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Susan Sontag (Getty)

On the allure of Susan Sontag, by a former fan-boy

Review | 15 minute read
Boyd Tonkin remembers a smouldering intellectual and wonders what she would have made of the world today, from Trump and Twitter to our celebrity - and selfie - culture

D. H. Lawrence, about whom Susan Sontag harboured richly mixed feelings, told us: ‘Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.’ He might have added: never meet the artist, either. Sontag’s own life-changing exposure to the gap between the maker and the work came one day in the late 1940s. As a precocious teenager in Southern California who gulped down heavyweight books and avant-garde music to ‘ward off the drivel’ of suburban America, she went to have tea with her literary hero Thomas Mann at his ocean-side home in Pacific Palisades on the edge of Los Angeles. Her friend Merrill, even more of an apprentice polymath, had pushed her into it, she claims: ‘Why would I want to meet him? I had his books.’ But Sontag revered the exiled author, almost as much the embodiment of true German culture during the Third Reich as Goethe had been in his time. When she first read his novel The Magic Mountain, ‘All of Europe fell into my head – though on condition that I start mourning for it.’

Mann proved a courteous host. Sontag and Merrill even got cakes. And yet… Mann himself talked in bland banalities. Rather than scintillating wisdom, he uttered dull platitudes about his fiction and its significance. Worse, he assumed that the young Sontag, by then attuned to the sonic provocations of composer John Cage, must, as an all-American teenager, enjoy Ernest Hemingway. Inwardly, the fledging vanguardist cringed. His visitor, intellectually exacting even then, damningly concluded that Mann spoke not like a proper book but ‘like a book review’. The idol had, if not crumbled, at least tottered. The pair had chatted with Mann, not Superman. Always keen to stay ahead of the game, Sontag would soon move on to other, more daring, enthusiasms in arts and literature, while professing to find Mann ‘hollow and bombastic’. From that afternoon in Pacific Palisades, she retained a ‘memory of embarrassment’.

Sontag’s youthful journals record it in 1949, although other accounts give the year as 1948. In 1987, the New Yorker published a piece entitled ‘Pilgrimage’, listing it on the contents page as ‘fiction’. ‘Pilgrimage’ now duly appears as the opening item in the new edition of Sontag’s Collected Stories. Yet not only critics but the author herself routinely described it as a ‘memoir’, even if a creatively reconditioned one. So that disenchanting encounter with the literary lion sounds not one but two recurrent Sontag themes. Artists are not their biographies: the tale escapes the teller, and even the most intimate of works belongs to the culture that framed it as much as to its creator. At the same time, the shapes of art – or of her art, anyway – never stay put. The same material may fracture, sub-divide or coalesce into an essay, a memoir, or a story.

However you classify it (and here we need to jettison some Sontag stereotypes), ‘Pilgrimage’ is also mordantly funny. The narrator and Merrill decide that they must not burden the banished titan with too much data about the shaming vulgarity of their Californian lives – the used condoms littering the high-school campus, the wild kid with a gun who holds up gas stations, the courses on typing and Drivers’ Education (‘compulsory’). ‘He had enough to be sad about – Hitler, the destruction of Germany, exile. It was better that he not know how really far he was from Europe.’

Read recent accounts by acolytes, rivals and critics of their brushes with Sontag, and the intellectual prima donna who commanded the stage of American literature and criticism for four decades often sounds like a big-haired Manhattan version of the disappointing demigod she met in 1948 – or was it 1949? She can, in their eyes, never live up to the lofty standards demanded of an idol by her fans. Time and again, she fails to make the grades we expect today as a modernist, a post-modernist, a critic, a novelist, a radical, a feminist, an anti-racist, a lesbian, a bisexual. Whatever the chosen yardstick, the Sontag who appears in the memoirs, critiques, debunkings and even tributes that have appeared since her death in 2004 tends to fall woefully short.

