiction — it was Literature — she chose as her art; and that she did it, as she did so many things, better than the mediocre writers who criticized her.
Like her most recent biographer, Sontag, too, was accused of appropriating. Moser mentions this, and concludes, guilelessly, that “one would have to take an extremely liberal view in order to consider Sontag’s use of ‘sources’ anything other than plagiarism.” He is writing about the most well-known accusation: after the publication of In America, a scholar familiar with Helena Modjeska — the historical individual on which Sontag’s character, Maryna Zalezowska, is based — “highlighted at least 12 passages in Ms. Sontag’s 387-page book that were similar to passages in four other books about Modjeska,” the New York Times reported. “They were presented without credit or attribution.” Confronted with this, Sontag brushed it off as part of “a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions.” Rarely did Sontag ever sound so completely full of shit. It was a mistake, one of many that could be, and were, turned evidence against her in life and after her death, alongside her callousness, her conservatism in the face of women and people of color who questioned her allegiance to a literary canon of dead white men, her life lived halfway in the closet, her intellectual abstraction of AIDS as a second-rate sequel to Illness as Metaphor, and many other missteps.
All readers will have some relationship to each of these accusations, and some will hold more weight than others. Such is the nature of disagreement, of dislike, of the ways we disappoint and hurt one another, and of the rigor or sloppiness with which we approach, frame, and deliver our ethical arguments. For her part, throughout her life, Sontag made it clear that she believed it’s possible to transcend one’s deeds and to go on narrating one’s life as a way of absorbing mistakes, of learning from them. This is how, in large part, we arrive at our educations differently. We buy and borrow them, and steal them, differently. I don’t write this cynically. Spending so much time with Sontag’s work, I write it, instead, aspiringly. She craved and sought a moral life. To the contemporary writer, she shows how education does not stop, or even start, with training — that a career for its own sake, even as a creator of beautiful things, is just another version of capitalism. For her, education is both edification — a building of oneself to withstand and weather the world — and excavation, a hollowing out of the self. The moral education is learning to be and to efface oneself simultaneously, the irreconcilable tension of which is the province of spirituality, be it religious, sexual, philosophic, or artistic.
She was difficult. She could be cruel. But many who knew Sontag never forgot her spell. She would have called her own presence erotic.“It’s hard to explain,” Shaughnessy said, “her magnetism and her sexual charm and just how dazzling she was in person.” For many people, Moser writes, “she would remain, even long after her death, the most important relationship, the most dominant influence, in their lives.” This is not something you understand. The understood person does not cast a spell. Above all, you can’t carry a photograph or portrait of “how she was.” As she eventually made of her fiction — and as she fashioned from the combined variety of her greatest essays — Sontag’s life, too, hardened into a prism one must take time to turn. And it is, and will remain, worth your time. Moser’s biography turns it, and yet one reaches the end — especially after reconciling one’s doubts — knowing there is still so much light left to refract. As there should be. For the ambitious, conscientious, and yet new reader, Sontag is a decent portrait, but she remains, and always will, someone not to look at but to watch — to lengthily, ongoingly, repeatedly regard. The best view is from her work. Start wherever you like.
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Patrick Nathan is the author of Some Hell. His essays on literature, photography, and fascism have appeared in Pacific Standard, the Paris Review Daily, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere.
Editor: Dana Snitzky