Misunderstanding Susan Sontag

Her beauty and celebrity eclipse the real source of her allure—her commitment to aesthetic self-discipline.

Illustration of Susan Sontag
Anthony Gerace

“To experience a thing as beautiful means: to experience it necessarily wrongly,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Will to Power. It is a line that Susan Sontag quotes toward the end of her 1977 essay collection, On Photography, about how photographs aestheticize misery. It is a line that Sontag’s authorized biographer, Benjamin Moser, quotes to describe Sontag’s susceptibility to beautiful, but punishing, lovers. And it is a line that I am quoting to summarize how Moser’s monumental and stylish biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work, fails its subject—a woman whose beauty, and the sex appeal and celebrity that went along with it, Moser insists upon to the point of occluding what makes her so deeply interesting.

Susan Sontag
Sontag: Her Life and Work (ECCO)

The fascination of Sontag lies in her endurance as a cultural icon, the model of how a woman should think and write in public, even though her thinking and writing weren’t very rigorous. What is intriguing about Sontag is less who she was than how we understand our desire for her, or someone like her, to occupy a rare position in American literary culture: that of a dark-haired, dark-eyed, apparently invulnerable woman capable of transforming intellectual seriousness into an erotic spectacle. What need does such a presence and performance satisfy?

Sontag herself was wary of the impulse to anoint. In her 1975 essay “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?” she argues that conceiving of a woman’s beauty as antithetical to her other virtues makes beauty morally suspect: “We not only split off—with the greatest facility—the ‘inside’ (character, intellect) from the ‘outside’ (looks); but we are actually surprised when someone who is beautiful is also intelligent, talented, good.” The power of beauty is self-negating, Sontag warns. It is a “power … always conceived in relation to men; it is not the power to do but the power to attract.” We need “some critical distance” from beauty if we are to avoid the “crude trap” of treating a woman’s self-presentation as separable from, and opposed to, her interior self.

One imagines that Sontag would have been dismayed to see her biographer adopting exactly these dichotomies to frame her life and work. “Susan Sontag was America’s last great literary star,” Moser proclaims in his introduction. “She was incongruous: a beautiful young woman who was intimidatingly learned.” In public she was “The Dark Lady of American Letters.” (The title was, in fact, originally given by Norman Podhoretz to Mary McCarthy, who upon meeting Sontag was said to have remarked, “Oh, you’re the imitation me.”) In private she was “Miss Librarian,” Sontag’s name for her studious self. “The camera-ready version of Susan Sontag would always remain at odds with Miss Librarian,” Moser continues. “Never, perhaps, had a great beauty worked less hard at being beautiful. She often expressed her astonishment at encountering the glamorous woman in the photographs.”

Sontag: Her Life and Work assumes this same attitude of astonishment as Moser sets out to measure the distance between “the individual” who was Sontag—brilliant, studious, insensitive, dishonest, ashamed of her sexuality, a glutton for emotional pain—and “the representation of the individual” that became Sontag, the “Sibyl of Manhattan.” For Sontag, Moser argues, the gap between “a thing and its symbol,” between metaphor and reality, was “a matter of life and death.”

Her life began ordinarily enough, on the West Side of Manhattan in the winter of 1933. She was born Susan Lee Rosenblatt, daughter of Mildred, a vain and cruel alcoholic, and Jack, a tubercular fur salesman who died when Sue was 5. She was a precocious and lonely child. Her friends were her books: Madame Curie, Les Misérables, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Martin Eden. Her mother, who was intimidated by Sue’s intelligence, dragged her and her sister, Judith, from New York to Miami Beach to Tucson—where Mildred met and married an Army pilot named Nat Sontag—and finally to Los Angeles in 1946. “Sue, if you read so much you’ll never find a husband,” her stepfather warned her. But Sue didn’t listen.

