Pho­to by Beowulf Sheehan

In Sep­tem­ber 2019 Ecco Press pub­lished Ben­jamin Moser’s land­mark study of the crit­ic, nov­el­ist, and intel­lec­tu­al celebri­ty Susan Son­tag. It has already been praised as a work of intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry and cul­tur­al analy­sis, as well as the defin­i­tive biog­ra­phy of its sub­ject. The Jew­ish Book Council’s review­er Bob Gold­farb spoke with Ben­jamin Moser about the book’s begin­nings, and about Son­tag as a thinker, a les­bian, and a Jew. 

Bob Gold­farb: Your biog­ra­phy of Susan Son­tag draws on spe­cial access to her diaries. Weren’t they already published?

Ben­jamin Moser: A selec­tion was pub­lished, but when I placed the pub­lished ver­sions along­side the actu­al note­books I saw that a lot had been left out. And then there were the parts that had not been pub­lished at all, the parts in the restrict­ed archives. Because I was invit­ed to do this book, I was allowed to see every­thing — even her com­put­er. I was very aware that along with that access came a height­ened respon­si­bil­i­ty to use it respectfully.

BG: How did you get that access?

BM: I wrote a pre­vi­ous biog­ra­phy, Why This World, about Clarice Lispec­tor. Sontag’s son, her agent, and her pub­lish­er were think­ing about who should write about Susan, and approached me after hav­ing read the Clarice book. I real­ized that, though I’d read a lot of her work, I didn’t know who she was beyond the icon­ic writer, essay­ist, film­mak­er, pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al. The famous Son­tag with the white streak in her hair. And what I found, once I start­ed research­ing, was so sur­pris­ing and intrigu­ing that I spent sev­en years try­ing to piece it all together.

BG: At that time, who exact­ly did you think your sub­ject was? Or did you approach it with a blank slate?

BM: That’s a good ques­tion. As I said, I’d read some of the work. I’d heard rumors about her fear­some rep­u­ta­tion. But the deep­er I went into her life, the more I was sur­prised by what I found. I was fas­ci­nat­ed by how dif­fer­ent people’s sto­ries were about her. Some peo­ple loved her and some peo­ple hat­ed her — and both lovers and haters seemed com­plete­ly sin­cere. So I was con­stant­ly ask­ing myself how they could both be right or both be wrong, and try­ing to dis­cov­er the per­son who was behind all these opinions.

BG: Your book treats Sontag’s les­bian­ism as the thread that con­nects the nar­ra­tive. Is that a con­clu­sion you drew as you orga­nized the facts of her life, or was it appar­ent ear­ly on that it had shaped the way she lived?

BM: Long before I start­ed this book, I assumed Son­tag was gay in the same way I assumed she was Jew­ish. But I soon saw how fraught this sub­ject was for her, and a biog­ra­ph­er has to pay atten­tion to the red flags. What is she writ­ing about — and, just as often, not writ­ing about? What is she lying about? There had been a lot writ­ten about all the very famous and accom­plished peo­ple Son­tag had been involved with, but the clos­er I looked the more I saw that this had a dark­er side, since her rela­tion­ships tend­ed to end bad­ly. And even though she’s very hon­est about them in her diaries, she nev­er spoke hon­est­ly about her sex­u­al­i­ty in pub­lic. So behind this mask of invul­ner­a­bil­i­ty you find a per­son who strug­gles in the way that so many gay peo­ple do, espe­cial­ly when they’re young.

BG: Did she repress her Judaism in the way she tried to repress her lesbianism?

BM: I don’t think being Jew­ish was an issue for her. In New York, I think being Jew­ish is a default if you’re an intel­lec­tu­al. It’s actu­al­ly a big­ger issue for peo­ple who aren’t!

BG: She lived in a kind of Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al aris­toc­ra­cy, but was there a gay aris­toc­ra­cy as well?

BM: I have a chap­ter called Four Hun­dred Les­bians,” which is a ref­er­ence to a joke Susan liked to repeat: that there were only four hun­dred les­bians in Europe. Of course, there were promi­nent gay men and les­bians in cer­tain worlds like fash­ion and film, and they formed a kind of com­mu­ni­ty as Jews would in places where they were real­ly a minor­i­ty. But if you’re going to com­pare Sontag’s being gay with some­thing else, it wouldn’t be with being Jew­ish. It would be being a woman. Being a woman was fraught in the cul­tur­al world she lived in, and it remained high­ly patri­ar­chal. She says that she sim­ply pre­tend­ed that being a woman wasn’t an issue, but of course it was, as she admit­ted lat­er. But I think she need­ed to pre­tend it wasn’t in order to do her writing.

