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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’

05 AUGUST, 2014

How Susan Sontag Possessed New York and Subverted Sexual Stereotypes

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“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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23 JULY, 2014

Debriefing: Susan Sontag Reads from I, Etcetera

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“With more people, there are more voices to tune out.”

Summer is the season of fiction, it is said — said here, now, at least. Susan Sontag may be best-known for her remarkable critical essays on photography, courage and resistance, and the transcendence of books, her strong opinions on literature, her crusade against stereotypes, her enchanting diaries, and other nonfiction feats, but she was no stranger to fiction.

In this 1979 recording preserved by the wonderful UbuWeb sound archive, Sontag reads the short story “Debriefing” from her 1978 collection I, etcetera: Stories (public library), which was recently released as an ebook for the very first time — please enjoy.

Complement with Sontag on love, education, “aesthetic consumerism,” aphorisms and the commodification of wisdom, and why lists appeal to us.

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24 JUNE, 2014

Susan Sontag on Being in the Middle versus Being at the Center

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Why true neutrality is not an abstinence from taking sides of but an act of compassion.

“The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in reflecting on how language shapes our capacity for fantasy. And because language is intricately entwined with everything from our cognitive function to gender politics to the evolution of creativity, it also shapes our experience of reality — and of ourselves in reality — even more profoundly.

From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — her superb 1978 conversation with Jonathan Cott that was among the best books of 2013 and also gave us Sontag on the false divide between “high” and pop culture, how our cultural polarities imprison us, and love, sex, and the world between — comes Sontag’s characteristically insightful meditation on the inherent intelligence and ingenuity of language in helping us navigate the world and orient ourselves not only in relation to it but in relation to ourselves as well. She tells Cott:

What’s so wonderful about language is that we have these positive and negative words for the same thing. That’s why language is an infinite treasure. When we say in the middle, we think of someone who wants to remain equidistant from certain alternatives because he or she is afraid to take sides. But being in the center — isn’t that interesting? The whole thing changes.

[…]

One can think of it in the time sense. But “being in the center” is opposed to being marginal, and you don’t want to be in the margin of your own consciousness, or your own experience, or your own time. John Calvin, of all people, said, “The world is sloped on either side, therefore place yourself in the middle of it.” Meaning that you can fall off. We all know in our own lives that people are falling off the world all the time — they get onto that slope and then they start to slide. And that’s another sense of being in the middle. But to be on level ground is what you want to do because life is very complicated and you don’t want to just be hanging on by your bitten-down fingernails on one end of things, which is what happens to a lot of people because they can’t see anymore. And from where they’re hanging, it’s just a struggle not to fall off completely.

Susan Sontag on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

When Cott relays the famous anecdote that Johann Sebastian Bach preferred playing the alto or tenor parts in an orchestra because being in the middle allowed him to truly hear the music around him, Sontag responds with a remark doubly poignant in the context of today’s net neutrality debates and why they matter:

That’s so interesting about Bach. I think it’s wonderful. There’s an active notion of neutrality that people don’t understand. Transcendent neutrality isn’t an attitude of “I won’t take sides,” it’s compassion. Where you do see more than just what separates people or sides.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is truly an exceptional and wonderfully wide-ranging treasure. Sample it further here, here, and here, then revisit Sontag on love, education, “aesthetic consumerism” and the violence of photography, and why lists appeal to us.

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22 APRIL, 2014

Susan Sontag on Beauty vs. Interestingness

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Defying consumerism and the banality of the beautiful, or why our capacity for astonishment endures.

“Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit,” Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff wrote in her fantastic meditation on the psychology of beauty. Indeed, beauty is a complex beast surrounded by our equally complex attitudes, and who better to tease those complexities apart than the greatest public intellectual of the twentieth century? Months before her death, Susan Sontag — who had a lifetime of strong opinions on art and who coined the notion of “aesthetic consumerism” — wrote a spectacular essay titled “An Argument Against Beauty,” found in the 2007 posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), the superb volume that gave us Sontag on courage and resistance and literature and freedom.

The essay was in part inspired by Pope John Paul II’s response to the news of countless cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: He summoned the American cardinals to the Vatican and attempted to rationalize the situation by stating that “a great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains; and this is a truth which any intellectually honest critic will recognize.” In this concerning assertion as a springboard for a broader reflection on our confused attitudes toward beauty, Sontag set out to transcend the common social definition of beauty as “a gladness of the senses” and instead “to multiply the notion, to allow for kinds of beauty, beauty with adjectives, arranged on a scale of ascending value and incorruptibility.”

Sontag writes:

However much art may seem to be a matter of surface and reception by the senses, it has generally been accorded an honorary citizenship in the domain of “inner” (as opposed to “outer”) beauty. Beauty, it seems, is immutable, at least when incarnated—fixed—in the form of art, because it is in art that beauty as an idea, an eternal idea, is best embodied. Beauty (should you choose to use the word that way) is deep, not superficial; hidden, sometimes, rather than obvious; consoling, not troubling; indestructible, as in art, rather than ephemeral, as in nature. Beauty, the stipulatively uplifting kind, perdures.

