Sontag says of her fiction, “I discovered that I liked to tell stories and make people cry.”
Photograph By Richard Avedon
The Hunger Artist
Is there anything Susan Sontag doesn’t want to know?
By Joan Acocella
February 28, 2000
Susan Sontag did two big things last year. She finished a novel, “In America,” which is being published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this week, and she underwent treatment for cancer. On a recent evening I said to her, “This is now your second novel in eight years, but it wasn’t novels you were known for—it was essays. Don’t you miss the essay form?” She answered something like “Essays! Pooh! Forget essays! That was the past. From now on, I’m writing fiction. I have a whole new life. It’s going to be terrific.” And she began charting for me her happy future. This was a person who that same morning, as she told me, had been scanned in every inch of her body for cancer. (Her recent episode was not the first. She had breast cancer in the late seventies.) Furthermore, as a result of chemotherapy—specifically, a drug called cisplatin, with a platinum base—she has heavy-metal poisoning. For months last year, she was in terrible pain—she lived on morphine derivatives, meanwhile trying to finish the book—and couldn’t walk without help. Now she can walk, but her balance is still uncertain. “I don’t know where my feet are unless I look at them,” she told me. She has physical therapy for three hours every day.
Also on her daily schedule, however, are piano lessons. At the age of sixty-seven, she has started studying piano. Sontag has huge reserves of hope. Or maybe hope is the wrong word—too psychological. The quality seems physical. In “Pilgrimage,” an autobiographical piece she wrote in 1987, she describes the patio barbecues of her childhood: “I ate and ate. . . . I was always hungry.” When, as a young graduate student, she was trying to figure out what she would do for a living, she decided to become a writer because, as she later told Edward Hirsch for the Paris Review, “What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive.” A quality she repeatedly praises in the subjects of her essays is avidity: Jean-Luc Godard’s need to cram into his films everything passing through his brain; Elias Canetti’s deciding when he was sixteen that he would learn “everything,” and pretty much succeeding; Walter Benjamin’s endless book collecting. She, too, is a collector, both of subjects—she has written on literature, film, opera, drama, dance, painting, photography, politics, illness—and within subjects. Reading her “Illness as Metaphor,” a book only eighty-seven pages long, I started keeping a list of the sources she brought to bear on her argument. After Choderlos de Laclos, Schopenhauer, Kant, Rousseau, Blake, Lermontov, Sartre, Camus, Katherine Mansfield, Middleton Murry, Baudelaire (a note he wrote for an unfinished book), Frank Lloyd Wright, Gramsci, Marinetti, Osip Mandelstam, Plato, Artaud, Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, Trotsky, Solzhenitsyn, Hitler, Neal Ascherson, John Adams, John Dean, St. Jerome, Novalis, Alice James, Henry James, Wilhelm Reich, Kafka, Wycliffe, Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thomas Mann, Ingmar Bergman, Thomas Wolfe, Friedrich von Schlegel, Oliver Goldsmith, Saint-Saëns, the Goncourt brothers, Victor Hugo, Boccaccio, Homer, Sophocles, and various science-fiction movies, I stopped. When an interviewer commented that she must have done a lot of research for that book, she answered that she had done no research. She’d read a lot in her life, she said, and “I remember what I read.” More than anything else, Sontag is hungry.
When “The Volcano Lover” was published, in 1992, many people thought it was her first novel. It wasn’t. In the sixties she wrote two novels, “The Benefactor” and “Death Kit.” “The Benefactor” is the story of a man pondering his dreams. “Death Kit” is a long hallucination occurring in the brain of a man who has taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Both books, then, were studies of consciousness. The world had little place in them. In keeping with the aesthetics of the sixties and, above all, with the so-called New Novel that the French were producing at that time, Sontag was trying to write anti-realistic, anti-nineteenth-century fiction. “ ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘Buddenbrooks,’ when I reread them recently . . . made me wince,” she wrote in 1963. “I could not stand the omnipotent author showing me that’s how life is, making me compassionate and tearful.” Art was not life; it was form, life transfigured by consciousness—a process that, of necessity, made art difficult, reflexive, self-questioning. So in her novels she left out life and put in consciousness and was difficult and self-questioning, and the results were not very interesting, a fact that was not lost on her. “I didn’t like what I wrote that much,” she said to me. “That’s why I stopped.” In the meantime, she had begun publishing essays, and though she went on thinking of herself as a fiction writer—“I consider my novels much more important,” she said in 1969 when an NBC interviewer asked her about her essays—she threw herself into critical writing, concentrating on the sort of New Wave, shattered-consciousness art that she herself had tried to produce. By the time of the publication of her first essay collection, the 1966 “Against Interpretation,” with its famous title essay and its more famous “Notes on ‘Camp’ ”—plus pieces on Lévi-Strauss, Simone Weil, Georg Lukács, Godard, “happenings”—she was a celebrity, a subject of articles in Time and Vogue, a person whom NBC wanted to interview.
