(1933 - 2004)

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Fire and ice

Susan Sontag wrote out of glorious, coldblooded anger. It's painful that today, when clarifying rage is about all we have left, her powerful voice is silent.

By Craig Seligman

Jan. 4, 2005  |  Mutual friends told me about an evening they spent with Susan Sontag a few months before she entered her final illness. They were talking about George Plimpton's peaceful death, in his sleep, and my friends agreed that they would want to go that way. Sontag replied that she wouldn't. She wanted to die of cancer -- "I want to experience my death." How resplendently Sontag. The contrarianism, the fearlessness, the romantic infatuation with experience, the almost Faustian hunger for knowledge, the absolute and unfaltering commitment to consciousness and, of course, the sensuality of the intellect: Always, always she wanted to feel -- and to think about what she felt.

The recent photographs that accompanied Sontag's obituaries in the world press may have given her the last opportunity to shock her audience. In 1992, when, a few months before her 60th birthday, she posed for a portrait on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, she was still beautiful. By the time she died, the beauty had gone. But you can't say she lost her looks. She looked great. She'd always been exasperated with the level of scrutiny devoted to her appearance, and it was gratifying to watch the way she carried herself after her gorgeousness deserted her. She seemed pleased. Accepting phone-in questions on a long, incisive "Bookspan: In Depth" interview ("Sometimes I think we only have one party, the Republican Party, and it has a branch called the Democratic Party") in March 2003, she projected something very different from the old hauteur. Her strong jaw had taken over her face, and the icy fineness had given way to power and warmth. Sontag was never lacking in self-regard; she was hardly unaware of the figure she cut; but her lack of personal vanity was startling -- as startling as her beauty.

At least, that's how it looked from a distance, to me. I never met Sontag. My relation to her was entirely one of reader to writer, and in "Sontag & Kael" I proffered some judgments I know she could never have forgiven me for. No writer is that lacking in vanity -- and when it came to her writing, Sontag was as preening as any other master. Above all she would have been angry at me for preferring, as almost everybody does, her criticism to her fiction. But then Sontag was no stranger to quixotry. Her impossibly high standards were a golden form of quixotry, and in her lexicon "quixotry" was an accolade. Moralism wouldn't amount to much without determination against terrible odds; not that long ago, Václav Havel and Nelson Mandela, to cite the most obvious examples, would have been called quixotic.

But if I wrote things she would have disliked (I tell myself), nobody would have been more disgusted by hollow praise. Not only wasn't praise something she sought, but she seemed to go out of her way to attract its opposite. Much about Sontag -- as her many obituaries have pointed out -- was maddening. There was a lot of belligerence you had to cut through and shooting-from-the-hip you had to clear away in order to get to the greatness. One of her acolytes spent a good hour on the phone insisting to me that the only valuable form of criticism is the form Sontag practiced: praise. Her portrait essays are small festivals of praise. Though I love those essays, I don't agree. The only valuable form of criticism is the truth. Between truth and justice "one hopes not to have to choose," Sontag wrote. "But when a choice is necessary -- as, alas, it sometimes is -- it seems to me that an intellectual ought to decide for the truth." That's why taking her to task was, if this doesn't sound too self-serving, a necessary component of honoring her. She never claimed she never erred; in fact, she took pride in correcting her errors. But she was always an angry writer, and her anger angered her readers, roiling around in the mind until -- magically -- it settled into thought.

She was angry at the philistinism of the consumer culture into which she had the good and bad luck to be born, and what I feel most bereft over is the loss of that anger, since more than ever it seems like the only rational response to the society we live in. One reason, I believe, she so often limited her literary essays to praise was that once she started in the other direction she couldn't stop. She didn't handle her anger gracefully. That was why I never thought of her as a great political writer. The greatness was in her cool, hardheaded essays on aesthetic matters; as an aesthete defending the senses against the intellect, the new against the established, silence against noise, she was magnificently coldblooded. But she was hotblooded and hotheaded when she turned to politics. I still find myself backing off nervously from her vitriolic essays and speeches on the Vietnam War, even as I endorse the politics behind them. In those writings, frantic rage ("We are choking with shame and anger") is motivated by a frantic need: to do something -- namely, to stop the war. And for all the incendiary rhetoric, the spewing fury, the bitter eagerness to bite the hand of America, the urgency of the need to halt the war implied a hope -- a shred of hope. Something could be done. The war could be stopped.

The political writing of her final years is different. I'm referring to her profoundly humane and reflective 2003 essay "Regarding the Pain of Others," whose theme was atrocity pictures, and its magisterial pendant -- written when she was already sick with the cancer that would, after 30 years, finally kill her -- her 2004 essay "Regarding the Torture of Others," on the Abu Ghraib photographs. The quality of the prose in those writings has changed because the quality of the anger has changed. But given the disheartening events that elicited that shift, not even Sontag -- who could talk about cultural achievement with a Nietzschean absolutism that bordered on the callous -- could have taken much consolation from her triumph. By 2004, the United States was a society very different from what it had been even during the ugliest years of the Vietnam era, and the rage smoldering beneath every sentence of that great, judgmental final essay was a different order of rage: a rage without hope. Speaking out, speaking angrily no longer had a goal so simple as stopping the war, because the war was, in the phrase she hammered at with disquieting control, an "endless war." "The torture of prisoners is not an aberration." "The photographs are us."

