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08 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Little Red Schoolbook: An Honest Vintage Guide to Teenage Sexuality, Education Reform, and Independent Thinking

By:

“Leaders remain leaders only as long as you let them.”

In 1969, shortly after the Summer of Love swept America, Danish schoolteachers Søren Hansen and Jesper Jensen penned a slim and provocative book for teens as “a protest against the Victorian/authoritarian school system with its robotic discipline,” encouraging young people to think for themselves, to question social rites, to demand more of their education, and to explore their sexuality without shame. While aimed at kids, these refreshingly lucid principles of identity and interpersonal dynamics applied just as elegantly to grownup domains like romance, the workplace, and the creative process. It was at once an instant success and a publishing debacle — read by parents, teachers, and students from Japan to Mexico, it was translated into twenty languages but quickly stirred great outrage by precisely those robotic disciplinarians it sought to challenge. The Greek publisher was thrown in jail, the UK authorities confiscated all copies from the warehouse and successfully prosecuted the publisher under the Obscene Publications Act, and the Pope proclaimed the book immoral. A highly censored second edition was published, but it quickly went out of print. For decades, the original remained unavailable and, due to this very forbidden-fruit quality, a highly prized item.

Now, nearly half a century after its initial publication, the original and uncensored version of The Little Red Schoolbook (public library) is at last released — a book as refreshingly honest and elegantly straightforward as its cover design. Rather than dated, its idealism, insight, and practical advice on everything from education to sexuality ring with remarkable resonance in the context of today’s culture, well beyond the intended audience of teenagers.

For instance, the book’s piercing critique of education sounds like it may have been written today — in fact, fragments of it can be found in such highly quotable contemporary counterparts as Sir Ken Robinson on changing educational paradigms and Seth Godin on the success myths the industrial economy has sold us. Writing in 1969, Hansen and Jensen describe the same broken system at work today:

Education should teach you how to find out about the things you need to know and give you the opportunity of developing your own particular talents and interests to the full. The trouble is that few people really know how to do this. Those who do know, or at least have some good ideas, are not the people who actually control the education system. The system is controlled by the people who have the money, and directly or indirectly these people decide what you should be taught and how.

[…]

The industries and businesses that control our economic system need a relatively small number of highly educated experts to do the brain-work, and a large number of less well educated people to do the donkey-work. Our education system is set up to churn out these two sorts of people in the right proportions — although it doesn’t in fact succeed.

Illustration from 'My Teacher Is a Monster' by Peter Brown. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that Adrienne Rich would come to echo a decade later in her spectacular commencement address on why an education is something we claim rather than get, they add:

What you get out of your education will largely decide what you get out of your whole life. So you have a right, and a duty to yourself, to insist on getting the best possible education. You should know how the present system works and what its limitations are. But you must not let this stop you demanding a proper education.

But rather than a document of lamentation, the book is a toolkit of empowerment, teaching young people how to handle with elegance and dignity their inner struggles and interpersonal dynamics — skills that help navigate the education system but, more than that, help navigate the complex world in real life. Their advice is worded simply enough for kids to understand but also emanates a purity of conviction that jolts grownups out of our convoluted cynicism.

One of the most poignant chapters deal with the art of persuasion and the role of honesty in influencing people:

To have influence it’s important to remember

  • That it’s easier to influence someone if you like them and they like you.
  • That the most influential thing you can do is to be honest (and tactful).
  • That you need to know the person you want to influence — and to understand why he does what he does.
  • That a person who’s frightened is hard to influence: he often gets angry so as to hide his fear.
  • That it’s best to bring disagreements out into the open if everybody knows they exist. That discussing and sorting out disagreements is a good way of learning more about each other. It also helps clear the air.
  • That if words fail, you can try positive action.

In a section titled “Honesty is Influence,” they point to the lack of honesty between students and teachers as a key culprit in the limitations of the education system — insight that, once more, applies to so many other aspects of our everyday lives:

If everybody dared to be honest with each other all the time, our present school system would collapse very rapidly. But as a rule neither teachers nor pupils dare to be honest with each other.

Neither teachers nor pupils usually dare to say that they’re bored. And even if a teacher knows this, he can’t usually face up to it and deal with it. So you should realize that if you speak the truth to a teacher in one way or another, he will be influenced, even if he doesn’t show it at the time.

Truth can be told in many ways.

Illustration from 'Advice to Little Girls,' Mark Twain's irreverent encouragement of girls to think independently rather than blindly obey social mores. Click image for more.

