Benjamin Moser, Sontag: Her Life and Work

Sontag: Her Life and WorkSontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Who could begin an essay like Susan Sontag? “Great writers are either husbands or lovers,” starts her piece on Camus; of Simone Weil, she announces, “The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois.” Or take On Photography‘s first sentence: “Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” With Sontag, we open in blinding clarity, we are present for the handing down of the law: she is the Milton, the Tolstoy of culture criticism.

“Thinking Against Oneself,” her introduction to the beguilingly morose Franco-Romanian essayist and aphorist E. M. Cioran, begins with a panoramic history of modern philosophy, a survey of the post-Hegelian ruins:

Ours is a time in which every intellectual or artistic or moral event is absorbed by a predatory embrace of consciousness: historicizing. Any statement or act can be assessed as a necessarily transient “development” or, on a lower level, belittled as mere “fashion.” The human mind possesses now, almost as second nature, a perspective on its own achievements that fatally undermines their value and their claim to truth. For over a century, this historicizing perspective has occupied the very heart of our ability to understand anything at all. Perhaps once a marginal tic of consciousness, it’s now a gigantic, uncontrollable gesture—the gesture whereby man indefatigably patronizes himself.

In other words, we now have causal narratives about how one or another idea came to be taken as a metaphysical truth, but we no longer have metaphysical truths themselves. All that remains is only the anti-metaphysical proposition that history alone can explain phenomena, thus dismissing the transcendent in the name of the immanent.

For Cioran himself, the dominance in literary modernity of the novel, with its incorrigible secularity and emphasis on individual and society over matters of the spirit, is the chief symptom of this historicism. He complains in the collection Sontag introduced, The Temptation to Exist, that, “The novelist, whose art consists of auscultation and apocrypha, transforms our reticence into gossip columns.” If this is true of the novel, isn’t it still truer of the novel’s twin, the biography, which seeks the source of its subject’s work in its subject’s life, and nowadays seeks the source of that life in personal psychopathology?

Benjamin Moser does nothing to disprove this charge in his mammoth, much-discussed, and pruriently addictive biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work. He gives us not only Sontag’s thought and art, but also her friends and especially her lovers. In the latter category we find Jasper Johns, Warren Beatty, Roger Straus, and Joseph Brodsky, along with Rothschild heiresses and Italian countesses and, more famously, Annie Leibovitz—and Bobby Kennedy too, though it’s odd that Richard Howard, the translator of Cioran’s aforementioned The Temptation to Exist, is Moser’s sole credited source for this sensationalist claim. We also find Sontag’s husband of almost 10 years, Philip Rieff, portrayed as a Casaubon/Bluebeard who not only imprisoned his lively, free-spirited, and very young wife for a decade within a scholarly folie à deux but also took credit for her intellectual work.

The convention, when reviewing a biography, is to recount the life of the subject oneself, and to trick out one’s own summary with quotes from the biographer. I am going to pass on this task, since every prior review of this book has undertaken it (see Merve Emre’s for a good example, even if Emre patronizes Sontag more even than Moser does—as someone “intriguing…less [for] who she was than how we understand our desire for her”). Instead, I will give the broad ideological outline of Moser’s Sontag—a digest not of his book’s narrative, but of its thesis.

For Moser, Sontag’s entire life was determined by her relationship with her mother, Mildred, a glamorous alcoholic widow who capriciously gave and withheld love to young Susan. In response to Mildred’s alcoholism, Sontag became a precocious perfectionist; in response to Mildred’s faux glamor, Sontag became obsessed with the difference between appearance (metaphor, interpretation) and reality; in response to Mildred’s alternation of love and lovelessness, Sontag became a difficult lover herself, a lover of alternately sadistic and masochistic tendencies.

Moser sees much of Sontag’s most famous work as a screen for these mother-borne mental pathogens: she was “against interpretation,” and then against photography, and then against metaphor, and above all she was sexually in the closet, because she was both reprising and rebelling against Mildred’s status as, to quote the first chapter’s title, “the Queen of Denial.” The familiar paradox that Sontag began her career sounding like Oscar Wilde and ended it sounding like Matthew Arnold is explained (or explained away) as the mood swing of a disordered personality caught between extremes of defiance and shame.

