There she stands, the fortysomething Susan Sontag, at a rock ‘n’ roll show in a packed New York club, encircled by sweaty kids. “Being the oldest person in a room did not make her self-conscious,” writes Sigrid Nunez in her memoir Sempre Susan. “The idea that she could ever be out of place anywhere because of her age was beyond her—like the idea that she could ever be de trop.” Sontag gave herself a regal, Oscar-Wilde-like permission to be at the center of things. That could be charming, much of the time. Other traits were less appealing. Sontag used to forbid her son David to look out of the window during train trips because, after all, there was nothing interesting about nature. Read a book instead, or, better, talk to me! was her message.
Susan Sontag was a case, all right, as Benjamin Moser’s new biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work makes clear. But she was also interesting in ways that Moser, with his taste for the tawdry and the sensational, is ill-equipped to explore. While he chases after scandalous details, Sontag’s actual writing tends to get lost in the shuffle.
Moser’s book bubbles with gossip. He gives you the scoop on Sontag’s multifarious love life, which included a Rothschild heiress, an Italian countess, and her publisher Roger Straus. We learn that Sontag had sex with 36 people between the ages of 14 and 17; that her companion the photographer Annie Leibovitz wrote her a $15,000 check every week; that she relied heavily on amphetamines and regularly forgot to bathe or brush her teeth. We hear about Sontag’s first orgasm with a woman (the playwright Maria Irene Fornés), and then, later on, her first one with a man (Richard Goodwin, JFK’s speechwriter). Moser gives us spectacular coverage of her tantrums. At times a screaming diva, she abused waiters, insulted Leibovitz in front of dinner guests, and dragged her most loyal friends through the dirt. Sontag’s many frenemies, out for revenge, pop up on nearly every page of Moser.
Moser, like Sontag herself, is a celebrity hound. He gushes about the momentous night at Studio 54 when Sontag shared a table with Andy Warhol and Jackie O. Sontag, he breathlessly tells us, slept with both RFK and Warren Beatty, only to be outscored by Leibovitz, who bedded Mick Jagger. All of this star-studded dazzle tends to eclipse Moser’s claim that Sontag was a thinker to be reckoned with, wrestling with the crucial aesthetic and political questions of her time. Moser does discuss Sontag’s thought, but his heart isn’t in it. He comes nowhere close to those who have written brilliantly about Sontag’s life and work, like Phillip Lopate, Terry Castle, Robert Boyers and Nunez.
Sontag married the sociologist Philip Rieff when she was a precocious undergraduate at the University of Chicago. She was only 17, he ten years older. The marriage was an all-consuming whirlwind that after a few years ended in disaster. At first Sontag and Rieff had sex four or five times a day, and always, they conversed about every intellectual matter under the sun. One time they sat in a car all night, too busy talking to notice that the sun had come up. He would even talk to me when I was in the bathroom, Sontag recalled in later years.
Moser’s biggest bombshell is his absurd claim that Sontag is the real author of Rieff’s masterwork Freud: the Mind of the Moralist (1959). We know that she heavily edited the manuscript, and once, in a fury, she told Jacob Taubes that she “wrote every word” of it. But was she the book’s author? If this were true, it would make Sontag the greatest authority on Freud in postwar America. This is far from the case. Sontag devoted only two or three pages to Freud in all her subsequent work, and those pages suggest a crude, sketchy idea of Freud’s thinking, a far cry from Rieff’s elaborate mastery. “Bringing to light…hidden motives must, Freud thought, automatically dispel them,” Sontag wrote in her 1961 review of Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, ignoring Freud’s many essays on the hardships of the therapeutic process.
Moser blithely insists, again and again, that Sontag was the sole author of The Mind of the Moralist. When quoting from the book, he says “Susan described” or “Susan noted,” never giving Rieff any part at all. In effect, Moser steals the book from its actual author. Except for Janet Malcolm and Joseph Epstein, most reviewers of Moser have neutrally reported or even accepted the idea that Sontag wrote The Mind of the Moralist, but this shows only that they know little about Rieff’s classic book. Biographers have a responsibility to seriously evaluate the claims of their subjects, and reviewers are similarly obligated. With Moser’s biography, the obligation has been brushed aside. The evidence against Moser’s plagiarism notion is overwhelming. The Freud book sounds just like Rieff’s later work, written after the split with Sontag. Its argument and worldview are utterly characteristic of Rieff, and drastically different from Sontag’s own.
