Expertly Seeking Susan

Review of Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser. The Irish Times, 5 October 2019, p. 22.

In 1965, Susan Sontag — fresh from publishing her landmark essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’” — was whisked away in a limousine to a hip nightclub notorious for its strict door policy. A member of her party whispered something in the bouncer’s ear, whereupon they were ushered in ahead of the lengthy queue. “I said, ‘We’re with Susan Sontag,’” her friend later confided, when she asked how he had worked his magic.

The young woman, still only in her early 30s, was astonished to discover that her name had become an “open sesame” to high society. Despite being filmed by Andy Warhol and dining out with Jacqueline Kennedy, the budding intellectual superstar felt like a figment of her own imagination. This discrepancy between the “real me” and the “self-for-others” lies at the heart of Benjamin Moser’s fittingly monumental authorised biography. Running to more than 700 pages (excluding notes and index) and drawing on a wealth of hitherto inaccessible material, as well as scores of interviews, Sontag: Her Life has a strong claim to definitive status.

Sontag herself may well be the ideal candidate for a literary biography. She once observed that an author’s journal allows us to “read the writer in the first person” and “encounter the ego behind the masks of ego”, but what her own diaries reveal is essentially a lack of ego, or at best one so amorphous as to be a blank slate.

To say that Sontag was a divided self is not the half of it. “I have always liked to pretend my body isn’t there,” she confessed, despite coming across, in the 1960s, as the love child of Alcibiades and Socrates, or Monroe and Einstein. This accounts, inter alia, for her lifelong hygiene issues (she had to remind herself — in longhand — to take baths and clean her teeth), her punishing, speed-fuelled nocturnal writing routine (WH Auden was one of her dealers) and her failure to even mention she had cancer in Illness as Metaphor.

Moser chronicles Sontag’s regular attempts to resolve what she called the “agonised dichotomy between the body and the mind”, which she identified early on as the source of her “greatest unhappiness”. These could take a predictably theoretical shape, as in her work on Antonin Artaud, who had sought, she wrote, “to heal the split between language and flesh”, or her concomitant interest in Gnosticism, which held out the promise of reconciling “all dualisms”. At other times she would make a concerted effort to “emerge from her head into her body”, perhaps most successfully during her passionate affair with playwright María Irene Fornés, who introduced her to sexual pleasure. She described (in comically abstract terms) “[t]he coming of the orgasm” as “the birth of [her] ego”, going as far as to claim that she “didn’t exist in the sense that others and everything else did” prior to this most seminal of events.

Her busy, tempestuous, sentimental life failed, however, to provide any semblance of plenitude. Sontag always conceived of relationships as a struggle between master and slave (usually playing the former role with men and the latter with women, although her bullying of long-term partner Annie Leibovitz takes some beating). This power dynamic was even internalised, with “Miss Librarian” — as she called her geeky, gawky self — constantly berated and spurred on to better things by “that person who has been watching me as long as I can remember”.

At the tender age of 11, Sontag made the (as she put it) “conscious decision” to become popular, thus embarking on a lifelong “project of self-transformation” underpinned by a pressing need “to see more, to hear more, to feel more”. As a schoolgirl, she could be found studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, concealed behind a copy of the Reader’s Digest she was really meant to be focusing on. By the age of 16 she was studying at Chicago — then the US’s most intellectually rigorous university — having already spent a year at Berkley. And that was only the beginning.

As Moser points out, she often tried to find herself in works of art in which she could lose herself. Her quest for a heightened sense of reality doubtless culminated when she directed Waiting for Godot in a besieged Sarajevo: “This is not ‘symbolic’,” she declared, as though she had just brought down the Matrix, “This is real”.

Writing, for her, was not so much a means of self-expression — having little self to express in the first place — but one of self-creation. Convinced that all good writers are “roaring egotists”, she coveted the persona of the great author which would counteract her inclination “to hide, to be invisible”, itself compounded by her homosexuality: “I need the identity as a weapon,” she stated in 1959, “to match the weapon that society has against me”.

The imperious diva of later years — with her trademark Cruella de Vil hairdo — may have lorded it over Manhattan’s intelligentsia, but still felt, whenever she was alone, like the little girl she had tried so hard to outgrow. The part of herself she had spent a lifetime attempting to leave behind was, paradoxically enough, the only one that felt truly authentic, no doubt because it was born of deep trauma (a dead father and an alcoholic mother). Moser shows how fame inevitably widened this gap “between the simulacrum, the metaphor, the mask, the persona and the self found in silence”.

Sontag’s adoption of the larger-than-life persona of the Great American Novelist was also at odds with the negative capability that informs some her best works, which may well have reinforced her feeling of inauthenticity.

Sontag’s greatest creation was, ultimately, Susan Sontag herself, and the two were “neither completely distinct nor completely identical”, just like an image and the object it represents. As her biographer puts it, twice — but it is worth repeating — she “created the mould, then broke it”.

The Doodles of Yesteryear

This appeared in the June 2017 issue of Literary Review, pp. 9-10.

