A principis de 2016 vaig intentar llegir aquesta biografia, publicada en castellà per l'editorial Circe. Vaig aturar-me a la meitat. Els motius de la meva renúncia a continuar la lectura està plasmada en la recensió del llibre que Daphne Merkin va escriure per al The New York Times. Busquem companys de viatge per allò que ens agrada, però també per allò que rebutgem. Qui més, qui menys, necessita una confirmació raonada de les seves intuicions, dels seus sentiments, dels seus pensaments. Aquí n'hi he trobat una per a l'ocasió.
October 29, 2000
The Dark Lady of the Intellectuals
Unquestionably she is very smart, but Susan Sontag's biographers attribute her fame to the art of being famous.
By DAPHNE MERKIN
As literary culture continues on its downhill trajectory -- sliding from the heights of serious thinking to the crass demands of the bottom line -- it becomes ever harder to believe in that not too distant past where intellectuals qualified as contenders for something other than dusty symposiums and the mingy rewards of academic prestige. We suppose it to be so; certainly the nostalgic history of American letters has it so. For a brief period from the 40's to the 60's, that is, you could publish an essay in small-circulation journals like Partisan Review, Commentary or Dissent and become an overnight sensation, the talk of the town.
Nowadays, no one is sure whether Partisan Review still exists (it does), and it is impossible to imagine that anyone once rushed to read the latest issue so as to be able to discuss it at the the Trillings' next cocktail party. Indeed, it was Diana Trilling who at the close of her memoir, ''The Beginning of the Journey,'' wrote elegiacally of ''the life of significant contention,'' which that cranky, opinion-toting group known as the New York Intellectuals specialized in. It's unclear that their moment was ever as auspicious or luminous as later accounts depicted, but there is no doubt that it was drawing to an end by the time the Beatles arrived on the scene. It was the groovy 60's, after all, and there was scant interest in ideological debates conducted by unmediagenic eggheads. In their place a hipper type of thinker was emerging, one who made an engagement with ideas seem like the epitome of cool -- a teasing erotics of the mind for a brain-addled, sensation-seeking generation.
Enter Susan Sontag, who almost single-handedly imbued the sober, increasingly disregarded disciplines of close reading and intense brooding with a very contemporary glamour. From the start, Sontag was different from Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt and the other bluestockings who preceded her, in part because of the oracular, aphoristic quality of her prose, and in part because of her ability to strike a camera-friendly pose. It didn't hurt that she was darkly beautiful, with a sensuous mouth, a thick helmet of hair and a direct, wide-set gaze. Or that well before the Age of Prada she outfitted herself in chicly underdesigned clothes and shades of black. (Elizabeth Hardwick, in her introduction to ''A Susan Sontag Reader,'' suggests that Sontag ''is herself a sort of pictorial object, as the many arresting photographs of her show.'')
Then there was the mystique of her self-creation, the lack of prosaic data -- whether in the form of biographical clues or personal revelations. One was familiar, of course, with the rapid ascent of her cultural star, as precipitous in its way as the fabled discovery of Lana Turner at a drugstore counter. But for the longest while, Sontag's background remained hazy, giving her an aura of impenetrability; it was as though she had sprung, fully formed and discoursing on Godard, from the head of a moody French existentialist. This image of fearless, almost masculine self-invention was carefully polished in interviews, where she gave the impression of having followed her own wunderkind inclinations without any grown-up encouragement. One magazine profile had her explaining that she liked to read encyclopedias as a 10-year-old, only to move on to the classics -- all the classics. Of her early mental prowess, she once said dismissively, ''It was such a given.'' I remember coming upon Sontag in the mid-70's, after she was already established as America's pre-eminent woman of letters, and wondering not so much who her parents were but whether in fact she had any.
Sontag burst into panoramic view with the publication of ''Notes on 'Camp' ''in Partisan Review in the fall of 1964. The huzzahs that greeted this essay, prescient as it was, are inconceivable from the vantage point of the present day, when polemical writing in prestigious journals generally gets treated, as the writer David Brooks has observed, ''as just another scrap in the media confetti.'' Sontag was 31, and had already written a slim and stylized novel, ''The Benefactor,'' as well as a bunch of essays, including one on Simone Weil for the inaugural issue of The New York Review of Books. Her formidable brain and dramatic physical presence had been causing a stir in cerebral circles for several years, but with this piece her audience widened to include the masses who read Time, which took up both Sontag and her bold conception of the camp sensibility with wild enthusiasm.
