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Susan Sontag Tells All

The newly published second volume of the great critic’s journals reveals her transformation from hedonistic revolutionary to elitist enforcer

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Susan Sontag in the atrium of Mills Hotel for a Symposium on Sex, New York City, Dec. 2, 1962. (Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)
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What makes Against Interpretation Sontag’s most important and powerful book is precisely its unconscious, unresolved ambivalence about seriousness. Ozick, taking Sontag’s words at face value, saw her as launching an assault on seriousness. But if you pay as much attention to the form as to the substance of the book, it is unmistakable that this attack on seriousness was made with every trapping and intention of seriousness. A person who genuinely believes in the senses over the intellect, in erotics over hermeneutics, does not write long, erudite essays in praise of the senses and publish them in Partisan Review. Against Interpretation talks about vices in terms that make them virtues, just as Sontag would later do with pornography.

So great is the disconnect in Against Interpretation between what Sontag is saying and the way she is saying it, and the people she is saying it to, that this disconnect itself represents its lasting source of interest. The ideas and attitudes Sontag advances in her early work now seem utterly period—they couldn’t even keep her interest for long—and the same is true of many of the works she writes about: No one today could feel as reverent toward Godard and Antonioni as Sontag was in 1966. What matters about Sontag now—and this is an evolution typical of many or most critics—is not what she said, but why she said it; not the work, but the person who produced it, and for whom it served certain psychic purposes. Page by page, Sontag’s work has mostly lost its power to thrill. What survives, as Ozick and Paglia intuited, is her image, and the tortuous connections between that image and the woman who projected it.

***

For that story, the key texts are Sontag’s journals, which contain a human drama more fascinating than anything in her essays or her fiction. The first act of that drama was told in Reborn, the first published volume of the journals, which covered the years 1947 to 1962. Now the publication of the second volume, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1963-1980, takes us through the years of Sontag’s greatest celebrity and accomplishment. When the book opens, she is 31 years old and the author of a single, not particularly well-received novel, The Benefactor. By the time it closes, she has published Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, and other books; directed several films; and become famous on two continents. Here is how Sontag sums up her career standing in 1978:

In every era, there are three teams of writers. The first team: those who have become known, gain “stature,” become reference points for their contemporaries writing in the same language. (e.g. Emil Staiger, Edmund Wilson, V.S. Pritchett). The second team: international—those who become reference points for their contemporaries throughout Europe, the Americas, Japan, etc. (e.g. Benjamin). The third team: those who become reference points for successive generations in many languages (e.g. Kafka). I’m already on the first team, on the verge of being admitted to the second—want only to play on the third.

This entry is noteworthy not only for the guilelessness of its ambition—there is something very American about the notion of literature as a series of farm teams, leading up to the major leagues—but because it is one of the few occasions in the journals where Sontag thinks in such self-conscious terms about her “standing.” For the truth is that Sontag spends very little time, in the diaries as edited by David Rieff at any rate, worrying about her career, or about what the public thinks of her. She is far too intent on her own inner experience, on the creation of her self, to care about her image—something that might have surprised Paglia or Ozick, for whom that image seemed so carefully cultivated. And the utter sincerity of the diaries, the sense that Sontag is always able to speak honestly to and about herself, is what makes them such compelling documents. The contrast with the recently published diaries of Alfred Kazin is striking: Where Kazin is always exhorting and dramatizing himself, Sontag seems genuinely to explore and challenge herself.

The first volume of Sontag’s diaries is more dramatic than the second, because they cover a more dramatic and formative period in her life. Reborn tells the story of a brilliant, enormously ambitious and self-conscious adolescent, who at the age of 15 sets down a hundred-item reading list for herself, and collects obscure vocabulary words (“effete, noctambulous, perfervid”), and vows to live on a large scale: “I intend to do everything … to have one way of evaluating experience—does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful—I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere!”

The first act of Reborn shows Sontag just about to find herself, thanks to the independence she enjoyed at Berkeley, where she started college, and above all to the lesbian community she experienced for the first time there and in San Francisco. For while she was always hesitant to make it part of her public identity as a writer, the diaries show that Sontag knew she was a lesbian from earliest adolescence, if not before. An important part of the “everything” she wanted to do was sexual, and you can feel the excitement and release in her descriptions of her first sexual encounters: “I have always been full of lust—as I am now—but I have always been placing conceptual obstacles in my own path.”

