On Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag was the first living intellectual who mattered to me. I discovered Against Interpretation early on in college, and its title essay at once confirmed and cast doubt upon what I sensed was my vocation.

A Eulogy

Back in high school, in the unlikely-seeming days before I’d read any Susan Sontag, people used to hang out to one end of a former golf course, no longer maintained, at a spot known to everyone as “the Teardrop.” The place had acquired its name because someone who lived adjacent to the former golf course pushed a power mower, week after week and year after year, through the unruly tall grass of the abandoned green before turning around, always at the same place, and returning then to his house, pushing the mower along the path he or she had cut on his or her approach. The turn the anonymous mower unfailingly made at the exact same place invariably severed an island of wild grass from a field of the same, and this island or shapely clump of grass, tapering to one end and circular at the other, had the perfect form of a stylized teardrop. Although this part of the landscape depended for its existence upon constant and rather quixotic upkeep by an unknown person, the Teardrop seemed to possess the permanence of a geological feature.

I hadn’t thought of the Teardrop in a long time until I learned of the death of Susan Sontag. The image of that shape of grass returned to me, I suppose, because I associated it in a flash with the shock of white in Sontag’s head of rich black hair. Not only Sontag herself, but that iconic streak of white seemed a permanent feature of our culture, and I was surprised that Susan Sontag had done the inevitable thing and died.

How sad, I thought, I should write something, I should eulogize her, I should mourn her ambivalently and honestly: remember that great essay in Styles of Radical Will that she wrote on Paul Goodman, hearing that he’d died? So I immediately thought, with that combination of sympathy and egoism characteristic of intellectuals, and certainly characteristic of Sontag herself. My next thought was that I was in a poor position to write about Sontag, because I am home for Christmas at my parents’ house in northwest Colorado, I have few of my books with me and no good library nearby.

But then to be temporarily without Sontag’s books was, in a way, more illuminating than to have them at hand; it was to be reminded of what would be missing from my life if I’d always been without them. Susan Sontag was the first living intellectual who mattered to me. I discovered Against Interpretation early on in college, and its title essay at once confirmed and cast doubt upon what I sensed was my vocation. Here was a complaint against the relentless extraction of symbols and ideas from art, a call for a new “erotics of art” (I think was the phrase) in place of the old “hermeneutics.” I was 19, I feared my intellectual bent would forever deprive me of the sensual enjoyment of things, here was an essay thrillingly addressed to my very fear, one that undermined the value of the activity—interpretation—I was best at, at the same time that it provided, in the swift notations of Sontag’s headstrong prose, never mind her fetching dust-jacket photo, an idea of the glamour of the intellectual and his or her helpless urge to interpret.

In short order I read the entire volume, and over my next vacation picked up On Photography. The advent of the photograph, Sontag wrote, had not provided a dose of reality so much as it had installed us in a new prison of mere images, a modern Plato’s cave. Indeed photography was not the documentary art par excellence; as a capturer of chance occurrences and an index of the artist’s unconscious fascinations, it was properly a surrealist form. These arguments bore the mark of genius in that they reordered your perceptions, and as for her style, entire essays had the authority and apparent off-handedness of the ideal epigram.

Judging her later work by this standard, I was disappointed. Illness as Metaphor, which insisted that illness was illness and not a metaphor, rehashed, I thought, the impossible literalism of “Against Interpretation,” and was moralistic to boot. When it came to Sontag’s novels, The Volcano Lover as well as that part of In America which I heard her read at the Y in New York, seemed to me, like so much historical fiction, full of undigested erudition and more or less indifferent prose.

I did not say so, of course, on the one occasion when I met Susan Sontag. This was in 1999, at the Russian Samovar in mid-town, where she had just read again from In America, and where I, there in my sole capacity as the reading organizer’s boyfriend, sat down for dinner with her and half a dozen other people, all of them much better known to the world and to her than I was. At some point Sontag sketched out her plan for her next historical novel, the one, as it turned out, she would never get to write, saying that the book had to do with 1920s Japan and the new woman of the time. I asked whether she had read Tanazaki’s Naomi, and was very pleased with myself when she replied that this was precisely the novel she had in mind when contemplating her own.

There was something in this of Sontag’s glory, and her problem. She had made the world into her library (of films and photographs as well as books). At times she seemed reflexively Europhile, but her taste was about as good as her reading was wide. Usually when I discovered a great writer (James Salter or Grace Paley, Fernando Pessoa or E. M. Cioran), Sontag had gotten there first, and distilled the peculiar genius of the writer into an essay or even a blurb. At other times she led to me to writers, Robert Walser for instance, I wouldn’t happily do without. And her endless reading no doubt stood behind that tone of immense casual authority in the essays. When Irving Howe sneeringly called her a capable publicist, perhaps he was jealous of her style. He had reason to be, as did all post-war critics.

Still, Howe wasn’t altogether wrong. Susan Sontag, who grew up in Tucson, Arizona, was something like Ezra Pound from Ketchum, Idaho, in that she overcame her provincialness by reading simply everything, and was finally still more impressive for championing other talents than for developing her own. Her novels, like Pound’s poems, were derived too much from other books; or so I told myself when I, like her a provincial and a Westerner, realized my reading would never measure up and placed my hopes in writing. Besides, I added to myself, she has no sense of humor. In fact one day I found her in the LA Times recommending three novels “from the charnel-house of Central Europe” and solemnly intoning that, “The dead cry out. Sufferings demand to be remembered. The world deserves to be seen as a complex place… We are commanded to weep.” I copied the passage down as a sample of Sontag at her worst: pompous, sententious, vague, even bullying. Commanded to weep?

Her contrarian mode was better than her lachrymose one, and in recent years it was this that I admired. Sontag had a gift for saying what people would rather not hear. She once famously told a convocation of leftists that reading Reader’s Digest over the years would have given one a better idea of the moral character of the Soviet Union than a subscription to the Nation. Awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 2000, she took the opportunity to denounce the Israeli policy of collective punishment. And of course her notorious words after 9/11 are quoted in the wire-service obits: “Where is the acknowledgement 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 alliances and actions?” The analytic uselessness of the category of evil is by now more widely recognized, as is the contempt for understanding displayed by those who speak of “hating freedom”—but Sontag was the first and bravest to point the way back to reason. In the summer before her death she wrote our definitive essay on the torture porn from Abu Ghraib.

I resisted, as I said, Susan Sontag in her haughty tearful mode. But surely that was another reason why I thought of her and the Teardrop together; and behind my association of the eternal-seeming shape of mortal grass with Sontag’s famous head of hair there may also have been a reminiscence of Whitman’s image of grass as “the uncut hair of graves.” The world and its books give us many reasons to cry, and now we have another. The capacity for tears tends to diminish with age; that it did not in Sontag’s case measures the degree to which she retained that absurd sensitivity so necessary to the critic, and so much missed in the citizen. Sontag was deservedly important to two generations of readers. The one book of hers I find in my parents’ house is a hardback copy of her novel Death Kit, inscribed with my father’s name and the date November, 1967. Flipping through this book I’ve never read, and of which my father remembers little but that it was bleak, I find on page 5 a description of Sontag’s protagonist Diddy, which seems, mutatis mutandis, to describe Susan Sontag herself: “The burden of sensing too much that arouses his sympathy is breaking Diddy’s heart.” Great! my father has written in the margin, and she was.

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