How Susan Sontag Taught Me to Think

How Susan Sontag Taught Me to Think

I spent my adolescence in a terrible hurry to read all the books, see all the movies, listen to all the music, look at everything in all the museums. That pursuit required more effort back then, when nothing was streaming and everything had to be hunted down, bought or borrowed. But those changes aren’t what…


Ispent my adolescence in a terrible hurry to read all the books, see all the movies, listen to all the music, look at everything in all the museums. That pursuit required more effort back then, when nothing was streaming and everything had to be hunted down, bought or borrowed. But those changes aren’t what this essay is about. Culturally ravenous young people have always been insufferable and never unusual, even though they tend to invest a lot in being different — in aspiring (or pretending) to something deeper, higher than the common run. Viewed with the chastened hindsight of adulthood, their seriousness shows its ridiculous side, but the longing that drives it is no joke. It’s a hunger not so much for knowledge as for experience of a particular kind. Two kinds, really: the specific experience of encountering a book or work of art and also the future experience, the state of perfectly cultivated being, that awaits you at the end of the search. Once you’ve read everything, then at last you can begin.

2Furious consumption is often described as indiscriminate, but the point of it is always discrimination. It was on my parents’ bookshelves, amid other emblems of midcentury, middle-class American literary taste and intellectual curiosity, that I found a book with a title that seemed to offer something I desperately needed, even if (or precisely because) it went completely over my head. “Against Interpretation.” No subtitle, no how-to promise or self-help come-on. A 95-cent Dell paperback with a front-cover photograph of the author, Susan Sontag.

There is no doubt that the picture was part of the book’s allure — the angled, dark-eyed gaze, the knowing smile, the bobbed hair and buttoned-up coat — but the charisma of the title shouldn’t be underestimated. It was a statement of opposition, though I couldn’t say what exactly was being opposed. Whatever “interpretation” turned out to be, I was ready to enlist in the fight against it. I still am, even if interpretation, in one form or another, has been the main way I’ve made my living as an adult. It’s not fair to blame Susan Sontag for that, though I do.

3“Against Interpretation,” a collection of articles from the 1960s reprinted from various journals and magazines, mainly devoted to of-the-moment texts and artifacts (Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Saint Genet,” Jean-Luc Godard’s “Vivre Sa Vie,’’ Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures”), modestly presents itself as “case studies for an aesthetic,” a theory of Sontag’s “own sensibility.” Really, though, it is the episodic chronicle of a mind in passionate struggle with the world and itself.

Sontag’s signature is ambivalence. “Against Interpretation” (the essay), which declares that “to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings,’ ” is clearly the work of a relentlessly analytical, meaning-driven intelligence. In a little more than 10 pages, she advances an appeal to the ecstasy of surrender rather than the protocols of exegesis, made in unstintingly cerebral terms. Her final, mic-drop declaration — “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” — deploys abstraction in the service of carnality.

4It’s hard for me, after so many years, to account for the impact “Against Interpretation” had on me. It was first published in 1966, the year of my birth, which struck me as terribly portentous. It brought news about books I hadn’t — hadn’t yet! — read and movies I hadn’t heard about and challenged pieties I had only begun to comprehend. It breathed the air of the ’60s, a momentous time I had unforgivably missed.

But I kept reading “Against Interpretation” — following it with “Styles of Radical Will,” “On Photography” and “Under the Sign of Saturn,” books Sontag would later deprecate as “juvenilia” — for something else. For the style, you could say (she wrote an essay called “On Style”). For the voice, I guess, but that’s a tame, trite word. It was because I craved the drama of her ambivalence, the tenacity of her enthusiasm, the sting of her doubt. I read those books because I needed to be with her. Is it too much to say that I was in love with her? Who was she, anyway?

5Years after I plucked “Against Interpretation” from the living-room shelf, I came across a short story of Sontag’s called “Pilgrimage.” One of the very few overtly autobiographical pieces Sontag ever wrote, this lightly fictionalized memoir, set in Southern California in 1947, recalls an adolescence that I somehow suspect myself of having plagiarized a third of a century later. “I felt I was slumming in my own life,” Sontag writes, gently mocking and also proudly affirming the serious, voracious girl she used to be. The “pilgrimage” in question, undertaken with a friend named Merrill, was to Thomas Mann’s house in Pacific Palisades, where that venerable giant of GermanKulturhad been incongruously living while in exile from Nazi Germany.

