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Young Woman from the Provinces

Susan Sontag, New York City, 1979
Dominique Nabokov
Susan Sontag, New York City, 1979

Susan Sontag began to read philosophy and criticism as a teenager at North Hollywood High, when she still signed her editorials in the school newspaper as “Sue.” She read Kant and La Rochefoucauld, Oswald Spengler and Rudolf Steiner. She read Kenneth Burke, who would become her teacher at the University of Chicago, and of course many novels, Thomas Mann above all; an entry in her diary recalls getting caught stealing a copy of Doctor Faustus at a Los Angeles bookshop. One day at a newsstand she picked up Partisan Review and began to tremble as she read Lionel Trilling’s “Art and Fortune,” his 1948 attempt to determine if the novel remained a living form. That set her future. That was when she began to dream of New York, and even of writing for that very journal. And Trilling, a critic forever “talking about the things that mattered,” became a model for her own work.1

Her “we” was not his, but she too would rely on that pronoun, and made it every bit as imperious as Trilling’s. So perhaps it’s appropriate that her life recalls another of his essays from 1948, his introduction to Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886), a novel about radical politics with a working-class protagonist that seemed entirely at odds with the world of James’s earlier fiction. It had been a critical and popular failure when it was first published, and little in the following decades changed that opinion, until Trilling’s reading of the book turned it into an anguished reckoning with the moral costs of civilization itself, and one of the great texts of the Pax Americana.

The most important part of his argument, however, comes in his account of a myth at the heart of the nineteenth-century novel: the myth of the “Young Man from the Provinces” that lies behind Stendhal, Balzac, and the best of Dickens, with The Great Gatsby as a belated example. I would add Trollope’s Phineas Finn and even Crime and Punishment: all of them about talented and ambitious young men, new to the great city and determined to conquer it. The opportunities the city affords may be material ones, or sexual; sometimes they are intellectual, as with Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. But the particular object of desire doesn’t matter so much as desire itself, the protagonist’s restless attempt to wring the place dry of whatever it offers in the way of success.

You don’t have to do much gender-bending to see Sontag as another such character. A friend at Oxford, where she studied briefly at the end of the 1950s, referred to her as “the dark prince,” and in her combination of will and intelligence, her determination to turn herself into a prodigy, she stands with the major characters of the fictional past. She was born in the East but grew up in the West, and came to New York as an outsider. She made the city her own and didn’t let anything stop her: not marriage at seventeen to her teacher Philip Rieff, or a child two years later; not even cancer.

And there’s another way in which Sontag fits Trilling’s model. His young man sees the world as a test, in the way of a folk-tale hero, and there’s often “some mystery about his birth,”2 as if he were not truly his parents’ child. That’s how it was with the woman born Susan Rosenblatt, the daughter of a prosperous furrier who died in 1938, when she was just five. “Sontag” came seven years later, when her mother remarried. Nat Sontag was an army pilot; the teenager took his name but was never formally adopted. He was kind and didn’t get in her way, yet she never felt she had anything in common with him, or with her flighty alcoholic mother.

Sontag was a great character, who seemed to have sprung from her own brow. But the critic Terry Castle saw her as a novelistic figure of a different kind. Writing after Sontag’s 2004 death from leukemia, Castle suggested that in her later years she became a “comic character…. The carefully cultivated moral seriousness…co-existed with a fantastical, Mrs Jellyby-like absurdity”; she was vain, demanding, and unaware of her often withering effect on the people around her.3 By that time, the young provincial had long vanished, lost somewhere on her journey east: Los Angeles to Chicago to Cambridge, a Parisian interlude followed by divorce, and in 1959, New York. She wrote some essays, including one on Simone Weil for the first issue of The New York Review; she taught at Columbia on the strength of an unfinished Harvard Ph.D. and published a first novel, The Benefactor (1963).

