The Struggle to Feel: On Benjamin Moser’s “Sontag: Her Life and Work”

By Robert MintoSeptember 17, 2019

The Struggle to Feel: On Benjamin Moser’s “Sontag: Her Life and Work”

Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser

“I DON’T KNOW what my real feelings are,” wrote Susan Sontag in one of her journals, “so I look to other people (the other person) to tell me.” This confession might seem surprising, coming as it does from one of the most famous critics of the 20th century. Sontag embodies the ideal — as Benjamin Moser puts it — of “the woman who went to every opening and saw every opera and read every book.” Why did she spend her life thinking and writing about cultural artifacts, if she wasn’t even sure how she felt about them?

Moser is both informative and disappointing on Sontag’s struggle to feel. He doesn’t see it — as I do, even more so after reading his biography — as the fruitful source of her greatest essays. To him, it is a pathology of her personality. He believes it stemmed from a lack of empathy and stunted her as a writer, a lover, a mother, and a friend. He is persuasive and illuminating about the origins of Sontag’s struggle to feel, but curiously dismissive of what it enabled her to say.


According to Moser, what Sontag became she owed to the traumas of her youth — first and foremost, to those stemming from her mother’s alcoholism. Sontag was “almost to the point of caricature,” writes Moser, “the adult child of an alcoholic.”

Susan lived “in constant terror that [her mother] would withdraw suddenly and arbitrarily.” […] In the house she grew up in, love was not given unconditionally. Instead, it was extended temporarily, only to be dropped at will: a winnerless game whose rules the girl learned far too well.

The second trauma was a result of Sontag’s sexual orientation. In high school and college, Sontag was made to feel that she should try to change herself, to learn to enjoy sleeping with men. She tried to do that but found, of course, that it’s not possible to change your desires on command, just because others think you should. The effort seems to have left her with an abiding sense of shame. “[H]er lifelong frustration with her inability to think her way out of the reality of [her lesbianism],” writes Moser, “led to an inability to be honest about it — either in public, long after homosexuality ceased to be a matter of scandal, or in private, with many of those closest to her.” Moser puts an exorbitant explanatory weight on this double diagnosis, arguing that her mother’s alcoholism and her own shame about lesbianism somehow made Sontag a “sadomasochist” — a word he uses often, in a psychopathological rather than sexual sense — unable to participate in close relationships without groveling or dominating, continuously engaged in struggles for power. Sontag became, according to Moser, someone driven feverishly to transform and improve herself, but also curiously detached from her own body and her simple reactions to things.

This powder keg of a personality was detonated by books. “A happier child,” says Moser, “might never have become such an accomplished reader.” One book in particular determined her course in life: Jack London’s Martin Eden. The novel chronicles a rough and uneducated sailor’s transformation into a successful writer through autodidactic study. Sontag wrote: “There is not an idea in Martin Eden about which I do not have a strong conviction, and many of my conceptions were formed under the direct stimulus of this novel.” The book gave Sontag a goal and a map. She could escape into a better and more serious world. She could become a person deserving of respect and love, by means of reading and writing.

And that’s what she did. She escaped as soon as she could (she graduated from high school at 15) first to Berkeley and then to the University of Chicago. Then her flight met its one and only interruption. At just 17 years old, she married one of her college instructors, Philip Rieff. They remained married for the next eight years and had a son, David — but those years were not good years for Sontag. Rieff was an exploitative partner. Early in their relationship Sontag was ghostwriting academic book reviews for him, and Moser convincingly shows that she probably did most of the work (without acknowledgment) on what became Rieff’s major academic publication, the influential monograph Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959). Reprieve from this stifling relationship came in 1957, when Sontag received an opportunity to escape again, this time in the form of a one-year fellowship at Oxford. She took it, and left for England without husband or son. She would return to her son before long, but not to her husband.


It is at this point in Moser’s narration of Sontag’s life that his tone takes a turn for the sour. I had already been surprised by a prosecutorial tendency in several asides about her childhood; for example, he glossed an occasion when she ran away from a horrible summer camp, shortly after her father died, as “the first recorded instance of Susan’s flair for publicity” — an oddly judgmental take on a troubled child. But now, as Sontag resumes her flight toward freedom, Moser begins to quote judgmental observations from Sontag’s acquaintances, building an indirect case against her. Here he describes her decision to go to Europe alone:

[P]ositive self-creation could sometimes shade into solipsism. She had left her son behind, and “talked as if she missed him,” Bernard [O’Donoghue] said. “She clearly felt she was paying the price. I felt she wasn’t adequately aware of any price the son might perhaps be paying.”