Read All About It

At first blush, the author of ‘The Death of the Author’ may seem a somewhat paradoxical choice of subject for a biographer. Au contraire, argues Tiphaine Samoyault in Barthes: A Biography, originally published in France in 2015. Just shy of five hundred pages long, excluding notes and index, it is, to date, the most comprehensive portrait of Barthes’s life and times. Calling it definitive — which in many respects it is — would be to miss the point, however. Memories being open to constant recomposition, Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone. He hoped his own might be limited to a few ‘biographemes’ – ‘a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections’ – which, ‘like Epicurean atoms’, would perhaps touch ‘some future body, destined to the same dispersion’. The ideal biography would thus come in the form of a book in a box, like something by Marc Saporta or B S Johnson, the unbound pages of which could be shuffled around like the index cards Barthes wrote on. The stand-alone paragraphs of his own memoir, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975), were arranged in alphabetical order so as to obviate narrative continuity and its attendant teleological bias. While cleaving to a traditional, broadly chronological format, Samoyault goes to great lengths to ensure that Barthes does not end up pickled in aspic. In a prologue, she retraces his last steps on the day in 1980 when he was knocked over by a van, an accident that led to his demise (from pulmonary complications) one month later. ‘The Death of Barthes’ is, in effect, cordoned off, lest his life be reduced, retrospectively, to a fixed, univocal reading, akin to the ‘“message” of the Author-God’ he had once lambasted.

Barthes regarded death as the only event that truly eludes language. All the rest is discourse, as he argued in Mythologies (1957), a book in which he took reading out of the library and into the world. Rather than drawing up a laundry list of the different hats he wore, we should probably regard Barthes, above all else, as a reader. In bringing literature to life (‘every text is eternally written here and now’), the act of reading rewrites ‘the text of the work within the text of our lives’. Textual pleasure climaxes, he contends, when a book ‘succeeds in writing fragments of our own daily lives’ — when, in other words, it reads us. He even confessed to deriving more enjoyment from the ‘abrasions’ his distracted perusal imprinted upon ‘the fine surface’ of a text than from the narrative itself. It is through the prism of these abrasions — the interface between life and art — that Samoyault succeeds in getting a purchase on Barthes’s eclectic oeuvre.

Having famously described literature as the space ‘where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes’, Barthes increasingly sought out the inscription of this physical presence, ‘the hand as it writes’. Samoyault traces his penchant for self-portraiture back to the time he spent in sanatoria and the repeated diets he went on, turning his body ‘into an object for analysis’, which he read ‘like a text’. She avers that ‘going back to the body’ implied ‘viewing writing as a material production of signs that placed it on the same level as any other artistic practice’. Between 1971 and 1975, Barthes painted every day, inspired by the ‘absolute corporeal gesture’ of calligraphy he had discovered in Japan, a partly fantasised land that seemed to herald ‘a civilisation of the signifier’. Samoyault insists that this activity was ‘inseparable from his thoughts about writing’. In several essays and reviews, Barthes reflects upon the tradition of ‘illegible writing’ in the works of artists such as Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly or Bernard Réquichot, going as far as to claim that André Masson’s semiography achieved the ‘utopia of the Text’. His own graphic productions — he was reluctant to speak of artworks, preferring to see them as a form of handicraft — were, according to Samoyault, neither words nor paintings, but the ‘union of the two’. Describing them (there are 380 paintings and drawings by Barthes in the Bibliothèque Nationale’s archive), she observes that they ‘can be very close to writing when it forgets to make sense, when it turns into a trace, remembers the productions of childhood, the scribbling’. If they are indeed reminiscent of the doodles of yesteryear, they are also — perhaps more importantly — post-verbal. She explains that they allow us to enter a world free from ‘any formed language, any preconstructed thought’ – a world ‘exempt from meaning’, to use Barthes’s recurring phrase. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, he described language as ‘fascist’ because it compels us to think and talk in a given manner. The world is therefore always already written; the ultimate purpose of literature, in his eyes, is ‘to unexpress the expressible’, to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion: ‘For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible’.

Samoyault suggests that Barthes’s life can be partly explained by what it lacked. Together with his homosexuality and Protestant roots, tuberculosis (‘incontestably the major event of his life’) led to missed opportunities, contributing to a lifelong sense of marginalisation. Barthes spoke about the ‘great Oedipal frustration’ of having no father figure to slay. His mother’s death, in 1977, accelerated the autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn that began with the publication of Empire of Signs in 1970. ‘It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me,’ Barthes declared, though whether this urge would have taken the shape of a novel remains a moot point. Although Barthes left only an eight-page outline for his projected ‘Vita Nova’, Samoyault believes that much of the material that has been published posthumously, as well as large chunks of the unpublished writings in archives she was given access to, would eventually have found their way into some magnum opus.

Barring a few approximations — inevitable given the Herculean task — Andrew Brown’s translation is excellent. Chris Turner has also done a sterling job with Seagull Books’ beautifully presented five-volume series of essays by Barthes and interviews with him (£14.50 each), which is the perfect companion piece to the biography. Organised thematically, these occasional articles, reviews and texts are all briefly but expertly introduced, and in the process are made available to an anglophone audience for the first time. Some, like those where Barthes agonises over the definition of left-wing literature, are very much of their time, but they provide snapshots of his mind at work and confirm Samoyault’s premise that the unity of his life and oeuvre is to be found in the ‘desire to write’.