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December 2009 Issue [Reviews]

¡Una Lesbiana Enamorada!

The reverse bowdlerization of Susan Sontag

Discussed in this essay:

Against Interpretation: And Other Essays, by Susan Sontag. Picador. 336 pages. $15.

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963, edited by David Rieff. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 336 pages. $25.

I picked up Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963 hoping for a peek into the origins of her first book of essays, Against Interpretation. In 1966 this collection was the first serious, nonacademic book that encompassed the constellation of my own generation’s passionate enthusiasms. Sontag was “against interpretation.” She was for “an erotics of art.” She wrote about Alain Robbe-Grillet, Albert Camus, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, all of whom we were devouring on a daily basis. She wrote (less kindly than she should have) about Nathalie Sarraute, my favorite professor, whose novels were fine French acid trips, whose low-heeled, lace-up, black nun-shoes were the coolest. Sontag also wrote about camp, and we were such ardent devotees of The Velvet Underground & Nico (with Andy’s pink banana on the cover) that louche coeds kept bullwhips on hand for dancing to “Venus in Furs.”

In her most famous essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Sontag identified this sort of behavior as having its origins in the homosexual community. She characterized “camp” as an infectious project to empty out the received meaning of fine art and popular culture with the aid of feathers, mascara, whips, and pink dildos. She was right about that. She was wrong to presume this maneuver was new. “Sacred art” became “fine art” in late fifteenth-century Italy because Italian bankers wanted the pictures. “History painting” became “political painting” in late eighteenth-century France because revolutionaries wanted the narratives. “Sissy” became “camp” in 1969, when the New York City police tried to frog-march bridge-and-tunnel campsters, feathers askew, out of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Under this assault, the frothy white bubble containing Busby Berkeley, Betty Boop, and Tinker Bell exploded into a rough piece of street theater that ignited the riots that changed the world. So Sontag was wrong to describe camp as an “unserious, ‘aesthete’s’ vision.” Aesthetics is always serious when agreed-upon interpretations are changed or stolen or emptied out.

None of these quibbles mattered in the moment. Sontag caught a rising wave, and Against Interpretation came to us like a message in a bottle from an antique land. We were hiding from the Vietnam War by miming education. Sontag was a thirty-something Jewish Intellectual who had trekked from Tucson to Berkeley to Chicago to Cambridge to Oxford to Paris and, finally, to New York, devouring schools like a cat on a trail of kibble. For us, this was mysterious and quaint; it meant no Yucatán, no Casablanca, no Lhasa, no Waimea, no smuggling, no jail, and no rock and roll—and we were no less vain about our prerequisites than Sontag herself. So Sontag was not one of us, but she was a hottie—one of those super-smart lipstick lesbians you met at Saint Adrian’s Company down on Broadway for all-night marathons of intellectual speed-rap.

By the late Sixties, however, Sontag had begun to hedge her bets. She saw herself as having enabled an orgy of sordid piracy. Like Jack Kerouac, cornered by hippies a generation before, she looked into the maelstrom she had helped create and flinched. By 1975 she was insisting that some subversive tastes that “pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established.” This edict appears in “Fascinating Fascism,” an essay in which Sontag reads Leni Riefenstahl’s final but inevitable fifteen minutes of fame as a threat to all mankind. Everyone giggled at this, of course. My own interpretation of Sontag’s self-repudiation has always been that, back in the Sixties, the writer’s disobedient body told her a story about freedom and transgression that, ultimately, her mind and temperament could not countenance.

Sontag’s career continued apace, of course. She wrote and wrote well, but her call for an “erotics of art” dwindled into darkness, surviving only in repudiated texts and jottings in the journals she kept all her life, in a row on a shelf in a closet. These contain diary entries, notes-to-self, shopping lists, cris de coeur, and other stuff writers need to charge their batteries. After her death, the administrators of Sontag’s estate decided that she intended these intimate jottings to be published posthumously. I seriously doubt this. Sontag’s son, David Rieff, has written at length about her conviction that she would survive her affliction. Yet Reborn is in print, the first of three volumes. Rieff himself is the editor, and he has exercised this Victorian perquisite to abandon all scholarly apparatus and cut enormous sections of Sontag’s text to fashion what amounts to a gay chick-lit memoir with a few big words.

