Every brainy queer of my generation, especially those born under the sign of Saturn, went through a phase where Susan Sontag was their daddy. She schooled you on everything: what to read, what to watch, who was important, and why you should know about it; what an intellectual authority was, how to perform authority well enough to become one; and, crucially, how to wear your hair. She was how to pay attention to everything, why you should, and how to be serious about it. She was why seriousness could be cool. She was why being a snob was sexy. She was the singular archetype of the twentieth-century American public intellectual. She was New York City. She was the centre of the world. She was Artaud, Bresson, Sebald, Cioran, Canetti, and Weil. She was smoking in bars with your friends, talking until dawn, revelling in how promiscuous she had made high culture be. She was an informed, sophisticated opinion that you could bring out at parties to impress everyone. And she was an opinion about almost everything: how camp puts quotation marks around all it touches (one of her most famous sentences: ‘not a lamp but a “lamp”, not a woman but a “woman”’), how the erotics of art is what we need, how the language around illness is often a lie. She was those slow, black-and-white, foreign-language films you watched with the person you were dating and, when they fell asleep during them, it gave you a reason why things wouldn’t work out between you. Of course, like any Daddy, as you grew into yourself, she began to lose her necessity. She came to represent someone who you used to want to be. Your adoration revealed itself, with age, to have been an affected performance that you used to become someone you weren’t yet. Also, as the twenty-first century barrelled along into post-2008 precarity and Snapchat-timespans and climate catastrophe, you learned that Cioran and Canetti didn’t really matter anymore. The moral quest for the perfect soul – a classical standard to which Sontag held both herself and the second half of the twentieth century – was not only impossible and perhaps misguided, but irrelevant. Does having a perfect soul matter if the world is ending?
Even though we who were fathered by Sontag outgrew her at some point, she was the first to help us grow, and for this she marks us deeply. (I’ve noticed that people just a couple of years younger than me have different daddys; born in 1984, I am likely in the last generation fathered by her, approximately those born between 1954 and 1984; Sontag was born in 1933). Sontag was my daddy for a number of years, when I was a brainy queer, touched by Saturn, from a working-class family in Southern California and my ache to learn about culture, in the hope of one day producing it, felt like it was the only thing that could take me somewhere different than where I came from. A second-generation Korean-American, my ambition was not a matter of ego but of survival, it was my ticket out – not unlike Sontag, a Jewish girl born in 1933 to an uncultured, uneducated middle-class family, who went to North Hollywood High School, and ached to belong to the European intellectual elite. Hearing the story of Sontag discovering the Modern Library series at the back of a stationery store in Tucson as a child – devotedly reading its entire catalogue, and checking titles off the list on the back cover – showed me that it was possible, purely through sheer force of appetite, to become who you wanted to be, rather than what you’d been born into.
I found Sontag as a teenager in the late 1990s, though I can’t remember which of her books I first read. This is because she always existed as more than her books. My initial encounter with her, as I’m sure is true for many, was with her image. That hair! And those big, intrepid black eyes, that imperious, authorial gaze. It matched the voice in her essays: forbidding, glamorous, sovereign. I was bowled over not only by the range of her subjects – this bitch had something to say about everything! – but also by the discovery that she’d championed many of the writers, filmmakers, and artists that came to mean something to me. Her journals, published after her death in 2004, sat on my shelves next to the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Woolf, Plath, and Sontag: if you were a girl who wanted to be a writer, these three were your canon. If you were, like me, a queer child who wanted to be a writer but didn’t identify as a girl, Sontag was the gatekeeper to a different kind of gate: a secret one you hoped existed, but couldn’t find on your own. You had to be taken there by someone who knew the way. Sontag was worlds cooler (and more cosmopolitan) than Woolf or Plath – Sontag had been lovers with Lucinda Childs and Jasper Johns and Annie Leibovitz, she’d written about Jack Smith and dedicated a book to Paul Thek – but what she, Woolf and Plath shared was a legacy that eclipsed the books they wrote. Not just fame, but full-blown myth. The iconic photos, the Twitter bots, the famous quotations, the biographical industry bustling around each. I know more about Sontag’s life – who she was friends with, who her lovers were, the indelible things she said – than I do about her actual writing. Though I’ve read almost all of her actual work, it’s not always as memorable as the myths that helicopter around her. Reading her can feel prescriptive, like eating something that doesn’t taste great but is supposed to be good for you. Telling stories about her is much more fun. How about the one where, sitting in her teenage bedroom at age 15, she adumbrates Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for her classmate? The new biography, Sontag: Her Life, froths with stories like these; one of my new favourites is where she’s in a relationship with Jasper Johns and then, in the wake of their breakup, he gives her his apartment, whose walls are covered with sketches for his paintings, and Susan has them all painted over.
