LISA LEVY

CRITICAL INTIMACY

COMPARING THE PARADOXICAL OBITUARIES OF SUSAN SONTAG

DISCUSSED: Edward Said, Irving Penn, John Simon, Angela McRobbie, Walter Benjamin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Anne Leibowitz, Lionel Trilling, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Franklin Foer, Mary McCarthy, Henry James, William Phillips, Phillip Rieff, Oscar Wilde, Arthur C. Danto, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Goodman, Terry Castle, Patricia Highsmith, Wayne Koestenbaum, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Photo by Peter Hujar / Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

The obituary is an existence writ small, the preface to the literary afterlife. Suddenly the story, once endlessly expansive, is over, and can be condensed to a few paragraphs, or summarized in a column or two of newspaper ink, depending on how luminous the luminary under consideration. Like most of what appears in the morning paper, convention and form govern the obituary: the childhood, the schooling, the highlights of the career, comments from notables in the field, the publications, the memorable conflicts, the cause and manner of death, the list of grieving survivors. In the flattering light of the retrospective, Palestinian partisan Edward Said was a “polymath scholar and literary critic” who, it is politely stated, also advocated on behalf of a somewhat unpopular cause; Arthur Miller was a very fine playwright who briefly married some actress. For many writers, the solemn and respectful presentation of their intellectual achievements overshadows their shortcomings and their conflicts, both professional and personal.

Yet when Susan Sontag died in December 2004, her legacy in newsprint might be characterized at best as ambivalent; at worst, vindictive. Her obituaries compiled a fascinating hodgepodge of accolades, minor scandals, and resurrected grudges, scattered among potshots and praise. These mixed reactions to Sontag were nothing new; the obituaries merely mirrored the strong responses she provoked in life. What was striking in its absence was some sense of reverence, that with her passing, perhaps, a few hatchets might be buried, even if only ceremonially. Here is a catalog of Sontag’s most popular descriptors, from the New York Times:

Through four decades, public response to Ms. Sontag remained irreconcilably divided. She was described, variously, as explosive, anticlimactic, original, derivative, naïve, sophisticated, approachable, aloof, condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic, sincere, posturing, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing, profound, superficial, ardent, bloodless, dogmatic, ambivalent, tenacious, ecstatic, melancholic, humorous, humorless, deadpan, rhapsodic, cantankerous and clever. No one ever called her dull.

This superabundance of adjectives marks a person and a career still under appraisal. One of the common traits of her obituaries is the use of paradoxical descriptions, of which this is the most elaborate example, as if she can be summoned or summarized only by contradiction. It might also be using the master’s tools to dismantle the house of her persona, as a fellow critic, John Simon, once accused her of using “high-sounding paradoxes without thinking through what, if anything, they mean.” What lurks behind this impulse to bestow labels upon her? Is it a need to finally explain someone who resisted easy classifications, not “left-wing” or “right,” “puritanical” or “sybaritic,” “profound” or “superficial”? She was not afraid to change her mind even if a previous opinion had been expressed with an “ardent” or “dogmatic” fervor, to take on controversial subjects and to make herself the object of public scrutiny, though she always remained resolutely private on the matters that people were most curious about—hence the “explosive” and the “posturing” and maybe even the “condescending.” Her death, for the New York Times and others, was just another occasion for arguments about what Sontag meant, the difference being this time Sontag could not possibly return the thrust and parry.

Many of the obituaries harped upon her love of fame (“populist”), as if that were an adequate tool to explain why Sontag courted controversy. But fame for its own sake was never Sontag’s goal. It was not unwelcome, but it was incidental. And to accuse Sontag of pursuing fame for its own sake—as many did, Stanley Aronowitz, for instance, called her “the major American example of critic as star”—belittles her achievements. It is a way of not talking about her vast influence, how good she really was. No one critiques an ambitious man for his pursuit of prominence. No one slammed Edward Said, another star critic, for using his academic celebrity to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinians. The “irreconcilable division” the Times notes was not the mark of a thinker merely out for notoriety, but one for whom notoriety was an inevitable by-product of her thinking. After all, if no one knows your name, how will they know your ideas? Dissemination was crucial to Sontag; if people found out about her from a profile in Vogue accompanied by an Irving Penn glamour shot, well, that was hardly her fault. It was all in the circulation numbers, right?

