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On Contact: The life and work of Susan Sontag

On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the writer and intellectual Susan Sontag with her biographer Benjamin Moser.

Susan Sontag, who wrote about art, feminism, politics, celebrity, style, homosexuality, illness, fascism, and war, was that rare species in American society – an intellectual celebrity. She traveled to Cuba as a naive political pilgrim, North Vietnam during the war, now older and more skeptical, and was in Germany when the Berlin Wall was breached and eradicated as a barrier between East and West Germany. She was in Sarajevo when the city was being hit with hundreds of shells a day and under constant sniper fire from the besieging Bosnian Serbs. An average of 10 people were killed in the city daily. She achieved international notoriety, but lived an outward life of glamor and even, at the end, opulence. However, she was tortured by insecurity, plagued by a series of failed love affairs, and struggles with her own sexuality that at once animated and undermined her honesty and power as a writer. She could be cruel and vicious to her closest friends, was endowed with a haughty and suffocating arrogance, which she wielded with acerbic precision, and, despite her undeniable intellectual prowess, never achieved the depth and erudition of one of the few intellectuals she admired, Hannah Arendt.

Sontag, in many ways, embodies an age now lost – one where ideas still mattered. She understood the vital importance of culture, especially in a country descending into banality and unbridled consumerism, and she fought with unmatched ferocity to protect it. She understood that a love of books, which impart the ideas, wisdom, pathos, regrets, tragedies, and glories of the past, keeps us moored and rooted in a world that is swiftly forgetting where it came from, how it got here, and where it is going.

Benjamin Moser’s majestic biography ‘Sontag: Her Life and Work’ does what all great biographies do: it captures not only the life of an individual in unsparing honesty, but sets this life in a social, historical and culture context, illuminating one of the crucial turning points in American history.

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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the intellectual and writer Susan Sontag with her biographer, Benjamin Moser.

Benjamin Moser: That’s where she became, I think, such a symbol for people to this day for the thinking woman, for the woman is both in the world and sometimes stands above the world, the woman who is involved in politics and in commentary, but also manages not to be just some idiot on Twitter, you know, somebody whose opinions are thought over and who--that aren’t just for the consumption of that second.

CH: Susan Sontag who wrote on art, feminism, politics, celebrities, style, homosexuality, illness, fascism, and even war, was that rare species in American society, an intellectual celebrity.  She traveled to Cuba as a naive political pilgrim, North Vietnam during the war, now older and more skeptical, and was in Germany when the Berlin Wall was breached and eradicated as a barrier between East and West Germany.  She was in Sarajevo where I knew her when was the city was being hit with hundreds of shells a day and under constant sniper fire by the besieging Bosnian Serbs.  An average of 10 people were killed in Sarajevo every day.  She achieved international notoriety.  She lived an outward life of glamour and even at the end opulence, but she was tortured by insecurity, plagued by a series of failed love affairs and struggles with her own sexuality that had once animated an undermined her honesty and power as a writer.  She could be cruel and vicious to her closest friends, was endowed with a haughty and suffocating arrogance which she wielded with acerbic precision and despite her undeniable intellectual prowess never achieved the depth and erudition of one of the few intellectuals she admired, Hannah Arendt.  Inauthenticity was the price Sontag paid for maintaining her cultural centrality.  Her biographer, Benjamin Moser, writes, “Sontag, in many ways, embodies an age now lost, one where ideas still mattered.  She understood the vital importance of culture, especially in a country descending into banality and unbridled consumerism.  And she fought with unmatched ferocity to protect it.  I once made a comment to her about being an intellectual and she quickly corrected me.  No, she said, you and I love books.  And that love of books, which impart the ideas, wisdom, pathos, regrets, tragedies, and glories of the past she knew keeps us moored and rooted in a world that is swiftly forgetting where it came from, how it got here, and where it is going.”  Benjamin Moser’s majestic biography of Sontag does what all great biographies do, it captures not only the life of an individual in unsparing honesty, but sets this life in a social, historical, and cultural context, illuminating one of the crucial turning points in American history.  Joining me to discuss his biography, Sontag, her life and work, is Benjamin Moser.  So you ruin many nights, I could not put this thing down, and would look over and go it’s only one.  I can read for another half hour.  It really is just tremendous work.  But why don’t you explain for those people who don’t know Susan’s work, why she is, and I believe she is, important as an intellectual in the kind of ground that she broke and maybe even perhaps just said a little bit of that in the time period in which she lived?

