In September 2019 Ecco Press published Benjamin Moser’s landmark study of the critic, novelist, and intellectual celebrity Susan Sontag. It has already been praised as a work of intellectual history and cultural analysis, as well as the definitive biography of its subject. The Jewish Book Council’s reviewer Bob Goldfarb spoke with Benjamin Moser about the book’s beginnings, and about Sontag as a thinker, a lesbian, and a Jew.
Bob Goldfarb: Your biography of Susan Sontag draws on special access to her diaries. Weren’t they already published?
Benjamin Moser: A selection was published, but when I placed the published versions alongside the actual notebooks I saw that a lot had been left out. And then there were the parts that had not been published at all, the parts in the restricted archives. Because I was invited to do this book, I was allowed to see everything — even her computer. I was very aware that along with that access came a heightened responsibility to use it respectfully.
BG: How did you get that access?
BM: I wrote a previous biography, Why This World, about Clarice Lispector. Sontag’s son, her agent, and her publisher were thinking about who should write about Susan, and approached me after having read the Clarice book. I realized that, though I’d read a lot of her work, I didn’t know who she was beyond the iconic writer, essayist, filmmaker, public intellectual. The famous Sontag with the white streak in her hair. And what I found, once I started researching, was so surprising and intriguing that I spent seven years trying to piece it all together.
BG: At that time, who exactly did you think your subject was? Or did you approach it with a blank slate?
BM: That’s a good question. As I said, I’d read some of the work. I’d heard rumors about her fearsome reputation. But the deeper I went into her life, the more I was surprised by what I found. I was fascinated by how different people’s stories were about her. Some people loved her and some people hated her — and both lovers and haters seemed completely sincere. So I was constantly asking myself how they could both be right or both be wrong, and trying to discover the person who was behind all these opinions.
BG: Your book treats Sontag’s lesbianism as the thread that connects the narrative. Is that a conclusion you drew as you organized the facts of her life, or was it apparent early on that it had shaped the way she lived?
BM: Long before I started this book, I assumed Sontag was gay in the same way I assumed she was Jewish. But I soon saw how fraught this subject was for her, and a biographer has to pay attention to the red flags. What is she writing about — and, just as often, not writing about? What is she lying about? There had been a lot written about all the very famous and accomplished people Sontag had been involved with, but the closer I looked the more I saw that this had a darker side, since her relationships tended to end badly. And even though she’s very honest about them in her diaries, she never spoke honestly about her sexuality in public. So behind this mask of invulnerability you find a person who struggles in the way that so many gay people do, especially when they’re young.
BG: Did she repress her Judaism in the way she tried to repress her lesbianism?
BM: I don’t think being Jewish was an issue for her. In New York, I think being Jewish is a default if you’re an intellectual. It’s actually a bigger issue for people who aren’t!
BG: She lived in a kind of Jewish intellectual aristocracy, but was there a gay aristocracy as well?
BM: I have a chapter called “Four Hundred Lesbians,” which is a reference to a joke Susan liked to repeat: that there were only four hundred lesbians in Europe. Of course, there were prominent gay men and lesbians in certain worlds like fashion and film, and they formed a kind of community as Jews would in places where they were really a minority. But if you’re going to compare Sontag’s being gay with something else, it wouldn’t be with being Jewish. It would be being a woman. Being a woman was fraught in the cultural world she lived in, and it remained highly patriarchal. She says that she simply pretended that being a woman wasn’t an issue, but of course it was, as she admitted later. But I think she needed to pretend it wasn’t in order to do her writing.
BG: To what extent was Susan Sontag truly original, and how much was she influenced by the environment in which she lived?
BM: That’s one of the great things about biographies: you get to see history trickling down into the life of a single individual. Sontag is fascinating because of the sheer quantity of events that affected her and that she, in turn, affected. A novelist wouldn’t have dared make up that Susan walked out of a movie theater in Berlin at the exact moment that the Berlin Wall fell, but that did in fact happen. And it’s fascinating to see what she makes of those events — in so many areas of modern life. To read her and to read about her is to see how this mind interacts with the great events of the last century.
BG: Sontag enjoyed science fiction when she was young, at a time when it was considered beneath the notice of cultured people. Then social attitudes changed, and it became respectable. How does that happen?
BM: One movement of Sontag’s generation was the attempt to look at cultural expressions that weren’t thought to be serious. For her to write about a gay style called “Camp” was absolutely scandalous at the time. The high, serious intellectual was not supposed to look at that kind of marginal stuff. But part of this movement was looking at popular culture like camp or science fiction, and another part was an attempt to broaden the definition of high culture to include works by women and African-Americans, for example, that had been excluded by historical injustice. But in the book, I write that those attempts ultimately lose out to consumerism. Critical judgment was replaced by price tags, and a great painting, for example, became confused with a painting for which someone was willing to pay a great deal of money. It was a tragedy of which Sontag was keenly aware.