The funniest and truest part of the story is young Susan’s “shame and dread” at the prospect of paying the call. “Oh, Merrill, how could you?” she melodramatically exclaims when she learns he has arranged for a teatime visit to the Mann residence. The second-funniest and truest part of the story is the disappointment Susan tries to fight off in the presence of a literary idol who talks “like a book review.” The encounter makes a charming anecdote with 40 years of hindsight, but it also proves that the youthful instincts were correct. “Why would I want to meet him?” she wondered. “I had his books.”

6I never met Susan Sontag. Once when I was working late answering phones and manning the fax machine in the offices of The New York Review of Books, I took a message for Robert Silvers, one of the magazine’s editors. “Tell him Susan Sontag called. He’ll know why.” (Because it was his birthday.) Another time I caught a glimpse of her sweeping, swanning, promenading — or maybe just walking — through the galleries of the Frick.

Much later, I was commissioned by this magazine to write a profile of her. She was about to publish “Regarding the Pain of Others,” a sequel and corrective to her 1977 book “On Photography.” The furor she sparked with a few paragraphs written for The New Yorker after the Sept. 11 attacks — words that seemed obnoxiously rational at a time of horror and grief — had not yet died down. I felt I had a lot to say to her, but the one thing I could not bring myself to do was pick up the phone. Mostly I was terrified of disappointment, mine and hers. I didn’t want to fail to impress her; I didn’t want to have to try. The terror of seeking her approval, and the certainty that in spite of my journalistic pose I would be doing just that, were paralyzing. Instead of a profile, I wrotea short text that accompanied a portrait by Chuck Close. I didn’t want to risk knowing her in any way that might undermine or complicate the relationship we already had, which was plenty fraught. I had her books.

7After Sontag died in 2004, the focus of attention began to drift away from her work and toward her person. Not her life so much as her self, her photographic image, her way of being at home and at parties — anywhere but on the page. Her son, David Rieff, wrote a piercing memoir about his mother’s illness and death. Annie Leibovitz, Sontag’s partner, off and on, from 1989 until her death, released a portfolio of photographs unsparing in their depiction of her cancer-ravaged, 70-year-old body. There were ruminations by Wayne Koestenbaum, Phillip Lopate and Terry Castle about her daunting reputation and the awe, envy and inadequacy she inspired in them. “Sempre Susan,” a short memoir by Sigrid Nunez, who lived with Sontag and Rieff for a while in the 1970s, is the masterpiece of the “I knew Susan” minigenre and a funhouse-mirror companion to Sontag’s own “Pilgrimage.” It’s about what can happen when you really get to know a writer, which is that you lose all sense of what or who it is you really know, including yourself.

8In 2008, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Sontag’s longtime publisher, issued “Reborn,” the first of two volumes so far culled from nearly 100 notebooks Sontag filled from early adolescence into late middle age. Because of their fragmentary nature, these journal entries aren’t intimidating in the way her more formal nonfiction prose could be, or abstruse in the manner of most of her pre-1990s fiction.They seem to offer an unobstructed window into her mind, documenting her intellectual anxieties, existential worries and emotional upheavals, along with everyday ephemera that proves to be almost as captivating. Lists of books to be read and films to be seen sit alongside quotations, aphorisms, observations and story ideas. Lovers are tantalizingly represented by a single letter (“I.”; “H”; “C.”). You wonder if Sontag hoped, if she knew, that you would be reading this someday — the intimate journal as a literary form is a recurring theme in her essays — and you wonder whether that possibility undermines the guilty intimacy of reading these pages or, on the contrary, accounts for it.

9A new biography by Benjamin Moser —“Sontag: Her Life and Work,”published last month — shrinks Sontag down to life size, even as it also insists on her significance. “What mattered about Susan Sontag was what she symbolized,” he concludes, having studiously documented her love affairs, her petty cruelties and her lapses in personal hygiene.

I must say I find the notion horrifying. A woman whose great accomplishments were writing millions of words and reading who knows how many millions more — no exercise in Sontagiana can fail to mention the 15,000-book library in her Chelsea apartment — has at last been decisively captured by what she called “the image-world,” the counterfeit reality that threatens to destroy our apprehension of the actual world.