Then in 1964 she defined a mode of taste, a sensibility of excess, by which she was at once “strongly drawn…and almost as strongly offended.” Most of her examples came from her observation of what she described as “an improvised self-elected class, mainly homosexuals,” though it would be almost forty years before she would publicly identify herself among its members. “Notes on ‘Camp’” appeared in Partisan Review that fall, and Susan Sontag awoke one morning to find herself famous.

The fame is what interests Benjamin Moser. His Sontag flows smoothly, with each of its forty-odd chapters as sharply paced as a short story. Nevertheless, it makes me uneasy. Moser’s front cover comes to us without words: just a Richard Avedon photo from 1978, with its subject in a dark turtleneck and loose leather jacket, lean and handsome and unsmiling, yet maybe just a bit amused. Looking at that image, I can’t help but wonder what the skeptical author of On Photography (1977) would have said about the way it’s used here. It tells us that Sontag is as recognizable as a water lily or an Oscar winner: no words necessary. But that is in fact how Moser sees her: “Susan Sontag was America’s last great literary star, a flashback to a time when writers could be, more than simply respected or well regarded, famous.” It’s true that her looks became a part of that fame. To him, she seems a kind of “musketeer,” dashing and dangerous, her public image apparently uncultivated and yet also always “camera-ready.” There’s no escaping the fact that her career was in some ways an episode in the history of publicity. She enjoyed the opportunities of fame—the people, the parties—and none of it would have been so immediately possible without a face that, while not conventionally beautiful, was made for the camera’s caress.

And yet that focus on stardom is distorting—though I need to be clear about what I mean in saying so. It was an interesting life and at times an important one, quite aside from her writing. Moser singles out two episodes. The first is Sontag’s presidency of PEN at the time of the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, when she mounted a fierce defense of artistic freedom, in striking contrast to the many intellectuals who seemed at first willing to hide. The second comes in her repeated visits to Sarajevo—eleven all told—during the siege from 1992 to 1996, when she staged Waiting for Godot and lived for weeks at a time under the threat of sniper fire. Moser argues that the attention she drew to the city helped shift public opinion and made the US government more willing to drop the bombs that eventually forced the Serbian attackers to negotiate. One doesn’t have to agree with him to see her actions as admirable, even if one might also wish, as Phillip Lopate has written, that she hadn’t talked so much about just how admirable they were.4

Those actions depended on her stardom, on some extraliterary standing, and here Moser’s emphasis seems appropriate. No, the distortion comes through his catalog of what can only be called diva moments. I’ll make one example stand for many, turning again to Castle. Moser quotes her account of a 1995 dinner at which one guest told Sontag that he had admired “Notes on ‘Camp,’” only to find himself fixed

with a basilisk stare. How can he say such a dumb thing? She has no interest in discussing that essay and never will. He should never have brought it up. He is behind the times, intellectually dead. Hasn’t he ever read any of her other works? Doesn’t he keep up? As she slips down a dark tunnel of rage…the rest of us watch, horrified and transfixed. Now the offending interlocutor is a person of no little eminence himself—the inventor, in fact, of the birth-control pill. He is clearly not used to having women tell him to shut up and be ashamed of himself.

Moser describes the man’s compliment as “ham-handed,” but that’s clumsy. The inventor was the Byronic chemist Carl Djerassi, and his words sound like a bit of simple politesse from a scientist with his own complicated world to “keep up” on. Sontag is the gauche one here, seeing other people only in relation to herself, without any sense of their separate existence. Still, the anecdote is delicious, and any connoisseur of bad behavior will find many more such episodes here. At least with Djerassi, she hit out at an equal. At other times she punched down. Sontag resented many of the things that as a freelancer she had to do to earn a living, the lectures and the readings, and wasn’t above telling a worshipful student that her innocent question was vulgar.

