Portrait of the public intellectual as mere mortal

Susan Sontag's journals mean something different to just about everyone.

Published December 18, 2008 6:55PM (EST)

Sometime in my mid-20s, I ran across a passage in which either Susan Sontag or her only child, writer David Rieff, described the days when, as a small child, he used to fall asleep in the coat pile at various literary events around New York. At the time I read it, I was a single mother and a writer, and my own child was falling asleep in coat piles around San Francisco. I can’t remember if the story was written by mother or son, and at this distance I can’t even swear to you that I’m not misremembering it entirely. But I can remember being utterly shocked, perhaps naively so, at the image of this woman who had become an intellectual figurehead (few liberal arts majors in the '90s made it through without developing a severe Sontag crush) as a very young woman with a child and without a baby sitter. Sontag was, in fact, a teenage bride: She married at 17 and had David well before her 20th birthday. And yet, by 30, she had published her first novel and by age 33, "Against Interpretation," the collection of criticism that would canonize her as one of the most important thinkers of her time.

But writing about Susan Sontag's biography almost seems beside the point. In the late '50s and early '60s, it was striking enough to be a woman intellectual at all, so that all the other aspects -- the teen bride thing, the single mother thing, the bisexuality -- pale in comparison. Identity politics demands a kind of equivalency, which in turn relies on a kind of narcissism: This person did this, we share secondary-sex traits (skin color, sexual orientation, hometown) therefore I can too! But it's hard to think of any person, of any gender, sexual orientation or identity group, who could be considered equivalent to the woman who thoroughly captured the title of public intellectual at a time that this country seemed to have retired the notion that such a thing was even useful. As Vivian Gornick pointed out in Salon, Sontag, like Mary McCarthy before her, was considered less a "woman writer" than as "remarkable exceptions -- women whose nerve made them worthy of inordinate attention." She went on: "A dramatic-looking woman of her generation was destined to become a dancing dog, that is, a phenomenon, a freak, a creature adored as a magical object."

But now we all have the chance to spy on the woman who rarely wrote personal essays, who was, for example, capable of writing an entire book on “Illness and Its Metaphors” without directly mentioning her own cancer. This week marks the release of the first collection of her journals, covering the years 1947 to 1963, when she was 14 to age 30. And it’s fascinating to see some of the reactions. Over at Queerty (“Free of an Agenda. Except That Gay One”) the headline, for example, is "Susan Sontag’s Secret Diaries Show She Wasn’t Always Such a Shrew." While “Notes on Camp,” published in 1964, made her reputation and articulated a queer-eye view of culture, many gays and lesbians became notably less fond of her as the years passed and Sontag’s public coyness about her sexuality -- she preferred to keep it an open secret and even when she died, the New York Times had such a hard time confirming her longtime relationship with partner Annie Leibowitz that it was left out of her obituary -- seemed to be dated at best and traitorous at worse.

Daniel Horowitz focuses specifically on her sexuality in his piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Soon after her first sexual experience with a woman, around 1949, she writes: "My concept of sexuality is so altered -- Thank god! -- bisexuality as the expression of fullness of an individual -- and an honest rejection of the -- yes -- perversion which limits sexual experience." Despite seeing the perversion in limiting sexual experience to heterosexual monogamy, Sontag was wildly conflicted about her own. As Horowitz writes:

"The orgasm focuses," she wrote on November 19, 1959. "I lust to write. The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of my ego." A little more than a month later she noted, "My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality," acknowledging the connection she felt between creativity and her sexual longings. "I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me." On the same day, she also wrote that "I am just becoming aware of how guilty I feel being queer." Then she continued by saying, "Being queer makes me feel more vulnerable. It increases my wish to hide, to be invisible."

Over at New York magazine, critic Sam Anderson notes that her journals begin, at age 12, with an entry that "concerned the rotting corpse of a dog." It’s a fitting beginning to a piece that sees much evidence of a "happiness starved" life. In a possible example of that dancing dog thing, Anderson can barely fathom that New York’s foremost public intellectual was ever a teenager:

As a grown-up, Sontag was so relentlessly, categorically adult that the very notion of a "teenage Sontag" (I imagine her eating sno-cones, lip-synching into a hairbrush, giggling) threatens to tear open some kind of existential wormhole, like a "male Gloria Steinem." And yet here she is, at 15, a steaming vat of molten adolescence -- possibly the most eloquently self-dramatizing teen of all time. She stays up all night reading André Gide ("Gide and I have attained such perfect intellectual communion," she writes, "that I experience the appropriate labor pains for every thought he gives birth to!"), uses the word aye unironically, and nearly wears the needle off her turntable playing Mozart records ... She strains mightily against the philistinism of middle-class life with her mother and stepfather: “Wasted the evening with Nat. He gave me a driving lesson and then I accompanied him and pretended to enjoy a Technicolor blood-and-thunder movie.”

Wouldn’t you have loved to be there to witness teenage rebellion of that sort? (Susan! Turn off the Mozart! Put away the book by that French queer! Now let's go see a western!)

As Jezebel pointed out earlier this week, it makes a big difference when the person assigned to make sweeping generalizations about one's life by burrowing into one's private words is a personal friend. The New Yorker review, written by her friend Darryl Pinckney, is much more forgiving of her human limitations, undoubtedly because he spent many years becoming familiar with the ways in which Sontag the woman differed from Sontag the public figure. As Pinckney writes:

Sontag, the mature writer, was wary of imposing social categories on literature. She had worked too hard for her place at the table with the guys to accept what she considered relegation to the ghettos -- Women’s Literature, Gay Literature. Something of that feeling, a refusal to let the guys corral her, may have been behind her reticence, in interviews, about her partner, Annie Leibovitz. (She once berated me when I said that I didn’t mind being called an African-American writer, as opposed to a writer who was African-American.) The realm of literature, to her, was a universal community, a brotherhood of the subversive and the good. "Reborn" traces that evolving, innocent faith. An entry from 1961: "Writing is a beautiful act. It is making something that will give pleasure to others later."

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

MORE FROM Amy Benfer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Fiction