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The Remaking of Susan Sontag

The great tension in Sontag’s life lay in her enduring desire for reinvention.

Bob Peterson/Time Life/Getty

“I have always liked to pretend my body isn’t there,” Susan Sontag once wrote. But no matter how hard she tried, it never went away. She was stunningly inattentive to her physical self—surprised by her own menstrual cycles, shocked that childbirth was painful, often forgetful about showering or changing her clothes. “She was as uncomfortable with her body as she was serene about her mind,” observed her son, David Rieff. She had a fraught relationship to physical touch, and loathed massages because they reminded her of her alcoholic mother, whom she thought of as a self-indulgent “pig of pleasure.” For years, she took speed to mute her body’s demand for sleep, so that she could write straight through the night. “The little lamp was on for so many hours that it burnt the shade,” remembered the writer Sigrid Nunez. Even when she was dying of cancer, she grew indignant if anyone discovered her napping. She was horrified at the thought that anyone might find her slothful.

Ecco, 832 pp., $39.99

One of the many fascinating dimensions of Sontag, Benjamin Moser’s new biography, is its scrupulous attention to Sontag’s futile struggle to reconcile mind and body. Even at 700 pages, the book is utterly riveting and consistently insightful, in no small part because of its faithful attention to nuance. Describing the list Sontag made of all the people she had sex with between her first time (at 14) and her engagement (at 17)—36 people in total, a harbinger of decades to come—Moser recognizes the ways in which these sexual escapades were most obviously an attempt to turn herself straight (the sheet of paper was labeled “The Bi’s Progress”). But he is also aware of their deeper purpose: to help her inhabit her body more fully. “The most remarkable aspect of the list is the pedagogical mind-set its title reveals,” Moser wryly notes, attuned to the ways that even Sontag’s bodily exploits still ended up becoming something helplessly cerebral. Another attempted “orgy” with two male friends carried the “quality of a scientific expedition,” which defeated its very purpose: “Now her head was separate from her body once again.” 

Sontag’s fraught relationship with her body wasn’t simply about physicality; it was about her tormented relationship to need itself—her shame at having needs in the first place. At the age of 17, Sontag wrote that “sex has been a secret, silent, dark admission of affectional need, which must be forgotten when vertical.” Three years later, she wrote in her journal about confronting “the ‘real’ me, the lifeless one,” an interior self she called “Sue” and tried hard to escape, or at least discipline past recognition:

The one I flee, partly, in being with other people. The slug. The one that sleeps and when awake is continually hungry. The one that doesn’t like to bathe or swim and can’t dance. The one that goes to the movies. The one that bites her nails.

The possibility that all weakness could be hushed through sheer force of willpower was an imperative that Sontag suffered under for her entire life. She had to forget all affectional need. She had to pretend she never napped. It was ironic that Sontag, who argued strenuously against metaphoric understandings of bodily illness, would end up approaching bodily necessities and pleasures as metaphors for even deeper needs—for love and intimacy—and for the shame of being vulnerable, fallible, mortal.

Sontag’s flight from “Sue” was part of a larger project: not only to vanquish her own weakness, but to transcend the inner child who was forever waiting outside her alcoholic mother’s bedroom door, hungry for the attention she never fully received. One of her earliest lovers, Harriet Sohmers, described Sontag’s entire adult life—including her self-fashioning as one of the preeminent public intellectuals of her generation—as an attempt to kill off these insecurities: “Everything that came later is sort of a killing of that child that she was.”

Sontag reviewing costume designs for a production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1993
Paul Lowe/Panos Pictures/Redux

The struggle to reconcile mind and body is one of the structural dilemmas of literary biography itself: How can we make sense of the relationship between a famous mind and the life of its body? Moser is trying to tell the story of Sontag’s mind—in all its restless and passionate engagements—alongside the story of Sontag as a woman moving through time and space, heartbroken or pregnant, surprised by her period in the Hanoi airport, surprised by her first orgasm with a man, literally missing a roof over her head, after a fire damaged her West Village apartment.

