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The Middle Distance

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980
By Susan Sontag
Edited by David Rieff
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 523 pp., $30)

Susan Sontag’s prose is designed to strike readers as measured, simultaneously wise and matter-of-fact. She favors relatively short words and she is spare with her adjectives. The writing, whether in the essays or the novels, has a workmanlike neutrality, as if Sontag were not presenting her own thoughts so much as offering a guided tour of the higher regions of human experience. In her essays, observations and ideas are laid out one by one, each a beautifully polished object from Sontag’s intellectual toolbox. In her fiction, both the early experimental novels and the later historical tales, I find myself registering the efficiency with which she marshals the elements—the character, the narrative, the telling detail—without ever quite being able to enter into the story. Rarely do her words and her sentences add up to paragraphs or chapters with much rhythmic power. About her own work, she wrote in 1965: “A problem: the thinness of my writing. It is meager, sentence by sentence. Too architectural, too discursive.” If she did indeed see this as a problem, it was a problem she did not struggle to resolve. She aggrandized it—problematized it, you might say. Even when Sontag writes about ecstatic experiences, there can be something strangely if bracingly static about the prose.

Most of Sontag’s books read like instruction manuals for a thinking person. Eight years after her death, these user’s guides to the artistic, intellectual, and ethical questions that interested her still interest the public. And the posthumous publication of her journals and notebooks, if not accompanied by anything like the enthusiasm with which some of her books were received during her lifetime, still excites curiosity among those who were born long after she first made her mark in the 1960s. The extraordinary rapport that Sontag developed with her readers over a forty-year career was based, I think, on the sense that she was the person who could give you the lowdown—the ABCs (and also the XYZs) on whatever subject she decided to tackle. Sontag would take you by the hand and show you what to think and what to feel. The cool, almost clinically precise tone of the writing made her old-fashioned pedagogical urge feel hip. Early on, with “Notes on Camp,” she presented a guided tour of a sensibility unfamiliar to many people in the academic world who closely followed Partisan Review, where the essay first appeared. When she wrote about Godard’s movies or Bergman’s Persona, she was not telling you about her experience of the films so much as giving the filmmakers a seal of approval. With Illness as Metaphor, she offered a guide to how to think about sickness. And her last novel, In America, opens with what amounts to instructions for writing an historical novel about a famous Polish actress.

Everywhere in Sontag’s writing there is this sense of information being imparted, whether useful or true or not. On Photography is the most significant of these instruction manuals; it is certainly an extraordinary book, maybe even a great book. Writing during the enormous surge of excitement about the art and the history of photography in the 1970s, Sontag displays an unexpected gusto. The subject is so fresh and so large that Sontag cannot— for a change—control it, with the result that she lets the images and the ideas take on a life of their own. We feel as if we are in the thick of a terrific treasure hunt. On Photography, together with the essays collected in Under the Sign of Saturn, is the work I think most likely to endure.

The weakest of her celebrated essay collections is without a doubt Styles of Radical Will. This book amounts to a user’s guide to political and artistic groupthink—blandly correct views delivered with a très chic shrug. In “Trip to Hanoi,” she goes through some rather extraordinary contortions to convince herself of the inherent goodness of North Vietnam’s Communist system. In “The Aesthetics of Silence,” she does more or less the same thing for art, weaving her web around an idea about human experience that has nothing whatsoever to do with the actualities of experience. She wonders if “perhaps the quality of the attention one brings to bear on something will be better ... the less one is offered.” After some of the work in Styles of Radical Will, who can wonder that she wrote that “I seem to be the bearer of certainties that I don’t possess—am not near to possessing”? With Sontag we are always more aware of what we should know than of what we actually feel. It may be that, with Sontag, knowing takes the place of feeling.

THE IMPERSONALITY of so much of Sontag’s writings—an impersonality by turns bold, willful, and elegant—naturally leaves us wondering whether a different kind of writer will be revealed in her journals and notebooks. Will the writing be more spontaneous and less guarded? Will it turn out that there was some lyric mode that she chose to suppress in what she published? The first volume of her journals, Reborn, which came out four years ago, took her from fourteen to thirty and was very much a portrait of the artist as a young woman. There was a winning guilelessness about the person revealed in those pages, the California adolescent hungry for experience, equal parts passionate and confused. Now, with the second of three volumes of journals and notebooks skillfully edited by her son, the writer David Rieff, we are in the period when Sontag was a figure to be reckoned with. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh moves from 1964 to 1980, the years when she published three works of fiction and five works of non-fiction, ranging from her earliest essay collection, Against Interpretation, through On Photography, Under the Sign of Saturn, and Illness as Metaphor.