Everything of historical or intellectual interest has been suppressed, compressed, or jumbled. Reading through the residue of tatters and scraps, as if through the Dead Sea Scrolls, I remembered an afternoon in La Sarraute’s class when she discovered a misprint in our edition of Tropismes. Sarraute went pale, marked the misprint violently, and announced (in English, to be sure we understood): “If one cares about one’s texts, one mustn’t die, ever!” Now Sontag is dead, and her son should have known better than to fool with his mother’s text—although I could not help but imagine how I might do if given as clean a shot as this at my mom. Not well, I fear.

Consider Rieff’s strategic elisions. Throughout her career, Sontag, who was a woman of words, made lists of words that interested her. Rieff cites one example. In 1957, Sontag made two lists of childhood events: one from memory; the other in chronological order. Laid side by side they constitute a Nabokovian meditation on reverie and chronology. Casually spliced into one list, as they are here, without annotation, they mean nothing. In 1961, Sontag kept a list of all the movies she saw that year in the order she saw them, sometimes three movies a day and never with a break of more than four days. We get a paltry sample. Denied access to these words, vignettes, and movies in their proper times and places, we are denied an armature of understanding. (A ballpark sum of the accumulated hours Sontag spent watching movies in 1961 would tell us more than half this book does.)

Consider this even more egregious lie of omission from 1957. During the last days of her marriage to Philip Rieff (whom she married in Chicago at seventeen and followed east to Cambridge), Sontag began keeping an account of her mundane activities à la Robbe-Grillet. She noted where she found stamps, what she ate for dinner, what time she went to bed, et cetera. I was enjoying this nouvelle vague excursion when it was stopped, suddenly, with a cut. Why? Does Rieff have a problem with Robbe-Grillet? In her actual journals, we learn from a note, Sontag’s minimalist narrative continues to recount her train ride to New York, her first night in New York, her voyage to London, and her trip with a friend through Italy. We also learn that, once at Oxford, Sontag kept notes in her journal on her philosophy class with J. L. Austin, the great philosopher of ordinary language.

The notes on Austin’s class have been cut, too, and we are favored with a filial redesign of Sontag’s emotional life. Her stark narrative of soup and stamps in Cambridge reads like a suicide note for her marriage. Having climbed on some trains myself, my best guess is that once Sontag found herself a seat on the train, Philip Rieff disappeared from her consciousness, and she noted this in her journal. (And if the editor doesn’t want us guessing, he should print the text.) The censored entries almost certainly trace a bridge of tiny, jotted milestones that mark Sontag’s journey from one life to another, so we want to know what she noticed, however trivial. We want to know what she wrote because she wrote it. We want the notes from her class with Austin because Sontag rarely faced off with intellects of Austin’s caliber. If Sontag’s observations were less than profound, we would think no less of her.

And why would we? Sontag won. We are reading her work because she won. She grew up to be the woman of her adolescent dreams, a Wagnerian luminary streaking across the intellectual firmament scattering cuts and slights like confetti in her wake—a warrior princess with the social instincts of a wolverine and a vestigial fondness for mothering young men. In her maturity, Sontag took young strivers like the curator Klaus Biesenbach and the singer and actor Casey Spooner under her wing. She liked their world and her status in it. She liked traveling with them because they stayed up late, and Sontag never slept. One night in Berlin, Sontag and Biesenbach set out for a disco at four in the morning. The girl guarding the door recognized Sontag and fell without hesitation into a Wayne’s World salaam, protesting her unworthiness. Sontag graciously accepted her obeisance. When I heard this story, I imagined all the wounded culturati who now wear Purple Hearts for Sontag’s public cruelty, wishing they had simply fallen to their knees and cried, “Not worthy!”

Back in the Eighties, I stood with one of these wounded warriors at a party at the St. Regis, watching the ever-watchable Sontag, who had taken command of the opposite corner of the salon. She was showing us her profile, standing with her arms folded, swathed in scarves, her black mane accented by that theatrical streak of white, scanning the room for traitors. “About as close to a James Bond villain as you’re likely to encounter in real life,” my friend said. “She ought to be stroking a cat.” And she should have been, but I always forgave Sontag. I always saw a fellow faker from the West, and a more accomplished one. Only the most attentive faker can get it that infinitesimally perfect. So I owe her.