The great ambition of Moser’s book is its willingness to organize itself around guiding ideas rather than simply the chronology of events. Or rather, all of these events illuminate the structuring tensions of Sontag’s life: between intimacy and distance, insecurity and authority, enthusiasm and judgment, metaphor and actuality, repetition and transcendence. Moser continually peels away the mythology of Sontag—as a single-name icon, like Cher or Madonna—to reveal the beating heart of a mortal woman underneath. The book takes this larger-than-life intellectual powerhouse—formidable, intimidating, often stubbornly impersonal in her work—and makes her life-size again, calling her back to the quotidian vulnerability of inhabiting an actual body, in all its desire and fragility.

In one fascinating thread, Moser suggests that the ideas in Sontag’s seminal essay “Against Interpretation” rose from wounds in some of her closest personal relationships. “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” she insists, calling for direct visceral engagement with art rather than an excessively cerebral determination to discover its buried meanings. But her argument becomes more poignant in the context that Moser supplies: the time when Sontag’s friend, the painter Paul Thek, once stopped her in the middle of an extended monologue, “Susan, stop, stop. I’m against interpretation. We don’t look at art when we interpret it.” In fact, Sontag had already been chided in this way; as Harriet Sohmers—who met Sontag’s youthful adoration with ambivalence, and even disdain—wrote of her in 1958: “Susan drives me mad with her long scholarly explanations of things one only needs the eyes and ears of someone like Irene to see.” Moser helps us understand that underneath the brash, strident voice of “Against Interpretation,” and its call for an “erotics of art,” was the insecurity of a young woman whose own tedious interpretations had been dismissed by her older lover countless times. When Sontag chided other critics for not looking correctly, she was also chiding the fragile young woman she’d once been, for being unable to see.

Sontag was deeply obsessed with the idea of reinvention. At the age of 38, she wrote: “I’m only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation.” Her phrasing suggests a deeply intentional endeavor, a project: the self not a condition one has to passively endure, but an artifact one could actively sculpt. (One senses, once again, the “pedagogical mind-set” that can turn even an orgy into a lab experiment.) Moser is sensitively attuned to the double-edged blade of Sontag’s obsession with self-transformation—how it was both the driving engine of her intellectual life and the painful core of her emotional existence. “Susan heaved from one enthusiasm to the next, a storm-tossed vessel calling in at every Port of Epiphany,” as one friend put it. But while this urge toward continual reinvention was a catalyst driving her intellectual voracity and her resistance to stasis, it was also a tyrannical voice telling her she needed to banish her inner child for good. The dark side of her continual remaking was the harshness with which she would disavow herself, and others by proxy: trying as a young woman to fellate her way into heterosexuality and—as an older writer—vehemently disowning her earlier work. She often returned to old diaries to write in the margins—to chastise her younger self, or argue with her conclusions. It was as if Sontag could only accept a version of herself that was turning on itself, a snake not consuming its own tail but perpetually trying to bite it off.

Moser’s biography tracks Sontag’s obsession with the “project of self-transformation” across the terrain of her life: from her father’s death in 1938 when she was five through a lonely childhood spent tending to the emotional needs of her alcoholic mother, or competing with her mother’s boyfriends for her attention; from her lonely junior high school days in Tucson, Arizona, to her departure for college at 16 and her engagement to one of her professors—the sociologist Philip Rieff—only a week after hearing him lecture for the first time. (“I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness,” she wrote in her diary.) At 19, she gave birth to their son David, and Moser pays unflinching attention to Sontag’s fraught and unconventional relationship to motherhood—her particular brand of distance and incestuous entanglement.

