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Posts Tagged ‘New York’

06 OCTOBER, 2014

The Artist and the Anguish of the American Dream: Zadie Smith’s Love-Hate Letter to New York

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“The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization.”

With his philosophy of happiness as a moral obligation, it is no surprise that Albert Camus is intellectual America’s favorite European export. The American Dream is built on the pursuit of happiness, but Camus amplifies it from a mere right to something more, something better aligned with the modern condition of compulsive pursuit — of happiness, of productivity, of self-actualization. Indeed, this is a paradoxical culture where the Self reigns supreme, even though we know it is an illusion; a culture built on hard-headed, hard-bodied, hard-and-fast individualism, even though we don’t know how to be alone. Ours is an era built on the legacy of the age of anxiety, the pathology of which we’ve perfected to a virtuoso degree.

Some weeks ago, I attended Amanda Stern’s excellent Happy Endings literary salon, where writers are asked to read their work. The magnificent Zadie Smith, she of great wisdom on the craft of writing and the psychology of the writer’s mind, read an enchanting essay she had just written — about Manhattan, about our modern compulsions, about the artist and the anguish of the American Dream. The essay, titled “Find Your Beach,” is now published by The New York Review of Books. With unparalleled humor and humility, Smith explores the essential hubris of our age, not without admitting her willful participation as an ambitious cog in the machinery of compulsive self-actualization.

She opens with a view of a billboard across from her university housing in Soho — a beer ad, “very yellow and the background luxury-holiday-blue,” captioned “Find your beach.” Smith finds the text — almost a command — perfectly, tragically emblematic of American culture. She writes:

It seems to me uniquely well placed, like a piece of commissioned public art in perfect sympathy with its urban site. The tone is pure Manhattan. Echoes can be found in the personal growth section of the bookstore (“Find your happy”), and in exercise classes (“Find your soul”), and in the therapist’s office (“Find your self”).

Smith considers the ad’s particular placement in Soho — “home to media moguls, entertainment lawyers, every variety of celebrity, some students, as well as a vanishingly small subset of rent-controlled artists and academics” — at once paradoxical and telling, a kind of self-aware eulogy to those vanishing bastions of culture:

Collectively we, the people of Soho, consider ourselves pretty sophisticated consumers of media. You can’t put a cheesy ad like that past us. And so the ad has been reduced to its essence — a yellow undulation against a field of blue — and painted directly onto the wall, in a bright pop-art style. The mad men know that we know the Soho being referenced here: the Soho of Roy Lichtenstein and Ivan Karp, the Soho that came before Foot Locker, Sephora, Prada, frozen yogurt. That Soho no longer exists, of course, but it’s part of the reason we’re all here, crowded on this narrow strip of a narrow island. Whoever placed this ad knows us well.

Even the language of the caption, Smith notes, is odd — “faintly threatening mixture of imperative and possessive forms, the transformation of a noun into a state of mind” — and reflective of the undulating cult of the Self. Where alcohol ads used to promise the illusion for communal fun, she notes, they now sell the illusion of solitary bliss:

Here the focus is narrow, almost obsessive. Everything that is not absolutely necessary to your happiness has been removed from the visual horizon. The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if — as in the case of this wall painting — it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.

Illustration by counterculture cartoonist Peter Kruper from 'Drawn to New York.' Click image for more

One can’t help but think of E.B. White’s 1949 ode to Gotham, perhaps the finest and most enduring portrait of the city ever committed to paper. White writes of “the essential fever of New York,” a city populated by strangers who have come “seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail,” a city filled with “the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.” For White, writing a decade before social psychologist Abraham Maslow established self-actualization as a cultural fetish, New York’s singular proposition was one of promise. For Smith, it seems to be one of peril — one that, perhaps like the bibulous billboard’s imperative to “find your beach,” is toxic but nonetheless alluring, inescapable. She writes:

In an exercise class recently the instructor shouted at me, at all of us: “Don’t let your mind set limits that aren’t really there.” You’ll find this attitude all over the island. It is encouraged and reflected in the popular culture, especially the movies, so many of which, after all, begin their creative lives here, in Manhattan… Our happiness, our miseries, our beaches, or our blasted heaths — they are all within our own power to create, or destroy…

The beach is always there: you just have to conceive of it. It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak… To find your beach you have to be ruthless. Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment — as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything — not even reality — to impinge upon that clear field of blue.