The critic and scholar, Terry Castle, in a hilarious essay for the London Review of Books, at least managed to ironise her own years of discipleship as a besotted fan-girl under the Sontag spell. Castle would trail her beloved guru down the main drag in Palo Alto, with Sontag in her ‘trademark intellectual-diva outfit: voluminous black top and black silky slacks, accessorised with a number of exotic, billowy scarves. These she constantly adjusted or flung back imperiously over one shoulder, stopping now and then to puff on a cigarette or expel a series of phlegmy coughs. (The famous Sontag “look” always put me in mind of the stage direction in [David Lean’s film,] Blithe Spirit: “Enter Madame Arcati, wearing barbaric jewellery.”)’ Later, at a mortifying dinner party in the Manhattan loft apartment of artist Marina Abramović, Castle feels like a speck of dirt on the bare floor while Sontag and her crowd of A-list pals (Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, the usual crew) hold forth. ‘I sat at one end of the table like a piece of anti-matter. I didn’t exchange a word the whole night with Lou Reed, who sat kitty-corner across from me. He remained silent and surly.’

Yet no one else, admits Castle, could have done Sontag’s job. ‘Sontag… was there: on one’s own college campus, lecturing on Barthes or Canetti or Benjamin or Tsvetaeva or Leni Riefenstahl. (And who were they? One pretended to know, then scuttled around to find out.) She was our very own Great Man. If there was ever going to be a Smart Woman Team then Sontag would have to be both Captain and Most Valuable Player.’ Let the scoffers scoff, but that irresistible stream of words and thoughts – hip, erudite, fearless, gnomic – flows on like the unchanging streak of silver through her jet black shock of hair. ‘All those years ago one evolved a hallucination about what mental life could be and she was it. She’s still in there, enfolded somehow in the deepest layers of the grey matter.’

Sontag, with Norman Mailer, New York, 1968

I don’t share a gender or a nationality with Terry Castle, but I do recognise her rapture from my own fan-boy years. Castle wonders how, erotically speaking, that smouldering highbrow charisma struck men, rather than women who prefer women. Speaking personally, and from an ocean’s distance, I can only answer: like a truck. Beauty had not just tamed the Beast of modern culture but was affectionately explaining his finer features with a jaw-dropping poise and finesse. My initiation came via a Penguin compilation, the Susan Sontag Reader. It gathered the landmark essays of the Sixties and Seventies – ‘Notes on “Camp”’, ‘Against Interpretation’, ‘Fascinating Fascism’, the trail-blazing appreciations of kindred thinkers such as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, the cool-eyed scrutiny of taboo topics such as pornography – into a little grenade of learning and panache. You could chuck it equally against crusty, has-been reviewers in the press or jargon-ridden technocrats in the academy.

For all the outlandish tastes in avant-garde or underground fiction, film, drama and critical theory that she helped transmit to students and their professors on both sides of the Atlantic, Sontag remained a strictly metropolitan critic. She might breeze in and out of campus life like a peripatetic empress, but her home as a cultural critic lay in the pages of the august literary-political journal: first Partisan Review, later the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. In such congenial fora, she could wield literature – preferably European, esoteric and inimical to middlebrow sensibilities – as a burning spotlight to expose the key patterns that compose the minds and the societies of our age.

Crucially, this champion of ‘an erotics of art’ sought revelation on the surface, not in the cloudy depths plumbed by the schools of thought – Freudian, Marxist, Structuralist and so on – that she serially raided but never tried to join. An intellectual dandy whose kinship network stretched from Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol, Sontag – a real New Yorker – hunted for meaning on the stage, under the lights, not in the wings. ‘Notes on “Camp”’, that self-important yet self-deprecatory homage to Wilde, distils the (often gay) sub-cultures of mid-Sixties Manhattan – the Pop art, the experimental movies, the cabaret, the design, the bands, the off-Broadway theatre – into a series of bullet points that Sontag shoots off with all the militant zeal of some unholy warrior: ‘Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman”. To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.’ All agreed? Argue at your peril.

That apodictic swagger masked the doubts, contradictions and confusions of an intellectual prodigy who married very young, divorced quickly, studied in Europe, had tumultuous affairs with women and men, and raised her son (who became the writer David Rieff) in a head-spinning climate of perpetual creative unrest. For all her upfront dedication to the frothy and frivolous qualities of Camp, the almost scriptural authority that Sontag seeks in her essays betrayed a nostalgia for lost certainties. ‘Notes on “Camp”’ claims that ‘The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.’ True enough in Sixties New York, if not across the planet. In Sontag’s criticism, those twin currents mysteriously met.