We watch Sontag credit the discovery of her authorial voice to her discovery of the orgasm, in her relationship with the artist Irene Fornés: “I feel for the first time the living possibility of being a writer,” she wrote in 1959. “The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of my ego.” We get the requisite gossip—her love affairs with Jasper Johns, Warren Beatty, and (for at least one night) Bobby Kennedy—as well as a subtle, searching portrait of her vexed long-term partnership with the legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz. We see her conflicted relationship to her own increasing fame, her despotic presence on the New York literary scene—one of the best anecdotes in the book is from a Manhattan psychiatrist who recalls the tremendous number of people who lay on his couch describing the ways they’d been hurt by her—and her eventual turn toward political engagement: her visits to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and her sustained time in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, including her staging of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in a besieged Sarajevo beset by sniper fire.

If the project of literary biography involves staging a conversation between the intellectual and personal plotlines of a life, one of the most moving illuminations of Moser’s book is that Sontag’s intellectual plotline—the evolution of her ideas—offers more traditionally recognizable progression and resolution than the narrative arc of her personal life. Moser frames her time in Sarajevo as the narrative culmination of her intellectual development, her sustained commitment bringing all her conceptual chords into a triumphant fugue: 

It was the place where the interests that Sontag had pursued throughout her life coincided. The political role, and the social duty, of the artist; the attempt to unite the aesthetic with the political, and her understanding that the aesthetic was political; the link between mind and body; the experience of power and powerlessness; the ways pain is inflicted, regarded, and represented; the ways images, language, and metaphor create—and distort—whatever people call reality: these questions were refracted, and then literally dramatized, during the nearly three years she spent coming and going from the worst place in the world. 

Sontag’s personal life offers no such swelling crescendo, no such confluence, no such resolution. Instead, it finds her stuck in recurring patterns dictated by the lingering emotional residue of her unhappy childhood: her dead father and her absent mother. In her romantic relationships, she finds herself playing the part of either the one who is perpetually neglected (in her passionate love for women who treated her cruelly) or else the one who cruelly disparages, as in her fascinating, boggling, sadistic but devoted relationship with Leibovitz, to whom she was notoriously belittling. As Moser observes: “if Annie was a hostage, so was Susan—of an irrational force that doomed her to act out, again and again, the same script, to fight, again and again, the same ‘little wars.’” Rieff notes a similar sense of claustrophobic repetition in his introduction to his mother’s diaries: “One of the most striking things to me reading her journals was the impression that, from youth to old age, my mother was fighting the same battles, both with the world and with herself.”

This lack of evolution—the absence of a neat narrative arc of growth or liberation—admits an even deeper truth, not just about Sontag’s life but about anyone’s: Every life involves reckoning with the same dilemmas over and over again. It’s a truth that emerges most clearly from what’s frustrating about the experience of reading biographies: Every life is structured by repetition. As Jean Rhys’s biographer, Carole Angier, once lamented: “her life really was just the same scene repeated over and over again.” We just keep having the same dilemmas and epiphanies. That stubborn constancy—the ways in which we are gripped by our tendencies, and our patterns—holds a truth far more uncomfortable than the tidy arcs of realization and redemption to which we often turn for solace.

Nowhere is the struggle between repetition and transformation more poignant than in Moser’s account of Sontag as a mother, especially in the ways Sontag re-created with her son many of the distances that wounded her as a child. “I hardly saw her,” Sontag said of her own mother. “She was always away.” And as Moser points out, Susan was often away as well: Only 19 when David was born, she ended up moving away from him before he was a year old, in order to live at the graduate student dormitories at the University of Connecticut, where she started a Ph.D. program in English literature. When he was five, she left him in the care of his father and a nanny to live in Europe for a year, and during her years as a single mother in Manhattan—after a bitter divorce and custody battle—she often dragged David with her to parties or “happenings” downtown, and let him fall asleep on coat piles.

But Moser refuses to rest easy on any simple portrait of Sontag as an inadequate or absent mother. His analysis is stubborn in its nuances. After noting how rarely David shows up in Sontag’s copious journals, for example, Moser quotes Sontag reflecting that this absence was in fact a sign of how “intensely real” David was to her—that he alone asserted his actual presence so forcefully that he didn’t become primarily a character in her mental life. Moser cites Sontag’s acquaintance Jamaica Kincaid acknowledging that Sontag had “no real instinct” for being a mother, but also Kincaid’s insistence that our prefab notions of motherhood don’t apply to her: “It’s not ruthlessness. It’s just Susan-ness. None of the words or the ways of characterizing her behavior really fit.” 