The Mind of the Moralist remains Rieff’s book rather than Sontag’s. But it strongly influenced Sontag, in a way that neither she nor Rieff was ever able to admit. Rieff saw Freud as the central modern thinker, but he argued that Freud’s skeptical realism diminished the world, shortchanging art and religion. Freud lumped the religious ascetic and the self-sacrificing artist together with the neurotic, and warned us that the high ideals associated with cultural achievement enact too great a cost. Instead of modeling ourselves on the great ascetics, Freud counseled, we should get used to ordinary unhappiness, becoming middle managers of our humdrum souls. Rieff’s reservations about Freud must have impressed Sontag, since she gravitated to the ascetic heroes of art and culture that Freud was so wary about. Sontag, who was a Nietzschean striver rather than a Freudian realist, worshipped the self-denying saints of modernity: Beckett, Wittgenstein, Simone Weil.
Rieff argued that the high modernists revered by Sontag were less instructive figures than the cautious Freud. In The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), his follow-up to The Mind of the Moralist, he remarked with disaffection that writers like Beckett, “with his effort to be an artist working ultimately with a silent mankind, because the ‘silent God’ has been used up–are hailed as most religious because they can find nothing to obey or await.” The actual new religion, he goes on to say, is not dire in Beckett’s manner but quite “reasonable”: “Crowded more and more together, we are learning to live more distantly from one another, in strategically varied and numerous contacts, rather than in the oppressive warmth of family and a few friends.” (Rieff, it seems, foresaw Facebook.) Now that “a sense of well-being” has become the goal of our lives, “rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end,” Rieff writes, soon “there will be nothing further to say in terms of the old style of despair and hope.” Beckett’s effort to frame a new style of despair and hope, relying as it does on existentialist melodrama and avant-garde worship of silence, seems to Rieff a merely specialized endeavor. Take that, Godot!
Rieff knew that Freud diminished the human soul’s great passions, and that the kind of self-knowledge he advocated could never have enough high erotic force to replace the old religions. But Rieff also knew something Sontag did not (or maybe just didn’t care about): art cannot provide a model for living. Later on, I’ll suggest that Rieff had Sontag in mind when he wrote about Wilde as the “impossible” spirit of the modern age, the appreciator who knows no taboos and who raises the enjoyment of art to a liberating religion. Wilde’s headlong embrace of art is bound to frustration and failure, Rieff argues, and is therefore no true faith.
Sontag, to my mind, resembles no one so much as Wilde. Her intellectual portraits were sometimes ravishing and persuasive, as in Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), her best book, but at other times she seems merely to be marketing an elevated form of glamor, in the Wilde tradition. As Adam Kirsch has noted, she ennobles the discerning consumer of art. The greatness of the art object rubs off onto Sontag, and onto you, the reader. Sontag, who except for her bestseller The Volcano Lover (1992) was never much of a success as a novelist or filmmaker, fell back on Wildean exaltation of the critic as heroic connoisseur: her best early essay, “Notes on Camp,” was dedicated to Wilde. But unlike Wilde, Sontag trusts to high seriousness. We must work out an erotics of art, she says, and learn to take pleasure in a rigorous way, since beauty, after all, is truth.
Sontag never entertains Wilde’s theme that admiring beauty might be dangerous for us, though her favorite writer as a teenager, Thomas Mann, could have taught her that, as Wilde could have too. (Mann had an ironic grasp of the forms of reverence; Sontag did not.) Helplessly in love with the boy Tadzio, Mann’s Aschenbach in Death in Venice is a pathetic parody of the aesthete. Aschenbach has spent his whole life escaping from himself into art, but on his trip to Venice sex corrupts artistic appreciation, and he becomes merely his wretched hunger for the perfect, unreachable Tadzio. Like Wilde, he is brought low by his love for boys.
Sontag’s homosexuality haunted her. In this she resembles her idol Mann, who had ample reason to see himself in his Aschenbach. The most gut-wrenching part of Moser’s book is its report of Sontag’s forced self-outing. She had always insisted that her private life was off limits, that who she slept with had nothing to do with her writing. But when she learned in the late ‘90s that biographers were on her trail, she painfully agreed to Joan Acocella’s request that she read a statement about her sex life, to be included in Acocella’s New Yorker profile of Sontag: “That I have had girlfriends as well as boyfriends is what? Something I guess I never thought I was supposed to have to say, since it seems to me the most natural thing in the world.”