Once again, White’s Manhattan comes to mind, with its gift of “insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute,” as Smith lament’s Manhattan’s existential imperative:

There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day. When I am in England each summer, it’s the opposite: all I see are the limits of my life. The brain that puts a hairbrush in the fridge, the leg that radiates pain from the hip to the toe, the lovely children who eat all my time, the books unread and unwritten.

This, perhaps, was what 36-year-old Italo Calvino felt when he recorded his first impressions of America, “the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little.”

Smith observes the centripetal force with which New York, every time she returns, pulls her into its vortex of unrelenting beach-finding:

I have to get used to old New York ladies beside themselves with fury that I have stopped their smooth elevator journey and got in with some children. I have to remember not to pause while walking in the street — or during any fluid-moving city interaction — unless I want to utterly exasperate the person behind me. Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her beach and God help you if you get in their way.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

But what makes Smith’s essay so compelling is that the Soho tower from which she observes the “Find your beach” billboard is by no means an ivory one — her lament is rooted not in an onlooker’s static judgment but in a participant’s dynamic self-awareness:

I suppose it should follow that I am happier in pragmatic England than idealist Manhattan, but I can’t honestly say that this is so. You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. “A reality shaped around your own desires” — there is something sociopathic in that ambition.

It is also a fair description of what it is to write fiction. And to live in a city where everyone has essentially the same tunnel vision and obsessive focus as a novelist is to disguise your own sociopathy among the herd. Objectively all the same limits are upon me in Manhattan as they are in England. I walk a ten-block radius every day, constrained in all the usual ways by domestic life, reduced to writing about whatever is right in front of my nose. But the fact remains that here I do write, the work gets done.

Even if my Manhattan productivity is powered by a sociopathic illusion of my own limitlessness, I’m thankful for it, at least when I’m writing. There’s a reason so many writers once lived here, beyond the convenient laundromats and the take-out food, the libraries and cafés. We have always worked off the energy generated by this town, the money-making and tower-building as much as the street art and underground cultures.

And yet, Smith mourns the loss of the underground creative energies that made Manhattan — those of Walt Whitman’s Bohemian coterie and of Patti Smith’s starving-artist circles — replaced now by something more ominous, something sterilized by the relentless pursuit of self-actualization:

A twisted kind of energy radiates instead off the soulcycling mothers and marathon-running octogenarians, the entertainment lawyers glued to their iPhones and the moguls building five “individualized” condo townhouses where once there was a hospital.

It’s not a pretty energy, but it still runs what’s left of the show. I contribute to it. I ride a stationary bike like the rest of them. And then I despair when Shakespeare and Co. closes in favor of another Foot Locker. There’s no way to be in good faith on this island anymore. You have to crush so many things with your mind vise just to get through the day…

The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next.

What emerges, then, is the notion that happiness is to be allowed rather than attained, a notion closer to Alan Watts than to Camus. But Smith’s essential lament is that such gentle surrender is one of which we beach-hungry moderns, whether New Yorkers by residency or by geographically unmoored temperament, seem incapable. And yet isn’t this awareness — awareness Smith crystallizes with far crisper eloquence than most are capable of, yet one most of us experience in a perpetual cycle of reconciliation — already a dissolution of that “sociopathic illusion”? She concludes:

I can see my own beach ahead now, as the children grow, as the practical limits fade; I see afresh the huge privilege of my position; it reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.

It is such a good town in which to work and work. You can find your beach here, find it falsely, but convincingly, still thinking of Manhattan as an isle of writers and artists — of downtown underground wildlings and uptown intellectuals — against all evidence to the contrary. Oh, you still see them occasionally here and there, but unless they are under the protection of a university — or have sold that TV show — they are all of them, every single last one of them, in Brooklyn.

Smith’s full essay is well worth reading, as is her 2009 collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

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01 OCTOBER, 2014

A History of New York in 101 Objects: A Thoughtful Visual Encyclopedia of Collective Memory

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How artifacts abstract the city’s tragedies and triumphs and tell the story of its aliveness.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his spectacular 1949 love letter to New York. “The city is like poetry.” And compress it does — the city’s five boroughs are home to some 8.4 million people, more than the entire population of my native Bulgaria. To capture New York’s dimensional poetics seems like a Herculean task, yet many have attempted it — from Walt Whitman with his raunchy verses to Berenice Abbott with her era-defining photographs to the New Yorker with its high-brow feline history. But to capture it in just a few dozen objects seems near impossible, since of all that New York compresses in its small space, objects are practically innumerable and cacophonous. And yet that is precisely what New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts accomplishes in A History of New York in 101 Objects (public library) — partly a living museum, partly a catalog of events, partly a luminous sidewise gleam at the essence of what makes a great city.