As is always the case, this publicity explosion involved considerable stupidity. As always, it compromised its subject. (Sontag, who despises television—“It’s the death of Western civilization”—did not decline to go on TV.) And so, as always, the new star had to suffer some sneering from her colleagues. Reviewing “Against Interpretation” in the Times Book Review, Benjamin DeMott said that the book left him with the haunting image of “a lady of intelligence and apparent beauty hastening along city streets at the violet hour, nervous, knowing, strained, excruciated (as she says) by self-consciousness, bound for the incomprehensible cinema, or for the concert hall where non-music is non-played, or for the loft where cherry bombs explode in her face.” Note the remark on her beauty. Sontag was indeed beautiful, and since she is a woman, this contributed both to her fame and to the scorn it elicited.
The snide remarks didn’t stop her. She was a natural star, extroverted, glamorous, photogenic. Eventually, she took to wearing her black hair with a white streak in it, like Diaghilev. (“Saturday Night Live” soon had a matching wig for its Sontag sendups. The streak is gone now. Sontag’s post-chemotherapy hair is a big mane of gray.) She gave interviewers her thoughts not just on the arts, all the arts, but on politics, culture, history, you name it. She was outspoken, combative—a public figure—and she looked to be having a good time. This was not the American picture of braininess (we favor the professorial) but the Parisian model, and a number of American intellectuals had a problem with that.
But “Against Interpretation” was a brilliant book, a landmark in the history of American criticism. Not only did it serve what should be an essential function of criticism, that of introducing readers to new work, weird work, things they wouldn’t ordinarily encounter—a duty no major critic had undertaken consistently since Edmund Wilson quit regular reviewing in the late forties—but, like Wilson’s writings, it did so in a notably un-weird manner. Thoroughly trained in literature and philosophy, Sontag applied the standards of the past—truth, beauty, transcendence, spirituality—to the new art of the sixties, with its alienation, extremity, perversity. She talked like Matthew Arnold about things like Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” a film that was closed down by the police. Thus, whatever the new art’s break with history (and she proclaimed the break), she made it seem a continuation of history, something that readers could understand, even sympathize with.
And the book was ambitious. Sontag asked what art was, what its use was, why we cared about it. She used the new art as a platform on which, it seemed, she invited us to live a bigger life, with new emotions, new thoughts, a new candor. (She talked very straight: “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.”) And the writing was marvellous—high-toned, Brahmin, but full of zest and the pleasure of performing. Her openers were always thrown down with a great flourish. Here are the sentences with which she began the essay on Simone Weil:
The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force—not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self—these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live.
Well, maybe yes and maybe no, but she made it fun to think about. Add to this that the essays were short and easy to read. No wonder she was a hit.
In the years that followed, she brought out more essay collections, among them “Styles of Radical Will” (1969) and “Under the Sign of Saturn” (1980). Her pieces became longer, meditations on whole careers: Artaud’s, Roland Barthes’s, Walter Benjamin’s, Elias Canetti’s. Yet, as those names suggest, her concerns remained the same, mind versus reality, formalism versus realism, modern consciousness pressing against the walls of language. In 1977 she published “On Photography,” an expression of adamantly mixed feelings about that art. (The book was a best-seller.) She followed this up in 1978 with “Illness as Metaphor,” written as she underwent her first bout with cancer, and then, in 1989, with a sequel, “aids and Its Metaphors.”
But in this post-“Against Interpretation” period one senses a restlessness in her. In the sixties and early seventies, she put a lot of time into the antiwar movement. She also went off and made films—a displacement, I believe, of the fiction-writing impulse. Nor did she always displace it. She wrote a number of short stories. In the eighties she started and then abandoned two novels, one about a dancer, the other about a Russian poet (based on her friend Joseph Brodsky) coming to the United States. She still thought of herself as a novelist.
Looking back now, one seems to see the novelist pacing around inside the essayist. The underlying argument of much of Sontag’s criticism is a call for the replacement of realism by a more transforming technique. Yet a recurrent theme of her writing—a point she keeps returning to, like something personal—is the defense of reality against transformation. We hear about this first in the title essay of “Against Interpretation.” There the reality she is defending is the work of art, obscured (and boy, was it) by Freudian and Marxist critics who were constantly looking past it to what they had decided it really meant. To quote the well-known last line of that piece, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”: we need to see art, smell it, feel it, take it for what it concretely is. By the time of “On Photography,” the reality she is trying to protect is the world itself, our reactions to which are being dulled, she warns, by its constant conversion into the flat, glossy, comestible products of photography. In the following year comes “Illness as Metaphor,” where the thing she is restoring to its realness is disease, specifically tuberculosis, which her father died from, and cancer, which at that moment she was close to dying from. In the book she did not mention her own condition. Whatever she felt was fed back into her argument, a short, violent conflagration at the end of which any idea that illness is a mark of ennoblement or of shame—something that the victim caused or, by virtue of personality, was doomed to—lies like a burnt cinder at the bottom of Sontag’s rhetorical furnace. Illness is just illness, she says. Reality is just reality. Or not “just.” Reality is interesting, powerful, a matter to which we should have strong, unmediated reactions. So said this anti-realist.