BM: Well, as you know, in the United States we have intellectuals, we have writers, and we have celebrities, but we almost never have those things united in a single body.  And Susan Sontag really was a phenomenon from the time she’s very young.  She was extremely beautiful as a young woman and she was very glamorous, and she was also somebody who, on the [INDISTINCT] sounded like a French philosopher.  And this was something that really people wondered where she was from and where she’d come from.  And the answer was the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, which was the last thing anybody would’ve expected.  She was a girl who was very lonely and who was obsessed with books, as you mentioned.  And who thought that books were something that could bring her out of the banality.  That could bring her out of the kind of middle class suburban world that she’d grown up in.  And that’s where she became, I think, such a symbol for people to this day for the thinking woman, for the woman who is both in the world and sometimes stands above the world, the woman who is involved in politics and in commentary, but also manages not to be just some idiot on Twitter, you know, somebody whose opinions are thought over and who--that aren’t just for the consumption of that second.  And so I think she really does endure because for women particularly, she was a tremendous symbol and an inspiration, along with all the other things that you’ve mentioned.  I mean she was an extremely difficult woman.  She was an extremely insecure woman in certain ways.  But that’s what makes her such a great diva, you know, she’s somebody who really managed to create a persona that in some ways rose above her own writing but also grows above her own time.

CH: Yes.  And she begins that very early when she writes for instance about meeting Thomas Mann.  And as you point out in the book, that in itself becomes a kind of creation myth because the actual facts of the event don’t match what took place.  And I found that kind of fascinating that she was in that public persona, quite deft at creating an avatar.  And the truth didn’t really matter.

BM: Well, the truth--I think this is why she really is an artist, you know, people often criticized her fictions, you know, her novels, but in fact the way that she transfigures this event was actually kind of funny in a way because she was a teenager and she and a couple of friends called up Thomas Mann out of the phone book and went and visited him when he was living in California.  And the way that she endowed that story with meaning that it didn’t have--I mean, the reality, it didn’t really happen.  He was a hero, he was a Nobel Prize winner, he was this kind of metaphor of a European.  And she managed to make it into this extremely relevant--resonant story that I think is fascinating.

CH: You write that her preeminent theme in her writing about love and sex, as well as her own personal relationships was sadomasochism.  And, of course, you quote extensively from her diaries, which are voluminous and frankly, especially the passages that you put in your biography, quite self-damning, I mean, to her self-criticism.  She didn’t spare herself, at least in her personal writing.  But talk about that element of sadomasochism.

BM: Yes, she didn’t.  I mean, her public presentations, I’m sure you encountered when you met her, was extremely solid, almost statuesque.  She was this woman who knew everything, who had been everywhere, who’d read every book.  And in her personal life, she’s not like that at all.  And she confides this personal life to her tones.  And it’s fascinating, you know, when I got to see the secret journals that are kept in Los Angeles at the archive, you really realize how much of herself she deliberately hidden here, but she wanted it to be seen, she wanted to be known, she had a mother who was an alcoholic and who was a widow after Susan was five.  And who’s--would always give her love and attention and affection when there wasn’t a man or [INDISTINCT] and as soon as the man showed up, she would just often run and leave Susan by herself.  And Susan replicates this push me, pull you dynamic throughout her life and she could be extremely cruel to lovers who, as soon as they decided to be nice to her, she would withdraw.  And this is something that when you read about it, you know, you can talk about this theoretically but when you see it repeating itself in the way that these kind of psychological disorders repeat themselves in people’s lives, whether it’s kleptomania or addiction or something.  In her case, this come-and-go dynamic, it’s extremely sad and you just wish that she could love the person that loved her.  And she never really could.

CH: Let’s talk a little bit about her work.  And let’s begin with against interpretation or illness as metaphor.  These were very important essays in the intellectual climate of the time.  What was the kind of ground that she broke?  Why was she unique in the intellectual discourse of the day?