At 16, Sontag left home for UC Berkeley. There she discovered Djuna Barnes’s tale of lesbian desire and despair, Nightwood, and, while browsing at a bookstore, met the woman who would be her on-again, off-again lover for the next decade, Harriet Sohmers. (“Have you read Nightwood?” was Sohmers’s excellent pickup line.) Sontag was unnerved by her attraction to women, determined to “force” herself “to have sex with men,” she wrote in her diary. When she transferred to the University of Chicago at the end of the academic year, “her kind of beauty found fervent admirers,” Moser writes. She began working as a research assistant for a young economics professor named Philip Rieff, whom she married after one week of diligent note-taking. (“Don’t laugh! he’s not handsome,” she told her mother.) While pregnant with their son, David, she began co-writing Rieff’s first book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. Rieff (who did not credit her) got a job at Brandeis University, and in the fall of 1952, they moved east. Two years later, she began graduate school in English at Harvard.

Sontag grew to hate marriage and Harvard, so she left them both, as well as her son, to study philosophy at the University of Oxford, which she also hated. (“There is a type—the male virgin—lots of them in England,” she complained. Also, the weather was bad.) When she left “boring Oxford” in 1957, first for France, then for New York, she embarked on the most productive period of her life. New Left publications like The New York Review of Books and The Partisan Review championed her. In 1963, she published her first novel, The Benefactor, and one year later “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” a list of playful, exhilarating observations about camp as a sensibility, and its “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” The essay landed her in Time magazine, where she was identified as “one of Manhattan’s brightest young intellectuals,” transforming her from a mere essayist into “a midcult commodity,” according to Nora Ephron. “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” was followed, in rapid succession, by Against Interpretation (1966), Death Kit (1967), and Styles of Radical Will (1969), all published before her 37th birthday.

But the more Sontag wrote, the more she fretted about writing. Periods of intense productivity were interspersed with periods of “lacerating insecurities,” Moser writes. After expressing disdain for the “exclusiveness, the possessiveness of marriage,” she spent the 1960s and ’70s in a series of devastating entanglements with women: a downtown party girl, a European duchess, a modern dancer, a filmmaker. “There is something Olympian about her sex life,” Moser opines. “How many American women of her generation had lovers, male and female, as numerous, beautiful, and prominent?” Her affairs left her in childlike states of bewilderment, shattered and sleepless. Overly possessive of her son, she “groomed him as a companion,” clutching David closer than a mother should. As she entered her 40s, her friends “remarked that she was even more than usually insensitive to others, more prone to fabrication.”

Yet Sontag’s lack of awareness and her insecurity were almost never on public display—not when, at 42, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, not when chemotherapy turned her hair white. She dyed all but a front shock black and finished two books during her treatments: On Photography and Illness as Metaphor (1978), the latter of which railed against psychological accounts of cancer as a disease of “repression” without ever mentioning her cancer. Her illness prompted her to reevaluate her youthful leftism. She broke with the New Left in 1982, at a Town Hall event where she denounced communism, flanked by one of the great loves of her life, the morose Soviet dissident Joseph Brodsky. “She became a liberal,” Moser writes, and as she entered her 50s, the pace of her writing slowed. Intermittently estranged from her son, who was installed as her editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, she did not produce another book, aside from a collection of essays, until AIDS and Its Metaphors, in 1989. She finished it as she tended to a friend dying of AIDS.

The year the book came out, she met her last love, the photographer Annie Leibovitz. They spent the final decade and a half of Sontag’s life living like divas in their extravagant New York apartments, Sontag loving and abusing Leibovitz—“You’re so dumb,” she would yell—while also traveling the world. During the Bosnian war, Sontag and Leibovitz went to Sarajevo, where the couple became what Sontag, in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), called “star witnesses” to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Eager to capture the despair of waiting for international intervention, she arrived with a script of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The production, with a set made from United Nations plastic sheeting, “became a cultural event in the highest sense of the term,” Moser writes in all earnestness. Sontag returned to Sarajevo often before her death from cancer, in 2004. Her last words, to her son, “I want to tell you …,” revealed that she still had things to say.

