Son­tag: Her Life and Work

  • Review
By – August 5, 2019

Intel­lec­tu­al life in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry would have been sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent with­out Susan Son­tag. A cul­tur­al crit­ic and celebri­ty, Son­tag for­ev­er changed the dis­course by rethink­ing con­ven­tion­al assump­tions on a grand scale. Her land­mark essay Against Inter­pre­ta­tion” argued for direct, unmedi­at­ed encoun­ters with art. Notes on Camp,” pub­lished in the same col­lec­tion of essays, upend­ed the received hier­ar­chy of aes­thet­ics in ways that proved prophet­ic. Sontag’s On Pho­tog­ra­phy probed an art form she loved with a mer­ci­less eye, ques­tion­ing its voyeurism and com­mer­cial­ism with the same brac­ing orig­i­nal­i­ty and erudition.

Like many oth­er mid-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can intel­lec­tu­als, Son­tag was Jew­ish less by reli­gion than through a shared mar­gin­al­i­ty. She was part of anoth­er minor­i­ty group as well, iden­ti­fy­ing as les­bian, though she con­cealed it for much of her life. Her lover, María Irene Fornés, intro­duced her to the bohemi­an art world of New York and exposed her to ways of see­ing art spon­ta­neous­ly with­out intel­lec­tu­al expla­na­tion. An affair with the chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, Lucin­da Childs, helped her under­stand the emo­tion­al imme­di­a­cy of music and dance. The great pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Annie Lei­bovitz, was Sontag’s part­ner for the last six­teen years of her life.

Ben­jamin Moser is the first Son­tag biog­ra­ph­er to have had full access to her jour­nals. He draws upon them with tact, empa­thy, and tru­ly extra­or­di­nary insight, weav­ing her life togeth­er with her work. In her first nov­el, The Bene­fac­tor (1963), which grap­pled with Freud and the death of the nov­el,’ Moser detects Sontag’s inabil­i­ty to see oth­er peo­ple as real,” a qual­i­ty he lat­er doc­u­ments with vivid exam­ples from her inter­ac­tions with inti­mates, friends, and col­leagues. He also points to sev­er­al themes which would pre­oc­cu­py Son­tag long after­ward, start­ing with its implied chal­lenge to Freud in argu­ing against inter­pre­ta­tion’ of dreams.

Being queer,” Son­tag once con­fessed to her diary, increas­es my wish to hide,” and Moser links that to a low self-esteem and depres­sion which nev­er left her. Out of shame, she repeat­ed­ly denied any sex­u­al involve­ment with Annie Lei­bovitz. As late as 2003, she pan­icked when she learned that a New York­er pro­file would report that she was bisexual.

Sontag’s engage­ment with ideas took many forms — she wrote more fic­tion, direct­ed films, and wrote a play that was direct­ed at Har­vard’s Amer­i­can Reper­to­ry The­ater in 1996. She also took bold polit­i­cal posi­tions such as speak­ing out and tak­ing action against the Viet­nam war and even res­cu­ing peo­ple in Sara­je­vo dur­ing the Bosn­ian war.

One of the great plea­sures of this author­i­ta­tive work is Moser’s con­fi­dent, clever, eru­dite voice. He writes with a deep under­stand­ing of lit­er­a­ture and intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, and with con­sid­er­able sym­pa­thy for his sub­ject. He nonethe­less enjoys gos­sipy details, like Sontag’s maneu­ver­ing to meet Lau­ren Bacall. He also has an eye for the com­ic absur­di­ty of Woody Allen-like scenes of feud­ing Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als: fisticuffs ensued over who would keep the back issues of Par­ti­san Review.”

Moser doesn’t shy away from mak­ing crit­i­cal judg­ments about Son­tag, and he is par­tic­u­lar­ly unspar­ing when writ­ing about the ways the AIDS cri­sis was ignored by politi­cians in the 1980s, and about media com­plic­i­ty in pro­mot­ing the war in Iraq.

In short, Moser’s Son­tag is a land­mark achieve­ment — aston­ish­ing in its scope, bril­liant in its per­cep­tive­ness, and a joy to read. It deserves to be count­ed among the best non­fic­tion books of 2019.

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