And there is something else. A curious trait of Sontag’s critical writing is that, for all its polemical thrust, it often contains opposing views. The realism/anti-realism dance is one example. That occurs between essays. But even within essays she swerves and pivots, dips down and comes up somewhere else. A number of people have noticed her tendency to disagree with herself, and asked her about it—for example, Wendy Lesser, for a 1981 interview in The Threepenny Review. (This interview, together with many others, appears in Leland Poague’s 1995 collection “Conversations with Susan Sontag.”) Yes, Sontag answered, and that’s because she was always thinking, “This, yes. But also that.” To her, it didn’t seem like disagreement, but “more like turning a prism—to see something from another point of view.” This is not fundamentally the method of criticism. It is the method of the novel.
In 1992, a decade or so after that interview, Sontag produced “The Volcano Lover,” her first novel in twenty-five years. It made the best-seller list, as well it might have, for it was not only wonderful but in many ways quite traditional. She who had said in 1963 that she couldn’t abide the nineteenth-century omnipotent narrator, “showing me that’s how life is, making me compassionate and tearful,” gave us a wholly omnipotent narrator, a real bully, making us compassionate and tearful. She who had recoiled from the novel’s sweaty realism—its loves, its wars, its teeming backdrops—gave us the famous love story of Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson, set in Naples, teeming as never before, in the time of the Napoleonic wars. The opposing voices of the essays now found their freedom in fiction, in a long list of characters with different points of view. The loyalty to reality, to the concrete facts of experience, exploded like a delayed reaction. At one point, the novel’s hero—Sir William Hamilton, Emma’s cuckolded husband—imagines a marble goddess in a garden coming to life. The first sense that is restored to her is smell:
She smells the sycamores and poplar trees, resinous, acrid, she can smell the tiny shit of worms, she smells the polish on soldiers’ boots, and roasted chestnuts, and bacon burning, she can smell the wisteria and heliotrope and lemon trees, she can smell the rank odor of deer and wild boar fleeing the royal hounds and the three thousand beaters in the King’s employ, the effusions of a couple copulating in the nearby bushes, the sweet smell of the freshly cut lawn, the smoke from the chimneys of the palace, from far away the fat King on the privy, she can even smell the rain-lashed erosion of the marble of which she is made, the odor of death.
This is more smells than have ever been smelled by anyone, let alone a streak-haired habitué of the far climes of modernist cerebration. “I thought I was a ruminator,” Sontag said to me. “I thought I was a student. I thought I was a teacher. And then I discovered that I liked to tell stories and make people cry.”
Susan Rosenblatt was born in 1933 in New York City. Her mother remained in New York only briefly. Mildred and Jack Rosenblatt lived in China, in Tientsin, where Jack was a fur trader. Mildred soon returned to Tientsin, leaving Susan—and, later, her younger sister, Judith—in the care of an Irish-American nanny, Rosie. Rosie and the girls stayed with relatives. The parents came home for only a few months a year. Of her father Susan has a few “snapshot memories”: “I remember him folding what seemed to be an enormous handkerchief, the size of a tablecloth, and putting it in his breast pocket. I can remember looking up at this giant and thinking it was the most amazing thing in the world to be able to fold that handkerchief, and make it do all those things, and it ended up this little, small thing, and you stuck it in your pocket!” When she was five, her mother came back from China alone, saying that the father would be arriving soon. Four months passed; he didn’t come. “Then, one day, I was home from school on a lunch break, and my mother took me into the living room and said, ‘I have something to tell you.’ ” Her father had died of tuberculosis. Mildred, when she returned, had brought his body back with her. Given this information, Susan was sent back to school. Lunch break was over.
The family now moved repeatedly, first to New Jersey, then to Florida, then to Tucson, where they lived in a four-room bungalow on a dirt road. Mildred was gone much of the time. “I think she had boyfriends,” Sontag says. Then, when Susan was twelve, Mildred got married again, to Captain Nathan Sontag, an Army Air Corps pilot, and she asked the girls to take Captain Sontag’s name—which, Sontag says, she was perfectly willing to do. “I didn’t enjoy being called a dirty kike, and I had been.”