Selected with a lens for the “paradigmatic but quirky,” Roberts’s objects are a far cry from the clichés of tourism or the tired symbols of iconography. Instead, they serve as living records of the city’s triumphs, tragedies, and remarkable resilience in cycling through the two, ranging from the artichoke with its secret history of mafia crime, to the AIDS button, which elevated an anguished community from the ashes of the city’s deadliest epidemic, to the school doorknob, emblematic of New York’s commitment to public education, to the air conditioner, which made windowless workspaces possible for the first time. Tucked between the entries are delightful curiosities, such as the pear tree that became the final living connection to New York’s Dutch heritage, and as well as poignant glimpses of our shared humanity, such as the maelstrom of heartbreak and hope that swept the city after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.

Roberts explains the selection criteria for the project, which was inspired by the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects:

The objects themselves had to have played some transformative role in New York City’s history or they had to be emblematic of some historic transformation. They also had to be enduring, which meant they could not be disproportionately tailored to recent memory or contemporary nostalgia. Fifty, or even twenty-five years from now, would they seem as vital or archetypal as they do right now?

Objects, of course, are more than mere things — they are, especially in the context of this book, shorthand for events, stand-ins for people, vehicles for the sort of collective storytelling of which history is woven. Rob Walker captured this elegantly in his Significant Objects, where he wrote: “It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.” Such is the emotional energy that emanates from Roberts selections.

When I first moved to New York, I quickly developed a soft spot for the city’s countless and rather distinctive cylindrical water tanks (object #31) that stood as unsung sidekicks to the recognizable landmarks of its iconic skyline. There are a whopping fifteen thousand of them, Roberts explains, but most were built by two large family-owned companies — a wonderfully poetic reflection of New York’s peculiar play of scales and its fusion of private and public, or what E.B. White memorably termed the city’s blend of “the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.”

Roberts writes of Gotham’s cityscape fixtures:

The cylindrical tanks, which typically measure about twelve feet high and twelve feet across and are topped by a conical enclosure, hold ten thousand gallons on average and cost about thirty thousand dollars. Tap water is siphoned off the top, while murkier bottom water, mixed with sediment, is reserved for firefighting. As in a toilet tank, a ballcock regulates the level. The tanks can be dismantled and replaced in as little as twenty-four hours and take about three hours to fill.

They are also a feat of natural engineering and ingenuity — typically made of wood, which is cheaper yet more resilient in changing temperatures than steel, they are held together not by paint or adhesives but by sheer physics: when the wood gets wet, it expands and thus seals itself, while galvanized steel hoops keep the tank from bursting. With proper maintenance, each tank lasts around three decades.

As a wholehearted lover of public libraries and regular supporter of the New York Public Library in particular, I was also enchanted by Roberts’s account of how Gotham’s library (object #29) began. Guarded by its two iconic lions, Patience and Fortitude, the main building on 42nd street was the largest marble structure in the United States at the time it was built. The library is now the second-largest in America, after the Library of Congress, and the third-largest in the world. We owe it to a successful lawyer, investor, abolitionist, and political reformer named Samuel J. Tilden, whose will included the bequest to build a free public library.

Tilden’s broader intention, historian Michael Miscione tells Roberts, was “to solidify the city’s commitment to literacy, culture and a public-private partnership that enabled New York City to create so many world-class cultural institutions.” Even though New York had a number of libraries by the latter portion of the nineteenth century, they were privately funded and charged admission. Tilden’s unprecedented gift of $2.4 million — close to $100 million in today’s money — put the majority of his fortune toward the idealistic quest to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.”

Private philanthropy of such scale for the public good was practically unheard of at the time, but New York would go on to become the unheralded philanthropy capital of the world.

Another prescient token of New York’s values and priorities is the early dictionary (object #7), which Roberts aptly calls “a Colonial Rosetta Stone” — an essential tool for cross-pollinating the cultures and communities in American’s early melting pot. He writes:

Language difficulties divided the population (about half of it Dutch at the time) and got in the way of the British laissez-faire approach to governing. Innovations like the jury system were particularly problematic. The problem was solved by an English–Low Dutch dictionary published by a New Jersey schoolmaster. Except for a brief Dutch restoration nine years later, the English would rule for over a century. Their language would, more or less, prevail. Among the enduring linguistic traditions of the Dutch is that we still call little chunks of dough “cookies,” instead of the British “biscuits”. Other words such as “coleslaw,” “waffle,” “doughnut,” “stoop,” and “Yankee” endured.