Moser packs in an extraordinary amount of detail. Yet the book feels strangely vacuous, or at least no more psychologically revealing than either Sontag’s diaries or the earlier unauthorized biography by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. Aptly enough, the problem is one of interpretation. Moser’s analysis of Sontag’s life as an unwinnable battle between her public self and her private self traffics in the crudest of oppositions: appearance versus character, mind versus body, intellectualism versus eroticism, persona versus private self. Erecting these dichotomies is the biography’s narrative mode, its method of building intrigue and suspense. Can you believe, Moser wonders, that a beautiful and intelligent woman could be insecure about her professional success? Can you believe that inhuman productivity, fueled by chronic insomnia, a violent disdain for napping, and an addiction to speed, might be an attempt to compensate for social isolation? Can you believe that having sex and falling in love with many people, of many persuasions, might trouble the divide between mind and body? “Susan—human—drove people away,” Moser concludes. “But the symbolic Sontag was tremendously attractive.”

Moser’s interpretations often fall back on armchair psychology, pathologizing Sontag’s relationships by making everything symptomatic of something else. Too many roads lead back to her mother, who emerges as Sontag and Moser’s shared villain. “Many of the apparently rebarbative aspects of Sontag’s personality are clarified in light of the alcoholic family system,” Moser writes, describing how Mildred’s addiction impressed itself on Sontag. She “would turn lovers into parents,” he suggests, as if this reading were original. (Sontag admits as much in her diaries.) He diagnoses her as having a Cluster B personality disorder, whose symptoms include “fears of abandonment and feelings of inconsolable loneliness, which trigger frantic neediness.” The more clinically Moser tries to pin down Sontag’s inner life, the more it wriggles away from him.

“She warned against the mystifications of photographs and portraits: including those of biographers,” Moser writes in the closing sentence of Sontag: Her Life and Work. It’s hard to know how to read the line. Is Moser asking for our understanding, given the inherent limitations of biography as a genre? All biographies are, to an extent, mystifications. But some methods of reading and writing can resurrect the dead not as a series of tedious oppositions, but as flesh-and-blood individuals animated by their commitments to their ideas. What this would require is more sensitive probing of human contradictions than Moser has yet mastered.

The best answer to the question I opened with—why do we want and need a Susan Sontag?—comes from the literary critic Deborah Nelson’s fantastic 2017 book, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. In Nelson’s view, Sontag’s thoughts on art and modernity are neither original nor systematic. What is enchanting about her writing is her style: an associative and aphoristic approach to talking about, or around, intense emotions without indulging in them. “An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that,” Sontag wrote in her diary—a glimpse of how her style served as an exercise in emotional self-regulation, in modeling aesthetic decorum. Her essays aspired to teach her readers how to “feel more sensually” as “the antidote to feeling too much or too little emotion,” Nelson writes, offering a more nuanced reading than Moser does of Sontag’s desire “to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”

“She was Athena, not Aphrodite,” Moser suggests, a comparison that is instructive for understanding Sontag’s place in a long lineage of female archetypes that make our attraction to a figure like her legible. In Greek mythology, Athena was the favorite daughter of Zeus, the child born from his forehead. She caused her tyrannical father such pain that he had his head cleaved open. Out she sprang, armor-plated and golden, imperishable, eager to counsel mortal men against foolishness and vulgarity, to teach them the virtues of self-control and courage. Sontag, too, distrusted immoderation, preferring instead “coolness,” “distance,” “disinterestedness and impartiality” when such responses were most necessary—when the subject matter was hardest to bear. The art she championed, and the art she made, valued the eternal postponement of emotional involvement, the containment of soft Aphrodite’s passions in a brisk, impersonal prose.

Where Moser perceives a striking, irreconcilable gap between Sontag’s private and public selves, Nelson finds a dialectical unity. Sontag’s embrace of a cool aesthetic intelligence is all the fiercer for her personal experiences of desire and distress; her style is a critical rejection of the “Romantic drama of individuality, emotional intensity, and powerlessness” that she was living. Nelson refers to this as “disciplined self-transcendence,” and it is, I suspect, the source of both Sontag’s productivity and her appeal—an appeal that far outstrips her physical appearance. There is something mesmerizing about the lifelong performance of discipline, something beautiful about the artifice required to exercise control over one’s turbulent or painful inner life. What we are attracted to in Sontag is the idea of a woman whose writing can induct readers into a style of feeling, of attachment, of vulnerability, while also appearing to refuse those feelings, those attachments, that vulnerability, for herself—a woman who wears her armor exactly where it was meant to be worn, on her sleeve.

By Benjamin Moser

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