Despite everything she has written and done since the 1960’s, Susan Sontag seems fatefully identified with the part she played in that era and its immediate aftermath. As a literary intellectual and a kind of high priestess of cultural revolution, she was, indeed, crucially instrumental in advancing many of the trends that took hold in those years and that persist to this day: the erasure of the distinction between high and popular art, the promotion of an avant-garde sensibility as a form of transgression against the bourgeois order, the pulling-down of critical hierarchies and standards of judgment, the knee-jerk identification with political “liberation” and its avatars.
But at several points later in her career, Sontag also, startlingly, reversed herself. Perhaps the most famous such reversal occurred in 1982, when she more or less repudiated her previous espousal of third-world Communist regimes. More recently, in a television interview, she declared that her two latest novels, The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America1 the latter of which won last year’s National Book Award for fiction, mark a shift away from her former views concerning the function of art and the place of the artist. These turnarounds, and others, say a great deal not only about Sontag but about the sensibility she was influential in creating.
According to Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, authors of a gossipy, informative, occasionally over-earnest new biography,2 Susan Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City in 1933 and raised in Arizona and California. Her father died in 1938; seven years later, her mother married Captain Nathan Sontag, a war hero, who gave his name to Susan and her sister.
Her early life was marked by precocity. She skipped grades, entered college at Berkeley at sixteen, and wound up at Robert Hutchins’s tradition-minded University of Chicago, where she eagerly embraced the rigorous humanities curriculum. At age seventeen she married one of her professors, the sociologist Philip Rieff, and they had a son, now the writer David Rieff.
The couple were soon living apart, although they would not divorce for several years. After earning a master’s degree from Harvard, Sontag left her child in the care of his father’s relatives and spent some time in Europe, studying at Oxford and the Sorbonne, soaking up postwar cultural trends, and familiarizing herself with European intellectual figures. Returning home, she claimed custody of her son and embarked upon a career. Aside from brief stints teaching and working at COMMENTARY, she devoted her time to writing. She tried her hand at play-writing, filmmaking, and fiction—in addition to the two recent novels, there were The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967), plus a collection of short stories, I, etcetera (1978). But it is as an essayist that she made her greatest mark, and did her greatest damage.
Several of the pieces in Sontag’s first collection, Against Interpretation (1966), first appeared in small-circulation journals like Partisan Review or in the New York Review of Books. Written in a generalizing, oracular style (“far-fetched, pretentious, and esoteric,” sniffed Edmund Wilson), they posed a deliberate challenge to normative cultural and critical ideals. Objecting, for example, to the “genteel-moralistic judgment in contemporary literary and film criticism,” Sontag repudiated the focus on content in art, stressing instead the supremacy of formal and aesthetic considerations and calling for an “enlivening of sensibility and consciousness.” Elsewhere, she advanced the ironic, parodic antiseriousness of “camp” aesthetics as a “solvent of morality”; endorsed the “liberating, antisymbolic” quality she had discovered in popular culture; and promoted the “sensuous immediacy” to be experienced in avant-garde films like Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and in the stripped-down fiction of the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the screenplay for that film as well as the book on which it was based (a sensuous immediacy that, be it said, had eluded many of the stupefied consumers of these works).
Anticipating by many years the blinkered aestheticism that would fuel the controversy over the public funding of works like the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, Sontag explicitly uncoupled both art and criticism from their residual moral moorings. “We need not an hermeneutics, but an erotics of art,” she declared. In “On Style,” she insisted that the works of the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl transcended, by virtue of their “grace” and “sensuousness,” the noxious propaganda they disseminated. Similarly, for Sontag, Norman Mailer’s 1965 novel, An American Dream, in which the murder of a domineering wife is depicted as an act of liberation, taught the need to suspend ordinary judgments when confronting a superior work of art. In “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967, reprinted two years later in her second collection, Styles of Radical Will), she found in the degradation and mandarin cruelty of The Story of O, by the pseudonymous Pauline Réage, a form of aesthetic and even religious ecstasy.
But then came the first of her reversals. In the early 70’s, thanks largely to the feminist movement, Leni Riefenstahl began to be lionized as a major filmmaker, and Sontag suddenly found herself offended. In an essay entitled “Fascinating Fascism” (1974), she turned on a dime, condemning Riefenstahl for her exaltation of Nazi ideals and stamping a swastika on everything she had tried to create even after the Third Reich was long gone. Almost moralistically, one might say, Sontag went so far as to locate a “fascist aesthetics” similar to Riefenstahl’s in the glorification of sadomasochism that she saw in the rising homosexual subculture of the 1970’s.