When honesty alone is not enough, Hansen and Jensen presage James Murphy’s modern aphorism that “the best way to complain is to make things” and speak to the power of action, the other key element of influence:

If being honest doesn’t work and all your suggestions get talked to death, then act to show that you mean what you say… The best way to act is to simply do what you’ve talked about for so long. If there are things you’ve wanted to introduce into school — whether in lessons, in breaks or after school — and you’ve been refused, start them by yourselves.

Noting how difficult it is to influence someone who is afraid of you — something David Foster Wallace would capture beautifully decades later in his spectacular definition of what makes a great leader — Hansen and Jensen write:

Most bad and authoritarian teachers are tied up in knots or afraid of something or other. They’re often afraid of their pupils and think they have to appear strict and unapproachable. They’re afraid that the pupils may be right and that they may be wrong. They’re afraid that there’ll be chaos if they give up their power and authority.

This fear arises because they don’t believe in other people’s ability to organize themselves and find their own solutions to problems. This lack of faith in others may be due to a lack of belief in themselves. They’re insecure and have to rely on their authority all the time.

[…]

If your teacher is frightened of you and therefore afraid of doing anything new with you, he’s usually very hard to influence. In order to influence each other, it’s necessary to feel reasonably secure. So to influence a frightened teacher, make him feel secure. Show him you’re willing to cooperate. Give him a real chance to explain what he’s trying to do. If you ask to do new things, explain that this is not in order to test him out, but so that everybody can be freer and therefore enjoy themselves more. Once he realizes that in some situations things can be done in a different and freer way than he has known so far, it may be possible to make some progress.

Teachers who are afraid that things will get chaotic if they take off their masks, their false authority, won’t usually go further than allowing something new “just for once” or “as an experiment”. Make use of this opportunity. If the “experiment” works, the teacher should obviously be willing to do it again.

This principle, of course, applies as much to the dynamics in the classroom as it does to the dynamics at the workplace, in politics, or even in the family — a recurring tendency across much of the advice in the book. They later add:

Democracy is built on action. This doesn’t mean unconsidered actions, but active contributions towards getting things changed. Democracy comes from below.

A section that appears, on the surface, dated is the one about corporal punishment — something long since outlawed in schools, but at the time widely practiced across the school systems of the world. But what makes the discussion of it pertinent is that corporal punishment, an extrinsic motivator using negative reinforcement to promote a desired learning behavior, is simply the flip side of standardized praise for achievement, something widely practiced today and shown to be ineffective in promoting true growth — for the very same reasons that Hansen and Jensen decry corporal punishment, namely the haplessness of extrinsic motivators compared to intrinsic ones and that attention rather than reinforcement produces achievement. They write:

Time and time again it’s been shown that corporal punishment can do serious harm to disturbed, backward or mentally handicapped children. Yet it’s most frequently used on precisely these children. These unfortunate children often show their distress in “abnormal” or “delinquent” behavior. What they want is more attention and encouragement. What they get is a slap or a caning. This can make them even more disturbed and backward — and it isn’t even effective in stopping their “abnormal” behavior.

Corporal punishment isn’t effective on ordinary children either. If a teacher gives you a cuff round the ear (often quite unjustifiably) it doesn’t make you change your attitude and really pay attention: it just makes you resentful. If you get called to the headmaster’s room for a caning you may be a bit afraid and it will hurt for a while. But it doesn’t miraculously make you “see the light” and transform you into a “nicely behaved little boy.” At best it’ll make you try not to get caught again. And when it’s over, the chances are you’ll treat the whole thing as a big joke.

But Hansen and Jensen’s most important point is one of values, encouraging independence of mind and personal integrity — the very capacity Jeanette Winterson argued so beautifully that art helps us cultivate. They write:

Don’t blindly accept the values of grown-ups. Think things out for yourself and base your judgement on what you really believe.

They circle back to the question of leadership with a thoughtful section on group organization and the fluidity of roles in successful groups:

Some people — real leaders — are always more active and decisive than others. But some people — bad leaders — always say more than others and listen less. Some are forever giving orders and bullying others “under” them. Some are on top, others are at the bottom. Groups like this are organized like a pyramid.

Groups don’t have to work like this. There are many ways of organizing things. You can create democratic cooperation, so that everybody feels that he belongs and has a real influence in all the group’s decisions.

