New biography reexamines Sontag

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday November 20, 2019
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Susan Sontag in 1979. Photo: Lynn Gilbert via Wikipedia
Susan Sontag in 1979. Photo: Lynn Gilbert via Wikipedia

She was America's last great literary star, her beautiful, glamorous face adorning popular magazines in the 1960s, photographed by Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon. Later, she was universally recognized by the white streak in her black hair (her hair had gone gray after chemotherapy and she had it dyed), an image that became better known than her writing.

Novelist, essayist, activist, playwright, filmmaker, and one of the most influential critics and public intellectuals of her era, Susan Sontag set the cultural debate in her time, widening its parameter, in a way no intellectual had done previously, standing at the junction of art, culture, politics, feminism, and sexuality when all those areas were radically changing. A whole generation looked to her to make sense of this new modern culture, as she made thinking exciting, even sexy.

Enormously complex in her private existence, 15 years after her death at age 71 from leukemia, biographer Benjamin Moser, a gay man, has attempted to reexamine her mythologized and misunderstood life in a new 800-page biography, "Sontag: Her Life and Work" (Ecco, $39.99). He had unprecedented access to Sontag's archives held at UCLA, which includes more than 100 journals, thousands of letters, family photographs, draft manuscripts, and even her personal computer. The Bay Area Reporter spoke to Moser, 43, when his book tour came to San Francisco in October.

The book outlines a tumultuous life beginning with Sontag's birth to wealthy parents in 1933 in New York and the death of her father at age 5, leaving her raised by her cold, alcoholic mother. Reading at age 3, Sontag was a literary prodigy, graduating high school at 15, attending UC Berkeley, and then the University of Chicago. She made a list of all the people she had sex with between her first time at 14 and her engagement three years later: a total of 36 people, an indicator of a lifelong sexual voracity. At 17, she married one of her older college instructors, sociologist Philip Rieff, and gave birth to their son, David, at 19. They remained unhappily married for eight years. Moser discovered that Sontag wrote most of Rieff's major monograph, "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist" (1959). In order to gain custody of David during their divorce, she had to surrender authorship rights of this book. She took a one-year fellowship at Oxford and returned to her son and New York in 1959.

Sontag's landmark essay, "Notes on Camp," defined as "seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon," which exposed gay culture with its artifice and exaggeration to a wider audience, would make her famous in 1964. She was at the intersection of everything and everyone, zapping the world with her mind, and attending dinners with celebrities such as Jackie Kennedy and Leonard Bernstein. The book notes that she had affairs with men and mostly women, including Robert Kennedy, Warren Beatty, the artist Jasper Johns, playwright Maria Irene Fornes, French actress Nicole St�phane, and dancer/choreographer Lucinda Childs, all of which ended unhappily.

Sontag intersected with some of the key historical events of the mid to late 20th century: the Cuban revolution, a trip to North Vietnam at the height of the war, coming out of a Berlin theater when the wall came down, and Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Occasionally arrested for her activism, as well as generating an FBI file, Sontag saw her writing as paying attention to the world, convinced authors should take stands on issues and be on the front line of protests. Her books became defining works of nonfiction: "Against Interpretation," "On Photography," "Illness as Metaphor," as well as her more criticized novels — often as a way to cut her down to size because she thought she was so great — "The Volcano Lover" (about Lady Emma Hamilton) and "In America" (which won her a National Book Award).

In 1975, at age 42, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and given six months to live, but an aggressive prolonged chemotherapy, and a strong will to live, saved her life. She wrote against the idea that illness was a punishment or something people deserve, obliterating the use of illness as a metaphor, denying illness had psychological or moral etiologies, though she never mentioned her own battles against disease in her work and avoided the use of "I" in her books.

Her famous candle-lit production of "Waiting for Godot" in a besieged Sarajevo in the early 1990s brought international attention to the Bosnian cause. Moser said in the interview that this incident "was the place where the interests that Sontag had pursued throughout her life coincided." She was criticized at the time for it being a stunt of self-aggrandizement, "yet when I went to Sarajevo, people still love her and named the square in front of the National Theater in her honor. She could very easily been killed any day of the week and she went back 11 times. She was the only international person of that fame who stayed and honored the people," he said.