Sontag has described her childhood as “a long prison sentence.” She hated being a child, was embarrassed by it, and she has no memory of any of childhood’s fabled satisfactions. Her mother she recalls as “very laconic and very withholding.” (She was an alcoholic, as Susan found out many years later, from Judith.) Captain Sontag told Susan that if she didn’t stop reading books she would never get married. “I ground my teeth, I twirled my hair, I gnawed at my nails,” she later wrote. Then there is the other side of the story: those books, her discovery of art. In a stationery store in Tucson she had discovered the Modern Library series, and started reading the classics. Los Angeles—the family moved there when she was thirteen—had a thriving musical culture (Stravinsky and Schoenberg had settled there), and she found friends who drew her into it. At a magazine stand off Hollywood Boulevard she discovered Partisan Review. At home, she says, “nothing interesting was ever discussed. They were just talking drivel, all the time.” Likewise in her school, North Hollywood High: “I remember sophomore English. My teacher, she must have been on something. She used to take her shoes off under the desk, and she would knit. She had us write précis of articles in the Reader’s Digest” But none of that mattered. Sontag lived in the fire in her brain. She read Kant, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Thomas Mann. When she read “The Magic Mountain,” she says, and got to the part where Hans Castorp and Clavdia Chauchat speak in French, she bought a French-English dictionary and looked up their conversation word by word. When she finished the novel, she refused to be parted from it. She went back to the beginning and reread it aloud, a chapter a night. Sports she hated. As for boyfriends, she had some, but aesthetic preoccupations seem to have been uppermost in her mind. In “Pilgrimage” she describes herself sitting in a car with her friend Merrill (a boy) on upper Mulholland Drive, a popular lovers’ lane. Amid the rocking chassis, she and Merrill “quizzed each other’s memory of Köchel listings. . . . We debated the merits of the Busch and the Budapest Quartets.” Then they went home.
Sontag’s entry into adulthood was violently swift, as if she wanted to get the transition over with. At fifteen, she entered college; at seventeen, she married; at nineteen, she had a child. In her second year at the University of Chicago, she met a sociology instructor, Philip Rieff, ten years older than she, the future author of “Freud: The Mind of a Moralist” and “The Triumph of the Therapeutic.” “The day after I met him,” she recalls, “he asked me to marry him. I said, ‘You must be joking!’ He said, ‘No, no, I’m absolutely serious. When I saw you last night, a voice said to me, “That is the woman you’re going to marry” ’ And I burst out laughing, because no one had ever called me a woman before. And, I don’t know what happened, I just said O.K.” A year and a half later, she gave birth to their son, David Rieff, who was to be another writer, the author, recently, of “Slaughterhouse,” on the war in Bosnia (a cause in which Sontag, too, has been very heavily involved). Rosie, who had stayed with Susan till she was fourteen, returned to look after David. “That’s one of the reasons David and I resemble each other so much,” Sontag says. “We had the same mother.” Then Philip took a job at Brandeis, and Susan started graduate school—first in English, then in philosophy—at Harvard.
“I really loved being a student,” Sontag says. “I was living in an intellectual delirium.” Her friends, and Philip’s, were mostly people in their sixties, “German refugee intellectuals, largely Jewish.” They talked about ideas. “Herbert Marcuse lived with Philip and me for a year, and we sat around endlessly discussing Hegel. David—he was maybe two—would come in and say, ‘Hegel, Hegel, Hegel.’ The culture I was involved in had absolutely no relation to anything contemporary. My idea of a thought about modernity was Nietzsche’s thinking about modernity.” Occasionally a gust of the now-and-happening blew past her face. “I remember once, I guess it was 1956. I used to go to my classes and go right home, because I had a child and a husband, and why wouldn’t I go home? But this day, for some reason—maybe I had had a fight with Philip—I didn’t go home. I went into the movie theatre in Harvard Square. The movie that was playing was ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ And I sat there, I was twenty-three years old, and I thought, My God! This is great! This is absolutely fantastic! After the movie I walked home very slowly. I thought, Do I tell Philip that I’ve seen this movie—this sort of musical about kids, and it was wonderful, and there were kids dancing in the aisles? And I thought, No, I can’t tell him that.”
She told him later, though. Or in any case she told him that she no longer wanted to be married. In 1957 she was given a one-year fellowship to Oxford, and she spent the spring of 1958 in Paris. Now, for the first time in years, she had the experience of being on her own. Sontag has recorded very mixed feelings about Philip Rieff. To me she said, “He was passionate, he was bookish, he was pure. He was very, very unworldly. I was worldly, compared to him.” In her new novel, the very Sontag-like narrator describes her former husband as Mr. Casaubon, the dry, notecard-accumulating scholar of “Middlemarch,” and herself as Dorothea, Casaubon’s imprisoned wife. Sontag and Rieff had what she describes as a Siamese-twin marriage: “We were together twenty-four hours a day, practically. He waited for me outside my classes. He wanted me to come to his classes. He followed me to the bathroom. I followed him to the bathroom.” Vaulting from her bookish youth into this bookish marriage, she had skipped adolescence, and adolescence now knocked on the door. She decided she wanted to forget Hegel and have fun. In 1959, after nine years of marriage, she divorced Rieff, packed up her child, and moved to New York.
