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European Legacy[T]he book offers a multifaceted, challenging and vivid picture of an elaborate personality—all conveyed through a very personal lens.
— Mihaela Culea
Notes on Sontag is a frank, witty, and entertaining reflection on the work, influence, and personality of one of the "foremost interpreters of . . . our recent contemporary moment." Adopting Sontag's favorite form, a set of brief essays or notes that circle around a topic from different perspectives, renowned essayist Phillip Lopate considers the achievements and limitations of his tantalizing, daunting subject through what is fundamentally a conversation between two writers. Reactions to Sontag tend to be ...
Notes on Sontag is a frank, witty, and entertaining reflection on the work, influence, and personality of one of the "foremost interpreters of . . . our recent contemporary moment." Adopting Sontag's favorite form, a set of brief essays or notes that circle around a topic from different perspectives, renowned essayist Phillip Lopate considers the achievements and limitations of his tantalizing, daunting subject through what is fundamentally a conversation between two writers. Reactions to Sontag tend to be polarized, but Lopate's account of Sontag's significance to him and to the culture over which she loomed is neither hagiography nor hatchet job. Despite admiring and being inspired by her essays, he admits a persistent ambivalence about Sontag. Lopate also describes the figure she cut in person through a series of wry personal anecdotes of his encounters with her over the years.
Setting out from middle-class California to invent herself as a European-style intellectual, Sontag raised the bar of critical discourse and offered up a model of a freethinking, imaginative, and sensual woman. But while crediting her successes, Lopate also looks at how her taste for aphorism and the radical high ground led her into exaggerations that could do violence to her own common sense, and how her ambition to be seen primarily as a novelist made her undervalue her brilliant essays. Honest yet sympathetic, Lopate's engaging evaluation reveals a Sontag who was both an original and very much a person of her time.
"With the thoroughness and clarity of a latter-day Edmund Wilson and an urbanity and wit that are all his own, Phillip Lopate has given us, in the modest guise of these Notes, an extraordinarily rewarding study."—Rachel Hadas, Times Literary Supplement
"Notes on Sontag achieves a remarkable evenhandedness, caressing even as it kicks. The author gives ample credit where it's due, particularly when he champions Sontag's unparalleled aphoristic style and her essays. Throughout, Lopate, a beautiful and sometimes very funny writer, exudes a relaxed self-awareness about his own strengths and weaknesses, admitting, for instance, that he once sought Sontag's approval (she was an acquaintance). In the end, his toughness and self-knowledge actually enhance his praise. He takes Sontag seriously, and even if he finds her ridiculous at times, his persuasive prose makes it clear that he misses her: 'Sontag's best ruminations have a power and cohesion that merit countless revisitation, both to savor their insights and wonder how she did it.'"—Time Out New York
"Lopate has produced an absolute gem of a book. In places personal (he knew Sontag for many years), but more often focused on the work itself—essays, fiction, films, reviews—this book stands as the best appreciation of Sontag in print and is an ideal introduction to this major American thinker."—Choice
"Lopate's book . . . is a deeply personal study of an intellect and a provocative public figure. It is an excellent introduction to Sontag, a brief yet tantalizing piece of work for those inspired by, and those who wish to discover, her."—Anette Carter, Women's News
"A reflection on both Sontag's specific oeuvre and literary life in general, Notes on Sontag. will reward both those who know Sontag's work well and those only beginning to make her acquaintance."—Jennifer Burns, Virginia Quarterly Review
"[T]he book offers a multifaceted, challenging and vivid picture of an elaborate personality—all conveyed through a very personal lens."—Mihaela Culea, European Legacy
"A multi-level monograph that deals with her life and writings together and takes a deep bite out of the cultural issues that Sontag's journals merely make a dent in, such as her ability to make a fictional character out of herself and in fact to build a whole narrative style without recourse to psychology. Lopate is also a clear and careful writer of prose."—George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun
For a writer to attempt a book about another writer, it requires nerve, some guild sympathy, and perhaps a dose of narcissistic projection. Also timing: when Ivan Bunin, who knew Chekhov, was asked after the older writer's death to do a biography of him, he hesitated. He waited almost fifty years, accruing nerve, writing his fiction, winning the Nobel Prize, until, at the brink of his own death, he composed a small book largely made up of questions about Chekhov and the unknowableness of any human being by another.
