Moser, Benjamin. “Sontag: Her Life and Work”, Ecco, 2019.
The Definitive Masterpiece
Susan Sontag is as much a symbol of America as apple pie and Mom and as such she deserves the wonderful and definitive biography that Benjamin Moser has written about her. Sontag is one of the American Century’s most towering intellectuals: her writing and her radical thought, her public activism and her hidden private face. It is difficult to think of the twentieth century without her presence. She has been mythologized and misunderstood, hailed and hated yet she became a proud symbol of cosmopolitanism.
Sontag’s legacy of writing on art and politics, feminism and homosexuality, celebrity and style, medicine and drugs, radicalism and Fascism and Freudianism and Communism and Americanism, that forms an indispensable key to modern culture is part of American culture. Sontag represents American culture just by having been where things happened. She was there when the Cuban Revolution began, when the Berlin Wall came down; in Vietnam under American bombardment, in Israel at war and in Sarajevo under siege. She was in New York when artists tried to resist commercialism and the temptation of money and when others gave in. Sontag was everywhere she wanted to be and everywhere we needed her to be. Here are her stories and examination of the work that gained her the good name she had. We read of her insecurity behind her public face: her broken relationships, her struggles with her sexuality (that worked their way into her writing and animated and undermined it). We read of her attempts to respond to the cruelties and absurdities of America who seemed to have lost her way, and her conviction that fidelity to high culture was an activism of its own.
Try to imagine the last half of the twentieth century without Susan Sontag and I am sure that you will agree that intellectually it would have been very different. She was our cultural critic and celebrity who forever changed the discourse by rethinking conventional assumptions on a grand scale. In “Against Interpretation” she argued for direct, unmediated encounters with art. “Notes on Camp” turned the received hierarchy of aesthetics upside down and in ways that were prophetic. “On Photography” examined an art form that she loved and questioned its voyeurism and commercialism.
Like many other mid-century American intellectuals, Sontag was Jewish not by religion but through a shared marginality. She identified as lesbian, even though she hid it for much of her life. It was her lover, María Irene Fornés, who introduced her to the bohemian art world of New York and exposed her to ways of seeing art spontaneously without intellectual explanation. Because of an affair with the choreographer, Lucinda Childs, Sontag was better able understand the emotional immediacy of music and dance. The great photographer, Annie Leibovitz, the famous and great photographer shred her thoughts on photography and was Sontag’s partner for the last sixteen years of her life.
Because he had access to her journals, Benjamin Moser is able to give us what other biographers cannot and that is as much of inside look as we are going to get. He uses the journals with tact, empathy, and truly extraordinary insight, as a means of bringing her life together with her work. Moser shows us what her calls Sontag’s “inability to see other people as real,” and later documents this with examples from the ways she interacted with others. He shares several themes which would preoccupy Sontag.
Moser writes that Sontag’s lack of self-esteem and bouts with depression were because she felt that, “Being queer increases my wish to hide” as she wrote in her journal. She denied any sexual involvement with Annie Leibovitz and that was “out of shame” and recently as 2003, she was very upset when she learned that in a profile in “The New Yorker”, she was reported to be bisexual.
Sontag was a woman of ideas whose engagement with ideas came in many forms — she wrote fiction, directed films, and wrote a play that was directed at Harvard Repertory Theater in 1996. She was politically bold and took positions speaking out and taking action against the Vietnam war and even rescuing people in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. Moser shares tidbits of gossip and he makes critical judgements about Sontag, especially when writing about the ways the AIDS crisis was ignored by politicians in the 1980s, and about media complicity in promoting the war in Iraq.
We have hundreds of interviews conducted everywhere and there are nearly one hundred images and when we consider that this is the first book based on the writer’s restricted archives, and on access to many people who have never before spoken about Sontag, including Annie Leibovitz, we understand that this is a definitive portrait and a biography that reads like a novel.