All the obituaries feel honor bound to mention her looks: the Times says, “through the years her image—strong features, wide mouth, intense gaze and dark mane crowned in her middle years by a sweeping streak of white—became an instantly recognizable artifact of twentieth-century popular culture.” British cultural critic Angela McRobbie opens her 1991 essay “The Modernist Style of Susan Sontag” with a survey of photographs of Sontag, echoing Sontag’s opening of her essay on her idol, critic Walter Benjamin, “Under the Sign of Saturn.” Where Benjamin is the prototypical melancholic, with “the downward look through his glasses—the soft, daydreamer’s gaze of the myopic,” Sontag is the ironic image of cerebral sensuality—as one male writer puts it, “the model of the bohemian graduate-student lover every bookish man feels he ought to have.” Sontag said of being photographed—and she was captured by the best, Robert Mapplethorpe, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz—that she felt apprehensive and disarmed by the camera. Yet her magnetism gave her cachet, and she posed for the camera over and over again, perhaps because she understood its power better than anyone. In her book On Photography (1977) she writes: “To take a picture is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”

Sontag invited this kind of participation. This, again, is unusual for a critic: try to picture Lionel Trilling, or Derrida, or even Sontag’s beloved Roland Barthes, posing for a Vogue photo, if they would even meet the exacting criteria to be pictured in those impossibly glossy pages. Critics are normally shadowy figures skulking around the margins, sifting through other people’s prose. Sontag knew how to use her looks; it cannot be an accident that our best female critic could have played a silent-film temptress. Those who are blessed with beauty, after all, already have the attention of the world. Looks imply a confidence, a carriage, a predisposition to be noticed. The fact that she also had that brain, inexhaustible and unstinting in its power to notice, is an almost unholy genetic quirk. As another Sontag obituary in the Guardian described her appeal, “The age of radical chic had arrived, and Sontag—serious, gorgeous, striding across New York intellectual life, was its most striking adornment.” “Adornment” is an unfair description, dehumanizing and silencing, but “serious” and “gorgeous” are both indisputable. Preeminent in Sontag’s mind, however, was whether they were contradictory: could the world take someone so gorgeous seriously as she demanded?

If posterity, in the initial form of the obituaries, is ambivalent about Sontag, Sontag herself was ambivalent about fame. Her anxiety was well founded: the reality of her looks combined with the headiness of celebrity could have led to her being cast as a kind of intellectual mascot, a thinking man’s bimbo, or worse—mere adornment. Her attitude toward fame was expressed in a letter that she wrote to her longtime publisher Roger Straus, quoted in a posthumous profile of her by Franklin Foer—call it an extended obituary—in New York magazine called “Susan Superstar: How Susan Sontag Became Seduced by Her Own Persona.” Anticipating her return to New York from a peaceful exile in Paris in 1972 she declared, “I’m back in the race to become The Most Important Writer of My Generation and all that shit.” The truth was that a few months in France had hardly absented her from “the race” and what she referred to in her less profane moments as her “pop celebrity fame.” Sontag knew of which she spoke. She studied the trappings of celebrity with the likes of Andy Warhol, whose Factory she frequented enough in the 1960s to be a subject of one of his screen tests. And she had become famous by urging the readers of the most elite publications in America to embrace pop culture and its pleasures. It was a particularly apt bit of irony that this Most Important Writer label resulted in her not being taken seriously—at least, that was her fear, as seriousness was precious to her. In her 1969 essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” she described how seriousness was at the heart of the struggle the artist has with his audience, that to stay serious is always to risk alienating the public. Silence, therefore, was a real option, but one that meant abandoning the artistic project. Sontag wanted to speak and to write seriously, at the risk of contradicting herself or being misunderstood.

