Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
     




Susan Sontag, photo by Annie Leibovitz from the jacket cover of Against Interpretation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961)

Susan Sontag, 1933-2004
by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe


Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation had a huge effect on readers of my generation, including me, because like Godard and the Rolling Stones it came to grips with the requirements of a subjectivity -- a way of seeing the world and the subject who saw the world -- that was not the one that had survived the depression and the Second World War. I read it in London in 1967 as soon as it appeared. I came across it quite by chance at, appropriately enough, the Mandarin bookshop in Bayswater and later that day began a career of quoting Sontag which has lasted to the present.

Against Interpretation and her other works will now be reread, not least with a view to claiming her for this or that camp -- as has already long been the case with her famous Notes on Camp itself -- and my memorial to Susan is going to take the form of a paragraph or more about what shouldn't be forgotten.

By the end of 1970 I was in New York and had met more than one person who wanted to be Susan Sontag, but couldn't be because you can only do that once. I also got to meet and communicate with her a handful of times between then and a couple of years ago. I remember driving her back to New York from Princeton at some point early in the 1970s on the day when she'd brought her son to look at the place and arguing all the way about Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which she insisted was "just" science fiction and for which I was engaged at that time in making considerably larger claims for its literary and cultural significance.

She was a delight in that she was quite prepared to take an argument as far it could be taken, but I think it might have been during that ride that I also formed the opinion that Susan was what she was because she straddled two epochs. Like Godard, she didn't see what was coming, she saw what was happening. She saw how things had suddenly become extremely different than they had been. But also like Godard, as a member of the generation that went to college in the ‘50s she belonged as much to the last wave of the Depression and war epoch as the first of what was next.

She was born in the year that Hitler was elected Chancellor but then decided it would be best if he did everything by himself, and although the people who got off on her most were the next generation -- post-Hitler, and post-Hiroshima too -- rather than her own, her position on Pynchon was I think revealing. She remained committed to a canon in which science fiction ultimately couldn't be serious. I am happy to agree that it can't, but only because science is too dull to sustain the needs of prose fiction, while she rejected it because the characters were one-dimensional.

I think the ‘50s were the last time dimensionality of a psychological sort was a prerequisite for esthetic ambition, and besides causing Susan to miss the point where Pynchon was concerned I think it was that sort of thing that made it possible for her to write about Marguerite Duras earlier in her career and Emma Hamilton later. Both are made for an esthetic in which developed characters interact with politics at a remove which is at once erotic and esthetic. I think she wanted an art that did that more than anything else, and that she looked at everything with a view to how much of that it did.

When she had major stumbles, like her book on photography, I think it was because she had got enthusiastic enough about something to want to write about it at length and then found it wasn't very interesting from her point of view because it wasn't really as psychologically active or as historically expressive as she'd at first thought it was.

The Museum of Contemporary Art opened in Los Angeles 1981 in a temporary space designed by Frank Gehry with a performance by Lucinda Childs and sets also by Gehry. Susan wrote the bit in the catalogue about Lucinda and I the bit about Gehry, and when they called to ask me what I wanted to be paid I said, "Whatever Susan's getting," which I'm sure I didn't get but she was supportive and it was things like that which reminded one of the less interesting reasons why so many people one knew wanted to be her.

Others will have plenty to say about her stardom, people who knew her will have plenty to say about what she thought about it. She was a professional writer as we all know, and really good at short things about subjects she hadn't considered all that much -- she once wrote a tiny essay on cars for New York Magazine (I think) and when asked about it said she needed to buy her son a car. But, as I can attest from a more recent exchange in which I sent Susan a short note and got a longer one back, as a writer about all sorts of things she seems to have read everything and to have always been reading it.

And likewise always to have been looking. I think her attitude to the visual and performing arts, including dance, was both very French and wholly conditioned by New York art and performance of the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was French in that she saw images and other things one looks at first anthropologically -- a structure, a ritual or order and set of codes -- and then psychologically -- a subject or subjective formation. It was wholly conditioned by John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Jasper Johns in the sense that she seems to have subscribed to the view that art hasn't really moved on, that the ‘60s remain at the heart of things because after the ‘60s one only has the post-‘60s.

Sontag affirmed an interest in the esthetic, and hers was always an esthetic that came into contact with the non-esthetic, which it also defined. I hope that the re-reading that will now take place will promote a reaffirmation of the esthetic, but if so it will be one with which Susan would have been impatient.

But while I think that in the long term those rereading her should think about her insistence on the esthetic, it's for her political impatience that we'll surely want to remember her in the immediate future, in the form of her being more or less the only member of the New York star-level intelligentsia to have any balls regarding 9/11. Amidst evasion and foot-shuffling of the worst sort Susan insisted on having a look at the issues.

The same looking everywhere but at the facts while fidgeting when asked about them continues as I write. Politics was close to the center of her thinking, and I think what she has had to say about Iraq, etc., followed from the logic of her being an intellectual, by which I mean that she felt obliged to address questions of logic and truth. That was, after all, a large part of the point of Notes on Camp that people were quick to get.


JEREMY GILBERT-ROLFE is a painter who writes about art. He is chair of the MFA program in art at Art Center College in Pasadena.