The scraps I knew of Sontag’s premature adulthood kept me young well past youth’s “use by” date. I would imagine this luscious twenty-year-old Sappho in a raw-silk frock masquerading as “faculty wife” at a formal dinner with Philip Rieff, the E. H. Carrs, Herbert Marcuse, and Owen Lattimore. That would send me off to CBGB’s. So I have no social quarrel with Sontag. Once, I think, she failed to laugh at a riposte I tried out on some fancy Texas lesbians at an art opening. Sontag hovered on the edge of the group, pulling down at her vest, like a baritone about to make an entrance. We were talking about how stupendously decadent we were. I suggested that people should be considered innocent as long as they think “syringe” is an Irish playwright. Giggles ensued. My pal Skeeter pressed her wrist to her forehead and declared, “Oh my God, I haven’t been innocent since I was eight!” I corrected her grammar: “Don’t you mean, ‘Since I was eaten’?” More giggles, except from Sontag, whose eyes widened as if I had slapped her. The next time I looked, she was gone.

No surprise there. Everyone knew Sontag did not like glib. She did not like jokes. She was a very bad listener and offended even by the imposition of incoming telephone calls. She liked serious. She liked to think that any fool purporting to understand her writing deserved her public scorn—that any gauche slug caught admiring works of hers that she had since orphaned deserved worse, and got it. A woman who grants herself these kinds of privileges, of course, mustn’t die, ever.

The combination of all this—the reverse bowdlerization, the willful cruelty, and its collateral damage—conspires to transform Sontag’s journals into a cheapskate Telemundo production of ¡Una Lesbiana Enamorada!—a project as woozy and revealing as a messy telenovela should be. Lesbians of Sontag’s generation assure me that Sontag’s sexual narrative bears the marks of emotional authenticity, that she doesn’t seem to be posing for posterity. They also agree that Djuna Barnes did it better, and that Barnes’s great novel Nightwood—in all of its toxic grandeur—is omnipresent in this journal. It probably should be. Most twentieth-century American lesbian writers aspire to Barnes’s status as an artist of such majesty that her sexuality is embraced as an aspect of her art and not the other way around.

Sontag’s ability to internalize texts, as she does with Nightwood, was her great virtue as a critic. It is for any critic. We are all predisposed to bouts of pathological connoisseurship. We are always falling in love. That’s why we’re critics. The idiomatic admission that one is “blown away” by something captures it perfectly. Sontag could be blown away. She was wired for art, and her journal is filled with moments when she declares herself ravished by great books, music, film, and theater—so often ravished that Reborn sometimes reads as if Sontag is feverishly trying on a closetful of continental couture. Silly-putty mimicry like this is to be expected from any young writer’s journal, but Sontag never lost it.

She never found a voice that bore its own melody and seemed to know from the start that she could never make music of the world, whose particulars held no interest for her. There are only two pieces of physical description in Reborn. Together they constitute less than a page. There is no news, no conversation, no weather, no fashion, no gossip, and no society. There are no faculty dinners, bar scenes, cocktail parties, lunches, or bull sessions. There is no popular culture and nothing much American. There are no waitresses, cabdrivers, landlords, grocers, or delivery boys.

Absent these mundane domestic accoutrements, Reborn locates us in a shadowy space where we eavesdrop on a colloquy between Sad Susan and Serious Susan. Sad Susan is the “sensitive” one. She loves movies, literature, babies, and interesting women. She speaks in the early pages of Reborn, but as the book progresses she becomes increasingly silent. We are left to judge Sad Susan’s inadequacies by the urgency of Serious Susan’s hectoring admonitions, and Serious Susan is a moral juggernaut. Like a Tucson pachuco, she is determined to “customize” the jalopy she has inherited into something fierce and fabulous. On page one, at age sixteen, Serious Susan announces that “the only difference between human beings is intelligence.” This is a bad start, and her subsequent, vainglorious Intelligenciad isolates Sad Susan from a world of dumb fun, maybe a little lovey-dovey, and a lot of great sex with surf bunnies and dancers (classical and exotic) whose wisdom is of a different order. Soon Sad Susan is pleading, “How can I help me, make me cruel,” then confessing, “I discover in myself an irradicable and very dangerous streak of tenderness.”

Ten years later, in a sequence of plangent entries, Sontag conveys the grotesque progress of the writer in academe. She begins by reminding herself: “Never complain publicly about Brandeis or money.” Then, a month later: Never “criticize publicly anyone at Harvard.” Eight months later, having obviously internalized a long litany of things about which she cannot speak, she writes, “Try whiskey. To find a voice. To speak.” Two months later she has internalized the academic ego. “Why is writing important? . . . Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say.” Then Serious Susan swallows the Ivy League hook with a preposterously Freudian metaphor: “This book is an instrument,” she writes, “a tool—and it must be hard + shaped like a tool, long, thick, and blunt.” This is followed by “My innocence makes me weep,” then by the “price of freedom is unhappiness. I must distort my soul to write, to be free.”