While the journals are by no means as full of gossip as some may have expected or hoped, they have their fair share of boldface names. Jasper Johns, Joseph Chaikin, and Joseph Brodsky are among the figures who make appearances, although none of them can be said to sit for a full portrait. They appear as something more like shards in Sontag’s kaleidoscope, often cited because of some remark or other that they have made. Even Brodsky, whom she quotes with rapt admiration, never quite emerges as a figure in three dimensions. If the journals do anything for Sontag’s reputation, it may be to demystify her to a degree, for there is an earnestness and even a flat-footedness that cannot be reconciled with the sense of Sontag as the girl with dark hair from California who appeared miraculously to revitalize New York’s literary culture in the 1960s. What we discover in these pages is very much the writer we have already known, though often in a less polished form. And the absence of polish has a way of underscoring her painful deliberateness, the sense that she is not so much writing a journal as observing herself writing a journal. In 1966 she speculates that if she were more truly herself “I would smile less; eliminate the superlatives, the unnecessary adverbs + adjectives from my speech.”

THE JOURNALS OF writers, no matter how varied they may be, tend to divide into two types. There are the expansive diaries, recording the events and encounters of a person’s days and nights, in a more open and perhaps irregular manner than the traditional day-by-day diary might allow. And there are the journals that suggest a writer’s sketchbook, where thoughts, ideas, plans, and reflections of widely ranging length and purpose are put down, frequently without any relation to the external day-by-day events of the author’s life. Sontag’s journals have elements of both types, including some extended accounts of love affairs along with free-standing aphoristic comments, skeletal plans for works of fiction and essays, observations based on her reading, and lists, lots of lists, whether of things she likes or books she means to read. One’s impression is that she was rarely an especially assiduous journal writer, and at least in the 1970s she appears to have written less in her journals as she went on. In Rieff’s edition there are over a hundred pages for 1965, two pages for 1969, about fifty for 1970, and sometimes little more than twenty in the later years covered.

There are a few long sections in the journals where Sontag lingers over memories of her early days and on matters of the heart, composing extended passages in which she circles around her feelings. It is here that one has most strongly the sense that she is trying to develop an introspective style, a way of dealing with emotions both recollected and immediately experienced. That there is a good deal of talk here of thwarted and unsatisfactory connections will come as no surprise to those who have taken an interest in Sontag in recent years, for it is pretty much an open secret that this woman who in the 1960s was associated with the rejection of old forms of analytical life was in fact far from being an unabashed hedonist. Her insatiable hunger for experience, some have argued, was related to what she found to be the unsatisfactoriness of much experience.

Those who are fascinated by Sontag and wish to speculate psychologically will surely be held by the long series of passages, in 1967, in which we find her reflecting on her beautiful, difficult mother. Sontag writes that she was “always ‘compelling’ me to exonerate her for being a neglectful or ungenerous mother by being ‘miserable.’ Tired all the time. Was she drinking + taking pills then?” A page later: “I’m afraid of my mother—afraid of her harshness, her coldness (cold anger—the rattling coffee cup); ultimately, of course, afraid that she’ll just collapse, fade out on me, never get out of that bed.” She speaks of encouraging her mother’s narcissism, and then comments: “But, of course, at the same time, I also hate her narcissism.” The conflicts certainly register as real, but everything feels remote, the calm prose like a sheet of glass shielding us from the pain. We are far from the great memoirs of Elias Canetti, whose ferocious portrait of his nurturing, manipulative, impossible mother Sontag might have had in mind.

Reading about her affair with a woman named Carlotta in 1970, I wonder again if Sontag is triangulating her experience through some literary lens, in this instance aiming for a Proustian story of obsession, with the lover in thrall to the beloved. The aristocratic Carlotta is seductive, elusive. “The sense,” Sontag suggests, “in which C. plays the role of child with any lover is that one can’t expect to be given to, to be supported, to be reassured by her. She offers her (unreliable) presence—the beauty of her person; her charm; her vitality; her pathos; her wit and intelligence. But she makes no promises (loyalty, fidelity, reliability, practical assistance)—about that she is extremely scrupulous and honest. It’s other people, those who love her, who make promises to her.” Page after page, Sontag draws contrasts between herself and her lover. “C. doesn’t see herself as the product of her history, but the vehicle of her nature. For me, I am the product of my history.” “Carlotta is profoundly pessimistic about love, human relations, the possibility of happiness. Ultimately—whatever my melancholy and despair—I’m not.” Sontag has her “Protestant-Jewish demand for unremitting ‘seriousness,’” while Carlotta is “Southern European, Catholic culture.” There is a “bigger gap for C. than for me between emotions and actions.” At times these pages read less like an account of a difficult love affair than an exercise in the dialectic. The lover does not seem quite real. The fascination of Sontag’s prose—and its sadness—is in the extent to which she is describing herself as a person who can never really get beyond a schematic kind of thinking and feeling.

