The Sorry Significance of Susan Sontag

In a new biography, the critic emerges as an advanced exemplar of a nexus of glamor and moral self-regard.

Susan Sontag in New York on December 2, 1962. Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.

Susan Sontag in New York on December 2, 1962. Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.

Observation
Nov. 12 2019
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 


A former schoolmate of Susan Sontag (1933-2004) recalls their first meeting. The then nine-year-old Susan Rosenblatt came up to him on a playground and asked whether he was in the school’s academically gifted program; a transfer student, she had been unable to enroll in time. When he answered yes, she said: “Can I talk to you? Because the kids in my class are so dumb I can’t talk to them.”

This anecdote is one of dozens in Benjamin Moser’s new biography Sontag: Her Life and Work. Engagingly written and drawing extensively from interviews with friends and enemies as well as from Sontag’s own diaries, Moser’s account highlights the signal characteristics of its subject’s personality, encapsulated in that playground moment: book-smart, arrogant, callous.

In time, the precocious nine-year-old would grow up to become one of America’s most famous intellectuals. Her writing—landmark 1960s essays like “Against Interpretation” and “Notes on ‘Camp’” as well as novels and political analysis—established her as an influential guide and contributor to the cultural and political shifts of the 1960s and 70s, whose rebellions she encouraged, in some cases helped to instigate, and sought to straddle with a commitment to high modernist rigor and dispassionate analysis. In all this, she did much to shape the thinking and taste of the advanced American left.

 

Susan Rosenblatt’s childhood on Long Island was marked by her father’s early death and her mother’s alcoholism. When she was ten, the family moved to the Southwest, first Arizona and then California where she graduated from North Hollywood High before she turned sixteen. By then her mother had married Nathan Sontag, whose name Susan and her sister Judith took.

At seventeen, Susan enrolled at the University of Chicago and married a young instructor, Philip Rieff, after they had known each other for a week. She gave birth to their son David the following year. The marriage was marked by longstanding rancor, not least over the question, which Moser answers strongly in the affirmative, of whether Sontag was the primary author of Rieff’s 1959 book Freud: The Mind of a Moralist.

Europe, or at least her idea of it, had always been Sontag’s lodestar. While a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-1950s, she became an intimate of Jacob and Susan Taubes, Vienna- and Budapest-born respectively. Jacob, a historian of Judaism and early Christianity, and an influence on Sontag, claimed the antinomian beliefs of the ancient Gnostics as legitimation for his personal libertinism. (Gershom Scholem, who had attempted to mentor Taubes at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote to Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago warning of his former student’s penchant for “philosophical charlatanry” and “pretentious mumbo-jumbo.”) When Rieff—with their son—left for a position at Stanford, Sontag spent a semester at Oxford and then moved on to Paris, abandoning both her graduate studies and her child.

In Paris she rekindled her relationship with the writer Harriet Sohmers, who had been Sontag’s lover back in California and was now living in Paris with her current partner, a playwright named Irene Fornes. Reunited, Sohmers and Sontag fought often, at times violently. Leaving Paris for New York at the end of the 1950s, Sontag commenced a relationship with Fornes, then living in New York’s Greenwich Village. That relationship, too, was a patchwork of explosive fighting and recrimination. Susan Taubes remained a close friend, though Sontag had already slept with her husband Jacob, who upon her arrival in New York helped her get jobs at Commentary and at Columbia University.

 

The decade of the 1960s was the perfect platform for Sontag’s intellectual talents, revealed in a stream of essays on au-courant topics: the movies, European writers like the French surrealist Michel Leiris and the Romanian-born French philosopher Emil Cioran, photography, the relationship between high culture and popular entertainment, and so forth. Publishied in Partisan Review and the recently founded New York Review of Books, Sontag cemented a reputation as a worldly and profound thinker, intimidatingly intelligent, and transgressive of bourgeois convention.