Moser implies that Acocella, not Sontag, wrote these words, and when the “absolutely terrified” Sontag read them, it was with the greatest difficulty, in what Acocella calls a “strangulated tone.” What a cruel irony that Sontag has now come under the knife of a biographer who drags her out of closet after closet, ransacking every nook for evidence of his subject’s sexual secrets.
When Sontag advocated an erotics of art, she wanted to rise beyond sex, not plunge back into it, where Moser leaves her. All the grubby behavior she unfairly blamed herself for, the sexual shame and neediness (mostly directed at women rather than men), would be erased by a saintlike devotion to art. In Godard’s Vivre sa Vie, Sontag wrote, “the values of sanctity and martyrdom are transposed to a totally secular plane,” and this turned Sontag on immensely.
For Sontag, art delivers us from our neuroses, transmuting our messy psyches into something clean and unadulterated. The people in a Robert Bresson film are “opaque,” Sontag wrote, and so they represent “the forms of spiritual action…the physics, as it were, rather than the psychology of souls.” Under the spell of art, the more stringent, even excruciating, the better, your emotions will not be about you at all, but will turn into pure soul, just as the Christian loses her personal sorrow and anxiety while gazing on the crucifixion.
Both Sontag and Rieff were Jewish, but the early Sontag often seems to me a crypto-Christian thinker, drawn to Weil, Bresson and the rigors of Catholic martyrdom. (Wilde too had a martyr complex, though a more high-spirited one.) The saint’s aloneness enraptured her, resembling as it did the purgatorial existence of the great artist (like Saint Jean Genet, a Sontag favorite). The contrast between Sontag’s reverence for the ascetic’s passion and Freud’s dislike of it, emphasized by Rieff, could not be clearer.
Yet Sontag’s taste for asceticism was only one aspect of her; the other, more appealing aspect was the clear-eyed pleasure she took in life. In her brilliant Illness as Metaphor (1978), Sontag attacked the idea that suffering either ennobles someone (like the consumptive beautiful soul) or reveals her inadequacy (like the guilt-ridden cancer victim). In her later work she still sometimes endorsed the artist as suffering hero, not tubercular perhaps, but afflicted in some other way. She stressed Benjamin’s melancholy, Artaud’s madness. But something more healthy and happy came out too, and this side expressed her better. She stressed the implacable wish for more life in figures like Canetti and Barthes, who were devoted to enjoyment, artistic and sexual. Wildly overpraising Paul Goodman, she sees in him “a connoisseur of freedom, joy, pleasure,” and that’s what matters, she implies. Goodman, who didn’t much care for women, rebuffed her in life, but really, she could be his twin.
Rieff was more conservatively Jewish in character than Sontag, with his respect for the communal and law-bound. Rieff argued that ancient Israel brought a new idea into the world: interdictory culture. The Israelites were bound together by what they could not do, and so the community became a therapeutic force, able to heal its members by bringing them back to the truths of existence, which were stable because fenced in by enduring prohibitions. In The Triumph of the Therapeutic Rieff reminded readers that “in the culture preceding our own, the order of therapy was embedded in a consensus of ‘shalt nots’”.
Cultic therapies of commitment never mounted a search for some new opening into experience; on the contrary, new experience was not wanted. Individuals were trained, through ritual action, to express fixed wants, although they could not count thereby upon commensurate gratifications. The limitation of possibilities was the very design of salvation.
This communal disciplinary matrix has passed away, and with it “the old keys to the great riddles of life.” And so Freud brought “men’s minds around from such simplicities to the complexity of everyday tournaments with existence.”
Rieff does not have Freud’s hope that men and women might be satisfied with merely practicing the delicate balance between purpose and purposelessness in their lives. Turning the neurotic’s grandiose misery into common disappointment, urging a realism and curiosity toward the inner life: we require more than this Freudian prescription. Finding ourselves interesting is not enough; we need new forms of commitment. In The Triumph of the Therapeutic Rieff surveyed the thinkers who rejected Freud’s skeptical individualism and proposed regimes of commitment based on fantasies, sometimes outlandish ones: Jung, Reich, D.H. Lawrence. Rieff recognized that these myth-makers were pointing to a felt need not sufficiently addressed by Freud. But he also knew that their illusory solutions could not substitute for the lost interdictory culture. Illusions have no real future, since individuals choose and discard them freely. The Wildean self, searching for new experience, might try out Jungian archetypes or Reichian orgasms. We imagine we can find real commitment, and as a result salvation, in such forms, but in fact we are only trying them out. Such experiments cannot heal us.
