Sontag: Her Life, by Benjamin Moser, Allen Lane, 816 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0241003480
Was she a terrible person? Consider: to her partner of fifteen years, the photographer Annie Leibovitz, she was like “an abusive mother” (this is according to Joan Acocella, who profiled her for The New Yorker in 2000). “People couldn’t bear to be at dinner when she was with Annie because she was so sadistic, so insulting, so cruel.” She explained to friends that Leibovitz “would be the stupidest person” they had ever met. When Leibovitz served her son David shrimp at a Christmas party, she began to shout. “David is allergic to shellfish! How could you be so stupid?” Leibovitz rushed out to buy a replacement appetiser. During these years, according to her accountant, Leibovitz gave her cash gifts totalling somewhere in the region of eight million dollars – to help support her writing.
To her son, she could be shockingly indifferent. “I must think about David,” she admonished herself in a journal entry in 1971, when he was nineteen years old. A decade later, when David was undergoing dual traumas (the breakup of his relationship with the writer Sigrid Nunez, and the surgical removal of a precancerous growth from his spine), she flew to Italy with her partner, the dancer Lucinda Childs. David recuperated in the house of the writer Jamaica Kincaid and her husband. “It was just unbelievable that she went,” Kincaid said. “We couldn’t believe she was really getting on that plane.” Later, Kincaid would remark of her that she “wanted to be a good mother in the way one might want to be a great actress”.When David developed a cocaine addiction, his mother told friends that she found it “unforgivable” (although she herself regularly took amphetamines to help with her long stints at the typewriter).
When she wasn’t being indifferent, she could be stiflingly attentive. When David was a child, she groomed him to become her intellectual equal, leading him through “a University of Chicago-like great books curriculum”. At four, David was reading Homer. A friend once asked him what he was up to. “I’m writing a novel about the Spanish Civil War,” he replied. The friend asked him if he had read Hugh Thomas’s thousand-page book on the subject. “Of course,” he replied. He was eleven years old. Later, she got him a job at her publisher, Farrar Straus & Giroux, and insisted that he be her editor. When he made an incorrect change to the proofs of her 1980 essay collection Under the Sign of Saturn, “she got him on the phone immediately, and started screaming”.
Friends were not spared. When the novelist Larry McMurtry was late for dinner (his flight was delayed), she ate a fortune’s worth of caviar and went home, leaving McMurtry, when he finally arrived at the restaurant, to pay the bill. Klaus Biesenbach, a young German curator whom she befriended late in life, “remembered Susan’s screaming at him at four in the morning while they were buying French fries in Berlin: he had misused a word”. Alfred Chester, a writer who knew her in the 1960s, called her “extraordinarily tactless”. Martie Edelheit, a friend from college, insisted that she didn’t intend to hurt people – “she simply was oblivious.” In her emeritus years, “she constantly shed friends”. But she had been shedding them all along. She promised a short-term girlfriend, Eva Kollisch, that she would secure financial support for the PhD Kollisch needed to help support her family. “I’m going to get you a scholarship from the American Association of University Women,” she said. “All I have to do is write them.” But she never did. Kollisch was devastated: “There was something very wrong with Susan.”
If there was indeed “something very wrong” with Susan Sontag – and Benjamin Moser’s authorised biography is not so much a dispassionate chronicle of Sontag’s life and times as it is an eight-hundred-page bill of indictment against her – there was, equally, much that was right. Consider also the following. She had no patience with the milquetoast evasions (or the outright cowardice) of those who blamed Salman Rushdie for inciting the Ayatollah Khomeini to put him under sentence of death. At the time of the fatwa, Sontag was president of American PEN. She organised a reading of The Satanic Verses by famous writers, including Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Edward Said. This was enough to persuade prevaricating US book chains like Barnes & Noble to sell the novel. It also reassured Rushdie that he was not alone: “To have allies is very strengthening.”
In 1993 she followed her son David to Sarajevo, the Bosnian city then besieged by Serb military forces. (David had by this point become a war correspondent, perhaps as a relaxing alternative to life with his mother.) According to the theatre director Haris Pašović, “[Sontag] was the first international person who said publicly that what is happening in Bosnia in 1993 was a genocide.” She made many trips to Sarajevo during the siege (which lasted until 1996), risking death by sniper fire or shelling each time. She distributed money and food. She worked with primary school children. She staged a production of Waiting for Godot, lighting local actors using a portable generator and, when that failed, candlelight. On return journeys to America she used her prominence to argue in favour of military intervention by NATO. (It is important to say that Sontag was right about this. US military estimates at the time projected that armed intervention would end the siege of Sarajevo in forty-eight hours. And when NATO forces did conduct a bombing campaign in 1999 to prevent the “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovar Albanians by Serb coalition forces, it worked.)
