“She said she needed writing as a weapon”

Sontag: Her Life and Work BY Benjamin Moser. New York: Ecco. 832 pages. $40.
Benjamin Moser. Photo: Wikicommons

JULIA PAGNAMENTA: Was writing Susan Sontag’s biography an exercise in deconstructing the image of “Susan Sontag”?

BENJAMIN MOSER: I think it became that. I wouldn’t say it started out that way. I didn’t have a set image I wanted to convey of her because I didn’t know enough about her at the beginning to have even that much of a preconceived notion. I’d read a lot of her but definitely not all. Susan’s work is very vast and very extensive, and her world is also vast and extensive. Her political world. Her social world. Her sexual world. There is a lot of it, and it’s hard to have an impression of it even when you do know about it. There is a lot of her work that is in the archives, in her journals, that hasn’t been reprinted. There are thousands of interviews. I didn’t know her personally, which I think was a big advantage because I see a lot of people who did know her personally write about her in ways that I find distorting, when I don’t find them flat-out wrong or offensive.

You draw on Sontag’s journals, which she wrote all throughout her life. In her 1963 essay on Albert Camus, she writes, “The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself.” Did Sontag similarly use her journals to build up her identity as a writer?

She says she needs writing as a weapon to counter the weapon that the world has against her, by which she means her homosexuality. I don’t think she is building herself up. I think what happens in the journals that is fascinating is that she is preserving herself. She says that she wants somebody who loves her to read these journals later on and know who she was. And that’s very moving because her performance of “Susan Sontag,” the woman with the white streak in her hair is so successful that she is constantly trying to rein it in and failing, because people want to have one idea about somebody, and they want something to be one Tweet long to know what to think about everything. The more famous and more prominent she becomes, the more she keeps her soul, if I can put it that way, in these journals. She really puts everything in there that she is not showing to the world. So in a sense [the Camus quote] is kind of the opposite of what she is doing. I think she’s already built herself up as this figure, and her models are the great film stars. And that becomes very clear, that she grows up in Hollywood, and those are the women that she looks to, on the one hand. And on the other hand, particularly the great nineteenth-century novelists, so people like Victor Hugo, or Thomas Mann, or these figures that seem to be 100 percent serious, 100 percent focused, completely ready to occupy the role of the writer on the page, and also in society, have this moral consciousness.

So with the journals, you see they are this repository of her actual self, and it’s very moving to see the difference between the journals and the public presentation.

The biography highlights several incidences where there is a contradiction between what Sontag says or writes publicly versus what she then writes down in her journal about the same incident or event.

They are often polar opposites, and that’s one of the things that makes Sontag so fascinating. She has this quote that I love, that says, the very nature of thinking is “but.” There’s an image of Sontag as this incredibly certain, all-knowing, intimidating figure, which she was in certain ways. But because people haven’t read her work very much, in my opinion, and in my experience, they don’t know that actually the fascinating thing about Sontag is not that she is so certain about things, it’s that she is uncertain about things. Sometimes she acknowledges this explicitly, as she does with her writings on photography, and other times she doesn’t acknowledge it, she just lets it be. If you go through her writing, and read all of her writing about politics, you see that she is very unsure about it, and she comes back on things, she rewrites things, she rethinks. I think one of the reasons Sontag is a fascinating figure is that we are in a time where we need to learn how to think more than we need to learn how to know. All the facts that we need to know we can find on our phone. Everything. What we don’t know because we have all these facts is how to think about them, and her uncertainty, and her willingness to rethink and reformulate is a model for all of us.

Sontag does seem bound by opposition. “Seeing,” you write, “did not come naturally.” In Illness as Metaphor she never acknowledges her own cancer. Her son, David Rieff, describes the book as “almost anti-autobiographical.” Is Sontag pushing against boundaries or is this a form of concealment?