This means that you’re not limited to a particular role, that you can at times lead or be led, according to the situation. It often means that you have different leaders for different things…

It’s worth knowing that two kinds of leaders often emerge. There are those who want to decide everything themselves. They use their power to give themselves the jobs they want and they try to dominate when decisions are taken. And there are those who don’t try to decide everything themselves but give others real responsibility and use everybody’s energies and talents to the full.

Leaders remain leaders only as long as you let them.

But perhaps the best, most timeless, and most poignant section of the book is also the one responsible for the controversy and censorship — the chapter on sex. Hansen and Jensen begin with a wonderfully worded, almost poetic, seemingly simple yet profound morphology of sexual relations:

People go to bed with one another for many reasons.

  • They are close friends and enjoy talking to one another — with their bodies as well.
  • They do it because people need sexual satisfaction, and masturbation is no longer considered to be enough.
  • They may lack security and seek it through sex.
  • They may be under pressure to do it because everybody else in their group boasts about their “conquests”.
  • They may use sex as a way of exploring their own identity.
  • They may have deep feelings for each other and perhaps want to have children.

Whatever the reasons may be, and however many people you may go to bed with, it will have consequences for each person.

Sex may or may not involve strong feelings. Strong feelings may or may not involve sex.

The only way to avoid unforeseen consequences in sexual relationships is for both people to be honest with one another about what they are looking for.

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' Kurt Vonnegut's favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality. Click image for more.

In the same era when children were sending Judy Blume distraught and endearing letters about masturbation, and a century after Mark Twain satirized society’s hypocrisy about the subject, Hansen and Jensen offer an entertaining matter-of-factly aside:

Some girls, and a very few boys, don’t masturbate. This is quite normal. It’s also normal to do it. Some do it several times a day, some several times a week, some more rarely. Grown-ups do it too. If anybody tells you it’s harmful to masturbate, they’re lying. If anybody tells you you mustn’t do it too much, they’re lying too, because you can’t do it too much. Ask them how often you ought to do it. They’ll usually shut up then.

In another passage of refreshing lucidity, they offer special attention to the female sexual experience — something consistently regarded, especially in that era, as either taboo or, at best of minimal, secondary importance to the discourse on sexuality:

Having an orgasm is usually called coming… Coming is less obvious for a girl. The feeling is different for each girl. It can be intense pleasure or excitement or a feeling of relief. Some girls come a lot faster than others. It may take some experience for a girl to find out what coming really is for her.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the first half of the twentieth century. Click image for more.

In a particularly prescient passage that illustrates both how far we’ve come in the decades since and how much baggage of bigotry we have yet to undo, they consider the question of homosexuality mere months before the historic Stonewall riots:

In purely physical terms, homosexuals make love just like anybody else, although of course they can’t have intercourse in quite the same way. Their love and their feelings are just as real and genuine and natural as anybody else’s.

Many of them have great difficulties because in our Christian culture they are considered sick, abnormal or even criminal. In many other cultures homosexuality is recognized just like other forms of sexuality. Homosexuality has recently been made legal in Britain, but only “between consenting males over 21, in private.” However homosexuals are still often persecuted by ignorant people. (Female homosexuality, which is called lesbianism, has never been illegal in Britain.)

Many homosexuals live together in stable relationships. The time will come when homosexual marriages are recognized.

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' a 1968 satire of conformity-culture written and illustrated by a high school girl. Click image for more.

Hansen and Jensen springboard into a wider discussion of difference and nonconformity, as relevant today as ever, and resonant across a multitude of cultural contexts — a reminder of what we intuit so deeply but, for a variety of internal and social reasons, often fail to enact:

It’s normal to be different. We all are.

People use the word “abnormal” to mean many things. They may mean something which doesn’t fit in with their particular standards (for example regarding school or religion). They may mean something which goes against the traditional view of what is right and wrong. They may simply mean something of which they themselves are afraid.

“Abnormal” is a very dangerous word. It’s often used as an excuse for the persecution and repression of some people by others. It’s particularly misused in the sexual context.

It’s not considered abnormal for people to have red hair or collect coins or play the bagpipes. So why should it be considered abnormal for some people to fall in love with others of their own sex, to like unusual positions for intercourse or to like being caressed in an unusual way.

If you’re not allowed to enjoy special interests which don’t harm anybody else, it’s usually because of other people’s intolerance. You may feel that you’re the only person who experiences things in a “strange” way, and you may think you are abnormal. It can be a help to discover that there are many other people who are almost the same as you. There always are.

