Sunday, November 24, 2019

What's the Deal with Susan Sontag?

The publication of a new biography put Susan Sontag (1933-2004) in all the literary magazines last month, and caused me to wonder again, who the heck was she? What did she do? How did she get famous?

My first thought was to dismiss her as just another narcissistic celebrity – an intellectual celebrity, true, but so far as I knew without anything special to say. And then I thought, how much Susan Sontag have you actually read? This stopped me, because while I had a vague memory that I had read some of her essays a long time ago I was not even sure of that, and I certainly had not read any of her books. So I thought that before I wrote anything dismissive about someone so highly regarded I ought to take another look.

I started by listening to The Volcano Lover, her 1992 novel that gets described all over as an “unlikely” or “surprise” best-seller. This is an interesting book, and I enjoyed it, but it is not much of a novel. The best parts are either historical, for example her account of the 1799 revolution in Naples, which briefly installed a pro-French regime called the Parthenopean Republic, or little essays, especially one on the mindset of the collector. Reading more about Sontag I learned that she longed to be a famous novelist and bitterly resented that serious literary people never liked her novels as much as her essays. (Terry Castle, on The American: “Has any other major literary figure written such an excruciatingly turgid book?”) But listening to The Volcano Lover I quickly learned why. Sontag cannot tell a human story; a political one, yes, but not one about people. She also seems to be such an intense rationalist that she has a weak grip on emotion. Her writing is clear but completely lacks the lyricism that one expects at least glimpses of in any work of fiction; she admires no sunsets, is swept away by nothing.

According to the back cover, this book tells the story of the famous affair between Admiral Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton, but this is only partially correct. The affair fills only the last third or so of the book. Most of what comes before focuses on Lady Hamilton's husband, Sir James Hamilton, who was for 37 years the English ambassador to the Court of Naples. Sontag is not very good at describing passionate love but she paints a remarkable portrait of Sir James, who was best known as a collector of Italian art and ancient Greek and Roman artifacts and for being the world’s foremost volcanologist. I also liked her Lady Hamilton, but I imagine many women would not. Lady Hamilton’s undoubted talents (for example, she quickly learned French, Italian, and the Neapolitan dialect as an adult) are downplayed in favor of meditating on what a warm-hearted creature of emotion she was, who captivated men largely because she exactly fit their stereotypes of what a woman should be. Sontag has a lot to say about the differences between women and men, and you get the feeling that she always, always identifies with the male half of these dichotomies.

The worst character in The Volcano Lover is Sontag’s Horatio Nelson. He comes across as just another ambitious man on the make, climbing his way up through the Royal Navy as he might through a big bank. And maybe there was some element of that in Nelson’s character. But it is impossible to imagine Sontag’s Nelson standing on the deck amidst the carnage of a Napoleonic naval battle, calmly issuing orders in what one observer described as “a joyous state of ecstasy.” Nelson took risk after risk with both his commands and his person in an almost desperate search for “glory,” one of his favorite words: “I am envious only of glory; for if it be a sin to covet glory I am the most offending soul alive.” Some who knew Nelson thought he believed he was fated to die in battle, and in fact he kept going back into the maelstrom again and again, losing an eye, losing an arm, until finally he was shot down at his post in the midst of his greatest victory. His Viking attitude toward battle and death seems to have completely eluded Sontag; I had the impression that she simply could not imagine such a thing, and she certainly lacked the words to convey it.

But anyway Sontag’s reputation rests, not on her widely dismissed novels, but on her essays. The most famous, Against Interpretation, can be found at the link, and I highly recommend it. It is short, clear, boldly written, and (I think) entirely correct. Sontag takes on the habit of “explaining” art by insisting that it is really “about” something else, as we used to get from Marxists or Freudians and now get from identity theorists:
Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. 
Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.
It is not particularly original, since artists have been complaining about their interpreters since at least the time of the Romantic poets, but it is quite fine.

Sontag’s other famous essay is “Notes on Camp”. The essay is about two things, the “camp” attitude toward art, and the worldview of New York homosexuals in the 1960s:
To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized – or at least apolitical. . . . Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content. . . . Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.
I would say this is another very fine essay. It lacks the clear, tight argument of “Against Interpretation,” but the subject matter hardly lends itself to logical rigor.

It is also an introduction to Sontag’s place in gay culture. Sontag never “came out” and hated to be called a lesbian, but her marriage to a man was a total failure and thereafter she had a series of passionate relationships with women. When she emerged onto the New York scene in the 1960s nobody thought it strange that she was quiet about her sexuality, but by the 80s people began to comment. She lost several gay friends when she wrote a book about AIDS without revealing her sexuality. People determined to interpret her career (in exactly the way she warned against) put a lot of emphasis on her position as a closeted gay woman who even in private was never comfortable with a gay identity.