Her final relationship, with photographer Annie Leibovitz, was tempestuous and never publicly acknowledged, even though Leibovitz spent almost $8 million supporting Sontag, who demeaned her at times. While everyone else thought Sontag treated her shabbily, Leibovitz didn't feel that way. "She has been at the top of her profession for 50 years and one of the things she's good at is dealing with divas," Moser said of the photographer. "She couldn't have had her career if she was afraid of Catherine Deneuve or Joan Crawford. She loved Susan and was proud to take care of her and provide for her. She took those photographs of her dying (published after her death) out of real love for her ("you really feel it when you're with her"), not to exploit her. Some people felt they were inappropriate, but that was her prerogative as an artist."

Moser believes being a child of an alcoholic and closeted shaped Sontag's character, as did the chasm between her thoughts and knowing her real feelings or being attentive to her body.

In the New Yorker about the 9/11 attacks, Sontag wrote, "Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?" Her comments were vilified at the time, with the New Republic comparing her to Osama bin Laden.

Author Benjamin Moser holds a copy of his new biography,  

Long project
Moser spent seven years working on the book.

"I had written my previous book on the Brazilian novelist ('Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector,' 2009) and during that process I was fascinated by this world of female intellectuals and thought there was a lot there that was exciting and not being said about that time and people and that was shocking," he said in the interview. "I wanted to inhabit that world and she seemed like a logical step, but it wasn't my step. I was asked by her estate to consider doing this because of my previous biography. It made sense to me and it still does, despite two different countries. I'm the authorized biographer but this is not the authorized biography. They are two different things. I was the first to see the secret archives at UCLA that no one else has seen, given access to certain people. There was a split between Sontag's partner, Annie Leibovitz, and her son, David, after her death. I was approached by David's people. David could read and comment on it, but I had total freedom, which allowed me to be more critical than I would have been originally."

Sontag engendered strong feelings, even among her friends, who could both love and hate her.

"Someone could tell you an inspiring story about her and in the next breath say something horrible about her," Moser said. "How do I bring these two together? I didn't. I just let them be and let the reader make their own conclusions. She was an extreme person and that's why you can't take your eyes off her. She can be kind and caring, then be the complete opposite. I think for a writer, it's fascinating to figure that out. But I don't figure it out. I just leave it there. I hope a more balanced picture can emerge."

There was a kind of battle between the public Sontag, who read every book and attended the opening of any major cultural event, coming across as intimidating, and the private Sontag who was constantly self-critical and felt she was a failure.

"They are diametrically opposite people, except the public Sontag is performance, as she's obsessed with the great divas in the shadow of Hollywood," Moser said. "Her mother was obsessed with Hollywood and that's why they moved to California, partially. She felt small, weak, especially about being gay, and she needed to project strength to protect her image. And she writes about this in 'On Photography,' where the image overpowers and subdues the actual person."

For all her writing on the importance of being authentic, Sontag was never able to reconcile her sexuality. After her first experience of lesbianism at 15 in Berkeley, she felt a need to change herself, to learn to enjoy sex with men, which led to her marriage, which didn't work and left her with a sense of shame, Moser said.

"I was talking ... to a prominent lesbian writer, Terry Castle, and she said when she read 'Notes on Camp,' she knew Susan was gay, as she was gay herself and knew how to recognize the signs," Moser said. "But there was no recognition in the culture itself. People were surprised that Liberace was gay. That's a true story you can't even believe now. People missed it. It changed so fast, that you could be a writer and lesbian and that wasn't considered unusual. Edmund White told me she would have lost two-thirds of her readers if she had come out of the closet then. True of the 1960s but not the 1990s.

"But the attitudes you grow up with stick with you way more than you want them to," he added. "She came from a time of total lesbian invisibility and a time when you could have your child taken away from you and this almost happened to her. You're in constant legal jeopardy. Whatever internalized homophobia she had, it was very scary. Then you grow up, move to San Francisco, and think no one cares. But that isn't true; people do care. She did a lot of things for lesbians that didn't involve actively coming out of the closet. She was so beautiful, smart, interesting and I can't tell you how many lesbians told me how inspiring they found her as they were growing up and had no role models, especially as writers or intellectuals."

Moser said he didn't want to judge people from different historical times.

