In Memory of Susan Sontag
“One felt that he could generate ideas about anything. Put him in front of a cigar box and he would have one, two, many ideas ” a little essay. It was not a question of knowledge . . . but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention.”
So Susan Sontag wrote, in 1980, in the opening paragraph of an essay celebrating her late mentor, philosopher and writer Roland Barthes. When I heard on Tuesday, December 27, that Susan Sontag had died at the age of 71, I did what a lot of people who admired her work were probably doing – I went home and reached for one of her books. My hand landed on Under the Sign of Saturn, the first Sontag book I read and therefore privileged in a way that the book that introduces us to a writer we come to love is always, I think, privileged in our memory.
The small, yellowed paperback fell open first to the dog–eared page on which “Remembering Barthes” begins. It occurred to me that her description of Barthes could well be applied to Sontag herself. For the quality of her work that has always impressed me the most is not what she knows, though that is considerable, even dazzling, but her passionate love for the workings of the mind itself, and for the way those workings can be refined into language.
How can we describe Susan Sontag? Writer, philosopher, student of the mind, lover of French literary theory and Italian film, woman of letters, example. For me, she will be forever associated with a particular time in my life and its particular intellectual excitement. In the early 1980’s, when I was first beginning to take myself seriously as a writer, I fell into a loose, flexible circle of young poets, fiction writers, painters, and musicians to whom the arts meant as much as they did to me – that is, everything. It is no secret that aspiring artists also tend to be misfits in their cultures and their families, and this new sense of fellowship was intoxicating to us.
We spent many a late night, in a bar or in someone’s apartment, smoking and drinking and talking, always talking, about what we were working on, and what we had seen and read and listened to. On any given night, the topics might range from D.H. Lawrence to Mark Rothko, from Anne Sexton to the Talking Heads. But very few such conversations could run their course without some reference to Susan Sontag.
Not only was she on the cutting edge of everything that was in the air just then ” semiotics, liberal politics, cultural criticism, feminism, film ” but she seemed, in her writing, to be as fired up as we were. Her likes and dislikes were just as intense, and just as fueled by righteous fire. Anyone who doubts this, who associates her name with a kind of cool distance, should take another look at, for example, her famous 1974 essay, “Fascinating Fascism.” In it, she deconstructs, in prose that manages to be both elegant and savage at once, the career of the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who made documentaries in the 1930’s, sponsored by and in celebration of Hitler and his National Socialist Party, and who was attempting a kind of career rehabilitation and comeback as a still photographer in the early 1970’s. There is no mistaking the nervy glee that Sontag takes in correcting and filling in Riefenstahl’s newly cleansed “official” biography. And when she goes on, in her analysis of Riefenstahl’s then–current book of photos, to demonstrate how the new work was not a departure from the old but a natural continuation of the filmmaker’s fascist propaganda, the erudition and brilliance of her argument leave you gasping.
I remember a seemingly endless conversation about the essay between half a dozen or so of us in the living room of my old apartment. Even those who disagreed ”a boyfriend of mine from those years was a painter much influenced by the German Expressionists and a bit of a Riefenstahl apologist – admitted that Sontag’s analysis was damning. “You don’t really recover,” he said, rueful, admiring, “from a blow like that.”
Of course, intellectual confidence like Sontag’s does not sit well with those who seek to stifle individual voices of dissent. I have been angered and saddened over these past few days to see how many of Sontag’s obituary writers refer primarily or even solely in addressing her career – that of a woman, mind you, who authored seventeen books, including four novels and eight works of nonfiction, as well as several plays and essays too numerous to count, and who also managed along the way to write and direct four feature–length films, and to direct other stage dramas ” to a 460–word essay of hers that appeared in The New Yorker, along with similarly brief pieces by eight other writers, in the week following 9/11. In it, she famously said, among other things, “whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.” I’ve read obituaries and heard half a dozen radio or TV broadcasts in the past few days in which these words were quoted in tones of hushed horror, followed by a commentary on how many people Sontag had managed to enrage. Forgive me if I’m missing something, but her statement seems to me not only to be true but obviously true.
Then again, perhaps the media’s rote shock and horror over that sentence fragment, which comes at the end of the essay’s first paragraph, were designed to distract the reader’s attention from the rest of what Sontag wanted to tell us. “The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality–concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy,” she wrote. And, further on, “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.” This is the kind of clarity of vision I had come to rely on from her, the kind we need most in times of crisis. It is not, however, a vision designed to endear itself to our media conglomerates, who wreathe the current administration in flabby clich’s designed to distract us from, among other things, how it has used the 9/11 catastrophe as an excuse to constrict and deny our civil and human rights. How we are going to miss her unsentimental human decency in the years to come.
Meanwhile, I would like to suggest another place to look for evidence of Sontag’s power and skill, of what kind of writer she was. In these past few days, with a stack of her books on my desk, I’ve found myself returning most often to her novel, The Volcano Lover. I read it as soon as it came out in 1992. In many ways I was very far from the twenty–something self who had first discovered Sontag; she had changed as well, but in her case, the changes were all good. Still fiery and still precise, the author of The Volcano Lover has acquired a marvelously supple and often quite tender voice.
Set in the 18th century, this historical novel is based on the lives of Sir William Hamilton, his celebrated, formerly working–class wife, Emma, and Lord Nelson, who, in addition to being the greatest war hero of his time, also became Emma’s lover. She moves so elegantly in and out of the heads and hearts of her three protagonists that the reader never feels the gears shift. One moment you are inside the head of the widowed Hamilton character, who Sontag calls the Cavaliere, as he plans his seduction of the young, penniless beauty who will become his wife; the next, you’re caught in the narrator’s net of speculation regarding the importance of telling jokes in relationships between friends and lovers; the next, you are climbing Mount Etna with the poet Goethe, whose guide has been acquired on advice from the Cavaliere, for whom the novel is named; the, next you are moving back and forth between the thoughts of the Cavaliere’s wife and the recently wounded Lord Nelson, who has lost both an eye and an arm in battle, as they begin to fall in love.
Among the couple’s exchanges, Sontag offers a detail so potent I’ve never forgotten it. The wife, who is called Fanny, asks the admiral to tell her about his dreams. But he is not a man who remembers his dreams – or at any rate, the author tells us, there is only one he can remember having now, and he has it often. He dreams of having both arms back. He decides that to tell Fanny that would sound too much like plea for her already abundant sympathy. He tries to invent some dreams that would be “appropriate for a hero,” and becomes discouraged when these seem to him to be either too grand or too weak. “He didn’t mind making them up,” Sontag writes. “He only wished they were better inventions.”
How gracefully she portrays the predicament of this great warrior ” a man who has mastered armies, terrified his enemies, and faced down his own death, only to be reduced to fretful self–doubt over his ability to impress the woman he has begun to love. It feels just like life, and it is great art.
A few months back, when another great American artist, Julia Child, died, my husband and I had a party in her honor. We invited a few friends over, made a dessert from one of her recipes and toasted her with champagne. If I were to have a party in honor of Susan Sontag, what I’d really like to be able to do is to gather that old circle of friends in whose company I first discovered her and engage in one last passionate argument. But I’ve lost track of too many of them; and some have already died. So here I’ll simply raise a literary glass to Susan Sontag. Here’s to a great woman, a great American woman of letters. Here’s to her brave, spectacular mind, and her passionate, steady heart. And here’s to all the truth and all the beauty that she poured so tirelessly into words.
” Rose Solari