A life of Sontag: ahead of everyone

July 09, 2000|By Lauren Weiner | Lauren Weiner,Special to the Sun

"Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon" by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. W.W. Norton and Company. 370 pages. $29.95.

The woman that Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock depict in their biography "Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon" became a household name by arguing, rebelling, playing the contrarian -- often toward her own previously expressed views and ideas.

Her first revolt -- the one that brought her early fame -- was against the Freudianism that pervaded the world of the intellect in the 1950s and 1960s. "Against Interpretation," her essay collection published in 1966, argued that to dig for symbolic meanings in works of art was to elevate content above form. And this was a bad thing, in the view of the dedicated Francophile that Sontag was in those days.

A precocious University of Chicago graduate steeped in the great books of Western culture, married and divorced by her twenties, Sontag was determined to make her mark by acquainting an American audience with all the highbrow goings on in Paris, which she visited frequently.

She won the reputation of a major critic, a polymath capable of explicating everything modern -- from philosophic texts to absurdist plays to science fiction movies.

She adopted the French exaltation of form, artifice, finesse. If her writing was far-fetched and pretentious (the critic Edmund Wilson's verdict on her), it is also true that she bowed to common sense -- eventually. She stepped off, in the late 1970s, the bandwagons she helped to get rolling during the previous decade.

In "Against Interpretation" she praised the exquisite technique of the films of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. But later she would write a harsh rebuke of efforts to gloss over Riefenstahl's fascist sympathies.

In the political realm, she was a booster of the communist revolutions in North Vietnam and Cuba, but she later repented (sort of) and witheringly criticized the revolutionary tourism indulged in by members of the New Left.

She joined the women's movement, but her University of Chicago elitism put her on a collision course with feminism's radical egalitarianism. She ended up clashing with feminists like Adrienne Rich, whom she derided as a vulgarian.

And lastly, after a courageous bout with breast cancer, she wrote an impassioned book, "Illness as Metaphor" (1978), in which she insisted that our metaphorical use of language demeans the ill. She pleaded guilty to this offense; she'd written in one of her political tracts that "the white race is the cancer of history."

Sontag's famous 1964 essay "Notes on Camp" has a startling pungency and verve. But her writing is nearly always marred by self-conscious flourishes, the impulse to say something daringly paradoxical. "Notes on Camp," "Illness as Metaphor" and the 1978 book "On Photography" are probably the only Sontag writings that will last.

For alas, the "new sensibility" she embodied is old hat by now. The value of this perceptive biography is to show that, although not that many people seem these days to read Susan Sontag, who is now 67, everyone in the educated classes has become Susan Sontag.

The "new sensibility" meant being a connoisseur of both elite culture and popular culture. Now all of cafe society revels in popular culture. Before Sontag, eggheads were dowdy. After her, eggheads could be chic. She wore black; now everyone who subscribes to the New Yorker wears black.

It may not be the kind of legacy she had in mind, but it's something.

Lauren A. Weiner is an editor in the office of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona). She has worked as a reporter, writer and editor for the Washington Times, the Institute for Contemporary Studies and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, Insight and elsewhere.

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