BG: She comes from an era with different premises about what’s valuable and important. Do her ideas still carry a lot of weight today, when her readers are living in a very different culture?
BM: I absolutely think so. To read On Photography is to see that she’s become more, not less, relevant, in the way that great writers do. You didn’t have Instagram in those days, but just look at how teenagers are training themselves to be more like the image of themselves: more interesting, more attractive, more lovable. This is the tyranny of the image that Sontag discusses. And she talks about the equivalence of all images. On Photography ends with a group of famous fake pictures of conflict. It shows how fake pictures — fake news — can undermine belief and authority, the belief in democracy, the belief in words. It’s incredibly relevant right now.
BG: Sontag often seemed tone-deaf to the political dimensions of places in upheaval which she visited: Paris, Cuba, Hanoi. By contrast, she seemed utterly committed to the people of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. What changed?
BM: She was not a journalist; her job was not to write about the same things everybody else is writing about. She believed in culture more than she believed in anything else. When she was a girl in California she and her best friend said they were ready to die to allow Stravinsky to live a few more years. She thought art was worth more than her own life, and toward the end of her life she finds a way to give her life for culture. She didn’t die in Sarajevo, but she very easily could have, and the people there remember that gesture with reverence.
BG: What seems so unlike her in Sarajevo is her empathy. Most of the time she seems blind to other people’s feelings, but her attachment to its people and their suffering seems genuine.
BM: So much of the New York cultural world was a bunch of egos jockeying against each other. She played along because, I suppose, she had to. But in Sarajevo she was what she wanted to be: a voice of international cultural support. She was bringing them the dignity of culture, reaffirming their humanity, during the siege of Sarajevo. That did liberate her. And they loved her for it. They even named the square in front of the national theater after her.
BG: Why was she mocked and attacked for what she did?
BM: A lot of people thought she went to Sarajevo for self-aggrandizement. And she was a great diva, of course. She’d been fascinated by divas since she was very young growing up in the shadow of Hollywood. She loved the whole succession of larger-than-life women: Medea, Lady Hamilton, Sarah Bernhardt, Garbo, Callas. And in a sense she becomes America’s last real diva. We’ve had them in entertainment — but a woman who writes about Plato becoming as famous as she did is not something that’s very common in America. It’s extraordinary. And it’s a character she deliberately created, and people loved or hated that character. Either way, you can’t take your eyes off her.
BG: Was it, then, a kind of performance?
BM: In “Notes on ‘Camp’” she writes about the difference between a woman and “a woman.” And in this book I write about the difference between Susan Sontag and the character of “Susan Sontag.” Was that fake? I don’t think so. We know that so often nothing is more real than a performer, or more powerful than the emotions a performance can unleash. She went to Sarajevo literally to put on a performance of a play, Waiting for Godot. And this became one of the greatest moments in the history of modern art, because it answered all the questions about the usefulness of art, of theater, of performance, in a world that produced Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
BG: You used the word “diva,” and of course “diva” means “goddess.” There’s something about a goddess that’s otherworldly, possessing authority and truth. I wonder if we’ve lost that sense that a diva is a visitation from a higher place, Olympus or Valhalla.
BM: Diva worship thrives on the deep human longing for something larger than our own boring lives. Something more beautiful, more expressive, more outrageous, more unreachable. This divine female figure exists in every culture. It can be a figure of hope, inspiring. It can also be terrifying. Sontag was both.
BG: Sontag grew up in a time when our culture looked to the classics as examples of greatness. Has the era now receded into the past? Has the distinction between popular culture and “high culture” collapsed?
BM: I don’t think so. I think people want something meaningful, something higher, something beautiful. My work with both Clarice Lispector and Susan Sontag has been about assuming that people need more than TV. The cheap stuff will always be with us, but there will also be people who look to art to provide a bit of oxygen and an escape. We have to keep believing in high culture. Now we’re in a moment where so much is reduced to being “your opinion” or “your taste.” But there are higher values, permanent values, like art and beauty and freedom. And at a time like the one we’re living in today, I think there’s a role for writers, artists, scholars, and scientists that is not very different from what it would have been in ancient Israel or in Athens. The Prophets had that role in 7th-century BCE Jerusalem. It’s an antagonistic role. These people have always gone against the grain. Sontag certainly had her enemies. Maybe that’s another way of being a diva: being a prophet — standing outside the mainstream and wagging a finger.
BG: If you were asked what your book is about, what would you say?
BM: It’s a book about aesthetic theory … and it’s also about how she slept with Warren Beatty. One of the fascinating things about Sontag is that you get everything from the Buddhist ideas of John Cage to Andy Warhol’s ideas about celebrity to Susan’s thoughts about Bosnia and science fiction and modern dance. One of her great services was to lead such a fascinating life that maybe some of the people who come for the gossip will stay for the aesthetic theory. It’s all part of the same culture. I try to be a guide through all of that.