BM: Well, in the book “Against Interpretation” which comes out in 1966, it’s actually a collection of essays that come out in the years before, and so she was building up her name as the writer of these sort of scandalous and oftentimes pornographic essays.  I mean, they weren’t pornographic.  You have to remember this was 50 years ago and people were a lot easier to shock.  There was nothing like that in these things.  But one of the things that really put her on the map was an essay called “Notes on ‘Camp’” which she published in 1963.  And “Notes on ‘Camp’” was basically about homosexuality.  I mean, she doesn’t say this, she doesn’t come out and say that, you know, “Camp” is the second title, the original title was “Notes on Homosexuality.”  And was in a time in America where that was extremely taboo.  But at the same time, everybody felt that things were changing.  So this is part of the great feminist revolution, it’s part of the great black civil rights movement, it’s part of the gay rights movement, all these things are coming and people feel that American society is changing dramatically.  And of course, some people are extremely excited by this and some people are extremely threatened by this.  And along comes this gorgeous young woman writing scandalous essays.  And--but also in a way that suggested this incredibly solid classical education which was true.  And so she was just a phenomenon from the time she was very young.

CH: And yet as you point out in the book, the fact that she took on this subject and at the same time came out of this erudition, we should say that she had--you know, was an academic superstar, she’d get a doctorate at Harvard, but when I was at Harvard, I did my graduate work at Harvard.  They still talked about the three Susans.  Apparently there were three of them who were a troika of brilliant women.  The idea that someone would write on science fiction films or happenings or a homosexual style known as “Camp” and still wish to be taken seriously as an intellectual was unsettling, the elders saw their carefully-drawn distinctions being carted off to the rubbish heap.  It was her decision to take that erudition and apply it.  George Orwell did that, by the way, but apply it to subjects that her elders felt were degrading the very tradition that she came out of.

BM: This is one of the things that’s very hard to explain but I think that if you understand that Americans have always felt that our intellectual and artistic culture is under threat from everything from far-right politics to Disney and to the mall and to pop music and to elevator music and to TV, this is something that American have always felt.  So this is actually something that goes far back in our history.  But it’s also true that intellectual culture before Sontag had isolated itself in a certain way from the same manifestations of mass culture that they felt were so threatening.  So instead of actually writing about television or about science fiction or film or photography, you know, now everybody writes about film and photography, but that wasn’t true in the ‘60s, in the ‘50s either.  That was very threatening, it felt like all of culture was just going to be flushed down the toilet, and that’s what people say.  And it’s very funny to read it now but Sontag is so learned, she’s so brilliant, she’s so deep that to think this is the threat that they’re worried about?  You know, but you do understand in that context, I mean, they felt like that culture was something that needed defenders.

CH: Well, Hilton Kramer, you quote in the book, called the spiritual bankruptcy of the post-modern era.  He’s writing about Sontag.  He wrote of Sontag.  “She’s severed the link between high culture and high seriousness that had been a fundamental tenant of the modernist ethos.  It released high culture from its obligation to be entirely serious to insist on difficult standards, to sustain an attitude of unassailable rectitude.”  What is that foray by somebody with that intellectual depth into high culture?  Would you say that was her primary contribution, perhaps, as an intellectual?  And I do want to say as you point out in the book, that she was gay but when she wrote about AIDS or when she wrote about homosexuality, she wasn’t public.  And what she wrote about illness as metaphor, she had cancer, she wouldn’t even speak about her own cancer.  We’re going to…

BM: Well, this is something…

CH: We’re going to come back--we’re going to come back after that.  We’re going to--when we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about Susan Sontag with her biographer, Benjamin Moser.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the life and work of Susan Sontag, with her biographer, Benjamin Moser.  So was her foray into this examination of popular culture, would you--would you mark that as perhaps one of her most important intellectual contributions to the moment?

