Furious Permissions

For Susan Sontag, style was nourishment

Brian Dillon
Susan Sontag, New York, February 2, 1978. Photograph by Richard Avedon. ©The Richard Avedon Foundation.
Richard Avedon, Susan Sontag, New York, February 2, 1978. Courtesy The Richard Avedon Foundation.

To find herself conferring approval was Susan Sontag’s natural state as a writer. Leave aside her personal reputation, deserved and undeserved, for harsh or peremptory judgment, and you have a critic—if that is the word—whose best work was essentially, and unusually, celebratory. By “best work” I mean the essays of the 1960s and 1970s, an archipelago of stars that outshines all the later essays and her fiction. Of course, the party to which Sontag invited us was sometimes austerely toned, as in her stentorian aphorisms concerning the extravagant aesthetics of Camp. Or it was so densely populated as to seem oppressive; “The Aesthetics of Silence,” for example, with its noisy corralling of Wittgenstein, Cage, Beckett, Johns, Burroughs, McLuhan, et very much al. But when she wrote about one artist, writer, or thinker, Sontag’s essays could sound, though no less complex, a good deal more unified, synthesizing, even lyrical. It’s in these pieces—on the likes of Simone Weil, E. M. Cioran, Elias Canetti—that you start to get a sense of what Sontag thought a writing life could or should be like: its rigors and its lures.

In 1978, she spent several months writing “Under the Sign of Saturn,” an essay on Walter Benjamin for The New York Review of Books. Sontag constellates Benjamin’s diverse writings around the dark sun of melancholia—his suicide too, of course. She has a lot to say, in this vein, about her subject’s love of details and fragments, his elaboration of textual and intellectual patterns that swiftly fall apart: the definitively unfinished Arcades Project, or a famously misplaced map of his own life, drawn at a café table in Paris. Returning to her essay recently, I was struck by the qualities she most obviously admires and identifies with in Benjamin: his work ethic and stamina, the way he committed himself to vacillation and ambiguity, his precarious life as a freelance intellectual—and his own refusal of polemics in favor of what he called “the fullness of concentrated positivity.”

“Under the Sign of Saturn” is home also to one of Sontag’s most lasting, and cryptic, aphorisms: “One cannot use the life to interpret the work. But one can use the work to interpret the life.” A neatly chiasmic assertion, for sure, and a compelling one for any critic who does not wish to give up on the idea that art and life are intimately convolved. But what does the second sentence really mean? And how would you know as a critic (or biographer) when you were doing it, and not the other thing? Which one is Sontag engaged in when she reads Benjamin’s vastly productive, painful span in terms of his conception of melancholia? How to escape a circular track of thought?

I thought often about those two sentences from “Under the Sign of Saturn” while reading Benjamin Moser’s sedulously researched but sometimes obtuse biography. Here is a Life of dogged and widely canvassed detail—Moser interviewed more than 300 of Sontag’s relatives, friends, lovers, allies, and enemies—whose organizing, argumentative principles are intended to rhyme with guiding concepts or metaphors in Sontag’s writing. Chief among these, as it happens, are idea and image themselves. Time and again Moser tells us that Sontag struggled to know if intellectual abstractions, figural language, and actual images were telling her the truth, or were a treacherous appliqué on monstrous reality. If this seems a crude distinction, it’s one Moser forces onto her life, which appears to him clearly to divide into Sontag the intellectual icon, on the one hand, and “Sue,” an emotional disaster and petty tyrant, on the other. “To a divided world, she brought a divided self.” It’s a simplification too far—of work, of life, how they will or won’t fit together.