I think yes, it is a form of concealment. Her mother says at one point, You’ve just started the last three sentences with the word “I.” Stop talking about yourself, it’s rude, it’s impolite. Talk about other people. Ask them questions. Don’t just sit there and talk about yourself so much. Now that is hilarious in a way because Illness as Metaphor comes out in 1978, right at the beginning of this whole generation of people, I think it really started in the late ’80s, but then in the ’90s it really took off, basically of people writing memoirs and talking about themselves all the time to the point where you thought, God people are talking about themselves too much. Sontag’s generation, they weren’t really brought up to make it all about themselves. Now, if you look at Illness as Metaphor, you think: Why is she not talking about how she has cancer? But in fact she says: How could people think that? This whole book was written when I was about to die. It’s incredibly personal. It’s incredibly charged with my anger, and my outrage, and my fear. In fact, what’s so great about Sontag is that nobody missed that. The reason it’s such a famous book and such an important book is that everybody can feel the passion about it. The personal commitment that was behind it. Nobody thought it was a dry, boring book. She didn’t need the “I.”

In Deborah Nelson’s book Tough Enough, in her chapter on Sontag, she refers to Illness as Metaphor as Sontag’s attempt to “restore to the sick agency over their diseases.” And this concern over agency is at the core of Sontag’s writing. Nelson writes, “emotions are only problematic insofar as they threaten agency, which they always do.” And although Sontag calls for an “erotics of art” in her 1964 essay, "Against Interpretation," her writing is very much based in “hermeneutics,” which is what she is writing against. This duality between body and mind is something she struggles with personally all throughout her life.

She is absolutely struggling with it personally in a way that is almost hard to make too much of. The struggle as you put it between erotics versus hermeneutics is another way of saying mind versus body. She is an analyst. She is a critic. She is somebody who looks at the world and understands the world through text, which is what she says about Walter Benjamin, which is also true of her.

At the same time she realizes this isn’t enough. She realizes that emotions are threatening. Emotions threaten the life of the pure reason, mind, and they are very disquieting, especially in a life like Sontag’s that plagued by quite violent emotions, and quite violent erotic emotions. Love affairs of every nature, and of every duration. Real painful interactions with her body in the form of cancer, and the form of illness, and also don’t underestimate the painful interaction of her mind with her sexuality. Again, I don’t think you can overstate that when trying to understand Sontag. How much she basically did not want to be gay. This is something that a lot of gay people recognize.

There are a lot of different levels on which Sontag’s desire to be something else than she is makes her life very painful. As a biographer, it’s painful for me as well because I really want her to be OK. I want her to feel better, and I know how these relationships are going to end, for example. Like I know that she is dating somebody who is going to treat her like dirt, and I want her to get out of that relationship. But I know that because I know how it ended. She doesn’t know how it ended. She’s still in 1961 when she’s writing this thing, she’s not in 2016 or wherever I am, knowing the end of the story. One wishes she had reconciled that in a more peaceful way.

There are many ways to interpret "Against Interpretation." One way is to see it as a rejection of Freud, and her marriage to Philip Rieff, especially as you contend that she essentially wrote Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, though it was published under Rieff’s name. Another way to read it is as a rejection of academia, a world she knew well. When she moved to New York in the 1960s she is influenced by “unschooled talents” like her lover, the playwright Irene Fornés, and the artist Paul Thek, to whom she dedicates the book in which the essay appears, and who first admonished her, “Susan, stop, stop. I’m against interpretation. We don’t look at art when we interpret it.”

So much has changed in Sontag’s lifetime. We look at her as a contemporary figure, but actually there are a lot of ways in which she is not, and it’s important to see her in that context. Not only is she a completely hermeneutical person by nature and inclination, the culture is that way too. The culture is heavily, heavily drenched by two great interpretative theories, which are Freud’s and Marx’s. And these are these extremely Baroque systems of understanding everything from history to economics to personality to sex to death. And a lot of people who made the effort to understand these things thought that by doing so they would get some real deep understanding of the world that previously had only been available through religion. There is quote in the book from Herbert Marcuse, who says that Susan “can make a theory out of a potato peel.” And that’s kind of funny about Susan, but in fact, that was true of the whole of literary culture at that time. Everything could be read in a Marxist way. Everything could be read in a Freudian way. And she was very good at that. She is a great interpreter of course.

When she met people like Irene and Paul, she realized there was another way of looking at art that she wasn’t prepared to understand because of her education. These were two almost illiterate geniuses. I mean these are people who weren’t even close to graduating from high school, and yet she knew they were geniuses because they had whatever that magic spirit is that is the spirit of the artist. And she was totally fascinated that you could not know anything about Freud, or Thomas Aquinas, or all that stuff that she studied, and still make artworks of genius. So "Against Interpretation" is sort of also against herself. It’s not only against Freud. It’s trying to discover a new way of thinking, and feeling, and creating that she hadn’t ever seen before because she existed in this overly refined culture that very quickly would become dated. It would become outmoded in the ’60s when the focus on immediate experience, excitement, and revolution, and your own feelings, saying “I,” became this great symbol of a whole generation.