Even before Sontag: Her Life came out, the mythology of Sontag was its own industry, and because of the teeming dynamism of it all, ranging from scuttlebutt and gossip to lofty tomes analysing Sontag’s importance, I sort of feel like I’ve been waiting to read this biography – the authorised, definitive one – my entire life. When Sontag’s journals were published (in 2008 and 2012), their revelations were fulsome: there were her endless lists and outlines for what would become her most famous essays, alongside awkward missives about her heartbreaks and eviscerating self-doubt. They sparked yet another round of thinkpieces about her legacy, and extended her influence; soon, younger writers (including myself) were publishing essays as numbered lists, a form Sontag, if not invented, canonised.
I remember my excitement, years ago, upon hearing that an official biography was in the works. Its author was to be Benjamin Moser, who had been chosen by Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and her agent, Andrew Wylie. Moser would be given unprecedented access to Sontag’s archive, including documents that will remain sealed for decades. A voluminous amount of her archive is already public, and since much of it is revealing and intensely personal, it raised my eyebrows to learn that there still existed papers to be kept secret. I wondered what they could possibly contain that her journals, which scrutinise each detail of her many humiliations, didn’t, and what it was about Moser that deemed him worthy of such access. I was fresh out of UCLA then, and the Sontag archive was in the library next to the building where I had gone every day for class. That I’d even got into UCLA, on a scholarship, was influenced by Sontag. The trajectory of her life had made me believe that I could.
Now that this 800-page biography is here – a sweeping, sometimes stumbling thing – it is a work both to be dubious about, and disappointed in. It arrives with recent allegations by Magdalena Edwards that Benjamin Moser plagiarised portions of his Clarice Lispector biography, using material without credit, mostly from Brazilian women scholars, and that he has a pattern of behaving like a narcissistic bully. In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Edwards describes how, with Moser as her editor, her translation of one of Lispector’s novels was effectively erased because Moser deemed it insufficient, got her fired, and took over the project, adding his name as ‘co-translator’. Twitter responded in a brief sizzle, reminiscent of #MeToo, where another translator, Susan Bernofsky, tweeted about her own encounters with Moser, and others demanded accountability, from Moser and his publisher, for his trespasses (though none has come and the sizzle has gone cold, it seems).
The news of Benjamin Moser’s perfidy came while I was writing this review, and sadly it wasn’t a total surprise. Moser’s voice can feel inelegantly vehement when drawing conclusions, which is exactly when one shouldn’t sound like that. This happens right out of the gate, when, in the second chapter, about Susan Sontag’s parents and early childhood, Moser makes the declaration: ‘Though few were as forcefully individual as Susan Sontag, she remained, almost to the point of caricature, the adult child of an alcoholic, with all of their weaknesses – as well as their strengths.’ Here, he cites in a footnote Janet Woititz’s 1983 book, Adult Children of Alcoholics. This is yoked, over 400 pages later, to Susan’s addiction to amphetamines, which she used for a quarter of a century. Moser writes, ‘Speed worsened the personality disorders grouped together in “Cluster B….” Symptoms include fears of abandonment and feelings of inconsolable loneliness, which trigger frantic neediness; antisocial behaviors such as rudeness (it is hard for such people to feel empathy); and volatility: mood swings that doom relationships.’ There are no footnotes or references for this passage; Cluster B, seemingly Moser’s diagnosis for Sontag, falls out of the sky. About ten pages earlier, we get the first mention (this time not relegated to a footnote) of Woititz, whose book, Moser suggests, ‘was unlikely to have captured Susan’s attention.’ It’s not just his carelessness with citation here (and, as per Magdalena Edwards, elsewhere), or that he seems to be lining his pockets with the intellectual labour of women without giving due credit. It’s also what feels like armchair theory being used to impose a diagnostic narrative on his subject that fails to account for itself and, indeed, fails to be held accountable to anything other than Moser’s own authority. I’m all for a biographer drawing a conclusion based on thorough research (isn’t that what biography does?), but this is not what Moser’s conclusions feel like. Rather, they feel like he’s stolen something to which he thinks himself entitled, not only from his sources but ultimately his subject.