After this bit of jejune posturing, the final third of Reborn moves into a moral universe with which I am totally unfamiliar. My best speculation is that Sontag was abroad when these entries began: she was socially out of her depth, entangled in a bad relationship, and somehow some careless book clerk stuck The Portable Nietzsche in among the self-help classics. Thus beguiled by chaste Friedrich, Sontag decides that love should “be a transaction of hostilities.” So even though she hates “being treated like a plebeian” by Eurotrash intellectuals, even though she hates being accused of having an “unrefined sensibility” by her condescending lover, she buys into Nietzsche’s bogus proposition that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Actually, what doesn’t kill you breaks your fucking heart.

Even so, Serious Susan still berates Sad Susan for her pleasant days with Philip Rieff. “I grew accustomed to his flabby adulation,” she writes. “I ceased to be tough with myself and accepted my defects as loveable since they were loved.” To mitigate this lovability, Serious Susan embarks on a badass regimen. She reminds herself that her “ignorance is not charming,” that “people may seem to sympathize” but “really they despise you a little.” “Weakness is a contagion,” she writes. “Strong people rightly shun the weak,” so “it’s better to hurt people than not to be whole,” so “don’t be kind. Kindness is not a virtue.” “Think of Blake. He didn’t smile for others.” So “don’t smile so much, sit up straight, bathe every day, and above all Don’t Say It . . .”

She composes a mantra for days when the regimen gets arduous: “I’m not a good person/Say this twenty times a day/I’m not a good person. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.” A few pages later this twenty-nine-year-old woman, at the peak of her sexuality, is reassuring herself that her “notorious flirtatiousness” and “seductiveness” are naught but a ruse to make sure that her “underlying stubbornness is never touched.” Believing this, she seeks out tough alternatives to flirting. “The look is a weapon,” she observes, and scolds herself for being “afraid (ashamed?) to use my weapons.” Sontag quickly mastered “the look,” of course, and her fear of using it and, perhaps, even that parenthetical “shame,” which seems to be the last peep we hear from Sad Susan.

Now I feel terrible. I have read Reborn and I know that Susan Sontag, when she was a girl, had a crummy, clumsy sex life, that it was excruciatingly painful. I am privy to the creepy saga of Sontag’s purported “struggle with her lesbianism”—which was really a struggle between Sontag’s lesbianism and her ambition—which, if she had had better taste in women, would not have been so fraught, and, even as fraught as it was, is still not that interesting. Like most of my beautiful friends who beguile both sexes, Sontag shied from losing half those lustful glances. Duh! Also, the early Sixties were rough on public lesbians, and Sontag wanted to be loved. She wanted to be a major intellectual without “lesbian” scare quotes. She didn’t want to belong to any club that was not about being beautiful and brilliant. Like Djuna Barnes and Robert Mapplethorpe, Sontag resisted the idea of being paraded around as a “legitimate queer”—a perfectly honorable caveat in an underground culture that scorned legitimacy.

My opinion of Sontag’s writing has not changed. I still love the essays that she came to hate. My understanding of her character has changed a little. She was braver and more willful than I ever imagined. She was always more the moralist than the theorist. When her arguments led into the abyss beyond her moral universe, she could not follow. Realizing this, I understand why Sontag could barely countenance our youthful enthusiasm. We were the worst niche market she could ever have imagined. We were kids, and we “got it.” This meant Sontag would never be our Great Mentor. She would never be Gertrude Stein, or Joseph Beuys, or Marcel Duchamp. She was our uptight big sister, maybe fifteen minutes ahead of her time, disgusted by our feckless penchant for moral free fall, contemptuous of our new tattoos. And this really must have hurt. And it was really bad luck!

So I don’t care how Sontag behaved. She was tricked by history; she studied at the wrong schools, and, yes, she may have deserved comeuppance for her cruelty, but she doesn’t deserve this book. It targets readers she would have detested and invites the wistful and the wet to smile through their tears at her plight. Nor do we deserve such a book. Now I am full of dread. I imagine a future in which the maiden sisters of dead bards gather around a bonfire on the lawn. I imagine them tossing the Refined Theory of Everything Cool into the flames while carefully laying aside the master’s ribald accounts of mutual masturbation with his chums.

writes fiction and cultural criticism, and lives in Las Vegas. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “It’s Morning in Nevada,” appeared in the November 2006 issue.

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