Susan Sontag 1933-2004: Lit Crit & Love
Her death was mentioned on TV news as that of a best-selling novelist, which must only be testimony to the effectiveness of corporate publishers' marketing machinery. Her fiction writing was never this fan's cup of tea, despite repeated attempts at her novels and short stories. The writing always seemed diffuse, unengaging and unengaged, an exercise; like novelist Julio Cortazar, she was overly impressed by the arid works of le Nouvel Roman, the school of emotionally-stripped down French fiction circa 1960. Sontag was much more fired-up and inspired by her wide reading, viewing, looking and thinking about history and culture and the world than about her invented characters. Her well-composed essays shone a spotlight on authors, their times and their works in novel, perhaps novelistic, ways.
Sontag grew up in Tuscon and Los Angeles before college at 16 at University of Chicago and subsequent graduate study at Harvard and Oxford. She moved back to New York city (her birthplace) at age 26. In "Against Interpretation," the title essay of her first book, she argued that interpretation is a carnivorous form of translation in sheep's clothing. In the act of interpreting a work of art, she argued, it is denuded of its individual, sensuous existence and reduced to a stark poemical statement. This weakened statement is processed through the Cuisinart of an established critical school--Marxist, Freudian, Judeo-Christian, Structuralist, whatever. The resulting message is then something easily digestible, familiar and safe, and the radical potential of the original creative work is gone. That book also contained "Notes on Camp", the essay that made pre-Stonewall literate America realize there existed a special, definable urban and urbane male homosexual aesthetic to be appreciated, an aesthetic now tapped to fuel so many network TV sitcoms and makeover shows.
"I love to read the way people love to watch television," Sontag told an interviewer from Rolling Stone magazine. She often wrote of literary figures from the generation before her own (Anonin Artaud, Elias Canetti), sometimes in eulogies (Roland Barthes, Paul Goodman). European sensibilities encountering Fascism was thus a major theme of her work, and she examined writings of Albert Camus, Simone Weil, and aphorist E.M. Cioran.
She wrote on movie directors Jean-Luc Godard and Kenneth Anger, but some of her cinematic tastes were odd. Her recommendation meant her fans sat through Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's eleven-hour movie cycle "Hitler: a Film from Germany", mostly stilted monologues in front of rear projections. In her essay "Fascinating Fascism", Sontag noted that Third Reich movie director Leni Riefenstahl held on to a cruel, fascist aesthetic of beauty in her 1970s photographs of decorated African men (published in coffee-table books Last of the Nuba and The People of Kao), even if the subjects were black. "Fascinating Fascism" provoked a debate with poet Adrienne Rich over several issues of the New York Review of Books, and the essay was a favorite of McCarthy-blacklisted movie director Joseph Losey, who distributed copies to his film studies students during a visiting professor gig. Sontag herself wrote and directed four full-length movies, including one made in Israel during the October 1973 war.
Some topics she was the first to seriously critique were pornography and the pop group the Supremes. She often wrote on photography -- one of the first generation to take it seriously as an art form worthy of sustained critique. She wrote on the meaning of sickness in the age of AIDS. Figuring nothing was as appropriate for a war zone as absurdism, she produced Samuel Beckett's play "Waiting for Godot" in Sarjevo, Bosnia in 1993. She spent long chunks of time in Bosnia for the next three years in solidarity with its beleaguered populace.
Her visit to Hanoi in May 1968 during the U.S. bombing of the city got her excessively praising North Vietnamese communism, something she later regretted. Her mid-1980s criticism of the repressive Soviet Union, its eastern European satellite states, and China shocked much of the New York left, many of whom were Red-diaper babies with a sentimental attachment to the CPUSA and its Stalinist dogma. She was a dedicated human rights activist and president of the American Center of PEN 1987 to 1989, where she led a number of international campaigns on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers.
In 2001 Sontag angered the rightwing American punditry with a righteously angry essay in the New Yorker about politicians' and media responses to the attacks on 9/11. "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? ...In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards." She expressed fear that another attack could turn the US into a police state...and this was months before the Patriot Act began stripping away our legal protections.
Finally this reader wants to affirm that Susan Sontag was incredibly sexy in her assertive and powerful way, because I fear other eulogists won't. She looked graceful and elegant at sixty-eight in the jacket photo of her final essay collection Where the Stress Falls. Earlier on, she was the perfect campus pin-up--in one book jacket photo in turtleneck sweater, jeans, boots and long hair, she stretched out in some cozy window nook and gazed confidently into the lens like the smartest girl in the college. My classmates had their Farrah Fawcett posters, but Sontag had pride of place on my bulletin board for a longer time.
She married only once, in 1950 at age 17, to Philip Rieff, one of those 1940s New York intellectuals one doesn't read nowdays but only reads about in other mid-century New York intellectuals' memoirs. They had a son, David, but their marriage didn't last the entire year. Her most romantic, unrestrained act may have been her essay "Under the Sign of Saturn", an intellectual love letter to Walter Benjamin. Sontag never met this man who died in Spain when she was seven (as her father did, far away in China, when she was five). In the essay, she identified the lifelong strain of melancholy in Benjamin's study of imagery, history, emblems, in his modernist urban memoirs and his book collecting. As her words touch on Benjamin's grimly thickening visage and probe his thwarted romances, we witness her loving and appreciating him on the level which he would have wanted, perhaps longed for. If the kind of guy who passionately reads Susan Sontag might have traits in common with Benjamin, she kindly shared with the reader the engorged, florid and stimulated intellect. And the reader was satisfied by her performing how the sexiest part of a human being is the brain.
In 1991, artist and Bad Subject Mike Mosher composed the short rock piano instrumental "Susan Sontag in Graduate School". Thanks to Charlie Bertsch for editorial input. Image: Drawing (c) Mike Mosher 2005.