“David grew up on coats,” she says—the coats on the bed at parties. “I met Claes Oldenburg a couple of weeks after I came to New York. I started going to ‘happenings,’ and to these crazy movies that Jonas Mekas was putting on, and to Off Off Broadway plays, with all this Artaud. Artaud certainly came as a surprise to me! I learned to dance. I was practically thirty, and I learned to dance, and I became a dancing fool.” New York wasn’t all. In the early sixties she started spending her summers in Paris. “I went to the movies three times a day. I went to bars, I took drugs, I had a romance.” In time she broadened her horizons. This summer Norton will publish “Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon,” by Carl Rollyson, an English professor at Baruch College, and Lisa Paddock. According to their agent, the book will address the “open secret” of Sontag’s “love of women,” together with “the strategies behind her meteoric rise to fame.” I don’t know about the strategies, but as for Sontag’s relationships with women, she says, “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.”
In those heady times in the sixties, she both lost her head and kept her head. Today, she stresses the latter. “It felt a little bit like slumming, like doing something that was good for me—to get to know what the world was about—but that obviously I was going to take back to whatever I thought my real life was. Everything I did was in the nature of ‘Well, I’ve done that, I wasn’t afraid of doing that.’ ” It was more, though. During her Paris summers she acquired a deeper knowledge of the work of Godard, Bresson, Genet, Lévi-Strauss, Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute—the people she would write about in “Against Interpretation.” In the ardor of those essays one can measure the intensity of her response to the “modern,” to what was, for her, the long-delayed release from classical culture. And in the coolness of the essays, in their rigor and idealism, one can read the truth that she was never wholly released, nor wanted to be. It was to these two poles—the sheer, visceral, get-me-out-of-this-graduate-school embrace of the new sensibility and the old, thoughtful, let’s-analyze-this-according-to-Hegel’s-three-categories-of-whatever—that the great trajectory of “Against Interpretation” was anchored.
And then there was politics. Like most young intellectuals in the sixties, Sontag was a leftist. She had no illusions about the Soviet Union, but she nourished hopes for the Communist regimes of Cuba and North Vietnam. She visited both countries and wrote about them with some reservation but considerable admiration. In a 1968 essay in Esquire she characterized Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam as “a deeply civil society which places great value on gentleness and the demands of the heart” and described how the government rehabilitated prostitutes by sending them to country retreats where people read them fairy tales and played games with them to restore their faith in humanity As for Euro-America and its history of imperialism, “The white race is the cancer of human history,” she declared in 1966. “It is the white race and it alone . . . which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”
Those sentences came back to haunt Sontag as, in the course of the seventies, with the revelation of the abuses committed by the new Communist societies, she separated herself from the far left. In 1982, at a meeting at New York’s Town Hall to support Poland’s Solidarity movement, she gave an impromptu speech in which she said that Communism, all Communism, was fascism and that anyone who, in the preceding decades, had wanted to know what Communism was would have had a better chance of finding out the truth from the Reader’s Digest than from The Nation. That speech was met with fury both on the right—why had it taken her so long to wake up?—and, needless to say, on the left, where she was regarded as a deserter, and a comforter of the enemy. “I’m still digging my way out of the rubble,” she said in a 1984 interview.
Hopeful and energetic as always, she dug her way out. She moved from utopianism (“When you want to change everything, you’re forced to oppress”) to more modest commitments—Bosnia, human rights—and from a relativism that could forgive Communist regimes their little transitional problems to an absolutism requiring that all societies honor certain basic freedoms. She does not apologize for her change of heart. “If you ask me why didn’t I understand that any alternative to cutthroat capitalism and a society based on inequality and competitiveness not only wasn’t going to work but was going to turn into some horror, either of despotism or of economic catastrophe, all I can say is that lots of people didn’t understand this.” As for America, she seems to have made her peace with belonging to a privileged and bossy society—her point about Bosnia is that we should have intervened—and with the fact that she lives in a large penthouse in Chelsea, with excellent views, while others don’t. Western intellectuals, she told an interviewer in 1978, should “accept the fact that they’re part of the ruling class and use that as a basis for leading specific campaigns on real issues.”
As her political hopes crumbled in the seventies, so did her hopes for the new art. In her early essays, Sontag was very much the Jacobin: a fiery reformer, laying down the law. Classical assumptions—that there was a reality we all agreed on, that language was adequate to describe it, that stories had a beginning, middle, and end—were classical, not modern. American art had to be brought up to date, converted to formalism, to style over content, and, preferably, to a style that was transgressive or in some way distancing, to mark the distance between the modern mind and the world. But, Sontag says, “it never occurred to me that all the stuff I had cherished, and all the people I had cared about in my university education, could be dethroned. All that would happen is that you would set up an annex—you know, a playhouse—in which you could study these naughty new people, who challenged things. And you could have it all! Little did I know that the avant-garde transgressiveness of the sixties was to become absolutely institutionalized and that most of the gods of high culture would be dethroned and mocked.” She is worried, of course, that she might be seen as having contributed to this. In a recent essay, “Thirty Years Later,” which she wrote as the introduction to a new edition of “Against Interpretation,” she says that, if so, she was misunderstood:
To call for an “erotics of art” did not mean to disparage the role of the critical intellect. To laud work condescended to, then, as “popular” culture did not mean to conspire in the repudiation of high culture and its burden of seriousness, of depth. When I denounced . . . certain kinds of facile moralism, it was in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness. What I didn’t understand . . . was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large. . . . Now the very idea of the serious (and of the honorable) seems quaint, “unrealistic,” to most people.