I cannot wait to win the Nobel Prize. The idea of one writer meditating on another holds enormous appeal for me, because we feed so much on each other's marrow. So when Princeton University Press, informing me of its intent to start a new series in which one writer would write about another, asked me which author I would choose were I to participate, I thought of Susan Sontag and immediately accepted. Her name popped into my mind because I had been recently mulling over the nature of her achievement and reputation. I had noted the curiously polarized critical responses she seemed to inspire: a tendency while she was alive to treat her with a deference bordering on awe, and, once she had died, to begin to disparage her. I counted myself in the middle: that is, I had always admired her as a writer, had been inspired by her essays particularly, though I often felt divided-loving one passage, not able to accept another-and this ambivalence struck me as a promising basis for a work of literary reflection. Had I chosen some writer whom I purely adulated, such as Montaigne or Hazlitt, I not only would have had to write on my knees, an awkward position, but I sensed I might have run out of things to say. My mixed feelings about Sontag would keep me indefinitely engaged. I could "stage" my ambivalence, and work through it to some resolution-or at least come to understand my own thought processes better, the customary work of an essay. If, as it has turned out, I sometimes seemed to be taking back with one hand what I'd given with another, the objectives I've tried to hold in mind are balance, fairness, and honesty. Those who are looking for a hatchet-job here will be as disappointed as those seeking hagiography.
The goal of objectivity has been complicated by the fact that I knew Susan Sontag, however slightly, over the years. We were acquaintances, never forming either a friendship or an enmity. The professional life of a mid-list writer is likely to be punctuated from time to time by encounters with literary luminaries who are far more famous and celebrated, providing rich occasions for gratitude, resentment, or amusing memoir fodder, as the case may be. I would like to think that my encounters with the subject of this book have not unduly colored my opinions of her written work. My decision to write about these encounters-that is, to introduce the word "I" into what is otherwise largely a work of criticism, which may strike some as unseemly-has to do with the fact that I am trained as a personal essayist, but also because I can't help hoping that by showing the way Susan Sontag responded to situations in the real world, it will bring some light to her persona on the page.
Of course the person one met in social situations and on the page were two different entities. She herself was quite conscious of this disparity, as when she wrote in an unusually self-analytical essay, "Singleness" (1995):
Sometimes I feel I'm in flight from the books, and the twaddle they generate.... Oppressed by as well as reluctantly proud of this lengthening mini-shelf of work signed by Susan Sontag, pained to distinguish myself (I was a seeker) from her (she had merely found), I flinched at everything written about her, the praise as much as the pans ... (that congeries of misunderstandings and stereotypes that make up one's reputation or fame). I'm not that image (in the minds of other people), it declares. And, with more poignancy, don't punish me for being what you call successful. I've got this onerous charge, this work-obsessed, ambitious writer who bears the same name as I do. I'm just me, accompanying, administering, tending to that one, so she can get some work done. (WSF, 260-61)
The problem with this plea was that she was not just a writer but a cultural celebrity, much-photographed, conjuring up instantly in the public's mind a certain physical form as well as an aura of mind, and that she herself had done much to shape, refine, and control that image of herself and cause it to proliferate. She needed attention, sought it, yet was shy at receiving it, feeling misunderstood-sometimes undervalued, sometimes overvalued, as if she had put one over on us. "My one perennial form of self-flattery: I know better than anyone what she is about, and nobody is as severe a judge of her work as I am myself" (WSF, 260).
