“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.
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.