Answering some of the posthumous fame snipes, critic Stephen Koch, a longtime friend, claimed in a chatty article published in the New York Observer, “She was a natural celebrity—it came to her like breathing in and breathing out.” American intellectuals, however, are not supposed to crave mass attention. They are not movie stars, even if they are, well, just as beautiful. Where Koch is quick to forgive, others, like this British obituary from the Independent—and the other British obituaries are just as adamant on this point—are hasty to condemn: “Susan Sontag was without question a brilliant woman, pleased with her success and reputation and anxious to retain it. The need to stay in the limelight led her into a number of errors, which made many of her admirers think again.” Koch, one of those admirers, was very specific about the kind of fame Sontag sought. She was accused in the early days of her career of trying to usurp the position of “Dark Lady of American Letters” from Mary McCarthy, as if there could be only one intellectual woman in the spotlight at a time. “So you’re the imitation me,” McCarthy is reported to have said upon meeting the bewitching Sontag. Of course, the literary world loves a catfight as much as the hard-drinking crowd at a roadside bar, and the trope of a younger woman usurping the position of an aging one is too rich to resist. Yet Koch scoffs at the idea that Sontag would have entertained such thoughts. “She wasn’t trying to be like Mary McCarthy. She was trying to be like Gide. She was trying to be like Henry James. Not in imitating their work, but moving toward what she would call seriousness.” And seriousness, as we know, was paramount to Sontag, part of what made her such an irresistible target, and something that would not have been nearly as ridiculed in a man as it was in her. No one has any problems with a brilliant man being pleased with his success. In his Times obituary, for example, Saul Bellow’s quip upon accepting his Nobel Prize—“The child in me is delighted. The adult in me is skeptical”—is quoted as if it is the ultimate in good-mannered humility for a man otherwise inclined to rank himself alongside Flaubert and Tolstoy. Sontag gets no such breaks. As Craig Seligman, author of Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, describes her writing, “What’s absent, famously, is humor. Her gravity holds the reader at a constant arm’s length.” Might this distancing, too, contribute to the grudges the obituary writers and others bear her? This is, after all, the definition of arrogance: putting oneself above others, separating your presence from the crowd, precisely the kind of behavior that makes seventh-graders—and former seventh-graders—turn to the person next to them and whisper “conceited.”

*

The roots of Sontag’s so-called conceitedness are buried somewhere in the glorious beginning of her career. A scene resolutely of (if not in) the 1960s, reconstructed in most of the obituaries: the New York intelligentsia, the warring quarterlies and twinkling cocktails and repartee, the aging relics of the 1950s in fraying sportcoats still arguing flavors of Marxism with a few bright young people. This was the world Sontag crashed in 1959, as she put it, with “$70, two suitcases, and a seven-year-old.” She had arrived via some likely and unlikely places: Arizona and California and Chicago, then Oxford (which she loathed, and the Brits never forgave her for it) and Paris (which she adored, and the French returned the sentiment) and most recently Boston. She’d married Freudian scholar Phillip Rieff, whom she’d met as a seventeen-year-old at the University of Chicago, after a seventeen-day (or ten-day, depending on who you believe) courtship. Her long dark hair already a subject of gossip, everyone whispered about the “fourteen-year-old Indian” Rieff had fallen for after she had sauntered into his class on Kafka, late. They had a son, David, in 1952. Rieff wrote a book with her uncredited help, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, while she worked intermittently on her Ph.D. at Harvard. After returning from her year abroad, Sontag realized she had been trapped in a modern Middlemarch and fled her Casaubon for the liberal, lettered Upper West Side. Once there, she cruised the cocktail circuit, and as the legend goes, Sontag approached editor William Phillips at one of those parties and queried, “How does one get to write for the Partisan Review?”

“You ask,” he replied.

“I’m asking,” she said.

This was Sontag’s context: the “New York Intellectuals,” as critic Irving Howe later dubbed them in a piece for Commentary, the magazine where Sontag held an editorial job during her early days of struggle in New York. Howe, though, was no fan of Sontag’s, calling her, with barely disguised sexism, “a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from grandmother’s patches.” Howe railed against the likes of Sontag and her generation. But this too is an old story, a younger generation breaking with their elders, finding something new to say about art and politics and life and a fresh way to say it. Most readers vehemently disagreed with Howe’s assessment of Sontag’s skills. And Sontag herself was living out her fantasies. “My greatest dream,” she once wrote, “was to grow up and come to New York and write for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people.” Phillips helped make that dream come true, and Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pushed her further into the print limelight, making sure her works were widely reviewed and read by the right people. Her obituaries note this thusly: “Sontag had a gift for cultivating men of influence and intellectual power.” It was a gift she used, they should add, quite discriminately—and it’s not as if there were any women of influence to cultivate. With the exception of Barbara Epstein at the New York Review of Books (which she cofounded in 1963 with Robert Silvers), all of the mastheads that mattered were manned by men.

