Susan Sontag: A Biography, by Daniel Schreiber, Northwestern University Press, 296 pp, $35, ISBN: 978-0810125834
Described once by Jonathan Miller, in a remark she grew to dislike intensely, as “probably the most intelligent woman in America” (whether it was “woman” or “America” or “probably”, or equal parts all three, which annoyed her most is a moot point), Susan Sontag was a formidable influence on my intellectual development. As a callow young student in the 1980s, I devoured the groundbreaking 1960s and ’70s essays anthologised in A Susan Sontag Reader (which contained crème de la crème selections from the books which made her name, Against Interpretation, Styles Of Radical Will, Under The Sign Of Saturn and On Photography, and extracts from her less successful novels The Benefactor, Death Kit and the short story collection I, etcetera), and which, along with the writings of one of her own heroes, Roland Barthes, spoke to me of a contemporary and capacious sensibility, so at variance with the narrow and at times downright prissy academic criticism we were prescribed at college. Sontag did not then appear on any course, but I made sure to work her aesthetic views into my own essays.
Although I identified heavily with her way of seeing the cultural landscape, her knack of making spontaneous connections between different art forms (“I am interested in everything”, she once declared), back then, in strict “Death of the Author” fashion, I knew hardly anything about her life and background. Prior to this short but incisive new study by Daniel Schreiber, an English translation of a work first published in his native Germany in 2007, the only extant biography was Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, an unauthorised and unsympathetic affair, equal parts scandal-mongering and gossip, with the authors’ neoconservative lens compounding their personal and political animosity. Growing out of an obituary Schreiber wrote after Sontag’s death in December 2004, his book strives, with clarity and balance, to set the record straight.
So who was she? Conceived in China, where her father, Jack Rosenblatt, was in the fur business, she was born in Manhattan on January 16th, 1933 because mother Mildred feared giving birth in Asia. Left with a nanny in her paternal grandparents’ house, she had only the vaguest memories of her father, who died aged thirty-four of tuberculosis in China when she was five. Of Mildred, alcoholic and depressed, and with only a desultory interest in parenting, Schreiber tells us: ‘Some of Sontag’s companions who were privy not just to her family memories but also to the relationship between the adult Susan and her mother – among them Sontag’s later partner, the dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs – shared the opinion that Mildred “wasn’t the right mother for Susan”. Following a decline in the family fortunes, after a year in Florida, Mildred, Susan and little sister Judith moved to Tucson, Arizona.
According to Schreiber, “Childhood in this vast desert landscape intensified Susan’s solitariness.” He also relates the story:
Their new house was on Drachman Street, an unpaved road at the edge of Tucson. When Sontag’s literary agent and friend Andrew Wylie visited Arizona fifty years later, Larry McMurtry, another friend of Sontag’s, showed him the house Susan had grown up in, a house trailer on a concrete foundation at the edge of the desert and the end of the world. “It was astonishing,” Wylie recalled. “What I saw was the act of self-invention that constituted Susan. To have begun in this shabby little trailer on the edge of Tuscon, one of the dreariest places in the country you can imagine living in, and to become such a commanding, deeply cultured and cosmopolitan intellectual – it was unbelievable.
She taught herself to read at three. Within a week of starting first grade, she’d been promoted to third grade. Not for her the hiding of intelligence many bright children elect as the best option in unsupportive surroundings. For Little Susie, intellectual precocity and an avowed commitment to high culture was the badge of differentiation from the philistine suburban conformism of her family. Her deep aversion to the customs and rituals of middle class America started early. Of this period, Schreiber writes:
Sontag had few happy memories of school. In later life, she would often remark off-handedly that she was the victim of a poor education in the disastrous American public school system but had been lucky enough to go to school before the era of school psychologists. She told her fellow first-graders that she was born in China; she said it was her “first lie”.
When Sontag was twelve her mother remarried, and the family moved to Los Angeles. Schreiber asserts that the three years Sontag spent in California were a “defining experience”. He recounts:
Many of her friends remark how “Californian” she always was. Stephen Koch, author and professor of creative writing at Columbia University, smiles when recounting how Sontag often reminded him of a “Californian girl scout,” and Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, recalls that “There was something about her openness to people and experiences that you could call Californian. She had none of the usual cynicism one usually associates with New Yorkers … Sontag understood California as the republic of self-invention, as America’s America.”
