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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Memories of Susan Sontag

My first exposure to Susan Sontag was as a teenage journalism student, when the opera-cloaked author of “Against Interpretation” spoke at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Not only did Ms. Sontag walk to the lectern from a seat in the audience rather than from the stage, but at the podium she was a sight to behold: first there was the flamboyant way in which she used a cigarette holder, then there was the dramatic way she’d toss her head to keep her long black hair from getting in her face. These two small personal mannerisms had a spellbinding effect on the audience.
After the Free Library lecture I made it a point to follow her career. Her two first novels, “The Benefactor,” and “Death Kit,” were not successful or even good by literary standards, although towards the end of her life she did write and publish two critically acclaimed novels, “The Volcano Lover,” and “In America.” Ms. Sontag won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2000 for “In America,” a significant achievement for a writer of mostly non-fiction (essays). Critical appreciation for her fiction (she took to writing novels again when she was almost 60), seemed to vindicate Ms. Sontag’s wish to be known as an “imaginative dreamer.” Yet despite her late “reentry” into the world of novel writing, most critics (and readers) believed that Ms. Sontag was first and foremost an essayist.
A listing of her most famous essays would have to begin with the iconic essay, “Notes on Camp” in “Against Interpretation.” The “Camp essay” as it began to be called, catapulted Ms. Sontag to international fame. The Vietnam War-inspired, “Trip to Hanoi,” a political-literary work which identified her with the American Left, was published in her second collection of essays, “Styles of Radical Will.” Over the next twenty-five years, Ms. Sontag’s essays, most notably the books, “On Photography” and “Illness as Metaphor” would astound readers and critics with their acute observations. Ms. Sontag’s third book of essays, “Under the Sign of Saturn,” which includes an essay on social reformer Paul Goodman and German Nazi filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, is considered by many critics to be the author’s best work of non-fiction.
When Ms. Son tag died of leukemia in 2004, her honors included the Jerusalem Prize (2001) and the Friedenspreis, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (2003).
Often referred to as “the Natalie Wood of American Letters” because of her Hollywood-like beauty, the Harvard and University of Chicago educated girl intellectual was considered a prodigy genius by some of her professors.
As a teenager, her wish was to move to New York and write for Partisan Review. As it happened, the young prodigy did all that and more.
Although Ms. Sontag had a particular disdain for autobiographical writing, in this first volume of her diaries (“Reborn, Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963), edited by her son, the writer David Rieff, we see the unmasked Sontag.
As a young girl Ms. Sontag was an avid reader of diaries and journals. In ‘Reborn’ one can see the influences of the Journals of Andre Gide, or the infamous diary, “Five Years,” of writer Paul Goodman.
As a diarist, Ms. Sontag is honest and straightforward.
Always reserved about her sexuality, Reborn unleashes a firestorm of sexual personal discovery. Although she married one of her University of Chicago professors, Philip Rieff, when she was a teenager, she has already discovered her bisexuality, a fact that she would hide, although not deny, for decades to come. In the diary she writes at length of her experiences in San Francisco gay bars in the late 1940s. She also dwells on her marriage to Mr. Reiff.
“Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor,” she writes in 1956. “It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies.”
She confesses that in marriage she has “suffered a certain loss of personality—at first the loss was pleasant, easy; now it aches and stirs up my general disposition to be malcontented with a new fierceness.”
The diary is proof, as if we needed any, that Ms. Sontag was no ordinary teenager. While kids her own age were reading comic books and necking in the back seat of cars, she’s reading Kant, Dostoyevsky, William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson, as well as trying to figure out the nature of existence.
Consider, for instance, her teenaged ideas about the “ideal state”: “It should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines, + transportation and subsidy of the arts….”
Hungry to learn and experience everything in life, she lists books she’s read or wants to read, movies she’s seen and her ideas about life and love.
The diary opens with her unequivocal statement that “there is no personal god or life after death,” but ten years later she confesses to toying with the idea of converting to Catholicism. “…A religious vocation within Catholicism is still impossible for me, because the Church is so patriarchal—but the Jews are even worse in that respect,” Ms. Sontag, a Jew, wrote in 1957. “Where in all Jewish history is there a St. Teresa, an Edith Stein, not to speak of Mother Cabrini.”
In Paris, after making the decision that an academic career was suffocating and injurious to the spirit, Ms. Sontag throws herself into her relationship with H, a woman she met before her marriage to Mr. Rieff. The torturous affair has all the existential angst of a novel by Colette: there are several entries where the future winner of the Jerusalem Prize runs weeping into the Paris Metro, or sobbing uncontrollably in the cinema.
Ms. Sontag’s acute intelligence, as well as her ability to rise above misfortune, makes this diary an incredible read. It is good to know that the author’s son, Mr. Rieff, did not strip the diary of its raw power.
My brief encounters with Ms. Sontag over the years—conversations at a Free Library reception in the 1990s when she returned from staging Samuel Becket in Sarajevo; a short telephone interview in the 1980s when she was commuting to Philadelphia everyday to teach a grad course at Temple; a discussion at Kelly’s Writers House in 2003 in which I asked her about the public reaction to her infamous 9/11 comments in The New Yorker; a playwrighting workshop at Penn; and, finally, years later, a lecture on Marianne More and photography, sponsored by the Rosenbach Museum, the last time I’d see her alive—have resulted in a personal appreciation for the writer’s various moods.
No, the grand dame of American Letters wasn’t always nice. She could be dismissive, even pushy, but then when you least expected it she’d surround you with great warmth.
One incident comes to mind.
After the Marianne More lecture I asked Ms. Sontag what she thought of Philadelphia. Without a moment’s hesitation she zeroed in on the clothespin sculpture in front of City Hall. What I heard next was something that could have come out of the mouth of a little old bourgeois lady from Utah.
“Philadelphia is weird,” she told me then, “What other city would put a sculpture of a clothespin in the center of downtown.”

Thom Nickels can be reached at
(From The Philadelphia Bulletin)

Journals & Notebooks
Susan Sontag Farrar Straus Giroux
318 pages

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