Her essays from the Partisan Review and other journals were collected and published by FSG as Against Interpretation in 1966. The book was a smash. While some whispered she had used her looks to get ahead, posterity has adjudicated in her favor. “The charge that Sontag used her beauty to further her career is drivel; the essays collected in Against Interpretation would have made a warthog famous,” Seligman claims. The book is still, on the whole, remarkable: confident without being overwrought, diverse without overreaching, an almost flawless marriage of critical voice and subject. “Writing criticism has proved to be an act of intellectual disburdenment as much as of intellectual self-expression. I have the impression not so much of having, for myself, solved a certain number of alluring and troubling problems as of having used them up,” Sontag states in her introduction. This sense of “using up problems” is what makes the book so successful: she manages to stake out her territory without being tedious. She continues, “In the end, what I have been writing is not criticism at all, strictly speaking, but case studies for an aesthetic, a theory of my own sensibility.” Not many critics, especially ones as young as she at thirty-three, would be brash enough to announce that they have arrived at a “theory of my own sensibility.” But Sontag had, and the world paid attention, as it was a sensibility worth considering.

The title essay, “Against Interpretation,” Sontag’s manifesto on art, mimesis, and the interplay of form and content, called for a new spirit of criticism that let the object breathe. “The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, it destroys; it digs ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.” Sontag argued that commentary should enhance art rather than dismantle it. “On Style” continued in this vein. Other pieces explored the films of Robert Bresson, several plays, and science fiction films—the kind of revolutionary delving into pop culture she is oft associated with, but which she did not frequently indulge in during much of the rest of her career.

The most talked-about essay in Against Interpretation also mined this pop-culture vein. “Notes on Camp,” a long piece dedicated to the spirit of Oscar Wilde, has been largely misunderstood as a flattening of the differences between high and low culture. It is actually a nuanced and complex piece of writing accentuating the contrast between high and low. It introduced the interplay of androgyny and kitsch as the underpinnings of a style since made familiar by drag queens and other expressions of outlandish femininity. “Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s own sex.” Sontag was the first person to describe this “truth of taste,” the exploration of gender that would so dominate popular culture in the coming decades of glam and disco. The Times notes, “The article made Ms. Sontag an international celebrity, showered with lavish, if unintentionally ridiculous, titles (‘a literary pinup,’ ‘the Natalie Wood of the U.S. avant-garde’).” Or, more bluntly, as the Hollywood Reporter wrote in its obituary (and how many intellectuals, glamorous or not, get an obituary there?), “The 1964 piece ‘Notes on Camp,’ established her as a major new writer, popularized the ‘so bad it’s good’ attitude toward popular culture, applicable to everything from ‘Swan Lake’ to feather boas.” This is, of course, an oversimplification of her thesis, but accurate in its range and impact. “Camp” encapsulated an attitude never previously named, let alone anatomized, which had existed since the time of Wilde, and Sontag unleashed a certain cultural power by giving it a vocabulary and an arena for discussion. The New York Times obituary said that “with ‘Notes on Camp,’ Ms. Sontag fired a shot across the bow of the New York critical establishment.” The Times U.K. agreed: “‘Notes on Camp’ [was] the essay that established her almost instantly as a cultural commentator of stature.” Everyone recognized camp style and recognized Sontag as the critic who got it.

Art critic Arthur C. Danto’s appreciation of Sontag in the March 2005 issue of Artforum magazine, “Passion Play,” aligned Sontag, the self-proclaimed “besotted aesthete,” with Wilde, the fundamental aesthete (Sontag also called herself an “obsessed moralist,” which is where she and Wilde obviously diverged). Aesthetics was an area of acute concern for Sontag. In his reminiscence, Danto references a 1963 review of Camus’s notebooks Sontag wrote for the New York Review of Books, which frequently published her work, where she classified writers as husbands or lovers: “Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness.” Danto places Sontag in the camp of the lovers, “addressing dangerous topics” and “practicing criticism in the spirit of eroticism.” Sontag probably would agree, for lovers are charged with the ability to “savor rare emotions and dangerous sensations” in the reader, and she loved to stir things up, as in “Camp,” or calling for an “erotics of art” at the end of the essay “Against Interpretation.” This need to challenge set her apart from other aesthetes, as Danto notes. Aesthetics, Danto writes, “has traditionally been a fairly dreary specialty in academic philosophy.” But Sontag transformed it: “The difference between it and the relationship to art that Sontag exemplified and enjoined was like the difference between sex education and the Kama Sutra. That is what made her an aesthetician-hero. Her whole enterprise lay in publicly exemplifying the life of art as she felt it should be lived.” This raises the question of how an aesthete should live, according to Sontag. She was criticized for enjoying life, reveling in her looks and her work and the attention both brought her, using her celebrity to draw attention to causes she advocated. She was condemned, in short, for her enthusiasm.