But while the rest of her kin became swept up in the American postwar optimism of barbecues and baseballs games, in thirteen-year-old Susan’s mind she was already long gone. “They couldn’t start playing family now – too late!” Sontag recalled her stepfather, army pilot Captain Nathan Sontag, advising her: “Sue, if you read so much you’ll never find a husband,” and: “I thought, ‘This idiot doesn’t know there are intelligent men out in the world. He thinks they’re all like him.’ Because isolated as I was, it never occurred to me that there weren’t lots of people like me out there, somewhere.”
Find a husband she did. Married at seventeen, a mother at nineteen, and divorced at twenty-three, the man in question was Philip Rieff, a hotshot sociologist ten years her senior whom she met at University of Chicago where she went when she was sixteen – completing the four year undergraduate core curriculum in two years, having already read most of it previously. Late ’50s faculty life at Brandeis and Harvard proving too airlessly stuffy, she took off on a fellowship to Oxford. But she didn’t like it there much either and left after four months for Paris, where her bohemian and erotic life bloomed. Here began a lifetime of serial relationships with brilliant women, including Cuban artist and playwright Maria Irene Fornes, Italian aristocrat Carlotta Del Pozzo, French actress Nicole Stéphane, and finally and most famously, photographer Annie Leibovitz. As Schreiber describes Sontag’s rather self-dramatising revelation: “In her introductory chapter to her last novel, In America, she relates how she read George Eliot’s Middlemarch when she had just turned eighteen, ‘and a third of the way through the book burst into tears because I realized not only that I was Dorothea but that, a few months earlier, I had married Mr Casaubon.’” Straight off the plane back in Boston, she asked Rieff for a divorce, and moved with her four year-old son, David, to New York. Interestingly, although she held a number of part-time lecturing posts in her early years there, she never finished her doctorate (something to do with the philosophy of religion). The essays had started appearing by then.
An incident from before she went abroad (at a time when only 4 per cent of Americans found it necessary to have a passport) is revealing. “I remember once, I guess it was 1956 … I went into the movie theatre in Harvard Square. The movie that was playing was ‘Rock Around The Clock’. And I sat there, I was twenty-three years old, and I thought, My God! This is great! This is absolutely fantastic! After the movie I walked home very slowly: I thought, Do I tell Philip that I’ve seen this movie – this sort of musical about kids dancing in the aisles? And I thought, No, I can’t tell him that.” Schreiber observes: ‘Although today it is hard to imagine such a strict separation of lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow culture, in the fifties there was hardly any overlap between them. Academic culture had almost no contact with mass culture, and it was unheard of for a Harvard graduate student to go to a rock-and-roll film, much less find it exciting.”
Sontag had inadvertently stumbled on her mission, and her essays would often compare music by The Supremes, The Beatles or Patti Smith with Robert Rauschenberg’s paintings or Nietzsche’s philosophy. As she told Rolling Stone in 1975: “Rock & roll really changed my life.” You could say that, like Lou Reed’s Little Jenny, her life was saved by rock ’n’ roll. Similarly, apart from the commentaries which were being published in Cahiers du Cinéma, in writing in-depth essays rather than merely short reviews on Bresson, Godard and Riefenstahl at a time when for most people movies were just light entertainment rather than rich cultural artefacts, you could argue that she almost single-handedly invented film studies as the discipline we know it today, certainly in the English language sphere.
Although clearly a successful woman who would not stand being condescended to, Sontag always kept her distance from the sisterhood. In private, she offered the view that while feminism was without a doubt one of the most important developments of our era, at heart it was concerned with mediocrity. She reasoned, as Schreiber puts it, that: ‘While men of second- or even third-class intelligence held positions at the center of power, such status was not possible for modestly talented women. Stephen Koch says his friend regarded feminism as a movement for the rights of women of average intelligence who also had a claim to positions of power.” Doubtless, this attitude was at least in part motivated by Sontag’s own status as an exceptional woman. In a much publicised 1973 dispute, she attacked the poet Adrienne Rich, who in a letter to the New York Review had directly challenged Sontag to state clearly her own position vis-à-vis the feminist movement. Sontag responded in a fierce letter of cold-blooded fury, accusing Rich of being infected by “the infantile leftism of the 1960s”, and using “demagogic rhetoric”. She further asserted that the streamlined ideology of the feminist movement and its intellectual banalities seemed to her to be like “the roots of fascism”.