Most readers of this biography will find Sontag’s performance of her own ego more monstrous than comic. Certainly that’s been the note of the book’s other reviews, passing judgment on the “great person”—the personage—she became. I don’t like the person Moser shows us either, and one incident here shocked me. In the mid-1960s Sontag thought for a while that she might need a Ph.D. after all, but she wasn’t good with languages—and got a friend to take the required German exam in her place. Still, Moser’s emphasis seems to miss the point. The diva does need to be here, but biography requires a series of choices about shape and focus, and the cumulative effect of the ones he has made underplays the importance of her work. Does stardom matter more than books like Under the Sign of Saturn (1980) or On Photography? Maybe to Moser it does—maybe it did to many people, as long as Sontag was alive. But now? Her pages are what survive.

Sometimes the behavior that a literary biography reveals cuts to the heart of its subject’s work—their weaknesses mirror each other. I think that’s true of the figure Patrick French showed us in his biography of V.S. Naipaul, in which the novelist’s personal cruelty stands as one with the most painful moments in his fiction. That’s not quite the case here. Sontag often did try to make the people around her feel stupid, her lovers in particular, and sometimes she did that with her readers as well. She wrote and spoke as though her own position were self-evidently right and built in her disapproval of anyone who disagreed. But with a few crucial exceptions—her New Yorker comments on September 11 among them—she kept the ridicule for the dinner table.5

Moser loses the writer in the personality. “Notes on ‘Camp’” gets a lot of attention; it made her into the figure his story needs her to be. He has almost nothing to say about “Against Interpretation,” an equally important essay from the same period that provided the title for her first collection. There she announced that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” anticipating Roland Barthes’s conception of textual jouissance, a sublime bliss in which the aesthetic overwhelms the self. Her long essays on Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti are useful to Moser: sharply observant accounts by a writer who sees in her subjects what she values most in herself.

But his treatment of On Photography is sketchy at best. He recognizes that its greatness lies in its “fecundity: its ability to provoke other thinkers” into either qualifying or disputing its claims. The project began in 1972 with her attempt to understand just why a Diane Arbus retrospective had made her uneasy. She was in her third densely argued chapter before she reached Arbus, however, and Moser says nothing about the process of writing and refining that got her there. He works with her diaries, not her drafts, and I looked through his notes in vain to see whether he had consulted her manuscripts, or if they even still existed. The Volcano Lover (1992) originated in Sontag’s purchase of some hand-colored prints of Mount Vesuvius. So a Washington Post interview tells me, but Moser says nothing about them, and nothing about the job of historical reconstruction on which that novel depends.

Sontag told another interviewer that she never did research as such, she simply read, and read, and looked, and remembered, though she must of course have pulled books from her shelves during the course of writing. What was she like when she was at work? Moser writes that she didn’t enjoy being alone, that even when she was writing there were almost always other people in her apartment: her son, David Rieff; guests; and later a series of assistants. Nevertheless, I finished his book feeling that I knew less than I should about the daily grind of being Susan Sontag—as opposed to the public staging of a persona with the same name. Moser tells us that she wore a lot of scarves, didn’t exercise, liked dim sum, and used speed for many years to help her meet her deadlines. Yet did she have a favorite restaurant? How did she take her coffee, and where did she like to shop? Sontag offers little sense of its subject’s quotidian life, for all that Moser interviewed hundreds of people who knew her.

Maybe she didn’t have such a life, not by her later years, anyway, when she often moved with an entourage. Still, a vignette in Sigrid Nunez’s brief, elegant memoir, Sempre Susan (2011), provides the kind of texture that this biography lacks. Nunez lived with David Rieff for a time in the 1970s, sharing an apartment on Riverside Drive with both him and his mother, and remembers the three of them sitting around one day, soon after she’d moved in, all of them “terribly hungry and terribly lazy,” and with no food in the place at all. She offered to go out and get a few cans of tuna and some bread, at which mother and son “exchanged a look. ‘So goy?’ said Susan.”

Sontag offers detailed thematic readings of her four novels and says as much about Death Kit (1967) or In America (2000) as about the far more original Illness as Metaphor (1978). Perhaps that’s appropriate—or as Sontag herself would have liked it. She was impatient with her reputation as a critic, with being known primarily for her essays. In the 1970s she tried to make herself into an avant-garde filmmaker; later she wrote a few plays, directed others, and attempted to present herself as a novelist above all. Some of her short stories have value as autofiction, and “The Way We Live Now,” her elliptical 1986 story about the AIDS crisis, seems likely to last. So might The Volcano Lover, the historical fantasia she set in late-eighteenth-century Naples.