You can argue about the philosophical coherence, the political implications or the present-day relevance of this idea (one of the central claims of “On Photography”), but it’s hard to deny that Sontag currently belongs more to images than to words. Maybe it’s inevitable that after Sontag’s death, the literary persona she spent a lifetime constructing — that rigorous, serious, impersonal self — has been peeled away, revealing the person hiding behind the words. The unhappy daughter. The mercurial mother. The variously needy and domineering lover. The loyal, sometimes impossible friend. In the era of prestige TV, we may have lost our appetite for difficult books, but we relish difficult characters, and the biographical Sontag — brave and imperious, insecure and unpredictable — surely fits the bill.

10“Interpretation,” according to Sontag, “is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world.” And biography, by the same measure, is the revenge of research upon the intellect. The life of the mind is turned into “the life,” a coffin full of rattling facts and spectral suppositions, less an invitation to read or reread than a handy, bulky excuse not to.

The point of this essay, which turns out not to be as simple as I thought it would be, is to resist that tendency. I can’t deny the reality of the image or the symbolic cachet of the name. I don’t want to devalue the ways Sontag serves as a talisman and a culture hero. All I really want to say is that Susan Sontag mattered because of what she wrote.

11Or maybe I should just say that’s why she matters to me. In “Sempre Susan,” Sigrid Nunez describes Sontag as:

… the opposite of Thomas Bernhard’s comic “possessive thinker,” who feeds on the fantasy that every book or painting or piece of music he loves has been created solely for and belongs solely to him, and whose “art selfishness” makes the thought of anyone else enjoying or appreciating the works of genius he reveres intolerable. She wanted her passions to be shared by all, and to respond with equal intensity to any work she loved was to give her one of her biggest pleasures.

I’m the opposite of that. I don’t like to share my passions, even if the job of movie critic forces me to do it. I cling to an immature (and maybe also a typically male), proprietary investment in the work I care about most. My devotion to Sontag has often felt like a secret. She was never assigned in any course I took in college, and if her name ever came up while I was in graduate school, it was with a certain condescension. She wasn’t a theorist or a scholar but an essayist and a popularizer, and as such a bad fit with the desperate careerism that dominated the academy at the time. In the world of cultural journalism, she’s often dismissed as an egghead and a snob. Not really worth talking about, and so I mostly didn’t talk about her.

12Nonetheless, I kept reading, with an ambivalence that mirrored hers. Perhaps her most famous essay — certainly among the most controversial — is “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” which scrutinizes a phenomenon defined by “the spirit of extravagance” with scrupulous sobriety. The inquiry proceeds from mixed feelings — “I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it” — that are heightened rather than resolved, and that curl through the 58 numbered sections of the “Notes” like tendrils in an Art Nouveau print. In writing about a mode of expression that is overwrought, artificial, frivolous and theatrical, Sontag adopts a style that is the antithesis of all those things.

If some kinds of camp represent “a seriousness that fails,” then “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” enacts a seriousness that succeeds. The essay is dedicated to Oscar Wilde, whose most tongue-in-cheek utterances gave voice to his deepest thoughts. Sontag reverses that Wildean current, so that her grave pronouncements sparkle with an almost invisible mischief. The essay is delightful because it seems to betray no sense of fun at all, because its jokes are buried so deep that they are, in effect, secrets.

13In the chapter of “Against Interpretation” called “Camus’ Notebooks” — originally published in The New York Review of Books — Sontag divides great writers into “husbands” and “lovers,” a sly, sexy updating of older dichotomies (e.g., between Apollonian and Dionysian, Classical and Romantic, paleface and redskin). Albert Camus, at the time beginning his posthumous descent from Nobel laureate and existentialist martyr into the high school curriculum (which is where I found him), is named the “ideal husband of contemporary letters.” It isn’t really a compliment:

Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness. Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover — moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality — that they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling. In the same way, readers put up with unintelligibility, obsessiveness, painful truths, lies, bad grammar — if, in compensation, the writer allows them to savor rare emotions and dangerous sensations.

The sexual politics of this formulation are quite something. Reading is female, writing male. The lady reader exists to be seduced or provided for, ravished or served, by a man who is either a scamp or a solid citizen. Camus, in spite of his movie-star good looks (like Sontag, he photographed well), is condemned to husband status. He’s the guy the reader will settle for, who won’t ask too many questions when she returns from her flings with Kafka, Céline or Gide. He’s also the one who, more than any of them, inspires love.

