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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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There is nothing in the journals (as published) about the details of Sontag’s marriage to Philip Rieff, but details are hardly necessary. Without Sontag casting aspersions on Rieff’s character, the reader can tell that she has made a horrible mistake, that she should never have entered into this marriage; and the journals only resume when Sontag starts to admit this to herself. This is a sign of how keeping a diary, for Sontag, was not a matter of recording the details of everyday life. The reader of her journals never learns, for example, just how she managed to make a living writing long essays on Barthes and Artaud. Rather, as she writes, “in this journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it.”

The title Reborn was aptly chosen for the first volume of diaries by David Rieff—the son of Sontag and Philip Rieff, whose feelings about editing and publishing his mother’s intimate confessions can only be imagined. For starting in the late 1950s, when Sontag left husband and son in the United States while she went to study at Oxford, she deliberately and ruthlessly gave herself a new birth—essentially, by resuming the life she had glimpsed as a teenager and then given up. We follow Sontag in France, having love affairs with women, reading and thinking and beginning to write, with some of the sense of guilty liberation that she herself must have experienced. This was emphatically a woman’s liberation, and Reborn deserves to become a classic feminist document, for the way it shows Sontag painfully unlearning the stereotypical role of wife and helpmeet. “I’m not a good person. Say this 20 times a day. I’m not a good person. Sorry, that’s the way it is,” she adjures herself in 1961.

For Sontag, duty and desire clashed in an especially intricate fashion, as she shows in a diary entry from 1960: “The will. My hypostasizing the will as a separate faculty cuts into my commitment to the truth. To the extent to which I respect my will (when my will and my understanding conflict) I deny my mind. And they have so often been in conflict. This is the basic posture of my life, my fundamental Kantianism.” There is a paradox in the way Sontag uses Kant’s ideas and vocabulary. According to Kant, reason instructs us about what is good, and the will must be disciplined to carry out the edicts of reason. What Sontag means, however, is just the reverse: For her, the will to do “good”—to be a good wife and mother, by sacrificing her own ambitions—was what had to be resisted. It was her reason that instructed her to do “wrong,” by abandoning her marriage to follow her own path.

The sense that she had to reason herself into defying her own “will” is absolutely central to Sontag’s early work, especially Against Interpretation. Read in the light of the diaries, it becomes clear why Sontag argued in such intellectualized and dutiful terms against the intellect and duty. She commands the world to an “erotics of art” just as she commanded herself to be faithful to her own erotic nature; she apotheosizes experience at a time when she was in search of all the experiences she had missed. But she does all this in terms that make eroticism a discipline and experience an obligation, in language as rigorously argumentative as she could make it. As she puts it in 1965, in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, she was “becoming inhuman (committing the inhuman act) in order to become humane.” Following the will could only become acceptable to Sontag if the will were commanded by reason, just as Kant had it: She was a hedonist according to the categorical imperative.

Which is really to say that she was not much of a hedonist. “Not to give up on the new sensibility (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein; Cage; McLuhan) though the old one lies waiting, at hand, like the clothes in my closet each morning when I get up,” she warns herself. One of the rare comic moments in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh comes when Sontag is in Tangiers, hanging out with Paul Bowles, and has a revelation about the counterculture. To her, the counterculture was a grand intellectual and aesthetic experiment, a matter of “new sensory mixes.” But she now realizes that a large part of what struck her as its strangeness is owed simply to the fact that its adherents were stoned all the time:

This is what the beat generation is about—from Kerouac to the Living Theatre: all the “attitudes” are easy—they’re not gestures of revolt—but natural products of the drugged state-of-mind. But anyone who is with them (or reads them) who isn’t stoned naturally interprets them as people with the same mind you have—only insisting on different things. You don’t realize they’re somewhere else.

One can imagine Sontag getting stoned only in the same spirit that Walter Benjamin tried drugs, in order to experiment with consciousness. Similarly, it becomes clear in the journals that Sontag supported the sexual revolution not because she was at ease with eroticism, but precisely because she was not. “I am so very much more cool, loose, adventurous in work than in love,” she admits to herself. Much of the second volume of her journals is given over to agonized reflections on failed love affairs, in which she reproaches herself mockingly for her sexual incompetence: “Why can’t (don’t) I say: I’m going to be a sexual champion? Ha!” Similarly, the Sontag who clued in the Partisan Review readership to the excitement of “happenings” can be found writing: “I feel inauthentic at a party: Protestant-Jewish demand for unremitting ‘seriousness.’ ”

It was not easy to be so serious. Sontag writes movingly and very candidly about the way her great intelligence made life and relationships difficult for her, starting from early childhood: “Always (?) this feeling of being ‘too much’ for them—a creature from another planet—so I would try to scale myself down to their size, so that I could be apprehendable by (lovable by) them.” Many entries, clearly inspired by sessions with a therapist, show Sontag tunneling down to her early childhood, trying to understand how her father’s early death and her difficult relationship with her mother have conditioned her adult life.

But for Sontag, intelligence and seriousness were far too integral to her sense of self to be wished away. She is always prepared to double down on seriousness: “Seriousness is really a virtue for me, one of the few which (I) accept existentially and will emotionally. I love being gay and forgetful, but this only has meaning against the background imperative of seriousness,” she writes in 1958, in Reborn.

And in the second volume of journals, she circles around, but never quite reaches, a revelation about “seriousness” that explains many of the flaws of her criticism. Though Sontag announced at the age of 5 that she was going to win the Nobel Prize, by the 1960s she was worrying, “My mind isn’t good enough, isn’t really first rate. … I’m not mad enough, not obsessed enough.” (Ironically, Sontag in this vein sounds exactly like Lionel Trilling in his journals—although conscientious old Trilling was Sontag’s foil in Against Interpretation.) But it was not insufficient madness or obsession that limited Sontag’s work as a critic.

Rather, it is precisely her reverent—or, more precisely, her acquisitive—attitude toward seriousness that makes her essays so solemnly, ostentatiously intelligent. “I make an ‘idol’ of virtue, goodness, sanctity. I corrupt what goodness I have by lusting after it,” she writes in 1970. The same could be said of her worship of seriousness: A person who is instinctively sure that she is serious does not spend so much time proving it. Irony and wit, qualities signally absent from Sontag’s work, are only possible when seriousness is the premise of one’s self-conception, rather than the result that must be achieved.

This explains why so much of what has been written about Sontag after her death paints her as a rather ludicrous figure. In Terry Castle’s barbed elegy “Desperately Seeking Susan,” or in Sigrid Nunez’s short book Sempre Susan, Sontag often comes across as hugely self-centered and inadvertently comic—and the best way to be inadvertently comic is to always insist on being, and looking, serious. If Sontag’s inner life, as revealed in the diaries, is a moving drama, to other people she evidently seemed more like Dr. Johnson—a figure of massive egotism and unconscious eccentricity. It’s too bad that she had no Boswell following her around day after day to put her fully on paper; but even if she had, an outsider could have known only part of the truth about her. The more important parts are to be found in her essays, her novels, and—above all—in her diaries.


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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”


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

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