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« In Which We Experience The Pain Of Susan Sontag »

photo by annie leibovitz

Frantically Impure


The problem for me is to transfer a detached intellectual skepticism into a way of harmonious all-around living.

-Aldous Huxley

Susan Sontag's father died when she was four, and her mother Mildred moved the sad family to Tucson. Mildred was not very motherly, at least not in the way Susan thought she should be, having read a biography of Madame Curie and Little Women. Descendants of European Jews, Susan's parents had met in the Catskills, where Mildred Rosenblatt worked as a waitress. It is a familiar story to anyone who knows Jewish women of that generation who lived in the tristate area.

Her mother remarried. Susan's new stepfather, Nathan Sontag, was a veteran of the second World War. He provided for her and her mother, although Susan regarded him as something of a square. She was one of three Jews at North Hollywood High, as astonishing as that is to believe today. Growing up in Arizona and then in the San Fernando Valley, Susan felt completely outside of the culture in which she lived. She quickly grew tall, a fact not readily evident in the majority of her glamour photos. Her unique height was a troublesome fact of her teenage existence.

She wrote in her journal:

I believe:

(a) That there is no personal god or life after death

(b) That the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e. Honesty

(c) That the only difference between human beings is intelligence

(d) That the only criterion of an action is its ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy

(e) That it is wrong to deprive any man of life

(h) I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state (besides "g") should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and age. State care of pregnant women with no distrinction such as legitimate and illegitimate children.

And then on April 13th of the next year, when she was just fifteen, "Ideas disturb the levelness of life." She was perhaps imitating Kafka's journals and way of speaking in these early efforts, but the prose is still incredibly imaginative for her age and experience.

Susan wanted to attend the University of Chicago, but her mother would have none of that. In Susan's journals Mildred and Nathan actually seem strikingly normal - it is she who stands out of the flow of life, not her staid guardians. She made a reading list for herself that year:

The Counterfeiters - Gide
The Immoralist
- Gide
Lafcadio's Adventures - Gide
Corydon - Gide

Tar - Sherwood Anderson
The Island Within - Ludwig Lewisohn
Sanctuary - William Faulkner
Esther Water - George Moore
Diary of a Writer - Dostoyevsky
Against the Grain - Huysmans
The Disciple - Paul Bourget
Sanin - Mikhail Artsybashev
Johnny Got His Gun - Dalton Trumbo
The Forsyte Saga - Galsworthy
The Egoist - George Meredith
Diana of the Crossways - Meredith
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel - Meredith

poems of Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Tibullus, Heine, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire

The list goes on for another five pages, naming over a hundred books.

Her mother allowed her to go to Berkeley instead, closer to home. Susan found herself as distant and impossible to others as she had been in southern California. On April 16th of 1949, she wrote, "I read the major part of The Brothers Karamazov and suddenly feel frantically impure. I wrote three letters to Peter and Audrey completely severing those relationships and to Mother, semi-declaring my revulsion for the past." This is just a sampling; in April of 2012 FSG will release the next volume of Susan's brilliant journals, and they are sure to be full of illuminating putdowns. In her private writing, Sontag was able to free herself of the academic jargon that, although it connected with her intense interiority, ruined her prose.

After transferring to the University of Chicago, Susan received the classical education that would change her life. It is impossible to imagine the esoterically liberal Sontag worshipping at the feet of the godfather of neoconservatism Leo Strauss, but at Chicago many things were possible. Jewish or atheist professors like Strauss, Kenneth Burke and Ned Rosenheim became Susan's idols. On campus, she was consistently the center of attention. Men vastly outnumbered women there, and Susan's combination of beauty and intellectual ambitions drew the faculty and student body to her like a totem. One such entranced individual was professor of sociology Philip Rieff. After she appeared late for his class on Kafka, Rieff took her aside and asked her out. They were married the next day, him 27 and her all of 18.

At Berkeley she had engaged in her first lesbian relationships. She continued to date men as well; for Susan attraction was as much an intellectual engagement as it was sexual. She did not think of herself as a lesbian, but she found more enjoyment and enlightenment in her relationships with women. Although eager to learn, she feared falling into any category, as if this represented the staidness of her parents. Later, Camille Paglia and other feminists would call her to task for her refusal to self-identify as a gay woman. In 1949 she took baby steps in that direction, writing a list of gay slang:

"a gay boy"
"a gay girl"
"the gay kids"

straight (east)
jam (west)
normal (tourist)

"he's straight"
"he's very jam"
"I lead a jam life"
"a jam friend of mine"
"I'm going normal"


"be in drag"
"go in drag"
"a drag party"

Philip's place in her life was both as her companion and intellectual bean bag. Her other comforts were the works of Kafka, for in his diaries of alienation, she found a soul similar to her own: "Besides him Joyce is so stupid." Soon enough, her son David Rieff began to serve as a similar reflection of herself. He would be her only child. Although she admittedly was not fond of children, she grew to enjoy being a mother, writing in December of 1956:

Tonight David — on the dressing table in the bathroom, being prepared for bed by Rose — said: "How do people have two husbands? When one dies?" I answered: "That's right. If one dies, you can marry again if you want." To which he answered, "Well then, when Daddy dies I'll marry you." I was so startled + delighted that I could only reply: "That's the nicest thing you ever said to me, David."

