I Sing of Susan Sontag*

*brought to you with limited commercial interruption by the people at Amazon.com 

 

Consciousness harnessed to flesh. Sontag's all that. Consciousness harnessed to flesh. Sontag’s all that.

Preamble

So what if her last name seems to have letters missing. Who cares if, in Camille Paglia’s words, her “cool exile” from feminism left the movement bereft. Susan Sontag’s incisive perspicacity and ability to effectively write down things she was thinking about, made her a celebrated cultural icon and a stentorian literary maven amongst the tight circle of bookish intellects she moved in. Never one to be confused with a dilettante, her body of work is an eminent standard by which modern literary criticism is judged. She may appeal to a select few and that’s probably why you’ve stopped reading by now. However, Ms. Sontag is abundantly worthy of exploration and it is my peculiar curiosity in her body…of work, that prompts this essay. In other words, how does someone get like this? Are they born this way or do they choose to be a non-practicing Jewish, left wing, bisexual, cultural barometer capable of devastating and discerning prose? We can explore this together or you could go back and reclick on the article “Home Schooled Student Expelled for Sleeping with his Teacher.” So what? Little Timmy was 6 years old and had a nightmare. Forgive him for crawling in bed with his mommy.

The Actual Amble Itself

A strutting writer will often display his literary plumage in an attempt to acquire a suitable readership. This is no different from a woman embellishing her attributes or a man buying a sports car in order to attract suitable companionship. But sometimes these advertisements  happen in spite of ourselves. For example the inner beauty of a woman shining through the de rigeur of her studied adornments or, in a twist on the famous Freud quote, “Sometimes a guy’s sports car is just a guy’s sports car.” Now in the case of the writer, the ideal situation is when he writes about what pleases him most and readers flock to it by virtue of the material. This is what the Beatles did with their music and this is my literary template. And the beauty part is I’d never have to worry about me breaking up because I’m one guy. Even if I began dating an avant garde Asian artist, she could never separate me from me. Then again Charlie Sheen broke up years ago and he’s still trying to get himself back together.  

This piece, however is not about me, nor is it about the Beatles. It’s about something other than the zeitgeist of spit-on-the-griddle meta-humor e.g. Have you noticed that the teacher’s pupils are getting bigger? I’ll dispense with those humorous appetizers. No today’s entrée is about that NY intellectual of towering prosaic proportion who casts a long if irregular shadow over the world of literature. The doyenne of diatribe, the empress of evisceration – little Susie Sontag. It is an update of the lisping version I wrote earlier entitled – I Shing of Shushan Shontagsh. It promises to be the breeziest monograph and thinnest bio this side of “The Life and Times of Maggie Simpson.” You’ll wade into this piece at full gallop and at its deepest point you’ll only be about ankle deep. I can’t say enough about Susan Sontag, so I’ll only say what’s necessary. As mentioned, today’s essay is brought to you with limited commercial interruption by the people at Amazon.com – a $60 billion company that makes nothing. Thank you Amazon for innovatively organizing and trans-shipping other people’s stuff all over this hub and spoke land of ours. 

And Now the Essay

Susan Sontag was born in NYC on January 16th 1933. Spoiler alert. She died of leukemia on December 28th 2004. Her birth name was Susan Rosenblatt (“Rosen” referring to red or crimson and “blatt” meaning…whatever the heck blatt means). They may not have broken the mold when they made her, but it certainly cracked during her construction. In 1939 her biological father Jack, died of tuberculosis which nowadays is like dying of the Bubonic Plague or by stoning. Mom (Mildred) then married a Capt. Nathan Sontag in 1946 and Susan happily jettisoned the name Rosenblatt for the less ethnic if discordant Sontag. Although Ms. Sontag’s body aged normally her intellectual development was astonishing. By age 7 she was kvetching at Postdoc levels and by 9 she’d absolutely “had it” with Mussolini and Fascism. Eerily precocious, at 16 after reading Gide’s Journals (whoever the hell he was) in one continuous sitting till 2:30 am she disgorgeously wrote: “I experience the appropriate labor pains for every thought he gives birth to!….For I am not only reading this book but creating it myself, and this unique and enormous experience has purged my mind of much of the confusion and sterility that has clogged it all these horrible months.” 