Moser makes a case, against Sontag’s “against,” for interpretation, for metaphor; he argues that they do not replace or evade reality but rather make us more alert to the real. He puts this theory into practice ably in the biographical form, which is nothing but a long interpretation of its subject’s inner life. Quarreling with Sontag’s assertion, in her final book, that those who haven’t experienced war “can’t understand, can’t imagine” it, her last statement of the “against interpretation” thesis, he bristles:

The point of artistic representation is not to make the reader’s experience identical to the artist’s. The point of representation is to allow the reader or the viewer to enter another person’s experience. We can, in fact, imagine. We can understand. […] One need not become another person, or to have had exactly the same experience, in order to imagine that person’s life—which is why the foundation of metaphor is empathy. Art and metaphor do not make other people’s experiences identical. They make other people’s experiences imaginable. (Moser’s italics.)

Moser accordingly grades Sontag based on her own empathetic proximity to what he takes to be the real. For instance, he judges her political radicalism of the 1960s (“[t]he white race is the cancer of human history”) to have exhibited merely high-handed alienation from ground-level American realities combined with an intellectual credulity toward communism. He lauds her later reversal, which infuriated her leftist colleagues and comrades, when she concluded in 1982 that communism was “fascism with a human face,” and he similarly praises her 1990s activism in Bosnia, where she staged Waiting for Godot, as a risky investment in an actual human dilemma, however it might also have been motivated by self-aggrandizement. (He does not mention that she herself, to her credit, labeled her late-life foreign-policy position a “liberal imperialist” one, which might call into question its unmitigated good.)

Why, Moser further wonders, did Sontag reject applying metaphor to illness? Not only because such metaphors tend to blame the victim (by suggesting, for instance, that TB was a disease of poetic passion and cancer one of sexual repression), but also because she was in denial about her culpability in her own ill health or even about the very existence of her body. Mightn’t she have contracted cancer, Moser distinctly implies, not from repressed sexuality, as midcentury ideology would have claimed, but rather because she lived on speed, cigarettes, and no sleep? Here Moser is not unpersuasive, despite his perhaps unwarranted medical speculations: Sontag’s argument in Illness as Metaphor is often so extreme as to deny any connection at all between mind and body or between environment and health. As in her politics, she had a tendency to go too far even in a good cause.

But for Moser, the worst case of Sontag’s empathic lack came when she failed to take any action at all: her refusal to come out as gay or bi during the AIDS crisis. Unwilling to be categorized by the macro-metaphor of group identity, she evaded what Moser believes might have been a real chance to help others. His charge that she did this out of opportunism, though, an unwillingness to alienate a homophobic audience, is grave enough to require more than the circumstantial evidence he provides.

The AIDS era is the fulcrum of the biography, as other reviewers have observed. By the time he reaches it, Moser has lost patience with his subject. He is always careful to note her less attention-grabbing acts of kindness and generosity, especially toward her younger friends, but the dominant tone of the book’s final stretch, except for the Sarajevo passage, is moral gloom. For the first half of the narrative, Moser could sympathize with the vulnerable young woman whose project, in compensation for a parched emotional and intellectual life, was to create a superior self. With Sontag’s fame, however, the image overtook the reality, the persona overtook the person, and she became in her biographer’s view a selfish votary of her own legend.

The last quarter of the book was clearly written under the aegis of Sontag’s final great love, Annie Liebovitz. Moser dwells at length on Liebovitz’s largesse toward Sontag and Sontag’s verbal abuse of Liebovitz. Meanwhile, Sontag’s son, David Rieff, succeeds his father Philip as the book’s main villain. Sontag’s friends “were divided between ‘David people’ and ‘Annie people'” after her death, the book’s epilogue reports, and while Moser is never obviously unfair, he does seem to be on Team Annie. (To digress briefly, I can’t help but notice that Rieff’s most recent essay, a barn-burner of a polemic against George Packer and Richard Holbrooke, is an attack on a biographer for being too lenient on his subject—and an attack on liberal imperialism, too.)

Moser doesn’t just prosecute Sontag on moral grounds, however. He claims that Sontag ghostwrote her husband’s putative first book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, and then that she understandably divorced not only Philip Rieff but also the thinker par excellence of illness’s unconscious etiology. Believing her early interest in Freud more acute than her later “against interpretation” (and thus “against psychoanalysis”) stance, Moser uses a vulgate version of the Freudian science to anatomize Sontag’s psyche. Despite his not being a clinician, he does not hesitate to offer several specific diagnoses.

