The agony of being Sontag

'If Susan Sontag had been a man, if she hadn’t had such a pungent, fascinating character, if she hadn’t had a nonstandard sexuality, would her works get her a biography as big as this one? Does she merit it?'

Jane O'Grady

“Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described.” So begins “Notes on ‘Camp’”, the essay that launched Susan Sontag in 1964. What Newton did for falling objects Sontag did for “camp”. She discerned a phenomenon that was in one way staring everyone in the face, in another was invisible. She made it salient and decipherable; located it in history, philosophy, art and poetry. Similarly she illuminated the fraudulent veracity of photography, how interpreting an artwork often obscures and alters it, and how illnesses have been psychologically branded, as if succumbing to cancer were a character flaw. Marrying the metaphysical and mundane, she sought to bridge the gap between high and popular culture.

It could be said that this is every essayist’s aim. If she had been a man, if she hadn’t had such a pungent, fascinating character, if she hadn’t had a nonstandard sexuality, would the works of Susan Sontag get her a biography as big as this one? Does she merit it? Benjamin Moser, her biographer, calls her “America’s last great literary star, a flashback to a time when writers could be, more than simply respected and well regarded, famous.” But the novels which she hoped to be remembered for are virtually forgotten, as are the four films she directed. Perhaps, like her semi-friend, the “famous-for-fifteen-minutes” artist of duplication Andy Warhol, Sontag was (and is) more famous for who she was, or seemed to be, than for what she created. “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp but a ‘lamp’; not a woman but a ‘woman’,’’ she wrote. “What better illustration of camp than the gap between Susan Sontag and ‘Susan Sontag’?” demands Moser. Scornful of anyone not engaged in a “project of self-transformation”, she concocted “this ‘Susan Sontag’ thing”, but also resented it, claiming that it stopped her writing the novel she was “bursting” to write. Not much of an alibi.

Sontag was born in New York in January 1933. Her father, Jack Rosenblatt, a fur trader, died in China when she was five; she adopted the “less Jewish” surname of her stepfather. Her mother was a vain, superficial alcoholic, who neglected her, but also, according to Susan’s reminiscences, “often played at flirting with me, turning me on; I played at being turned on (and was turned on by her, too).” Little is said about her sister; Sontag had the precocity and isolation of an only child. Bored at school, she lived in Little Lord Fauntleroy and tales of Marie Curie. On first seeing pictures of the Holocaust, aged 12, her “life split in two”, she wrote. She managed to visit and interview the “god in exile” Thomas Mann, aged 16, although, in her memoir-story Pilgrimages, she claimed to be 14 and exaggerated the chutzpah of the whole episode. But, insists Moser, she authentically confessed “the colour of shame” in which it was drenched. Neither he, nor she, quite explains why, but it accords with the sense she had had, for as long as she could remember, of being watched, of being an object (“X”) that she displayed to please and shock others. She felt herself to be “fake”, and despised herself for her constant lying. “Oh, to be beautifully, chastely, cleanly, perfectly sincere—with myself, with all the world!” she wrote in her journal. She admired the heroine of Bergman’s film Persona for struggling “to make the inner and the outer come together”. But the sort of “insiderness” Sontag most craved was social. “I will be popular,” she vowed, aged 11. Constantly courting love, she also spurned it. She was outrageously rude, even cruel, to strangers, friends and lovers, as “rebarbative” as the cactus that, aged 10, she darted off the Arizona train to embrace. Moser diagnoses such self-conflicted contradictoriness as that of an alcoholic’s child. But one wants to say, echoing Sontag’s impatience at the idea that trauma and depression distinguish the cancer-sufferer: “This is called the human condition”. Reading her biography is sometimes like reading about oneself and one’s own shame.

On Sontag’s, but not her mother’s, account, she met parental opposition in going to university (a semester at Berkeley, followed by Chicago, where she took “the common core curriculum” based on the canon of great books). Strikingly beautiful, swaying around in high heels and silky dresses when other students were in blue jeans, Susan, as her journal blazoned, was “REBORN”, and had her first love-affair, with an older student, Harriet Sohmers. At 15, Sontag had regretfully recorded having “lesbian tendencies”, but she now schooled herself to also sleep with men, totting up 36 lovers (male and female) in her first two years at university. A scrawl in her notebook quoted Keats: “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts”. Sohmers categorically defined her as “not sexual”, and their on-off 10-year affair as “sexually a dud”. “The agonized dichotomy between the body and the mind” was, said Sontag, her “greatest unhappiness”.

In January 1951, a month before turning 18, Sontag married a young sociology professor, Philip Rieff, whom she had known for only 10 days. As presented by Moser, who clearly hates him, Rieff was Casaubon-like and socially awkward, guilty of falsely claiming authorship of a book on Freud that was actually (Moser is vague as to what extent) written by Sontag. Two days after their marriage, she recorded being “repelled” by Rieff’s ineptitude at shattering open a boiled egg (ominous, but also a bit rich given that she herself often ate “disgusting”, “excremental” food like a ravenous animal). Yet, whatever Moser’s demurs, they seem to have had both an intellectual and sexual bond. For the first few months of marriage, they stayed in bed, incessantly making love and discussing art, politics, religion and morality (so, at least, Sontag reported in a later interview); they enjoyed travelling in Europe, and constantly read and wrote together. When, however, furious at discovering she was pregnant, she had an abortion (then both illegal and dangerous in America), their love-making became tainted and curtailed by fear of her conceiving again—which she did.

