Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag

Sigrid Nunez’s memoir was a delight—mentioned in Janet Malcolm’s latest New Yorker piece wherein she eviscerates a new biography of Sontag and offers Nunez’s memories as a counterbalance.  Nunez arrived at Sontag’s doorstep to help with piled up correspondence that had pooled while Sontag was convalescing from breast cancer. Soon she was dating Sontag’s song, David, who lived with Susan, and the three of them were shortly piled into the apartment together for a few years. Beautiful, generous memories from Nunez that humanize Sontag in a way that no others seem to.

Even someone who met her only once was likely to go away with a reading list. She wanted to improve the minds and refine the tastes of other people, to tell people things they didn’t know. She wanted her passions to be shared by all, and to respond with equal intensity to any work she loved was to give her one of her biggest pleasures.

Sontag was addicted to films:

It was with her that I first learned how much more exciting a movie is when watched form a seat close up to the screen. Because of her, I still always sit in the front of the theater, I still resist watching any movie on television, and I have never been able to bring myself to rent movie videos or DVDs.

Always, always book recommendations:

I cannot recall a single book she recommended that I was not glad to have read. One of the last times I saw her, it was W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants that she went on and on about.

When Nunez shows Sontag her own writing, Susan spots the problem at once: “‘You need an agon,’ she said. And then, of course, she had to explain to me what that meant. ” (Conflict)

Nunez was much more introverted than the two of them and didn’t want to go out as much. “When I got sick of being faulted for not being more like the two of them, for not getting out in the world more, for not wanting to see and do more, I’d retaliate with what was probably the biggest gun I had: ‘Beckett wouldn’t do it.'”

More recommendations from Sontag: Balzac’s Lost Illusions, Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

*** Update, days later after watching Tokyo Story, I can’t stop thinking about this:

Essays: The imagination of disaster & Notes on “camp”

Sontag’s 1965 essay, The Imagination of Disaster, (collected in Against Interpretation) is her look at sci-fi films in the era of worrying about the atomic bomb. The dialogue in these films makes them “wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like ‘Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub,’… and ‘I hope it works!’ are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something that is painful and in deadly earnest.” The films are about disaster, “one of the oldest subjects of art.” And in the films, disaster is always viewed extensively, a question of scale, a matter of “quantity and ingenuity.”

The aesthetics of destruction are the “peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess.” We are “treated to a panorama of melting tanks, flying bodies, crashing walls, awesome craters and fissures in the earth, plummeting spacecraft, colorful deadly rays; and to a symphony of screams, weird electronic signals, the noisiest military hardware going, and the leaden tones of the laconic denizens of alien planets and their subjugated earthlings.”

“The theme of depersonalization (being ‘taken over’)… is a new allegory reflecting the age-old awareness of man that, sane, he is always perilously close to insanity and unreason. But there is something more here than just a recent, popular image which expresses man’s perennial but largely unconscious anxiety about his sanity. The image derives most of its power from a supplementary and historical anxiety, also not experienced consciously by most people, about the depersonalizing conditions of modern urban life.”

“Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”

“The interest of these films, aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naïve and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation.”

The films force us to “think about the unthinkable.”

“In the films it is by means of images and sounds, not words that have to be translated by the imagination, that one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death, and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.”


Notes on “Camp” (1964, also collected in Against Interpretation) is another useful essay as I’m trying to crack what it is about terrible movies that I enjoy so much. Movies are one of the first things she notes as “campy,” calling out Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) as an example.

“One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp is usually less satisfying.”

“In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.”

“The reason a movie like On the Beach, books like Winesburg, Ohio and For Whom the Bell Tolls are bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable, is that they are too dogged and pretentious. They lack fantasy. There is Camp in such bad movies as The Prodigal and Samson and Delilah, the series of Italian color spectacles featuring the super-hero Maciste, numerous Japanese science fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man) because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy—and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.”

“One cheats oneself as a human being if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.”

“One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that ‘sincerity’ is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.”

“Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century’s surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.”

She quotes from Oscar Wilde (father of Camp) throughout the essay, including A Woman of No Importance: “I adore simple pleasures, they are the last refuge of the complex.”

“Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste… The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy… Camp makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.”

“Camp taste is a a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation, not judgement. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism… Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes rather than judges the little triumphs and awkward intensities of character.”

“The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”


Against Interpretation: And Other Essays

Yuk. Oh Susan, don’t let your big brain get in the way of crafting a perceptive and elegant sentence. I picked this up to read the essay on Happenings that I was reminded of in Painterland and I stuck around to skim through the rest of her essays from the early 1960s. The only bit that really interested me was her essay The artist as exemplary sufferer, where she explores Cesare Pavese’s life and journals (which I’ve tried and failed to read).