How do you reconcile “Notes on 'Camp,'” which cemented Sontag’s reputation when it came out in 1964, and had a starring role in gay identity and emancipation, with AIDS and Its Metaphors, which she wrote in 1989, and which you describe as largely irrelevant due to her inability to speak candidly about her own homosexuality?

You know I discovered in the archives that “Notes on 'Camp'” was originally called “Notes on Homosexuality.” Everybody knew it was about homosexuality, but she doesn’t actually say it. That was 1964. Around that time, an ad for patients with breast cancer was rejected by the New York Times because the Times said neither the word “breast” nor the word “cancer” could appear in the pages of the New York Times. This was in the ’50s and ’60s. There was just a whole lot you couldn’t say.

Twenty-five years later, when she writes AIDS and Its Metaphors, the world had completely changed. One of the great revolutions is in how you speak and how you talk. Feminists, and then essentially the gay-rights movement that responded to AIDS, revealed a marginalized group of people—the homosexuals—who were not seen, or not seen as gay, in the culture at all. It was a shock to certain people when Liberace got AIDS. Gay people were completely invisible, so they were very easy to demonize, because it’s easy to demonize people who are not there. It’s a lot harder when it’s your neighbor, or your teacher, or your brother. And then all of a sudden millions and millions of people are outed by this disease that killed them. Not only did it kill them, but because it revealed that they were gay, it often meant that they lost their jobs, they lost their apartments. Their families rejected them. They were treated like trash and left like dogs to die on the street. Literally on the street. It’s an unbelievable time that I think we’ve forgotten about. In that context, the need to say, I am gay, period, when talking about these things, became an overwhelming need for this community of dying people. So that said, was it really hard for Sontag to talk about her sexuality? It was really hard for her. She grew up in a totally homophobic environment, and so did all these other people by the way, unless they were exceptionally rare and lucky. But people needed to see her, because she was extremely inspiring for a lot of people. Gay people needed representation.

These days camp has become embedded into mainstream culture—the Metropolitan Museum celebrated Camp in 2019 as the theme of its gala and fashion exhibit. But when Sontag wrote the essay in 1964, it was bold and threatening, in part because as you write, “gay people taking charge of aesthetics meant they would be in charge of the ways they would be seen.”

Yes, that’s exactly right and that was extremely threatening. I think one of the things that the coverage of the Met Gala missed was how threatening camp was. And how threatening that essay was. And if you go to the archives in California, and you see the letters to the editor, and the reactions she got from this essay, people literally said it would be the end of America. And you read this essay today and you think, This is a funny, good, smart essay, but the end of America seems a little bit overstated. But you can also see how threatening it is if you read it as a proclamation of emancipation from the traditional family and social structure—the idea that women were inferior to men, that black people were inferior to white people, that Jews were inferior to non-Jews, and that homosexuals were diseased threats to society, and if we didn’t guard against them very zealously the whole social structure would be overturned. I think all you have to do is look at, still to this day, the amount of energy invested against gay rights. It’s massive. It’s changed so much in my lifetime, but opposition to gay marriage is still a vital part of the Republican Party.

Sontag is most well-known and regarded as an essayist. While you write in defense of her fiction, many others have openly snubbed her novels. For an aesthete like Sontag, these slights were cutting, since asserting herself as a novelist was a form of validation.

I mean the fact is Susan’s fiction is not as good as her essays. Nobody really questions that. The thing is, some of her essays are not so good, and some of her fiction is quite good. It’s a mix. There is definitely more good than bad in her essays, and it’s probably the opposite in her fiction. At the same time, her goal, her dream was to be a great nineteenth-century novelist, to be Flaubert, or Victor Hugo, or somebody like that. A great novelist. That is who she read as a child and that’s what she wanted to be.

I heard this so much. I did 600-something interviews for this book, and a lot of people loved saying this about her, and they love writing this about her. Don’t forget that Susan Sontag has more haters than probably anyone who isn’t a politician.

What fuels this hatred?