14After her marriage to the sociologist Philip Rieff ended in 1959, most of Sontag’s serious romantic relationships were with women. The writers whose company she kept on the page were overwhelmingly male (and almost exclusively European). Except for a short piece about Simone Weil and another about Nathalie Sarraute in “Against Interpretation” and an extensive takedown of Leni Riefenstahl in “Under the Sign of Saturn,” Sontag’s major criticism is all about men.

She herself was kind of a husband. Her writing is conscientious, thorough, patient and useful. Authoritative but not scolding. Rigorous, orderly and lucid even when venturing into landscapes of wildness, disruption and revolt. She begins her inquiry into “The Pornographic Imagination” with the warning that “No one should undertake a discussion of pornography before acknowledging the pornographies— there are at least three — and before pledging to take them on one at a time.”

The extravagant, self-subverting seriousness of this sentence makes it a perfect camp gesture. There is also something kinky about the setting of rules and procedures, an implied scenario of transgression and punishment that is unmistakably erotic. Should I be ashamed of myself for thinking that? Of course! Humiliation is one of the most intense and pleasurable effects of Sontag’s masterful prose. She’s the one in charge.

15But the rules of the game don’t simply dictate silence or obedience on the reader’s part. What sustains the bond — the bondage, if you’ll allow it — is its volatility. The dominant party is always vulnerable, the submissive party always capable of rebellion, resistance or outright refusal.

I often read her work in a spirit of defiance, of disobedience, as if hoping to provoke a reaction. For a while, I thought she was wrong about everything. “Against Interpretation” was a sentimental and self-defeating polemic against criticism, the very thing she had taught me to believe in. “On Photography” was a sentimental defense of a shopworn aesthetic ideology wrapped around a superstitious horror at technology. And who cared about Elias Canetti and Walter Benjamin anyway? Or about E.M. Cioran or Antonin Artaud or any of the other Euro-weirdos in her pantheon?

Not me! And yet. … Over the years I’ve purchased at least three copies of “Under the Sign of Saturn” — if pressed to choose a favorite Sontag volume, I’d pick that one — and in each the essay on Canetti, “Mind as Passion,” is the most dog-eared. Why? Not so I could recommend it to someone eager to learn about the first native Bulgarian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, because I’ve never met such a person. “Mind as Passion” is the best thing I’ve ever read about the emotional dynamics of literary admiration, about the way a great writer “teaches us how to breathe,” about how readerly surrender is a form of self-creation.

16In a very few cases, the people Sontag wrote about were people she knew: Roland Barthes and Paul Goodman, for example, whose deaths inspired brief appreciations reprinted in “Under the Sign of Saturn.” Even in those elegies, the primary intimacy recorded is the one between writer and reader, and the reader — who is also, of course, a writer — is commemorating and pursuing a form of knowledge that lies somewhere between the cerebral and the biblical.

Because the intimacy is extended to Sontag’s reader, the love story becomes an implicit ménage à trois. Each essay enacts the effort — the dialectic of struggle, doubt, ecstasy and letdown — to know another writer, and to make you know him, too. And, more deeply though also more discreetly, to know her.

17The version of this essay that I least want to write — the one that keeps pushing against my resistance to it — is the one that uses Sontag as a cudgel against the intellectual deficiencies and the deficient intellectuals of the present. It’s almost comically easy to plot a vector of decline from then to now. Why aren’t the kids reading Canetti? Why don’t trade publishers print collections of essays about European writers and avant-garde filmmakers? Sontag herself was not immune to such laments. In 1995, she mourned the death of cinema. In 1996, she worried that “the very idea of the serious (and the honorable) seems quaint, ‘unrealistic’ to most people.”

Worse, there are ideas and assumptions abroad in the digital land that look like debased, parodic versions of positions she staked out half a century ago. The “new sensibility” she heralded in the ’60s, “dedicated both to an excruciating seriousness and to fun and wit and nostalgia,” survives in the form of a frantic, algorithm-fueled eclecticism. The popular meme admonishing critics and other designated haters to shut up and “let people enjoy things” looks like an emoji-friendly update of “Against Interpretation,” with “enjoy things” a safer formulation than Sontag’s “erotics of art.”