Breezy speculation by means of quotation seems an odd way to get at biographical truth, which might be closer to this: Sontag was fleeing an exploitative relationship that, moreover, amounted to an imprisoning lie about her own sexuality. In Europe, she found herself in the first of her adult lesbian relationships and came to realize she needed to divorce Philip, with whom she subsequently fought a bruising legal battle for custody of their son. When she had freed herself from the ill-fitting confines of her marriage, she resumed mothering to the best of her ability. Glossing this difficult passage in Sontag’s life with a scornful quotation is not a very empathetic method of biography — surprising from a biographer who spends so much time emphasizing the importance of empathy, which Sontag supposedly lacked. It is the pattern for the prosecution to follow, however, in which Moser seems to seize every opportunity to add a shadow to his Dorian Gray’s portrait of Sontag, even in ways that might reflect badly on himself. The biography, from this point on, felt to me like a gathering storm of judgment and scandalmongering, a clamor of mean voices from the sidelines of Sontag’s life, to which her career and writings were, at best, a subplot.


Perhaps the most vivid life-writing is always built out of strong emotion. The work that made Moser’s name, a biography of Clarice Lispector entitled Why This World, is a labor of love (though not, it seems, entirely his own labor). And this biography of Susan Sontag is just as clearly a labor of disdain. Before asking what this means for the book, it’s worth itemizing the main points of Moser’s case against Sontag, the scuttlebutt that will surely make the book’s publication a splash.

In the first place, Moser suggests that Sontag’s fame — which arrived suddenly and came to stay, a few years after she divorced Rieff, when the Partisan Review ran her essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” in 1964 — was undeserved and artificial. He seems to think her best book is the one for which she didn’t receive credit — the scholarly monograph on Freud she either co-wrote with or ghost-wrote for Rieff — and that most of the things for which she is famous don’t amount to much. (I should note that he makes an exception in his blanket disapproval for the novel, The Volcano Lover, a few short stories, and the odd essay.) Of Sontag’s essay “Mind as Passion,” about Elias Canetti, Moser writes that it “is so autobiographical as almost not even to be about its purported subject.” This is a favorite claim, which he also makes about her essays on Walter Benjamin, Diane Arbus, Antonin Artaud, and Jean-Paul Sartre. He accuses her of using her work as a canvas for self-revelation and personal therapy, writing about others in a way that amounts to little but self-projection, and doing so in terms so absolute and unargued that they amount to an assertion of personality rather than a critical discourse. To what does she owe her fame then? As Moser tells it, to canny publicity and the steady support of various prominent people, such as her publisher Roger Straus, whom Moser makes sure we know she purportedly slept with.

Second, Moser condemns not just the provenance of Sontag’s fame, but how she chose to use it. “Inauthenticity,” he writes, “was the price Sontag paid for maintaining her cultural centrality.” She was for a long time unwilling to be known publicly as a lesbian. She also disliked being classed as a feminist, despite occasionally writing strongly feminist essays. In Moser’s view, the reason was simply self-marketing. Defending her communities would have narrowed her demographic: “To be known as a feminist, much less a lesbian, would have pushed her to the margins.”

An interesting counterbalance to Moser’s discussion of Sontag’s relation to feminism can be found in Michelle Dean’s recent book, Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, which recounts the lives of several 20th-century women, including Sontag, Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, and Hannah Arendt, who were known for the respect and fear they instilled as cultural arbiters and avoided being identified too closely with feminism. There is more complexity and nuance to this phenomenon in intellectual history than the idea, put forward by Moser, that feminism was bad for one’s brand.

Third, Moser unloads a container-ship’s worth of sometimes overt and sometimes insinuated criticisms of Sontag’s personal life. She was a bad mother who neglected her son in the pursuit of a career and social life. And later: She was a bad mother who overburdened her son with expectations he couldn’t live up to and an excess of friendship as if he were a peer rather than her progeny. She was a bad lover, either fawning or dominating in equally unpleasant ways. The most scrutinized relationship in Moser’s book is Sontag’s romance with the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Leibovitz even has an entire chapter devoted just to her life before Sontag, which is true of no other person in the book. Toward the end of Sontag’s life, Leibovitz financially supported her, even while enduring frequent public verbal abuse from the by-then ill and aging eminence. (Leibovitz is quoted insisting that her relationship with Sontag was a source of enrichment and fulfillment, but Moser chooses to de-emphasize her own account, instead highlighting the horrified outside perceptions of various acquaintances.) As Sontag’s fame grew, she even became a bad casual acquaintance, acting out arrogance, reacting badly to petty slights, and often snubbing her admirers.