Rieff’s point about how freedom of choice works against commitment still applies. The homemade mythologies crafted by Jung, Reich and others have been supplemented by the political and cultural loyalties that currently excite us. People now “identify as” rather than feeling identity imposed on them. Communities that we pick and choose in this way cannot have interdictory power. Our claims to identity lack real authority, and so we impose them by force, the only way to get them to stick. According to Rieff, our disappointment that merely invented faiths cannot guide us into true meaning can generate a reckless demonic insistence. The terrorist’s doctrine, shoddily constructed as it is, and scarcely credible to its believers in their saner moments, produces a terrible violence.
Sontag’s path went in the opposite direction from Rieff’s because she insisted that the individual, specifically the heroic artist-intellectual, could develop an interdictory culture for himself. In her first two books of essays, prior to Under the Sign of Saturn, she praises the self-castigating author, ruthless on principle, who is nothing if not critical. (Later, as I’ve said, her intellectual avatars tend to be more fond and relaxed.) Celebrating Michel Leiris in Against Interpretation (1966), she says that “for him, life becomes real only when placed under the threat of suicide,” and that “In a view like Leiris’, literature has value only as a means of enhancing virility, or as a means of suicide.”
In sharp contrast to her essay on camp with its Wildean poise, Sontag here lapses into melodrama. There is something adolescent about her gushing over Leiris’ suicidal inclinations. When I read Against Interpretation as a teenager, I ate this stuff up; now I find it hard to take seriously. Sontag’s high priestess mode has not always worn well. In the Leiris essay she says that “we should acknowledge certain uses of boredom as one of the most creative stylistic features of modern literature”: a sentence ripe for parody by the early Woody Allen.
Sontag could be pretentious about art, but her curiosity and sheer appetite for the new and exciting made up for it. There is no excuse, however, for her paeans to Cuba and North Vietnam. The Vietnamese, she embarrassingly thought, resembled beautiful children. On a guided tour of North Vietnam, she wrote that the people “genuinely love and admire their leaders; and, even more inconceivable to us, the government loves the people.” In Cuba, she shrugged off the fact that Castro was putting gay people in concentration camps because Che and Fidel were her “heroes and cherished models.” There is something adolescent here too, and uncomfortably close to the worst of the New Left. Years later, Sontag was often a voice of mature liberalism, standing up for free speech and human rights. Influenced by her lover Joseph Brodsky and by Herberto Padilla, she labelled Communism “fascism with a human face,” and lambasted Gabriel García Márquez for being friends with Castro. In the 60s and 70s, though, she was a pro-Communist flack, swooning over North Vietnam and Cuba as socialist utopias.
Sontag’s fellow traveler’s naïveté was not just a rapprochement with the New Left but a genuine part of her. Sontag the perpetual kid needed an object of enthusiasm, in politics as everywhere else. Rieff was constantly on guard about such enthusiasm, not that he needed to worry about it himself. He knew that utopian idealism led to moral and political disaster. Rieff’s own sense about Vietnam was that opposition to the war “gave reasons for hope.” He wrote that “there can be no culture without guilt; Vietnam rekindled our sense of guilt, not widely or deeply, nevertheless, that indispensable and true sensibility seemed alive again.”
At the end of his career Rieff published little, centering his intellectual life on his teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. He came to class in a three piece suit and a bowler hat, banned coffee from the seminar room, and bore down on his key scriptures: Don Giovanni, Hamlet, and Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” as well as favorite films like Blow-Up and Being There . Rieff was a charismatic, and his students cathected onto him.
The later Rieff was an anti-public intellectual, the opposite of the celebrity-seeking Sontag, with her high-profile pronouncements. Yet in a strange irony he resembled her too: it’s just that his sweeping prophesies remained in manuscript whereas hers were announced at PEN conferences or in wartime Sarajevo. She sounded the brave humanist alarm, whereas he honed a sour pessimism.
In his final years Rieff turned hectoring and cranky. He was satisfied with nothing on the contemporary scene. In stark contrast to Freud’s equanimity, which he so admired, Rieff’s rancor at times sounded merely reactionary. He denounced homosexuality (perhaps because Sontag had left him for another woman?). His prose became fragmentary, overbearing and inclined toward rant. Yet there are gems among the rubble too. On Scorsese’s Taxi Driver he remarks, astonishingly, “Insanity is the mitigating plea of desire, its final admission that it cannot be satisfied even by running amok. Violence is to desire as prayer is to the soul.”