"I am very respectful of gay history and what made my life uninteresting to people, the fact that I can be gay and no one cares. I'm aware of the genealogy of that, those who got arrested, lost their children, or committed suicide," he said. "I just feel sorry for her. I wish she had been able to be comfortable with her sexuality and been able not to care what anyone thought about her. Still, she could hide. No one looking at her would have thought lesbian, even if all lesbians back then knew it. She never managed to shed these homophobic attitudes entirely. Because it's one thing to know something intellectually, and something else to accept it emotionally."

Moser said that Sontag considered herself a feminist but was uncomfortable with certain aspects of feminism as it emerged in the 1970s.

"A lot of older feminists in her generation don't consider her a feminist, they felt she didn't write about the state of being a woman, the historical situation of women. It's a little bit true but also a little unfair. Because what she wrote represented the possibility of being a woman intellectual, women as artists and public figures," he said. "She didn't like labels and anytime she was described as a woman writer she didn't like that. She was just a writer.

"The feminist critique of her was that she was the exceptional woman in this male chauvinist cultural world, like the black family allowed in the neighborhood so homeowners could say they are integrated, but of course there was only one there," he added. "Her presence both preserved the patriarchy as well as undermined it."

Sontag has been accused of erasing the difference between high and low culture because she wrote on popular subjects.

"The real vile accusation after 'Notes on Camp' comes out, was of putting gay male culture with its irony, playfulness, and secret codes into the level that polite society could now scandalously read about, as intellectuals weren't supposed to engage with such marginal material," Moser said.

It seems today's preoccupation with Instagram, selfies, and the use of photos to understand people's lives, is exactly what Sontag writes about in "On Photography."

"What Instagram is for most people is presenting a more attractive version of your life to other people," Moser said. "With filters, it's somewhat fake but also real as there is someone behind it. She writes about the tyranny of image and a lot of times when you talk about things that don't seem related to photography such as an eating disorder or body dysphoria, they come from being judged by the camera, and the supremacy of the image to the actual person.

"There's not much in her essay 'On Photography' that needs to be updated. It's just gotten worse. It used to be for famous people and now it's about high school students. That's why when people ask me — if they haven't read Sontag — what should they start with, I recommend 'On Photography.' It takes this very abstract-sounding philosophical question — what is the relationship between an object and a metaphor of that object — and makes it fun and funny, freaky, and terrifying," he added.

Sontag's essay on camp is still read 55 years later. You can see its influence even in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its camp theme for this year's Met Gala, quoting Sontag on the gallery heading.

"It is dated in its own way but I was excited as an archivist to find the first draft on that essay, which was titled 'Notes on Homosexuality,'" Moser said. "And gay people know this was about gay culture but most others did not. This was breaking the codes. She would be proud that essay was being read 55 years later. She held a mirror to gay people and even though she's ironizing it and making fun of it, she spent much time observing it and trying to figure it out.

"The essential message of that essay is her real attraction to it, as well as being repelled by it, there is a sexual thrill to it, doing dirty things in private and not talking about it, which is a turn on; the other part is she admires these lives that are constructed outside bourgeois heterosexual expectations. She finds that thrilling. It's not because she's gay or a woman but she's a thinker who came up through the suburbs of California. She's thrilled by the idea she doesn't have to be like her parents. Camp is a kind of freedom, making fun of middle America — the part of the world she came from," he added.

There hasn't been a public intellectual like her, a woman who could be on the cover of Vanity Fair and write essays about French philosophy.

"She stands for being rooted in culture and tradition while still engaging with contemporary art, politics, sexuality. If you want to know what's going on in the world and a non-Twitterized view of all these things, reading Sontag is the best door. ... There is no one like her today. She rightly belongs in the LGBT pantheon even if that's a label she might not have wanted. She would have been pleased that so many lesbians look to her as a symbol who opened up things for her," Moser said.

Moser is concerned that people don't read Sontag today.

"One of the things I hope this book will change is that people will get more interested in her ideas and work," he said. "But the fact is some of her novels are good, others aren't, but the same is true of her essays. But as a biographer you're interested in why they are good or bad, why they succeed or don't. Why is she thinking that?"

As Sontag was dying, Moser said that her last words to her son, were fittingly, "I want to tell you..."

"We will never know what she wanted to say but it expressed a desire to express herself and communicate — her life's work," he said. "The reason her work has stood the test of time is that she, more than any other American writer of her generation, gives you a key to culture."