Moser has a startling amount of ground to cover in Sontag, and before the Edwards piece, I attributed these red flags to lapses inevitably produced by having to manage such a daunting task. Almost a century of political, cultural, artistic, and intellectual history, spanning America and Europe, serves as the backdrop for analysing the work of an artist who produced more than a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction, made films, directed plays, and was one of the most prolific, if not simply busiest, figures of the twentieth century. Threaded through this are her complicated social and love lives; her unloving, damaging childhood; and her devastating experiences with three cancers, the third of which finally killed her, in an excruciating death. Though he sometimes proves up to the imposing task he has set before himself and, indeed, can be strikingly generous and critical at once (mostly when writing about her work, rather than her life), my biggest mark against Moser is that he writes like a twerp. It’s not just that he’s presumptuous, but that he can sound creepily possessive and without any self-awareness about it. He clearly respects and is devoted to Sontag, which is most apparent when disagreeing with her or labouring to find fault in her arguments (for example, he spends several evocative chapters proposing that Susan’s politics were only ever built on aesthetic principles). But this comes off as though he feels himself to be closer to her than anyone else, in possession of an understanding of Sontag that we don’t have access to, but which he can deign to share with us. This is odd because, since Susan Sontag is one of the most famous writers of all time, what has been written about her is, by now, as much a part of her legacy as the private stuff she wrote about herself in her journals. Not to account for this canon and his place within it strikes me as more than just a lapse. The fact that he doesn’t once implicate himself, or openly reckon with his own prejudices and projections, or gesture toward the messiness that is the very form of biography at all, suggests to me someone who doesn’t think such concerns apply to him. (Perhaps I expected this from a biography of such magnitude because one of my other daddys is Janet Malcolm.)
And then there is the grand and scandalising claim, which has the press jumping, that Sontag is the true author of her ex-husband’s book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. Though Moser’s proof of this is compelling, if not totally persuasive, it sounds a familiar bell that ought to take the tone of warning. His Lispector biography also came with the scandalising claim of a dark truth he alone was capable of unearthing. Moser speculated that, while her parents were fleeing the Russian pogroms, Lispector’s mother was gang-raped by Russian soliders, contracting syphilis. The folk wisdom among Russian Jews at the time, according to Moser, was that a woman could be cured of the incurable if she became pregnant. Lispector was conceived under this false hope, then watched her mother slowly and horrifically become paralysed, finally dying when Clarice was nine years old. Moser asserts that this inability to ‘save’ her mother is the fundamental trauma through which to understand not only Lispector’s life, but all of Lispector’s work. He strives to show how she thought of language and stories as ‘magic,’ clinging ‘to a hope that there was something she could do to save the world.’ That she could not, Moser declares, is why her work is so shadowed with the concept of nothingness, characters who come face to face with the void.