It is strange, perhaps, to find Sontag, supposedly the arch-critic of the liberal consensus, arguing for a policy – liberal interventionism – that is now, in the world created by the Iraq War (2003-present), frequently reviled as the acme of liberal hubris. It is almost certainly the only thing that Sontag has in common with Tony Blair – except for one other strange coincidence. There are children in Kosovo named Tonibler. And there is a square in Sarajevo – in front of the National Theatre – named Pozorišni trg – Susan Sontag: Theatre Square Susan Sontag. Many citizens of Sarajevo remember her as a hero. Admir Glamočak, a prominent Bosnian actor who played Lucky in Sontag’s Godot, said, “I don’t have my own square in front of the theatre […] But I always think: if it’s Susan Sontag, she deserves that damn square.”
So: on the one hand, we have Sontag’s decades of disappointing behaviour – her condescension and misanthropy (she wrote in her journal that she found “almost everyone with whom I have contact ugly and shallow”), her insecurity, her insanely high standards (congratulated on On Photography , she sighed, “But it’s not as good as Walter Benjamin, is it?”), her poor personal hygiene (she had to remind herself to bathe), her habitual lying (she pretended to her oncologist that she hardly ever smoked), her unpredictable moods, her ingratitude, her vaunted humourlessness and her inability to be alone (“Rather than live alone,” she told a friend in a Chinese restaurant, “I could live – and would live – with any person in this room chosen at random”). On the other hand, we have the kind of moral passion that takes risks and, in doing so, effects real and beneficial change in the world. Do the scales balance?
What’s missing from this particular bit of double-entry bookkeeping is, of course, Sontag’s work. There were four novels, a collection of short stories and a play. The novels appeared in pairs, one pair each at the beginning and the end of her career: The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967) open the parentheses closed by The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (1999). In between was the collection I, etcetera (1977). The play, Alice in Bed, premiered in 1993. There were four collections of essays: Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), and Where the Stress Falls (2001). And there were four monographs: On Photography (1977), Illness as Metaphor (1978), AIDS and its Metaphors (1988), and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). This was what she was doing, in the midst of all the erratic behaviour, all the campaigning for liberal causes: she was writing.
Although all of Sontag’s work remains in print fifteen years after her death, the current value of its stock is difficult to assess. Her showing on university reading lists is poor, especially in English departments. She is not really a hero of contemporary feminists, or of contemporary literary hipsters (they choose Joan Didion instead). It is rare, nowadays, to come across a reference to Sontag’s ideas qua ideas ‑ much more common to find her invoked as an icon of something or other: sixties radicalism, perhaps, or Modernist rigour, or the role of the public intellectual. More common still to find her cited as a locus of faded gossip (Moser adds his own titbit to the anthology of juicy Sontag stories: in the mid-1960s she had a brief affair with Robert Kennedy). But to some of us, the work, and the ideas, still matter very much. Almost all of Sontag’s nonfiction is first-rate: each essay or monograph an exemplum of lucid, densely epigrammatic prose and elegantly marshalled argument. But more than this: Sontag was, and remains, an inspirer.
A personal interest is now declared: Sontag’s work has been important to me for most of my adult life. In the summer of 2005 I sat down with my freshly-bought copies of Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will and Under the Sign of Saturn and made a list of the films and books that Sontag recommended. Following her syllabus, I worked my way through most of early Godard. I also watched Rashomon, Throne of Blood, The Lady from Shanghai, Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, much of early Truffaut, Bergman’s The Silence, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and Persona, Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu and La Grande Illusion, Resnais’s Hiroshima mon Amour, Night and Fog and Last Year in Marienbad, Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. I was supposed to be working on my doctorate, but because I had just that year encountered Sontag’s essays for the first time, and found myself utterly seduced by the authority of her style (itself an example of the “erotics of art” that she called for in Against Interpretation) – it suddenly seemed much more urgent that I shore up these embarrassing gaps in my cultural knowledge. Before me was the example of Sontag’s avidity: her lifelong conviction that a writer is “someone who is interested in ‘everything’”.