But no young writer has ever picked up Death Kit, that American imitation of the nouveau roman, and said, “That’s the kind of thing I want to do,” as many of us did about essays like “Fascinating Fascism,” her 1975 carpet-bombing of Leni Riefenstahl in these pages; or her 1982 introduction to A Barthes Reader, still the best brief account of that kaleidoscopic mind; or even the 2001 title essay of Where the Stress Falls, in which she thinks herself into the first-person narration of a series of very different American novels. And maybe what will make her essays last is precisely and paradoxically their off-putting note of certainty, the absolutism with which she stakes out a position.

Because almost every one of them has the power to tick you off. Early on, she wanted her readers to know how much she knows. She erected a narrow canon of what she called “culture heroes,” most of them French, “exemplary” figures who spoke to “our time.” As in, “Most valuable art in our time has been experienced by audiences as a move into silence.” Really? Such goading categorical statements remain productive to the exact degree of their overstatement. There may be a price for arguing with them, but they invite you to argue, they demand that you argue. It hardly matters whether or not she’s right. Many of her time-bound responses to particular works from the 1960s haven’t held up, and she wasn’t always a good spotter of the books or movies that would endure. She once dated Warren Beatty—but she had nothing to say about the revolution in American film that began with Bonnie and Clyde and ran through Raging Bull. Her prose is more trenchant than graceful, and lacks the liberating sense of doubt, the willingness to second-guess her own position, that marks such peers as James Baldwin or Joan Didion.

But the more I disagree with her, the more interesting her mind becomes; her arguments help you realize the terms of your own, until ambivalence becomes inseparable from admiration. A great critic is always better at questions than answers, and here Sontag’s position outside the university was a help. She was undisciplined, in a positive sense. She took “everything” as her province, spilling from one mode of cultural production to another, asking large questions in a jargon-free style, and at the exact moment when the leading edge of the academic humanities seemed to lose its sense of a common tongue. Is photography an art form? Not always—it’s like language, a medium out of which one can make art but that’s used for all kinds of other purposes as well. What are the limits and the dangers of metaphor? Let’s look at the way we talk about cancer and see.

In many ways, her work reached its peak when she was in her forties, with On Photography and Illness as Metaphor, each of them originating in this journal, along with the essays in Under the Sign of Saturn. Still, individual readers will have their favorites; I like her early and atypically playful account of science-fiction movies, “The Imagination of Disaster.” There is, however, one book that Moser finds troubling, and I think convincingly so. Illness as Metaphor grew out of Sontag’s experience with breast cancer in the 1970s, but it never mentioned that she herself had survived the disease, undergoing a mastectomy and long rounds of chemotherapy. She parsed the way we talk about disease as if it were a purely intellectual problem, as if she herself hadn’t sat in a hospital room and listened as the doctors wrapped their accustomed figures of invasion and war around her. The result was at once passionate and impersonal, and all the more powerful because of it. But ten years later she returned to its questions in AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989). That book too was impersonal, which is what bothers Moser.

For AIDS wasn’t like cancer or tuberculosis, diseases that struck widely. At the time, it was still often seen as the peculiar affliction of a vilified social group, not just a medical problem but a moral one, from which gay men suffered precisely because of the practices that expressed their identities. Sontag had always kept her own same-sex relationships veiled. In the 1960s and 1970s she had a series of brief encounters with men—Jasper Johns and Joseph Brodsky among them—that served to punctuate her longer and more complicated affairs with women. Her lovers included the playwright María Irene Fornés and the choreographer Lucinda Childs, and finally Annie Leibovitz. Her friends knew of those relationships, and yet she refused to speak about them either in print or in public. She was effectively closeted, and Moser suggests that AIDS and Its Metaphors would have provided a perfect occasion to come out, arguing that her stature would have lent the fight for gay rights, medical funding included, a support it badly needed.