So even the most ludic, artificial genres – ballet, opera, musicals – should aspire to send a mystic, perhaps sacred, shiver down our spines. ‘Real art has the capacity to make us nervous,’ insists ‘Against Interpretation’. Nervous is good. Those pesky interpreters wrap up the novel, the movie, the painting into a package of prosaic generalities, and ‘the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience’. So have fun, stay cool, but keep on your spiritual toes, primed for some transcendent moment of epiphany. The same piece proposes that ‘The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.’ ‘It is what it is’: as she so often did, even with that now-exasperating catchphrase, Sontag got there first.

As she did with her thunderous warning against the resurgence of Nazi and pseudo-Nazi chic in ‘Fascinating Fascism’ (1975). With the rehabilitation of Hitler’s film propagandist Leni Riefenstahl as its prime target, that essay scrutinises the fetishistic adoration of Third Reich ‘style’ in uniforms, in architecture or in torch-lit ceremonies. The shiny apparel of barbarism had become a transgressive turn-on. ‘Now there is a master scenario available to everyone,’ she writes of appropriation of SS gear and ritual by the erotic underground. ‘The colour is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.’

I was spellbound, though in the cause (I hope) of enlightenment rather than mystification. From that Sontag Reader, its cover so improbably adorned by a sultry portrait photograph of a literary critic, I returned to the essay collections that had fed it: Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), Under the Sign of Saturn (1980). On Photography (1977) had seen her set her critical stamp on the medium that she both loved as an indigenous language of its age, and feared as a generator not of solidarity but apathy: ‘The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings, just as the surprise and bemusement one feels the first time one sees a pornographic movie wear off after seeing a few more.’

First in Illness as Metaphor (1978) and then AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), she proved that the critic’s toolbox could do essential, even life-saving work in liberating patients, loved ones and the wider culture from a thralldom to toxic, guilt-inducing ideas that aggravate the experience of ill health. As she wrote about AIDS, at a time when hatred, disgust and rejection still awaited many of those affected, ‘The age-old, seemingly inexorable, process whereby diseases acquire meanings (by coming to stand for people’s deepest fears) and inflict stigma is always worth challenging’. It still is.

Later, her repeated trips to the besieged city of Sarajevo in the early 1990s, to succour its people by staging Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, combined heroism and absurdity in more or less equal measure. She ran serious, physical risks – as she had during a journey to Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Yet her Godot under fire felt like a (literally) front-line attempt to affirm that the modernist art she so admired really did speak from and for the bleak history of its times, and that she was more than just a conscience-stricken dilettante. Radical hubris? Perhaps. But Sarajevo’s people did salute her commitment: a city square is now named after her.

In Sontag’s Seventies story ‘Project for a Trip to China’, the narrator confesses that ‘I have always been detached (in part). Always.’ That dandy’s aloofness, the aesthetic distance of the quizzical observer, would regularly rile critics who wanted a more unambiguously feminist, or gay, or left-wing, figurehead than she could ever be. Curious, then, that she – as a woman of sixty who had already overcome types of cancer with a dismally pessimistic prognosis – should put her life on the line for a play in a war-zone. After her first visits to the city, she decided that ‘If I went back, it would be to pitch in and do something.’ She certainly did.

Alongside this career-long drive to unite art and life, theory and practice, Sontag never abandoned the practice of fiction. Her novels evolved as her criticism did, from the playful, hyper-intellectual fabulism of The Benefactor (1963) to the full-throated retro-romance of The Volcano Lover (1992) – which, shockingly to her more austere admirers, revels with sumptuous, indeed operatic, exuberance in the mythologised passion of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton in 1790s Naples. For readers mostly familiar with her essays and polemics, and for those so far unacquainted with the Sontag voice, the Collected Stories will give you plenty that you need to know – if not quite all. Arguably, the strongest pieces top and tail the volume: the bittersweet comedy of disenchantment in ‘Pilgrimage’, and the white-heat compassion and urgency of ‘The Way We Live Now’.