There is also the famous 25-foot-tall Civic Fame statue (object #42) by Adolph A. Weinman perched atop Manhattan’s municipal building — a structure of scandalous backstory:

Audrey Munson, the model after whom she was sculpted, once appeared naked in a porn film (she of the face that launched a thousand quips, she listed herself in a city directory first as an actress, then as an artist) and later was declared insane.

[...]

In her eighth decade and suffering from exposure, the statue was removed, restored, and regilded with hand-burnished 23.5-karat gold leaf, and hoisted back into position by helicopter in 1991. That was only four years before Audrey Munson died in an upstate asylum, just short of her 105th birthday.

A number of the objects aren’t static mementos from the past but dynamic projections of the future. The famous Bloomberg computer terminal (object #96) was invented by a laid-off investment banker who would go on to become the city’s most beloved Mayor — one whose merits, I should add, all the more appreciated in hindsight by those of us who made New York a home under Mayor Bloomberg’s reign and somewhat naively took for granted that his idealistic and magnanimous rule was a function of mayorship rather than a function of his exceptional personhood.

Roberts considers the broader implications of having a self-made, entrepreneurial man at the helm of the city:

That little beige box soon made him the richest and most powerful man in New York. By affirming his faith in scientific solutions, it also helped deliver the city into the twenty-first century, through devices ranging from the expansion of the CompStat tactical crime-fighting program to the 311 telephone complaint and service system, and encouraged the evolution of Silicon Alley.

Since the nineteenth century, doomsayers have predicted that one scientific breakthrough after another — from the Atlantic cable to the telephone, from television to jet travel — would topple New York as the nation’s financial and cultural capital. Instead, a resilient city that thrives on reinventing itself transformed a potential threat into an opportunity. Milliseconds are vital to global trading, but nothing beats face-to-face contact to foster innovation. A wired city provided both.

Aptly calling Mayor Bloomberg “a modern Medici,” Roberts captures his philosophy:

The perfect is the enemy of the good. In other words, just do it. “Our product,” he said, “would be the first in the investment business where normal people without specialized training could sit down, hit a key, and get an answer to financial questions, some of which they didn’t even know they should ask.” In the decades since, he said, two constants endured: “the need for information; and the users of data, with their bravery, jealousy, adventurousness and fear of the new.”

But the book’s most poignant object is its final one, #101 — the Madonna that remained unscathed through the devastating sweep of Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded and the second costliest in history, with a total tally of $68 billion and 40 lives in New York city alone. By far the most ravaged by the storm was the beach community of New York’s Rockaway Peninsula, home to the families of many of the city’s police officers, firemen, and other civil servants. Roberts writes of the Madonna’s significance as a vitalizing symbol of hope amid such unfathomable heartbreak:

Fittingly, the most visible survivor of the fire was a three-foot-high masonry Madonna, “a triumph of faith in the midst of the ashes,” as Monsignor Michael J. Curran explained it. The Madonna had belonged to Charlie Shannon, who had bought the bungalow at 2 Gotham Walk on the corner of Oceanside Avenue in 1929 for his wife and seven children. Only one of the seven had children of his own, and in 2006 his granddaughter Regina Bodnar inherited a version of the house that her aunt and uncle rebuilt. Her aunt Mary placed the Madonna just outside, Bodnar recalled, “and each morning Breezy neighbors stopped to say a prayer by the statue, and the young children and grandchildren of our neighbors waved and said, ‘Hi Mary!’ as they raced by.”

The statue was neither consumed by the fire nor toppled by the storm surge (it was not cemented in place but stood precariously on its own in the sea grass). Does Bodnar believe in miracles? She’s not sure, but said that somehow her neighbors and rescue workers “were miraculously protected from serious injury and loss of life.” Monsignor Curran, the pastor of St. Thomas More Church, took custody of the Madonna after the storm subsided. “It will be a symbol of the suffering but also of our rise from the ashes,” he said. “It will be a symbol of what we’ve been through, but also of our resurrection.”

A History of New York in 101 Objects is a rich and thoughtfully curated encyclopedia of milestones and values. Complement it with Julia Rothman’s illustrated love letter to the five boroughs, then zoom out with 100 diagrams that changed the world.

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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).

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 Sontag 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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