Critics are not often enthusiasts. There is a sense of keeping cool or detached, and even a phrase to describe it: critical distance. Sontag had the opposite impulse: critical intimacy. She claims in the introduction to Against Interpretation that she can write only about what truly engages her—“passionate interest” is her formulation. What it comes down to is that she criticizes what she loves—which made her work and her life a matter of such great intensity. As Craig Seligman wrote in his remembrance of her, “The greatness was in her cool, hardheaded essays on aesthetic matters; as an aesthete defending the senses against the intellect, the new against the established, silence against noise, she was magnificently coldblooded. But she was hotblooded and hotheaded when she turned to politics.” Sontag was hot, sharp, passionate about her subjects, though the prose in her essays is always careful, deliberate, and calm.

Along these lines, the Washington Post obituary takes a balanced approach to Sontag, claiming that she “engaged and enraged equally with her insights into high and low culture.” It praises her best pieces, the essays on writers, distillations of hero-worship and adoration, most of which appeared in her 1980 collection Under the Sign of Saturn. Explorations of photography (On Photography) and the language of pain and suffering (Illness as Metaphor, 1978; expanded into AIDS and Its Metaphors, 1988; Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003) also won her admirers for their innovation and eloquence.

Her last published essay, about torture and the photographs at Abu Ghraib prison, combined both of these preoccupations. “Regarding the Torture of Others,” was published in May 2004, when Sontag was already combating her final illness, a “particularly virulent blood cancer.” She had written On Photography and Illness as Metaphor during her first bout of cancer, and had vanquished the disease again in her mid-sixties. She wrote the piece on Iraq as she prepared to become a patient for her most harrowing ordeal yet: an adult-stem-cell transplant. “To me, torture is not too strong or hyperbolic a word,” her son David wrote in a posthumous article about this final cancer and its effects, “Illness as More Than Metaphor.”

In examining the photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners Sontag tries to dissect a “public-relations disaster.” She keenly observes the administration’s avoidance of “the ‘torture’ word.” The people in the photographs had been victims of “abuse” or “humiliation,” but that was as far as Bush officials would go. Sontag is not willing to let an abstraction like the administration stand in for the violence perpetrated; she points out the “perpetrators, posing, gloating, over their helpless captives.” She discusses how the camera has infiltrated corners of private life heretofore unknown to others: not only in these war atrocities, but those at home, as in the documentary about a family of accused pedophiles, Capturing the Friedmans. This is the strident Sontag, who comes right out and proclaims, with horror: “The photographs are us.” It cannot be lost on her that this is the logical end of the Warholian line, webcams recording the most mundane aspects of existence, all these images breeding what she calls a “culture of shamelessness,” reveling in “secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal you now clamor to be invited on a television show to reveal.” But the “you” in this sentence is certainly not Sontag herself, who guarded her private life just as carefully as she staged the many photographs of herself.

Her political positions receive more scrutiny in the Washington Post obituary: essays about a trip to Vietnam in the 1960s in which she raged against American imperialism, longtime work on behalf of the people of Bosnia, an impassioned defense of Salman Rushdie when the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against him for the Satanic Verses during her presidency of the international writers’ organization PEN, a piece in the New Yorker proclaiming the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards. All of this warranted the remark that “occasionally, she caused palpitations among the fervently patriotic for her less-nuanced commentary,” and her enemies, like her positions, were on both the left and the right. The Post is not the only obituary to get into Sontag’s politics. Her friend Christopher Hitchens’s reminiscence of her on Slate.com also probes her political involvements, crediting her with timing “her interventions very deftly.” Of the Rushdie case, Hitchens writes that Sontag “mobilized a tremendous campaign of solidarity that dispelled all this masochism and capitulation,” referring to the nervousness of many who declined to speak out against Rushdie’s attackers. He recalls her confiding in him during a heated moment of the campaign: “‘You know, I think about Salman every second. It’s as if he was a lover.’ I would have done anything for her at that moment,” Hitchens recollects, wistfully, “not that she asked or noticed.” Her obliviousness to others, not asking or noticing them, seems to be a common theme among Sontag’s acolytes—an uncomfortable position, maybe even a mundane form of the torture Sontag was so interested in documenting and dissecting.