The Little Red Schoolbook, long subjected the very same persecution of out-of-the-ordinary thought that the book itself challenged, is well worth a read now that, at last, we live in a culture ready for it. Complement it with An ABZ of Love, an equally progressive vintage Danish guide to sexuality that Kurt Vonnegut sent to his wife.

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21 AUGUST, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Rare, Sensual Illustrations for Herman Melville’s Greatest Commercial Failure and Most Personally Beloved Book

By:

“The strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.”

Something magical happens when a great artist interprets a great author — one need only look at William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, and Salvador Dalí’s literary illustrations for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne. But one of the most extraordinary such “collaborations” across creative culture’s space-time continuum came in the form of a now-rare 1995 Kraken edition of Herman Melville‘s controversial 1852 novel Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (public library), illustrated by none other than Maurice Sendak.

The story of the book itself — an absolute disaster for Melville both critically and financially, and yet one he considered his “kraken book,” a book eclipsing Moby-Dick in its profound potency like the mythic kraken outshines the whale in might — is at least as scandalous as its plot.

In 1850, Melville wrote in a letter that “a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.” The following year, when Moby-Dick was published, the critical reception validated his fear — reviewers eviscerated the book, which Melville considered his greatest work to date, as irreverent and blasphemous. Though Melville’s style was praised by some for its ingenuity, most critics issued scathing remarks about it, including one prominent British reviewer’s assertion that it was an “ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact.”

As the reviews were pouring in, Melville wrote in a letter to his friend and great champion Nathaniel Hawthorne in June of 1851:

Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.

He proved heartbreakingly right: It took more than seventy years after Melville died a penniless customs agent for Moby-Dick to be extolled as one of the greatest books of all time.

So when Melville walked into the Harper & Brothers publishing office on January 2, 1852, with a copy of his Pierre manuscript, he was doubly embittered by how deftly reviewers had validated his prior grim fears about criticism. For their part, the Harper brothers were less than eager to publish a new book by an author whose most recent novel had done so dismally. Too polite and political to give Melville an outright rejection, they instead channeled their reservations by offering him a humiliating contract — instead of their standard author royalty rate of 50 cents on the dollar, they offered him 20 cents. This automatically meant that Pierre would have to sell 2.5 as many copies as his other books in order to yield Melville the share he had previously gotten — a share, no less, with which he had still run into considerable debt to the firm.

Desperate and resigned, Melville decided not to pitch the book to other publishers and signed the Harper & Row contract on February 20, 1852.

But then he did something even crazier — something that would seal the book’s tragic fate: He decided to enlarge the original 360-page manuscript with an additional 150 pages, in which he took the already extravagant plot to preposterous lengths. After book XVI, he inserted a section titled “Young America in Literature,” lacing it with his satirical, thinly veiled personal gripes against the literary establishment. (In one particularly vivid passage, he envisioned “the highly improbable event of the near approach of the Millennium, which might establish a different dynasty of taste, and possibly eject the editors.”)

The book all but perished, both in sales and in critical reception. Critics dismissed it as “perhaps, the craziest fiction extant” (The Boston Post) and “a confused phantasmagoria of distorted fancies and conceits, ghostly abstractions and fitful shadows” (New York Literary World) — the latter being the most burning of the bunch, as it was penned by editor Evert Duyckinck, the very friend with whom Melville had shared his prescient lament about criticism two years earlier.

But in the twentieth century, Pierre found its two greatest champions — Melville scholar Herschel Parker and the great Maurice Sendak, who considered it Melville’s greatest novel and who had previously illustrated another literary titan. So when Parker approached the beloved artist about the Kraken edition, Sendak was thrilled — doubly so because the book’s unabashed blend of sensuality, nightmarishness, and ambiguity mirrored his own aesthetic and paralleled the sensibility of his greatest lifelong influence, William Blake.

In fact, Sendak had independently begun working on drawings for Pierre after attending the 1991 Melville Centennial Conference. He found in this unusual, extravagant, almost ludicrous yet remarkably layered text the perfect canvas for equally over-the-top pictorial representation. The resulting drawings — by far the most sexually expressive of any of his work, featuring 27 discernible nipples and 11 male “packages,” three of which unclothed — are unlike anything Sendak created before or since. Bold, unapologetic, and incredibly sensual, the illustrations are also subtly subversive in their treatment of gender identity and stereotypes, from Pierre’s effeminate body-choreography to Isabel’s scrumptiously muscular back à la Venus with Biceps. This subversion was a subject close to Sendak’s heart, as a gay man who came of age decades before marriage equality and shared the last half-century of his life with his partner, Eugene Glynn, but it was nonetheless a subject he never explored directly.