We have entered a period of barbarism, she says.
Those were the outer forces—political disappointments, artistic failures—that sapped Sontag’s critical ambitions. But there were inner forces, too. The leading idea of “Against Interpretation” was its call for formalism, particularly in fiction, which to her at that time seemed America’s most out-of-date art form. But, she now says, what appealed to her about formalism was mostly just the idea of it. As for its application to the novel, the very thing she stumped for, she didn’t really like the models she held up: “I thought I liked William Burroughs and Nathalie Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet, but I didn’t. I actually didn’t.” In “Against Interpretation” you can sense her reservations. The most energetic essays in that book are not on fiction but on film. (The piece on Bresson is still, thirty-six years later, the best essay on him—moving, deep, judicious.) And it is telling that the writers she focussed on in her later criticism were not—or not primarily—novelists but thinkers, essayists: Artaud, Canetti, Barthes, Benjamin. And she went on writing about filmmakers: Bergman, Godard, Leni Riefenstahl, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.
Still, the idea of formalism haunted her. It seemed to her to represent, she says, “a certain fastidiousness.” There was a lot of bad art around. Why was it so bad? Because, she told herself, it focussed on content, not form. Eventually, however, that explanation failed her. A crucial experience was her infatuation with dance, and particularly with New York City Ballet, beginning in the sixties. “I remember, when I started going to see Balanchine’s work, I thought that what I loved in it was the austerity and the purity, the non-narrative quality. I loved ‘Agon,’ I loved ‘The Four Temperaments.’ Things such as ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ I merely tolerated. Also, I was very influenced by Lincoln Kirstein’s writing on Balanchine’s work, by his screwy Gurdjieffian take on it. Ballet, Balanchine—it was discipline, order, submission, formality. And I thought, Sure, that’s what I love. But you know, that wasn’t what I loved. I remember, in ‘La Valse,’ Joseph Duell putting his white-gloved hand in front of his face, and he did it in a certain way, and I used to feel stabbed through the heart. I would go and see ‘La Valse’ again and again, and I would wait for that moment. I would say to myself, ‘Is it going to happen again?’ And it did. And what is that about? I’m not sure, but it’s not about formalism. Formalism, I think, was a good ploy, a strategy for stripping away a lot of things. But it certainly isn’t an account of why these experiences are so transfiguring.”
Balanchine was only part of a larger conversion. In the seventies and eighties, Sontag says, she discovered in herself a need for intensity, as opposed to the deep cool, the control, of formalism. She found it not just in dance but in opera and in other things that were, as she puts it, “sort of stand-and-deliver—you know, ‘I love,’ ‘I hate,’ ‘I this,’ ‘I that.’ ” Her youth, she says, had been given over to a quest for the Truth. In an uncharacteristic psychoanalytic aside, she speculates that maybe this was the result of not knowing about her father’s death, of finding out that she had been barred from the truth. But no, she says, her absolutism was part of her temperament, and was encouraged by her childhood reading. “I remember when I first read Kant—I was fourteen or something—it made perfect sense to me that your behavior should be something that could be a model for everyone else. You shouldn’t do anything that wasn’t right.” Her early essays were written in that spirit. “I was involved in an immense self-mortification,” she says. “Those essays aren’t just austere”—I had remarked on their austerity—“they’re positively ascetic, as if I didn’t trust the sensuality of my imagination. I think I was afraid of getting lost. I just wanted to support things that were good, and that would be improving to people. I wanted to be useful and valuable, and that was natural to me, because I always had a moralistic frame of mind.” Now, as the passage on the garden smells shows, she is more likely to trust the sensuality of her imagination, to glory in the world.
Such fevers are not new to her, however. If, now, her realism is powered by intensity, her didacticism was pretty intense, too, as is often the case with didacticism. Whatever the rigors of her film analyses, they were forged in passion. At the movies, she always had to sit in the third row, center. (She still does. I have been to the movies with her, and I have neck problems as a result.) “It was about having the image very, very large and overwhelming,” she explains. “I wanted to be kidnapped.” And when, following her formalist nose, she found something that seemed to her exciting, everyone she knew had to experience it, too. “The things she made us go to!” the poet Richard Howard, a longtime friend of hers, says. “That Syberberg person—‘Our Hitler’? Seven hours! We call it ‘Her Hitler.’ ” According to Howard, she always worked in a lather: “I remember her writing those essays through the night, and listening to ‘Elektra,’ very loud, with those women screaming. When she was completely wrung out, she’d take a nap on the floor by the typewriter. Two hours—then she was up and at it again.” She often lost weight when she was writing. She couldn’t eat.
