David Neiwert, Notes on Sontag (Princeton University Press)
It is a testament to Susan Sontag’s impact as an intellectual figure that since her death in 2004, she has yet to fade from public consciousness: her books remain, with equal tenacity, on the shelves at The Strand and Barnes & Noble; her name appears everywhere from undergraduate syllabi to Hollywood movies; and with the publication of Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1964, Sontag herself has reentered the mix, tempering her famously intimidating public persona with the (slightly) less mandarin voice of her youth.
While Sontag’s imprint still lingers in American cultural life, five years after her death, mourning is now beginning to give way to more clear-eyed scholarship. Following last year’s publication of the journals and Swimming in a Sea of Death, her son David Rieff’s memoir on Sontag’s final years, 2009 is now seeing the release of Notes on Sontag, a comprehensive—if brief—reflection on the course and patterns of Sontag’s career.
Notes on Sontag is the first of Princeton’s new Writers on Writers series, a line of extended essays that ask authors to reflect upon the literary figures that have most shaped their development. While this runs the risk of lapsing into either solipsism or unchecked praise, it also offers writers the chance to survey the range of an author’s career outside of the confines of academic or biographical scholarship. (The next book in the series will be Alexander McCall on W.H. Auden.) In this spirit, Lopate takes a deliberately peripatetic approach, wandering between chronological, thematic, genre-based, and personal vantage-points to offer up his own “notes” on Sontag, adopting the writer’s own preferred tack towards intellectually elusive topics.
On the subject of Sontag, it’s difficult to find much to say that hasn’t been repeated ad nauseam in the essays and eulogies that blitzed the media after 2004. As one of the last of the New York Intellectuals, Sontag loomed large among the city’s intelligentsia over the last half century, foregoing the musty leftism of the Partisan Review crowd in favor of her own brand of 60s radicalism and theoretical iconoclasm. Steeped in the French and German philosophical traditions—Sontag and then-husband Philip Rieff spent a year living with Frankfurt school icon Herbert Marcuse—Sontag brought the Old World into New York, deploying the aphoristic style of Roland Barthes in her writing and expressing admiration for the nouveau roman and new wave in her criticism. But whether she was writing about politics or art, as Phillip Lopate observes, the unifying theme in Sontag’s work was that she “was deeply imbued with that Continental mindset that might be called ‘demystification’: the habit of mind that continually seeks the hidden pattern behind the status quo.” Ultimately, regardless of the issue, Sontag always upheld rigor over dogma and never failed to weigh in on the pressing questions of the day.
Lopate announces early on in Notes on Sontag that he chose to write the book in order to “stage his ambivalence”: or to put it differently, to explore his contradictory views towards the woman he first encountered during his early years as a Columbia undergrad. An electrifying professor on campus, Lopate describes first meeting Sontag when he asked her to read one of his stories—a work he knew immediately she disliked. In the years after, their lives intersected again and again, spanning chance encounters at the now-defunct New Yorker movie theater to Sontag’s visits to Houston’s graduate writing program where Lopate was teaching. While admiring her intellect, the abrasive side of Sontag’s personality was never far off—she was given to insulting audiences by claiming they “probably wouldn’t like” what she was about to read—and as such, the distance between them was never overwhelmed by friendship.
In many ways, this makes Lopate the ideal candidate to write about her. While several years her junior, both shared a common intellectual climate, and as with any aspiring critic of the time, to some extent Lopate grew up in Sontag’s shadow. In spite of—or perhaps because of—this, Lopate approaches Sontag with a firm even-handedness, weighing her work and opinions with a clarity that makes her accessible to even the uninitiated reader. For a woman who was deeply concerned with how she projected herself to the public, Sontag is fortunate to have a mediator in Lopate. As he states at the end of the book, public figures are ultimately “at the mercy of the scatterbrained world’s opinion: an often humiliating, distracted, or insolent opinion[…]the best they can hope for is that they continue to be read (as surely Susan Sontag will), enjoying, if they can in the afterlife, what accumulated slivers of insight may accrue from the shaggy, communal, critical process.”
If Notes on Sontag is any indication, Sontag will continue to be a presence for years to come.