On regarding the lives of others: Benjamin Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag

The cover of Benjamin Moser’s hefty new biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work, features a black-and-white, full-frame photo of the book’s subject, taken by renowned photographer Richard Avedon in 1978 as part of a feature for Vogue magazine. Susan Sontag appears from the waist up, looking directly into the camera, an inscrutable expression on her face. She is kitted out in a black leather jacket and turtleneck, and her hands are buried in the pockets of her pants.

The austere cover design is emblematic in a number of ways. The lack of any typography testifies to the instant recognizability of Sontag herself, or at the very least her allure: if a curious browser doesn’t know who she is, the image is striking enough that one would be likely to pick the book up to find out, a neat marketing trick to entice readers in a bookstore. The outfit is suggestive more of a rock star than a cultural critic, which lends credence to Moser’s thesis that Sontag’s public persona (or, more precisely, personae) often outstripped or disguised the actual woman. And significantly, the dust jacket speaks directly to one of Sontag’s pervading concerns over her long and controversial career: the nature of photography and, in particular, the medium’s ability to hide or misrepresent as much as it reveals.

Moser quotes Sontag from her book On Photography: “The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: ‘There is the surface. Now think – or rather feel, intuit – what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks that way.’ ” The distinction between the image and reality, Moser argues, was essential for Sontag; her entire life was one long process of reinvention. For an author whose most famous essay is titled “Against Interpretation,” the idea of concealment was central. Late in the book, Moser states, “[T]o aestheticize is to distort, she argued throughout her life.”

The comment comes in the context of Sontag’s sojourns to Sarajevo to observe and document the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s. The second time she travelled to the country – which was the scene of “the longest siege in modern history,” lasting “twice as long as even the previous record holder, the Nazi siege of Leningrad” – Sontag mounted a production of Waiting for Godot that “became a cultural event in the highest sense of the term, an event that showed what modernist culture had been – and what, in extraordinary circumstances, it might yet be.”

Here we are given a glimpse of Sontag’s high seriousness: her devotion to difficult art that was informed by the writing of Sartre, Camus, Sarraute, and Lukàcs, as well as the films of Bergman and the French nouvelle vague. Though importantly, Sontag was also the author of “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” which provides a different window into her aesthetic composition. “Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” Sontag wrote. “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.”

One of Moser’s repeated assertions is that Sontag’s writing was at its best in those pieces that were most transparently autobiographical, and here we are presented a more or less direct example of Moser’s distinction between Sontag and “Sontag” – between the public facing image and the troubled, insecure, self-deceiving woman behind the façade, a woman who was capable of being startlingly cruel to those closest to her, including her son, David Reiff, and her longtime partner, photographer Annie Liebovitz.

Moser quotes Sontag’s friend Martie Edelheit: “It was not because she wanted to hurt people. It was that she was simply oblivious.” But the blindest obliviousness cannot account for the sheer viciousness of Sontag’s attacks. Joan Acocella, who profiled Sontag for The New Yorker, calls her “sadistic” and recalls how petty the snipes could be: “Susan would say something about Artaud then she’d say to Annie, ‘Well, you wouldn’t understand who that is.’ ” After Liebovitz made what is characterized as “a tiny grammatical mistake,” Moser recounts Sontag’s explosive reaction: “You know, maybe if you’d gone to college, you would know that that makes you sound like an utter fool!”

The picture that emerges, especially in the book’s latter stages, is not a pleasant one, but it is a portrait of a woman who appears in many ways self-loathing and projects that self-directed hatred outward onto others. Nowhere was Sontag’s discontent with herself more evident than in the matter of her lesbianism – or bisexuality, depending upon how one wishes to view her. Moser chronicles the lengths to which Sontag went to disavow her romantic relationship with Liebovitz, and the photographer’s almost childlike devotion in the face of repeated slights and verbal assaults. (This Moser presents as an inversion of Sontag’s usual situation in sexual relationships with other women, in which they were the dominant forces and Sontag adopted the role of supplicant.)

Moser posits that Sontag’s determination to remain publicly closeted for so long took an enormous psychic toll: “This can explain why Susan could agonize over publicly revealing something everyone had known, at least in private, for forty years. Hiding made it hard for such people to feel ‘actual accomplishments as reflections of one’s own abilities’ – since these, like themselves, could hardly be genuine.” Being closeted, writes Moser, “meant losing one’s voice, and being unable to see.” This, perhaps, goes some way to explain Moser’s assessment that one of Sontag’s failures as a writer was her 1989 volume AIDS and Its Metaphors.

However her insecurities regarding her own sexuality manifested themselves, Moser elsewhere identifies a courageous willingness to put herself on the line for her beliefs, nowhere more so than in her travels with Liebovitz to Sarajevo during a time of bloody conflict. Having already survived a bout of breast cancer, Sontag was well aware of what it meant to put one’s body on the line, and Moser joins writers such as Salman Rushdie in praising Sontag’s willingness to embed herself inside the Bosnian reality, unlike commentators who pontificated from the safety of other countries or acted like war tourists popping in and out but never really exposing themselves to any kind of danger.

Sontag is also shown to be willing to court controversy in her political stances. She shocked a gathering of left-wing intellectuals in 1982 when she publicly asserted that communism as it had come to be practised in Eastern Europe was nothing more than a variant of fascism: “Fascism with a human face.” And in the days following 9/11 an aging Sontag outraged many in America with a short article for The New Yorker in which she argued that U.S. foreign policy was at least partly responsible for the hatred the terrorist attackers felt toward the country and its people. (That she was right went largely unremarked.)

Moser does occasionally overreach: Janet Malcolm was correct in questioning his uncritical assumption that Sontag was the sole author of her then-husband’s biography of Freud; so sure is Moser of this frankly unsubstantiated belief that when he quotes from the book, he asserts that “Sontag wrote” or “Sontag was quick to note.” As Malcolm acerbically suggests, “By Moser’s lights, every writer who has been heavily edited can no longer claim to be the author of his work.”

By the end of this long and exhaustively detailed book, it is not entirely clear how Moser feels about his subject. He appears more antagonistic the longer the volume goes on (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the further Sontag drifts politically to the right). And yet what he has provided is a nuanced, careful portrait of a figure whose entire life was a mass of contradictions: a highbrow aesthete who wrote considered essays on camp and pornography; a Jew whose first reinvention was to jettison her birth name of Sue Rosenblatt; a feminist who spent much of her life as a closeted lesbian; an American with a devoutly cosmopolitan sensibility and an absolute willingness to criticize her own country.

If the aestheticization of photography involves an inevitable distortion of the subject being photographed and the essence of camp is “Being-as-Playing-a-Role,” an encounter with Moser’s depiction of Susan Sontag offers at least one explanation for what is going on behind that carefully blank expression on the book’s cover, the thought that resounds behind those deep brown eyes: “I contain multitudes.”

On regarding the lives of others: Benjamin Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag
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