Hers was a life that began
with distance and catastrophe. Susan Rosenblatt was born in New York in 1933. Her parents, Jack and Mildred, ran a fur trading business in China and were frequently absent. Early in 1939, Mildred returned from one of these trips and waited, Sontag later wrote, “several months” to reveal that Jack was not coming back: he had died of tuberculosis months earlier. “I didn’t cry long. I was already imagining how I would announce this new fact to my friends…. I didn’t really believe my father was dead.” Susan began to suffer asthma attacks and Mildred was advised to move her two daughters (Judith was born in 1936) to a healthier climate. On the train to Florida, Sontag remembered, she asked her mother how to spell “pneumonia.” The Miami air did not prove conducive, and they moved back to New York before a year was out. Soon they moved again, to Tucson. In the backyard of their home there, Susan excavated a hole six feet deep, covered it with planks, and sat at the bottom. Later she described “digging it, filling it, and digging it again,” and called it her refuge, her cell, her study, her grave.

"I write to define myself—an act of self-creation"

In 1945, Mildred married Nathan Sontag, an injured U.S. Army pilot recuperating in Arizona. The family settled in “a cozy shuttered cottage with rosebush hedges” at the entrance to the San Fernando Valley, California. Moser emphasizes Mildred’s emotional demands, and her alcoholism, to a somewhat skewing extent; he attributes an awful lot in Sontag’s life—her ambition and perfectionism, her own neediness and masochism—to her being the child of an alcoholic. Moser invokes this pop-psychological theory so often that it starts to obscure what was surely an equally blighting trauma: the early loss of a parent, even a largely absent parent. Sontag’s veering between depression and voracious energy, her egotism and abasement, her commitment alike to recklessness and control: you could ascribe it all as much to an early introduction to loss and mortality as to the yawning anxieties attached to having an addict for a parent—let alone to having experienced both things. But Mildred (as happens) hung around long enough to be blamed. She is a constant presence in her daughter’s diaries, and, along with Joseph Brodsky, she was the last person Sontag spoke about before she died in 2004.

Moser tells us that in Sontag’s invention of a self-defined type of mid-century, female, American intellectual, “she created the mold and then broke it.” (The key for Moser is “female,” which means his point may seem overstated, given that Sontag’s career overlapped with those of Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Audre Lorde, and Judith Butler.) We might better say the teenage Sontag hothoused herself into a kind of intellectual exoticism. She read everything—of course it’s never everything—and enrolled, at the age of sixteen, at Berkeley: Mildred had not wanted her to move any further away. Sontag had already declared her “lesbian tendencies” in her diary; as a freshman at Berkeley she began her first relationship with a woman, Harriet Sohmers, who worked in the campus bookshop and asked pointedly when they met: “Have you read Nightwood?” But just a month into her time at Berkeley, Sontag won and accepted a scholarship to the University of Chicago, and the relationship ended, for a time.

Indecision, ambiguity, choices both definitive and reversible. This period in Sontag’s life—she would refer to the 1950s as her lost decade—is fascinating as much for the perplex of intellectual and artistic positions she had to explore and reject before she could create herself as it is for her attempt to embrace heterosexuality, marriage, and conventional family life—before trashing all of that, of course. The two published volumes of her diaries show just how hard she labored to invent “Susan Sontag.” “I write to define myself—an act of self-creation,” she wrote in 1961, even as she was writing some of the seminal essays that would go into her 1966 collection Against Interpretation. And four years later: “To give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian [Hellman] in Paris Review.” Lovers come and go, but the orgy of self-improvement never ends, its protocols set down in the diaries like so many perverse rules of the game in de Sade. There are lists of books to be read, as one might expect, and words to be employed on the page: perfervid, noctambulous, effete. But also instructions not to seem too biddable or charming to her teachers and male intellectual contemporaries: renounce giggling, don’t smile so much, stop trying to be interesting, don’t emulate Mary McCarthy, who is “nice to her husband.” But all of this auto-instruction—including reminders to bathe, as a wide-eyed Moser reports—services a vision of writing as egoistic excess, erotic assertion: “The writer is in love with himself, he fucks himself, and makes his books out of that meeting and that violence.” It’s evidence both of Sontag’s force of will, and of the masculine literary culture in which she contended, that she should have chosen to become an egotist.

