Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser review – heavyweight study of a critical colossus

Susan Sontag’s rise from gawky swot to opinion leader and ‘art object’ is incisively charted in this exhaustive biography

“Art,” Susan Sontag declared in 1965, “is the supreme game which the will plays with itself.” Sontag, supremely wilful, played the game with herself: she began as a critic of art, but turned into what she called an “art object’” endowed with “this quality of assurance, authority” that she viewed as the barbed, bristling armature of style.

At first, what mattered was the sparky contents of Sontag’s head; by the end she was best known for the way she wore her hair – that saturnine battle helmet of dyed black, with a single stripe left white at the temple like a Frankensteinian lighting bolt of intellect. As much as Elvis with his “greasy pompadour” or Warhol in his “platinum fright wig”, she was, as Benjamin Moser points out, an adjunct of her coiffure. Her writing on photography protested against the superficiality of images, but Sontag herself had a trademarked look. Although she deplored the way that consumerism price-tagged appearances, “this ‘Susan Sontag’ thing”, as she called it, defined a personal brand. For a fee, it also lent its allure to other commodities: “In 2000,” Moser tersely notes, “she allowed herself to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut vodka advertisement.”

Moser’s socially panoramic, psychologically incisive biography does a superb job of charting Sontag’s self-invention, as the gawky swot from the arid American west metamorphoses into the lofty arbiter of New York taste. But he is overgenerous in praising her as a philosophical successor to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; she surely belongs in a tradition of cerebral showbiz that includes Tom Wolfe and her envious epigone, Camille Paglia, and is well defined, in Moser’s inadvertently deadly phrase, as “the world’s most authoritative blurber” – an enthusiast for the ideas of others, a vociferous barker at an avant-garde carnival.

As the book develops, Moser’s initial admiration for Sontag struggles to cope with the unlovable details of her behaviour imparted by his sources, and he comes to see her intellectual obsessions as a reflex of her personal kinks. Her worship of will, alarmingly revealed in her essay Fascinating Fascism, exposes the shady recesses of her sexuality, while the interest in masks and flamboyant personae that dates from her Notes on “Camp” hints at a vulnerability she hid behind an intimidating exterior. This alternation between a desire to dominate and a need to suffer is, for Moser, the clue to her character.

Like Nelson’s mistress, the courtesan Lady Hamilton, who became the subject of her novel The Volcano Lover, Sontag regarded herself as a bequest to the nation and expected to be subsidised. The exactions tallied by Moser – games of the will played with others – are astounding. She badgered her publisher into advancing extravagant sums for books she never wrote; readers of the New York Review of Books were rallied to pay for her first bout of cancer care in 1975. She kept tabs and protested if patrons such as Jackie Onassis failed to send regular cheques. The novelist Larry McMurtry, having invited her for dinner at a caviar restaurant in Manhattan, sent word that his flight was delayed; Sontag wolfed her way through the menu and departed, leaving the bill to be presented to her tardy host when he turned up.

Annie Leibovitz, enriched by her commercial assignments, served as Sontag’s personal welfare state. Leibovitz treated her to limos and first-class flights, hired a chef to cook for her at home and bought her an apartment beside the Seine in Paris. An accountant calculates that in their 15 years together Leibovitz spent $8m on Sontag. In return, Sontag strenuously denied that they were a couple and made a habit of calling Leibovitz stupid or berating her ignorance of Balzac.

Moser discerns this perverse imbalance of power throughout Sontag’s amorous career. If another woman did not love her enough, she played the grovelling masochist; if she was loved too much, she switched to the role of sadist. When, on one rare occasion, a man chivalrously supplied her with an orgasm, she complained that the sensation made her feel “just like everybody else”. In her essay Against Interpretation, Sontag called for “an erotics of art” to replace the dreary academic routine of hermeneutics; like Herbert Marcuse, she dreamed that sexual liberation would revolutionise bourgeois society. But though she knew about lust she seems to have been incapable of love and an early girlfriend tells Moser that she was “a dud” in bed.

In later life, with every whim obsequiously catered to, Sontag devoted herself to ceremonial “ribbon-cutting duties”. She behaved, Moser says, like a “constitutional monarch”, a role hardly consistent with the republic of letters in which she operated – and why, she sometimes grumbled, had she not yet received the Nobel prize? An “aestheticised personality” took over. She wanted to be icily unapproachable like Garbo, but for her bullied employees she was closer to Joan Crawford lashing out with a wire coat hanger. Camp no longer connoted playful subversion, as in her 1964 essay; instead, she indulged in the high-camp histrionics of a tempestuous, big-haired diva.

Susan Sontag became a ‘constitutional monarch’ in later life, says Moser.
Susan Sontag became a ‘constitutional monarch’ in later life, says Moser. Photograph: Wyatt Counts/Associated Press

Moser allows Sontag to redeem herself during her wartime mission in Sarajevo. I always had doubts about this venture: celebrities regularly volunteer to save the world because they can sanctify themselves in the process and one of Moser’s witnesses remembers Sontag complacently likening herself to Joan of Arc. Besides, what good did it do to stage a single act of Waiting for Godot in the combat zone or to bring in the occasional flask of French perfume for her undeodorised helpers?

Moser, however, commends the compassion, courage and modesty Sontag displayed in the blitzed city. “If praise and prosperity brought out the worst in her,” he says, “oppression and destitution brought out the best.” Her commitment to the fight was also her atonement for remaining closeted during the Aids epidemic: though she wrote an essay that abstractly theorised about the metaphors applied to the disease, she declined, Moser says, “to put her body on the line” by making common cause with the activists.

What follows after Sarajevo is harrowing and truly pitiable. Believing in the primacy of will, Sontag always ignored the body’s involuntary spasms: once at the airport in Hanoi she was caught short by a period and flew back to Paris without the benefit of a sanitary towel. Now a recurrence of cancer snuffed out the high-minded fiction that Moser says had been “the foundation of her identity”; again he acknowledges Sontag’s bravery in choosing to undergo a “hideously painful” bone-marrow transplant that failed. Meanwhile, Leibovitz documented her agony in a series of obscenely intrusive photographs, then clothed her racked, bruised cadaver in a Fortuny gown, morbidly completing her transformation into an “art object”.

In his conclusion, Moser sums up “what Sontag symbolised” by reciting truisms about tolerance, diversity, female empowerment and opposition to political cruelty. But the moral contradictions of the life he so unsparingly chronicles undermine this well-meant tribute. The artful games played by the will may be malevolent and the value of style is doubtful if the best it has to show is a photograph of Sontag as “a beautifully dressed corpse – nothing more”.

Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser is published by Allen Lane (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Peter Conrad

The GuardianTramp

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