What it all boils down to, for Moser, is that Sontag was a solipsist. One of his favorite, oft-repeated, pieces of evidence for this essential solipsism is the fact that Sontag’s journals are mostly about herself: “In her journals, she was unsparing with herself — but the focus was always on herself.” (Upon whom do Moser’s journals focus, one has to wonder?) This supposed solipsism resulted in an inability to empathize, which expressed itself in her personal relationships as well as in her inability to follow metaphors and know her own feelings about art.

Despite my dislike for the tenor of the biography, it is difficult to come away from these 700 pages without feeling that Sontag is, indeed, diminished by them. Moser’s prosecution is more or less successful. What he says about Sontag’s essays is also true of his case against her: “[E]xample is piled upon example, quote upon quote, making it difficult for the reader to reach any conclusion other than” his own. Even great admirers of Sontag’s writings, like myself, will find their feelings toward the author grow complicated. To that degree, the book does what a biography ought to do: it enriches our understanding of its subject. But the book is also a great disappointment. Not primarily because of the prosecutorial negativity I have described — after all, many great literary biographies are full of prosecutorial negativity — but because the author evidently became so absorbed in the task of unmasking Sontag that he failed to take the opportunity of access to Sontag’s archives and acquaintances to shed light on the reason that I, at least, care to read a biography of Susan Sontag at all: her work.


In 1980, the writer Joyce Carol Oates befriended Sontag. Oates was — and is — a prodigiously hard-working writer, producing a torrent of novels, stories, essays, and poetry, while managing an entire second career as a busy university professor. She is not, in other words, a person to be easily impressed by someone else’s work habits. But when Oates visited Sontag’s New York apartment, she was blown away by the evidence of how hard Sontag worked. “I saw, on a sofa in Susan’s attractive study,” Oates wrote later, in her journal, “some 250–300 pages of early drafts of her essay on ‘Our Hitler.’ It would be difficult to believe if one hadn’t actually seen it: so many pages, heavily annotated and marked, to be channeled finally into a 30-page essay!”

I feel I learned more about the work life of Susan Sontag from Oates’s passing anecdote than from the entire biography Benjamin Moser has devoted to her. It’s not that Moser ignores Sontag’s writings. On the contrary, he summarizes and delivers his opinion on most of them. There is a reasonably interesting critical essay on Sontag’s texts interlarded among the meticulous scandalmongering. But what is missing is the very thing one looks for in the biography of a thinker or writer: not literary criticism, but the point of connection between the body of texts for which the subject is known and their life as a real, physical, historical person. That point of connection is labor, and the biographer touches it by describing how a person worked.

Moser tells us that Sontag worked too hard, disliked sleep, and used amphetamines, but like so much else in the book these details give the impression of having been selected for their role in a prosecution rather than for their potential to illuminate. Surely there is more a person as observant as Moser might have gathered about the true and arduous center of Sontag’s life? A vast proportion of her time must have been taken up by the appreciation of art and the production of sentences, but we see almost none of that. The Sontag who worked is invisible, displaced by the Sontag who networked, who flirted, who dined, who traveled, who parented or neglected to parent, who conspicuously consumed, who conversed, who dominated, who impressed or disappointed: Sontag as seen by others, not Sontag as recovered from the material remains of her work. This is especially disappointing because Moser had unique access to prodigious sources that might have given him exactly the sort of insight I crave: more than 100 volumes of her journals (out of which a paltry two volumes have been culled and published by her son), as well as, interestingly, her full email archives.

In 2014, Moser wrote an article about these archives for The New Yorker. It stoked my eagerness to read his biography, which I have been looking forward to ever since. I was hoping for things like this (from the article):

You can see, in the handwriting, as never in a typed letter, how feverishly Sontag, given what looked like a death sentence when she was barely forty, sketched out the meditations on cancer that would become “Illness as Metaphor,” and how carefully, between those same pages, she guarded the prescriptions her doctor in Paris wrote for a course of chemotherapy then unthinkable in the United States. She could not, when she was writing the book, know that the lists of medicines scrawled on these pages would save her life.

When Moser was putting together this biography, where was the observer of Sontag-at-work who wrote that paragraph for The New Yorker? I wish he had showed up.