At the age of seventeen, she married her sociology professor, Philip Rieff; during the marriage, Moser contends, she wrote a monograph on Freud that bears Rieff’s name as author. It has long been known that Sontag claimed at least to have co-written Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, and sometimes said she had written “every single word of it.” (The book thanks “Susan Rieff” for her “unstinting devotion” to the project.) Moser quotes a letter from Sontag in which she describes composing book reviews that Rieff would pass off as his own, and a 1990 note from Rieff to Sontag that calls her “co-author” of the Freud book. Moser’s evidence for Sontag as sole author is slim, however, and seems to consist of a mere intuition that the book is working out themes she would address in her later work—also that it sounds an awful lot like Sontag. But the stylistic and intellectual echoes may also belong to an era or milieu, as well as to the couple. Moser is frequently vague or stilted when invoking specific phases in intellectual history, but he is good on the academic and social exceptionalism of the University of Chicago at that time: its openness to Jewish students, and the Great-Books-style curriculum that, for better and worse, would inform Sontag’s view of literature for the rest of her life.

David Rieff was born in 1952, by which time Sontag was a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. Two years later she transferred to the English department at Harvard, where she was “bored and disgusted”: Moser recounts that the prominent professor Harry Levin told Sontag straight out that he did not believe in female grad students. Her adventures in academia—she carried on teaching until the mid-1960s, ending up at Columbia—both made and frustrated Sontag the writer. Already at Berkeley she was declaring in her diary her resistance to the academic life, picturing herself aged sixty, “ugly and respected and a full professor.” Surveying the monographs her teachers were turning out, on the likes of Voltaire and Fenimore Cooper, she wrote: “Jesus Christ! What did I almost submit to?!?” Then as later, academia contrasted with sex and other pleasures, and with real writing. Yet she pursued academic knowledge with voracity, devoting herself as much to the old sensibilities as the new. After her thwarted start in English at Harvard, she fled to the philosophy department, where she was introduced by her friends Jacob and Susan Taubes to Gnosticism, to Weil, and (in print and in person) to Herbert Marcuse.

In 1957, Sontag headed to Oxford, where she’d been awarded an academic fellowship for a year. She left David and Philip behind, effectively ending her marriage, though neither she nor Rieff admitted it yet. She lasted one term at Oxford and moved to Paris at the end of 1957. Her French was imperfect, but she enrolled in philosophy at the Sorbonne and was introduced to intellectual café life. In Paris, Sontag renewed her relationship with Harriet Sohmers, who was working for the International Herald Tribune and whose translation of de Sade’s Justine had appeared a few years earlier. Theirs was a cruel relationship, by which some of the lessons of life with Mildred were driven further home. Susan was self-described slave to Harriet’s master, but learned also the uses of certain failings Harriet identified in her: “It’s true—what H[arriet] charges—I’m not very sharp about other people, about what they are thinking and feeling, though I’m sure I have it in me to be empathetic and intuitive.” She does not sound very sure.

Sohmers, for her part, despaired of Sontag’s scholastic manner and her abiding need to impress—explaining Bosch on a visit to the Prado. (A recurring complaint among Moser’s interviewees is that Sontag had no natural eye for the visual arts, that in front of a painting or photograph she was literal-minded.) In Paris she was reconciled, at least privately, to being gay and was working hard (there’s the rub, of course) to be less hung up, less academic. Early in 1959, she moved to New York, began to extricate herself formally from her marriage, and started a relationship with Harriet’s ex-lover, the protean, largely unschooled playwright María Irene Fornés. In spite of her education and her ambitions, Sontag still worried that she could not write. One night in 1961, Moser tells us, she and Irene were sitting at a restaurant: “How silly,” Irene said. “If you want to write, why not just sit down and write?”