It is because of Sontag that I have seen Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (looking carefully, as I watched, for the beauty that Sontag claimed to find there alongside the Nazi propaganda, and seeing, perhaps intransigently, only Nazi propaganda). It is because of Sontag that I have read Brecht’s unreadable early play Baal, and because of her that I regard Ionesco as fundamentally second-rate. A list of writers whom I have read solely because Sontag wrote about them would include Paul Goodman, Glenway Wescott, Pauline Réage, Georges Bataille, Joseph Brodsky, Ortega y Gasset, and (God help us) Georg Lukács, whom even Sontag cannot persuade me is worth the effort. And it is because of Sontag that I first began to think, in my amateurish way, about some of the classic questions: style versus content; tradition versus experiment; art versus life. In watching those films, and in reading those books, I hoped, I suppose, to learn to write with Sontagian authority. A man can dream.
This personal excursus – very bad form in a book review, I know – is a roundabout way of suggesting that if Sontag’s work can matter in this way to one reader, whom she never met and who had no personal stake in her life or career, then it matters tout court. To state the obvious: a writer is “important” not because of who she is, but because of what she writes.
Sontag was (is) the kind of writer who inspires not public hosannas but passionate private emulation. To read her is to hunger for a wider, deeper knowledge of art, history, philosophy, literature, film – to seek to nourish one’s mind in the way that Sontag nourished hers (“Art,” she once wrote, “is the intelligent gratification of consciousness”). In other words, Sontag was (is) the kind of writer fated to inspire individuals, rather than groups – the kind of writer whom, in our feverishly communitarian times, we least esteem. (In the late 2010s, if a writer isn’t striding towards the culture-war barricades, we scarcely know what to do with her.) The significance of Sontag’s work is therefore harder to quantify than her significance as a cultural phenomenon – her role, as Moser puts it, as “America’s last great literary star”.
Which doesn’t excuse us from making the effort. Surely part of the interest in any biography of Sontag is the question of how she became what she was – not just an icon, but that much rarer thing, a writer with a genuinely distinctive style of being and thinking. Sontag understood herself to be engaged in a lifelong project of self-fashioning: becoming not just “Susan Sontag” but learning always, as she put it in Against Interpretation, “to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” Moser is good on Sontag’s childhood; he is ready with his laundry-list of anecdotes about her various inadequacies; but he gives us no real insight into how the work, and therefore the self, was made – the kind of insight which is, in the last analysis, the only real justification for any biography of a writer.
Moser’s own style is prosecutorial. He comes armed with the morality of his time, and, judging Sontag by its standards, finds her severely wanting. He devotes many pages to Sontag’s failure to out herself as bisexual during the early years of the AIDS crisis – although, by this stage, he has already given us irrefutable evidence that this was a gesture of which Sontag was simply not capable. (Surprised in the middle of a nap, she would aggressively insist that she had been not sleeping, but working; confronted with a subject of which she was ignorant, she would dismiss it and talk about something she had mastered. To fashion a self is also to become a slave to the self so fashioned. “Susan Sontag” – all appetite and will – could not be permitted to look vulnerable.) But Moser is unforgiving. Sontag’s monograph on the crisis, AIDS and its Metaphors, reveals, he says, “how quickly metaphor can slide into obfuscation, abstraction, lying”; her other responses are “thin, dainty, detached”. But Sontag’s own journals, which Moser quotes extensively throughout, reveal someone perennially at war with sex and sexuality – forever “detached” from experiences that were simply not amenable to the forces of the radical will. “What would it have meant,” Moser asks, “for one of the most famous writers in the country, a writer whose cultural authority was unparalleled, to say that she was in a relationship with another famous woman?” For Sontag, it would have meant the collapse of a self built and rebuilt in a continual attempt to escape from the neediness and unpredictability of an alcoholic mother (more on whom anon). But Moser does not allow the point.
This is literary biography as an act of generational (can we say Oedipal?) revenge. In making his case against Sontag so thoroughly, Moser imposes upon his readers the sort of fruitless moral calculations with which I began this review: was Sontag a good person? Was she a bad mother? A faithless friend? Was she sufficiently committed to the right causes? Does she meet the stringent standards for private behaviour that we now impose on dead writers? Et cetera, et cetera. But if a biography defaults too readily to the business of moral judgement, then it has failed in its ideally appointed task: to recreate the inner life of its subject. It is despite Moser, rather than because of him, that we intuit the reasons for Sontag’s refusal to come out during the AIDS crisis. “‘But’ is the very nature of thinking,” Moser quotes Sontag as saying. By this, she meant that the beginning of thought is to step, as Nietzsche insisted that we must, “beyond good and evil”. Instead, Moser brings his twenty-first century moralising consciousness to bear, and gives us a portrait of the artist as a compromised diva.
