I was introduced to Susan Sontag in Jody McAuliffe’s directing class at Duke. We were assigned to read her seminal essays “Against Interpretation” and “On Style”. As a literary/theater geek, I felt like I had discovered a new form of pornography. I remember the exact room in the East Campus library were I would pore over her books. Some of the names she talked about I knew, most I didn’t, but one thing I knew was: I wanted to know more.
It was truly dizzying the way that she wielded difficult literary and philosophical concepts with the ease of combing her hair. She constantly invoked unheard-of artists as if they were common currency in late twentieth century America. A bit older and wiser now, I get that that was part of her act, and some of her ideas, thrilling as they are, don’t hold up to prolonged scrutiny. But even if it was part affectation, the fluency in the art and thought of our time that she seemed to take as a given in all her readers gestured at a way that the world could be: we could live in a world in which people had immersed themselves in, and become truly intimate with, challenging, contemporary artists who MATTERED.
Another book that was assigned in Jody McAuliffe’s class was Richard Gilman’s The Making of Modern Drama. Sontag had endorsed it “Richard Gilman’s study of this beautiful subject is written with love, measure and authority. It has no equals.” Gilman’s book was impressive enough, but Sontag’s endorsement of it made me love it all the more. It was a book I was to read and reread many times over the years. Later, when I came across a copy of Gilman’s Common and Uncommon Masks in a used bookstore, I was astonished to learn that he had written a whole essay about Sontag, mostly defending her from older critics who Just Didn’t Get It. I swooned; it was like two of my best friends had met and were falling in love.
I worked in a campus bookstore one summer, and had plenty of time to read the one biography on Sontag while I was at work, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to buy it. It was mostly intellectual biography, but certain facts emerged about her personal life: her incredible precociousness, going to Berkeley at 16, appearing on the cover of Vogue, her divorce, her travels to Hanoi.
She has turned up at many junctures in my life. I remember falling hard for a guy in New York who was probably never meant to be more than a one-night stand for me but he had a Sontag book on his bookshelf. He would one day become the actor David Pittu, Later, in Berlin, I met a guy who introduced me to Robert Wilson, who was directing Sontag’s play about Alice James, Alice in Bed, for the Schaubuehne. I went to the premiere with my snarky, cynical friend Egbert, who insisted he saw Sontag snoring through the premier of her show at the Hebbel Theater. I don’t know if it was true; it was the kind of thing Egbert would have made up. It was a funny image nonetheless.
Still later, still in Berlin, I met the photographer David Armstrong, and was enthralled to learn that he and his associate Nan Goldin were socializing routinely with Sontag and Daryl Pinkney, as they were all guests of the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). I remember David remarking that Sontag seemed to look through men; she was apparently only interested in listening to women.
David and I moved back to New York. David had a good friend, Peyton Smith, who was a member of the Wooster Group at the time. I had been a fan of the Wooster Group for years at this point, and couldn’t believe my good luck that I had gotten to meet one of them in person. Even better than that, I was invited to watch rehearsals, and when I was there watching, who else was there watching too? You guessed it, Susan Sontag. Peyton let me know that Sontag had recently discovered the Wooster Group and was there pretty much every night. I was glad to know that one of my favorite critics loved my favorite theater company, and I was even more glad to know that I had found them before she had.
While I was at the Drama School at Yale, Sontag came to read from her new novel, In America. Of course I was there with my first edition copy of Under the Sign of Saturn to be signed. I hadn’t read her recent novel, The Volcano Lover. I had picked it up in the bookstore and given it the first paragraph test. It had come up wanting. All I remember was that the first paragraph ended in the word “Rubbish” and that had struck me as terribly stuffy. Plus it was a historical fiction, which made me deeply skeptical as well. Had the great Sontag gone soft in her old age? Historical fiction was decidedly midbrow, or so I believed at the time.
I found the reading that she did from In America tedious. David and I went up to her afterwards, and David was able to sort of make her remember who he was. I gushed about what an honor it was to meet her, and handed her the book to sign. She complied, almost grudgingly, and then let me know with more than a little impatience that I needed to read her more recent books. I remember thinking what a waste it was that such a brilliant critic and thinker wanted to write these novels that just didn’t seem very interesting.
There was one thing that she said on this occasion which surprised me. Before she read, or maybe afterwards during the Q&A, she remarked that she thought that one of the main purposes of art (or literature, or fiction, I can’t remember) was to instruct, particularly to instruct the heart, or something to that effect. I remember this striking me so strongly because it is such a far remove from her positions Against Interpretation, when it was all about how sensual appreciation of art conditioned the moral sense. “Instead of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” She had ridiculed any sort of didacticism. And now here she was extolling “instruction”. She was coming out as a nineteenth century novelist. No wonder the preoccupation with historical settings. Time passes, people evolve, I guess. But it sure was surprising.
I had an encounter with another guy, Rick Whitaker, that catalyzed the dissolution of my relationship with David. The night I met him, he was talking about Thomas Bernhard’s novel Woodcutters, about which I was to go on to write a dissertation. Sontag would write about Bernhard years later in discussing the phenomenon that is W.G. Sebald. Rick Whitaker, too, had Sontag on his bookshelf. I ended up writing him a postcard with a reproduction of the image that was on the cover of the Penguin edition of Portrait of a Lady, my favorite nineteenth century novel. That postcard was probably the closest I have ever come to writing romantic poetry.
I saw Susan Sontag one more time in person. It was near the end of my time in New York. I was getting ready to say goodbye to all that. I had somehow ended up in a hip new gay club in Williamsburg. I don’t know what it was called anymore. I was barely over 30, but I felt old and frumpy compared to the kids at this club. I was still trying to figure out what electroclash was, even though everyone assured me it was already over. Whoever I was with, I can’t remember now, pointed to a couple at the bar, who were much older, and said “Isn’t that Susan Sontag?” And sure enough, there was the black hair interrupted by the streak of distinguished gray, nodding sagely to the shaved head gay culture vulture she was sitting with. It took me a moment to accept that Susan Sontag was hanging out at this divey night club with these teen-agers, but there she was. The person I was with, whoever it was, assured me that Sontag liked to keep her ear to the ground with respect to what the kids were up to.
Last night, scrolling throught my Google reader, I came across this video that collects excerpts from Sontag’s appearances on Charlie Rose. In watching the clips, she somehow struck me as earthier than she ever had before. I don’t know whether I had changed or she had, probably both. But what I love about this video is how she owns up to having made a big mistake: when she was younger, she had doubted the power of fiction to communicate. Quite late in life, she had discovered her true passion, her true self. It was inspiring to hear this woman, an authority on everything, admit that she had missed the boat. It somehow made it ok to admire her without reservation: she was not so full of her own expertise and insightfulness that she couldn’t see her own mistakes. A critic who knows everything, but then, finally, doesn’t, is a critic I can embrace, once and for all.