03 Aug 2015

Remembering Susan Sontag

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A recently much-praised article by Helen Andrews, in the Summer issue of University Bookman, designates Left Coast lesbian literateur Terry Castle as “the Anti-[Camille]-Paglia.” I was not familiar with La Castle, but a link in the essay led me to this affectionate (and irritated) posthumous tribute to a mutual friend: the late Susan Sontag.

Enfin – la fin. I heard she was dead as Bev and I were driving back from my mother’s after Christmas. Blakey called on the cellphone from Chicago to say she had just read about it online; it would be on the front page of the New York Times the next day. It was, but news of the Asian tsunami crowded it out. (The catty thing to say here would be that Sontag would have been annoyed at being upstaged; the honest thing to say is that she wouldn’t have been.) The Times did another piece a few days later – a somewhat dreary set of passages from her books, entitled: ‘No Hard Books, or Easy Deaths’. (An odd title: her death wasn’t easy, but she was all about hard books.) And in the weeks since, the New Yorker, New York Review of Books and various other highbrow mags have kicked in with the predictable tributes.

But I’ve had the feeling the real reckoning has yet to begin. The reaction, to my mind, has been a bit perfunctory and stilted. A good part of her characteristic ‘effect’ – what one might call her novelistic charm – has not yet been put into words. Among other things, Sontag was a great comic character: Dickens or Flaubert or James would have had a field day with her. The carefully cultivated moral seriousness – strenuousness might be a better word – co-existed with a fantastical, Mrs Jellyby-like absurdity. Sontag’s complicated and charismatic sexuality was part of this comic side of her life. The high-mindedness, the high-handedness, commingled with a love of gossip, drollery and seductive acting out – and, when she was in a benign and unthreatened mood, a fair amount of ironic self-knowledge. …

At the moment it’s hard to imagine anyone ever possessing the same symbolic weight, the same adamantine hardness, or having the same casual imperial hold over such a large chunk of my brain. I am starting to think in any case that she was part of a certain neural development that, purely physiologically speaking, can never be repeated. All those years ago one evolved a hallucination about what mental life could be and she was it. She’s still in there, enfolded somehow in the deepest layers of the grey matter. Yes: Susan Sontag was sibylline and hokey and often a great bore. She was a troubled and brilliant American. …

Being not a lesbian and of a generation younger than herself, my own relationship with Susan Sontag was both slighter and less vexed.

Sontag was rather an adolescent intellectual idol of mine. Her early critical essays (of the Against Interpretation period) delivered to the provincial reader like myself up-to-the-minute reports (for good or ill) of life at the Parisian and Manhattan cutting edges of contemporary culture.

I was, from my teenage years, an opponent of Modernism and Leftism, and Sontag was the head cheerleader of both. I usually despised the entire worldview and being of representatives of the establishment pseudo-intelligentsia. I typically read the Times Book Review and Arts Section and the New Yorker with a bitter sneer curling my lip. But Sontag was a different case. She was on the wrong side, but she was obviously a genuine, and absolutely brilliant, intellectual.

I’d always had a hankering to meet Susan Sontag, and finally by one of the most preposterous of circumstances I did. Karen and I were back in Pennsylvania one weekend fishing my major boyhood trout stream, Fishing Creek in Columbia County. As we drove through Bloomsburg, we found posted everywhere announcements of a film screening and lecture at Bloomsburg State U. (not much earlier: Bloomsburg State Teachers’ College) by Susan Sontag herself.

Sontag was a bit startled when an adult couple, reeking of sunscreen and insect repellent and fresh out of waders, arrived to join the throng of English professors and admiring undergraduates. We immediately secured her attention, introduced ourselves, and rather monopolized the event by interviewing Sontag ourselves. We naturally inquired how it came to be that an internationally-renowned cultural demi-goddess could be found speaking at, er.. ahem…, one of the less illustrious institutions of higher education rather than atop Olympus, and Sontag grinned ruefully and explained that she paid her basic living expenses by doing twelve (outrageously highly-paid) appearances at inevitably twelve of the remotest and most rinky-dink schools in America. On the whole, she opined, it was a pretty easy way to make a living. Just horribly boring, until life-of-the-party Yalies like Karen and myself happened to turn up.

I think we might well have kidnapped Susan and carried her home to Connecticut to drink, smoke, and argue music and films indefinitely, but she was escorted by her son, David Rieff, who took the responsibility for keeping Susan on track. In the end, Susan et fils went off to pay their dues by giving some attention to the Blooomsburg college’s factotums, and bidding her a fond farewell, Karen and I went off to catch the evening hatch.

It was a few months later that I next ran into Sontag. I had gone to the Bleeker Street Cinena to catch an 11 AM showing of Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” (1954). A familiar figure was standing in the ticket line, and (not wanting to announce her identity to the crowd) I merely walked over and said: “I believe that you are the lady I met recently in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.” Sontag recognized me, cracked up, and we wound up sitting together through the film. Sontag and I had, history demonstrates, a similar taste in the cinema, so we ran into each other repeatedly in theater lobbies. If Sontag was in company, we would wave and smile, but if she was alone, we would sit together.

The cultural life of New York City typically runs to one terribly-important event per season. Back in the period in which I was living or working in New York, Karen and I would reliably be attending that event and, of course, so would Susan Sontag. We ran into Susan at a number of these, and got to sit with her a few times. At the Radio City Music Hall showing of the rediscovered and restored print of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” (1927), Sontag somehow arranged to have us placed beside her and her companion, the aged, but extremely witty, Lillian Gish. Cinemaphiles watching a silent movie can have an especially good time, since it is perfectly possible to chat continuously and to exchange critical or humorous observations throughout the viewing without actually spoiling the movie.

Sontag also introduced us to Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas at the Lincoln Center showing of Syberberg’s “Parzifal” (1982).

My own experience of Susan Sontag was clearly a good deal different from Terry Castle’s. I found that, if one could talk to Susan Sontag on her own level and if one could entertain and amuse her, one’s personal lack of celebrity status was not really a problem. Of course, neither Karen nor I were ever involved with her romantically, and our entire relationship was based merely upon happenstance runnings into one another. We never made any effort to enlarge our acquaintanceship and we never made any demands upon her.

I did once make a serious effort to persuade Susan Sontag to come over to the Conservative political camp (unsuccessfully), but that is another story.


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