In the decades since, Sontag has voiced shifting, sometimes contradictory opinions on matters political, intellectual and literary. These have included incendiary manifestoes (on the ''pornographic imagination'' and the unredeemable malignity of America, which she once called ''a doomed country . . . founded on a genocide''); arrogant miscalculations (about the politics of North Vietnam and Cuba); thoughtful reconsiderations (of the nature of Communism and of the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl); and unabashedly esoteric artistic judgments (favoring foreign over home-grown writers, and form over content). If consistency is truly the hobgoblin of little minds, Sontag's mind must be very large, for she has never been stopped by her own last pronouncement. In the past decade, for instance, while continuing to champion the kind of elliptical European fiction that meets her much elaborated and stringent critical standards, she began writing best-selling, plot-heavy novels. But whatever the position or wherever the situation, Sontag has managed to hold the limelight as few of her kind have done.
Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock's unauthorized, gossipy account of the life and times of Susan Sontag is built around two reductive suppositions: that the real source of their subject's cultural influence is her keen insight into ''the machinery of self-promotion which she could have patented,'' and that she rules over the house of intellect like a highbrow Lucrezia Borgia, by fear and intimidation. Their biography broadcasts its debunking intentions right up front, in the resolute wording of its subtitle: ''The Making of an Icon.'' In their chatty introduction, the authors describe their first encounter with Sontag, at an academic conference in Poland in 1980. ''We approached her,'' they write, ''with a proper sense of awe, yet Carl found it remarkably easy to sit next to her at a table and talk for 15 minutes about contemporary literature.'' One can only conclude that behind every fan is a detractor struggling to get out, for somewhere along the way the pair's admiration soured -- helped along, no doubt, by Sontag's refusal to cooperate and by her effort to keep others from talking. Having decided to take a closer look at the woman they once idolized from afar, Rollyson and Paddock found her to be just another flawed mortal: ''So Susan Sontag as the world now knows her is a dream of Susan Sontag.'' Quelle surprise.
Sontag was born on Jan. 16, 1933, in Manhattan; her mother had a second daughter, Judith, three years later. The circumstances of Sontag's young life, although financially comfortable, weren't particularly charmed: her parents spent much of their time in China, where Sontag's father, Jack Rosenblatt, had a fur trading business, while she lived with her grandparents in New York. When she was 5 her father died, and her mother, Mildred, moved the family to Miami and then Tucson in search of a hospitable climate to relieve her older daughter's asthma. Sontag is described as a classic writer-in-the-making, a lonely and bookish child who identified early on with professionally driven women like Marie Curie. When she was 12, her mother married Capt. Nathan Sontag, a decorated war hero, and the family moved to California. Sontag seems to have been preternaturally poised from the start, buoyed by an unshakable belief in her own august destiny. The authors quote a classmate from North Hollywood High whose memories of Sontag are of an awe-inspiring creature: ''She was so focused -- even austere, if you can call a 15-year-old austere. Susan -- no one ever called her Susie -- was never frivolous. She had no time for small talk.'' While still in high school, Sontag and one of her chosen pals visited Thomas Mann; never one to be overly impressed, she later recalled that the great novelist talked like a book review.
After attending Berkeley for a semester, Sontag, at 16, went to the University of Chicago, where her scores on the placement exams enabled her to take graduate courses. She studied with Leo Strauss and Kenneth Burke; the latter apparently recognized the attractive, contained young woman as ''a genius in the making.'' In her sophomore year, a mere 10 days after meeting him, Sontag married a sociology instructor, the 28-year-old Philip Rieff, whose class she had drifted into. Within two years, she and Rieff had moved to Boston, where Rieff taught at Brandeis, and became the parents of a son, David. Sontag took English classes at Harvard and went on to receive her master's degree in philosophy, ranking first among the department's doctoral candidates and attracting such powerful mentors as the theologian Paul Tillich. She contributed significantly to the book that would make Rieff's academic reputation, ''Freud: The Mind of the Moralist'' (the biographers point out that ''although Sontag was not officially a co-author, the work had become their baby every bit as much as little David''), and in 1957 won a fellowship to pursue her Ph.D. studies at Oxford. (Her proposed dissertation, which she never finished, was on the ''metaphysical presuppositions of ethics.'') Sontag took off for Europe, leaving her husband and son behind, and four months into her British stay transplanted herself to Paris. There she became friendly with Alfred Chester, a gifted, openly gay writer who became obsessed with Sontag (to the point of considering marrying her) and introduced her to the reigning New York literati. Just as important for her future career, Sontag discovered the dense, boundary-blurring mode of French thought -- which embraced popular culture with the same intensity it applied to lofty critical theories.