This is certainly true: The way Sontag was a mother doesn’t fit our familiar ideas about what it means to be a mother. Just as we get prepared to settle into certain satisfying grooves of indignation, her version of motherhood thwarts our judgment. Sontag was both withdrawn from her son and obsessed with him; she didn’t offer him constant presence or domestic stability, but she trusted him with her intellectual life once he was an adult—insisting that he become her editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux—and often treated him worshipfully, intent on winning his favor: “she could humiliate herself before David … apologizing, begging forgiveness,” as one friend noted, making her lover buy him expensive suits or cowboy boots. Many acquaintances felt that she was invested in framing herself and him as a kind of intellectual aristocracy, a reigning dyad; she was fond of calling him “the second-greatest mind of his generation.”

Moser’s portrait of Sontag’s motherhood—deftly conflicted, willing to hold contradiction—is emblematic of his approach to her whole life. He honors the ways in which her life was never just one thing at once. It was always multiple and contradictory, a collection of confounding simultaneities. Her motherhood wasn’t just about absence, it was also about smothering intimacy; it wasn’t just about choosing her work over her son, but about connecting the two spheres—making him her editor, sharing the cause and material of the Balkans; touting him as her intellectual heir apparent. Moser is constantly turning the easy verdict on its head. Sontag may have re-created the distances that damaged her as a child, but she also found an abiding sense of purpose in her son’s existence. Her motherhood was repetition and transformation at once. It participated in a cycle it also liberated her from. One of the most moving scenes in the entire biography is Sontag lying in a Seattle hospital bed—on the last of David’s birthdays she was alive for—recounting David’s birth story to her assistant, Karla. As Karla described it to David: “I don’t think Susan has ever done anything that made her happier than having you. She’s always said that you were the love of her life.”

We see other versions of this confounding, contradictory multiplicity in Sontag’s relationship with Leibovitz. “It was like a child and an abusive mother,” is how one of her assistants recalled the way Sontag berated Leibovitz, often calling her “stupid” or “dumb.” As Joan Acocella wrote in a profile for The New Yorker, “People couldn’t bear to be at dinner when she was with Annie because she was so sadistic, so insulting, so cruel.” But Moser’s book allows Leibovitz’s own words to complicate this horrifying vision of their relationship: “She was tough, but it all balanced out,” Leibovitz said. “The good things far outweigh the bad things. We had so many great experiences together.” Moser describes the money Leibovitz lavished on Sontag—one accountant estimated more than $8 million—but also lets Leibovitz explain why it felt so good to take care of her: “I wanted to make everything possible for her, whatever she needed. I felt like a person who is taking care of a great monument.” It’s a poignantly ironic statement embedded in a biography that’s essentially dismantling the monument to reveal the flawed woman lurking within.

Alongside his accounts of Sontag’s incredible advocacy for the Bosnian cause, Moser includes a delightful anecdote about how insufferable her self-righteousness could be. Walking through the manicured streets of Palo Alto with Terry Castle one afternoon, she asked Castle if she’d ever dodged sniper fire, then proceeded to mime what it was like, “dashing in a feverish crouch from one boutique doorway to the next, white tennis shoes a blur,” as Castle recalled, “all the way down the street to Restoration Hardware and the Baskin-Robbins.” Moser grants real estate to both her advocacy and her self-righteousness; his insistence is never on a single verdict—does the good outweigh the bad? the cruelty outweigh the love? the conscience outweigh the ego?—but on the importance of holding both truths at once.