Despite the conspicuous failure to acknowledge her own reversal, and despite some over-the-top observations (Sontag found fascist qualities even in the Hollywood choreography of Busby Berkeley), “Fascinating Fascism” was a welcome piece of work. By re-establishing the continuum between art and morality, it not only restored a certain sense of integrity to the act of criticism but affirmed the importance of intellectual honesty in the face of belligerent trends like contemporary feminism, with its insistence on judging works of art by their “correctness” on the issue of women as an “oppressed” group. Altogether, the essay seemed to mark a genuine change in sensibility.
But it did not, and it had no follow-up. Sontag went back to writing her often aimless pieces on gloomy avant-garde European writers and filmmakers, and to cultivating her image as a proponent of the cutting edge. (According to Rollyson and Paddock, she and her publisher also worked assiduously to forge her raven-haired good looks and esoteric European proclivities into an alluring persona, an activity that seems to have claimed almost as much of her attention as working out the implications of her ideas.) As for the Riefenstahl turnaround, the only explanation she gave an interviewer in 1975 was that both her earlier view and her revised view “illustrate the richness of the form-content distinction, as long as one is careful always to use it against itself”—a pronouncement that explained nothing while creating the impression that Sontag was beyond the kind of obvious contradiction in which her interviewer wanted to catch her.
Her next dramatic reversal occurred over the issue of Communism. In the 60’s and 70’s she had written warmly of the Communist regimes of Cuba and North Vietnam, contrasting them to the utter awfulness of the United States. But then she began to befriend Eastern European dissidents, particularly the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, and from them she learned something that until then, and in spite of her deep reading and broad erudition, had evidently eluded her: Communism brought blight and terror, murder and brutality, wherever it was imposed. In 1982, she took the occasion of a gathering in New York City of leftwing writers in support of the Polish workers’ movement, Solidarity, to announce her new revelation.
The scene is described in detail by Rollyson and Paddock. Sontag, they write, grew increasingly angered as speaker after speaker equated conditions in Poland with those in the United States. (It is a little hard to credit this response on the part of a woman who had written not so long before that “the quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth.”) When her turn finally came to speak, she proclaimed that, on the issue of Communism, the Left, herself included, had been guilty of smugness, hypocrisy, even dishonesty. “We were,” she said, “so sure who our enemies were (among them, the professional anti-Communists), so sure who were the virtuous and who the benighted. . . . We thought we loved justice; many of us did. But we did not love the truth enough.”
The speech, muddled as it was, and accompanied as it was by ritual denunciations of the detestable Ronald Reagan, took courage. Like others before her, Sontag soon found that neither her sterling left-wing credentials nor her iconic status as an apostle of the avant-garde could save her from the burden of inevitable condemnation as a traitor to the cause. But she did not bear this burden for long—or, rather, she quickly put it down. Although she had promised to write a lengthy essay on the intellectual romance with Communism, it never appeared; what she told an interviewer several years later was that in the end she “was not interested in lending aid and comfort to the neoconservatives.” This tawdry and dishonorable statement marked the end of her own belated acknowledgement of the horrors committed by the movement with which she had been so infatuated. So much for loving the truth.
Still, although she failed to deliver on her lengthy reconsideration of Communism, she was apparently not done with rethinking other issues. In 1988, she who had championed perversity, pornography, and the “erotics of art” was to be heard lamenting the “cultural nihilism” she saw all around her, and she who had done so much to erase the distinctions between high and low now pronounced herself troubled over the leveling of standards and the diminishment of the idea of a canon. Although these startling recognitions never emerged in the work she was doing at the time (lengthy essays on illness and photography, and a story about AIDS that has been selected by John Updike for Best American Short Stories of the Century), they would appear to have ripened over the past decade. Indeed, according to a recent article in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella, Sontag is now worried that she herself might be seen as partly responsible for our current state of cultural barbarism—worried enough, indeed, to have written an introduction to a forthcoming new edition of Against Interpretation in which she intends to stipulate the following:
To call for an “erotics of art” did not mean to disparage the role of the critical intellect. To laud work condescended to, then, as “popular culture” did not mean to conspire in the repudiation of high culture and its burden of seriousness, of depth. When I denounced . . . certain kinds of facile moralism, it was in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness. What I didn’t understand . . . was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large. . . . Now the very idea of the serious (and of the honorable) seems quaint, “unrealistic,” to most people.