Perhaps Moser’s biography is weak on Sontag the worker because Moser has concluded that a worker is not what she primarily was. To him, she was a celebrity in the guise of a writer. “Sontag’s real importance,” he says, “increasingly lay in what she represented.” And later: “What mattered about Susan Sontag was what she symbolized.” For Moser, as I stated earlier, she is an image, an idea — “the idea of the woman who went to every opening and saw every opera and read every book.” To justify this reductive vision of his subject, Moser argues that Sontag’s own fundamental intellectual interest lay in “the dangers of subsuming the individual into the representation of the individual, of preferring the image to the person it showed.” It almost seems as if, by discussing so often how much this concern mattered to Sontag, Moser thinks it’s fine to make his biography an example of the very thing she feared. I was amused by the book’s final line: Sontag “warned against the mystifications of photographs and portraits: including those of biographers.” Indeed.

What Sontag did — and I am grateful to Moser’s biography for making this clear to me — was transform the uncertain and tentative nature of her engagement with a world of culture into a diffuse yet penetrating analysis of how and why we look at art, read books, listen to music, and so on. She transformed her struggle to feel into a study of feeling. The masterpieces of this lifelong study are essays like “Against Interpretation,” and monographs like On Photography and Illness as Metaphor. What she says in the foreword to her first essay collection — that she is not so much a critic discussing certain works, but someone exploring a range of problems suggested by her experience of these works — is true of her entire body of writing. The luminous thread of this line of thinking peeked out of Moser’s biography, almost despite the author.

I noticed it first in Moser’s account of the relationships Sontag had with two women — Harriet and Irene — whom she met when she was in Europe in flight from her marriage. At the time, Sontag had trouble articulating a direct response to art:

The suggestion that Susan was insensitive to art, surprising as it may seem, was widely echoed. […] Merrill Rodin had noted her great capacity to be moved by music. But — perhaps as a result of her equally great insecurity — she had developed a tendency to bury emotional reactions under a blizzard of pedantry. “Susan drives me mad,” Harriet wrote in April 1958, “with her long scholarly explanations of things one only needs the eyes and ears of someone like Irene to see.”


Susan had grown up “trying both to see and not to see” [her mother’s alcoholism and her own lesbianism], and seeing, for her, would always be an effort. But precisely because it did not come naturally, she was forced to reflect on it as someone to whom it came without effort did not.

This is exactly right, and probably accounts for some of the power in Sontag’s writings. (Moser, of course, immediately takes his insight in another, negative direction: “The effort is palpable in her often-belabored early prose.”) Over the course of her books, Sontag gradually developed her interest in the struggle to feel — most clearly expressed in the famous line, “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” — into the ethical imperative to see clearly. Both her suspicion of the photographic image in On Photography and her critique of the mystification and demonization of cancer in Illness as Metaphor elevate the personal and aesthetic concern for directness of experience into outward-looking reflections on how we deceive ourselves and what that means for how we live.


Near the end of his book, Moser connects his insight about Sontag’s intellectual mission to his prosecution of her as a person. He is discussing Sontag’s insistence in Regarding the Pain of Others that portrayals of genocide and war mislead us into thinking we have understood what it is like to witness them. “If nothing can be understood or imagined without firsthand experience,” writes Moser, “why represent experience at all? […] One need not become another person, or to have had exactly the same experiences, in order to imagine that person’s life — which is why the foundation of metaphor is empathy.”

This last assertion is, I think, the logical culmination of his assault on Sontag as a person and thinker. Having previously summed up her life’s work as a kind of attack on metaphor and her personal life as an expression of unempathetic solipsism, he now links metaphor to empathy, implying that Sontag never understood metaphor because she never managed to empathize. But the elegance of this summation might hide the fact that it’s a rather puzzling claim. Why is “the foundation of metaphor” empathy? There is an alternative way to relate Sontag’s personal troubles to her body of work. What if she was right — and prophetic — about the gap between representation and reality, and her own sense of disconnection from herself, her struggle to feel, gave her the ability to see this gap with unusual clarity?

I wonder if a biographer who had made the same connection Moser makes, but had also truly admired her work, would have taken better advantage of the resources of her archive. For now, this is the biography we have. Unlike Susan Sontag, Benjamin Moser knew exactly how he felt — and it shows.


Robert Minto is an essayist, writer of speculative fiction, and nomadic traveler.

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Robert Minto is an essayist and storyteller. His complete bibliography and his monthly newsletter about reading can both be found at


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