Kleos and Hubris—the myth and life of Susan Sontag
In Notes on Sontag, Philip Lapote provides us a sympathetic yet honest treatment of an iconic American intellectual. Her essays were widely read and introduced many Americans, myself included, to a wide range of ideas and writers. Like Lapote, my favorite collection was Under the Sign of Saturn, which brought together essays on Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, Elias Canetti, Roland Barthes, Leni Riefenstahl and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. While I never really found the essays to be informative, enlightening or memorable, they did provide a list and a motivation—a road map and compass for a world of ideas I was just beginning to discover.
On several occasions I attempted to read her novels but never got very far. They seem fall into a genre of book that is written for an audience of writers and not readers. The novels are not intended so much as to make someone want to read them, but rather make a particular kind of person wish they had written them. They seem to be not so much novels but self-conscious literary gymnastics. One imagines that she started her process of writing—not with an idea, a plot or a character—but with a book review.
Ultimately, Lopate does for us was Sontag was never able to do herself. To present her with a human face and elicit our sympathy for the tragic figure she was. Lapote’s Sontag was a woman of great abilities undermined by an even greater hubris. She was so haunted and driven by her need for recognition, status and excellence that she was unable to enjoy, appreciate and share her remarkable erudition and vast encyclopedic learning. Unable to achieve real pleasure and satisfaction from her intellectual abilities they became the tokens to palter and dicker for money, status and an impersonal and ultimately unrewarding form of public admiration.
I think that Charles Weinstein in his March 23 Amazon.com review “Much Ado About Noting” summarizes in a few phrases the merits of Lapote’s book.
“Phillip Lopate, warm and sane as ever, labors diligently to persuade us that Sontag is a major intellect and a permanent writer. He fails, of course, but that is Sontag’s fault and not his own. Lopate can be faulted for his Manhattan insularity, his dated cinephilia, his excessive loyalty to formative youth experiences (the latter accounting for both his datedness and his insularity). But these are human frailties, and Lopate is never less than attractively human, something which can hardly be said of Sonatg.”
I have been far less loyal to my formative youth experiences, have long outgrown any lingering cinephilia, and I never managed to achieve the insider status that could have made my Manhattan experience insular. Perhaps that is the reason my admiration for Susan Sontag, the self-cultivated intellectual myth, could not survive my encounter with Susan Sontag, the living person. She crafted the myth of a cutting edge European-style bohemian intellectual—brilliant, encyclopedic, cosmopolitan and most all, sexy. We needed and encouraged the myth—and from the reactions I have seen to Lapote’s book, many of us still do—but never quite knew what to do with the person.
- Benjamin Moser to Write Sontag Biography (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- maria popova: susan sontag’s radical vision for remixing education (blkcowrie.wordpress.com)
- Susan Sontag’s Radical Vision for Remixing Education (brainpickings.org)