“She thought she was the world’s greatest mother,” said one of her exes, but in fact she repeated her own mother’s mistakes, alternately neglecting and swamping her son, whom from babyhood she force-fed high culture and high expectations. “David is my brother, my lover, my father, my son”, she would say, but he rarely gets mentioned in her journals. A year after his birth, she became a graduate student at Storrs University, Connecticut; in 1957, she left him and her husband to go to Europe and two years later ended the marriage and went to live in New York. David would be dumped in the coat-room at the many parties she went to, or left at home. Over the next decades, she frenetically made, and unmade, friends, worked at the high-brow magazine Commentary, intermittently taught religion, philosophy or English at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University, City College and City University New York, and, mainly, wrote. Thanks to her friendship (briefly sexual) with Roger Straus of the publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux, she had assured publication, sometimes receiving advances for books she never even began, and was, as Giroux used to grumble, “the real editor in chief of FSG”.

Sontag had many sexual flings with men, including Robert Kennedy, Jasper Johns and Warren Beatty who, she said, took far longer at “primping” than she did (unsurprisingly, given that she famously neglected even to bath or brush her teeth). But her serious, and tormented, relationships were with women. She had taken up again with Harriet in Europe, and later had a long affair with Harriet’s fiery ex, Irene Fornés (with whom she had her first orgasm), as well as actresses, writers and a Neapolitan duchess who was yet more egoistic than herself. For the last 15 years of her life, her (unacknowledged) lover was the photographer Annie Leibowitz, whom she would often brand “stupid” in public. It comes as a shock to be told, this late in the book, that she never admitted to being lesbian or bisexual (in letters to her sister, she called Irene “Carlos”).

Maybe rightly, Moser takes “Notes on Camp” to be a surreptitious paean to homosexuality. But, just as Sontag was both attracted and repelled by the courageous triviality of camp, so she was ambivalent about gayness, which she hazily identified with camp (in an earlier draft the essay was called “Notes on Homosexuality”). “That obsessiveness, that heartlessness, that cruelty . . .   God, how mad + humanly ugly + unhappy it is,” she wrote in her journal about “international homosexuality”, which, in The Benefactor, her 1962 novel, is presented as phony and theatrical, a “parody”, “a kind of playfulness with masks”. To call her a “self-hating homosexual” would be silly. She hated herself in any case, and felt uneasy in any role she played. Spurning labels, and writers who defined themselves by colour, sex or sexuality, she valued spontaneity and took even self-awareness as dishonesty. Moser reproaches her, however, for not playing her part by “coming out”, as so many celebrities did, during the time of AIDS, and for her essay on AIDS being so clinically detached.

“Seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon” was Sontag’s definition of camp; which she herself fitted, judging by “On Style” which pronounced: “The world is, ultimately, an aesthetic phenomenon.” And that, says Moser, was indeed how she saw it, and why her politics was only skin-deep. Initially she had the Sixties sense that socialism, hedonism and self-exploration could be happily combined. A vehement anti-war protestor, she visited Vietnam in May 1968, and—clear-sightedness conflicting with guilt and ideology—showed what a friend called “wilful blindness” in her Trip to Hanoi (1968) and “Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for Us) to Love the Cuban Revolution” (1969). “The white race is the cancer of human history,” she wrote. But in 1982 (influenced by the dissident Joseph Brodsky whom she adored), she denounced Communism and “the infantile leftism of the 1960s”. Various in her causes, she ardently supported Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and Rushdie’s freedom of speech in 1988, and excoriated the “self-righteous drivel” that greeted 9/11, urging Americans to “grieve together” but also to acknowledge that America had abused its power. Outraged by the Yugoslav civil war, she endured danger and hardship to stage Waiting for Godot in war-torn Sarajevo. 

In 1975 Sontag was diagnosed with breast cancer, and recovered, thanks to costly therapy that was mainly funded by friends (furious with Jacqueline Onassis for contributing so little, she demanded: “Who does she think she is?”). In Illness as Metaphor she condemned the way cancer-sufferers both were lied to and lied themselves, and made to feel authors of their own disease. But when her cancer recurred in 1998, she adamantly told and demanded lies, blaming being ill on her repression of rage, rather than a heavy smoking habit that she didn’t even acknowledge to her oncologist. Maybe, however, she was both wrong and right. Perhaps refusing to face death helped her to cheat it till 2004.

In “Thirty Years Later” (1996), Sontag wrote of how, during the sixties, it seemed “we were on the threshold of a great positive transformation of culture and society”. She had “thought it normal that there be new masterpieces every month”. What she hadn’t understood, she said, was that the “transgressive” art she then applauded only served to “reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions” and to undermine “the very idea of the serious and the honourable”, which, she lamented, now “seems quaint, ‘unrealistic’.” This, as Moser brilliantly conveys, was her own tragedy too. Her lasting legacy was the ephemeral. She was in herself (or selves) a memorable piece of “performance art”, bottling and epitomising the mercurial, meretricious, tormented “Being-as-Playing-a-Role” of Western modernity.


Sontag: Her Life
By Benjamin Moser
Allen Lane, 816 pp, £30.00

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