Ever the provocateur, Hitchens begins his elegy with this statement: “Between the word ‘public’ and the word ‘intellectual’ there falls, or ought to fall, a shadow. The life of the cultivated mind should be private, reticent, discreet: Most of its celebrations will occur with no audience, because there can be no applause for that moment when the solitary reader gets up and paces round the room, having just noticed the hidden image in the sonnet, or the profane joke in the devotional text, or the secret message in the prison diaries. Individual pleasure of this kind is only rivaled when the same reader turns into a writer, and after a long wrestle until daybreak hits on his or her own version of the mot juste, or the unmasking of pretension, or the apt, latent literary connection, or the satire upon tyranny.” Sontag was just such a person, Hitchens argues, who passed on her delight with reading, with photography, with old-fashioned international high culture. It is this uneasy public-intellectual version of Sontag that Hitchens’s countrymen present in the British obituaries. The Guardian proclaims Sontag the “Dark Lady” of American intellectual life in the headline of her obituary and again in its first line. Yet it goes on to make more of that darkness than just her hair color: “In a culture expecting easy intimacies from its great figures, she was aloof, poised, posed: she was camera-friendly. But you never could claim to know Sontag, however much New York was alive with gossip about her loves, her ex-loves, her next book.” The Times U.K. claims that “her polymath expertise and vocal cultural comment made her in subsequent years one of the closest equivalents in her country to the French concept of a public intellectual,” a damning-with-faint-praise if ever there were one. The Daily Telegraph deems her “a paragon of radical intelligence and austere beauty of whom it was said that, if she had not existed, the New York Review of Books would have had to invent her.”

Several of the obituaries, including the Telegraph’s, chart Sontag’s move to writing fiction after being blocked from doing so for many years. She had published two experimental (read: unreadable) novels in the 1960s, Death Kit and The Benefactor, but had long abandoned fiction for the more solid ground of the essay. In 1992 she reversed course again and published The Volcano Lover, a historical novel about the romantic triangle between Sir William Hamilton, his wife, Emma, and her lover, Lord Nelson. The book had an unusual genesis: it was “released” in Sontag after a conversation with her psychiatrist when she discovered that her difficulty in writing a popular novel came from a “fear that giving readers pleasure might seem trivial.” Her last novel, In America, for which she won the National Book Award in 2000, was not nearly as well received as Volcano, and there were accusations about Sontag relying on uncredited sources in writing her story of nineteenth-century Polish actress Helena Modjeska’s emigration and triumph in California. One of her so-called friends (literary critic Terry Castle, who will say more in a few minutes) asked in a reminiscence of Sontag, “Has any other major literary figure written such an excruciatingly turgid book?” Her suggestion is not wrong: Sontag’s fiction, even this later, more reader-friendly stuff, is rough going. The same precision that makes her criticism so crisp does not translate into her novels, which feel overwrought and overthought. But Sontag was convinced her fiction was worthwhile or better, and that the resentment it bred was just more of the disparaging of her work she had put up with since Against Interpretation. As Sontag wrote about one of her idols, Growing Up Absurd author Paul Goodman, “There is a terrible, mean American resentment toward a writer who tries to do many things.” The sigh in this sentence is almost palpable.