When I say it’s difficult to read about Sontag as a mother without judging her, I should probably just confess that I judged her. I thought, I’d never move away from my daughter. Or if I did, I’d fill the pages of my diary with my feelings about her absence! I found myself almost taking pleasure in this judgment—like the pleasure of pushing on a bruise—and the ways it became a consolidation, a shoring-up of selfhood: I am not that. Even if I know intellectually that the charge of “bad mother” is one of the most effective tools in the arsenal of the patriarchy—a way it gets women to do its dirty work—I still found myself doing just that dirty work in my judgments of another woman.

Why did it feel good for me to judge Sontag as a mother? Perhaps it helped mitigate whatever envy I brought to the pages of her biography—as a female writer from the next generation, destined to live in her shadow? Maybe it felt good to entertain the notion that her motherhood had been a kind of blood sacrifice in service of her intellectual legacy? Sure, she was one of the defining voices of her generation, but at what price? There’s a toxic, tricky appeal in seeing a powerful woman compromised by her flaws: her selfishness, her failure to nurture.

At a certain point, I began to suspect that my own drama of righteous judgment and self-questioning—Sontag was a terrible mother! And then, Why am I invested in thinking Sontag was a terrible mother?—was part of a dynamic that Moser’s biography was deliberately inviting. It’s almost as if Moser baits his readers into judging Sontag, just so he can turn on them in the midst of those judgments to insist on a more complicated reality. Moser wanted me to judge Sontag, not only so he could undermine my judgments but also so he could explore the ways judgment was central to her intellectual life, and her impact on others. Judgment was at the core of her lifelong intellectual project, the engine of her voracious critical mind, but her very essence also invites it from others—from critics, from friends, from her biographer, from his readers.

The Sontag who emerges from the pages of Moser’s book is difficult to like: selfish and caustic, perpetually self-righteous because perpetually self-loathing. But rather than trying to elide these facets of Sontag’s personality—or the ways we might feel ourselves tempted to judge her—Moser explores them. He speculates that the pleasure many critics have taken in bashing Sontag’s fiction stems from the persistent desire to destabilize her authority. “The frequency with which the accusation is heard, as well as the obvious delight with which it is uttered, reflects a need to cut Sontag down to size: to humble a person who seemed so intimidating.” And Moser’s own fraught relationship to Sontag’s authority is the live wire electrifying his book.

Near the end of the biography, Moser turns his attention to a particular type of relationship that filled Sontag’s later years:

In her last years, Susan had a series of friendships that took a remarkably similar pattern. These friends were younger, sometimes much younger. They were usually gay or bisexual.… She would shower them with elaborate praise that was irresistibly flattering and desperately necessary.… During this honeymoon, they would see themselves becoming the person they had dreamt of being.… But then the recriminations began … what started as encouragement would devolve into bullying…. But they could not quickly loose themselves from Susan’s spell.… For many, she would remain, even long after her death, the most important relationship, the most dominant influence, in their lives.

As I kept reading, I began to suspect that this pattern held a particular resonance for Moser because it articulated some aspect of his own relationship to Sontag—a transition from worship to disillusionment, perhaps, or at least to a gaze that could hold both at once. Every biographer has a complicated love affair with his subject, and it seemed these friendships offered Moser a way to talk about his own vexed arc: moving from the rapture of worshipping Sontag to the sense of feeling betrayed by her imperfections, her cruelty, and her petty tyrannies.

It is a gift to his readers, however, that Moser’s biography was not trapped in the early stages of veneration, a posture that ends up flattening as fully as disdain itself. Rather than unequivocal veneration, we get more robust wrestling. Throughout the book, especially in its later chapters, I felt Moser struggling with Sontag: saddened by the toxic dynamics that saturated many of her personal relationships, but still awed by the force of her work. It creates a strange sense of suspense. The plot of the book is not just her life, or even her intellectual life, but the drama of her ambivalent biographer reckoning with both. 

