How Did Susan Sontag Get to be So Famous?

Simon During

In our time, how many American critics have been celebrities? How many have had the kind of name recognition that allows them to be casually mentioned in a mainstream Hollywood movie, or enough star power to be featured (along with their apartments) in People, the magazine which pretty much invented today’s celebrity culture? Not many. Almost none. Maybe, when you get right down to it, only one. Susan Sontag.

At first sight, this seems strange. After all there are cooks, artists, media pundits, airheads, who are celebrities. Why not intellectuals? Maybe because a critic’s persona has become structurally different from a celebrity’s. Celebrities have, must have, bodies, images, backstories, personalities. They live mediatized lives, and for that reason solicit from us a direct relationship, a public intimacy. But these days critics, even those we might call “public intellectuals,” don’t have, qua intellectuals, bodies, personalities, and lives whose events we think we know about. On the contrary. If they do acquire public personalities, then these are built out of the traces of individuality laid down in the discreet business of analyzing, taste-making, judging, speculating, philosophizing, instructing.

So under what conditions did Sontag manage to be both a celebrity and a critic?

We can think about this from the celebrity side. She had what it takes to be a celebrity. She looked good and, more importantly, striking. Publicists cottoned onto this early: the back cover of the first (1967) British edition of Against Interpretation, her first book of criticism, consists of just her name in bold caps—SUSAN SONTAG—above a large and fetching photo of her dressed in black in the latest Parisian fashion. As she grew older, she branded herself physically: that dashing streak of white hair. (Andy Warhol, a competitor in the celebrity business, also had a hair-thing going.) She put herself about too: she unfailingly turned up at shows, launches, and parties, and made sure that people knew she was there. She husbanded herself: reserving her best gestures and bon mots for when and where they would have most effect. She had her own schtick, indefatigably performing intelligence in public. She dated other famous people, including, in her last years, Annie Leibowitz, the celebrity photographer and minor celebrity on her own account. Diva-like, she acquired a (by all accounts, well-deserved) reputation for haughtiness and unpredictability. And so on.

But it’s from the critic’s side that Susan Sontag becomes an intriguing case—in fact one that takes us a fair way into the postwar organization of American culture.

Sontag wasn’t successful because she was adventurous. She was successful because she was safe.

As always in such matters, timing accounts for much. History, in the form of the postwar boom in university education, delivered Sontag an audience—all those humanities graduates. She was exactly the right age—30—in 1963 when The New York Review of Books (NYRB) was established as the house organ for this new readership, which was affluent, secure, cossetted, disrespectful of tradition and limits. A cohort interested in new experiences, thoughts, and perceptions. Cynical about Cold War ideological battles, it was pretty cosmopolitan too. Interested, at any rate, in travel. As it roamed through genres and continents, Sontag was positioned as this generation’s guide. At the time, literature still attracted special attention (the percentage of students studying literature would peak in 1972), but literature competed with theater and fine art as well as with movies and photos, genres being transformed by the new audience’s attention, as Sontag helped make clear.

But Sontag wasn’t successful because she was adventurous. She was successful because she was safe. Her success as a critic depended on her being so intellectually conventional.

The book that made Sontag famous, Against Interpretation, was a collection of previously published essays and reviews, most for the NYRB and most on French writers, artists, and intellectuals (but also one German, one Hungarian, and one Italian). Three of the collection’s essays stand out. Two of these—“On Style” and “Against Interpretation”—outline a method. They argue for impersonality, as well as for the notion that culture and art should be treated as experiences rather than as objects of interpretation. Furthermore, they contend, art can offer profound experiences because in it form cannot be separated from content. Those are the terms upon which art “enlivens” “our sensibility and consciousness,” as Sontag puts it.

This, almost to a tee, is the program that T. S. Eliot had outlined around 1919 when he invented what was to become modern literary criticism. (Passages of Sontag’s essays read like paraphrases of the young Eliot.) Of course, by the time she encountered academic literary criticism in Berkeley and Chicago, literary criticism in Eliot’s mode had been transmuted into something rather different, into “new criticism”—more interested in ambiguity, tragic limits, and, yes, interpretation than in experience—and it was then probably the humanities’ most fashionable and intellectually formidable doctrine. In this context, Sontag, in sticking to Eliot’s program, was already something of a throwback.

Not for her the mix of ingratiating charm and velvet malice characteristic of predecessors like Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick. Rather, like Edmund Wilson, she presented herself as above the fray, all but omniscient.

At Chicago Sontag learned something else as well. She learned that, for the critic and intellectual, a historicist seriousness and nobility were primary standards. With them came gravitas and distance from the everyday. “Seriousness—the highest form is the same is irony,” she noted. This was doctrine formulated in the Committee on Social Thought, then under the sway of the formidable Leo Strauss, whose ethos Sontag enthusiastically absorbed.

