Sunday, September 10, 2006

Susan Sontag's jottings

When Susan Sontag died in December 2004 some criticism surfaced in gay circles regarding her lack of candor about her gay side. Her reticence seemed to evidence her fear that being “out” would reduce her influence as one of our prime intellectuals.

Now the NY Times Magazine has published a selection from a decade of her diary entries (1958-67), starting with the period when she first went to Paris. From these documents one can deduce that she was probably a Kinsey 5. After the dissolution of her troubled marriage to the Freudian Philip Rieff, she seems to have had affairs only with women. In the entries she refers repeatedly to her "homosexuality." She did not simply have a lesbian side-—it was her main side. Her last years were anchored by a stable relationship with the photographer Annie Leibowitz. Yet both women seemed to have done everything possible to downplay it.

The diaries contain some amusing observations. For example, at a Paris party she encountered “a man who looked like Jean-Paul Sartre, only uglier, with a limp, and was Jean-Paul Sartre.” Having grown up in Los Angeles, she eventually settled in New York, which may seem surprising in view of the following note. “In Calif., a stranger is a [potential] friend until he proves otherwise; in NY, a stranger is an enemy until he proves otherwise. One uses up a lot of energy in NY by that hypothesis.”

All in all, however, these jottings reveal a celebrity hunter who was an intellectual magpie. Towards the end of 1965 she gives an account of her intellectual formation, which included the “German-Jewish refugee intellectuals” (Arendt, Scholem, Marcuse and so forth), Wittgenstein, and “the French” (Artaud, Barthes, Cioran, Sartre). She never seems to have tried to create a foundation by reading, say, Leibniz and Kant, among the Germans, or Descartes and Rousseau, among the French. She claims an interest in art history, but names as a source only Jasper Johns (a friend). Her preferences in film were predictably avant-garde, and she never seemed to have gotten off the Jean-Luc Godard bandwagon. Fortunately, she later recanted her view that white people are the cancer of human history.

Flitting from flower to flower, Sontag attached herself to all the fashionable names without ever achieving a solid intellectual foundation.

I met Susan Sontag only once, at the first national conference of the Gay Academic Union, which I had helped organize in New York in 1973. We were in a small group chatting in an alcove, and she seemed genuinely humble and willing to learn.

Sontag and I both grew up as lonely adolescents in Los Angeles, she being born in 1933 and I in 1934. When she later described the epiphany of buying the Partisan Review at the outdoor magazine stand just off Hollywood Boulevard, I remembered haunting that stand myself in search of print sources of mental stimulation. Both of us were contentious, and it would have been fun to argue with her in those days. After spending time in New York, we both moved to Europe in the same year, 1958-—she to France and I to Italy.

Of course Susan Sontag became a renowned public figure, and I didn’t. Still, I am glad that I created a true intellectual foundation for myself. She did not.

Earlier this morning I looked into the philological background, in ancient Greek, for Aphrodite Urania. After these delvings I can now confidently interpret Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” for my class on Monday. Unless Wittgenstein, Artaud, or some other household god brought up the matter, Sontag would not have been able to do this. Nor would she have cared.


Blogger Bruce said...

Yes. Susan Sunday (or perhaps sundae) as we used to call her at Princeton raised intellectual dilletantism to the level of a fine art. Did anyone who thought or wrote with any degree of rigor ever really take her seriously?

7:00 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

A reader, Luke Lea, sent the following comment:

Nice observations. I see Sontag as an intellectual narcissist whose mind
was without content: an arrested adolescent whose fantasy was to be
recognized as some kind of a "world genius" (in the 19th- century European
Romantic tradition) but who never had an original idea in her life.

Deep down she knew this about herself, as these diaries reveal, and their
honesty in this regard is their only attractive quality. But it is an
unhealthy attraction. She is serving up juicy gossip about herself, the
cruelest she could imagine. They make me feel dirty.

And I feel sorry for David Rieff.

8:23 AM  

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