Those are despairing words, and since November that despair has become widely shared. But despair isn't really a Sontagian emotion. It's worth noting that her repeated "endless war" carefully avoids the easy, even useful echo of Orwell's "permanent war"; the conditions of "1984" don't exactly apply to the current situation. It's worth further noting that this kind of care with words implies the opposite of despair. The very act of writing implies the opposite of despair.

Which is why I feel so bereft at the loss of Sontag's anger. In this world, at this time, that anger is about the only thing we've got to fight them with.

About the writer
Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," and an editor at Absolute New York.





Susan Sontag (1933-2004)
Remembering the voice of moral responsibility—and unembarrassed hedonism

by Gary Indiana
January 4th, 2005 1:35 PM


Like Maria Callas's voice, Susan Sontag's mind, to borrow a phrase from the great filmmaker Werner Schroeter (one of countless underappreciated artists Sontag championed), was "a comet passing once in a hundred years." In a dauntingly, often viciously anti-intellectual society, Sontag made being an intellectual attractive.

She was the indispensible voice of moral responsibility, perceptual clarity, passionate (and passionately reasonable) advocacy: for aesthetic pleasure, for social justice, for unembarrassed hedonism, for life against death. Sontag took it as a given that our duty as sentient beings is to rescue the world. She knew that empathy can change history.

She set the bar of skepticism as high as it would go. Allergic to received ideas and their hypnotic blandishments, she was often startled to discover how devalued the ethical sense, and the courage to exercise it, had become in American consumer culture.

Sontag had impeccable instincts for saying and doing what needed to be said and done while too many others scrambled for the safety of consensus. Hence the uproar when she declared, at the height of Solidarity's epochal crisis in 1982, that "communism . . . is fascism with a human face." Hence also the depressingly rote indignation mobilized against her response to a New Yorker survey about the 9-11 attacks, published on September 24, 2001—a survey that most respondents used to promote themselves, their latest books, the depth of their own "feelings."

Of course it was, and still is, easier for many Americans to pretend the events of 9-11 were inexplicable eruptions of violence against American virtuousness, perpetrated by people who "hate us for our freedoms." Indeed, the habitual assertion of the American way of life's superiority is probably what persuades supposedly serious writers to weigh in on a civil catastrophe by promoting their own narrow interests, dropping in news of their current travel itineraries, their marriages, their kids—oh, and how shaken they were by the tragic events.

It takes unusual bravery to cite, in a large media venue, cause and effect as operant elements in a man-made emergency—especially when the programmed pieties and entrenched denial mechanisms of society run in the opposite direction.

Sontag drew her own better-than-well-informed conclusions about what happened on 9-11. The habit of independent thought has so little currency in 21st-century America that dissent is the last thing most Americans consider worth protecting.

What Jean Genet referred to as "the far Right and its imbecilic mythology" have already been activated in several "obituary" pieces, including one fulminating, hateful dismissal of Sontag's entire lifework. It's lowering to realize how terminally bitter the American right really is: Even in its current triumphal micro-epoch, it needs to demonize somebody.

Sontag's political "lapses," cited even in sympathetic articles, are in fact the public moments one should most admire her for. She was usually right, and when she hadn't been, she said so. It's customary these days to damn people for "inconsistency," as if it's somehow virtuous to persist forever in being wrong. Sontag interrogated her own ideas with merciless rigor, and when she discovered they no longer applied, or were defectively inadequate or just plain bad, she never hesitated to change her mind in public.

Certainly she felt the same revulsion and horror at the atrocity of 9-11 that any New Yorker, any citizen of the world, did. But she also had the moral scruple to connect the attacks to generally untelevised, lethal American actions abroad, to the indiscriminate carnage that has typified both state policy and terrorist violence in the new century. Where, exactly, does the difference lie?

Unlike our government's loudest warmongers and their media cheerleaders, Sontag put her own life on the line, many times, in defense of her principles—in Israel during the Six Day War, in Hanoi during the American bombardment, in Sarajevo throughout much of the conflict there. Like Genet, she was willing to go anywhere, at a moment's notice, out of solidarity with people on the receiving end of contemporary barbarism.

The range of her talents and interests was no less impressive than her moral instincts. She once told me that "every good book is worth reading at least once" (in her case, it was usually at least twice). Her appetite for cultural provender—opera, avant-garde theater, film, dance, travel, historical inquiry, cuisine of any kind, architecture, the history of ideas—was inexhaustible. If you told her about something she didn't know, she soon knew more about it than you did. She routinely went directly from a museum to a screening, then to a concert; and if there was a kung fu movie playing somewhere after all that, off she went, whether you were still ambulatory or not.

I know I'm in a minority, but I remain a fan of Sontag's early novels The Benefactor and Death Kit—Sontag herself cared little for them in later years. Not enough people have seen the films she directed: Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl in Sweden, Promised Lands in Israel, Unguided Tour in Venice. These early and middle works could be considered noble experiments, operating on a high level of fluency and daring.

None of these works are as sumptuously realized as her best essays, or her later novels The Volcano Lover and In America. At times, her reverence for the European modernists who influenced her eclipses her own seldom mentioned, American gift for absurdist black humor. (Death Kit has anything but a reputation for hilarity, but it's one of the most darkly funny narratives written in America during the Vietnam War.) Many of Sontag's essays, for that matter, have threads of Firbankian whimsy and manic satire running through them—and no, I'm not referring to "Notes on Camp."

