So It's About Time I Asked, Who Is Susan Sontag?

by Megan Volpert

4 May 2017

Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s and reflections on being under the influence of Camille Paglia.
Image from Regarding Susan Sontag, Dir. Nancy D. Kates (2014) 
cover art

Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s

Susan Sontag (ed. David Rieff)

(Library of America)
US: Sep 2013

Recently, I had a choice of two books to review: Camille Paglia’s new collection of reprints and Susan Sontag’s early collected work. My editor would have been happy if I had opted to read both of them, but I chose only Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s. Why did I do this? For very many years, I wouldn’t go near Sontag. Other than myself, the person most to blame for this is undoubtedly Paglia.

As a young feminist possessed of above average academic abilities and a taste for committing offenses in the culture wars, I turned easily to Paglia as an inspirational how-to manual for tearing things down. Her tendency to name big names, to relate everything back to the narrow slice of Greco-Roman history that she studied, to go after the fissures in canonical works of art, to eschew footnotes, to fling campy insults, to give didactic speeches shot through with cutting adjectives—all this appealed to me immensely. A good deal of the voice you encounter from me today was made in the image of a Camille Paglia that I studied for so long.

And Paglia ultimately despised Sontag, perhaps more than any other feminist that preceded her, because Paglia was herself at first easily taken in by Sontag until their supposedly disastrous reading at Bennington in 1973. Later, in the ‘90s, she wrote the “Sontag, Bloody Sontag” essay that appeared in Vamps and Tramps (Vintage, 1994). These two writers increasingly diverged in many important ways. Only one of them was really out of the closet. They had different views on warfighting, on French theory, on presidential politics. In my youth, agreeing with Paglia and parroting her style of criticism felt effortless—the raised eyebrows of my peers notwithstanding.

Rounding the bend into middle age, where many facets of my past ideological fashion are beginning to show their juvenile naiveté, I was drawn to Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s to see what I’d been missing. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that I was missing a lot. The Library of America has conveniently divided Sontag’s life in two, technically by the decades, but also loosely into before and during the lasting influence of her relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz. There’s the early collection including essay from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and then Later Essays has essays from the ‘80s through her death in 2004. These two volumes contain all nine of Sontag’s major works and both were edited by her only child, David Rieff, a foreign policy analyst and former Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Her first work was Against Interpretation (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966), which won me over immediately on the acknowledgements page, wherein Sontag is happy to admit that she has often said things with which she herself later disagreed. No foolish consistencies here and no unified theory of the field of her own previous works. That alone was so refreshing. Imagine Paglia ever earnestly admitting she was wrong about anything.

The bulk of this work aims to interpret the works of other artists. Many of these were favorites of mine—Camus, Genet, Artaud. Others were foreign to me—Weil, Ionesco, Norman O. Brown—but I found myself sucked into her engagement with their ideas perhaps even more so than with the essays on those whose works I’ve read before. Sontag has a way of distilling a work of art into a precise description that needs surprisingly little in the way of textual evidence. She goes by feeling and makes little pretense of historical underpinning, makes no effort to rely upon the scholarship of generations past.

Sontag declares that too many discussions of art now constitute “the intellect’s revenge” upon artistry itself. If that’s not a description of Paglia, who had barely graduated high school at the time, I don’t know what is. This direct approach continues on through Styles of Radical Will, originally published in 1969, with additional considerations of particular works of art, but also engagement with broader concepts. In Against Interpretation, she’d just begun to touch things categorically, as with “Notes on ‘Camp’”. Styles of Radical Will goes further with “The Aesthetics of Silence” and “The Pornographic Imagination” alongside treatments of Cioran, Bergman, and Goddard among others.

By this time, she was facing serious public backlash for an essay in The Partisan Review wherein she drew a metaphor that linked white civilization with cancer. Some of her later work, especially Illness as Metaphor in 1978, would serve as apologism for those earlier remarks. Imagine Paglia, whose every aspiration is rooted in the pinnacles of Hellenic culture and the good graces of Harold Bloom, ever saying a harsh word against Western civilization.

This book also includes Sontag’s On Photography from 1977, which was the first of many engagements with the medium. She displays a firm grasp on Warhol and Arbus, for which she won a National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2003, Sontag would revise her sentiments contained in this book with those in Regarding the Pain of Others. The same is true for 1989’s AIDS and Its Metaphors in relation to Illness as Metaphor. Sontag has a wide variety of artistic concerns upon which her ideology expands and contracts over the course of her 50 years as a publishing theorist, often repudiating her younger selves in the process.

I don’t know when I stopped feeling that it was bold to simply call out the ills of society and the foibles of other writers. I can’t recall the first time it felt really good to admit the ridiculousness of something I spouted off a long time ago. What I do know is that I’ve been struggling to take Paglia seriously while also subbing in a block of salt for the chip on my shoulder regarding my own work. There’s this terrific academic legend about their seemingly one-sided rivalry:

Paglia: I’m the Susan Sontag of the ‘90s.

Sontag: Who is Camille Paglia?

While I may toss my rebellious street cred perilously close to mainstream normativity by declaring it, I’m pretty much ready to put Camille Paglia in my intellectual dustbin next to Ayn Rand. I owe a great debt to both thinkers, and it seems my responsibility now is to get beyond them. In a decade or two, I suppose I’m likely to outgrow Susan Sontag as well. But today is not that day. Today, I’m trying not to underline every single passage in Essays of the 1960s & 70s because I’m excited to know: Who is Susan Sontag?

Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s

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