Late in 1964, Sontag show
ed up at Andy Warhol’s silver-walled Factory and sat for the first of seven short film portraits; Warhol was thinking of including her in his film sequence Thirteen Most Beautiful Women. In the first of her Screen Tests, Sontag is fully self-possessed, staring calmly at the camera. Across the series of seven, this composure comes and goes, her unease signaled by the way she puts on and takes off her sunglasses. In one of the films, her self-image goes to hell and she starts grimacing and smirking, rocking back and forth in her chair.

The Sontag who appears in Warhol’s Screen Tests is the Sontag of “Notes on ‘Camp’,” recently published in Partisan Review, then bruited in Time and elsewhere. Her sudden celebrity made possible, in place of academic labor, the life of an independent writer and critic. (And not, by most standards, an especially precarious one, despite her later complaints. Sontag’s publisher and sometime lover Roger Straus seems to have paid for everything, at least until Annie Leibovitz turned up in the late 1980s.) An equivalence was quickly made between Sontag’s version of Camp and Warhol’s, though as Andy well knew when he invited her to the Factory, she was thoroughly suspicious of his art. In its earliest drafts, the essay was titled “Notes on Homosexuality,” and the change of title is not the only evidence, for Moser, of Sontag’s shying away on the page from the milieu she’s describing and defending. In particular, there is one telling difference between the Partisan Review text and the version that appeared in Against Interpretation. In 1964, she wrote, “I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly frustrated by it.” In 1966, “frustrated” becomes “offended”: the first suggests a scenester’s perspective, Sontag as uncertain aesthete and frequenter of gay bars, while the second is the elevated view of a highbrow critic and outsider.

According to Moser, who quotes variations of this sentence many times, “Notes on ‘Camp’” is proof of more than one sort of ambivalence in Sontag’s thought and character. There is first of all her reticence to admit that she knows intimately the gay culture she is detailing—a reluctance that Moser forgives in her early life, but arraigns her for later, when it seems she could or should have outed herself. Second, Moser takes Sontag’s vacillations about Camp to mean she was drawn to and frustrated (or offended) by representation in general, whether metaphor, the building and inhabiting of a public persona, or the face one turned to lovers, friends, or family. Contrasting the Sontag of the mid-1960s with her thought and writing a decade later, Moser writes, “In The Benefactor, her character embraced the dream to the complete exclusion of reality. Over the years, she had moved… in the other direction. Reality, in her mind, could best be perceived once metaphor had been exiled.” In his view, “precisely because seeing did not come naturally, she was forced to reflect on it.” Sontag’s besetting problem, Moser wants to say, was that she could not tell if seeing was really seeing.

Moving from the Wildean epigrams of “Notes on ‘Camp’” to a diagnosis of the primary underlying cause of Sontag’s lifelong emotional-epistemological pain is some distance for her biographer to travel. Along the way, Moser conflates image with metaphor, style with surface, art with artifice—and all of it with Sontag’s own physical appearance—but fails to notice that his own insistence on “seeing” as the key to all of Sontag’s mythologies is itself thoroughly metaphorical, a transparent rhetorical sleight. It is true that Sontag fretted in her published work and in her journals about the nature of appearance and image. She went back and forth, in On Photography and later writings, on whether photographs were documents or traps. In her diaries, she both loved and resented the power of figural language: “I’m irritated with images, often: they seem ‘crazy’ to me. Why should X be like Y?” But Moser’s contention that such reflections are really just artfully disguised bouts of self-description or self-laceration—well, reductive doesn’t quite cover it.

With this insistence that Sontag’s 1960s work—the pieces collected in Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will—were really all about Sontag (that is, her self-invention, self-image, self-doubt), what gets lost is much sense of how the essays engaged the world around her. The sheer range of Against Interpretation, the variety of subjects she could corral under the rubric of “the new sensibility,” is the first amazing thing about that book: Camp style and style itself; the new forms (or lack of form) named “happenings;” the prodigiously melancholic philosophy of E. M. Cioran; the clichés and the real displaced terrors in apocalyptic science fiction; the films of Jack Smith, Robert Bresson, and Jean-Luc Godard; the supreme asceticism of Simone Weil; the vague and vulgar pieties of contemporary American religiosity. You can imagine other writers of the time devoting an essay collection to a genre-bound fraction of this, and perhaps even with more intimacy, if not depth. Nobody else could have done it all.