Sontag is an enthusiast. A conversation with her is what a conversation with Rousseau must have been like. Her eyes flash. She waves her arms. She has a million ideas, and feels that all of them are right. She does not know how she seems. She tells you she doesn’t like to talk about herself. (This after several hours of vivacious discussion of herself.) She says she loves to be corrected, and wonders why others don’t. She is very forthcoming with information on what a precocious child she was. But this is all part of the thrilling adventure that for sixty-seven years has been going on in her brain, and she is not about to suppress details. Also, she is still a Kantian, still trying to be a model, and seeking models. Whatever essays she now writes are mostly homages, as were her earlier essays, and the qualities she praises in her subjects are often her own qualities, or ones she aspires to. In her piece on Canetti, she speaks of his tendency to write homages: “So wholehearted is Canetti’s relation to the duty and pleasure of admiring others, so fastidious is his sense of the writer’s vocation, that humility—and pride—make him extremely self-involved in a characteristically impersonal way. He is preoccupied with being someone he can admire.” This is a good description of Sontag.
When she isn’t reminding me of Rousseau, she reminds me of Buster Keaton. There they both go, eyes straight ahead, utterly intent on what they’re trying to do—get the girl, understand Communism—and oblivious of the felled houses, the outraged constables that they leave in their wake. Sontag has a superlatively strong ego. She rarely responds to criticism. (Actually, she’s one of those writers who say they don’t read reviews: “I get my son to read them for me and just tel1 me thumbs up or thumbs down.”) She is undiscourageable. Who else, upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer, would sit down and write a book on the history of attitudes to cancer, the wrongness of any attitude that tends to stigmatize the patient, the rightness of going out and getting proper medical care? She cheered herself up, and helped others, and, not incidentally, survived, just as Keaton usually got the girl.
Now she has taken the energy of mind that she once brought to ideas and applied it to fiction, to the world. If Tolstoy, as Isaiah Berlin said, went from fox to hedgehog, she is trying to do the reverse, and loving every minute of it. “In America,” like “The Volcano Lover,” is a historical novel. It tells the story of Maryna Zalezowska, loosely based on Helena Modjeska, the famous Polish actress who emigrated to the United States with an entourage of friends in 1876. This choice of subject left Sontag with a lot of homework to do, on life in the eighteen-seventies in Kraków, New York, San Francisco, indeed Anaheim, where Modjeska and her companions tried to set up a utopian farming community. Sontag threw herself into the work. She read nineteenth-century agricultural manuals, old Baedekers, crumbling newspapers, anything she could lay her hands on. When Maryna’s friend Ryzsard, a novelist—he is based on Henryk Sienkiewicz, the author of “Quo Vadis”—makes the journey first, on the Germanic, the ship is described in close detail. (“I have a floor plan of that ship,” Sontag says. “I know everything about it. I know that the room where they smoked was the Smoke-Room, with a capital ‘S’ and a capital ‘R’ and a hyphen in between, and not the fumoir, as it was later called.”) When Ryzsard arrives in New York, we learn how Central Park, which opened in 1859, looked in 1876. (“Most of the trees are too young yet to give any shade,” Ryzsard complains.) When Maryna lands in America, she goes to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and tells us everything that was there: a replica of George Washington’s tomb, a huge statue of Iolanthe carved in butter, and also “this instrument for hearing at great distances, the telephone.” When she gets to San Francisco, we find out about the Chinese theatre (“The sun emerges, followed by a dragon, the dragon tries to swallow the sun, the sun resists”) and about how many pickpockets there were in the audience.
The world! Sontag loves it! She casts her mind back to the time when she was describing Maryna’s first extended stay in San Francisco. She put her in the Palace Hotel—it was the most sumptuous hotel—and she pictured her going up in the elevator. “But then I had to find out if the hotel had elevators, because the Otis elevator had just been introduced in 1876.” Then she found a contemporary description of the hotel, and it turned out that the Palace didn’t just have elevators—they were mirrored. “I said ‘Oh my God!’ I was happy for a whole day, just seeing mirrored elevators. It’s like you were manufacturing reality, but the reality was—real. You were responsible to what was actually there. You weren’t—I don’t know—it felt like an act of benevolence to actually, truthfully, describe, in a way that would be delicious to experience, how things were.” She quickly adds that none of the description is gratuitous. “I want these things constantly to be transfigured by someone’s attention, by what it means to them.” To Maryna, an actress, very aware of herself and of the impression she is making, a mirrored elevator would have a special significance: she can see herself, and see others looking at her. So the mirror develops character. “It’s not just a detail,” Sontag says. Still, one feels, somehow, that the mirror is above all a detail, a piece of reality, and for Sontag a precious one, because it multiplies reality, gives back to us the women’s gowns, the men’s beaver hats, the whole shining world.