She stuck to the Straussian ethos as a New York essayist drawing on T. S. Eliot’s program. And did so not least by refusing the rhetorics then thought most proper for women critics. Not for her the mix of ingratiating charm and velvet malice characteristic of predecessors like Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick. Rather, like Edmund Wilson, she presented herself as above the fray, all but omniscient. She delivered judgments from on high even in the piece on camp that did so much to extend her reputation. There she makes a firm distinction between “deliberate” and “naïve” camp. The first she assures us is “always harmful,” but the second is good because it is (what else?) a mode of “seriousness,” even if a “seriousness that fails.” That failure matters all the less, however, just because it is, in the end, indistinguishable from intellectual detachment and irony. It isn’t irrelevant to note that in making that judgment Sontag actually missed something important happening around her in New York—the emergence of styles in camp’s spirit, which would leave camp behind, in the work of contemporaries like Warhol, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler. It need hardly be said that Straussian seriousness, however bent towards irony and detachment, meets tough resistance from this post-camp work too.

Seriousness, impersonality, and formalism could also be used by Sontag to contain madder, darker books and events such as Genet’s novels and Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, whose energies and passions were directed against the established social order. And, if it comes to that, it could also be used to contain the French intellectuals whose names, soon to become gilded in the academy, Sontag introduced to an Anglophone readership. The radical and politically directed conceptual constructions invented variously by Barthes, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Blanchot, and Derrida (the last of whom she was in correspondence with in the mid sixties) made no real impact on her. Not even Barthes, whose work she loved. Sontag absorbed them too into the critical lexicon and sensibility of Strauss and Eliot. Thus in appealing for “an erotics of art” she was asking not (before the event) for a Barthesian jouissance able to disrupt what was then called “hegemonic ideology,” but rather for an experience of form, a cutting back of content as she herself thought of it, with no political charge whatsoever.

She was, strangely, simultaneously a celebrity and a critic because she was intellectually out of touch.

That Sontag’s critical apparatus was immune to the poststructuralism she helped to introduce to the US helped make her safe for the New York Review of Books, and the readership it drew on. After all, that was a public which, not unreasonably, expected intellectuals and critics to be serious, easily understood, and “objective” above all things. But more to the point it meant that she remained pretty much untouched by the intense political and intellectual shake-up that we associate with 1968. Admittedly, she joined the resistance to the Vietnamese war (and her celebrity owed something to her disarmingly frank report of her trip to Hanoi). But she did not enroll in feminism. Nor, despite her love of women, did she ever enlist as queer. Unlike Pauline Kael, another of her competitors as a tastemaker (they detested one another), she withstood seventies and eighties cultural populism too.

All this protected her celebrity, if at the cost of her relevance. She was, strangely, simultaneously a celebrity and a critic because she was intellectually out of touch. The distance between her and the generations that followed her allowed her aura, her reputation as a bearer of serious intelligence, to flourish, even if it meant that she was decreasingly able to communicate meaningfully to those that came to her after her first flight of fame.

Then, in the late eighties, something changed. Many of 1968’s hopes and purposes were absorbed into the establishment. Identity politics were now connected to policy and legislation rather than to cutting-edge thought. Poststructuralism was repeating itself. Academic radicalisms, intellectual and political, were in retreat. Capitalism, on the verge of neoliberalism, was beginning to over-extend itself. And this meant that Sontag’s intellectual formation and fame, her status as a celebrity-intellectual, her commitment to seriousness and aesthetic experience, for the first time allowed her to make genuinely risky public interventions.

Let’s be clear. Her critical mode did not change. Indeed her criticism became increasingly docile and, no doubt as a result, increasingly well received. Thus, her first commercial success, the book on photography, attacked photography as a mode of anti-culture and of anti-literature, on the predictable grounds that photographs “certified” experience by actually destroying it. A casual, easy, enjoyable craft, photography deprived the world of seriousness. Compare that to Barthes’s complex celebration of the technology in Camera Lucida. As her thought routinized itself, it seems logical that Sontag herself gradually lost interest in her critical writing, committing herself more firmly to novels, even though her talents lay elsewhere.

It is not as if understanding Susan Sontag matters much. She was neither a great novelist nor an intellectual and critic with lasting things to say. 

But as her criticism retreated further from what was actually most exciting and innovative on the intellectual scene, she found herself able to use her status as a celebrity-intellectual to make important political interventions. There was a real political stake, for instance, in her insistence that cancer cells and the HIV virus are no kind of moral agents, a line of thought which, while resolutely unqueer and non-emancipatory, was also powerfully anti-homophobic. And then, her standing up for Saravejo against the Serbs, by directing a local production of Waiting for Godot—was an early and subtle recognition of universal human rights’ subsequent global encroachment upon identity politics. Her serious and “noble” (or “aristocratic,” as she sometimes liked to say) disdain for commercialism and populism began to carry a whiff of more cogent anti-capitalism. And perhaps most of all, her brave comments directly after 9/11 almost uniquely spoke the truth in the public sphere when they reminded Americans that they had it coming to them.

