Soar­ing Son­tag comes to earth

As Con­scious­ness is Har­nessed to Flesh: Di­aries 1964-1980

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven

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


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