He quotes a “gay psychiatrist” to argue that Sontag is a typical closet case who introjected the shame imposed by a homophobic culture; he quotes a pop-psychology pamphlet, and pauses to defend pop-psych against its highbrow detractors as a pragmatic resource for ordinary people in need, to show that she is a textbook case (“almost to the point of caricature”) of the “adult child of an alcoholic”; and, at perhaps the book’s nadir, considering her amphetamine addiction and her hypocritical castigation of Jean-Paul Sartre for the same, he diagnoses her with a Cluster B personality disorder:

Symptoms include fears of abandonment and feelings of inconsolable loneliness, which trigger frantic neediness; antisocial behaviors such as rudeness (it is hard for such people to feel empathy) and volatility: mood swings that doom relationships. Cluster B sufferers tend toward drama and—to compensate their own low self-worth—are prone toward attention-seeking and grandiosity. […] The B, therapists grimly joke, stands for “bastard.”

All of Moser’s moral judgments and clinical diagnoses pose a problem for Sontag’s readers, the problem always posed by psychological and biographical criticism: why should we care? As to her private behavior, she wasn’t my mother, friend, or lover. All that matters to me is the work, which remains endlessly intelligent and provocative and, as she herself might have said, exemplary. Should we read the work merely as a set of symptoms, the varied surfacings of some submerged pathology that ought to be the reader’s real object of investigation? If so, why even bother?

If the work can be explained by these diagnoses, how is it that other people who had alcoholic mothers or who stayed in the closet never managed to write Styles of Radical Will or Regarding the Pain of Others? And if we must historicize, why not intellectual history? Moser duly treats Sontag’s early influence by the group he calls “the Harvard Gnostics,” centered on Jacob and Susan Taubes (“Many topics that appear in Sontag’s later work originated in conversations with the Taubes”), but makes less of their impact than he does of Mildred’s, even though it wasn’t Mildred who led Sontag to Simone Weil and Walter Benjamin.

Consider, too, the smallness and scantness of what Moser has to report on Sontag—even if you think some of her political interventions were misguided, as Moser and I both do, she’s hardly Pound thundering away on fascist radio or Riefenstahl propagandizing for the Reich. She had a few strange and strained relationships with her lovers and with her son—we could say they were “codependent” if we want to follow Moser into pop therapeutics, or “sadomasochistic” to use Sontag’s own more Continental formulation—and for this reason she wasn’t always as nice as we might want her to have been. Then again, how nice do we want her to be?

I wonder how honest we might be about the amorality of reading. Don’t you, when you’re reading a book, just wish for the next enlivening event? (Moser often quotes Sontag’s mission “to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”) As Moser’s biography wore on, I began to be conscious of reading it against the grain. I responded to each new anecdote of Sontag’s cruel and imperious late-life diva-dom (or diva-domme) with aesthetic pleasure. Isn’t it grand to see someone living so large? Don’t we sometimes wish we could? Don’t we read—biography and fiction—not only to feel the warm glow of empathy, but also to make the often icy acquaintance of vast personae? Is a good little girl all that there is to be in this world?

I remember arguing with a friend as an undergraduate about the likes of Milton and Tolstoy. Did they have to so bestride their world like colossi, with so little heed of those they domineered or crushed? My friend claimed that they were simply bad people, that this unsympathetic grandeur undermined the moral force of their work. I suggested conversely that the will required to bring such monuments as Paradise Lost and War and Peace into the world was hardly going to be tamable in other circumstances. Greatness and bitterness was Yeats’s formulation, culture and barbarism that of Sontag’s beloved Benjamin. Even Moser allows:

She refused to accept limitations—to her talent, to her achievements, to her possibilities for reinvention—that would have stymied more clear-eyed people.

The question becomes more politically demanding with respect to a female writer after feminism. Hasn’t this always been a, or even the, debate within feminism? Some claim that women’s emancipation will institute a new regime of sensitivity and equality. Others wonder whether women who want what men have will need to act as men act. For her part, Sontag avidly took to herself all the traditional trappings and privileges of genius. I’m sure David felt like Milton’s daughters, Annie like Tolstoy’s wife.

In her devotion to what Moser calls the idea of her own “exceptionality,” Sontag was faithful to modernism. The first artistic explosion against the Victorian bourgeoisie, the naturalism and neo-romanticism of the fin de siècle, was a male-oriented revolt against domestic woman and her literary corollary in the sentimental realist novel—against what George Moore pointedly called “literature at nurse.” But women could be said to have piloted the revolution’s second generation—Wilde and Conrad gave way to Woolf and Stein—and modernism’s female artists exemplify the genius resisting the tyrannical moralism of an overly regulated and schematized society. Sontag was heir to this tradition of the exceptional woman, was in this modern sense a feminist.