Her refusal to do so stands for him as a moral failing. Only in 2000 did she acknowledge, in a New Yorker profile, that “I have had girlfriends as well as boyfriends…. [That’s] something I guess I never thought I was supposed to have to say, since it seems to me the most natural thing in the world.” Perhaps it did, but Joan Acocella, who wrote that profile, recalled tearing up as she listened to the “strangulated tone” in which Sontag said those words. To have to say. Sontag always resisted the urge—or requirement—to write as the representative of one group or another. She never wanted to be caught speaking “as a,” in the words of the critic Nancy K. Miller6—as a woman, as a Jew, a feminist, a cancer survivor, a bisexual. Just as a writer, a mind, and neither shaped nor limited by any partial or, to her, contingent identity—by anything that was not self-defined. But that was an evasion, and in her diaries she spoke of herself as “queer.” She wrote too that “I have always liked to pretend my body isn’t there,” and for Moser her reticence isn’t a principled position but rather a mode of denial. Late in life she told her assistant Karla Eoff that she didn’t “think same-sex relationships [were] valid,” and floundered as she tried to explain why.

I wonder if there’s any relation between that evasion and her never having produced a truly important essay about a woman writer. It’s too much to wonder what Sontag might have done with George Eliot or Emily Dickinson; she almost never chose a subject from an earlier century. Though what about Virginia Woolf, whose many volumes of letters and diaries appeared throughout the 1970s and 1980s? What about all Woolf’s hard thinking on the nature of the novel, and on life-writing too? That’s a missed opportunity, and especially because we know that Woolf did engage her deeply: she began the last book she finished, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), with a reference to Three Guineas (1938), the English writer’s account of the intersection between her pacifism and her feminism. Perhaps Woolf’s sentences are too immediately pleasurable, too frank in their sensuous appeal, for Sontag to have found them a congenial subject. But then so are Barthes’s.

In beginning with Three Guineas Sontag suggests that she wants Regarding the Pain of Others to have a comparable place in her own oeuvre, that it too stands as a late large statement of belief. And that slender, disturbing volume is in fact the only one of her later writings that can match her best work. Its title depends on a double entendre. “Regarding”: a word that is both preposition and gerund. It’s a book about that pain, but also one that defines the act of looking, looking on, looking at the trouble that is not one’s own. It would be easy for such an act to become voyeuristic, but that’s not how Sontag sees it, and the work is one of the few places in which she explicitly revised an earlier opinion. On Photography had concentrated on the deceptions of its subject medium, its invasive distortions and manipulation of reality, but she here made a case for its documentary importance, for photography as an act of witness.

Her special concern lies with war photography, and she remains acutely aware of the way in which such images can be faked or misleading, citing examples from Gettysburg to Iwo Jima. But when they aren’t, when they carry the truth, such photographs tell us at once of the things we know and of the things we cannot ever, most of us, even want to envision. They tell us that war is hell, as she writes in the book’s last paragraph, and to know this is still to know nothing at all; yet we

can’t imagine what it is like…how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.

Susan Sontag earned those words in Sarajevo, and in reading them I know that I do not know and hope I never will—that I will simply go on regarding and regardless. Regarding the Pain of Others makes its more fortunate readers recognize the limits of their own understanding. It is a book with which I have, for once, no urge to disagree.

  1. 1

    Conversations with Susan Sontag, edited by Leland Poague (University Press of Mississippi, 1995), p. 190. 

  2. 2

    Lionel Trilling, “The Princess Casamassima,” in The Liberal Imagination (Viking, 1950), p. 62.  

  3. 3

    Terry Castle, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” London Review of Books, March 17, 2005. 

  4. 4

    Phillip Lopate, Notes on Sontag (Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 220. 

  5. 5

    “The self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2001. 

  6. 6

    Nancy K. Miller, Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts (Routledge, 1991), p. xii.