I took a good look at the work of Susan Sontag a few years ago, and an imaginary camaraderie remains between us. If an author is intriguing beyond their work, I like to read about their lives. A year ago, I read a book at the downtown library on Susan. It was poorly written but rich in autobiographical information, and by reading about how she lived, I found clues on how she became one of the greatest lovers of world culture weâ€™ve had in America.
In the book, I discovered some things about Susan that sold me on her as a thinker and a deep human. What resonated were little characteristics. She liked to warm food up, rather than cook – as do I. She was one of the first to welcome and smoke cigarettes with Russian exile/poet Joseph Brodsky; sheâ€™s the kind of cultural omnivore that makes the worldâ€™s artists want to live here.
When she was a kid in Arizona she dug holes for herself in the backyard, getting lost alone. She wrote some civic-minded articles in her high school newspaper about things like proper stoplight placement. Then she made a Joycean leap that no one couldâ€™ve expected. Her life was to be art. She was tall and equipped with a big Germanic will and seriousness. When the Vietnam War raged she of course flew to Hanoi. When she’d find a talent she’d nurture it for a long time, as is the story of her long relationship with famed photographer Annie Liebovitz. She once showed up at Thomas Mannâ€™s California doorstep looking for the secret to the spirit life (and found an exhausted, boring man).
Susan took the best colleges in America by surprise, starting with the steely University of Chicago. She quickly became engaged to a theory honcho there, Phillip Rieff. Her restlessness soon shed the marriage. At tables of sociology, Freud, politics, film, French or existential chatter sheâ€™d not open her mouth but sit quietly and absorb much. People thought something was wrong with her. At some point in New York, she became a chronic talker. In her notebooks that have recently been made public, she scolds herself repeatedly over various traits – next to unreasonably long lists of books to-read, she writes of her inner stirrings and warnings to them. The most notable remarks: stop talking so much.
A case in Sontagâ€™s early criticism
What Susan sees between the lines continues to impress me. Contrary to my young admiration for Albert Camusâ€™ moral writing, Susan soberly admits in Against Interpretation that morality in writing is a liability: “moral beauty has a tendency to decay very rapidly into sententiousness or untimeliness.” Ironically this becomes the challenge of writing about Susan in 2011, to tippy toe around sententiousness. Sontag read a lot. So you should read too. This is of course not my entire aim, though it appears to be to some, Iâ€˜m sure.
Yet I continue to view Camus’ life through his essays and stories as an artistically relevant way to be: adhering to a humble, strict standard for yourself. So it is still a valuable education for any writer, whose first sin is pride. “Aesthetic” originally meant “perceptive” to the Greeks. And outside of Sontagâ€™s powerful intellect we read someone perceptive to essences. Because of this she can criticize and embrace, restrict and revere. Sontag graciously rescues artistic cred for Camus after all things are considered; He won the Nobel Prize, and with that comes what Sartre called a “pedestal” that Camus could take anywhere. Camus in this light is a lecturer, not an artist. A doctor, not a visionary. No one wants to be told whatâ€™s good for them. But Susan considers Camusâ€™ inability to sign papers defending his native land Algeria against France and his ability to talk about that strength. She seems to see more still: “Camusâ€™ life and work are not so much about morality as they are about the pathos of moral positions. This pathos is Camusâ€™ modernity. And his ability to suffer pathos in a dignified and virile way is what made his readers love and admire him.”
Long Distance Reading, Democratic Vistas
Against Interpretation was a widely cast warning to everyone who thinks too much. From that moment sheâ€™d be ever busy. From Roland Barthes she learned how to enjoy “the pleasure of a text,” as well as its intellectual challenges. This provides us a window into the examined life that could be more rich and more intense – an avenue I find incredibly appealing and ageless.
From her book On Photography, I discovered Walker Evans and James Ageeâ€™s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – which I recently reviewed at length. Susan thought this book was the only realization of Whitmanâ€™s democratic America. She envisioned Evansâ€™s photos as flattening: “the leveling of distinctions between the beautiful and the ugly, the important and the trivial. Each thing or person becomes – a photograph; and becomes, therefore, morally equivalent to any other of his photographs.”
Susan wasnâ€™t a motivational speaker, though. She had the melancholy we should demand of our critics and donâ€™t. So most of our “critics” are quite happy with themselves. Which is disturbing. In the photography of her day she boldly says that nobody demands photographs be literate or understands how a photo could be transcendent. These assured statements delivered in clipped, easy-to-read sentences are what grounded her style in an American voice, helping her distance herself from the French writers she read so deeply (Claude Levi Strauss, Sartre). And whatâ€™s more, she had a keen, somehow personal understanding of that giant-strided guy who stands at the center of the American canon throwing inexhaustible lilacs at Lincoln.