Moser’s attitude to Sontag’s voraciousness in art and life—her cosmophagic urge, as Wayne Koestenbaum has put it—is also the reading of Against Interpretation Sontag herself embraced later in life: the idea that for better or worse its chief contribution was to mix high and low culture, treating both with equal gravity and brio. Charged with having leveled sacred cultural distinctions, Sontag accepted the accusation and thus overplayed her high-culture cards in the last two decades of her life. But only a very partial reading of Against Interpretation will emphasize this aspect at the expense of others—it is far from the most interesting thing about the book today. Instead, what impresses most is Sontag’s keen attention to her own modes of attention: her rage for the new, for the now, and for a language to cast it in. “The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.”

There is then the matter of her style. Sometimes in the diaries Sontag will speak of style as if it is a hard surface a writer may hide behind, or a performance she admires, hates, wishes she could rid herself of—or be much better at, like Elizabeth Hardwick and William H. Gass. But style lies deeper than this, as theme and texture of her work. Sontag thought of her essays more in terms of effects than arguments; indeed, sometimes she was unsure that she believed what she was saying. Does this mean she was a mere persona on the page, a mocked-up purveyor of polemics and pensées? Not at all: it means she was a writer. There is of course the aphorizing aesthete pose of “Notes on ‘Camp’,” which is a large part of the essay’s point: sensibility is something to be briskly expressed, not laboriously contended. But there is also “On Style,” a determinedly strange piece of writing that circles and drifts and counters itself in a manner that will not easily yield a subtractable set of opinions. About Benjamin, she would later write: “His sentences do not seem to be generated in the usual way; they do not entail. Each sentence is written as if it were the first, or the last.” There is something of this quality in “On Style.” Style is history. Style is experience. It is not opposed to content. It is a way of eating the world.

Moser is weirdly contemptuous of the avant-garde that Sontag celebrated in the first decade of her career, and he seems not at all sure about her style or tone. He thinks Georges Bataille, who occupied Sontag in her essay on pornography, was “a deranged mediocrity.” Twice he uses Alain Resnais’s 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad as shorthand for—what, exactly? It’s apparently a film one “sits through” rather than actively watches, let alone enjoys. At one point, mystifyingly, Moser accuses Sontag of “artsy Marienbad theorizing.” It’s unclear if he means theorizing about Resnais’s film, writing in its style (which sounds intriguing), or thinking in the mode or mood of a Marienbad-loving milieu. “Artsy,” I think, has already shown us where Moser stands. Readers unfamiliar with the artists, writers, and philosophers she wrote about in the 1960s might be left to wonder why Sontag cared about such rebarbative stuff in the first place. Never mind how she managed to turn relatively large readerships on to the existence and value of happenings, experiments in obscenity, and works of art devoted to silence or vacancy.

By the end of the 1960s
, and not for the last time, Sontag felt written out, depleted. She turned to filmmaking as a way to escape essay writing and to pay back aesthetic and intellectual debts she owed to the directors she had written about. Two well-funded feature films made in Sweden—Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971)—were followed by a documentary, Promised Lands, shot in Israel late in 1973, just before a ceasefire was called in the Yom Kippur War. As a writer, she began for the first time to produce botched, impossible, unfinished works. She had dreamed of a book about China—Sontag told William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, that it would be like a cross between Hannah Arendt and Donald Barthelme—but managed only a speculative short story (one of her best: “Project for a Trip to China”).