Moser’s proof that Sontag wrote her husband’s book, but then conceded authorial credit for it in exchange for custody of their son, consists of interviews with her son and friends, and documents archived in her private papers, including letters she wrote to her family about her work on the book. The keystone for him is the copy of the book that her ex-husband, Philip Rieff, sends to her four decades later, inscribed: ‘Susan, Love of my life, mother of my son, co-author of this book: forgive me. Please. Philip.’ (Magdalena Edwards zeroes in on this appearance of the word ‘co-author,’ writing: ‘The Sontag-Rieff conflict over who did what work and who got what credit felt painfully familiar to me, The Chandelier’s translator-turned-co-translator.’) As he did with Lispector’s burden of trying yet failing to save the world, Moser labours both to show that Sontag herself was a Freudian (whether she knew it or not), and that her life and work can be understood through Freudianism. This, above all else, is his proof that she wrote the book. It feels like he is squeezing a round peg into a square hole. Daddy Janet Malcolm, reviewing the biography in the New Yorker, writes, ‘[Moser] has so thoroughly convinced himself of it that when he quotes from The Mind of the Moralist he performs the sleight of hand of saying “she writes” or “Sontag notes.”’ For me, all of it serves more as proof that Moser is the actual Freudian of the book (whether he knows it or not), but even this feels ungratifying in the end, because Moser’s summarising of Freud can read like a high school book report: ‘In Freud’s system, body and mind manifest themselves through language. The language of the body is disease; the language of the mind is language.’
None of the sentences in Sontag sing, which makes for a wobbly read. From time to time we get some creative vocabulary – ‘it can only be called memoir in the baggiest sense of the word’ – and Moser is at his best when throwing shade. For instance, when writing about the promiscuity of University of Chicago undergraduates – including Susan, from age 15 to 17 – we learn of the ‘“professional cherry picker” a good-looking guy named Dick Lynn. (After this promising start, he pursued a career in insurance.)’ I started to make notes in the margins whenever Moser’s authorial voice gracelessly intruded on the subject, but again, without an accounting of his own position. I noted, ‘BM being a touch nationalistic,’ ‘BM trying to explain racism lol.’ There are also sweeping generalisations that feel thin and unsatisfying. ‘But Sontag had a sense for which way the cultural winds were blowing; and by the end of the 1970s, as its earliest, most urgent goals were achieved, feminism had lost a certain momentum.’ In the margin here, I wrote, ‘had it, BM?’
Some of the most enthralling topics of the book are Sontag’s fraught relationships to her Jewishness, her queerness, her body and her gender. Moser’s approach to such topics consists of, at some times, ploughing into them with impatience, and at others, diligently labouring over them in a stiff, mechanical voice. Weirdly, these sometimes intertwine. For instance: ‘Sontag was well aware that to be known as a lesbian would mean walling herself into a ghetto.’ This sentence is then corroborated by ‘the gay writer Edmund White,’ who says, ‘There was nothing to gain by coming out.’ I’m sure this is true, but the way it’s handled here feels sloppy and cursory, as if Moser were ticking topics off a list that he has to cover in a Sontag 101 class. Lesbian, check. Why it’s hard to be one, check.
But my disappointment in the biography for which I’ve waited so long echoes the theme of Sontag’s entire life. She was torturously, punishingly disappointed in herself, her friends and colleagues, the world (the chapter titles alone give a sense: ‘The Slave of Seriousness’, ‘Continent of Neurosis’). Despite being a writer synonymous with admiration for her subjects, Sontag as a person was monstrous, arrogant, and demanding. One of my favourite images of her is from Joan Acocella’s 2000 profile for the New Yorker, ‘The Hunger Artist’, where, in glee and enthusiasm, Sontag’s eyes widen and she flaps her arms, while ‘talking for six hours, no problem.’ But another image that won’t leave my mind is from Sigrid Nunez’s 2011 memoir Sempre Susan, where we are told that, as an anaemic child who suffered migraines, Sontag would drink daily glasses of blood that her mother brought home from the butcher. ‘When she was unhappy with the world, she lashed out; she wanted to hurt someone,’ Nunez writes. ‘At the worst of such times, I’d flash on the image of her as a girl drinking those glasses of blood.’