DID SONTAG EVER have a clear idea of what she was aiming for in her journals? Did she think of them as a literary work with some internal coherence? When it comes to the brief, striking thoughts—the pensées— that are surely meant to be among the riches here, the truth is that Sontag lacked the poetic instinct for the form. The only comment in this category that I find really memorable is an aphorism about aphorisms: “Aphorisms are rogue ideas.” I suppose there is a certain elegance to a comment about Venice: “Winter Venice is metaphysical, structural, geometrical. Drained of color.” Others sound adolescent: “Works of art have a certain pathos.” Sometimes an idea, although true, is expressed without any particular vigor or originality: “art = making concrete abstract and abstract concrete.” Sometimes her observations are willfully clever, as when she juxtaposes an eighteenth-century painter and an experimental filmmaker: “Aesthetic space: Chardin, Jack Smith.” She can be downright wrong: “Great art has a beautiful monotony—Stendhal, Bach. (But not Shakespeare.)” And did she ever really think that “art is the ultimate condition of everything?” This is a silly, even repellent statement.

Sontag’s penchant for lists will charm some of her readers. There is a list of “Places to see,” including the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California; Lola Montez’s grave in Brooklyn; Klimt paintings in public buildings in Vienna; and Manhattan’s Art Deco Rainbow Room. And there is a list of things that “turn me on,” including “intelligence,” “beauty; elegance,” “glamour; celebrity,” and “emotional expressiveness.” This is fun, though I’m not sure how much it rises above the level of the lists in, say, Vanity Fair or New York. There is often a diagrammatic quality to Sontag’s thinking, and after a while this can feel not so much elegant and incisive as obtuse. Her thoughts for stories and novels tend to be overly schematic, not a kernel of an idea but a floor plan for a work of fiction, as if the whole story were finished before she had begun to write. The exception here are some pages from 1972 about a handsome novelist in his early forties whom she knows socially and whose uncertain career sparks her interest. She proceeds to sketch a portrait of his wealthy family and a brother who “is 39 years old and is a Mongolian idiot.” As she considers the attractive novelist’s thwarted ambitions, his difficult mother, and her complicated relationship with the Down Syndrome child, we begin to feel the pull of something intricate and particular—the kind of idea that might have sparked Flannery O’Connor.

Few writers of the past fifty years have been so expert at keeping the educated public so enthralled. Those who dismiss Sontag entirely will say it was all a matter of celebrity placement: the good looks, the up-to-the-minute subjects, the posh friends. But whether one likes much of what she wrote or not, the case is more interesting. There is something of the intellectual showman about Sontag, with the showmanship taken very seriously indeed. The twentieth-century writer she may ultimately suggest is Cocteau, who produced work of real distinction, but was all the while obsessively navigating the rapids and riptides of fashionable opinion. There is nothing about Sontag of the inwardness of her idols Benjamin and Canetti. Like Cocteau, she is always onstage, in performance. Need I add that they both directed movies and took an interest in the theater? They could never quite separate the imaginative life from the fashionable life, although they surely knew the difference. And when from time to time the writing achieves a seamless, self-contained beauty—well, we are all the more amazed, because they will never let us forget about the hullaballoo from whence it arose.

This author of instruction manuals for the thinking public had a way of locating herself in a kind of middle distance in relation to her readers—neither risking a familiarity that might compromise her authority nor standing so far away as to seem entirely out of reach. Maybe that was part of Cocteau’s game, too. Sontag brings her frequently lofty subjects close to the reader, but not too close—so that she satisfies some yearning in the public to know or to understand without ever satisfying it entirely. Is that why her writing became, for many people, almost addictive?