One of the things that fascinates me about Sontag was her adapting one literary mask after another-the art critic, the polemical social policy advocate, the playfully wicked novelist, the war correspondent, and so forth-to express the full variety of her personality, all the while insisting on a rigid division between her self and her work. As she phrased it, "my books are not a means of discovering who I am, either; I've never fancied the ideology of writing as therapy or self-expression." (Interestingly, she did not always think so. In a 1961 diary entry she stated: "I write to define myself-an act of self-creation-part of the process of becoming-in a dialogue with writers I admire living and dead, with ideal readers.") However much she may have come to disdain the idea, inevitably her writing did become a means of self-discovery, possibly even self-healing, certainly self-consolation. In any case, here I am, a so-called authority on the personal essay, ruminating on someone who eschewed such personal essay writing, or did it only despite herself and usually through the medium of criticism. She was fiercely conscious of her uniqueness, convinced from the age of 3 or 4 that she was a genius, and kept searching for her peers or betters, dead or alive, to help convey those qualities, however much she came to deplore the vulgarities of self-expression. I want to trace here how she came to put forth the complicated identity of "Susan Sontag" over the course of her books, how she created this part-intentional, part-inadvertent persona, and to some extent became a prisoner of it, while at other times she was able to slip the knot of our expectations and augment her worldliness. The larger story is how any writer, starting with a range of interests and potentialities, comes, through variable deployment of those talents, to arrive at the patterns which delineate her achievements and limitations-her artistic fate.
Sontag was, like all of us, a creature of her times. She was also one of our foremost interpreters of the period through which she lived, our recent contemporary moment. In writing about her, I have found myself reliving with excitement and rue the same forty-plus years, and questioning the implicit assumptions that overhung these decades. What I am trying to say is that this book is not just my journey into Sontag-land, but my attempt to understand the slice of history we both shared.
One of Sontag's favorite structural devices was to organize her reflections around a set of notes. It was a technique that honored modernism's fragmentation and its modest disavowal of grand resolution. So I have taken her lead, and offer these "notes" on a fascinating literary figure. To be sure, while patterns are suggested, there is no single governing thesis that I am putting forth here, so don't bother looking for one. Instead, I have allowed myself the freedom to follow my nose, tracking some of Sontag's characteristic qualities, strategies, influences, enthusiasms, pet dislikes, and contradictions in an essayistic circling from different perspectives. By taking soundings, sometimes from a chronological, sometimes a thematic, sometimes a genre-oriented, sometimes a personal vantage-point, it is my hope that each will reinforce the others.
According to Georg Lukacs, "The essay is a judgment, But the essential, the value-determining thing about it is not the verdict (as is the case with the system) but the process of judging." Interestingly, Sontag once wrote a cryptic diary entry to herself: "The greatest crime: to judge." While I intend in this book to take the reader through my own meandering process of judging Susan Sontag, perhaps it would be best to get the overall "verdict" out of the way first, to dispense with any false suspense.
Sontag's first three essay collections-Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, Under the Sign of Saturn-constitute, to my mind, some of the enduring glories of American literary nonfiction. The brief I would make for them has nothing to do with whether her own opinions have stood up, but with the belief that her shorter essays are powerful constructions, eloquently argued, well-illustrated, often elegantly structured, and dense with suggestive, stimulating thought.
What is especially exhilarating about the essays in these first three collections is to be in the presence of her conviction. Whether you agree with her opinions scarcely matters; sometimes they are even more stimulating when you disagree, because she means to provoke. Part of their charm is that they gave us an exciting portrait of a new kind of woman: independent, open to pleasure, unencumbered by apologetic defensiveness about her intelligence.
Her diaries show that this conviction was partly a willed technique, a form of play-acting. In an entry dated Feb. 22, 1967, 3 a.m., she wrote: "I'm finishing the ['Story of O'] review which has turned into a 35-page essay. It's ok. Still, I don't believe a word I'm saying. It's interesting, maybe valuable-but I don't see how 'true'" (NYTM).
Her fiction is, in the main, poor. Maybe that's too harsh: her fiction is, for the most part, unsuccessful-the only exceptions being one novel, The Volcano Lover, which is lively and decent, and a few experimental short stories (such as "Unguided Tour" and "The Way We Live Now"). She lacked broad sympathy and a sense of humor, which are usually prerequisites for good fiction. More germane, perhaps, she did not convincingly command a fictive space on the page; her fiction seemed derivative, forced, studied; she was not a natural at staging and nurturing conflict, and would either shy away from plot or force it into melodrama. (Her films, with the exception of Promised Lands, have the same derivative, labored, unconvincing quality.) But what an essayist!
