Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. Norton, 370 pages, $29.95.
July 30, 2000        

The acerbic critic F. R. Leavis remarked of some fashionable contemporaries that they would “figure primarily, not in the history of literature but in the history of publicity.” Some acerbic critic is probably waiting, even now, for an opportunity to say the same about essayist, novelist, filmmaker, and culture heroine Susan Sontag. Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock’s new biography, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, may provide that opportunity.

It is a chatty, anecdotal book, more concerned with Sontag’s career than with her work. How this project or that was advertised or reviewed figures more largely than any critical appraisal. Controversies, feuds, and alliances are charted – though many people, both friends and enemies, were apparently afraid to go on the record. There are some intriguing glimpses of Sontag’s love life and many upleasant ones of her (and her publisher Roger Straus’s) literary-political maneuvering and of her legendary rudeness to fans, publicists, interviewers, and bookstore staff. Not much, really, that anyone au courant with the New York intellectual or publishing scenes would consider news. But those of us who aren’t, and yet are fascinated by the “Dark Lady of American Letters,” will find Making of an Icon titillating just often enough to be worth reading.

It’s nice to know, for example, courtesy of the “Brief Anthology of Quotations” which follows the text, that it was Norman Podhoretz who coined the “Dark Lady” sobriquet. (Though it’s painful to imagine Podhoretz’s anguish over his unintended but invaluable contribution to Sontag’s apotheosis.) It’s poignant to learn that at 18 she “burst into sobs” while reading “Middlemarch” for the first time because “a few months earlier, I had married Mr. Casaubon.” (Though it’s odd to compare that self-deluding old fraud to Sontag’s ex-husband, Philip Rieff, then only 28 and already a genuinely important thinker.) And it’s impressive that when she divorced, even though she had no savings and no income, she accepted no child support or alimony. On the other hand, 14 references in the book’s index to “S.S., hair and hair-styles of … ” are probably 12 or 13 too many.

Before she was Susan Sontag she was Susan Rosenblatt, born in 1933 to parents who ran a fur-trading business. Her father died when she was four. Shortly afterward she developed asthma, so the family moved from Long Island to Tucson. In 1945 her mother remarried, and the next year the new family, the Sontags, moved to Los Angeles. The adolescent Susan was exceptionally bright, well-read, independent, ambitious, and good-looking – a borderline prodigy, considering the lack of encouragement from her family and milieu. When she entered the University of Chicago in 1949, then in its glory days under Robert Hutchins, she shot into orbit.

In less than two years she had not only a degree but also a husband, one of her many bedazzled instructors. When Rieff moved to Brandeis, Sontag continued her education, formally and informally, at Harvard. She also had a son, David (himself now a prominent author). Then came a liberating fellowship year in Oxford and Paris. (David stayed behind with his father.) Then back home to end the marriage, scoop up David, and begin a new, freer life in New York City.

Her success was overdetermined. Not only was she tall, dark, and beautiful, with a name that a press agent might have invented, but her bold, intense, assured, erudite essays in Partisan Review and elsewhere would have catapulted even a mousy Susan Rosenblatt to prominence. Her imperious pronouncements galvanized, delighted, and outraged readers on all sides. Pronouncements like this:

“The idea of content [in art] is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism. … It is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art. … Today the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. … Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world.” (“Against Interpretation,” 1964)

Or this:

“The commonest complaint about [the interesting art of our time] is that it is hard to look at or to read, that it is ‘boring.’ But the charge of boredom is hypocritical. There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a species of frustration.” (“One Culture and the New Sensibility,” 1965)

I’m still not certain what these passages mean and I doubt many other readers are either, but it must have been great fun arguing about them in the Sixties. And when Sontag ignored her own proscription and interpreted Camus, Artaud, Barthes, Benjamin, Canetti, Bergman, Godard, Bresson, photography, and much else, the results were stellar.

The same is true of her fiction: the less programmatic, the better. Her two early, experimental novels are excruciatingly self-conscious, almost wilfully dull. The more recent ones, The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000), while hardly old-fashioned in form, are gratifyingly full of color, incident, and feeling.

Sontag the public figure has a mixed record. Among the highlights: her 1965 pronouncement in a Partisan Review symposium that “the white race is the cancer of human history”; her 1968 trip to Hanoi and subsequent New York Review essay; her 1982 Town Hall speech, with its famous declaration that “Communism is fascism with a human face”; her battle with breast cancer (won against great odds) and the subsequent polemic “Illness as Metaphor”; and her efforts to rally American intellectuals on behalf of Bosnia in the early 1990s. Characteristically, Rollyson and Paddock do not so much evaluate these episodes as annotate them, carefully explaining how they played but not sorting out the wisdom from the foolishness, the eloquence from the rhetorical excess.

It’s too bad; but then, definitive judgments aren’t everything. Gossip has its uses, or at least its pleasures; and until more tongues are loosened and further dish is available, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon will do nicely.