Sontag’s admiration for Goodman extends beyond his trying to do many things. She prizes his voice, above all: “It was that voice of his that seduced me—that direct, cranky, egotistical, generous American voice.” Her essay, written on the occasion of seeing his obituary in a newspaper, is one of her most moving pieces about admiring a critic. “Paul Goodman’s voice,” she continues, “touched everything he wrote about with intensity, interest, and his own terribly appealing sureness and awkwardness.” Her description of him is, in many ways, as a writer very much unlike herself: her prose is not cranky or direct or awkward. He was also unlike her in his honesty about his homosexuality, a stance Sontag describes as courageous. One of the great scandals of Sontag’s print afterlife has been that of her sexuality: as she never discussed her private life after her divorce from Rieff, none of the major newspapers mentioned it in her obituaries. The gay press and some other news outlets, however, did name celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz as Sontag’s “longtime companion.” It is not lack of courage, certainly, that stopped Sontag from coming out, though it does not seem right to think of her as closeted either. Perhaps her refusal to see her sexuality as a public issue can best be contextualized in terms of her need for seriousness or silence: if she had wanted to speak about it, she would have, but it was not part of her project in any direct way. There are clues everywhere to her identification with gay culture, if you like that sort of game: in the Goodman essay, in “Camp,” in her book about AIDS metaphors and the short story “The Way We Live Now,” in the sloppy unauthorized biography that documented her affairs with women, including Leibovitz, published in 2000 (Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock). Searching for something to print on the subject of Sontag’s private life, a few of the obituaries exhumed one of her pat answers to the question of her sexuality: “I don’t talk about my erotic life any more than I do my spiritual life. It is too complex and always ends up sounding banal.” And, as the newspapers said, no one ever called her dull.

Despite her smash success as a critic, Sontag desired to be remembered as a fiction writer because it was the kind of writing she prized over all others, a “simpler high culture.” Upon finishing The Volcano Lover in 1992, she told a reporter, “I don’t want to express alienation. It isn’t what I feel. I’m interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says, be serious, be passionate, wake up.” Despite her ongoing commitment to “passionate engagement,” her fiction is the least impressive stuff in her canon, bloodless and devoid of the nuance of her essays. She once boasted about how easily fiction came to her, often pouring out in a matter of just one or two drafts. “I am so much freer. I can write more expansively, more expressively. It’s like the doors have been flung open and there’s a view.” Writing essays was arduous, “like making bouillon out of soup.” When she wrote criticism, she was a person obsessed. She barely ate or slept, got terrible headaches. That writing was a painful, bloody struggle, and worth every ache and throb.

Perhaps the best description of how she felt about criticism and writing is in her adoring essays on other writers, like Paul Goodman and Walter Benjamin. It is impossible not to see Sontag in these essays, their proclamations somehow declarations of her own intentions. In “Saturn” she wrote that the “self is a project, something to be built” and “one is always in arrears to oneself.” This sense of building and changing is what’s best in her criticism and absent from her novels, which are, in fact, “turgid” books. Her heroes were critics; the many hours she spent thinking and reading and simply idolizing them far outweigh the time spent on writing her novels. And this is the writing that won her such ardent fans. Therefore it’s striking that the evaluation of her own oeuvre might be one place where her critical judgment failed.

Of all of the reactions to Sontag’s death, the most candid and canny was a remembrance of her by Terry Castle, a fan, a sometime friend, and a fellow critic. She too starts with the famous photographs: her favorite is the Peter Hujar image from the 1970s, of Sontag austere in a grey turtleneck and slightly disheveled hair, lying on her back. “There’s a slightly pedantic quality to the whole thing which I like: very true to life.” Castle tells the truth and brings Sontag to life in her essay “Desperately Seeking Susan,” exposing her pettiness, her vanity, her most loathsome qualities. This is the Sontag who wants to be reassured she is more beautiful than Joan Baez, who quizzes Castle on what she had read and heard to make sure she was up to the proper standards of cultivation, who delighted in the fruits of the lesbian grapevine and the more explicit novels of Patricia Highsmith. Castle gets in some zingers. “The famous Sontag ‘look’ always put me in mind of the stage direction in Blithe Spirit: ‘Enter Madame Arcati, wearing barbaric jewellery.’” Sontag drags Castle to a dinner party with downtown New York luminaries like Lou Reed only to dismiss and denigrate her, reenacts the bombing of Sarajevo on a Palo Alto street to the bewilderment of well-heeled onlookers, and casually says things like, “‘Of course, Terry, mine is the greatest library in private hands in the world.’” Infuriating, insulting, and horrifying. Yet Castle forgives her all her trespasses in the end. Why? “She was our very own Great Man. If there was ever going to be a Smart Woman Team then Sontag would have to be both Captain and Most Valuable Player. She was the one already out there doing the job, even as we were labouring painfully to get up off the floor and match wits with her.”