Is it comic or tragic, the way she came to undervalue her essay writing and insist she be honored for her novels, like the clown wanting to play Hamlet? Once, the Israeli writer David Grossman approached her to say how much her essays had meant to him. "Bah! Have you read my Volcano?" She became touchy when people complimented her essays. Even in retrospect, when she wrote of the period that she composed the essays in Against Interpretation, she would only frame that time as the interval between her first novel and her second-a distraction from fiction. I, who revere the art of essay writing, and who can never regard literary nonfiction as even a fraction inferior to fiction, find puzzling Sontag's need to be thought primarily a novelist. But not unusual: postwar American writing featured a number of writers arguably better at nonfiction who preferred to be thought of as novelists: James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote. Novels were considered the Big Game, essays the minor pursuit. In Sontag's case, there was more involved than status; there was something valiant about her need to reinvent herself. She had already succeeded as an essayist, and seemed to feel she had used up the problems of the form (or so she puts it in her foreword to a reissued edition of Against Interpretation).
Her fourth essay collection, Where the Stress Falls, may be too compendious, unfocused, a catch-all for her vagrant interests. Even so, it has remarkable pieces in it: the essays on Machado de Assis, Roland Barthes, and Robert Walser; the personal essays on travel; and her pieces on the choreographers George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and Lucinda Childs. Sontag wrote beautifully and knowledgeably about dance, which for her was a utopia of order and rapture, adhering to the highest standards of perfection, the consummate expression of her longing for "transparency." Overall, the overstuffed Where the Stress Falls is much underrated. Perhaps because she had already made such a point of wanting to be considered a novelist, the literary world took her too much at her word.
Her last, posthumous essay collection, At the Same Time, is her weakest. Her religion, in the end, came to be Literature. Certainly a worthy shrine, but the piety of these late essays is wearisome, as is the generality of her praise for literature, and her scolding stance that she is one of the last persons on earth who still loves books.
The declining quality of Sontag's late essays can be explained by a number of factors: illness may have taken their toll on her energy; she had transferred even more of her creative ambition to fiction writing, leaving essays an afterthought; the success of her earlier essays made it harder to top them-she would either need to reinvent the form, or coast; she had grown alienated from the dominant culture, no longer in step with its mood, and thus the pieces grew crabbier, exasperated, took on their scolding tone. Many later essays were prompted by occasions or the promise of a quick buck, as happens to all successful writers who become sought-after to write introductions to coffee table books, give award-winning speeches, present papers at international conferences-her article prose became more oral, more user-friendly, as well as more platitudinous and slack.
But, in fact, Sontag was never a consistent prose stylist. Some of her sentences are elegantly turned, others are clumsy and clotted. The inconsistency might have to do with the succession of masks she tried on, or with the variety of audiences she addressed. Always a hard worker, always in love with beauty, she herself did not have that automatic grace that certain writers of the highest order possess.
Her book-length essay projects-On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, AIDS as Metaphor, Regarding the Pain of Others-brought her a greater measure of popularity and renown. Passionately voiced, important books, which by her intellectual prestige alone turned the spotlight on the subjects they covered, they also seem to me attenuated, their arguments stretched to stridency, their initial promise left unrealized. Sontag was an aphoristic, compressed writer, and so it should be no surprise that she was at her best in shorter essays. She would weigh in, marching ahead with determination and force. By the end of twenty-five pages she had nailed it. When she spread out to the length of a book, the provocative, perverse nature of her arguments tended to fall apart. Once you had assimilated the moving, reasonable point that patients should not be victimized for their illnesses, there was nowhere else for Illness as Metaphor to go; the perverse, unreasonable part, which alleged that metaphors were bad for you, could never be wholly convincing, since the mind cannot work unmetaphorically. Of course her own prose in On Photography was wildly metaphorical: the camera was a gun, an instrument of violation, et cetera, and that indicting posture led to similar exaggerations.
Excerpted from NOTES ON SONTAG by PHILLIP LOPATE Copyright © 2009 by Phillip Lopate. Excerpted by permission.
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