Whitman preached empathy, concord in discord, oneness in diversity. Psychic intercourse with everything, everybody – plus sensual union (when he could get it) – is the giddy trip that is proposed explicitly, over and over and over, in the prefaces and the poems. This longing to proposition the whole world also dictated his poetryâ€™s form and tone. Whitmanâ€™s poems are a psychic technology for chanting the reader into a new state of beingâ€¦they are functional, like mantras – ways of transmitting charges of energy.
“Sensual.” “Giddy.” Psychic intercourse.” No wonder bloggers today still call her a rock star. Susan was in outer space when every one else was neglecting to send her the memo.
No one was teaching Whitman anymore. Iâ€™m glad she didnâ€™t get the message.
Or maybe she did.
But this message of identification with other Americans is foreign to our temperament nowâ€¦
The Tyranny of Irony
I wish more would read as toughly as Susan, though. Irony remains an important literary technique for as long as there will be stupidity. To say one thing and mean another can be incredibly useful, but it can be overused. We have a few crusaders against reflexive forms of “irony,” but the odds are stacked heavily against them. Sontag criticized Diane Arbusâ€™s photo style as easy irony. I wouldnâ€™t wish Susan two seconds in todayâ€™s environment, which she anticipated here:
The Surrealist strategy has devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence with history. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment; can make out of history only an accumulation of oddities, a joke, a death trip.
Sweet Surrenderâ€¦ To know you donâ€™t know
Susan fought like hell over movies that left her reeling, but for them to do so she had to give them time to speak to her. And to be reminded that that time is needed is another reason to summon her life’s work today. I pull from her essay Spiritual Style in the Film’s of Robert Bresson, with some modern day correlatives. There’s an emotionally immediate art (say, Requiem for a Dream or Goodfellas) and there’s a reflective art (say Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line, Ozu, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). Sontag errs in favor of the reflective kind. She often had to go to France to find them. In the films of Robert Bresson she found a patience that was otherworldly –
The form of Bresson’s films is designed to induce a certain tranquility in the spectator, a state of spiritual balance that is itself the subject of the film…reflective art is art which, in effect, imposes a certain discipline on the audience – postponing easy gratification.
To be sure, Sontag raved about Godard, too, whose movies were not still like this at all, but hyper-referential and galloping. We as (post modern?) creatures tout intertextuality as one of our basic art loving qualities, but now even that has been overused so I prefer to point to Sontag’s words on reflective art. I listen to people talk about movies and it just sounds like long lists and auctioneering. Thereâ€™s no mystery. A fellow wonderer said to me this evening that many she talks to now consume and consume names and styles and references but donâ€™t really reckon with them. I wonder if we need to relearn how to follow and trace our fingers around a work the way Sontag could. It’s about immersing yourself in a work of art completely, so completely that you forget about how much you think you â€œget it.â€ You felt this way at some point and can insert that movie here. I most recently experienced this when Sam Rockwell was dancing with the Freddy Krueger look-alike in Snow Angels. I felt weird, scared and remotely melancholy and there was no way I could tell you why. Angels director David Gordon Green seems one of the directors left who still has access to the interstices of human strangeness. Anyway, this is a certain surrender. She teaches that sometimes it’s fine to just experience a movie and talk a walk and think about it for a while before you say anything.
[The love of cinema] was born of the conviction that cinema was art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctly accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral – all at the same timeâ€¦This is a larger, more inclusive form of desire embodied in the movie experience. Even more than what you appropriated for yourself was the experience of surrender to, of being transported by, what was on the screen.
The lives of those who livedâ€¦
So thatâ€™s why I turn to Sontagâ€™s body of work. Honored to have been born six days before her, she now owns brain estate thatâ€™s going to be hard for me to sell. Susan knew she was heavy stuff, and why would she change? My favorite testament to her high taste and style is evident in an interesting life experience. It speaks to the way she continued to hold high art to that highest standard, the democratic one. In the 90s Pearl Jam covered a 50s song from a couch for Eastern European refugees (“Last Kiss”), a conflict that was still going on when I was young. Susan personally staged Waiting for Godot in Bosnia, dodging bullets after probably eating bad toast and coffee. Even a war-torn country needed some Samuel Beckett. This makes me laugh and grateful.
â€¦And one more word of encouragement
Iâ€™m sure everyone will have a different Susan in mind based on this, or their own readings of her ambitious work. Or maybe not. My reading of Susan obviously tends to be compassionate and warm – I read to meet others and survive through them. Lately, she has taken on the job of writing instructor for me:
Everybody likes to think now that writing is just a form of self-regard. Also called self-expression. As weâ€™re no longer supposed to be capable of authentically altruistic feelings, weâ€™re not supposed to be capable of writing about anyone but ourselves.
But thatâ€™s not true.
Postscript: Suggested Sontag Reading
“Loving Dostoyevsky”, an intro to Leonid Tsypkinâ€™s Summer in Baden-Baden
Where the Stress Falls
In America (her rebirth as a novelist)
(c) Danny Marroquin All rights reserved. Photo credited to unknown photographer. Contact Danny by email to give your feedback, or for any other literary reason.