Castle has ultimately written the obituary people want to read, even if it defies the norm in both form and content. No newspaper writer can ever summarize a character like this: “The carefully cultivated moral seriousness—strenuousness might be a better word—co-existed with a fantastical, Mrs. Jellyby-like absurdity. Sontag’s complicated and charismatic sexuality was part of this comic side of her life. The high-mindedness, the high-handedness, commingled with a love of gossip, drollery and seductive acting-out—and, when she was in a benign and unthreatened mood, a fair amount of ironic self-knowledge.” But we can’t ask obituary writers to do this kind of work. That is left to friends, whether with grudges, like Castle, or more generous ones like Danto and Hitchens.

Sontag had an uncanny ability to write about her dead friends and other writers with her trademark passionate intensity so that they felt like friends by the time she finished elegizing them. Her piece on French philosopher Roland Barthes, “Remembering Barthes,” gives a lovely flavor of the man: “One felt he could generate ideas about anything. Put him in front of a cigar box and he would have one, two, many ideas—a little essay.” She praises his work: “Everything he wrote was interesting—vivacious, rapid, dense, pointed.” She too notes the foibles, the things only an intimate would observe: “He enjoyed being famous, with an ingenuous ever-renewed pleasure.” And even more to the point, at the end of the same paragraph: “All his work is an immensely complex enterprise of self-description.” And all of her work is leading up to Sontag’s point about Barthes, which is about their relationship: “His interest in you tended to be your interest in him. (‘Ah, Susan. Toujours fidèle,’ were the words with which he greeted me, affectionately, when we last saw each other. I was, I am.)” This is where she gets it, in the touches of intimacy—“I was, I am”—and the trenchant but toothless statement about his self-absorption (not unlike Hitchens’s observation about her), which she connects to his ideas, his “boundless capacity for self-referring,” part of his endless search for pleasure thwarted by his premature death. Sontag was so adept at this kind of tribute, as if she were the most gracious guest at a dinner party dropping her perfect thank-you note in the mailbox as she departed so that the host could relive all of the best moments with his morning coffee, instantly and in perpetuity.

The most Sontagian tribute to her yet is Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Perspicuous Consumption.” Koestenbaum writes in a fragmented, provisional style, “Sontag achieved her customary tone of passionate detachment by refusing academic thoroughness. As a writer she was solely self-commanded, not taking editorial orders, obeying allegiance only to her own momentary or abiding enthusiasms: Fassbinder, Robert Walser, Marina Tsvetaeva, bunraku, Alice James…” And this, as good an explanation as any the obituaries offer on her shifts from fiction to essay: “Fiction was one escape ramp, she used it to flee the punitive confines of the essay. And she uses essays to flee the connect-the-dots dreariness of fiction. Her essays behave like fictions (disguised, arch, upholstered with attitudes), while her fictions behave like essays (pontificating, pedagogic, discursive).” He does what neither objective obituary nor personal reminiscence can: he tries to understand her, obeying her edicts on, or against, interpretation. Sontag argued that commentary should enhance art rather than dismantle it, and the same is true of her elegies. We encounter these men—and they were always men, her idols, Goodman, Benjamin, et al.—idealized and all too human, as writers and as people, the roundest and richest of characters. Koestenbaum’s piece comes closest to interpreting Sontag herself. The first time he ever saw her speak he confesses that he blurted out to his companion: “‘Sontag’s got a crush on me.’ I meant the reverse: ‘I have a crush on Susan Sontag.’ Instinctive, preposterous substitution,” he chides himself. But the reality lurks behind the fantasy: what if she did have a crush on him? What would it be like to have a drink with her, to gossip, to hear her private pronouncements, ridiculous and profound? His elegy expands to take in all that he can express about why he admired her, and why—though he never knew her—he will miss her, the reality and the idea behind the name Susan Sontag, at which he can “stare entranced for hours on end.” He does not say it, but the sentiment is there nonetheless, the opposite of what the newspapers do, and though it is perhaps hopelessly utopian, what we would wish someone would do for each of us, show a bit of literary compassion, perform an act of critical intimacy.

Ah, Susan. Toujours fidèle. I was, I am.

Lisa Levy is working on a book-length cultural history of biography. She lives in Brooklyn.

Photo by Peter Hujar
Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

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