Sontag wrote this pioneering story about the emotional and social ramifications of AIDS very early in the epidemic, in 1986. A network of New Yorkers cluster around the friend who has fallen sick with the unnamed condition. He rallies, then relapses. His suffering spins them onto a carousel of sympathy, rivalry, dread, rage and resignation. Some (of both genders) fear that they might be next. Matter-of-factly, Sontag assumes – correctly – that many gay men in these circles have not only bedded other men. On this merry-go-round of hope, terror and despair, ‘the metallic taste of panic’ fills mouth after mouth. Social and sexual, the ties that bind may twist into the ties that kill: ‘The great chain of being has become a chain of death as well.’ Yet in spite of the climate of apocalypse that Sontag also detected in AIDS and Its Metaphors, ‘this end-of-the-world feeling’, the crisis fosters a community of care. A fragile ‘Utopia of friendship’ even takes shape. Remarkably, since Sontag wrote the story with effective treatment no more than a glimmer on the medical horizon, her characters look forward to the aftermath of plague, to a sadder, more prudent time marked by ‘the end of bravado, the end of folly, the end of trust in life’. Under those grey skies we now live.

Between these memorable bookends, the stories show Sontag trying on style after style, look after look, from the wardrobe of fictional modernism. For all its aphoristic minimalism, ‘Project for a Trip to China’ tracks pretty closely the author’s own ambivalence about a journey to the country where her fur-trader father worked (and where she was conceived). The prospect of seeing this ‘most exotic place of all’ also represents a return to origins. Elsewhere, ‘American Spirits’ now reads as a rather smug exercise in Sixties hell-raising, as the archetypal American prude ‘Miss Flatface’ throws herself into liberated lust. However, the enigmatic story ‘Old Complaints Revisited’ still beguiles.

‘Sontag wrote about the emotional and social ramifications of Aids very early in the epidemic’ Barbara Alper/Getty

It tells, in gently fantastic style, of a semi-secret sect that survives from age to age and culture to culture, always prey to persecution and forever treated by outsiders as ‘that tawdry, suspect, clannish crew’. You sniff a hint of allegory, about Jews, perhaps, or homosexuals, or socialists – but our narrator, a disaffected translator who wonders if she should quit this fractious freemasonry of talkers, dreamers and strivers, explicitly mentions those sorts of folk as separate to hers. Notorious for ‘loquaciousness’, the members of her group aspire to lead ‘not just a good but a morally intense life’.

I wonder whether this semi-invisible community, who so much resemble other people yet stay quite distinct, are not in fact readers – or, at any rate, the sort of questing and restless readers who might relish the work of Susan Sontag. As the translator laments, a member of this worry-prone, garrulous tribe may sometimes feel browbeaten and overawed by the strain of its intellectual and artistic ideals, and ordeals: ‘Cursed be the paper chains that bind me.’ As ample compensation, the cult offers wit, excitement, discovery, a powerful sense of inner freedom, and a constantly renewed wonder at the ever-mutating landscapes of art and thought. That feels to me, still, like a reasonable bargain for Sontag devotees.

Since her death, no comparable figure has assumed her role as a public intellectual of the first rank whose heartland lies so proudly in modern literature. I would love to read her thoughts, compacted into humdinger aphorisms that fizz and burn, on the aesthetics of Trumpism – that bizarre mash-up of her joint interests in far-right ritualism and showbiz masquerade. What would she say about the acting-out of selfhood on social media, the dramas of identity politics, the dystopian playground of internet pornography, and so much else? Now, as then, she would court disapproval not only from her manifest enemies on the right of politics and culture, but among the radical allies who would castigate her artful, elusive conundrums and paradoxes. ‘Moralism is the legacy of the past,’ she wrote, prophetically, in ‘Project for a Trip to China’ (1973), while ‘moralism rules the domain of the future.’ As for the present, ‘We hesitate. Wary, ironic, disillusioned.’ There are worse stances to adopt.

‘Collected Stories’ by Susan Sontag is published by Hamish Hamilton (£18.99)

Boyd Tonkin’s Unbound book choice is ‘The Best Man’