Why do we read a writer’s journal? Because it illuminates his books? Often it does not. More likely, simply because of the rawness of the journal form, even when it is written with an eye to future publication. Here we read the writer in the first person; we encounter the ego behind the masks of ego in an author’s works… The journal gives us the workshop of the writer’s soul. And why are we interested in the soul of the writer? Not because we are so interested in writers as such. But because of the insatiable modern preoccupation with psychology, the latest and most powerful legacy of the Christian tradition of introspection, opened up by Paul and Augustine, which equates the discovery of the self with the discovery of the suffering self. For the modern consciousness, the artist (replacing the saint) is the exemplary sufferer. And among artists, the writer, the man of words, is the person to whom we look to be able best to express his suffering.

On Photography

One of the pleasures of getting older is re-reading books that were inspirational to you when you were younger. Only now I find that I’m more ornery, less likely to be dazzled by Sontag’s philosophical meanderings and highfalutin $5 words (“agon”? Just say “conflict” already). I was curious to see how Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays holds up in the context of today’s hyper-photographed world. Could she have imagined a world wherein we all have computers that take high-resolution photos in our pocket and the inherent pressure to feed content into the hungry maw of social media?

The essay most relevant to today’s disturbing phenomenon is In Plato’s Cave, mentioning the first use of photos as surveillance tools by Parisian cops in 1871, and saying that photography “has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” She notes that photography is a “defense against anxiety” and delves into the problem of tourists, “photographs will offer indisputable evidence… that fun was had.” Contrasting Mallarmé’s assertion that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book, Sontag concludes that “today everything exists to end in a photograph.”

This essay made me wonder how much influence Sontag’s thinking had on Liebovitz’s recent display of photos, Women: New Portraits, at the Presidio. In this abandoned warehouse, I was surprised to see only a few prints hung on a cluster of walls, with generous seating for people to flop in and watch a slideshow of images float by on huge screens. The tyranny of the digital, the need to always take advantage of the latest technology? Sontag suggests that books aren’t the best way to present photos because the sequence is proposed by the order of pages but “nothing holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph.” Enter the video slideshow, which in my mind provides a terrible experience for the viewer, jerked from photo to photo at the whim of the projection, unable to gawk and focus and ogle any particular one in the mix.

America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly is the 2nd essay, touching on Whitman, Stieglitz, but mostly about Diane Arbus (who I did not realize committed suicide… “the fact of her suicide seems to guarantee that her work is sincere, not voyeuristic, that it is compassionate, not cold.”).

Melancholy Objects tries to settle the age-old question of whether or not photography is art, comparing it to painting, poetry. Here we have more tourists: “Faced with the awesome spread and alienness of a newly settled continent, people wielded cameras as a way of taking possession of the places they visited. Kodak put signs at the entrance of many towns listing what to photograph. Signs marked the places in national parks where visitors should stand with their cameras.”  How much do we change the meaning and reality of a photograph by focusing only on capturing what it is that we want to see? Beautifying poverty, making ugly and weird seem photogenic.

The Heroism of Vision delves deeper into the investigation about whether photos lie, and the impact of the words paired with the photo. As Godard and Gorin point out, photos talk “through the mouth of the text written beneath it.” Captions highly influence our perception of what we are viewing. We are also distanced by the subject at the same time we are brought close to it. “The aestheticizing tendency of photography is such that the medium which conveys distress ends by neutralizing it.”

Photographic Evangels puts photographers on the defensive, “Like other steadily aggrandizing enterprises, photography has inspired its leading practitioners with a need to explain, again and again, what they are doing and why it is valuable.” Because it is so easy to take photos, the professionals insist that they have magic in their hands, that it is not an accident that they take great pictures. And yet, “most photographers have always had–with good reason–an almost superstitious confidence in the lucky accident.” Sontag asserts that there is virtually zero discernible difference in photos made by these professionals. “Many of the published photographs by photography’s greatest names seem like work that could have been done by another gifted professional of their period.” What about museums? “Photograph’s adoption by the museum only accelerates that process which time will bring about anyway: making all work valuable.”

The last essay, The Image-World, circles back to the original ideas in the first chapter, which made it more interesting to me than the somewhat irrelevant ranting about whether photos are lies or art. Reality is more and more like what cameras show us, people now insisting their experience of a violent event “seemed like a movie,” this being the best way to explain how real it felt. “To possess the world in the form of images is, precisely, to reexperience the unreality and remoteness of the real.”

A society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.

She notes Melville’s Pierre’s snobbishness around the fact that photos are now available to the Everyman: “Besides, when every body has his portrait published, true distinction lies in not having yours published at all.”

Cameras “provide an instantly retroactive view of experience” thus further distancing ourselves from the reality of now. Photography offers “both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others–allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.” People are disappointed by seeing the real thing in life when they have already seen the idealized image of the thing in a photo. We’re also vulnerable to disturbing events shown via photos that we’re immune to when experiencing them in real life. “That vulnerability is part of the distinctive passivity of someone who is a spectator twice over, spectator of events already shaped, first by the participants and second by the image maker.

Sontag notes that cameras have begun to offer “self-surveillance,” something absolutely true in today’s age where anyone on Facebook is essentially a narc.

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the works o f an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.