The Kraken edition, however, is remarkable not only in inviting Sendak’s striking drawings, but also in restoring the Melville text to its original form, before his embittered 150-page addition. It is intended, as Parker notes in the introduction, “to supplement (not to rival) the text Harper published.” He writes:

[This edition] will at last make it feasible for lovers of Melville to comprehend his original design for the book and his original achievements in it.” Equally important, this version of Pierre will illuminate Moby-Dick. Even readers who have long loved Moby-Dick will perceive its psychological stature more clearly in the light shed by the book Melville wrote next — the short version of Pierre, surely the finest psychological novel anyone had yet written in English.

Indeed, Pierre‘s psychoemotional subtlety is perhaps best captured in a meta way, in this exquisite Melville line from Book IV of the novel:

In their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.

The Kraken edition of Pierre; or, the Ambiguities is currently out of print but is oh-so-much worth the hunt. Complement it with Sendak’s rarest, most defining illustrations, his little-known posters celebrating books and the love of reading, and his posthumous love letter to the world.

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05 AUGUST, 2014

How Susan Sontag Possessed New York and Subverted Sexual Stereotypes

By:

“Sontag seemed to exude an irresistible mixture of intelligence, hipness, sex, and beauty.”

In addition to being a great personal hero of mine, Susan Sontag endures as one of the most influential intellectuals of the past century. But her most enchanting quality was a singular blend of fierce, opinionated intellect and vast emotional capacity — a mind not only aware of the world, but also of itself and its own vulnerability, coupled with a heart that beat with uncommon intensity and inhabited its fallible human potentiality fully, unflinchingly — not only a “professional observer” of life, per her memorable definition of a writer, but also an active participant in life, both public and private. Sontag lived with more dimension than most people are capable of even imagining, let alone comprehending, which rendered her at times revered, at times reviled, but mostly artificially flattened into the very labels she so deplored.

To capture Sontag’s life and spirit by honoring her dimensionality, then, is a monumental task, but one which Berlin-based writer and art critic David Schreiber accomplishes with enormous elegance in the long-awaited Susan Sontag: A Biography (public library | IndieBound).

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

Perhaps the most interesting narrative thread in Schreiber’s story of Sontag explores how she claimed her place in culture and crafted her version of “the American dream,” beginning with her conquest of New York:

In March 1959, Susan and her son, David, moved to New York. With her typical flair for self-dramatization, Sontag told interviewers that she arrived in the metropolis with only two suitcases and thirty dollars. Later it was seventy dollars, a somewhat more realistic amount that would be about $450 in today’s dollars. Because of the low rents in New York at the time, it would have been enough to make a start.

As Sontag told it, it sounds like a version of the American dream: a twenty-three-year-old single mother without resources moves to a huge and hostile city intending to live there as an author, filmmaker, and intellectual. And on her own and against all odds, she realizes her dream. There could not have been a better place than New York for Sontag to convert her fantasy of the bohemian life into reality. In this city, everything seemed possible for a young, ambitious woman.

But it wasn’t merely a matter of ambition: Sontag possessed a rare talent to possess — people, places, social situations. Schreiber cites an account by one of Sontag’s lifelong friends, The American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard:

Howard remembers what a natural Sontag was at making new contacts, striking up friendships, and meeting influential people. “She could be very, very nice — even seductive — to people she wanted something from. She just could not talk to stupid people.”

[…]

Sontag’s natural and self-confident contact with this exclusive society is all the more remarkable when one recalls how difficult it was to gain admittance. The gathering of New York’s high society of writers, artists, and intellectuals was an almost hermetically sealed world with strict criteria for admission.

[…]

Sontag seemed to exude an irresistible mixture of intelligence, hipness, sex, and beauty, so that, as she herself once said, she had Jasper Johns, Bobby Kennedy, and Warren Beatty all at her feet.

Joseph Cornell's famous collage-box 'The Ellipsian,' using a photograph of Sontag by Harry Hess. In the words of art critic Deborah Solomon: 'In Cornell’s collage, the photo of Sontag — torn at the edges to suggest the passage of time — occupies the upper right corner of the page, from whose heights she stares into space with cool self-possession. A scrap from a chart of the solar system and penciled circles endow her with an otherworldly dimension.'