BG: To what extent was Susan Son­tag tru­ly orig­i­nal, and how much was she influ­enced by the envi­ron­ment in which she lived?

BM: That’s one of the great things about biogra­phies: you get to see his­to­ry trick­ling down into the life of a sin­gle indi­vid­ual. Son­tag is fas­ci­nat­ing because of the sheer quan­ti­ty of events that affect­ed her and that she, in turn, affect­ed. A nov­el­ist wouldn’t have dared make up that Susan walked out of a movie the­ater in Berlin at the exact moment that the Berlin Wall fell, but that did in fact hap­pen. And it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see what she makes of those events — in so many areas of mod­ern life. To read her and to read about her is to see how this mind inter­acts with the great events of the last century.

BG: Son­tag enjoyed sci­ence fic­tion when she was young, at a time when it was con­sid­ered beneath the notice of cul­tured peo­ple. Then social atti­tudes changed, and it became respectable. How does that happen?

BM: One move­ment of Sontag’s gen­er­a­tion was the attempt to look at cul­tur­al expres­sions that weren’t thought to be seri­ous. For her to write about a gay style called Camp” was absolute­ly scan­dalous at the time. The high, seri­ous intel­lec­tu­al was not sup­posed to look at that kind of mar­gin­al stuff. But part of this move­ment was look­ing at pop­u­lar cul­ture like camp or sci­ence fic­tion, and anoth­er part was an attempt to broad­en the def­i­n­i­tion of high cul­ture to include works by women and African-Amer­i­cans, for exam­ple, that had been exclud­ed by his­tor­i­cal injus­tice. But in the book, I write that those attempts ulti­mate­ly lose out to con­sumerism. Crit­i­cal judg­ment was replaced by price tags, and a great paint­ing, for exam­ple, became con­fused with a paint­ing for which some­one was will­ing to pay a great deal of mon­ey. It was a tragedy of which Son­tag was keen­ly aware.

BG: She comes from an era with dif­fer­ent premis­es about what’s valu­able and impor­tant. Do her ideas still car­ry a lot of weight today, when her read­ers are liv­ing in a very dif­fer­ent culture?

BM: I absolute­ly think so. To read On Pho­tog­ra­phy is to see that she’s become more, not less, rel­e­vant, in the way that great writ­ers do. You didn’t have Insta­gram in those days, but just look at how teenagers are train­ing them­selves to be more like the image of them­selves: more inter­est­ing, more attrac­tive, more lov­able. This is the tyran­ny of the image that Son­tag dis­cuss­es. And she talks about the equiv­a­lence of all images. On Pho­tog­ra­phy ends with a group of famous fake pic­tures of con­flict. It shows how fake pic­tures — fake news — can under­mine belief and author­i­ty, the belief in democ­ra­cy, the belief in words. It’s incred­i­bly rel­e­vant right now.

BG: Son­tag often seemed tone-deaf to the polit­i­cal dimen­sions of places in upheaval which she vis­it­ed: Paris, Cuba, Hanoi. By con­trast, she seemed utter­ly com­mit­ted to the peo­ple of Sara­je­vo dur­ing the Bosn­ian war. What changed?

BM: She was not a jour­nal­ist; her job was not to write about the same things every­body else is writ­ing about. She believed in cul­ture more than she believed in any­thing else. When she was a girl in Cal­i­for­nia she and her best friend said they were ready to die to allow Stravin­sky to live a few more years. She thought art was worth more than her own life, and toward the end of her life she finds a way to give her life for cul­ture. She didn’t die in Sara­je­vo, but she very eas­i­ly could have, and the peo­ple there remem­ber that ges­ture with reverence.

BG: What seems so unlike her in Sara­je­vo is her empa­thy. Most of the time she seems blind to oth­er people’s feel­ings, but her attach­ment to its peo­ple and their suf­fer­ing seems genuine.

BM: So much of the New York cul­tur­al world was a bunch of egos jock­ey­ing against each oth­er. She played along because, I sup­pose, she had to. But in Sara­je­vo she was what she want­ed to be: a voice of inter­na­tion­al cul­tur­al sup­port. She was bring­ing them the dig­ni­ty of cul­ture, reaf­firm­ing their human­i­ty, dur­ing the siege of Sara­je­vo. That did lib­er­ate her. And they loved her for it. They even named the square in front of the nation­al the­ater after her.

