Soaring Sontag comes to earth
As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-1980
IDON’T suppose any critic since Dr Johnson, not even Edmund Wilson, the man who could put his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald in his place and who clashed with Vladimir Nabokov, enjoyed the prestige of Susan Sontag. I heard her once rail privately at Wilson and say she couldn’t believe how he had presumed to condescend to the author of Lolita.
Sontag, who died in 2004, was a woman of extraordinary poise. She wrote criticism of great elegance and bareness, which conformed to Flaubert’s ideal, cited in these diaries, that the adjective is the enemy of the noun. As such she represented a polar opposite to hammy, embellishing opinionators.
It helped that she wrote about everything. The famous 1960s book Against Interpretation, with that title like a sabre thrust against all academic deadness, had essays on camp and Ingmar Bergman and Claude Levi-Strauss. It was clear from the outset that Sontag, although everything about her was literary (and it was as a writer that she would have liked to be remembered) was taking the whole of culture as her text and pretext.
Hence the fame of the late-70s books On Photography, arguing for the artifice of the image, and Illness as Metaphor, arguing against the psychological mystique of disease: until there was a cure we had a romantic mythology of TB, now we pychologise cancer.
It was typical of Sontag that she spoke out against the hysteria that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, just as it was typical of her a few years earlier to go to Bosnia to direct Waiting for Godot when she thought the poor beleaguered unarmed Bosnians were waiting for Bill Clinton.
She was an extraordinary figure and she looked it: 183cm tall with that long Apachelike black hair — she kept it that way even at 70 — with the one streak of white that worked like a talisman or a memento mori. Ivan Turgenev says in Fathers and Sons that the old patrician Paul Petrovich had that ‘‘ soaring quality’’ that most people lose after 30. Sontag had that, the quality movie stars are supposed By Susan Sontag Edited by David Rieff Hamish Hamilton, 532pp, $39.95 (HB) to have. It was there in her erectness and the way she carried her physical beauty: it wasn’t just the consequence of fame, though it played a role in her achieving it.
In these journals, when French critic Roland Barthes dies Sontag writes: ‘‘ I myself said he was the greatest critic to have emerged anywhere. But he deserves the more glorious name of writer.’’ She adds, a bit ruefully, ‘‘ But he couldn’t purge himself of his ideas.’’
Did she deserve the more glorious title too? Well, The Volcano Lover, that late ‘‘ readerly’’ novel about the husband of Lady Hamilton, is a grand work of fiction and In America, the novel about actress Maryna Modjeska, has magnificent things in it, even if the enterprise falters as a whole. Some of her stories are impressive even if Sontag’s early fictional experimentation seems a bit blighted.
The criticism, unlike the iridescences of Barthes, is remarkable for its absolute sincerity. In the intensity of her self-doubt she thought it smacked of a demagoguery because it insinuated a certitude she never felt, but she was too hard on herself.
The question that hovers over As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh is why Sontag’s son, David Rieff, has chosen to publish the diaries in the first place. They present her in frequent, melancholic or harried emotional disarray and they have led the odd academic commentator — never loath to accept the invitation to cannibalism or the mutilation of corpses — to attack Sontag for how ‘‘ abject’’ she is in the face of her unhappy love affairs with women.
Poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote once that an art of impersonality like that of T. S. Eliot or Paul Valery (one of Sontag’s heroes) leads to greater indiscretions than the analyst’s couch. The irony with Sontag is that she had a formidable authority as well as a rather starry presence, which encourages a glamourbesotted world to hunger for her privacies.
The justification (if there is one) for publication is in Sontag’s own poignant words: I can’t talk to myself, but I can write to myself . . . is that because I do think it possible that someday someone I love who loves me will read my journals — and feel even closer to me.
Well, the world now has a chance for such empathy and if Rieff’s contention in his introduction that these journals constitute some form of autobiography is not wholly convincing, they are nevertheless impressive, moving and grand.
It’s also true they are as often funny and ironic as they are poignant. There is the Sontag who says that what moves her most ‘‘ in art (in life) is nobility’’ and that this is what she loves most in French film director Robert Bresson. But she will also say Jean-Paul Sartre is important to her because of ‘‘ his abundance, lucidity, knowingness and bad taste’’. She adored the Hollywood films of her childhood and when she reads a biography of Greta Garbo she says she started out wanting to be Garbo but ended up wanting her sexually.
There are moments when she will say, ‘‘ I was beginning to feel I had lost my mind. Or gave it away because it was too heavy’’, but there is also the moment when she confesses the reason she wears pants is ‘‘ mainly to hide my fat legs — other reasons are secondary’’.
She says she married Philip Rieff, a fortress of a right-wing intellectual — a balding man with fat thighs she calls him — so she would have someone to talk to, and proceeded to talk for several years. She says the reason, as a girl, she ‘‘ started thinking’’ was ‘‘ because I’d never seen anyone do it’’. All she saw was Shakespeare and Thomas Mann, on one side, and her drunk mother on the other. There’s plenty about her mother, some of it bit ponderously psychoanalytical. Then