Her novels were less successful. In 1964 she published her first, The Benefactor. A relentlessly mannered tale—its characters have names like Jean-Jacques, Frau Anders, and Professor Bulgaraux (the last a stand-in for Taubes)—it reads like French literary pornography minus the dirty bits. Her second, Death Kit (1967), was widely regarded as a failed attempt to harness the experimentalism of the French nouveau roman. The critic Hugh Kenner, reviewing Susan Taubes’s novel Divorcing in 1969, praised parts of it but warned readers they would need to “fight down the rising gorge that’s coupled to your Sontag-detector.”

Such disappointments did not seem to affect Sontag’s reputation; she had the right patrons, the right views. Turning to political writing, she showed herself simultaneously dazzled by Castro’s Cuba and decidedly downbeat on Western democracies. “The white race,” she pronounced in 1967, thereby presaging our own intersectional moment, “is the cancer of human history.”

By the 1970s she was dabbling in filmmaking. Promised Lands, a documentary on Israel just after the Yom Kippur War, consists mostly of grim battlefield and tourist footage over which are laid random noises from a station-seeking radio dial. Increasingly famous, she was much in demand.

In her personal relationships, the bisexual and deeply closeted Sontag was an equal-opportunity calamity, though her longest and closest attachments were to women. Moser argues that Sontag spent her life reenacting the emotionally toxic dynamics imbibed from her narcissistic mother, who played horridly on her young daughter’s feelings by, for instance, flirting with her to shore up her sense of sexual attractiveness, abandoning her to relatives, and neglecting for months to inform her of her father’s death. “She remained,” Moser writes, “almost to the point of caricature, the adult child of an alcoholic, with all of their weaknesses—as well as their strengths,” the strengths being Sontag’s ambition and drive to prove her worth.

In her personal life, certainly, two trends become salient in Moser’s account. The first is her frequent attraction to artists whom she envied for their creative instinct yet flayed, often in front of others, for their lack of education or intellect—as in being “so dumb I can’t talk to them.” “People couldn’t bear to be at dinner when she was with Annie,” writes Moser about Sontag’s relationship with the photographer Annie Leibovitz, “because [Sontag] was so sadistic, so insulting, so cruel.” The second trend is Sontag’s knack for finding generous lovers, a list that includes Leibovitz but also the publishing magnate Roger Straus, who paid her expenses for years and arranged for large book advances even when the books were never written; the painter Jasper Johns, who gave Sontag the gift of an apartment; and Nicole Stephane, the film producer and Rothschild heir who along with others ministered to Sontag in her first battle with cancer (which fed obliquely into her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor).

As for her Jewishness, Sontag wore it easily, free of the ambivalence of an earlier generation of American Jewish intellectuals toward the immigrant culture of their forebears, but also lacking in curiosity. Unlike many, she visited Israel on several occasions, yet this, too, was not a part of her identity that deepened over time or became much more informed.

What she appreciated was the affinity with progressive politics and oppositional culture that marked many Western Jewish intellectuals, finding this much-mined vein useful at times but not romanticizing it quite so openly as did others of her peers. As time went on, however, she became prone to sloppy Holocaust analogies, invoking them, for instance, in her defense of the novelist Salman Rushdie against his Islamist tormentors in the 1980s and dragging them into her uncritical acceptance of bogus Palestinian claims of a 2002 Israeli “massacre” in the West Bank city of Jenin during the second intifada.

Sontag finally succumbed to cancer in 2004. Her last major cultural intervention was her work in the 1990s to raise awareness about the Bosnian war, a chore that she decided could be best accomplished by staging a production of Waiting for Godot in besieged Sarajevo in 1993. Whether this risky endeavor helped anyone may be questioned, but it certainly reinforced Sontag’s conviction of her own virtue. As another writer commented: “Her behavior about it was insufferable. Because if you had not gone to Sarajevo yourself, you were obviously just a morally inferior being. And she let that be known very clearly, with almost sneering condescension.”

 

With its personal details and gossip about New York literary parties, Moser’s biography both entertains and scandalizes. It could also leave one grateful not to have crossed paths with its subject. Where it falls short is in its ultimate assessment of her significance.