Sontag similarly resisted the identity politics widespread among homosexual artists. She never “came out”, despite the urgings of gay and lesbian activists and even American PEN. After all, she had had serious relationships with men as well as women throughout her life. (Russian Nobel Laureate poet Josef Brodsky was reportedly so besotted with their like-mindedness that he proposed marriage. After a brief romance, they became lifelong friends.) She told Edmund White that she did not understand why it was so important to him to be known as a “gay writer”. Just as she had avoided the label “feminist author”, she now withstood the label “lesbian writer”. Her works were addressed to a wider public. It was only with the imminent publication of the Rollyson/Paddock hatchet job that she told the New Yorker and The Guardian that she had been with both men and women in the course of her life, adding that she never considered any of it worth discussing publicly.
Besides, Sontag was always more interested in what she considered both grander and more fundamental gestures, as her nine separate visits to wartorn Sarajevo, and staging of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot there, indicate. Indeed, the most often voiced criticism of her was that her glamour and high media profile somehow undermined the validity of her intellectual work. As Leibovitz subsequently said of her, as the author of On Photography and Regarding The Pain Of Others, Sontag “knew how to be photographed”. Also, she wanted to live in the world as much as be a writer. As she said, she was not a writer all the time.
Sontag was also a cancer survivor, and ‑ after thirty years – would die from the disease. When told, aged forty-two, that she had perhaps six months to live and that the chances of a two-year survival were ten per cent, her reaction was “somebody’s got to be in that ten per cent”. She pulled through by rebelling against patronising doctors, informing herself of the latest research from American and European journals and demanding aggressive treatments. It got her eventually, aged seventy-one, when she succumbed to a rare form of leukaemia, her immune system compromised by earlier chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But she did get one of her most successful books out of the experience, the lucid and thought-provoking Illness As Metaphor, subsequently updated as AIDS And Its Metaphors.
Like many freelance writers, Sontag had no health insurance when she first became ill, considering it, along with savings accounts and life insurance, as so much bourgeois folderol. Her treatments were paid for out of a fund set up and contributed to by friends and fans. Although she enjoyed a relatively well-to-do lifestyle, Sontag remained financially insecure into her late fifties. After a fire in her apartment in 1989, she did not have enough money in the bank to afford a hotel room while the roof was being repaired. Acquiring Andrew Wylie as an agent changed all that, and the six-figure advance for successful late novels The Volcano Lover and In America meant she could finally buy a Chelsea penthouse. A January 2002 contract to sell her ten-thousand-volume library, correspondence and manuscripts to UCLA for $1.1m was the icing on the cake.
It is a considerable irony of Sontag’s life and work, as articulated by Schreiber, that the “cultural values, the defense of desire, sensuousness, and popular culture” promoted in her early writings, “have in the meantime been revalued under the banner of triumphant consumer capitalism. When she advocated so vehemently for the abolishment of the hierarchy of elite and popular culture, she could not have known that the unbounded art she was promoting would some day facilitate the invasion of a frivolous consumer culture.” However, her later conservatism (actually still a form of radicalism) cannot be read as the usual attributes of aging. Her laments for the death of high seriousness were a genuine reaction to the objective new mores of the contemporary zeitgeist, and her attitude would be shared by discerning under-thirties too.
Even into her late sixties, she continued to live unconventionally, seen, in Schreiber’s words “by the intensity of her daily life, the openness with which she made new friends, and her capacity for excitement about new developments in art and politics”. Or, as Wylie said of her: “Even at the end of her life, she still seemed like a twenty-one-year-old. She was always interested in things she did not know … Susan always lived as if she were born yesterday and still had the whole world to explore.” She even started taking piano lessons, a luxury denied her as a child by Mildred.
I met her once, at a conference. She signed my book, and we shared a joke about the hollowness of intellectual hero (or heroine) worship. That book, along with most of her others, is still on my shelf today. They have helped to define the majority of current cultural criticism, even for those who have never heard of them. She also, incidentally, led an exemplary life.
Desmond Traynor is a Hennessy Literary Award winner, whose debut novel, The Myth of Exile and Return, was nominated for the 2005 Irish Novel of the Year Award. A frequent contributor to many Irish and international publications, writing on literature, music, film and visual art, he teaches courses on contemporary literature, music and popular culture, and creative writing in the School of Arts, Dublin Business School.