Then all at once, and with not a word of explanation in the journals, Sontag swerves off this path and gets married, at the age of just 17, to Philip Rieff, her teacher at the University of Chicago, where she transferred for her sophomore year. The ensuing years-long gap in the diaries is a dire signal, suggesting that marriage switched off Sontag’s inner life entirely. When the journals resume, it is with a desperate cynicism about marriage that speaks volumes: “Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition,” Sontag writes in 1956. Even worse, she imagines showing her journals one day to her great-grandchildren: “To be presented to my great grandchildren, on my golden wedding anniversary. ‘Great Grandma, you had feelings?’ ‘Yeh. It was a disease I acquired in adolescence. But I got over it.’ ”

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Carl says:

She is the classic example of someone who the New York intellectual elite decided was important so she was let into their echo chamber. I read a couple of her books and I have to admit that I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. She had nothing interesting to say.

What a wonderful exploration of a “serious artist.” Susan Sontag’s voice and image captivated me in the small bits that I saw her. She was a model to me of a gorgeous, sexy woman, though I really only read a smattering of her work. Kirsch beautifully captures the contradictions that fired her – the mix of seriousness with a passionate erotic yearning (almost unrequited love for love), and which gave to Sontag a soaring brightness that made her live as much as icon as – well, serious writer. Sontag probably was maddening as a friend (or lover) precisely because she was so torn and with an intelligence that was deep and wide as the Atlantic, over which she traversed back and forth in search of… greatness? truth? love? Thanks for capturing this woman better than I’ve ever seen, and someone has has stayed in my imagination since first seeing her picture on the back of a paperbook sometime in my teens.

James Winchell says:

I agree with Jonathan Field (above), wholeheartedly. I would add to his comment, that Sontag’s high-tension intelligence, as “deep and wide as the Atlantic over which she traversed…” so regularly, primarily drew its power through her profound and “serious” francophilia: the line about the white race being a “cancer,”–is that not taken directly from Lévi-Strauss? And her sense of semiotics and hermeneutics–is it not a series of elaborations upon her beloved Roland Barthes? This is by no means to denigrate her; she was, and is, a perfervid pollinator. Thank you, Adam Kirsch.

George Balanchine says:

Yes, but what exactly is this article trying to say about Sontag?
Is it me, or are more and more articles of this type, a certain kind of “cultural journalism”, extremely vague and unclear, no matter how many words there are?
I have an opinion about Sontag’s work and importance, both not very kind. But at the end, I suppose the important thing is is what is this writer trying to say about her? My reply: I haven’t the slightest idea.

“to other people she evidently seemed more like Dr. Johnson”

Huh?

Dr. Johnson had a sense of humor.

Jim Spivack says:

I don’t know if I have it right but Gore Vidal once wrote in an NYRB article that ‘Susan Sontag operated in that rarified American reality of having no irony whatsoever.’

I can see your reviewer is a man of a few (thousand) words!

Robyn Delfin says:

With the parsing, hermenutics, semiotics, fusion, I am rendered confused and take away little.

Susan Sontag was smart, energetic, ambitious, sexy, lesbian, and Jewish, all of which helped her become famous. (Her hair ranked in the 99th percentile among lesbians for sexiness.)

Unfortunately, she didn’t have much to say of interest, as Mr. Kirsch’s many thousands of words of explication inadvertently demonstrate. She’ll be remembered for saying “the white race is the cancer of human history,” but that’s about it.

Bizenghast says:

In a way, I understand Susan Sontag. She seems like an impenetrable figure, one that others cower at ever trying to figure out. I saw the clip where Camille Paglia lambasted Sontag for her “superior” and “elitist” attitude. Yes those criticisms were warranted in some respects, but it mostly boils down a difference in personality and thus a difference in approach. Sontag wasn’t aware of the portentous air that she gave off ; she would write about kitsch topics with the utmost formality. Seriousness is a trap, those who assume it have a hard time ever tunneling out of that stereotype.

“Against Interpretation,” “Notes on Camp,” and “The Pornographic Imagination,” did not seek to overthrow the intellectual in favor of the sensual, but sought (in part) to return art’s sensuality, its eroticism, to proper consideration as one of its modes of action. Lovers of film (of which Sontag was one) can never escape the sensuality of that medium, but for whatever reason, sensuality is often dismissed by theorizers of literature, especially academicized ones.