She could be very cruel, and she could be very rude to people. So that was part of it. But another part of it is that I think it’s very easy to have opinions about people that you see on TV, or that you read about, or that you don’t know. It’s a lot harder to have opinions of people you know really, really well, when you know what they are going through, and what they’ve really accomplished, and what their sadnesses are in life, and what their challenges are.

The fact is, Sontag is a magnet for people’s projections. I have never seen anything like it. Sometimes there isn’t really a good explanation for it, but she struck a chord emotionally in people, and for everybody who hates her violently, there is somebody who loves her passionately. And both of those are very hard for me as a biographer to navigate, because I am thinking, Why does this person hate her so much? What did she ever do to you? And on the other hand, somebody is loving her so much, and I’m like, Yeah, but I know what she said about you behind your back. So the task is to rise above that.

It’s a fine line to navigate. As a biographer, you are crafting a personal narrative and your biography is not a detached analysis: you are very much in dialogue with Sontag.

I don’t like detached analyses so much. I like to feel the engagement of the writer. I like to feel the opinions of the writer and know what I am dealing with. Every biographer has an opinion on what they are writing about, but some people try to pretend like they don’t have an opinion, and I have always thought it was better to have an opinion. And that doesn’t mean it’s the last word. It just means it’s an opinion. The great contribution about Sontag is that she keeps these debates alive. I think you see it with the reactions to this book. If I had written a book about Sontag that wasn’t controversial in some way I would have totally failed her legacy. She was always somebody who elicited opinions. Lots of opinions. You know, that’s a real tribute to her. Of course, some of the opinions I think are just ridiculous and stupid, and some of them I think are fascinating. There are criticisms of my book that I think are totally valid.

Which criticism have you found valid?

I think there is a lot that is omitted in the book actually even though it’s long. I think there is lot about film that is not in there. I think there is a lot about how do you calibrate the number of “gossipy stories” you put in there? I try not to put in too much gossip. There is a difference between malicious gossip and a story about somebody that throws some light onto something about that person or their work, and I try to do it in the way that I think it throws light on somebody.

The opinions I haven’t liked in the reviews are particularly the people who make light of the alcoholism stories about her mother.

There is a line of critique that says you overemphasize, over psychologize Sontag’s mother.

I knew that writing as much as I wrote about alcoholism was a provocation. Absolutely. And it’s a discussion I would love to have more about. There is a sense that alcoholism is either kind of cool, or it’s kind of irrelevant, and it doesn’t really matter. Nobody who has ever lived with anybody with alcoholism or addiction, nobody would say that.

The other part of that is sexuality. People think, Oh it’s not so bad that she was closeted. It’s not that it’s bad. I am not trying to judge her for it. I’m just trying to say what it meant in a time where gay people were closeted because they had to be. People live lives now that are unimaginable. I’m gay. It’s not that I want to downplay the suffering of gay people. It’s quite the opposite, but lots of people, particularly heterosexual critiques, don’t understand it to the degree that gay people understand it. And people who’ve lived with addiction whether their own addiction or the addiction of a partner or a parent, a loved one, nobody would ever downplay that if you’ve seen it. But it’s in the culture. You used to downplay cancer in the same way. And if you accept that addiction is a disease, it looks very different.

These days, there really isn’t an intellectual persona in the mold of Susan Sontag, who so publicly drives the conversation around cultural or political movements and phenomena.

I would argue that she is a one-off. She didn’t really have any predecessors and she didn’t really have any successors. A lot of people tried to emulate her, and did to a certain degree, but you can’t keep your eyes off her. She is so fascinating. She is very complicated. She is very weird. And she is very inspiring, and she is very depressing sometimes. She takes you through the whole range of your own emotions about her, but she also takes you through the whole range of emotions about how to think and how to live in the world. I think when people say they miss her, that’s what they mean, because for so long, she would tell you about what to think about a lot of things, and not in the way that you would have to agree with her. Because a lot of times people really really did not agree with her.

In Judaism, prophets have this very special function, which is telling everybody to fuck themselves, if I may say so in the pages of Bookforum. Prophets are supposed to be going against the grain. They are supposed to make people uncomfortable. They are supposed to distinguish things between the spiritual and the profane. They are supposed to wield a finger at the powerful. They are punishing figures. They represent harsh judgment, and I think that as much as people get offended by them, people like people who aren’t always sticking their fingers in the air to test public opinion before they say anything. We need people to tell us that we are going to be dashed to sunder because of our sins. That’s the function of the prophets in the Bible, and Sontag is that kind of uncompromising figure.

