Finding Susan

Daniel Schreiber’s "Susan Sontag," the first biography published since her death, offers an opportunity to reassess how we approach the last great public intellectual.

Susan Sontag by Daniel Schreiber. Northwestern University Press. 296 pages.

IF YOU READ ANYTHING about Susan Sontag written since her death in 2004, it won’t take long for you to stumble across the fact that she could be, as Terry Castle puts it in her agonizingly generous essay “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “weally weally mean!” Sontag’s arrogance, her condescension, her inhospitality — often, the earlier and more prominently these ad feminam excoriations figure in the review at hand, the less earnest the engagement with her work that follows. (One can’t help but notice that the niceness of her male peers is rarely considered so central to their legacy; the press hath no scorn like for a woman-fury.) Eventually, this preoccupation becomes more than a distraction — it becomes a crutch to excuse shallow inquiry into her work. That is not the problem with Daniel Schreiber’s Susan Sontag, first published in German and translated by David Dollenmayer, the first biography published since her death. It offers an opportunity to reassess how we approach the last great public intellectual.

And it’s not just its relation to the (anti-)cult of Sontag’s personality that makes Schreiber’s book significant. The range of her interests and her consideration of so many important 20th-century cultural developments mean this biography is sorely needed. Some of her writings — on film and pop culture, as well as photography — are now second nature to us, while others remain a challenge to our sensibilities; some have aged badly, others seem timeless. And Sontag’s continual, rapid development led to inconsistencies that make assessing her legacy even more complicated. As Schreiber notes, “Sontag wanted to be taken seriously by the public for her intellectual and artistic work, and at the same time be accepted as the person she considered herself to be at any given point in her development.” In other words, she was both a figure and a human being. And yes, sometimes a mean one.

The biography's 280 pages are concise and well organized, straightforward but not overly self-serious, presenting Sontag’s path with an even-handedness that is engaging but not exactly entertaining. As with anything, its merits are at once its failures. Halting, reserved, careful not to overreach, it is a balancing act perhaps too focused on balancing. Sontag, with her inclination to self-aggrandizement — which Schreiber has indulged as little as her detractor’s rancor — would surely have found it irritating. Many reviewers have rightly praised Schreiber for his sobriety and reserve; some have noted a detachment or coldness. A reviewer in Forward pilloried what he interpreted as Schreiber being “somewhat clueless about American literary and cultural values.” I would agree that part of Schreiber’s distance arises from the fact that an ocean and a couple of generations separate him from Sontag, but I believe that much of it is intended, or at least inevitable to writing the kind of biography that Schreiber intended to write; but more on that later.

The structure of the biography is chronological, with Sontag’s life divided into major phases — important because her work and interests shifted over time, and because she lived in the public eye for so long that she could not possibly have a single coherent public identity. And yet Schreiber manages to pull together a continuous figure, though at times the threads are rather taut. This passage, for example, which I find simultaneously vexing and appealing, with its simplistic (or appreciably simple?) logic and syntax, its condescending (or completely logical?) equation of the girl with the woman, its crass (or merely unexpected?) interpretation of Sontag’s behavior:

Even at a time when she was internationally famous in her own right, she still approached her models with an exaggerated respect. In a certain sense, she never lost the starstruck enthusiasm of the girl from California worshipping her cultural heroes. When she met the new wave director Robert Bresson at a film screening, for instance, she greeted him with an effusive “Cher maître!”

Was Sontag ever a starstruck girl from California? After her famed meeting with Thomas Mann as a teenager, she was disappointed he had not treated her as his equal — neither starstruck nor girlish. But there is something obsequious about her relationship to her “masters,” and yes, “worship” is the right word. Is the “California girl” trope a tiresome reduction, or after his research, is Schreiber capable of a more holistic and human view of Sontag than I am, one that recognizes the unity of her being? And for as unflattering as this aspect of Sontag’s character can seem, there is something sympathetic in Schreiber’s presentation of it, something nonjudgmental in the book’s even tone, which ranges from neutral curiosity to cordial professionalism to controlled critique — beige to beige to beige. But beige, as we’ll see, has its advantages.