But it’s obvious (to me, anyway) that those three essays only consider sensuality as a means toward the higher aspirations of art. Sontag doesn’t seek to ennoble pornography or vulgarism, nor to topple a tradition of intellectual rigor, but to elevate art (in its “spiritual” role) above both. The position isn’t incoherent or inconsistent or hypocritical, but early Sontag’s particular blind spot, her ingenuousness, even, was failing to anticipate that to reject a false dichotomy could easily result in enlistment by committed partisans on both sides (e.g., Ozick and Paglia). She underestimates the sophistication of her readers.

Similarly, Kirsch characterizes Sontag’s reference to Riefenstahl in “On Style” as an elevation of the “aesthetic over the ethical,” when in fact the crux of the essay is precisely a denunciation of what she calls the “pseudo-problem” of art versus morality, and, having demolished this opposition, she even returns to synthesize how art with morally objectionable “content” may have a role in forming a moral will.

There is no recantation, then, in “Fascinating Fascism,” only a rueful awareness that—and let me provide the full quote—”[b]acking up the solemn choosy formalist appreciations [of Fascist aesthetics] lies a larger reserve of appreciation, the sensibility of camp, which is unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness.” The problem is not the camp per se, but the lack of seriousness. (I also don’t understand why Kirsch omits the last sentence of the paragraph he blockquotes: “Taste is context, and the context has changed.” Historical contingence is something Sontag freely granted in “On Style.”)

The quoted 1960 journal entry about will and mind, in its larger context, is a miniature exemplar of the approach: Sontag characterizes Philip Rieff as subjugating his mind to his will, i.e., his “moral responses” and his prejudices, because he has “no love of the truth.” He comes up with conclusions and then thinks in order to justify them, she says. (The danger faced by any thinker.) Sontag sees her own will in this situation, inasmuch as it can be “hypostasized,” not so much to be a good wife and mother, but to “support [the one she loves] even in his lies.” Thus is Sontag’s own mind subjugated to her will. (Lies aren’t very categorical-imperativey, I note.)

But for one who loves truth, that hypostasization amounts to an excuse, and must be defeated, unifying, perhaps in a not-so-paradoxical Kantian way, the mind and will. It would be a synthesis similar to what she discusses in “On Style,” and quite interesting when considering that “will” is the very word she uses for the “organic” synthesis she advocates there. Alas, the journal entry concludes with a resolution to “destroy the will”; one wonders whether her “commitment to truth” allowed her to ever accomplish such a synthesis in her personal psychology.

Anyway, Sontag appears to have been well aware that her seriousness sometimes made her a crashing bore at parties or intolerable to be around, but I don’t think Kirsch has explained why it impaired her criticism, or how seriousness in a critic can be a vice.

licet, not licit

Ron Coleman says:

Pretty ironic lack of irony in this essay.  Was Sontag the pseudo-intellectual precursor to Seinfeld’s “show about nothign”?

Richard Samuelson says:

Perhaps I’m dim, but I’m not sure I see the relationship between the bits about Ozick and Paglia at the start and the conclusion.

Happycrow says:

 @Carl: (coming into discussion late)
no, she didn’t.  Neither is there anything mysterious about this supposed “change” in her perspectives — it had nothing to do with artistic integrity or intellectual “seriousness,” only in appealing to Group X while distancing herself from (and preferably above) Group Y.  That’s all there is to Sontag’s work, and no amount of desperate projection will infuse meaning into what is ultimately turgid  bloviation. 

holdmewhileimnaked says:

reading all of the above- or belownoted comments [depending on yr sort] complaining that the commenters do not understand what susan sontag was saying only furthers my ability to understand what she was saying even more. sadly, too. very sadly. cos in the end she was right & it has only gotten worse.

AllenLowe says:

I’m somewhat shocked that no one seems to have really read or considered what is quoted above,  from Against Interpretation: “interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings…A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something.”    Brilliantly perceptive; she was not really saying tha you cannot interpret but rather objecting to a whole school of middle-class magazine criticism; at the same time she was skewering academics  bogged down in increasingly narcissistic forms of “contextualization”. Note too that the same ideas, almost verbatim, were expressed by Beckett and Robbe Grillet

I like the part about “Art is not only about something; it is something.”  But unless she toured the Hebrides, I’m not reading her journals. 

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Susan Sontag Tells All

The newly published second volume of the great critic’s journals reveals her transformation from hedonistic revolutionary to elitist enforcer