The 26-year old Sontag returned to America in 1959 and asked Rieff for a divorce on the way home from the airport. She reclaimed the 6-year-old David from Rieff's parents, who had been looking after him, and moved to a West End Avenue apartment in Manhattan. Frequenting literary parties all the while, she taught, worked as an editorial assistant at Commentary and began work on the -- according to Chester -- very boring'' novel that would become ''The Benefactor.'' In 1961, after her manuscript was accepted for publication by Robert Giroux of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Sontag met the firm's publisher, Roger Straus, who would become her devoted literary impresario. Her biographers describe Straus's commitment as an ''all-encompassing care'' of Sontag's needs. ''It is not an exaggeration to say that Straus engineered Sontag's career,'' they observe, ''making certain that the novels, for example, were always in print, that even the most insignificant Sontag piece was translated and marketed abroad. No detail was too trivial.''
As it turns out, Rollyson and Paddock's book raises more questions than it answers, a prime one being whether it is possible to write a serious biography of a serious person while the subject is still alive. Biographies contemporaneous with the lives of show-biz folk and other celebrities sidestep the question most of the time, mainly because there isn't anything all that weighty hanging on the issues involved: the childhood, the first professional break, the spouse(s), the lovers, the personal demons, the heartbreaks, etc. But unless one wants to give her radically less than her due and characterize Susan Sontag as a ''personality'' along the lines of Diana Ross or Barbara Walters, a more rigorous standard of inquiry and more muscular criterion of assessment is required than is offered here. For one thing, it is impossible much of the time to figure out how the authors have obtained their information; many of the quotations are unattributed, culled from other sources and treated as definitive, or taken out of context entirely. One also wonders how the authors could have discovered what Sontag told intimate confidants, like Silvers and Straus, if they didn't consent to being interviewed for the book, or why they chose to rely on the spotlight-craving Camille Paglia (whom they refer to as an ''open lesbian,'' which is one of the few things she has been ambiguous about) for insight into Sontag's self-marketing tactics. (Paglia, it emerges, originally worshiped Sontag, only to turn against her when Sontag rebuffed her stalkerlike tactics, demanding to know: ''What is it you want from me?'') And too often their writing, which is lackluster, is marred by simple sloppiness, as when they refer to themselves in the third person as ''Sontag's biographers'' or carelessly repeat information.
Too many of the questions the book does set out to answer -- What is Sontag's relationship with her son? How much behind-the-scenes power does she really wield? Is she gay? -- are handled on a Page Six level, in alternatingly snippy or breathless tones. The issue of Sontag's sexuality is not nearly as riveting or potentially illuminating as the authors seem to think, but in any case it is a subject that deserves to be linked up with other aspects of her -- including the gay aesthetic underlying her fascination with camp and with issues of dominance and enslavement -- rather than mined for its salacious appeal. Her liaisons, passing or long-term, are faithfully recorded, as though they added up to an overall indictment of her disingenuous presentation of her public image. In fact, one could as easily argue that Sontag's refusal to use lesbianism as a trendy lifestyle accessory speaks to her credit, and that her silence on gay issues, rather than adding to her ''iconic power,'' as the authors claim, actually detracts from it.
Sontag is, finally, too faceted and elusive a creature to be caught in the flash of a paparazzo's lens. Whatever is wrong with her is not easily waved away by her fans, and whatever is right about her is not easily dismissed by her critics: she is difficult to categorize, much less analyze. One particularly problematic aspect of her writing for me is her insistently antipsychological stance, which has led to a kind of moral obtuseness about the subtler implications of political events as well as to a convenient opacity about her own motivations. There is also her unsettling tendency to see the world in terms of a hierarchy of intellect, in which basic human concerns are given short shrift. But no one would deny Sontag's enduring romance with the world of ideas, or her ability to translate that romance into an urgent, if occasionally wrongheaded, conversation with the reader. I will never forget the thrill I felt upon coming to the conclusion of her piece ''Fascinating Fascism,'' when it first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1975. I was 20, a literature-besotted senior at Barnard, and here was evidence of a woman with the intellectual stamina equal to that of the male critics I studied. The essay's final paragraph connects the erotic theater of sadomasochism -- severed from personhood, from relationships, from love'' -- with the visual allure of Nazi imagery. ''The color is black,'' she writes, ''the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.'' In its violent yoking together of disparate emotional and aesthetic references, Sontag's thesis is an uncanny presentiment of cultural preoccupations to come.
Precisely because Susan Sontag is an influential, even paradigmatic figure, for both good and bad, gaining a fuller understanding of her would help us to understand the times we live in better. From this perspective, ''Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon'' falls woefully short, for it delivers the dish, but not much more. If you're looking for the sort of bitchy nuggets that go to prove that people of achievement -- and intellectuals in particular -- are invariably miserable characters, this will suit you just fine. Meanwhile, the real Sontag has eluded us -- and will undoubtedly continue to do so until such time as she gets the smart, serious biography she deserves.
Daphne Merkin, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of ''Dreaming of Hitler,'' an essay collection.