There's no way to summarize her restless cultural itinerary and her immense services to "the republic of letters" in the space of an obituary. What I can speak of, here, again, is the indelible example she set as a moral being, citizen, and writer. She sedulously distinguished between the merely personal and the insights personal experience generated. "I" appears less frequently in her writings than in those of any other significant American writer I can think of. If Sontag was less averse, in recent times, to saying "I," it could be that she at last realized she'd earned the authority for "I" to mean more, coming from her, than it does coming from most people. (In America, "I" isn't simply a pronoun, but a way of life.)

It's my guess that growing up in Arizona and Southern California, among people who placed no special value on intelligence and none at all on its cultivation, Sontag's first line of defense against being hurt by other people was the same thing (aside from physical beauty) that distinguished her from ordinary people—that awesome intellect. She could be ferociously assertive, and at times even hurtful, without at all realizing the tremendous effect she had on people. In some ways, like any American intellectual, she often felt slighted or underappreciated, even when people were actually paying keen attention to her.

Her personal magnetism was legendary. Even in later times, she had the glamour of a film star. She almost never wore makeup (though she did, finally, find a shade of lipstick she could stand), and usually wore black slacks, black sweaters, and sometimes a black leather jacket, though occasionally the jacket would be brown. She had the body language of a young person: She once explained to me that people get old when they started acting like old people.

I never heard her say a dumb word, even in moments of evident distress. She did, from time to time, do things that seemed quite odd, but then, who doesn't? Her will to keep experiencing, learning, and feeling "the old emotions"—and, sometimes, to make herself empty, restock her interiority, break with old ideas—came with a project of self-transcendence that Sontag shouldered, like Sisyphus's stone, cheerfully, "with fervor."

She once told Dick Cavett, after the first of her struggles with cancer, that she didn't find her own illness interesting. She stipulated that it was moving to her, but not interesting. To be interesting, experience has to yield a harvest of ideas, which her illness certainly did—but she communicated them in a form useful to others in ways a conventional memoir couldn't be. (To be useful, one has to reach others on the level of thought, not only feeling—though the two are inseparable.)

In light of her own illness, she set about removing the stigma then attached to cancer, dismantling the punitive myths this fearsome illness generated at the time. We don't look at illness in the same way we did before Illness as Metaphor and the widespread examination of our relationship to medicine that it triggered.

Her detachment in this regard was a powerful asset. Many years ago, I went with her one morning to her radiologist. The radiologist had gotten back some complicated X-rays and wanted to discuss them. On the way uptown, Susan was incredibly composed, long resigned to hyper-vigilance as the price of staying alive.

At the clinic, she disappeared into the doctor's office for a worryingly long time. When she came out, finally, she was laughing.

"She put the X-rays up," Susan told me, "and said, 'This really doesn't look good.' So I looked them over, and thought about it. Then I said, 'You're right. These don't look good. But you know something, these aren't my X-rays.' "

They weren't her X-rays. Her most recent procedure had left a temporary, subcutaneous line of staple sutures running from her throat to her abdomen. The tiny metal clamps she knew were there would have glowed on an X-ray.

For some reason this was the first memory that flashed to mind when the sad news came that she was gone.




As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag – review

Sontag's thoughts on heartache, politics – and her legs


Emily Stokes


The title of the second volume of Susan Sontag's diaries comes from a note in the margin next to an entry from 1965: "spiritual project – but tied to making an object (as consciousness is harnessed to flesh)". It is a curious phrase, suggesting the paradox that is art: a real, tangible thing resulting from a long, indefinable process. It evokes, too, the duality of Sontag herself: the public figure, whose provocative essays can seem to readers intimidatingly confident, and the mind that made them – which, as her diaries reveal, was unusually full of pain.


The title was presumably chosen by Sontag's son, David Rieff, who will edit three volumes in total; the first, Reborn, which came out in 2009, started in 1947, when the precocious 15-year-old Sontag took herself off to the University of California, where she discovered her own bisexuality and the novels of Thomas Mann. Having transferred to Chicago, she married her professor, Philip Rieff, with whom she had a son, before leaving him to go to Oxford and then Paris. Critics responded to the self-aggrandising tone and the recounting of heartaches in that book with mixed feelings – partly perhaps because Sontag didn't approve the publication of the notebooks before her death, and partly because the angst-ridden diaries made her seem almost ordinary. This second volume covers the period in which she produced the main body of her essays and fiction. Rieff edits his mother's innermost thoughts only lightly, adding in names and correcting factual errors, but leaving it up to the reader to establish which of the notes might refer to which of the essays.

Having abandoned academia, Sontag spent her 30s writing and consuming New York's culture: watching films, attending "happenings", visiting the studios of her artist friends Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Thek and Jasper Johns. Her diary entries are often short and elliptical, consisting of observations ("Jasper Johns = Duchamp painted by Monet"), quotations from her reading, and, most of all, lists. But the majority of the volume is devoted to Sontag's consciousness, her notes clearly coloured by the "deconditioning" that took place on the couch of her therapist, Diana Kemeny. Still wounded by her breakup with the Cuban playwright María Irene Fornés ("I am frozen, paralysed, the gears are jammed … "), she embarks on a romance with "Carlotta" or "C", a woman who likes Sontag for her independence but who makes her feel needy ("I must not offer her my suffering … as proof of my love"). Unlike her essays, which warned against looking for hidden depth, her personal prose champions Freudian conjecture: on her dislike of her body (particularly her legs), her desire to please others, her "insatiable" appetite for culture.