For good measure, Sontag told Acocella that she did not even like some of the experimental antirealistic writers, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, that she had promoted as harbingers of a new fiction.
Like them or not, however, she had certainly taken them as models for her own early fiction. This tended to be airless, elliptical, quasi-Kafkaesque, centered on the subjectivity of consciousness. In her latest two novels, however, whose dates of publication more or less track the progress of her newly formed respect for moral “seriousness,” Sontag has discovered that she also likes such antique literary qualities as narrative, plot, characters, objects, clothes, historical detail, and the presence of a visible world. Thus, The Volcano Lover, set in late-18th-century Naples and based on the love triangle involving Admiral Nelson, Emma Hamilton, and her husband William, is full of sensuous period detail, intricate descriptions, and imaginative re-creations.
Which is not to say it succeeds in being a good novel. The main character, based on William Hamilton, is a collector of beautiful objects, and his cold possessive distance creeps into the narrative voice. Even the sex scenes between the figures based on Nelson and Emma seem gelid, as if the participants were under glass. And despite all the drapery and dressing, the focus remains on Sontag and her ideas, which turn out to be more ordinarily romantic than luminously enlightened, more Danielle Steele, so to speak, than Simone Weil (the subject of one of her earlier essays in transcendence).
Her new work, In America, is somewhat less affected. It, too, is based on a real-life figure from the past. Maryana Zalezowska is a fictionalized Helena Modjeska, the famous Polish actress who, inspired by American Utopians like Robert Owen, came here in the late 19th century with an entourage of family and friends to build a commune in California. As in life, so in the novel, when the experiment fails, Maryana returns to the stage and leaps from triumph to triumph, an adored, applauded, and pampered diva.
Parts of this novel are indubitably compelling, especially the concentrated distillation of period detail and the intricate evocations of the craft of acting. But once again Sontag intrudes constantly, the still unfinished work of the essayist usurping that of the novelist. Nor is it difficult to see in Maryana a portrait of Sontag herself, another celebrated diva and even a homegrown species of European expatriate, now largely retired from her Utopian endeavors but still seeking metamorphosis in art.
Camille Paglia once wrote that Sontag never seemed part of America. If that is so, in her new novel she, like her main character, more or less makes her peace with the country, at least in the sense that, as a place, it permits one to shed past selves and become whatever one wants to be. America, for Sontag, is no longer the oppressor of humanity, a straitjacket of conformity, but rather a land of limitless opportunity and an ongoing experiment in human possibility.
This vision of America as, essentially, a work in progress is itself rather common on the Clintonite and post-Clintonite Left nowadays. Although a welcome change from the radical animosity that characterized the attitude of yesterday’s Left, it betrays (as Wilfred McClay has pointed out) the same adolescent refusal to accept responsibility for things as they are or for one’s part in them. “Adolescent,” indeed, remains perhaps the best word for the brilliant, ultrasophisticated Sontag herself. Here she is again in the New Yorker on her disenchantment with the culture she helped to create:
It never occurred to me that all the stuff I had cherished, and all the people I had cared about in my university education, could be dethroned. All that would happen is that you would set up an annex—you know, a playhouse—in which you could study these naughty new people, who challenged things. And you could have it all! Little did I know that the avant-garde transgressiveness of the 60’s was to become absolutely institutionalized and that most of the gods of high culture would be dethroned and mocked. [Emphasis added]
She enjoyed breaking down walls, in other words, but only if someone else kept the house intact. She enjoyed wielding critical license, but was appalled by the spectacle of others wielding it. Like the careless Russian radicals in Turgenev and Dostoevsky, she took civilization as a given, like the air we breathe, unthreatened by encroaching barbarism, never in need of care, cultivation, or protection.
So it turns out that, far from knowing more about art, literature, and life than everybody else, she was more ignorant; and far from having her finger on the pulse of coming things, she was oblivious to their unfolding, less a keen-eyed prophet than a neurasthenic naif, living off the accumulated cultural capital of the centuries. To judge by her new novel, and even more by her breathy pronouncements on the vanished world she would like to have back and that she did so much to destroy, she is still in the playhouse, with no intention of coming out.
1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 387 pp., $26.00.
2 Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. Norton, 369 pp., $29.95.