If, as Camus once quipped, an intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself, then maybe we can describe that strangest of all creatures, the public intellectual, as someone whose mind society watches. Such a mind provides a kind of vicarious reactor whose lightning-fast formulations help everybody else to think more clearly.
Susan Sontag, immortalized in the photo by Richard Avedon that stares out from the cover of Benjamin Moser’s new book “Sontag: Her Life and Work,” was many things: a novelist, playwright, director, essayist. But probably the surest indication that her primary role was that of a public intellectual is that we finish Moser’s big book and wonder what kind of a reaction it would have provoked from Sontag herself. Even though it’s been 15 years since she died, we still pause for her inimitable counterpoint.
Moser, whose previous book “Why This World” was a life of Clarice Lispector, has built his work from a precious mass of primary sources, not only Sontag’s own archive but also scores of interviews with all the people from Sontag’s life. No future biographical study of this author, and we can hope that there will be many, will be able to progress without the foundation provided here.
There’s an inherent danger in reading this kind of archive-buttressed groundbreaker of a life story, of course: Never is a writer more tempted to share every jot and tittle of research or less likely to remember how quickly minutiae can curdle into trivia. The side of Sontag that was so often magnificent, “the Sontag, majestic and terrifying, whose raised eyebrow made and broke careers … who knew everyone and everything,” is necessarily vulnerable to too many visits to the file index.
Moser mostly avoids this by the means Sontag herself would have appreciated: He tells a good story. He traces Sontag’s birth in New York City in 1933, her marriage as a teenager to Philip Rieff, and her complicated relationships with her mother and sister. He explores the burgeoning of her career and the full plenitude of her later relationship with the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Through it all, Moser tends to strike an effective balance between the kind of immersive detail Sontag specialists will eagerly expect and the kind of broader narrative momentum that ordinary readers will appreciate (and that might turn a few of them into Sontag specialists, always a pleasant side effect).
For all that she might have privately wanted a hagiography, Sontag would almost certainly have publicly excoriated one, and Moser stops just short of the line. He himself notes that, “In Sontag’s strongest writings, example is piled upon example, quote upon quote, making it difficult for the reader to reach any conclusion other than hers,” and yet in his own book it’s possible to hear the dissenting voices. Moser himself looks unflinchingly at his subject’s shortcomings, from offhandedly noting that Sontag could be “late, tired, and boring” when speaking in public to admitting that she had “A weakness for rhetorical pizzazz” that could sometimes seem like she was trivializing important subjects. The subject of amphetamines is softened by one of the countless pitch-perfect anecdotes that fill the text: “Speed let Susan do what she had always done, but far more: ‘Susan liked to do as many things in one day as she possibly could,’ said her friend Gary Indiana, who, though a speed user himself, nonetheless marveled at her energy. ‘If she could go to Chinatown for lunch and then go to Bleecker Street Cinema to see a matinee and then go to Public Theater in Chelsea and then go to Times Square to see a double feature of kung fu movies, she would do it.’”
Her triumphs are more luminous, and more numerous. Moser smartly discusses her generation-defining works of nonfiction, 1964’s “Notes on ‘Camp,’” 1966’s “Against Interpretation” 1978’s “Illness as Metaphor,” even 2003’s “Regarding the Pain of Others,” the kind of writing we simply can’t imagine coming from any other writer. Moser also devotes some space to her organizing of a public reading of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in response to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa (as Moser notes, “the word would soon need no italics”) against the author. Karen Kennerly, former executive director of PEN America, is quoted describing how neither Arthur Miller nor Kurt Vonnegut wanted anything to do with the controversy (“I’m saying this now only because they’re dead”), but Rushdie later wrote about a roster of prominent American writers, “Whipped into line by Susan.” As Moser puts it, first among those allies was the woman Rushdie called “Good Susan.”
With depressing inevitability, Moser concludes, “What mattered about Susan Sontag was what she symbolized.” Thankfully, he’s much closer to the mark when he points out that Sontag “set the terms of the cultural debate in a way that no intellectual had done before, or has done since.”