That isn’t what she meant, any more than her prickly, nuanced “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” had much to do with the Instagram-ready insouciance of this year’s Met Gala, which borrowed the title for its theme. And speaking of the ’Gram, its ascendance seems to confirm the direst prophecies of “On Photography,” which saw the unchecked spread of visual media as a kind of ecological catastrophe for human consciousness.

18In other ways, the Sontag of the ’60s and ’70s can strike current sensibilities as problematic or outlandish. She wrote almost exclusively about white men. She believed in fixed hierarchies and absolute standards. She wrote at daunting length with the kind of unapologetic erudition that makes people feel bad. Even at her most polemical, she never trafficked in contrarian hot takes. Her name will never be the answer to the standard, time-killing social-media query “What classic writer would be awesome on Twitter?” The tl;dr of any Sontag essay could only be every word of it.

Sontag was a queer, Jewish woman writer who disdained the rhetoric of identity. She was diffident about disclosing her sexuality. Moser criticizes her for not coming out in the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, when doing so might have been a powerful political statement. The political statements that she did make tended to get her into trouble. In 1966, she wrote that “the white raceisthe cancer of human history.” In 1982, in a speech at Town Hall in Manhattan, she called communism “fascism with a human face.” After Sept. 11, she cautioned against letting emotion cloud political judgment. “Let’s by all means grieve together, but let’s not be stupid together.”

That doesn’t sound so unreasonable now, but the bulk of Sontag’s writing served no overt or implicit ideological agenda. Her agenda — a list of problems to be tackled rather than a roster of positions to be taken — was stubbornly aesthetic. And that may be the most unfashionable, the most shocking, the most infuriating thing about her.

19Right now, at what can feel like a time of moral and political emergency, we cling to sentimental bromides about the importance of art. We treat it as an escape, a balm, a vague set of values that exist beyond the ugliness and venality of the market and the state. Or we look to art for affirmation of our pieties and prejudices. It splits the difference between resistance and complicity.

Sontag was also aware of living in emergency conditions, in a world menaced by violence, environmental disaster, political polarization and corruption. But the art she valued most didn’t soothe the anguish of modern life so much as refract and magnify its agonies. She didn’t read — or go to movies, plays, museums or dance performances — to retreat from that world but to bring herself closer to it. What art does, she says again and again, is confront the nature of human consciousness at a time of historical crisis, to unmake and redefine its own terms and procedures. It confers a solemn obligation: “From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.”

20“Consciousness” is one of her keywords, and she uses it in a way that may have an odd ring to 21st-century ears. It’s sometimes invoked now, in a weak sense, as a synonym for the moral awareness of injustice. Its status as a philosophical problem, meanwhile, has been diminished by the rise of cognitive science, which subordinates the mysteries of the human mind to the chemical and physical operations of the brain.

But consciousness as Sontag understands it has hardly vanished, because it names a phenomenon that belongs — in ways that escape scientific analysis — to both the individual and the species. Consciousness inheres in a single person’s private, incommunicable experience, but it also lives in groups, in cultures and populations and historical epochs. Its closest synonym is thought, which similarly dwells both within the walls of a solitary skull and out in the collective sphere.

If Sontag’s great theme was consciousness, her great achievement was as a thinker. Usually that label is reserved for theorists and system-builders — Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sigmund Freud — but Sontag doesn’t quite belong in that company. Instead, she wrote in a way that dramatized how thinking happens. The essays are exciting not just because of the ideas they impart but because you feel within them the rhythms and pulsations of a living intelligence; they bring you as close to another person as it is possible to be.

21“Under the Sign of Saturn” opens in a “tiny room in Paris” where she has been living for the previous year — “small bare quarters” that answer “some need to strip down, to close off for a while, to make a new start with as little as possible to fall back on.” Even though, according to Sigrid Nunez, Sontag preferred to have other people around her when she was working, I tend to picture her in the solitude of that Paris room, which I suppose is a kind of physical manifestation, a symbol, of her solitary consciousness. A consciousness that was animated by the products of other minds, just as mine is activated by hers. If she’s alone in there, I can claim the privilege of being her only company.

Which is a fantasy, of course. She has had better readers, and I have loved other writers. The metaphors of marriage and possession, of pleasure and power, can be carried only so far. There is no real harm in reading casually, promiscuously, abusively or selfishly. The page is a safe space; every word is a safe word. Your lover might be my husband.

It’s only reading. By which I mean: It’s everything.

Read More

SUBMIT STORY