People who remake themselves are perennially fascinating, especially to those of us who seem to grow less by conscious fiat than by chaotic improvisation. (How did I end up here?) Sontag’s remaking of herself is the story of her life, and it is this story that makes Sontag: Her Life worth reading, even if it isn’t quite the story that Moser actually tells. She was born Susan Rosenblatt in 1933, descended, on her mother’s side, from Polish immigrants (In America, her final novel, tells the story of a group of well-to-do Poles who travel to California and found a commune.) Her father Jack died of tuberculosis in China when Sontag was five (Illness as Metaphor superbly anatomises the artistic uses to which TB was put in the nineteenth century). Her mother, Mildred, drank. “Don’t leave me,” Mildred would beg her daughter. “I’m afraid of the dark. I need you here.” Sontag developed childhood asthma – a disease that is frequently, as Moser notes, “triggered by emotional turmoil”. As Susan “stretched toward the ceiling in an effort to find breath” Mildred would leave the room, unable to cope. “I had no mother,” Sontag would tell people as an adult.
Sontag later wrote that she had experienced her childhood as a “long prison sentence.” Her project of self-fashioning – or self-rescue – began, as such projects generally do, early. When Mildred married an ex-soldier named Nat Sontag, Susan happily changed her name. When the family moved to Tucson, Arizona, and Susan, aged eleven, entered a new high school, she made a “conscious decision”: “I will be popular.” In becoming Susan Sontag, Moser writes, she “did not want to feel like asthmatic, helpless, unpopular Sue Rosenblatt.” Many people make such promises to themselves. But not everyone is Susan Sontag. What made her different was the quality of her mind (or perhaps I should say the quality of her will: in Sontag’s essays, “mind” and “will” are often more or less synonymous). Aged three, she had already learned to read. In school, she was, as a friend put it, not just a good student but “a champion student.” Books did for her what books do for bright children: simultaneously offered her the promise of a glittering future and sealed her more thoroughly in her loneliness.
In “Pilgrimage” (1987), a memoir, not entirely truthful, of her teenage years, she wrote: “What other people thought of me remained a dim consideration, since other people seemed to me astonishingly unseeing and uncurious, while I longed to learn everything.” Compare Ryszard, the writer from In America, “doomed to find no one clever enough.” High intelligence is itself deracinating. The extremely bright are more or less condemned to reject their beginnings and seek out a world in which people have read the same books, listened to the same music, seen through the same cant. Or, as Hannibal Lecter remarks to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, “Being smart spoils a lot of things, doesn’t it?” An early encounter with a copy of Partisan Review – she was fifteen; the key essay was “Art and Fortune” by Lionel Trilling – made her “tremble with excitement”. Within a year she had “read all the New Critics and become a great fan of Kenneth Burke”. When she got to the University of Chicago, she approached her lecturer, who had introduced himself as “M. Burke”, and asked if his first name was Kenneth. Why did she want to know? “Well, I’ve read The Philosophy of Literary Form and A Grammar of Motives …” She was sixteen.
I don’t mean to be patronising when I say that, for all her ardent self-invention, Sontag never really stopped being the brightest kid in the class. Good writers usually do start out as the brightest kid in the class, and there is a sense in which literature is what happens when all the bright kids grow up and compare notes. But being the brightest kid in the class is a psychologically precarious business. Hypertrophy of intellect – necessary to keep you in the top spot – can cause starvation of the heart. Errors of judgement often follow. In Sontag’s case, it happened when she was seventeen. At Chicago, she sat in on a sociology lecture taught by a young instructor, Philip Rieff. The next day, she had become his research assistant. A week later, they were married. The marriage lasted six years. Towards the end of her life, Sontag wrote about reading Middlemarch at eighteen: “a third of the way through the book I burst into tears because I realised not only that I was Dorothea but that, a few months earlier, I had married Mr. Causaubon”.