In the early ’90s, Sontag visits Sarajevo at the behest of her son, David Rieff, and becomes involved in the Balkan Wars, and shedding light on the Bosnian cause. These experiences have a profound effect on her, including informing her thoughts on photography. In 1977 she writes that photography “is essentially an act of non-intervention,” but by 2003 in Regarding the Pain of Others, she views photography—perhaps influenced by her partner, the photographer Annie Leibovitz, who traveled to Sarajevo with her—as, to use your words, an act of “self-sacrifice” and “direct political intervention.”

This is another example of an evolution in Sontag’s thoughts. She is worried, as we are all worried, about over-exposure to violent images. Does that lead people to not notice violence anymore? How do we look at images of violence, and cruelty, and pain, and suffering? In On Photography, she feared that images of violence made people inure to it, and that they thought, Oh here is another freak show. Here is another bomb victim. Here is another dead corpse, and they would just keep walking and then go to the mall.

In Sontag’s later experience, she goes to Sarajevo and she sees that, yes, they are going to go to the mall right after that, but images can still change the context for how people see suffering. She saw that Annie got these pictures into Vanity Fair, for example. These pictures were in this magazine next to pictures of Brad Pitt, and next to pictures of celebrities and politicians, but that actually was good. That space could be occupied by advertising for Estée Lauder, or it could be occupied by pictures of this horrible suffering of people on the other side of the world. This is the hope of any journalist or any writer, of any photographer in these war zones, that if you show people what’s happening, if you show them enough times, it will not inure them to it. It will make them want to take action to stop it. It’s a very complicated thing. Do you just say, No, we can only have pictures of flowers? We can’t show any pictures of anything bad happening in the world. I mean that feels wrong. I think it feels intuitively wrong to people. On the other hand, you don’t want to only see pictures of ISIS terrorists beheading people. These images are always going to be in a relationship to one another.

I think one of the great things about Sontag is that she shows you how to read those images, because now we have it on our phone all day, every day. People’s cappuccino and then right next to that you have children in cages on the Mexican border, or people in Syria bombed to smithereens. That’s the reality we all live in, and Sontag shows us how to think about that. She doesn’t necessarily give us all the answers, but she gives us the questions.

Sontag’s passions and vigor, her willingness to engage so fully with the world around her is also what made her own death so impossible to accept. In Swimming in a Sea of Death, her son, David Rieff writes, “Viscerally I do not believe that my mother could love a world without herself.”

There are really two stories about her death. There is the David story that she couldn’t accept it, and I think she couldn’t accept it in a very human way that a lot of people can’t accept it. I mean it’s a very horrible thing to have to come to terms with, having a terminal-cancer diagnosis. People go through all kinds of phases, and they are very vulnerable, and upset, and dying, and they say all kinds of things.

After Susan’s death, and even during it, there comes this break between David and Annie Leibovitz, and a lot of it is about photographs, and what is decent, and what is OK to represent. Annie took these pictures of Susan suffering and dying and then as a dead body. David found this totally unacceptable and outrageous, less that she took the pictures, but that she published them.

It’s fascinating that she prophesied this debate in On Photography. I don’t think she knew it was going to be literally over her dead body, but the fact that it was, and the fact that the emotions were so strong, shows that these questions that Sontag raises time and time again are not merely intellectual questions. You can have hermeneutics and erotics. You can have mind and body. They are ultimately all the same thing, and that is one of the reasons why her legacy is so fascinating to so many people.

You write that Sontag had tried to put a stop to attempts to write unauthorized biographies about her while she was alive. However, she also clearly would have wanted to be remembered and written about.

Of course, Sontag knew she would be written about, as she had been all her life. She also sold her archive to UCLA, and then she even let her computer and all that go there. It’s very weird to read her emails. And you think, Oh my god, this is really up close and personal, and how would I feel about that? But the fact is, I think she would be really honored that her legacy was being discussed as much as it is. That people were talking about how much she meant to them, how relevant her thought is, seeing new editions of her books all over the world. Ultimately, you try to make a portrait of somebody that they would recognize, even if they would take issue with it. We always look differently to other people than we do to ourselves.

Julia Pagnamenta is a fact-checker and researcher living in New York.