Not surprisingly, Sontag finds fiction easier to produce than essays. She has always been a nervous writer. “Each time I write,” she says, “it’s like jumping into an icy lake.” The essays might go through ten or fifteen drafts: “I’d say to myself, ‘Is this true?’ And then I’d say, ‘No, it isn’t true,’ and I’d tear it up and start over.” But the fiction comes much faster. “On Photography,” less than two hundred pages long, took her nearly five years. “The Volcano Lover,” maybe three times as long, took two and a half years. In fiction, she says, about eighty per cent of it is there in the first draft.
But, whatever Sontag’s new embrace of reality, the person who wrote the essays is still in attendance, with the result that the realism of “In America” is overlaid with plenty of formalism. The narrative technique changes from chapter to chapter. At one point, we are getting the story from a diary kept by Maryna’s husband, Bogdan; at another, from Maryna’s letters; at another, when Maryna returns home on a visit, from a marathon quote (no paragraph break for eleven pages!) of her conversations with her family and friends. The book ends, like “The Volcano Lover,” with a long, passionate monologue, a stand-and-deliver—and by a person who, till then, had appeared only fleetingly, Maryna’s fellow-actor Edwin Booth. But that’s nothing. The book begins with the narrator, who Sontag says is a fictional creation, not Sontag—though, curiously, she seems to have married Philip Rieff, or someone very like him, and worked in war relief in Sarajevo in the nineteen-nineties—crashing a dinner party given for Maryna in Kraków in 1875. And as in “The Volcano Lover,” the narrator repeatedly breaks into the novel, giving us her thoughts on this and that, telling us that she, like Maryna, is of Polish ancestry (Sontag’s forebears emigrated to the United States from Poland) and that she, like Ryzsard, is a novelist, taking real-life events and turning them into a story.
So “In America” is endlessly self-aware. It is Sontag speaking, as she spoke to us all those years in the essays. Hence the book’s tone, bright, silvery, bracing—tinkling at times. We do not lose ourselves in Maryna; we hover a little above her. As a result, some people will say, as they said of “The Volcano Lover,” that Sontag is not really a novelist, that she is still an essayist. But what is wonderful about the book is exactly this counterpoint of novelist and essayist, of innocence and knowingness. From the knowingness comes another excellence of “In America,” its cat’s cradle of meanings. Of the novel’s main themes, one, as the title tells us, is crucial: America, something that Sontag has been writing about for a long time. Bogdan, the most thoughtful character in the book, admires the Americans’ hopefulness and confidence at the same time that he is bewildered by their lack of any tragic sense. “I am bred to a distinctively Polish appreciation of the nobility of failure,” he writes in his diary. Americans don’t know about this, he reasons, because they don’t know about history. Maryna ponders the same thing: “Absences: plush, relics, dimness, corridors, one’s own history.” In this country, she says, there is no nostalgia. The decline of that illness, a doctor friend of hers predicts, will give rise to a new one, “the inability to become attached to anything.”
Interestingly, however, it is Maryna, so thoroughly Old World, who turns out to be the perfect anti-sentimentalist, eager for success and a new life. Bogdan does O.K., too. He ends up not just with Maryna but with someone named Juan María as well. So the Europeans become very good Americans. And at the end of the novel it is Booth, the American—drunk, bloody-minded, haunted by his brother’s murder of Lincoln—who makes the case for tragedy, and tells Maryna how shallow she is.
Nor is the one position seen as bad and the other good. Again Sontag is saying, “This, yes. But also that.” And she says it the more firmly since the conflict in question subsumes the points she herself has been travelling between: content versus form, enjoyment versus “Kantianism.” In the book, that personal drama becomes a universal one. Yes, we all want to be deep. We want history—plush, relics. But we also want a little hope, and a good time, and a few more years. We honor the tragic sense of life, but we’d just as soon not be tragic ourselves. The world calls us, the more so as we are reminded that we will have to leave it some day. Sontag knows she’s sixty-seven, but she says she feels no different from the way she felt at thirty, and she thinks her best writing is ahead of her. She’s already planning her next novel: “It’s going to be set in Japan, in the present. I want to do a novel in the present. And it’s going to be short. A hundred and twenty pages, I figure. Have you been to Japan? No? I’ve been there maybe twelve times. Fascinating place.” The eyes widen, the arms wave, and she starts to tell me about it. ♦Published in the print edition of the March 6, 2000, issue.Joan Acocella has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. She is the author of, most recently, “Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints” and is at work on a biography of Mikhail Baryshnikov.
THE NEW YORKER