I could go on, but the other essays I have found are much in the same vein: quite good but not, to me anyway, particularly revelatory or ground-breaking. (Her short New Yorker piece on 9-11 is also online, and given another glimpse of her style.) This leads me to think that the real source of Sontag's fame was not her writing but the impact of her personality on people she met. She was, everyone agreed, brilliant, with lightning-quick thought backed by extraordinary reading in literature, criticism, history, and philosophy. She loved opera, especially obscure operas hardly anyone has ever seen performed, but she also loved contemporary music and movies. In explaining her ideas she might reference anything from Aristotle to the latest Hollywood romance. But what really struck people was her brash, almost abrasive cool; one friend said that at her core was an “adamantine hardness.” In conversation she made no concessions to femininity, but went at her interlocutors in a way that struck everyone as male. Lauren Elkin:
Sontag had no time for the kind of faux humility that women are conditioned to perform anytime anyone shows interest in what we do. She gave no fucks, in the lingo of the internet, a particular patois she did not live to see.
Her masculine toughness made a striking contrast to the century's most famous female novelists and poets, who had made almost a cult of sadness and weakness. Leslie Jamison: :
I found myself increasingly drawn to Susan Sontag as a psychic opposite to the sad-lady sirens I’d worshiped. Sontag was rigorously impersonal in her approach, stubbornly un-fragile, stoic in her persona on the page. She’d written an entire book about cancer (“Illness as Metaphor,” 1978) without once mentioning she’d had it. Her restraint — her refusal to display her intellect through the portals of her wounds — loomed large in my mind as a kind of stylistic superego, reprimanding me for relying on the easy crutch of vulnerability, for peddling the soft tissue of the personal.
Sontag made such an impression on people that several of them wrote memoirs about their friendships with her, a couple of them book length.  People agreed that she was a “great” person, a word that comes up again and again. On the other hand, all of those memoirs end in disappointment; Sontag's narcissism kept her from being a reliable friend, or any other sort of stable presence in another's life. Terry Castle:
No doubt hundreds (thousands?) of people knew Susan Sontag better than I did. For ten years ours was an on-again, off-again, semi-friendship, constricted by role-playing and shot through in the end with mutual irritation. Over the years I labored to hide my growing disillusion, especially during my last ill-fated visit to New York, when she regaled me – for the umpteenth time – about the siege of Sarajevo, the falling bombs, and how the pitiful Joan Baez had been too terrified to come out of her hotel room. Sontag flapped her arms and shook her big mannish hair – inevitably described in the press as a ‘mane’ – contemptuously. That woman is a fake! She tried to fly back to California the next day! I was there for months. Through all of the bombardment, of course, Terry. Then she ruminated. Had I ever met Baez? Was she a secret lesbian? I confessed that I’d once waited in line behind the folk singer at my cash machine (Baez lives near Stanford) and had taken the opportunity to inspect the hairs on the back of her neck. Sontag, who sensed a rival, considered this non-event for a moment, but after further inquiries, was reassured that I still preferred her to Ms Diamonds and Rust. 
Oh, the pettiness of the celebrity narcissist. And the strangeness:
She’d been telling me about the siege and how a Yugoslav woman she had taken shelter with had asked her for her autograph, even as bombs fell around them. She relished the woman’s obvious intelligence (‘Of course, Terry, she’d read The Volcano Lover, and like all Europeans, admired it tremendously’) and her own sangfroid. Then she stopped abruptly and asked, grim-faced, if I’d ever had to evade sniper fire. I said, no, unfortunately not. Lickety-split she was off – dashing in a feverish crouch from one boutique doorway to the next, white tennis shoes a blur, all the way down the street to Restoration Hardware and the Baskin-Robbins store. Five or six perplexed Palo Altans stopped to watch as she bobbed zanily in and out, ducking her head, pointing at imaginary gunmen on rooftops and gesticulating wildly at me to follow. No one, clearly, knew who she was, though several of them looked as if they thought they should know who she was.
How is it that we take such people seriously? Do they really have something to offer, their work or their talents or what have you, that excuses their absurdity? Or do we secretly envy them their self-involvement, their insistence on caring only about their own desires in a way that the rest of us cannot? I wonder.


Shadow said...

Great essay.

G. Verloren said...

How is it that we take such people seriously? Do they really have something to offer, their work or their talents or what have you, that excuses their absurdity? Or do we secretly envy them their self-involvement, their insistence on caring only about their own desires in a way that the rest of us cannot? I wonder.

It's a behavior we seem to only take seriously in "masculine" individuals.

Think of all the countless stories in all forms of media and in real life of "brilliant" figures (almost always men, but masculine women when not) whose supposed brilliance is used to excuse a whole slew of personality flaws. The flaws excused are always excessively macho - egotism, abusiveness, avarice, et cetera. Society tends to overlook the most masculine flaws of excessively masculine individuals, and the reason seems obvious given our history of patriarchal dominence.

David said...

I agree with Shadow.