BG: Why was she mocked and attacked for what she did?

BM: A lot of peo­ple thought she went to Sara­je­vo for self-aggran­dize­ment. And she was a great diva, of course. She’d been fas­ci­nat­ed by divas since she was very young grow­ing up in the shad­ow of Hol­ly­wood. She loved the whole suc­ces­sion of larg­er-than-life women: Medea, Lady Hamil­ton, Sarah Bern­hardt, Gar­bo, Callas. And in a sense she becomes America’s last real diva. We’ve had them in enter­tain­ment — but a woman who writes about Pla­to becom­ing as famous as she did is not some­thing that’s very com­mon in Amer­i­ca. It’s extra­or­di­nary. And it’s a char­ac­ter she delib­er­ate­ly cre­at­ed, and peo­ple loved or hat­ed that char­ac­ter. Either way, you can’t take your eyes off her.

BG: Was it, then, a kind of performance?

BM: In Notes on Camp’” she writes about the dif­fer­ence between a woman and a woman.” And in this book I write about the dif­fer­ence between Susan Son­tag and the char­ac­ter of Susan Son­tag.” Was that fake? I don’t think so. We know that so often noth­ing is more real than a per­former, or more pow­er­ful than the emo­tions a per­for­mance can unleash. She went to Sara­je­vo lit­er­al­ly to put on a per­for­mance of a play, Wait­ing for Godot. And this became one of the great­est moments in the his­to­ry of mod­ern art, because it answered all the ques­tions about the use­ful­ness of art, of the­ater, of per­for­mance, in a world that pro­duced Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

BG: You used the word diva,” and of course diva” means god­dess.” There’s some­thing about a god­dess that’s oth­er­world­ly, pos­sess­ing author­i­ty and truth. I won­der if we’ve lost that sense that a diva is a vis­i­ta­tion from a high­er place, Olym­pus or Valhalla.

BM: Diva wor­ship thrives on the deep human long­ing for some­thing larg­er than our own bor­ing lives. Some­thing more beau­ti­ful, more expres­sive, more out­ra­geous, more unreach­able. This divine female fig­ure exists in every cul­ture. It can be a fig­ure of hope, inspir­ing. It can also be ter­ri­fy­ing. Son­tag was both.

BG: Son­tag grew up in a time when our cul­ture looked to the clas­sics as exam­ples of great­ness. Has the era now reced­ed into the past? Has the dis­tinc­tion between pop­u­lar cul­ture and high cul­ture” collapsed?

BM: I don’t think so. I think peo­ple want some­thing mean­ing­ful, some­thing high­er, some­thing beau­ti­ful. My work with both Clarice Lispec­tor and Susan Son­tag has been about assum­ing that peo­ple need more than TV. The cheap stuff will always be with us, but there will also be peo­ple who look to art to pro­vide a bit of oxy­gen and an escape. We have to keep believ­ing in high cul­ture. Now we’re in a moment where so much is reduced to being your opin­ion” or your taste.” But there are high­er val­ues, per­ma­nent val­ues, like art and beau­ty and free­dom. And at a time like the one we’re liv­ing in today, I think there’s a role for writ­ers, artists, schol­ars, and sci­en­tists that is not very dif­fer­ent from what it would have been in ancient Israel or in Athens. The Prophets had that role in 7th-cen­tu­ry BCE Jerusalem. It’s an antag­o­nis­tic role. These peo­ple have always gone against the grain. Son­tag cer­tain­ly had her ene­mies. Maybe that’s anoth­er way of being a diva: being a prophet — stand­ing out­side the main­stream and wag­ging a finger.

BG: If you were asked what your book is about, what would you say?

BM: It’s a book about aes­thet­ic the­o­ry … and it’s also about how she slept with War­ren Beat­ty. One of the fas­ci­nat­ing things about Son­tag is that you get every­thing from the Bud­dhist ideas of John Cage to Andy Warhol’s ideas about celebri­ty to Susan’s thoughts about Bosnia and sci­ence fic­tion and mod­ern dance. One of her great ser­vices was to lead such a fas­ci­nat­ing life that maybe some of the peo­ple who come for the gos­sip will stay for the aes­thet­ic the­o­ry. It’s all part of the same cul­ture. I try to be a guide through all of that.