Sontag's essays are arch, intransigent – so it is a rare pleasure to read, in her diary, discoveries being made in real time. She applies her mind to itself with enthusiasm, in one gripping sequence unravelling the unconscious inspiration behind her second novel, Death Kit, in which the protagonist, Diddy, plans his suicide. "Diddy. Daddy," she writes. "That's the source of the meditation on death I've carried in my heart all my life. Diddy is 33 years old. So was Daddy when he died." Heartbreak is also useful material; having been rejected by C in Paris in 1970, she returns to New York apparently broken, before using the experience to enlighten her "psychobiography". "I feel once again, and I rejoice that I'm not busy dying," she writes. "I'm still busy being born."

Her self-revision was necessarily helped by world politics. While Sontag's stylish essays can seem designed to shock – "Fascinating Fascism" is more about the lure of leather than the reality of Nazi Germany – the 60s forced her to face the realities of the politics she had ignored or aestheticised. In 1968, she participated in a trip to Hanoi for antiwar activists, and her longer, more polished notes on that time betray her bewilderment with a communist Asian culture in which "everyone talks in the same style, and has the same things to say". "Trip to Hanoi", written after her return to New York, is one of the few essays in which Sontag allowed the first-person to peek out through her public prose.

"My various selves," she writes in 1967, "woman, mother, teacher, lover, etc – how do they all come together?" The overall portrait gained from these journals seems to be of an impossibly fractured author – but the diaries also remind us that Sontag the writer and Sontag the woman, inevitably, occupy the same territory, so that even when she is writing about culture, she is, in a sense, exploring herself. Her interest in Greta Garbo, an actor with a talent for always being Greta Garbo, and in Ingmar Bergman's Persona, a film in which two women's identities merge, suggest a mind searching to reconcile interior motive with public image.

In the 70s, she realises her tolerance of communism is no longer tenable. The complications of real life impinge on her neat theses – as when she understands that, having advocated absolute free speech, a lack of censorship might inure people to sadism, or that, having championed only radical new art, classical literature could be forgotten. Being an "adversary writer" has a downside: "I can't help being dismayed when my minority taste … becomes majority taste … I can't help but be in an adversary relation to my own work."

Sontag appears, toward the end of this difficult, fascinating volume, diminished – by poor reviews of her films and, one might suppose, by the surgeries on her breast cancer (which, revealingly, she barely mentions, making only a few remarks about the book it inspired, Illness as a Metaphor). Her personal consolations – her partner, the poet Joseph Brodsky, and books by Elizabeth Hardwick and Nietzsche – do little to stave off writer's block.

The experience of reading the diaries as her depression sets in again is strangely mesmerising. When Sontag does find a way through, it is in a kind of creative destruction – a proposal for Notes on Notes, a book on the aphorism, that punchy, provocative mode she had adopted in her youth, and which she had since rejected for the pluralistic vision of On Photography. "To write aphorisms is to assume a mask – a mask of scorn, of superiority," she writes in her diary, adding that, in the end, "the aphorist's amoral, light point of view self-destructs". The book, like so many of Sontag's proposals, was never written. As her diaries reveal with such intensity, she harnessed only a fraction of her mind to produce the writing we have seen until now; the rest is consciousness.



Text: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 01.01.2006, Nr. 52 / Seite 32

Susan Sontag
Ah, Susan! Toujours fidèle
Von Michael Krüger

02. Januar 2006 Am 17. Januar 2005 wurde Susan Sontag auf dem Friedhof Montparnasse begraben. Es regnete diesen feinen, nahezu unsichtbaren Pariser Regen, den man erst bemerkt, wenn man richtig durchnäßt ist. Jeder der wenigen Trauergäste, die sich am Haupteingang eingefunden hatten und sich untereinander nicht besonders gut zu kennen schienen, was kein Wunder gewesen wäre bei Susan Sontag, die viele Interessen hatte und in vielen Städten zu Hause war; jeder stand trübsinnig unter seinem Schirm. Man wollte kaum miteinander reden, man wollte nicht "Hi!" oder "How are you?" sagen, nicht einmal das "Bon" in "Bonjour" kam einem so richtig über die Lippen.

Hätte Susan Sontag sich auch so verhalten? Kaum vorstellbar. Ihre Neugier auf Menschen, auf Verhältnisse und Verbindungen, auch auf Klatsch war unersättlich, und gerade weil sie nicht in dem Land lebte, aus dem man selber kam, konnte sie einen genußvoll und insistent ausquetschen. Es gehörte zum Anspruch ihres intellektuellen Netzwerks und zu ihrer Selbstinszenierung, daß sie immer sehr genau wußte, wer was tat, dachte, auch zu denken unterließ - ganz gleich, wo der- oder diejenige zu Hause war.

Lesen, Reisen, Sehen

Sie bestand aus Lesen, Reisen, Sehen. Ihrer intellektuellen Wachheit, Geistesgegenwärtigkeit entging selten etwas, die Kapazität ihrer Aufmerksamkeit war unendlich groß. In ihrer Jugend - sie hatte ihre Kinderzeit schnell hinter sich gebracht, samt Studium und Ehe, um rasch ihr Werk beginnen zu können; in ihrer Jugend war sie spielerischer, in einem schönen Sinne unverantwortlicher, sich selbst widersprechender, ambitionierter: eine Idee jagte die nächste, um schließlich das essayistische Gebäude zu bilden, das unter dem Kampftitel "Against Interpretation" nicht nur in Amerika Furore machte - das die amerikanische Kritik und damit das amerikanische Bewußtsein in den sechziger Jahren veränderte.