She grew closer to David than her husband, as it quickly became clear what a traditional wife Philip expected her to be. Engrossed in his book about Freud, he could not help wanting what the analyst idealized: a standard Jewish household with the woman as a kind of queen to his king. In 1957, she left both Phillip and David in the care of her husband's family to study at Oxford.

Sontag found England profoundly sexist and unwelcoming. Before she left, she had a dream that she did not quite understand: "A horse came up behind me as I was going down a short flight of stairs — into a swimming pool, it seemed — and placed its two front legs on me, one over each shoulder. I screamed and tried to free myself from the weight, then awoke. An objective correlation for my darker moods. Goethe declared that the only insufficient knowledge is creative." Later that month, her son told her that whenever he closed his eyes, he saw Jesus' crucifixion.

As she freed herself from her obligations, she managed to write a timeline of the 19th century in her notebook.

1805: Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz
1809: Tennyson born
1811: Kleist's suicide
1813: Kierkegaard born
1814: Napoleon defeated
1831: Hegel died
1844: Hopkins born
1850: In Memoriam published
1855: Kierkegaard died
1856: Freud born
1857: Origin of Species
1861: A.H. Clough died
1864: Notes from the Underground published
1865: Yeats born
1875: Rilke born
1882: James Joyce born
1885: D.H. Lawrence born
1888: Matthew Arnold died
1889: Hopkins died
1892: Tennyson died
1900: Nietzsche died
1926: Rilke died

In England, separated from the "totalitarian" Rieff and her son, she began writing in her journal again. Whereas before her style had been almost a parody of Kafka's unrelated yet interconnected literary observations, a new, emerging voice began to creep into her work. She had always seen herself as first and foremost a writer rather than a burgeoning academic, and now her confidence grew outside of Rieff's shadow.

Sontag returned to America, ended her marriage for good in the car at the airport, and began gallivanting around New York with Richard Howard in tow. The gay translator and poet marked a funny contrast to the drably dressed Sontag, whose seriousness was observed by others as mere affectation. She rejected alimony and spousal support from Rieff; even her detractors at the time were forced to admit she was a woman of conscience. As she desired, and as a result of her 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'", her fame exploded.

photo by Irving Penn

Although she had what she always wanted, some of the trappings did not interest her. She turned down a film column in Esquire, calling the magazine "loathsome." Notoriety for her was undesirable because it relinquished control; perhaps she did not realize the full gravity of being "the It girl", posing for magazine spreads in a profession that judged such decisions as well as celebrated them. When a Village Voice writer threatened to expose Sontag as a lesbian, rage crept into her features. After her author photograph for 1967's Death Kit was a small snap located inside the flap, she blasted her publishers for eschewing her usual glossy photo that would canvas the entire back cover.

Sontag purchased a new apartment in 1969, moving from her cramped Greenwich Village environs to a Riverside Drive penthouse, with a view of the Hudson. On a personal level, she was deeply unhappy.

In Susan's early journals, edited by her son for paperback consumption in 2008, there is a nagging absence of humor. Placed as she was before the public at large, Sontag never made light of herself, a fact that her biographers Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock treat with their own guarded amusement in their 2000 volume, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. Yes, there is something strange about taking yourself so seriously, but consider the time and place — Susan's entire marketability was based on not being a comedic figure. If she laughed at herself, she was not an artist — besides, there's never been any proof she was capable of self-deprecation to begin with. What exactly was the point of not taking herself seriously, when that was all her enemies really wanted the world to do?

Ms. Stephane

More and more, she hated the idea of being an academic, and longed to create her own art. Assisted by her lover and film producer Nicole Stéphane, she pursued a new medium. "I never was a critic," she declared later in a 1977 interview. Her breakup with María Irene Fornés had come directly after a similar parting with Harriet Sohmers, whom she had met at Berkeley and who subsequently introduced her to the Cuban-born Fornés. To the charismatic, brilliant and beautiful Stéphane, Susan was infinitely desirable, but she herself was already in a relationship and it was Sontag who had to wait for her. Stéphane also possessed knowledge that Sontag required for her work — although Susan had written about the films of Bergman and Godard, she had little idea of what went into making one.