 

Youth not being wasted on her. Youth not being wasted on her.

Freedom was to be found in literature and after graduating North Hollywood High School at 15 she attended Cal Berkeley at 16 then transferred to the University of Chicago where she befriended Mike Nichols and after a 10 day courtship married Sociology professor Phillip Rieff at age 17 (the marriage lasted 8 years). When she finally turned 18 she was thankful all the activities she engaged in previously, were now legal. By this time (1950) Ms. Sontag (never Mrs. Rieff) bore a resemblance to the Susan Sontag we all know and fear today. If I was making this up I’d say she then studied at St. Anne’s College at Oxford and then, of course, dissatisfied with Oxford she continued her schooling on the continent at the University of Paris. But I’m not making this stuff up. Her education is enough for 3 bucket lists. While living briefly in Bohemia she couldn’t help but adopt the Bohemian lifestyle (that part I did make up). 

Interestingly, a son David was born in 1952 and he was variously abandoned during her vagabond schooling years. She later regained custody and he loyally served as her editor and curator of her papers before they were sold to UCLA School of “Things Brilliant People have Written.” In Paris she lived for 6 years with Maria Irene Fornés, a Cuban avant garde playwright and one helluva lesbian. Ms. Sontag’s aphoristically trenchant writing and volcanic bisexuality were now both in full eruption. Let me just say this about the four prestigious institutions of higher learning she attended. That of Cal Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Oxford and the University of Paris – I have personally attended a football game at Cal. Just wanted you to know this SUNY New Paltz grad is still driving this bus. Did you know Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ business plan was to lose money the first 4 years and gain a foothold in the then nascent online market? Consequently he attracted few initial investors?  

Magnum Opi (Opuses?)

Ms. Sontag’s major works include 1964’s heralded essay “Camp” and 1977’s “On Photography.” In the former she may have been the first to expound the idea that some art is so bad it’s good (think Andy Warhol’s soup cans). The essay is infinitely more nuanced than this and beyond my poor powers to encapsulate it. In “On Photography” she presents words and ideas that make you wonder if you’re both looking at the same photograph. In it she seems to posit, among things, that photographs tend to desensitize. That what is remembered is the image and not the significance or flavor of the event. I encourage you to read them. I know I couldn’t.  

She also wrote the novels The Benefactor, The Death Kit, The Volcano Lover and her last major work In America. Suffice to say these works are not exactly easy summer reads and probably could use a few more pictures or fold outs. Additionally they are unstinting when it comes to low concept metaphor (note to readers: I don’t really know what “low concept metaphor” is, and if you read these books, you won’t either). I think it’s striking to note that having immersed herself in the cossetted and secure world of academia both as a student and a teacher from 1949-1965, she walked away from it to find her voice as a freelance writer in NYC. A bold and courageous move – especially considering the rents in uptown Manhattan.

In 1978 she published a provocative (for smart people who are easily provoked) treatise entitled “Illness as Metaphor.” I could go into the details of it, but it’s fairly brainy, inconsequential conceptual drivel. Especially if you’re in the throes of a non-metaphoric, actual illness. Screw metaphor. Get me my meds. Contrary to what you might believe, she argued against the urge to ascribe metaphor to an illness. That an illness was not indicative of something grander or with more inherent meaning. It was not romantic. In her clear eyed manner she sought to demystify the sentimentality associated with finding karmic or supernatural reasons for the illness at hand and just to  deal with the manifested illness itself. In my view however, her words betray her because, one senses, what she’s really trying to say is quite the opposite, (my words) “This illness is obscene and I’ve got to find metaphoric meaning for it beyond its cruel randomity.” Anyway interpretations like this are what makes the writings of Susan Sontag so (pardon the trite expression) delicious and may account for my peculiar attraction to her. Her writings are certainly fertile ground for exploration. As are Amazon’s Web Services which provides programmatic access to latent features on its website.