It was the marriage to Philip Rieff that produced her son David. It also, according to Moser, produced her first book. Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) is credited to Philip Rieff, but Moser advances the theory that it is actually Sontag’s work, and suggests that keeping shtum about its true authorship was part of the price Sontag paid for escaping the marriage in the early 1960s. In any event, once she had left Rieff and gone to Oxford, and thence to Paris, her self-fashioning could begin in earnest: she began to absorb the radical art of the 1960s (Happenings, the Cinémathèque Française, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol), and to publish the essays that would make up Against Interpretation. In 1963, a novel, The Benefactor, appeared. (It was about a man, Hippolyte, who decides to live entirely in and for his dreams. Hannah Arendt liked it. No one else ever has.) She left academe as soon as she could, and never returned. “Susan Sontag” was not an academic. She was a writer – “someone who pays attention to the world”. She would spend the rest of her life as a star: the most glamorous public intellectual of them all. She did what she was best at: she transmuted her obsessions and experiences (photography, cancer, film) into those unglamorous things: works of criticism. There were also the novels – she won the National Book Award for In America, and The Volcano Lover was, improbably, a bestseller. It is impossible to imagine anyone else sustaining such a career – then or now. She has had, as Moser notes, no successors.
(A sidenote on Sontag’s fiction: Moser convincingly argues that The Volcano Lover, a sumptuous retelling of the love triangle between Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson, and Sir William Hamilton, is her best novel. The others, especially the first two, are, to put it politely, heavy going. She was too wedded to the glamour of the avant garde – to the “boring” art she extolled in “The Aesthetics of Silence” (1967). When it came to fiction, Sontag thought that modernism was the point of art, when really, if this isn’t too facile a reversal, art was the point of modernism – aesthetic experience being the destination, with the choice of conveyance (traditionalism, experimentation) up to you. The last two novels do their best to escape the gravitational pull of the modern masters. Behind the metafictional prologues and the essayistic divagations and the interpolated letters and diaries, old-fashioned stories are signalling wildly to be let out.)
How many lives could successfully withstand eight hundred pages of prosecutorial scrutiny? Perhaps the sine qua non of successful biography is the empathetic leap. What was it like to be my subject? How did it feel to be Susan Sontag? Sontag: Her Life tells us vividly what it was like to know Susan Sontag (it was a tough gig). But it doesn’t tell us what it was like to be Susan Sontag (perhaps an even tougher gig, especially if her published journals are to be believed). As with all writers, the work is the best clue we have to the nature of the inner life: notes and drafts, materials published and unpublished. But Sontag: Her Life tells us little about how the essays and books were made. Moser does discuss an unpublished essay, “Sartre’s Abdication”, composed in the early 1980s, in which Sontag accuses Sartre of scrambling his mind with amphetamines: Saint Genet, his elephantine biography of Genet, has, according to Sontag, “the characteristic overexplicitness of writing done on speed”. Sontag knew whereof she spoke: she, too, was writing on speed (and in fact composed many of her most famous essays in this way). Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books rejected the piece, pointing out, more or less tactfully, its incoherence. Moser cites the episode less for the insight it offers into Sontag’s creative processes and more for the proof it seems to give of her lack of self-awareness (and of her need to create self-portraits in the guise of character studies of other writers).
Moser quotes Gary Indiana to the effect that “Susan wrote in a way that no one I’ve ever known wrote or writes” – but leaves this tantalising observation unelaborated. If Sontag’s writing processes were distinctive, doesn’t that tell us something important about the way she thought and felt about her work – and about what that work might mean? (Incredibly, once, she invited her friend Michael Silverblatt to sit in her room as she wrote. “I’m going to be writing. We can babble.” What was that like?) Compare Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, or Leon Edel’s of Henry James: in each of these books, the story of how the work gets written is the story of the writer’s life, with almost everything else relegated to ancillary status. In Moser’s telling, the story of Susan Sontag’s life is largely the story of how she failed to empathise with the people closest to her – how she disappointed and mistreated them. No responsible biographer would ignore such a rich vein of anecdotal evidence. But as the Age of Susan Sontag recedes in time (and what an age it was! What writers it produced!), the moral question (was she good or bad?) becomes less urgent. It is the work that lasts, if it lasts.
In “Against Interpretation”, Sontag wrote: “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art – and in criticism – today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” In other words: experience first; morality later. Or, as Nietzsche put it: “That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” In his final sentences, Moser warns us “against the mystifications of photographs and portraits: including those of biographers” .That is well and decently said. Was she a terrible person? Moser seems to think so. But even if this judgement stands, it still feels necessary to argue that being terrible was the least interesting thing about her. Susan, sui generis. More’s the pity.
Kevin Power teaches in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. His new novel, The Confessions, will be published by Simon & Schuster UK next year.