Her two books of the 1970s—On Photography and Illness as Metaphor—came about by happy and unhappy accident: the first because the NYRB asked her to write about Diane Arbus, and the second, as is well known, in the aftermath of her treatment for advanced breast cancer in the middle of the decade. With both of these books, Moser is on firmer ground when he asserts their autobiographical import. On Photography is at least in part a kind of self-portrait. Sontag had been photographed by Arbus, and distrusted her, seeming to see in Arbus’s attitude to her “freaks” something of Sontag’s own lack of empathy, and perhaps also in those sitters her own bodily unease. Her body is famously absent from Illness as Metaphor, her critique of the cultural framing of cancer as a disease of repressed people. The book is couched in wholly impersonal terms, grounded in literary history and analysis. Privately, in her diaries, Sontag fretted that her illness had indeed been caused by the strictures of her personality: “I lived as a coward, repressing my desire, my rage.”

Sontag spent the 1980s trying and failing to be “Susan Sontag.” Phillip Lopate has argued that her writing after the 1970s becomes more oral, as if written with the lectern already there to lean on, and less surprising. This seems correct. In place of her oblique epigrams, a note of pure middlebrow grump intrudes in the 1983 essay “A Lexicon for Available Light,” as in her definition for “Minimalist”: “Unlike some other dumb labels that emerged in visual arts marketing campaigns (Pop Art, Op Art) in the last two decades, this piece of linguistic chewing gum…” Sontag longed to escape essay-writing but could not seem to get very far in a new novel even when she granted herself the “furious permissions” of time, resources, and a Paris retreat. (The phrase comes in an interview she gave The Sydney Morning Herald in 1992, after she had finally finished and published The Volcano Lover.) Moser says that the intellectual climate of the Reagan years had made near-impossible the kind of work Sontag and others had done in the previous two decades. In his telling, the rise of high theory in the humanities—cue a lament about “writing that was designed to be unreadable”—paired with a “lowbrow” turn in mainstream magazines served to deprive Sontag of outlets. It’s unclear which magazines Moser means—there is no such falling-off in the NYRB of the 1980s, for example, even if its anti-theory stance is clear—but really this is just another way of saying that intellectual energy had gone elsewhere, and Sontag had failed to keep up.

The hiatus in her writing—or at least a hiatus in interesting writing—seems in Moser’s account to accompany a curdling of her already piquant personality. She became the Susan Sontag most famously exposed in Terry Castle’s 2005 London Review of Books essay about her. The Sontag who reenacted scenes from the siege of Sarajevo on a sidewalk in Palo Alto, oblivious to her own self-aggrandizement. The Sontag who would spend an evening gleefully eviscerating, for their vulgarity or ignorance, her literary dinner companions of the night before, then repeat the mean-girl relay the following evening. The Sontag who saw nothing wrong with Farrar, Straus & Giroux hiring her own son as her editor, and then raged at him over some minor alteration or fact-check query. The Sontag who, under attack from a new intellectual pretender, affected not even to know who Camille Paglia was. The Sontag, finally, who was known to mock Leibovitz, her on-off partner for sixteen years, in public for not having read Balzac, or the like. It must be said, in part because this substantial aspect of Moser’s biography has gotten so much attention, that Leibovitz is never less than forgiving about these bouts of apparent cruelty—which ought perhaps to have given Moser pause when it came to including so many other tales of Sontag’s diva-ish behavior.

As Sontag the essayist recedes and is supplanted in the 1980s by Sontag the mere commentator (and then by Sontag the resurgent novelist), you have the feeling that Moser is gearing up for some easy and anachronistic judgments, as if the later lack of original and engaging work leaves her whole life and life’s project looking vulnerable. And so it proves. When Sontag fails to finish an essay on Sartre, which circles round his hampering abuse of drugs and alcohol, Moser takes it as an occasion to parlay Sontag’s own use of speed into a diagnosis of full-blown personality disorder. To be precise, a disorder from “Cluster B,” which includes borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. Never mind that such diagnoses may in time prove as sturdy as historical myths about cancer and TB—in all kinds of other ways this is among the most naïve and offensive passages in Moser’s book. He seems surprised, or appalled, that a writing life as sheerly energetic, committed, disorienting, celebrated, difficult, and thrilling as Sontag’s might also have come with certain complications.