Many of the most exciting moments in his biography are the ones in which Moser brings himself to argue with Sontag directly. After quoting her claim at the end of Regarding the Pain of Others that “[other people] can’t understand, can’t imagine” the brutality of war, Moser compares her assertion to “a deaf person’s refusing to admit the existence of the music he cannot hear himself.” He insists instead: “We can, in fact, imagine. We can understand…. Art and metaphor do not make other people’s experiences identical. They make other people’s experiences imaginable.” And in the very act of having this argument, Moser is proving the truth of one of his most succinct and acute arguments about the value of Sontag’s writing: “its greatness [resides] not in its perfection but in its fecundity: its ability to provoke other thinkers, and to spur them to formulate new ideas of their own.”

If the biographer’s relationship to his subject is always one of betrayal—revealing secrets, backseat-driving the life already lived—then Moser’s relationship to Sontag involves a particularly pointed version of that betrayal. By linking her intellectual preoccupations to her personal life, he exposes so much of what she spent her career obscuring: “the more personal the issue, the more energetically she strove to recast it intellectually.” With the exception of a few short autobiographical pieces, she notoriously kept her personal life out of her written work. In Illness as Metaphor, she wrote about cancer without disclosing her own prolonged experience with the disease; in AIDS and Its Metaphors, she wrote about the queer community without disclosing her own queerness.

In 1959, at the age of 26, Sontag wrote in a journal, “the only kind of writer I could be is one who exposes himself.” It’s a counterintuitive declaration of intent: Not only does it run counter to the writing she would spend the rest of her career producing, in which her personal experience remained deeply submerged, it also adopts a masculine pronoun to describe the kind of writer she wants to become. It’s as if exposure is only acceptable if it’s revealing a male voice. It suggests that perhaps Sontag’s urge to keep her personal body out of the body of her work—to withhold her cancerous body, her queer body, her frail and desiring and deeply human body—was not simply another attempt to kill off “Sue,” the weak and needy inner child, but an attempt to replace an unserious “female” voice (personal, confessional, emotional) with the authority of a “male” one (impersonal, clinical, intellectual).

By framing Sontag’s intellectual project within the landscape of her personal experience—bringing her cancer and her queerness and her fragility back into the picture—Moser is both accomplishing a version of the mind-body integration that Sontag craved, and also toppling the boundaries upon which she felt her authority depended. It’s a way of arguing against her understanding of her own authority, making the case that her rigorous eschewing of the personal often undermined her writing rather than granting it more rigor. Moser argues that AIDS and Its Metaphors suffers from its unwillingness to engage her own story, that it comes across as “thin, dainty, detached: forgettable because lacking the sense of what AIDS meant to my friends, my lovers, my body.” He argues that in its preference for metaphor (“the body”) over specificity (“my body”), the book “inadvertently illustrates the very thing it denounces. Its pages reveal how quickly metaphor can slide into obfuscation, abstraction, lying.” In supplying the personal narrative Sontag withheld, Moser’s biography is essentially following her call to replace metaphor with actuality. He is replacing the metaphor of Sontag—the impersonal narrator of her work, the self-curated public figure, and the cult of personality that grew around her—with the actual Sontag: in all her passion, her pretension, her cruelty, her generosity, her fallibility, and her intoxicating, demanding grace.

Moser honors Sontag’s intellectual legacy not just by arguing with her claims but by arguing with her mode—by wondering what additional layers of meaning her work might hold when it’s brought back into conversation with her personal experience. He argues with Sontag, and he wonders how she might have argued with him. In the last line of his book, he recalls that “she warned against the mystifications of photographs and portraits: including those of biographers.” These closing lines reminded me of Rieff’s introduction to his mother’s diaries, which he opens by saying, “I have always thought that one of the stupidest things the living say about the dead is the phrase, ‘so-and-so would have wanted it this way,’” and yet, Rieff still closes the introduction by hoping: “perhaps Susan Sontag the writer would have approved of what I’ve done.”

It’s a recurring trope in writing about Sontag: explicitly imagining how Sontag might have reacted. Rieff wonders what his mother would have thought of how he edited her journals. Moser wonders what she would have made of his biography. I wonder what she would have made of this review! We can’t write about her without wondering what she would think of it. We can’t get out of her shadow. We can’t shake the voice of her ghost.