When Sontag died in 2004, she was, therefore, all the more exposed to the posthumous fate of celebrity. There was a readership out there who wanted to take their public intimacy with her to another level. They wanted to know what she was really like, close up. They wanted, I suppose, to understand her.

It would be priggish to claim to stand outside this desire. And yet, it is not as if understanding Susan Sontag matters much. She was neither a great novelist nor an intellectual and critic with lasting things to say. Her status is not like (to name some contemporaries of hers at random) that of Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morison, or Don Delillo, whose fictions define the American literary epoch. Or even like that of Raymond Williams, Edward Said, Betty Friedan, or Friedrich Hayek—intellectuals who changed how large numbers of people think. She was a tastemaker. She was, sometimes, a public conscience. Most of all she was, as I say, a guide to new or avant-garde cultural experiences and a safeguard against their most radical and dangerous energies.

But, of course, her private journals are now being published and edited serially by her son, David Rieff. The first volume, which appeared a couple of years back, took us to 1963, the year Sontag became famous. And it was, in fact, revelatory—a wonderful book. Who knew that, as an adolescent and young adult, she had been so gutsy, so willing to leave morality and safety behind? Who sensed her ability to throw herself at the world—hanging out in San Fransisco’s boho-lesbian bars as a 16 year old and joyfully discovering her sexuality; or marrying her professor after a ten-day courtship as a 17 year old; or leaving her husband and young child behind in the States to study at Oxford and from there landing pathetically on a lover’s doorstep in Paris. Hers was a life, it became clear, driven by a mix of courage and self-abandonment, an ethos of risk wholly consonant with the times. This was the moment when existentialism (that blind leap into freedom) was mutating into sixties counterculture, but how many lived and wrote out of it more extravagantly and directly? Who, with so much to regret, regretted less? And in those early journals it became clear her criticism (like her marriage) was motivated by her attempts to get beyond all this, attempts at what she herself called “self-transcendence.” Her embrace of impersonality, seriousness, and formalism were an escape from, and hence driven by, her personal daring and not quite controlled rejection of conventions, limits, and responsibilities.

As she directs her heavy critical apparatus towards herself, she begins to loom larger than seems—how should one put this?—morally right.

The second volume of the journals, just published, covers the first period of her fame. Here, once again, everything changes. The risk-taking adolescent and young woman searching for a way out of domesticity, trying to make a career as a writer, vanishes. Sontag is now professionally established, entering celebrity. All the time, though, privately she is looking for non-domestic, mainly but not only lesbian and stable, love. Here in her journals, her intelligence and seriousness are primarily directed towards her own and her partners’ capacities for such love. Happiness eludes her, and her intelligence can’t compensate for it.

The outcome is more than disconcerting, it’s upsetting. As she directs her heavy critical apparatus towards herself, she begins to loom larger than seems—how should one put this?—morally right. It’s not just that she takes herself too seriously (though she does, since surely no one should take themselves this seriously), she inflates herself, writing without irony of her “fabulous, cosmic voyaging mind”; the problems she encounters with that mind become “too much” for other people, so that she must “scale myself down.”

Unfortunately, her fabulous mind is in the service of less than fabulous passions and needs. She is in fact in an almost continuous state of abjection, not able emotionally to cope with the situations she finds herself in. Unable properly to connect to those around her; unable to bond with those she loves or maybe just thinks she loves; unable to find stability, she indulges in orgies of self-analysis. In the end, then, what these journals track are the gaps between 1) her own critical standards—impersonality, seriousness, form, and all that; 2) her grotesquely inflated estimation of herself that these standards, abetted by her celebrification, help sponsor; and 3) her continual, intense personal neediness and confusion, which find it only too easy to communicate themselves, beyond intimacy, in analytic prose.

This book, then, is not (as they used to say) improving. So much so that I sometimes came to wish that Sontag’s privacy had been respected and it hadn’t been published at all. That is not an easy or practical call to make: after all, the borders between the public and the private are today more elusive than they were even in Sontag’s time. (And Sontag had, anyway, sold her journals to UCLA.) But there is, I suspect, something contaminating about the book. For instance, I found myself wondering whether, by exposing his mother in this way, David Rieff, who has in fact declared himself reluctant to publish, wasn’t avenging himself on her, punishing her for her abandonment of him as a young child. That’s the kind of ungenerous and messy thought the book can trigger.

And, as I say, it is not as though we here learn anything new and substantive about Sontag’s criticism, or her engagement with society and culture at large. We learn rather that her efforts at self-transcendence failed. Few will be surprised by this. So why confront us with how she experienced and lived out that failure? Ultimately, the details of her private abjection only tarnish the serious and impersonal values to which she was committed as a young writer, and which, as her career as a (or the) celebrity-critic revealed, can, against all the odds, still have real impact and grandeur. And so long as it is not obscured by our sense of Sontag’s private life, the revelation that early twentieth-century standards of seriousness and impersonality retain considerable political resilience and power will likely turn out to be her enduring legacy.