BM: Well, it was certainly seen at the time by people like Hilton Kramer and some of the older mavens of New York intellectual culture that she was carrying on these distinctions.  In fact, if you read Sontag’s work, there’s very little of this stuff.  I mean, the stuff that she really is interested in is high culture from the very beginning of her career all the way to the end.  But you have to realize also that in that time, there was really a very narrow definition for high culture could be.  You know, it could really only be someone said the two James’, you know, that was where literature stopped, Henry James and James Joyce.  And anything beyond that was considered kind of trashy, and modern, and new.  Sontag was very interested in new culture, but not new pop culture, or new trash culture.  That was something that I always will defend her against.  She really was a very serious person and writer and she didn’t--she didn’t like any of that stuff anymore than any of those other people.  In fact, he probably liked it less.

CH: You write that she wanted to reverse arbitrary distinctions, the hierarchies, high, low, the polarities, form, content, instinct, feeling, challenging those that were inhibited proper understanding of the new work, and of these hierarchies, black, white, man, woman, straight, gay, art, science often deserved to be over turned.  How did she do that?

BM: By just ignoring it, what--I mean Sontag symbol--symbolism to women, for example, was a lot of it--and she just didn’t seem scared of men, she wasn’t that impressed by men.  She acted in a way, as if men, you know, were no different from women, which is it was seen at the time as very radical.  And I think it’s one of the reasons that she was so inspiring to younger women.  I mean, even when she was young herself, she was in her 30s, younger women in their 20s, or in college were already looking to her as a symbol of this new woman.  And I think that a lot of those hierarchies, when we look at them now, particularly the ones you mentioned, gay, straight, black, white, these kinds of things, man, woman, they deserve to be flushed down the toilet.  And she really helped do that.  But the people who were afraid of that, who would now be considered cultural conservatives, really they didn’t see it as that, they saw it as kind of maintaining quality standards.  And this was something that really was, you know, whose standards and how do you define them?  Where do you draw the lines?  That’s one of the great debates in American intellectual culture from the very beginning.

CH: I want to talk about that moment.  She’d go to the University of Chicago, very young, how old was she?  Sixteen or seventeen, or something?

BM: Sixteen, yeah.

CH: Sixteen.

BM: Yeah.

CH: And then she marries a professor.  And she devotes--after that marriage, she gets pregnant and has her son, David, what is she, 19, I think, right, or something when she--as a mother…

BM: Nineteen, yeah.

CH: Yeah.  But she writes his book on Freud.  And I just want to throw as, you know, as an aside, that that was not uncommon.  When I was at Harvard, they still spoke about these incredibly bright women who were accepted into the graduate program, often not the PhD program, but the master’s program.  And they were doing all of the research and writing books for Harvard professors, male, of course, who had endowed chairs, and she does that.  I mean, that book has really hit me, he had the notes, but he never--it’s pretty clear that that was her book.  I want to talk about that moment when she, you know, really conformed to the power of patriarchy within academia.

BM: Well, look, I’m really glad that you know that because a lot of people don’t realize how it was.  This is another thing that makes Sontag so fascinating is that she comes from a time that seems very contemporary.  You look at her, she looks very contemporary.  But in fact, this was very common at the time, you know, the women who didn’t have the opportunity to get the endowed chair at Harvard and they didn’t really know what do it themselves and how they would be the professor, but then they weren’t.  So a lot of them took their intellectual interests, and they channeled them into their husband’s work.  And a lot of--when that story came out in The Guardian, this was a couple of years ago, that was one of the first things that kind of made news about my book was that she had written this book.  First of all, everybody knew that she always claimed that this wasn’t actually really that controversial.  But younger women were really shocked by this.  And all these articles got written about it, and reactions.  And all these older women, especially women who are contemporaries of Sontag, whom I interviewed, they wrote me these emails, like, what are these people talking about? Everybody knows that, you know?  And I said, “You know, we all did that.”  And I said, “Well, you know, apparently people don’t remember that.”  And they also--I think it’s something that gives you a little hope, if you think about it, just--there’s all this talk about how society is hopelessly retrograde, and race, and gender, and sexuality obviously and all these things.  The amount of progress that we have experienced since then is vast.  And, you know, she did what she had to do to write, that--she wanted to become a writer.  And that was kind of how you did it in the academic world.  And it’s one of the reasons she left the academic world.