In the fairest[1] and most comprehensive short overview of Sontag’s work available, Eliot Weinberger notes, “Most readers probably know a few bits about her life, as they do not of any other critic.” She was legitimately famous, an icon well beyond literary circles and the last true public intellectual in many senses. Staccato attempts to sum up Susan Sontag’s trajectory could be a genre of their own. And despite the genre's limits, it’s one at which I’ll now try my hand:

B. 1933; father’s death 1938; precocious adolescence; meeting at 14 with her idol Thomas Mann; enrollment at the University of Chicago at 16; completion of curriculum in two years; marriage at 17 to her professor; birth of son at 19; obsession with French culture; Against Interpretation, with its firecracker “Notes on Camp” and slow-burners “Against Interpretation” and “On Style”; “The white race is the cancer of human history”; Hanoi; filmmaking; cancer; On Photography; lllness as Metaphor; brilliant portraits of intellectuals she admired; communism as “fascism with a human face”; Annie Leibovitz; Godot in Sarajevo; the National Book Award; “Let’s grieve together, but let’s not be stupid together”; cancer; d. 2004.

Where does this life leave us in understanding her significance? In his book’s introduction, Schreiber points to her nonacademic but nonetheless exactingly intellectual approach as the key to her appeal. On Photography, perhaps her best and most original book, displays stunning breadth of knowledge that gives way to sudden precipitous interpretive depths and glinting aphoristic turns, ultimately eviscerating the entire medium as shallow, voyeuristic, easy, fashionable — except for her favorites, of course. Sontag sifted through piles of photographs on the floor of her office as she wrote the essay, and indeed the style of the piece enacts her acute attention shifting from one image to the next, hesitating, returning. Two other collections of essays, Against Interpretation and Under the Sign of Saturn, display her at the height of her abilities — her prose is chiseled, her passion for her subjects apparent, the movements of her mind fascinating. Her groundbreaking comparison of attitudes toward tuberculosis and cancer, Illness as Metaphor, is a tour de force of argument — or over-argument; as a New York Times review noted upon its publication, the moralistic attitude toward cancer decried in the book was perhaps not as prevalent as Sontag proclaimed, leaving her tilting — deftly — at windmills.

While many accounts of Sontag tend to focus alternately on her large personality or her large hair, actual engagement with her work often smolders in polemics or finds itself repeating what Sontag said better (which, as has long been noted, is often a more accessible condensation of what continental European philosophers said earlier and perhaps worse). The best responses, on the other hand, excavate the inconsistencies that Sontag’s aggressive argumentation sometimes bulldozed. Schreiber is a chronicler and not an interpreter of these exchanges, generally presenting the main reactions to Sontag’s work with commentary, but without really synthesizing new readings.

What makes Sontag’s legacy so difficult to assess is certainly not her not-niceness — it’s the fact that she wished her genius took another form than it actually did, and this is what also makes her, in some ways, a tragic figure. Throughout her life, her great goal was to be a great novelist.[2] Instead she wrote great essays. And even of these, the ones closest to her heart were not always the ones for which she received the most recognition. But what recognition!

Schreiber’s Susan Sontag focuses on this fame, on its subject as a public figure. What we get is a sort of concept of Sontag, a sketch of the life she lived in context. The book’s particular strength lies in examining the seams where Sontag’s personal and public lives meet — it is a biography from the outside, but not far outside. Above all, it is lucid, respectful, considered. At times, Schreiber’s approach is nearly timid, a summary of shifting allegiances, tentative estimations of her work — it could have been subtitled Against Interpretation. Our windfall from this approach, though, is precisely in the extended suspension of judgment that Schreiber so cautiously preserves. Ambivalence is a gift. Ambivalence is a space that is normally denied to us in public discourse, one in which our thoughts can have time to develop. This biography will not make you understand Sontag, but it will create a framework for you to develop a fuller understanding; the only portrait that is not polemic is one of ambivalence, and Sontag’s divisive nature means that we need desperately this.