What would Moser rather she had been like? Like many, he would rather she had declared her sexuality before it was quite safe to do so. He is far more comfortable with the idea of her as adventurous political liberal than he is with her radicalism or gestures towards radicalism. (He commends her, quite rightly, for her commitment to Sarajevo, where she spent many months and staged the first act of Waiting for Godot in 1993.) But Moser seems genuinely amazed by her drug use, her personal asperity, and, especially, her more vehement political interventions: the assertion, in 1967, that “the white race is the cancer of human history”; and her comments in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001 regarding the “courage” of the terrorists and the “self-righteous drivel” peddled by public figures. The desire for a politically more reasonable, rhetorically benign, Susan Sontag chimes with the attitude that in her avant-gardism she had also somehow gone too far.

Where does all of this
—Sontag as anxious self-inventor, reckless polemicist, canny courter of celebrity, reluctant queer exemplar, and imperious monster in person—leave her reputation? For Moser the answers are clear. What matters is not what Sontag wrote—in all its critical acuity or daring, its stylistic clarity and mystery, its dullness and disaster as well as brilliance—but what she signified. Here he is, three pages from the end of Sontag: Her Life, in a final summative incantation:

What mattered about Sontag was what she symbolized…. She showed how to remain anchored in the achievements of the past while embracing her own century. She demonstrated endless admiration for art and beauty—and endless contempt for intellectual and spiritual vulgarity. She impressed generations of women as a thinker unafraid of men, and unaware she ought to be. She stood for self-improvement—for making oneself into something greater than what one was expected to be.

And so on, into Sontag as stout-hearted defender of “the permanence of culture in a world besieged by the indifferent and the cruel.” This seems to me exactly the wrong set of conclusions—not only about Sontag, but about any writer. Beyond Moser’s brutal manner with the texts themselves, quite apart from his wayward sense of cultural history and context, it takes a special kind of presumption to neglect her actual writing and concentrate (or imply that his readers should concentrate) on her image, on a handful of provocations, and on the mere idea of Sontag as model for a writing life. Reading Moser’s book, I imagined the svelte critical biography of Sontag that, in something like the manner of her essay on Walter Benjamin, could match her body to her body of work, the aphorisms and ambiguities in her writing to the self-assertions and self-scourging of her private life. (Outside of certain pieces about her by Elizabeth Hardwick (friend), Terry Castle (foe), and Wayne Koestenbaum (fan), the best works on Sontag are Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag and Jerome Boyd-Maunsell’s Susan Sontag, a short biography.)

I suspect that such a book, were it ever to exist, should be guided not by the idea of artifice in “Notes on ‘Camp’” (or interpretation of same, per Moser), but the concept of style Sontag elaborates in “On Style,” as well as the bristling way she does it. Because it is in style—about which Moser has very little to say—that literature and life, body and idea, come together. Some of the least productive and most punishing (for her and others) periods in Sontag’s life seem to have been when she had drifted too far from the hard but consoling labor of language—real language, that is, not the ribbon-cutting discourse (as Moser neatly puts it) of public-intellectual life. Sontag seems to have known all of this in 2001, when she published in The New Yorker an essay on autobiographical fiction. “Where the Stress Falls” ends with an extraordinary passage on Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights; I know of no other moment in Sontag’s work where she so keenly but so strangely expresses the irreducible involvements of life and writing—an intimacy that she felt she had rarely if ever attained. Listen to how much of her rigor and her suffering is here, as well as the libidinal charge she had written about as a young woman—the erotics of art and its contradictions: “Nothing new except language, the ever found. Cauterizing the torment of personal relations with hot lexical choices, jumpy punctuation, mercurial sentence rhythms. Devising more subtle, more engorged ways of knowing, of sympathizing, of keeping at bay. It’s a matter of adjectives. It’s where the stress falls.”

Brian Dillon is the author most recently of Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction and In Pieces: Writings on Art, Etc.
Originally published:
January 1, 2020




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