One of Rieff’s major statements, decades after his marriage to Sontag, took direct aim at Oscar Wilde, the hero of Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” In his superb essay ”The Impossible Culture: Wilde as Modern Prophet,” which appeared in Salmagundi in 1982, Rieff warns against Wilde’s individualist connoisseurship. Lacking Freud’s caution, Wilde prophesies a New Man liberated from the old-fashioned cultural ideals that constrained him. If “character is the restrictive shaping of possibility,” the product of culture’s formative no, then Wilde’s yes–– like Marx’s, Rieff adds––recognizes that the old restrictive culture has disappeared. Wilde and Marx know that the power of community to heal and save people is gone, replaced by a capitalist hubbub where we are brought together only as consumers and self-fashioners.
Rieff does not merely protest against the superficiality that Wilde celebrates, and that Wilde, like Sontag in “Notes on Camp,” tells us is actually profound. A person who is free to shape herself outside the normative powers of the old culture, Rieff fears, will become a shapeless, tormented demon, not a hero of autonomy. Rieff cites Marx’s dangerous praise of the “revolutionary daring which throws at its adversary the defiant phrase: ‘I am nothing and I should be everything.’” Rieff the antirevolutionary remarks that “culture is a tremendous articulation of compromise between equally intolerable feelings of nothing and everything.” Wilde, who equates the artist and the revolutionary, insists that when we are free to express, and therefore become, everything, inhibitions will wither away. Rieff throws the cold water of analysis on Wildean, and Marxian, hopes when he writes, “The claim of the artist to express everything is subversive in one especially acute sense: the claim to express everything can only exacerbate feelings of being nothing. In such a mood, all limits begin to feel like humiliations. Wilde did not know that he was prophesying a hideous new anger in modern man, one that will render unexcited, peaceable existence even more utopian than before.”
Rieff does not dream that the old moral strictures can suddenly be revived, least of all by him: professors don’t renew a culture, he says. In the absence of the old law we are left with the inhibition that confronts us in the form of other people, who enrage us because they remind us of ourselves. There is no feasible way out of such misery. Rieff’s frustrated, scrappy late prose is perhaps sparked by the hopeless knot he has diagnosed.
Like Rieff, Sontag frequently looked with a dark eye on the common life, the wasteland she saw all around her. High art was her fortress, and she remained aloof and condescending about American culture. She despised anything kitschy and middlebrow (camp had an in-group claim to superiority that distinguished it from kitsch). In Against Interpretation she trumpeted the superiority of recondite avant-garde works, while adding from time to time a sprinkle of pop culture hipness, so that Robert Rauschenberg rubbed elbows with the Supremes. Sontag the snob, disdainful about American culture, name checked the Beatles, Patti Smith or the occasional B movie merely to show that she was with it, not a University of Chicago square. Her real interest was those European writers who practiced the religion of art.
And yet…was the real Sontag the snob or the fan girl? Sontag the fan saw her favorite films dozens of times, and even enthused happily about pop relics like Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” In her Rolling Stone interview, she sounds like a teenybopper when she tells Jonathan Cott how much she adored that song. The more ill she became during her long struggle with cancer, the more she needed the pleasures stockpiled in music, books, and movies.
In the end Sontag is a much happier figure than Rieff. He was the sober analyst, she the passionate enthusiast. She loved surrendering to film, literature, dance. This is a surprising side of Sontag, since she was an elitist to the bone, and proud of it. Again like Wilde, she knew how to enjoy herself.
I wonder sometimes whether Sontag really followed the religion of art. Perhaps she just liked what she liked and wanted you to like it too, as Nunez suggests in Sempre Susan. She often struck people, even those who complained bitterly about her, as a happy child with a great smile who loved books and movies. She saw Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante forty times, and cried and laughed at every screening. Her talent for enjoyment was, maybe, the truest part of her, and something any of us might envy. Not Sontag the scold, the prima donna, the failed novelist or disappointed lover, but Sontag the reader and moviegoer, the one who gives in to beauty: that’s the one who will live on.
DAVID MIKICS is Moores Professor of Honors and English at the University of Houston and author of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, Bellow’s People, The Annotated Emerson, and other works. He is also a columnist for Tablet magazine.