If you would like to get to know the woman more personally, there is no shortage of sources. The best are her own writings; she led a true (and truly rare) life of the mind, and in some ways to read her essays is to accompany her in the moments when she lived most fully. It is often remarked that in her portraits of her idols, what she wrote could have been taken as a description of herself. In this sense, Under the Sign of Saturn may be the best Susan Sontag biography ever written. (“Convinced that the will is weak, the melancholic may make extravagant efforts to develop it. If these efforts are successful, the resulting hypertrophy of will usually takes the form of a compulsive devotion to work,” she muses and practically self-analyzes in the title essay on Benjamin.) Her great book with the most obviously biographical genesis, Illness as Metaphor, astoundingly makes no mention of her own battle with cancer.

Then there are the personal accounts, full of anecdotes, frequently unflattering but also warm or comic. These are best kept in a stack next to the couch and leafed through at random, or perhaps paired with an essay of the same period: Sontag’s own diaries, her son David Rieff’s memoir Swimming in a Sea of Death, his once-girlfriend Sigrid Nunez’s often uncomfortable Sempre Susan, Castle’s “Desperately Seeking Susan.” And if you are a researcher, you can now access the Sontag digital archives in the UCLA Library’s special collections, and view the contents of two hard drives from her computers in the late ’90s and early 2000s, providing more ancillary personal documentation of Sontag’s life than all of the gossip, intimate scenes, caricatures, exposés, and interviews published in the past fifty years.

The great value of a biography like Schreiber’s is in the order it imposes on a life lived so rapidly, frenetically, voraciously that it is difficult to hold its individual strands together even if materials exist supporting each one. As the first biography published after her death (and the only one to approach her life with balance), it is a new opportunity to “make sense” of her. Sontag read as if her life depended on it, had plans to write stacks of books and actually did write a small pile of them, saw more than one film a day if she had the chance, dabbled in filmmaking though she did not consider it dabbling, knew everyone and cycled through friends rapidly, procrastinated, lied, was addicted to amphetamines for decades to increase her productivity, traveled widely, engaged with the political, was famously guarded about her sexuality, famously aloof from feminist movements of her time, and was, simply, famous. Each of these valence’s relative potency vacillates depending on the angle from which Sontag’s life is viewed, and never can they be separated. Levelheaded biographies like Schreiber’s help orient us in this brilliant excess.

Susan Sontag first appeared in German, and the translation is straightforward, with a classic feel. The German subtitle was “Intellect and Glamor” (“Geist und Glamour”), and one imagines it was perhaps written with a simplicity also suitable for those more familiar with Sontag’s Glamour than with her Geist. (Though far be it from me to complain that a prose style is not convoluted enough!) English readers may puzzle over the substantial ink devoted to Sontag winning the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade — fortunately it comes at a particularly uninspiring point in Sontag’s career, a bit of good news amid declining literary production.

Terry Castle ends “Desperately Seeking Susan” with the entreaty to “judge her by her best work, not her worst,” which is sensible advice for approaching any legacy. But the most challenging advice for us at the moment may come from Sontag herself, on Benjamin: “One cannot use the life to interpret the work. But one can use the work to interpret the life.” That may be the best way to read Schreiber’s biography — after having taken another look at her best work.


[1] Even Weinberger at times falls prey to the Sontag-as-Mean-Lady trope, in this case trotting out the specter of the Lady Who Hates Children. He criticizes her pessimism about contemporary tastes and art, and her belief that we no longer produce great works, “even our children — though it is unlikely Sontag talked to many …” Let us remember that Sontag was a single parent, one who endured a vicious public court battle focused around her sexuality in order to keep custody of her son. And that at the time she wrote the essay Weinberger criticizes, Annie Leibovitz’s daughter would have been three.

[2] It’s worth noting that Sontag’s novel In America was awarded the National Book Award — to everyone’s surprise, not least her own. And that FSG publisher Roger Straus believed in the genius of her difficult early novels. The French authors who served as the inspiration for much of her production could not be less fashionable today. Perhaps history will be kinder to her fiction than we are able to be.


Amanda DeMarco is the founder of Readux Books.

LARB Contributor

Amanda DeMarco is a translator of German and French literature and philosophy.

Photo: Anastasia Muna.


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