Ihr ist es zu verdanken, daß sie allen aufkeimenden Tendenzen, sich dem harten formalen Zugriff des "new criticism" zu erwehren, Ausdruck gab, besonders in den Essays "Gegen Interpretation", "Camp" und "Die Einheit der Kultur und die neue Erlebnisweise". Und sie brachte die europäische Kultur nach Amerika: manchmal, besonders nachdem George Steiner vom "New Yorker" gefeuert wurde, hatte man den Eindruck, Susan Sontag sei allein dafür verantwortlich, den heiklen Zusammenhang der westlichen Kultur zu vermitteln. Ohne ihr intellektuelles Pflichtbewußtsein wäre es nicht dazu gekommen, daß einige der französischen Geister, die jetzt neben ihr auf dem Friedhof von Montparnasse ruhen, ihren Auftritt auf der amerikanischen Bühne gehabt hätten: Artaud und Leiris, Natalie Sarraute und Cioran, Ionesco und Roland Barthes.

Unter erbärmlichen Schmerzen das Leben aufgegeben

Der heute schon fast wieder vergessene Roland Barthes, dem sie einen ihrer hellsichtigen Essays gewidmet hat, war einer ihrer Brüder im Geiste: "Alles, was er schrieb", schrieb sie, "war interessant - lebhaft, voller Tempo, dicht, pointiert." Das Porträt von Roland Barthes liest sich heute streckenweise wie ein Selbstporträt von Susan Sontag, wie wir sie kannten. ",Ah, Susan. Toujours fidele', waren die Worte", schreibt sie, "mit denen er mich herzlich begrüßte, als wir einander das letzte Mal sahen. War ich auch, bin ich noch", fügt sie trotzig hinzu. Wenn jemand Lust am Text hatte und Lust auf Text machen konnte, dann war sie es.

Fidele waren wir im Nieselregen auf Montparnasse überhaupt nicht. Ich war froh, daß Carolin Emcke auftauchte. Sie hatte nicht nur, wie Susan, Erfahrung damit, das Leiden anderer zu betrachten - und das heißt ja auch: auszuhalten -, sondern sie hatte Susan noch kürzlich gesehen, bevor dann die schlimme Phase des unerträglichen Schmerzes begann. Es ist bedrückend, daß Susan Sontag, die das Leiden anderer nicht nur beschrieben, sondern über viele Jahre am eigenen Leib erfahren hatte und trotzdem nicht katastrophisch geworden war, unter so erbärmlichen Schmerzen das Leben aufgeben mußte. Ihre Bücher "Krankheit als Metapher" und "Aids und seine Metaphern" sind ja nichts anderes als der Versuch, sich von dem Schrecken der Krankheit zu befreien. Vielleicht, dachte ich, wollte sich die Krankheit für die von Susan betriebene Entmystifizierung rächen?

Dann kam die mächtige Limousine mit dem Sarg, Carolin und ich und der plötzlich aus dem Regen aufgetauchte Bob Wilson, der verspätet aus Oslo eingeflogen war, gingen hinterher. Wilson trug einen zu kurzen wattierten Anorak über dem Jackett, was mir als Regelverletzung angenehm war. Denn der Sarg, der nun auf den asphaltierten Weg, der die Nekropole kreuzt, gestellt wurde, war eine ästhetische Katastrophe: warum darf man einer Schriftstellerin wie Susan Sontag in dem Moment, wo sie sich nicht mehr wehren kann, ein so scheußliches Monstrum als letzten Ort zuweisen? Der Wert einer Zivilisation bemißt sich an der Art und Weise, wie sie mit ihren Toten umgeht; unsere europäischen Särge sprechen nicht für uns. Denn wie kann sich eine Seele, die sich aufmacht, "im größten, mächtigsten aller Imperien" ihren Platz zu suchen, von diesem Bild einer ungewollten Behausung befreien?

„Wozu sind Wurzeln gut?”

Wurzeln jedenfalls wird sie hier nicht schlagen, ging mir durch den Kopf, und mir fiel der Satz von Gertrude Stein ein, den Susan Sontag in ihren Essays zitiert: "Wozu sind Wurzeln gut, wenn man sie nicht mitnehmen kann?" Susans eigene Wurzeln waren europäisch, sie war europäisch-jüdischer Abstammung und stammte aus dem Gebiet, das sich heute über Litauen und Polen verteilt. Es war die Heimat vieler ihrer Freunde, von Czeslaw Milosz bis Adam Zagajewski und vieler ihrer literarischen Wahlverwandtschaften, von Gombrowicz bis Danilo Kis. "Der Tod von Danilo Kis am 15. Oktober 1989 im Alter von vierundfünfzig Jahren bedeutete das schmerzlich vorzeitige Ende einer Reise in die Literatur, wie sie bedeutender kaum ein Schriftsteller während der zweiten Hälfte des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts unternommen hat." So beginnt Susan Sonntags Essay über Kis. Hat bei uns einer so über Kis geschrieben?