Moser’s Sontag is rife with accounts of her withering scrutiny, and the most vivid are when she inflicts them on herself. Upon finishing On Photography, for example, she throws herself on the bed and bemoans that it isn’t as good as Walter Benjamin. She was dismayed when J. M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, because it meant that she, then aged 70, as another writer in English, would never win it. When she has her first orgasm with a man, in her 20s, she says, ‘Oh shit, now I’m just like everybody else.’ Before the biography, we who have followed her already had a lively sense of this. In her journals she crucifies herself in nearly every other entry. About her writing: ‘A problem: the thinness of my writing – it’s meager, sentence by sentence – too architectural, discursive.’ Coming to a conclusion after meditating on Simone Weil: ‘My problem (and perhaps the most profound source of my mediocrity): I wanted to be both pure and wise.’ From 1957 (age 24), a list of her faults: ‘Never on time / Lying, talking too much / Laziness / No volition for refusal.’ To put together this short list of examples, I merely opened her journals at random. Part of what’s so fascinating about Sontag is to read her excoriate herself for laziness, only to turn the page to find lists of books she’d recently re-read (Gertrude Stein, Kafka, Gide), films she’d seen, ideas for stories, and sketches for arguments citing Descartes, Victor Hugo, and St. Theresa. Her quest to attain unattainable standards of purity, wisdom, and success feels religious, equal parts savior and martyr, something for which her very longing deserves punishment, and, smarting from the self-inflicted wounds of this punishment, she can spur herself further on.
She inflicts plenty of punishment on others, too. More than one person calls her a monster in this biography. Acocella says that interviewing her ‘was like being in a cave with a dragon.’ The poet Brenda Shaughnessy goes into therapy to heal from the abusive relationship she had with Sontag. Some of the most repulsive passages describe Sontag’s dynamic with her longterm partner Annie Leibovitz, who was with her from the late 1980s until she died (and who famously photographed her corpse). Susan, both in private and in public, ‘violently repudiated’ their relationship every chance she got. Sontag belittles and berates Annie in public, calling her stupid for not having read Balzac, being ‘so surprised!’ to realise that Annie, one of the most successful photographers in the world, ‘really has an eye.’ They break up and get back together regularly, in a cycle of harm and penance. Their friends recoil, stop going to dinner with them, we’ve all known couples like this. Annie, interviewed by Moser, maintains that Sontag was merely pushing her to be better, Sontag’s standards being so legendarily high, and that she was happy, even, honoured to provide Susan with emotional and financial support, especially when Sontag was ill. Beneath that tribute, though, comes one of the most scintillating revelations of the book. Moser interviews Susan’s accountant, who attests that, over the course of their relationship, through lavish purchases of apartments, gifts of first-class trips around the world, and a regular allowance, Annie gave Susan a cumulative total of eight million dollars. Daddy, much?
One of the themes throughout Sontag that Moser handles with care is Sontag’s aversion to her own body, which I saw as extending into her internalised misogyny, homophobia and ableism (though Moser never uses these words). The agon of the book is Sontag staying in the closet her entire life, despite all her friends knowing about her queerness. Many of them, by the end of her life, were exasperated at her refusal to come out, since it was so clear already. (Though, I think of Wayne Koestenbaum, in the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag, saying, ‘Does the author of “Notes on Camp” need to come out?’) It still stings that such an icon to the queer community never publicly allied herself with it, and this is the only topic in the biography where we start to hear Moser’s own desires for and disappointments in his subject. He rightly takes her to task for the marmoreal and abstruse language of AIDS and Its Metaphors, which appeared in 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis. Moser writes, ‘A refusal of names – “the body” rather than “my body” – provided false comfort, and added to the gauzy atmosphere of silence and shame.’ Moser uncovers notes in her archive that reveal an early title for ‘Notes on Camp’ to be ‘Notes on Homosexuality.’ He dedicates an entire chapter to a passage from her journal called ‘The Bi’s Progress,’ where she charts her many attempts to try to make herself straight (it is pitiful to read). Acocella’s profile was partially meant to be an opportunity for Sontag to come out on the record, but instead Sontag bristles, relenting only, ‘That I have had girlfriends as well as boyfriends is what? Is 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 quotes Acocella describing the transcriber of that interview, ‘a completely out gay guy,’ bursting into tears upon hearing this.
