Notes on Susan

Susan Sontag was that unimaginable thing, a celebrity literary critic. Most readers of The New York Review probably would have been able to recognize her on the street, as they would not, say, George Steiner. An icon of braininess, she even developed, like Einstein, a trademark hairdo: an imperious white stripe, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi, as though she were declaring a cultural Emergency. Most readers probably know a few bits about her life, as they do not of any other critic: the girl Susan Rosenblatt—Sontag was her stepfather—in her junior high class in Arizona, with Kant, not a comic book, hidden behind her textbook. Her teenaged marriage to Philip Rieff that was her entry into highbrow society. (“My greatest dream was to grow up and come to New York and write for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people.”) Her trip to Hanoi in 1968. The mini-skirted babe in the frumpy Upper West Side crowd and her years as the only woman on the panel. The front-page news in 1982 when, after years of supporting various Marxist revolutions, she declared that communism was “fascism with a human face.” Her months in Sarajevo in 1993, as the bombs fell, bravely or foolishly attempting to put on a production of Waiting for Godot. Her struggle with cancer. Her long relationship with the glamour photographer Annie Leibovitz. We even know—from Leibovitz’s grotesque “A Photographer’s Life” exhibition and book—what Sontag looked like in the last days of her life and after her death.

At thirty, she had indeed become a regular contributor to Partisan Review, as well as The New York Review. At thirty-three, she collected her essays into Against Interpretation (1966), surely the best-known book of cultural criticism of its time, a dizzying, intimidating, simultaneous celebration of asceticism (Simone Weil) and absurdism (Eugène Ionesco), suicidal suffering (Cesare Pavese), physical self-loathing (Michel Leiris) and physical delight (Norman O. Brown), the criminal (Jean Genet) and the transgendered (Jack Smith), the minimal (Nathalie Sarraute) and the maximal (happenings, Marat/Sade), the films New York intellectuals were talking about (Godard, Resnais, Bresson) and the films French intellectuals were talking about (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond). The book ended with a declaration of a “new sensibility,” first proclaimed in the pages of Mademoiselle magazine, most of which sounded like the manifestos of a half-century before:

Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility. And the means for practicing art have been radically extended…. Painters no longer feel themselves confined to canvas and paint, but employ hair, photographs, wax, sand, bicycle tires, their own toothbrushes and socks. Musicians have reached beyond the sounds of the traditional instruments to use tampered instruments and (usually on tape) synthetic sounds and industrial noises.

The new sensibility is rooted in “new sensations such as speed,” the new crowds of people, and the proliferation of material things. It blurs the distinction between high and low…

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