Ich zitiere diese Sätze auch deshalb, weil ich Susans Talent zum passionierten Enthusiasmus erwähnen möchte, ihr ansteckendes Talent für Bewunderung: In den letzten Jahren war nämlich auch ein zunehmend kritischer, abschätziger Ton zu hören, wenn von Susan Sontag die Rede war, ihr exzentrischer Egoismus wurde ihr vorgehalten, ihre Bereitschaft, sich politisch zu äußern, wo andere den Mund hielten, ja, man warf ihr sogar vor, in Sarajewo unter Kriegsbedingungen inszeniert zu haben, nämlich Becketts "Godot". Selbst wenn man in vielen Fragen anders dachte als sie, darf man ihre große Solidarität mit Schriftstellern nie und nimmer in Frage stellen: einen großen Teil ihrer Produktivität hat sie anderen Autoren sehr selbstlos zur Verfügung gestellt, viele hat sie durch ihren Einsatz gerettet.

Bis dahin unbekannte Freunde verändern das Bild

David Rieff, Susans über alles geliebter Sohn, inzwischen selber einer der bekanntesten kritischen Köpfe in Amerika, der sich vor allem mit Kriegen und Kriegsfolgen beschäftigt, sprach die Abschiedsworte. Man mußte zu David, der von Susan nicht nur die Intelligenz, sondern auch den mächtigen Haarschopf geerbt hat, aufblicken, vom Sarg weg, und sah nun die anderen Abschiednehmer, manche erkannte man sofort, wie James Fenton und seinen Freund Darryl Pinckney oder Salman Rushdie, Andrew Wylie, Ivan Nabokov, andere kamen einem bekannt vor, andere hatte man noch nie gesehen. Auf Beerdigungen zeigen sich bis dahin unbekannte Freunde und verändern das Bild, das man von der Verstorbenen hat. Isabelle Huppert trat vor und las ein paar kurze Texte von Susans neuen Nachbarn, bevor wir dann unter Flötenmusik das verwinkelte Labyrinth des Friedhofs betraten, um zuzuschauen, wie der Sarg in das eigentümlich tiefe, dunkle, verregnete Loch gelassen wurde. Jetzt lag sie also neben Emile Cioran, dem rumänischen Exilanten, den sie in den Staaten bekannt gemacht hatte.

Irgendwann war auch diese Beerdigung vorüber. Man gehörte, wieder einmal, zu den Überlebenden. Man schüttelte sich die Hände, wischte die Tränen weg und verkrümelte sich. Paris ist grau, eine graue Stadt, die graueste Stadt der Welt, niemals sieht man es deutlicher als in dem feinen Nieselregen. Ich lief zur Seine und dann zurück zu meinem Hotel. Dort schrieb ich die Erinnerung an unsere letzten Begegnungen auf, an die Begegnungen mit einer trotzigen, dem Tod trotzenden Kranken. Und am Schluß notierte ich, daß ich irgendwann einmal über ihre Vermittlung deutscher Literatur nach Amerika schreiben müßte. Ivan Nagel hat es in seiner glänzenden Laudatio zur Verleihung des Friedenspreises an Susan Sontag angedeutet, aber in der Hauptsache dann über die politische Bürgerin Susan Sontag gesprochen - sprechen müssen, die man nie verdächtigen konnte, Sympathie für political correctness zu haben.

Ein Platz in der Paulskirche war damals leer geblieben, der Platz des amerikanischen Botschafters. Aber einer mußte der Sache nachgehen, von der ersten Begegnung des Kindes Susan mit einem deutschen Schriftsteller, nämlich Thomas Mann, über die großen Essays zu Walter Benjamin und Elias Canetti bis hin zu ihrem Einsatz für W. G. Sebald. Sie selbst sprach nicht Deutsch.

Der Autor ist Verleger und Schriftsteller




TLS N.º5834, DE 23-1-2015





Daniel Schreiber
A biography
Translated by David Dollermayer
296pp. Northwestern University Press.
£28.50 (US $35).
978 0 8101 2583 4

Jerome Boyd Maunsell
224pp. Reaktion. £10.95 (US $16.95).
978 1 78023 288 1


Susan is here — what a beauty she is! But I dislike so much about her, the way she sings girlish and off key, the way she dances, rhythmless and fake sexy.” In her 1957 diary; Harriet Sohmers recorded her ambivalence about the arrival of Susan Sontag in Paris. “She seems so naive. Is she honest?” They had met first in a San Francisco book- shop in 1949, and began an affair while Sontag was still a teenager. Nearly a decade later, after Sontag had married and given birth to a son, they resumed the relationship. Sontag was studying philosophy at the Sorbonne; Sohmers, a translator of Justine by the Marquis de Sade, was working nights at the New York Herald Tribune. For Sontag, who had spent much of her childhood living near the desert in Arizona, the international, bohemian scene she became part of in France was crucial in the formation of her sensibility. Here she kept company with radicals, aesthetes and homosexuals and spent her nights roaming from café to café, eager for the heady conversation that this mix of people created. She was introduced to the revolutionary ideas of the nouveau roman and nouvelle vague, and became a passionate cinema-goer, often seeing two or three films a day — a habit she kept up for the rest of her life.