Moser ties this to her strained, dissociated relationship to her own body, which made her feel surreally detached when considering the subjecthood of others, as well as her self. In her journals, about an ex, she writes, as if with astonishment, ‘Irene not fictional.’ (Most of the second volume of her journals is taken up with her persecuting inspection of why her relationship failed with María Irene Fornés.) But this went both ways. She tries to understand her ‘fascination (almost obsession) with the theme of psychological vampirism,’ noting, ‘Irene the author, sponsor, + therefore guarantor of my new being. My panic when she withdrew her sponsorship. My deep conviction that she must continue to sponsor me, to certify me.’ In Moser’s introduction, which frames the whole book, he quotes her writing, that one use of literature is to make us aware that ‘“other people, people different from us, really do exist.” Other people really do exist. It is an astonishing conclusion to reach, an astonishing conclusion to need to reach.’ He brings ample evidence to support a statement she wrote in her journal in 1960: ‘I have always liked to pretend my body isn’t there.’ In the lists throughout her journals, reminders of hygiene are frequent. She has to exhort herself to bathe every day, noting in parentheses, ‘already big progress here in last 6 mos.’ Many of the friends and lovers interviewed for the book speak of how childlike she was; not eating unless someone made food for her, staying up too late, for days on end while writing, without even brushing her teeth. A remarkable passage describes when Susan, aged 19, goes into labour in the middle of the night. She was caught completely off-guard, waking up, thinking she’d pissed the bed. When her husband Philip ‘explained that her water had broken, she had no idea what the phrase meant.’ Throughout her entire pregnancy, she’d never once consulted a doctor. ‘When she reached the hospital and went into labour, “she couldn’t understand why it was so painful.”’ I couldn’t help but think of the ‘others’ in the title of one of her most influential books, Regarding the Pain of Others. Also, that nowhere in Illness as Metaphor does she mention that she herself had cancer.
Some of the most salacious scenes in the book bring to life her sadomasochism with her lovers, Annie included, a lifelong pattern instantiated by her cold, distant mother, who Susan describes as a monster. I don’t think I’ll forget the image of Sontag kneeling at the feet of her lover, Anna Carlotta del Pezzo, a Duchess who is not on ‘first-name terms with reality’ (see, when Moser throws shade, he kills). A friend says that, ‘Susan literally sat at the feet of only two people. If she came into a room and saw either of these two people she’d sit right here on the floor: Hannah Arendt and Carlotta.’ What a picture: Susan Sontag kneeling at the feet of Arendt and a Duchess who, the biography claims, ‘had probably never read a book in her entire life.’ There are many such distinctive characters that take the stage for memorable scenes. One of my favourites is Harriet Sohmers, a brassy lover of Sontag’s from the 1960s, who says of Irene, who both she and Sontag fell in love with: ‘Irene could make a rock cum.’ There is Camille Paglia, who whines into the picture, a petulant sycophant, annoyed that Sontag hasn’t comprehended that Paglia is Sontag’s successor. When asked to comment on Paglia in an interview, Sontag, the ultimate diva, says she’s never heard of her. There’s Joseph Brodsky earnestly clapping at President Nixon on the TV in Susan’s living room. There’s Warren Beatty who calls Susan 500 times a day, hopelessly in love with her; Susan lets the phone ring for three hours straight. There’s a fan telling Susan she’s one of the fan’s two favourite writers; the other is Ayn Rand.
Here’s the tea of the century: in 1975, when she got diagnosed with the first of her three cancers – already ‘Susan Sontag,’ a name synonymous with high culture and intellectual success, sitting on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, author of by then four books, two of which were bestsellers – Susan Sontag didn’t have health insurance. Her treatment cost $150,000, which is at least $700,000 in today’s money. She was able to pay it only by picking up the phone and asking her friends to chip in: a proto-gofundme. When I read this, I sat back in defeat. If Susan Sontag didn’t even have health insurance when she got sick, what about the rest of us? (Much of her later cancer treatment was paid for by Leibovitz.)