Sontag's first two films, Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl, were something of a disaster, and although she convinced Simone de Beauvoir to pass along the rights for her first novel L'Invitee for free, she never made the movie and abandoned another screenplay for which she had accepted a $5,000 advance. She would make two more films, including a documentary in Israel, but her heart was never in the process. Writing comprised the standard to which she ultimately measured himself; she told an interviewer in 1975 that she never owned a camera because she "might get hooked" on taking photographs. She returned to fiction and criticism, writing to her publisher Roger Straus, "I'm back in the race to become The Most Important Writer of My Generation and all that shit." Early returns were not great: The New Yorker found Susan's attempts at stories inescapably dull (they would publish her essays, including the magnificent "Approaching Artaud").

In 1975, Susan survived a very serious bout of breast cancer. To some extent, it changed her life, giving her something visceral to focus on. She still refused to stop smoking cigarettes. Her son later wrote in his memoir, "My mother loved science, and believed in it (as she believed in reason) with a fierce, unwavering tenacity bordering on religiosity. There was a sense in which reason was her religion." A collection had to be taken up for her medical bills, since she had no insurance. The result of her illness was On Photography, her meditation on the form she had effectively abandoned. Her political writing, including some embarassing observations from a trip to North Vietnam, loomed squarely in the past. A burgeoning friendship with the Jewish Russian expat Joseph Brodsky oriented her opinions about oppression outside of the United States in a different direction.

getting arrested on Whitehall Street in the late 1960s

As her views changed, former comrades were happy to turn on her. Victor Navasky and Katha Pollitt authorized a savaging of 1982's The Susan Sontag Reader by Walter Kendrick in The Nation that concluded:

I must confess, I don't know anyone who looks to Sontag for aesthetic guidance. But she takes herself so seriously, and her publisher treats her with such awe, that I can only presume the existence of a vast, anonymous readership, hungry for Sontag's pearls. If these readers exist, their reverence is Sontag's only real achievement, to be sure, but a far more trenchant criticism of the world of American letters than any essay she ever wrote.

Nor was Kendrick alone in this evaluation. The 1980s were a tough time for Susan, who dipped in and out of fashion. Harper's titled their review, "Susie Creamcheese Makes Love, Not War." After Hilton Kramer's lengthy 1986 essay on Sontag, "Anti-Communism and the Sontag Circle", Roger Straus hilariously wrote to Kramer to say, "Did you have to start a magazine in order to attack Susan?" Some of this was unfair — Sontag was hardly the only public intellectual to fall in and out of love with the Soviet Union. The fact that her princely son (who she published without a second thought in volumes she edited without mentioning the connection) was now her editor as FSG only widened the target on her back. Her decision to become president of the writer's organization PEN did not help matters, taking attention away from what should have been her real work.

Her mother died in 1986, her stepfather the next year.

Annie and Susan

Annie Leibovitz entered Susan's life in 1989. For a long time the two did not live together, maintaining their own separate spaces, and Sontag categorically adopted the role of master. At six feet tall, Leibovitz towered over Susan physically, but their relationship was a matter of give and take. In The Making of an Icon, Rollyson and Paddock recall Susan loudly observing, as she examined an exhibition of Leibovitz's snapshots, "You just might be a photographer after all."

Her return to fiction in 1992 remains her most impressive writing in the long form. The Volcano Lover is a historical novel of the avant-garde, a genre not exploited often enough. It retains enough of the modern in its tale of the 18th century to be both interesting as a depiction of an unfamiliar place and time, as well as a mastery of the avant-garde she admired on its own terms. The language here closely resembles the best of Sontag's wonderfully personal journals.

The ensuing two decades would end with another terminal diagnosis. Sontag herself is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetetary in Paris, between Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre lies somewhere across the way, as does Baudelaire. Reading the essays of her last years, you get the sense that she had run out of things to say. Critics pounced on her insensitive thoughts on the day of September 11th, but even more disturbing is her posthumous volume of essays and speeches, At the Same Time. Besides yet another introduction by Rieff, the discourse within is painfully thin. Her return to the subject of photography, for example, begins, "Photography is, first of all, a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself." Geez.

Thrown asunder by the responses of critics in her last decades — she once composed a feigned angry rebuke to Adrienne Rich in the NYRB after telling her editor, "What else can I do but punch back?" — she lost that solid base of surety which made her writing so entertaining. She would never have survived in this time of social media; her fragile ego would have cracked into shards. At one time you could write something so over the top that it succeeded simply on the magnitude of its accusation. But now we have a generation of intellectual cowards hedging their bets and quoting experts at every turn.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about a new film from David Cronenberg. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

"Amazing and Wonderful" - Peaking Lights (mp3)

"All the Suns That Shine" - Peaking Lights (mp3)

"Marshmellow Yellow" - Peaking Lights (mp3

25th anniversary of NYRB: Robert Silver, Sontag, Didion, Darryl Pinckney, Jonathan Miller, James Fenton, Rea Hederman, Alma Guillermoprieto; seated are Elizabeth Hardwick and Jason Epstein

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Reader Comments (2)

December 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commentershannon
I felt bad for giving in and reading her personal journals but they really are remarkable. She was quite a kid.
December 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor

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