Sontag had studied in California, Chicago, Harvard and Oxford, but it was in Paris that she shook off her American parochialism. Giving free reign to her enthusiasm, she became a connoisseur of the kitsch, the outré, the obscure and avant-garde. At the same time, she began to read contemporary French novelists, and influenced by expatriate friends, those writers she took as her exemplars: Beckett, Borges, Kafka and Nabokoy. In so doing, she found the work of a lifetime: crusading against the distinctions that divide high from low culture, form from content, thought from feeling, ethics from aesthetics, or fantasy from judgment (distinctions she felt, which should only be employed “against themselves”). As she wrote in her diary in the first flush of her relationship with Sohmers, “everything matters “. Part of what drew her to Jasper Johns (who also became her lover) and to his friend John Cage, was that they shared not only her wide interests but also her feeling that, in a time of capitalist excess, these might be best expressed in an art of restraint, in what Sontag called an “aesthetic of silence”. Much as she admired this, though, her own writing grew out of “restlessness and dissatisfaction”. So she championed those waters who emerged outside capitalism s domain: a relationship with Joseph Brodsky in the 1 970s was influential in shaping her view of the American Left, and in making her think more deeply about writing as part of global culture, leading to essays such as “The Idea of: Europe” and “On Being Translated”, as well as eulogies to Marina Tsvetaeva, Danilo Ki and Witold Gombrowicz. From this flowed a renewed concern for writers around the world battling against authoritarian regimes. Between 1987 and 1989, when Salman Rushdie was placed under a fatwa, she was chair of  American PEN.

Daniel Schreiber’ s Susan Sontag: A biography presents a portrait of the intellectual- as-celebrity. He is much concerned with image, reputation and Sontag’s response to fame (it was first published under the title Geist und Glamour in 2009). Jerome Boyd Maunsell’s book is more centrally engaged with Sontag’ s work in the context of her life. While Schreiber regards Sontag with suspicion, is disposed to see any rethinking as evidence of dissembling, and claims to have “clarified. . . dishonesties”, Maunsell presents her changes of mind more judiciously as a facet of her intellectual mobility. Schreiber gives us a sense of how Sontag appeared to others, making use of interviews with friends and colleagues; Maunsell relies more on published material to inform his exegesis, including Leland Poague’ s interview selection (1995), and the two volumes of diaries edited by her son, David Rieff (2009, 2013).

For both biographers, however, the basis of her story is the same. What Sontag called her “desert childhood”, lonely, isolated and fatherless, left her with a hunger she was determined to satisfy. As she observed, something about her “eccentricity or the oddness of [her] upbringing” served her well: it meant she escaped the pressure other girls felt to limit their desire. When the family moved to California, she engineered a meeting with Thomas Mann. At the age of sixteen, she enrolled on Chicago’s Great Books of the Western World course, and the following year married Philip Rieff, a sociology lecturer — a hastily begun relationship which unravelled slowly and painfully: “I lost a decade”, she said later. Once she made her way to Europe, though, as well as living in England and France, she journeyed across Italy, Spain, Germany and Greece. “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list”, she quipped. Places she could eventually cross off included Cuba, Vietnam, China and Poland (later decried, Schreiber notes, as trips to the “Disneyland of revolution”); Israel, where Sontag went to film a documentary about the 1973 Arab—Israeli War; Bosnia, where she staged a production of Waiting for Godot during the siege of Sarajevo; and Japan, to which late in life she kept returning. As a young woman Sontag vowed: “I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere. I shall involve myself wholly”. But later diaries reveal she was suspicious of her avidity, concerned that her picking up and discarding of people was vampiric. “Gathering my treasure, I learn what they know. . . then take off.” Her love affairs with men and women were not uncomplicated. The relationship with Sohmers was turbulent, and Sontag was crushed when she read her diary. At the end of 1958, she moved back to America, divorced Philip Rieff, and took her son, David, to New York to begin the life she had always envisaged for herself: that of a freelance intellectual.

As if to repudiate Sohmers’s slur, Sontag challenged the old-guard intelligentsia in America by publishing provocative, epigrammatic criticism not only in Commentary and Partisan Review, but also in Vogue and Mademoiselle. Her readers admired her intellectual rigour and thrilled to the cutting-edge critique in her work. There were seminal essays and monographs on underground gay sensibility (“Notes on Camp”, 1964), “the intellect’s revenge upon art” (“Against Interpretation”, 1964), voyeurism, surveillance and the spread of imagery (On Photography, 1977; Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003), and the unthinking use of metaphor (“On Style”, 1965; Illness as Metaphor, 1978; AIDS and its Metaphors, 1989). She was photographed by CartierBresson, filmed by Andy Warhol, and made the subject of devotional artwork by Joseph Cornell. Yet the suggestion that she was “off key”, “naive”, not quite credible, lingered, if only in the conditional praise that habitually came her way. Typical of this genre was Jonathan Miller’ s designation of Sontag as “the most intelligent woman in America”.

The American critic Vivian Gornick has argued that what Sontag made of such praise, and her experience of the dubious distinction conferred on her as a “remarkable exception”, should provide the organizing principle of any biography, helping us to better understand the position of the female intellectual in the twentieth century. Certainly, the authoritative style of Sontag’s early writing, her lofty public manner and her reluctance to discuss her sexuality, all seem like strategies to deflect from her gender and help her assume the mantle of universality and exemplariness accorded to great male writers. But, as Schreiber reports, it was a stance that left some feminists angered by her apparent lack of partisanship. In 1975, Adrienne Rich demanded in a letter to the New York Review of Books that Sontag make clear her position on feminism. Sontag’s response was that of course she was a feminist, but this did not mean she would succumb to intellectual banality or bow to “infantile leftism”. The criticism continued, however. In 1994, Camille Paglia argued that Sontag’s “cool exile was a disaster for the American women’ s movement”.