Sontag is a hard read, hardest when it covers her illnesses. Despite the position she takes in Illness as Metaphor, Sontag was a deep believer in the ableist idea that a person can, and should, think their way out of illness. If a person is not healed, even completely cured, of their illness, they have ‘failed.’ (When one of her oldest friends, who had a history of depression, commits suicide, Susan says, after identifying the body, ‘So, she finally did it – that stupid woman.’) As Moser points out, ‘To deny the body is also to deny death with a doggedness that made Sontag’s own end unnecessarily ghastly. She believed – literally believed – that an applied mind could, eventually, triumph over death.’ Here, I thought of the ‘Bi’s Progress,’ a similarly misguided endeavor to try to think her way out of her queer body, as she would try to outwit her illnesses. Disability and femininity co-construct each other – the disabled and the sick are viewed as ‘weak’ and relegated to the private sphere; they need care, an historically feminised labour – and, though she ostensibly did a lot to undo the prejudices against illness in her writing, ultimately I see Susan Sontag as someone who further entrenched this destructive ideology in how she lived her life, because we all know that, for better or worse, it’s by living them, day in and day out, that ideologies become entrenched at all. But it’s hard not to read Sontag’s internalised ableism as an extension of this disavowal of her body, coming from the same place as her internalised homophobia and misogyny – which all, it seems to me, originate from her disappointment in herself, something that defines her very ontology. Even with the most compassion, these passages read like tragedy. In the last hundred pages of my reading copy, the thing I drew more and more in the margins was a sad face.
In 2008, Susan Sontag’s son, David Rieff, published a memoir called Swimming in a Sea of Death, which details the torment of her death. Rieff describes Susan’s belief in her own exceptionalism, a belief substantiated by actual evidence throughout her life; not only that she was an exceptional person because of her intellect and her tenacity, but also because she’d beat her two previous cancers, against all odds. She was so certain that she would beat the third cancer (which was caused by treatment she’d received for the second cancer) that when it became clear she wouldn’t, she refused to believe it. She couldn’t die anyway, she insisted, because she had so much yet to do. (Near the end of her life, she renounced her early work to write novels, ‘Essays! Pooh! Forget essays! From now on, I’m writing fiction. I have a whole new life. It’s going to be terrific.’) Rieff’s slender book, under 200 pages, is some of the best writing on Sontag there is. He clarifies her in a way that no other has. When Moser’s sentences started to feel like a slog, I’d return to my dog-eared copy of Rieff. ‘For someone in love with the past,’ Rieff writes, ‘or, more exactly, who identified with the great achievements of the past and their architects – in a sense, she was her admirations – my mother was surprisingly untroubled by nostalgia.’ That clause between the en-dashes – that she was her admirations – is one of the most eloquent about her ever written.
Rieff’s portrayal of himself and his mother during the time she was dying (in agony, from blood cancer), when they colluded together in a grotesque, yet completely understandable, denial, is one of the most haunting things I’ve read. Rieff wonders if, by trying to participate in her desperate search for hope, he made her suffering worse. He asks if guilt is the only thing survivors can feel, wishes he could have died in her place, and castigates himself for letting her hope at all. Knowing that Sontag’s relationship with her only child was invasive and overpowering (she writes, ‘I identify myself too much with him, him too much with myself’) makes the memoir that much more agonising, as we see the strains of self-punishment continue, a family legacy. Sontag, in its Freudianism, lays this bare; in a passage quoting her friend, Stephen Koch, we learn: ‘“[Susan] needed somebody. And that need extended to David to a sinister degree. She set out to see to it that he couldn’t escape her.” When he tried to get away, she said, “I’ll outflank him.”’
It can be uncanny, after Sontag, to re-read Rieff, who writes in a voice similar to his mother’s in its exacting authority. Having gone through the 800-page journey of her life – which ultimately produces a sad and harrowing portrait of a deeply insecure, complexly unhappy, and yet tirelessly fascinated and fascinating person – I returned to this sentence in Rieff’s memoir: ‘I very much doubt that “hope” … offers much to someone trying to organize his or her thoughts and feelings in the shadow of extinction.’ For someone whose life was powered at once by an unending wonder and a terrifying fear of being ordinary, the concept of extinction, to which we all must go, was anathema to Susan Sontag. Rieff writes, ‘She had the death that somewhere she must have come to believe that other people had from cancer – the death where knowledge meant nothing, the will to fight meant nothing.’ One of the most heartbreaking scenes comes at the end: ‘Shortly before she died, she turned to one of the nurses aides – a superb woman who cared for her like her own daughter – and said, “I’m going to die,” and then began to weep.’ Her last words are to David, an unfinished sentence: ‘I want to tell you….’