This week is Susan Sontag’s birthday. The famous, and possibly last American intellectual, died in 2004. Below is my somewhat irreverent review of her last book (Independent on Sunday, 2002)
The first sentence in Susan Sontag’s latest collection of essays is eight lines long, mentions Camus and Pasternak and ends with the word “impinging”. But would we have it any other way? Sontag dares to look serious in a way that is somehow enhanced rather than undermined by that Bride of Frankenstein stripe of grey she sports these days. To hold on to your seriousness is quite an achievement in an age of silliness such as ours, and you’ll be relieved to hear that Where the Stress Falls contains no pieces on Madonna or PlayStation 2, and definitely no recipes.
Instead you’ll find pieces with titles such as “A Note on Bunraku” and “Homage to Halliburton”, written in that learned, didactic and apparently effortless style which is not always quite so effortless to read. Serious Susan is not here to entertain you. Though cynics — i.e. me — might dub this collection: “Does My Brain Look Big in This?”
Susan Sontag is a living legend, even though we might be forgiven for thinking that she was left behind with the 20th century, rueful amidst the ruins of the modernism that we have abandoned for the gleeful barbarism of contemporary life. She’s definitely still here, though she might be feeling rather lonely. Sontag is, after all, the Last Intellectual in the Anglo-American world: Gore Vidal has turned into Truman Capote, Norman Mailer has turned into Moses, while Harold Bloom’s canon has turned out to be his winding sheet. On this side of the philistine pond, Jonathan Miller would be holding up the banner of seriousness and intellect, but alas, that injunction banning him from appearing in public is still in force.
Sontag knows this — in fact, this is her “brand” which she exploits adroitly — but seems charmingly determined to pretend there are other intellectuals left in the world: it’s just that they’re shirking their duties. In “Answers to a Questionnaire”, her response to a survey of intellectuals and their role, she complains magisterially how many times she’s heard intellectuals “pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which… they belong”. All the same, she’s careful to mention that she was “the sole American” to whom the French (they would be French) compilers sent their questionnaire.
Sontag even had her own “Spanish Civil War” in the 1990s, when she travelled to a besieged, ruined Sarajevo to direct by candlelight a production of Waiting For Godot. It was a dramatic gesture that was much larger than the drama itself: the Last Intellectual nursing the flame of modernism in a European city catapulted back into the Dark Ages. It was also a brave and inspiring — and sincere — thing to do, and it pointed up the ineptitude of most who toil by brain rather than hand these days when faced with embarrassing reality (one horrified New Yorker asked her son, also a writer, how he could “spend so much time in a country where people smoke so much”).
But is it merely the tainted cynicism of our selfish, rationalising age that inclines some of us to doubt Sontag when she complains about the enormous press attention she received and that she “forgot” that she was going to be billeted in a hotel full of journalists? Or causes us to chortle when she dismisses as “condescending” those back home who wondered whether the bleakness of Waiting for Godot was what the citizens of Sarajevo really wanted, but then sees no irony in later explaining she only staged Act I because she had decided that the distressed citizens of Sarajevo might not be able to bear the downbeat ending.
And then there is another question which keeps insistently suggesting itself like a barely suppressed snigger: is there something faintly camp about Susan Sontag? It dates back to the early 1960s when she tried to define what lives to avoid definition, to pin down that wiggly, ticklish thing in “Notes on Camp”. If camp really is “failed seriousness”, as she suggested, just how successful is Sontag’s seriousness in an age like ours where seriousness itself is judged to have failed? Her impressive, swan-like prose always inclines me at least to wonder how much furious peddling is going on beneath the water line. This is why the naked boast of Serious Susan’s street-brawling 1990s nemesis, Camille Paglia, after the publication of Sexual Personae, was so funny. “I’ve been chasing that bitch for years,” she crowed, “and now I’ve finally overtaken her!”
But, just like the ‘vulgar’ Paglia, Sontag made her reputation in part by lending cultural capital to things which were not at the time considered worth it, such as camp, cinema and Roland Barthes, in her now classic 1966 collection Against Interpretation. In fact, it was Sontag’s interest in that silly Frenchy which arguably set her up, giving her the edge on her (long forgotten) rivals. She was one of the main conduits by which Barthes’s obsession with taking superficiality seriously reached Anglo academe and became intensely fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s, and in many ways prepared the way for the post-modernism and irony which is such anathema to Sontag today.
As Oscar Wilde once put it: “A moralist is someone who lectures on the vices of which he has grown bored.” In a preface to a new edition of Against Interpretation, included here, she makes a moving public confession: “What I didn’t understand… was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions. Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete.”
True, but perhaps it’s also the case that 30 years on the frontline of culture has moved to other, less Sontagian regions.
But old and new cultural capital always find a need for one another. It is well known that Sontag is in a relationship with Annie Leibovitz, the famous photographer. The famous celebrity photographer. Despite no official acknowledgement by the couple, their union is splashed across the broadsheets as a “glamorous” affair. Serious Susan, whether she wants to be or not, is a celebrity involved in a celebrity marriage. No wonder she doesn’t want to talk about it.
All this can’t help but lend a special resonance to “Certain Mapplethorpes”, one of the most interesting and personal essays in this collection. Explaining why she hates being photographed, she writes: “The photograph comes as a kind of reproof to the grandiosity of consciousness. Oh. So there ‘I’ am.”
After all, aren’t girlfriends an affront to the grandiosity of consciousness too?
Copyright Mark Simpson 2011