ALTHOUGH SONTAG certainly felt the sting of criticism, she was good at giving the impression that she played by her own rules. By reporting on European literature and film for an American audience, she managed to appear rather exotic to both American and European critics—a modern-day Athena astride the Atlantic. And since she always wrote, no matter what the field was, as the non-specialist who meant to trump the specialists, she could intimidate the critics when she was not playing hide and seek with them. She brought all of this off with undeniable panache, so much so that many of her admirers imagined she was sui generis—or at least the first of a new breed of intellectuals. That may have been the impression she meant to create. But it is probably closer to the truth to see her as the last of a breed—a survivor of the Partisan Review world and its mission of bringing the news of modern art and modern ideas to a widening American audience.

Those who imagine it was Sontag who first thought to bring the new French and German ideas to American shores forget that Partisan Review had been doing this since the 1940s, when the magazine was spreading the word about Camus and Sartre and existentialism. Lionel Abel had been a conduit for Surrealist ideas in America, much as Sontag would be a conduit for later sensibilities. Some of her most celebrated early essays were published in Partisan Review, and when The New York Review of Books was founded she decamped there, along with quite a few others who had flourished at Partisan Review, mostly considerably older than her. When “Notes on Camp” first appeared in Partisan Review in the fall of 1964, it was the second piece in the issue, preceded by Robert Lowell’s play My Kinsman, Major Molineux. As late as the 1980s, Sontag was not above dropping in at a cocktail party in the apartment of William Phillips, the editor of what was by then a fading magazine.

Sontag’s journals leave no doubt as to how closely she studied her elders. In September 1972 she notes about Robert Lowell that he is the “best model for interview tone.” And a month later there is this: “Model for noble tone in essay form—Arendt, Men in Dark Times”—which was of course the model for the essays that would appear in Under the Sign of Saturn. It was Arendt who brought Walter Benjamin to America’s attention, before Sontag wrote her celebrated essay. Near the beginning of Sontag’s journals there is a swift look at Mary McCarthy, who had started out at Partisan Review, and it is full of a condescending irony: “Mary McCarthy’s grin—grey hair—low-fashion red + blue-print suit. Club woman gossip. She is The Group. She’s nice to her husband.” McCarthy’s reputation is not what it was, and it has become something of a cliché to speak about McCarthy and Sontag as the intellectual women who dominated two successive eras. But it is worth remembering that before Sontag laid claim to being the American novelist and intellectual who knew Europe inside out, this had been McCarthy’s role. She lived in Paris, and wrote two books about Italian art and culture; her ecstatic reviews of Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler are as daring as any salutes to the experimental spirit of modern fiction that Sontag penned.

Like Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald and many others who wrote for Partisan Review, Sontag wanted to directly affect the tastes and the thoughts of a broad swath of the educated public. The power of On Photography—which first appeared as a cycle of essays in The New York Review of Books—is owed in part to the liberating fact that Sontag’s subject was capacious enough to allow for such a free-flowing exchange with an expanding audience. In the 1970s, when Sontag was writing her essays on photography, the subject was ripe for the picking, with an appeal in equal parts high and low. In his introduction to the journals, Rieff says of On Photography that Sontag is “all but wholly absent in any autobiographical sense.” That is literally the case, but I have always regarded this as the book of Sontag’s in which she is most present—as an intellectual who cannot get enough of these fascinating objects that provoke streams and geysers of ideas. “To collect photographs is to collect the world,” she writes at the beginning. And you do feel that she is making a wonderful catalogue of all photography’s possibilities and impossibilities. Her sentences have punch and particularity. When she observes that “photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art,” she comes as close to summarizing the medium’s spirit as anybody ever has. And for once her sociological observations are as penetrating as they are sweeping, as when she writes that “by furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.” All this while she is skillfully presenting an extraordinary parade of photographers: Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, August Sander, Edward Weston, Atget, Weegee.

On Photography is the most complex of Sontag’s books. Although she is clearly attracted to photographs, she is willing to argue with their appeal and even turn against photography. “The disconcerting ease with which photographs can be taken,” she writes, “the inevitable even when inadvertent authority of the camera’s results, suggest a very tenuous relation to knowing.” She raises important questions about the role of museums, observing at one point that “museums do not so much arbitrate what photographs are good or bad as offer new conditions for looking at all photographs.” Perhaps it is Sontag’s skepticism that has given the book a somewhat questionable role in scholarly circles, while Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, which came out around the same time and is less far-reaching in its understanding of the place of photography in society, is very widely discussed. Juggling the rival claims of photographs both as art objects and social documents, Sontag makes arguments that are even more striking today than they were a generation ago. “If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images,” she writes, “it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.” Decades have passed, and we are only more desperately in need of such an ecology of images.

