Friday, June 20th, 2014

Regarding Susan Sontag

The writer/philosopher/political activist/filmmaker Susan Sontag gained both a reputation and a notoriety for her controversial work very early on in her career which stuck with her until her untimely death just aged 71. This new HBO documentary by Nancy Kates seems to deliberately set out to be a tribute to someone the director is clearly in awe of, but just by presenting some of the very basic facts of Ms Sontag’s life and listening to a few of the talking heads, she also reveals that this literary icon was also a self-centered and pretentious egotist.
As a 17 year old student at the University of Chicago Sontag became completely besotted with Philip Rieff her sociology lecturer whom she married after a 10 day courtship. Graduation was followed by a teaching spell at the University of Connecticut and then a Masters Degree at Harvard, and then when she was offered a Fellowship at Oxford University she simply abandoned her husband and their very young son and moved to England. Her college days were also the start of her life long fixation with only mixing with people she considered her intellectual equal (or higher) and though they didn’t necessarily have to be writers, they did have to be to the forefront in their field.
Sontag published her first experimental novel The Benefactor in 1963 followed by Dream Kit four years later. Despite her very low output of fiction (compared to her essays) Sontag considered herself a novelist first and foremost and although some of her novels met with both critical and commercial acclaim they were by no means universally loved.  Gore Vidal declared that she was one of the world’s worst writers and that ‘her intelligence is greater than her talent’.
After divorcing Rieff, Sontag embarked on a series of love affairs with several famous women, most of whom seemed to have either been in the closet like she was, or just in denial about their sexuality. Although Sontag would continue to fall in and out of love with both men and women all her life, it was the latter that featured more prominently and on which Kates’s documentary focuses on.  They were not always happy affairs like in her relationship with Lucinda Childs the celebrated postmodern dancer/choreographer and actress that ended badly and seems to rankle Childs a little even today. It seems that living with this acclaimed genius was never an easy thing.
One of the striking contradictions of Sontag’s life was that although she was never less than forthright on tackling many controversial and socially/political topics head on, and never ever restrained from pushing her often far-thinking opinions in both her writings and in debates, she failed to be that open on a more personal level.  It was particularly quite surprising for someone whose writings on ‘gay sensibility’ were some of the very best and most forward interpretations on the subject.  She may have been of a generation like photographer Annie Leibovitz her last life partner where they avoided using (as Leibovitz said) the traditional terms in publicly acknowledging each other’s role, but it was the sad statement of Sontag’s only sister Judith that dealt with the reality of such attitudes. As Sontag neared death she asked her sibling to name anything she regretted and would had liked to have changed Judith listed two items: the most important of which was her disappointment that Sontag have never ever been honest with her about what really mattered in life.
She was a very handsome women who knew how to pose provocatively for photographs and generally promote herself. Immensely articulate, a dedicated aesthete with a marked disdain for anything or anybody that offended her highly tuned sensitives that made her a maddening snob at times. She also hated the fact when she or her work were the subject of other people’s critiques. When the films she directed were badly received Sontag dismissed this with ‘I read the reviews : I think they were wrong’ . 
The overall impression of Sontag that one walks away from Kates’s biography (which in itself tries too hard to be artsy at times) is that this was a woman whose wit and observational writing influenced how many Americans regarded their culture, and also made her famous which is exactly what she so desperately craved to be. Whether one liked and admired her work or in fact loathed it, you have to at least concede that this unique and passionate woman was never ever dull.

Posted by queerguru  at  14:26

Genres:  documentary, lesbian

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