For Sontag, however, New York wasn’t just a public scene to be conquered — it was also the scene of her most private passions and struggles. She inhabited, perhaps more fully than any other New Yorker, E.B. White’s famous description of Gotham as a city that “blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.” And among Sontag’s more private conquests was that of her own sexuality, underpinned by a characteristically paradoxical fusion of conflictedness and conviction. It was in New York that she met and fell in love with the Cuban-American artist María Irene Fornés. Schreiber explores the relationship between Sontag’s sexuality and her writing:

The published excerpts from Sontag’s journals make clear how close and fulfilling the relationship between her and Fornés was. In them, the extremely vulnerable Sontag sketches the petty jealousies and disappointments she suffered and her own, often exaggerated, demands on her partner. A few years later, the relationship would flounder on such demands. But the greatest discovery in this relationship was Sontag’s unconditional acceptance of the fact that her erotic needs included sexual relations with women. . . . By the end of 1959, she had admitted to herself that she desired women as well as men. With Fornés, she experienced erotic fulfillment such as she had not known before, and she associated it with the renewal of her writing: “I lust to write.”

A couple of years later, Sontag would revisit the interplay between writing and sex in her journal. But her “unconditional acceptance” would quickly be put to the test against the prejudices of her era. Philip Rieff, Sontag’s ex-husband and the father of her son David, ambushed her with a custody lawsuit claiming that she was an unfit mother due to her lesbian relationships. (Rieff, it appears, was no stranger to self-serving and exploitive tactics: their divorce settlement stipulated that he could claim sole authorship of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, a book over which Sontag had tenaciously labored as co-author.) Schreiber writes of the custody battle:

This attempt was a shock to Susan who — herself fatherless as a child — had always strongly insisted that David have a good relationship with his father and had sent him on visits to Rieff in California and Pennsylvania as often as possible.

There ensued a custody battle that was grist for the gossip columns of several New York dailies. The New York Daily News headlined its courtroom commentary “Lesbian Religion Professor Gets Custody.” With his nose for a good story, Alfred Chester reported that Sontag and Fornés appeared in the courtroom “stunning” in dresses, heels, and makeup. The judge was so smitten by the glamorous duo that he could not believe they were lesbians.

Despite winning the case and retaining custody of David, Sontag was shocked by the trial. Although from the beginning it was unlikely that a court of the time would grant custody to the father rather than the mother, the Stonewall Uprising and the birth of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement lay far in the future. Homosexuality was still a punishable offense in New York, even if it was seldom prosecuted if practiced behind closed doors and by women.

Sontag went on to have several significant relationships in her lifetime, most with women. She spent the last fifteen years of her life with legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz. (According to Leibovitz, the couple never liked the terms “companion” or “partner” — after Sontag’s death, Leibovitz said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle: “It was a relationship in all its dimensions. . . I mean, we helped each other through our lives. Call us ‘lovers’ . . . I like ‘lovers.’ You know, ‘lovers’ sounds romantic. I mean, I want to be perfectly clear. I love Susan. I don’t have a problem with that.” One could only imagine how Sontag might have greeted the dawn of marriage equality, had she lived to see it, and how the new politics of sexuality might have translated into her writing.)

Susan Sontag on love — excerpts from her diary, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

In the closing pages, Schreiber returns to the essence of Sontag’s spirit and the very root of her enduring legacy:

Sontag was one of the few figures able to maintain her public status as an intellectual in the new era of theory. One reason was that, as her essays had always shown, she believed implicitly in her mission, namely, to bring together art, literature, film, and politics and communicate their interrelatedness to her readers.

And she accomplished that mission. Her conception of herself as an intellectual and writer on the French model whose passing Barthes mourned and her irresistible combination of braininess and hipness proved compatible with the changing public taste… Both the old and the new generation found a common denominator in her thought and writings. She was capable of building a bridge between the moribund New York Intellectuals of the “old school” and the academic disseminators of cultural studies, semiotics, and deconstructivism. As a transitional figure, she was both the object of a kind of nostalgia and the creator of new impulses, both the relict of a bygone era and the media star of a new one.

Susan Sontag: A Biography is a spectacular read in its entirety, chronicling Sontag’s career and the trajectory of intellectual luminosity, her loves, her political and social activism, her decades-long battles with depression and cancer, and her mission to “defend the universal role of the writer against the opposition of her times.” Complement it with Sontag on the gap between love and sex, “aesthetic consumerism,” beauty vs. interestingness, education, stereotypes, literature and freedom, and why lists appeal to us.

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