CH: Well, she’s very funny.  I mean, she’s--there’s one point you quote in the book where she’s looking at the subjects of doctoral dissertations, which like most doctoral dissertations, even at schools like Harvard, or, you know, make--give the word trivia bad name, which was very--and she’s right.  And she wants to write about real stuff.  She writes that the great cultural heroes of our time have shared two qualities.  They have all been ascetics in some exemplary way, and also great destroyers.  What does she mean?

BM: Yes.  Well, she’s talking about people like Wittgenstein who goes off--who gives up his billions of dollars and he goes to teach school in a rural village, or like Rimbaud who moves to Abyssinia after publishing the greatest poetry of the century by the time he’s 18, or something.  These were people who had a desire for monasticism or for religion, maybe you could call it, in a world where that was no longer an option.  You know, these were the great kind of Savonarola destroyers, as well.  They were--they were great minds, who--in previous generations, would have probably channeled that into the church, or to some form of church.  But after the churches kind of lose their influence and power and belief, these people take that essentially monastic and mystical impulse and take it into art, and they’re very dangerous people as was she.  These people are as inspiring as they are as threatening.

CH: And yet at the end of her life, she’s bankrolled by her publisher was giving her enormous advances for books she never writes.  She has a relationship with Annie Leibovitz, the photographer who’s quite wealthy, and bankrolls her life, and she has a choice, you write in the book between that monastic life, I think buying somewhere in SoHo, or the Village, a huge law for her books, or living the life of a celebrity.  And she chooses the life of the celebrity.  And I found the end of her life, which you chronicle in the book very poignant, and very sad.  And again, it reinforced this notion of how dangerous celebrity is, that the confusing that avatar of yourself with yourself, and its self-destructive quality.

BM: Well, this is so strange, because she’s the person who describes that better than anybody in non-photography, which she publishes in her 40s, or her early 40s.  She described how the photograph of a person comes to be preferred to the actual person, how the representation, that sort of Instagram person is better than the actual reality of the person.  And she does succumb to that.  And I think the reason she does are hard to explain, but basically, she was very sick for a lot of her life.  And she was very vulnerable as a--as a writer, you know, you can be famous and well respected and win prizes, but that doesn’t translate very often at least into money.  And, you know, New York, when she came, was cheap.  New York was crappy, and everybody had gone to the suburbs, and it was kind of dangerous and you got mugged on the way from the, you know, 68th Street Subway on your way to Central Park.  And that city actually it’s important to be not only middle class, but rich as it is now, you know, New York is like that and if you--so it sucks you in.  I mean, that’s one of the things that’s so fascinating about her is that she--she’s both plus and minus.  She’s both black and white.  She’s both, you know, good and bad.  She’s so complicated and complex that--I mean, maybe that’s why she’s so fascinating to read about and write about.

CH: She writes, “One should write to please not one’s contemporaries, but one’s predecessors.”  What does she have to say to us and to this culture?

BM: Well, I think she’s a predecessor that we should all try to write to please, because she was extremely demanding.  She was wildly learned.  She knew everything, she’d gone everywhere, she worked incredibly hard and her real belief was in culture.  She really did believe that books, and music, and theater, and these things could actually help people and save people.  That’s what she did when she went to Sarajevo.  She thought that what she could do to these people who were getting murdered on the streets of their city, because of their ethnic or racial background, what she could do is come put on this really boring play in a place with no electricity, and no lighting, and no costumes, and no bathroom.  She could come and do that for these people.  And it’s incredibly moving to see how loved she is there.  You know, the square in front of the National Theatre in Sarajevo is named after her.  So the things that might not seem so important, like, you know, it’s not as important as eating, and drinking, and getting a COVID vaccine.  But she thought they were.  And so I think that we can honor her by trying to be better ourselves and defend the culture that she really did give her life for.

CH: Well, she--by going to Sarajevo, and I went in with her when it was very dangerous, she made a statement that culture was worth dying for.  And without being overly dramatic, she could have easily died.  And…

BM: Easily, easily.

CH: …you know, that lifts her up, I think.

BM: And she really did.  She really believed in that.  You know, she didn’t think--she wasn’t just a talking head.  She was somebody who was absolutely committed to the values that come out of the--out of our cultural tradition.

CH: Great.  That was Benjamin Moser on his new biography, “Sontag: Her Life and Work.”

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