THE JOURNALS leave me wondering if Sontag was as clear about her own strengths and weaknesses as she imagined herself to be. I am startled to find her announcing, in 1975, that she conceives of her “role” as “the intellectual as adversary.” When she writes this, she has been looking back at essays from the 1960s, among them “One Culture and the New Sensibility” and “On Style,” and although she does not exactly regret her earlier views, she feels that what she said a decade earlier was a reaction to “conformity, middlebrow culture, certain kinds of inhibitions.” And then she asks: “So now, must I be adversary to myself?” It doesn’t seem to occur to her that, far from being a contrarian in those earlier essays, she was in the forefront of a fashionable eagerness to jettison older ideas of formal and thematic coherence in favor of a wholesale acceptance of openness and chance—of free-form experience, whether erotic or austere. Nor does it occur to her that her turn in the 1970s toward tradition-consciousness of one sort or another was very much in line with a more general rejection of the anomie that the aesthetics of silence and related conceptions had induced.

There is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind. And who can blame Sontag for coming to the conclusion—if indeed this is what happened—that an evening of Verdi is preferable to an evening of Cage? The trouble with Sontag is that all too often her voice, however distinctive its intonations, sounds an awful lot like a sophisticated version of what other people were saying. Sometimes what we are hearing is little more than the chatter of the bohemian crowd she hung out with in New York or Paris. And isn’t that just another variation on the mass mind? Pauline Kael once said to me, about “Notes on Camp,” that most everybody in Sontag’s immediate circle would have known all about camp long before she wrote the essay, so that the essay amounted to little more than reportage. Perhaps there is a sense in which Sontag was always more of a reporter—an intellectual scout—than a critic.

In any event, a critic cannot afford to be quite so worried about what the audience is thinking. The true spirit of criticism is a dissident spirit. Of course the great critics have often managed to create the illusion, at least so long as they were writing, that what they had to say was wonderfully obvious. But critics, although constantly before their audience and attuned to what their audience is thinking and feeling, are also absolutely isolated—alone with their thoughts. At least they ought to be. Sontag, as many who knew her have reported, never wanted to be alone.

Politics is perhaps the only subject on which Rieff, in his fine introduction, is willing to suggest that his mother might have fallen victim to conventional thinking. He comments that writing about North Vietnam “made her go off to an extreme.” And he believes that “even she, in retrospect, would have winced at some of the things she said during her visits to Hanoi under U.S. bombardment.” He goes on to point out that she later recanted “her faith in the emancipatory possibilities of Communism”—and what can one say, except that it is good that she did? But we are still left with “Trip to Hanoi,” surely one of the worst things Sontag ever wrote. A reader can see how utterly uncomfortable Sontag is with North Vietnam, and yet she keeps trying to re-educate herself and get with the program. Why did she do this? There were many people in the 1960s and 1970s who were strongly opposed to American involvement in Vietnam but had no (or few) illusions about the Hanoi regime and its capacity to create a noble society. I am not of the opinion that even a misstep of the scale of “Trip to Hanoi” renders a writer’s voice generally invalid; but if Sontag imagined that she was bringing to her experiences in Hanoi some of the clear-eyed intellectual observation that Gide brought to the Soviet Union that he described in Return from the USSR, she was sorely mistaken.

Sontag never stood apart from the passing parade, but instead took her place at the front, her banner aloft. She was right about quite a few things. And there are times—in her tribute to Paul Goodman, or her late essay on the great Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness—when her attention can be genuinely moving. Her essays on Barthes and Canetti and others are exquisitely done, and make their arguments with cogency and eloquence. Yet Sontag rarely shocks or startles us with the depth or the originality of her thinking or feeling. Reading her journals, I have found myself thinking about Edmund Wilson’s journals, in which he displayed a tenderness and frankness and poignancy that transformed our understanding of the man. There is a moment in Wilson’s 1950s journals when he is struck by the ugliness of his own body as he sees it in a mirror, and is full of gratitude for his svelte, beautiful wife Elena, who is still making love with him although he is so heavy and flabby. One can reject such writing as vulgar, as some did when Wilson’s journals appeared. But what is a journal without some unburdening of the soul? There is almost nothing in Sontag’s journals that strikes the reader with that kind of urgency and strangeness. Nor is there anything with the sting of pure, fresh, unexpected thought. The woman we find here is the woman we already more or less knew. Could it be that even to herself she always remained slightly out of reach, a figure in the middle distance?

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 24, 2012 issue of the magazine.