book cover imageSusan Sontag: the Making of an Icon, Revised and Updated
by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock.
University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
Paperback, 368 pages, $30.

She lauds the way the North Vietnamese “genuinely care” about downed American pilots, providing more meat for them because they are “bigger than we are.” Not a word about torture. Not an inkling that simplicity, lack of irony, deficiency in style and aesthetic concerns is the hallmark of Sparta, a culture of martial discipline that can make Athens, no less than America, seem bloated and wasteful.”

Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock,
Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon

With the release of Susan Sontag’s diaries and personal papers, Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock have enriched their prior biography of this attractive and brilliant novelist, filmmaker, and social critic, advancing insight into her iconic climb to the height of America’s intelligentsia.

After a difficult childhood where Susan and her sister Judith are left in the care of a nanny and family members, Susan graduates from North Hollywood High School at fifteen and goes on to study at the University of California at Berkeley for a semester. Her exceptional talent is apparent as she is accepted into the University of Chicago to study with some of the world’s leading scholars, including Leo Strauss, the great neoconservative political theorist.

Special attention is placed on Sontag’s personal life, including affairs with both women and men. She audits a class at Chicago with Philip Rieff, whom she marries ten days later and with whom she later has a son, David. She takes graduate classes at Harvard, and then is off again to study at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, before finishing her studies at the Sorbonne. It is in Paris that she reunites with her former lover, Harriett Sohmers, and upon returning home to the United States, asks her husband for a divorce.

Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp” launches her career as a social critic and catapults her into the spotlight. She is fresh and young, courts an avant-garde following, and possesses a flair for the arts. Her views are hip and chic, and she is published in Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Vogue, The New York Review of Books, and Partisan Review. To be regarded as an “intellectual” was her highest desire and she would let nothing stand in the way.

In May of 1968, Sontag the war protestor traveled to North Vietnam for what would be a staged, government-sponsored propagandist trip. She blamed America for the war, and to prove her support for North Vietnamese, accepted and wore “a welcome ring made out of the aluminum from American fighter jets.” Upon returning home, Sontag used the trip to confirm her prior thoughts and views, glorifying the North Vietnamese and ignoring the atrocities they sponsored, including torture of American soldiers. I’m sure John McCain would offer a less romanticized view of his time in Southeast Asia. (Despite her widely publicized support, after the war ended the Vietnamese government slapped her in the face by banning her books.)

Ironically, years later at a town hall meeting in support of the Solidarity movement in Poland, Sontag would denounce communism, saying “communism is fascism with a human face.” The political left was outraged by her sudden turn, while conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr. applauded her change of heart.

Sontag lived a life of intellectual and political contradiction. Over the years, she proclaimed philosophical allegiance to both the left and the right, and was quick to change her views for the sake of lively debate. From picketing and speaking out against the Vietnam War to espousing support for the Cuban Revolution and American military intervention in Bosnia, she lacked coherent, consistent governing principles. She was perhaps among the best examples of intellectual-as-public-persona, always available for a panel discussion, interview, party, or “protest.” Her gifts as a stylist and thinker are overshadowed by this persona.

Rollyson and Paddock show that she was largely the product of cold calculation and unbridled ambition, built upon a platform of sophistry, manufactured outrage, and unapologetic radicalism. Unpredictability was her greatest strength and her opportunistic publisher, Roger Straus (the choreographer in her dance to success), was eager to capitalize upon her ability to sell books. For instance, she railed against privilege while demanding first-class plane tickets; she accepted awards and enjoyed celebrity status and its attendant perks while admonishing the country that made such luxuries possible; and she protested the war in Vietnam and then withdrew her support for communism when it was convenient for her career.

Feminist authors criticized Sontag for her views and ideological instability. While she supported a variety of popular “women’s issues,” Sontag did not speak openly about her own sexual orientation, perhaps to avoid alienating her audience. The photographer Annie Leibovitz was probably the greatest love of her life, yet she would never confirm the affair. It was only after her death that Leibovitz revealed they were lovers. Rollyson and Paddock have summed it up perfectly: “[s]he wanted to be admired for her style, not her lifestyle.”

As president of PEN, a literary and human rights organization, we see Sontag’s daring as she defends Salman Rushdie when the publication of The Satanic Verses incites the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue an order for the author’s death. She’s outraged that the United States government won’t do more to intercede. At a signing for her new book, AIDS and Its Metaphors, she leaps into a tirade at Stuart Bernstein, the person in charge of the event for Endicott Booksellers, telling him that she almost withdrew because Endicott had cancelled Rushdie’s public reading of The Satanic Verses.

Sontag made some intellectual contributions that may even be enduring and must be considered along with her failings. With Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, Sontag changed the way we look at illness. And her book of essays, On Photography, invited lively debate and fresh thinking on the way we look at pictures and the world. It begins: “Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” Sontag sought to escape the shadows of the cave, but her attempts to see past them were often unsuccessful. Many conclude that her career was built entirely upon such shadows, but Sontag has much to offer. Her political positions are often distasteful, but her work as a critic of art, cinema, and photography is nonetheless impressive. Rollyson and Paddock provide a renewed sense of Sontag and show who she really is, for better and worse.

George Santayana famously noted that “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” and indeed, we are once again onlookers to needless protests, marches, and civil unrest in our country. It’s easy to see Sontag as thrilled with today’s women’s rights marches and the anti-Trump movement. She would have relished the presidency of that consummate intellectual, Barack Obama, and been outraged by Donald Trump and the fact that many women voted for him. It is likely she would have headed up a march for immigrant rights and given us another view of life in the war-torn Middle East.

The authors have captured the essential features of Sontag and her writing, and successfully describe her formula for success through an analysis of her novels, essays, and interviews with both friends and enemies. Not everyone interviewed was an adoring fan. At times, it is challenging to navigate the gossip and innuendo discussed, but such insights are critical components in an overall assessment of Sontag’s life. We are left with a panoramic view of Susan Sontag, the intellectual “icon.” She was a figure of unquestionable talent, but her poor judgment and sheer opportunism in navigating the ideological currents of her time mean that her relevance as a public intellectual will never be secure. 

Ann-Michele Sproviero is a freelance writer from Spring Lake Heights, NJ.