Reread, many of Sontag’s landmark works are surprisingly oxygen-less, testaments to her own difficulties in seeing what was in front of her face. The persuasiveness of “Against Interpretation,” for example, Sontag’s manifesto for a more immediate and sensual relationship with art, free of overly intellectualized mediation, is thoroughly undercut by the dry verbiage of the essay itself. “Notes on Camp” similarly invites readers to engage with a realm of artistic and pop-cultural sensibility associated by the author with everything from opera to stag movies, but it throws up so many roadblocks of labored, self-indulgently tentative writing that it becomes another example of what “Against Interpretation” warns of. Other essays hold up better as well-crafted literary journalism, though it seems doubtful they provided the tinder necessary to kindle serious American interest in topics like popular culture or French cinema. (She can, I think, be credited, or blamed, depending on your point of view, for the boom in the reputation of Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher and litterateur whom she championed though not uncritically.)

When Sontag turned to serious moral and aesthetic questions, as in her 2003 Regarding the Pain of Others, she often traded in patter and cliché. And her prose fiction, as noted, is tough going.

Yet she was, as Moser says, a literary star. She dined with the glamorous, bedded the famous, blurbed the ambitious. And no matter how far short she fell in wisdom and insightfulness, or how disappointing her books, she was rewarded richly, with (for instance) the quarter-million-dollar MacArthur “Genius” prize, the National Book Award, lucrative publishing contracts, and international honors. Her essays are collected and reissued today by the Library of America.

 

What are we to make of this?

Moser tells us that Sontag was “America’s last great literary star,” thus framing his book as a kind of swansong for what he sees as a more complex, humane, and intellectually open American culture that she both represented and helped to foster. At the conclusion, he writes:

After her death, it no longer mattered, exactly, that she had written bad books as well as great ones, or said dumb things as well as brilliant ones, or been wrong as well as right. The same could be said of any writer. What mattered about Susan Sontag was what she symbolized.

Moser’s “exactly” is doing some dirty work. Sontag’s bad books, dumb utterances, and ghastly political misapprehensions (not least her conviction that America is an irredeemably monstrous stew of racism and violence that deserves to disappear) actually do matter, because she did not simply represent literary stardom, or “symbolize” intellectualism per se. There are intellectual stars today who are likely read by far more people than Sontag was, some of them deservedly so.

Rather, Sontag symbolizes the slowly fading dominance of an extensive system of left-liberal cultural patronage, one that ensured her success despite her many failures. This is the story Moser tells, without perhaps intending it.

For one much-discussed moment in 1982, Sontag was willing to challenge that system, tentatively and only up to a point, when she belatedly criticized the left’s record of failing to stand up to (or of embracing and apologizing for) totalitarian Communism. At a meeting of left-wing intellectuals in support of Poland’s Solidarity movement, she said:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause.

But Moser does not consider the implications of this criticism for Sontag’s own loyalties, let alone the way in which she aired it—knocking the Nation, which she did not write for, and safely reducing conservatism to the Reader’s Digest. Instead, he ventures to rescue Sontag from the failures and moral turpitudes of the left by reinventing her as a noble voice of humane liberalism, a much-needed third way between “Reaganite consumerism and the jargon of Theory”: twin forces that, in Moser’s telling, “were, in different ways, undermining high culture” in the 1980s.

This is not intellectual history but a shell game in which the moral and literary judgment of the liberal establishment to which Moser himself belongs—and which determines the definitions of moral struggle and literary worth—are never seriously questioned but submerged, as here, in ludicrously false antinomies (the purportedly unquestionable evil of capitalism on the one hand, a weak highbrow susceptibility to “Theory” on the other hand). Moser’s book chronicles an all-too-familiar pattern by which the American left’s culture heroes are first to be admired for their transgressiveness and then, as they age, upheld as “our” moral exemplars.

To put it another way, Moser has amassed a mountain of details from which he fastidiously shields his eyes. For what those details describe is the sheer vanity of the left and its celebrities, the nexus of wealth, glamor, and moral self-regard that has hollowed out the very institutions it controls from New York to Hollywood, with pit stops at America’s premier universities. With her readerly acumen, Susan Sontag was hardly the least deserving of the rewards this nexus showers on its loyalists. But that is not saying much.

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