Arguing that beauty has ceased to be a sufficient standard for art, that “beautiful has come to mean ‘merely’ beautiful: there is no more vapid or philistine compliment,” Sontag notes:

The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty. Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.

And yet there is more to beauty than a lackluster cultural abstraction:

Beauty defines itself as the antithesis of the ugly. Obviously, you can’t say something is beautiful if you’re not willing to say something is ugly. But there are more and more taboos about calling something, anything, ugly. (For an explanation, look first not at the rise of so-called “political correctness,” but at the evolving ideology of consumerism, then at the complicity between these two.)

Susan Sontag on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

Sontag traces the paradoxical and convoluted cultural trajectory of our relationship with beauty:

That beauty applied to some things and not to others, that it was a principle of discrimination, was once its strength and its appeal. Beauty belonged to the family of notions that establish rank, and accorded well with a social order unapologetic about station, class, hierarchy, and the right to exclude.

What had been a virtue of the concept became its liability. Beauty, which once seemed vulnerable because it was too general, loose, porous, was revealed as — on the contrary — excluding too much. Discrimination, once a positive faculty (meaning refined judgment, high standards, fastidiousness), turned negative: it meant prejudice, bigotry, blindness to the virtues of what was not identical with oneself.

The strongest, most successful move against beauty was in the arts: beauty — and the caring about beauty — was restrictive; as the current idiom has it, elitist. Our appreciations, it was felt, could be so much more inclusive if we said that something, instead of being beautiful, was “interesting.”

To call something “interesting,” however, isn’t always an admission of admiration. (For a crudely illustrative example, my eighth-grade English teacher memorably used to say that “interesting is what you call an ugly baby.”) Turning to photography — perhaps the sharpest focus of Sontag’s cultural contemplation and prescient observation — she considers the complex interplay between interestingness and beauty:

[People] might describe something as interesting to avoid the banality of calling it beautiful. Photography was the art where “the interesting” first triumphed, and early on: the new, photographic way of seeing proposed everything as a potential subject for the camera. The beautiful could not have yielded such a range of subjects; and it soon came to seem uncool to boot as a judgment. Of a photograph of a sunset, a beautiful sunset, anyone with minimal standards of verbal sophistication might well prefer to say, “Yes, the photograph is interesting.”

(Curiously, Francis Bacon famously asserted that “the best part of beauty [is that] which a picture cannot express.”)

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

What we tend to call interesting, Sontag argues, is that which “has not previously been thought beautiful (or good).” And yet the qualitative value of “interesting” is exponentially diminished with the word’s use and overuse — something entirely unsurprising and frequently seen with terms we come to apply too indiscriminately, until they lose their original meaning. (Contemporary case in point: “curation.”) She writes, echoing her meditation on the creative purpose of boredom from nearly four decades earlier and her concept of “aesthetic consumerism” coined shortly thereafter:

The interesting is now mainly a consumerist concept, bent on enlarging its domain: the more things become interesting, the more the marketplace grows. The boring — understood as an absence, an emptiness — implies its antidote: the promiscuous, empty affirmations of the interesting. It is a peculiarly inconclusive way of experiencing reality.

In order to enrich this deprived take on our experiences, one would have to acknowledge a full notion of boredom: depression, rage (suppressed despair). Then one could work toward a full notion of the interesting. But that quality of experience — of feeling — one would probably no longer even want to call interesting.

With her strong distaste for unnecessary polarities, Sontag observes:

The perennial tendency to make of beauty itself a binary concept, to split it up into “inner” and “outer,” “higher” and “lower” beauty, is the usual way that judgments of the beautiful are colonized by moral judgments.

She counters this with a more real, more living definition of beauty:

Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation. But beauty may not always console…

From a letter written by a German soldier standing guard in the Russian winter in late December 1942:

“The most beautiful Christmas I had ever seen, made entirely of disinterested emotion and stripped of all tawdry trimmings. I was all alone beneath an enormous starred sky, and I can remember a tear running down my frozen cheek, a tear neither of pain nor of joy but of emotion created by intense experience.”

Unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, even the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it.

Echoing young Virginia Woolf’s insight about nature, imitation, and the arts, Sontag elegantly brings her point full circle:

The responses to beauty in art and to beauty in nature are interdependent… Beauty regains its solidity, its inevitability, as a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one’s energies, affinities, and admirations; and the usurping notions appear ludicrous.

Imagine saying, “That sunset is interesting.”

All the essays and speeches collected in At the Same Time are treasure troves of timeless wisdom on culture, art, politics, society, and the self. Complement them with Sontag on writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

Donating = Loving

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.