But like most intellectual behemoths, Susan Sontag was both insecure and imperiously self-confident. Do we ever tire of great people possessing twin aspects of diametrically opposed feelings? As a director of plays she barked out orders. As a writer of criticism she was archly dismissive at times and yet hoped her critiques, plays and novels were original, praiseworthy and legend. Originality is always the bugaboo with writers. She would not fail at this enterprise. It’s as if she had taken herself hostage and then fell in love with her captor. I’m intimidated by this accomplished woman (I’m Afraid of Virginia Wolff) and glad I’m beyond her reach, so she’s unable to call me out on any of this. I can almost hear her whispering from beyond the grave, “David, David honey. I’m sorry my legerdemain asperses your truncated capacities. But, then again, it kind of turns you on doesn’t it?”  

Gulp! She’s right. And even though she’s not very pretty, smoked like a fiend and only had time for things that self-served, she fascinates me. However I’m drawn to her more cerebrally than groinally. Who knows why. It’s similar to the way I’m drawn to Amazon calling their warehouses “fulfillment centers.”   

Be it ever so humble. There's no place like life. Be it ever so humble. There’s no place like life.

Eventually the jig is up. And as Ms. Sontag slowly succumbed to cancer, she published On Other People’s Pain which was essentially a refutation of her earlier essay On Photography. Her journey had taken her half circle and like most nimble thinkers, she was able to evolve her paradigms. We should be so lucky with ours. Her pen is now silent, but the words go on. And on. And on and on and on. It’s always been this way.  

At one level, all she wanted to do was impress her readers so she’d be taken seriously. Did I say she? I meant to say me. This whole essay has been about me. Can’t you see that? In a similar vein though this essay has been about you and the pleasure you seek through reading the written word. I didn’t mean to turn the tables on you there. It’s OK to do some things out of self-interest. Showering and obeying traffic signals come to mind. 

 

The Strange Case of Conjoined Twins Born 2 Years Apart

As opposed to impressing you so you’ll take me seriously, what I just achieved with that heading is to amuse you so you’ll like me. Susan Sontag didn’t play that game. Possessing an Amazonian intellect housed in the cranium of an astute literary warrior, Susan Sontag possessed an Amazonian intellect (One botched sentence. So sue me?). Her recently released diaries display a roiling cauldron of; “I’m here. I have consciousness. I’ve got to do something with it – always. I will not be the dormant volcano. I will be the volcano.” Her adolescent entries are poignant at times as she wrestles with sturm und drang (storm and stress). And, for reasons not fully understood, she also wrestled with Abercrombie & Fitch. She understood serenity too, she’s just didn’t stop for it. No rose smelling for this Rosenblatt. She filled her mental reservoir as a youth then became a little dyspeptic as a young adult. But like a magical cow (cow in the good sense if there is one) with five brains, she’d ruminate over her concepts until they were properly digested and nutritive once again.  

David vs. SontaGoliath

Whereas The New Yorker rejected my think piece set in 2063 entitled “The Last Person to See The Beatles Live on Ed Sullivan, Dies”, they accepted her utterly incomprehensible “Thoughts on the Interstices of Calumny.” I guess she’s the elephant (elephant in the good sense of course) in the room people are not ignoring. Most people are comforted by my way out, yet down to Earth style of writing, but they are threatened to coercion by Ms. Sontag’s – “I’ve cogitated over this very deeply and I went to Cal at 16 so it’s culturally inevitable that my musings both create and define new intellectual space.” She is daunting and passionate. But for me, I guess I prefer the short reach of accessible (barely) references and tidy closure, while she artistically toils in the abstract fields of aestheticism. Yeah. That’s it. I couldn’t have said that any better if I’d written it myself. 

 

 

Sontag’s Review of this Essay from Beyond the Grave 

Thank you Amazon for allowing me this worm hole portal to critique Mr. Hardiman’s “essay.” This discombobulated and ranting beanpole of a man (all meant in the best sense of course) has every right to characterize my career as he sees fit. That he is completely wrong, adolescently impudent and grammatically hallucinogenic is beside the point. His rudderless pell mell screed is merely a rickety scaffolding on which to hang his loosely constructed brand of sly humor. Why he chooses to alternately berate and approbate someone who’s actually had a career in literature (me) is beyond even my formidable powers to understand. When he translates over to this side, I’ll suffer him gladly. Truth be told though, I kinda like the attention ~ Susie S   

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