But feminism, as the legitimating ideology of momentous economic and social changes, went, in Sontag’s lifetime and still more in our own, a different way. This may be (now I am speculating and historicizing) among the reasons why Sontag never quite reliably affiliated with the movement, and distanced herself especially from the irrationalist variant associated with the likes of Adrienne Rich, whom Sontag all but directly called a fascist. As Sontag saw it, Rich’s supposed radicalism was just an updated variant of an old, bad form of emotional coercion that would not prove emancipatory to women, barred as they had already been by the grandees of the canon from their share in reason. (Moser, despite his otherwise thoroughgoing anti-radical liberalism, takes Rich’s side in their dispute on identity politics grounds and resorts to psychological and even verbal cliché to do so: “Sontag’s furious response suggested that Rich had touched a nerve.”)

After the anarcho-modernist interregnums, the artistic eruptions, of the 1920s and 1960s, after the ages of Woolf and Sontag, middle-class women were put back into their old Victorian role as guardians of virtue and rectitude, concepts updated (i.e., superficially de-Christianized) as “appropriate conduct” for the state/corporate neoliberal bureaucracy typified by the postmodern university. The angel in the house became the angel in HR. Women were not, as the feminism of Woolf’s time promised they would be, freed from the moral strictures and emotional limits of the domestic sphere with their entrance into culture and the professions; rather, culture and the professions became the new domestic sphere with female “emancipation.” Adrienne Rich’s “disloyalty to civilization,” because of its hierarchal coldness, was translated into universal over-socialization, a kind of communism on capitalism’s behalf, or capitalism with a human (i.e., female) face.

It is because Sontag could not possibly fill this updated Victorian role, not even when she took up 19th-century literature and politics at the end of her days—she understood that modern heroism had to be, as she said of Simone Weil, anti-bourgeois—that she must now be historicized into a pathological case by her biographer, who operates in a literary world ever-more-professionalized on these moralistic terms. And not without some beneficial consequences for the professional and, yes, moral life—who wants to be stabbed by Norman Mailer?—but with some loss, too, I think, for the artistic. (It might be noted here that his colleagues claim Moser to behave behind the scenes more like his amorally regal subject than his empathetic-therapeutic narrative voice would suggest.)

Moser is so purely a product of his time, unlike the often splendidly untimely Sontag, that he is not affectively alive to these histories and contradictions, despite being intellectually well-informed. He cannot take the measure of his subject’s quixotic cultural heroism, her resistance to final categorization on terms legible to the powers that be, her “silence, exile, and cunning,” all of which scans to him only as so much petulant refusal to get on the right side of history.

Such a narrative attack as Moser’s is a good sign for Sontag’s posthumous reputation, though. There has to be a monument before anyone can try to pull it down. 12 years ago, Eliot Weinberger wondered if Sontag belonged “more to literary history than to literature.” Since then, the matter of her canonization has been settled, for now at least.

Sontag is one of a handful of essayists, along with Didion, Baldwin, and Vidal, that future readers will consult to learn with pleasure what it was to be alive and thinking in the last quarter of the American century. We read her when we were young, and we’re never going to forget her, and we’re going to put her into all the schoolbooks—and that is how the canon happens. Then students can spend their time in disputes about whether she really needed to be such an erring mother and lover to write Against Interpretation or Under the Sign of Saturn. Nevertheless, in defiance of historicism—and of history—the work will endure.



  1. Without remarking much on Sontag (who I have yet to read, though I will at some point), I appreciate your mentions of Milton and Tolstoy, who coincidentally are among my dearest favorites and heroes, along with those greatest of epic poets, Homer and Vergil.

    Something of the titanism, scale, will, and scope of Milton and Tolstoy grabs me. That’s why I loved War and Peace so much, and why Paradise Lost (and his other masterpieces, Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained) ian one of my favorite poems. Notably, Milton and Tolstoy are two of the greatest readers of the epic tradition, and capture something of the hard clarity and sheer scope and gravity (though Milton hewed more to the classical epic poem than Tolstoy’s mammoth prose epic did).

  2. I’ve always enjoyed your work, and this review was no exception. The line “The angel in the house became the angel in H.R.” will not stop singing, and epate-ing(?) in my mind, so, thanks for that. At the level of the sentence, your criticism does marvelous work; each sentence holds up the structure of the critique, but each sentence has a voice of its own. “The Angel in H.R.” is already an opera, or so it would seem.

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