The years of Sontag’ s marriage were not entirely “lost”: she spent much of that time co-writing a book with her husband on Freud (though in their divorce settlement she agreed not to be credited). Maunsell points out that an early chapter, “The Tactics of Interpretation”, anticipates her later themes: “for Freud, nothing is ever allowed to just be what it is. ‘Slips of the tongue, pen, memory; mislaying of objects; fiddling or doodling, the most ordinary trivialities may become symptomatic, meaningful.’ One thing is always substituted for another by Freud yet with how much accuracy?” Though Sontag played down the influence of the nouveau roman on her early experimental novels (The Benefactor, 1963; Death Kit, 1967) — and Maunsell, following this, places them rather intriguingly as works of American surrealism — it is hard to imagine that her thinking about Freudian displacement was not consolidated when she read the French post-war writers, with their dislike of metaphor and its insinuation of ultimate meaning. She writes in “On Style” that “metaphors mislead”, an idea that surfaces again and again. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1978 she observes, “what was perishable in a lot of writing was precisely its adornment. . . the style for eternity was an unadorned one”. Indeed, much of Sontag’ s work forms a commentary on the tendency in modernity to excess, to duplication or recycling. “We live in a world of copies”, she protests, “the work is not allowed to remain itself.”

Sontag’s public manner may have been provocatively cool, but her style in criticism tended, as Maunsell notes, “to revelatory explication and ardent admiration”. Often referred to as the High Priestess or Dark Lady of American Letters, her ardour made her seem, to some, girlish — another epithet frequently applied to her (Daniel Mendelsohn, reviewing her Diaries, spoke of her “girlish effusions”; Stephen Koch interviewed in the New York Observer, thought her “very girlish”: Phillip Lopate in Notes on Sontag (2005) describes her “great girlish squeal”); she herself worried that ardour could overwhelm its object. In an essay on Elias Canetti, she wrote that for “talented admirers it is necessary to go beyond avidity to identify with something beyond achievement, beyond the gathering of power”. Her declared aim in writing, after all, was to transcend the self, and while “ardent admiration” could arouse the energies necessary for criticism, there was a danger it could also be thrown back on the admirer.

Perhaps this accounts for Sontag’s fascination with the figure of the collector, someone who transforms admiration and appetite into discrimination and connoisseurship, yet remains caught, in Maunsell’s phrase, in “the pathos of avidity”. This figure is present in her first novel as the self-absorbed Hippolyte, collecting his dreams in order to better understand himself; and in her penultimate novel, The Volcano Lover (1992), in the character based on the Scottish diplomat and vulcanologist William Hamilton. “Does he seem cold? He is simply managing, managing brilliantly. .. . He ferried himself past one vortex of melancholy after another by means of an astonishing spread of enthusiasms. He is interested in everything.” Women, Sontag suggests, are not always able to move past their abjection in the same way. In the novel, Hamilton recalls a fable about a statue of a woman. A man “collects” her, granting her a limited consciousness with the sense of smell. For her, every odour is good, because any odour is better than none. All her pleasures, then, are tinged with loss: she cannot make the “luxurious distinction” between good and bad. “She wants, if only she knew how, to become a collector.”

Daniel Schreiber’s concentration on Sontag’ s public persona goes some way to describing how the desert girl was able to translate her passionate will to knowledge into one of the most vital bodies of work in America’ s recent cultural history. He pays particular attention to her polemical interventions: her contention at the time of the Vietnam War that the white race had created nothing that could compensate for its violence; her chastising of the American Left at a 1982 Solidarity rally for not realizing that “communism was fascism with a human face”; and, in the aftermath of 9/11, her “bemoaning the absence of discussion worthy of a democracy”. Schreiber’s treatment of her work, though, gives too much weight to its reception, quoting without challenge many ill- informed and negative reviews. His suggestion that Sontag not only succumbed to her image, but was so self-deceived as to be incapable of distinguishing between the bad and the good in herself, seems self-serving, justifying his role as biographer for the prosecution.

Maunsell, by contrast, presents a nuanced account of Sontag’ s intellectual development. He traces her ever-present subjects, above all the duty of the writer to direct attention, while seeing that her books arose “out of self-correction” and self-contestation, the result of a continuing “readiness to immerse herself in contemporariness”. Indeed, the achievement of Maunsell’s biography is that he makes sense of Sontag’s responsiveness to the contemporary, and the currency this gave her work for over half a century — a period long enough for her to repeatedly modify arguments or reason on the contrary. She was an oppositional writer, and the opposition was frequently wielded against herself. Maunsell champions her “crucially misunderstood” early novels, judged as failures in realism rather than on their own terms as Duchampalike “endlessly reconstructable puzzles”, designed to resist analysis. But he also writes persuasively about a lecture delivered not long before her death when she defended the novel form precisely for its “artful sense of completion”. “Now”, Maunsell observes, “it was not interpretation that was the main danger for he?’, but “the untrammelled flow of information”.

In learning how to become a collector — one with the freedom to make new distinctions and then change her mind about them — Sontag had to develop a style of her own. As a young woman, she relished the freedom and authority of impersonality in her writing, but over time this suited her less. It took her thirty years to find a way of speaking more directly, with “warmth and candour”, as Jerome Boyd Maunsell puts it, “to learn”, as Susan Sontag herself said in an interview, “how to write a book I really like: The Volcano Lover”. The book she liked was the one in which finally she reflects on what that style suppressed: “I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book”.