Serious-minded people have few ideas. People with ideas are never serious.
An idiot savant, as is well-known, is a person with serious learning disabilities but gifted in a peculiar and extraordinary way, often mathematically or musically. A savant-idiot, as is not well-known, since I have only just now coined the phrase, is a person who is learned, brainy, even brilliant, but gets everything important wrong. Simone Weil, who starved herself for the good of humankind, was a savant-idiot. So was Jean-Paul Sartre, never giving up on revolutionary Communism even in the face of the mass murders of Stalin and Mao. Hannah Arendt, who wrote a significant book on the crushing oppression of totalitarianism and then turned round to argue that Jews faced with the most systematically murderous totalitarian system of all conspired in their own death, was yet a third savant-idiot.
The classic American savant-idiot was Susan Sontag. This is the Susan Sontag who called white civilization “the cancer of human history.” She it was who, after a trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, idealized the North Vietnamese and said, “They genuinely believe life is simple . . . full of joy . . . they genuinely love and admire their leaders.” She claimed that the more than 3,000 innocent people killed on 9/11 in effect had it coming to them, for America, through its imperialist policies, had brought this attack on itself. Sontag waited until 1982 to decide that Communism was little more than “fascism with a human face” (what, one wondered at the time, was the least bit human about it?). Only a savant could be so idiotic.
A savant is a thinker, someone less specialized than a scholar or scientist; he or she is a generalist, an intellectual. The word savant is of course French, and while there have been and are English, German, Italian, and American savants, the French have long bred the savant, or intellectual, in its purest type. “To tell about him,” wrote the 19th-century Russian novelist Nikolai Leskov of one of his characters, “one should be French, because only the people of that nation manage to explain to others things that they don’t understand themselves.” In her literary and philosophical enthusiasms, Susan Sontag aspired to French intellectuality in all its abstract loftiness, and, fair to say, she often achieved it.
Sontag’s life, now documented by two biographies, various memoirs, and the publication of large portions of her own journals, provides the best example of how a savant-idiot is formed. Born Susan Rosenblatt in 1933, Sontag never really knew her father, who traveled extensively in China for his fur business and died when she was five years old. She took up the more rhythmic, trochaic name of Susan Sontag from Nathan Sontag, her mother’s second husband.
The young Susan Sontag lived with a mother who largely turned her upbringing over to nannies. Starved for affection, she retreated into books. In high school, already a subscriber to Partisan Review, she read a copy of Kant behind the Reader’s Digest the class was assigned to read. At 16, she attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she explored the gay underground of San Francisco and had her first lesbian experiences. The following year she went off to the University of Chicago. There the critic Kenneth Burke claimed “she was the best student I ever had” and called a paper she had written for him “stunning.” At Chicago, after little more than a week-long romance, she accepted the marriage proposal of a 12-years-older instructor named Philip Rieff. A son, David, was born two years later.
Benjamin Moser, Sontag’s most recent and authorized biographer, holds that Sontag’s relationship with her mother early settled her character and hence her fate. Her mother, said to be quite beautiful on the model of the actress Joan Crawford, was an alcoholic, neither mean nor boisterous, but one who retreated to her bedroom, there to achieve quiet oblivion by drink. “Our mother never really knew how to be a mother,” Susan’s three-years-younger sister Judith said. In her journal, Susan wrote: “I was (felt) profoundly neglected, ignored, unperceived as a child.” Her mother treated her not with cruelty but with indifference, which from a parent may be the greatest cruelty of all.
This same indifference, in Benjamin Moser’s reading, left Susan Sontag perpetually off-key in her behavior, in her understanding of others, in her exaggerated self-regard. His account of her life, though on the whole admiring, is in good part a chronicle of her misperceptions, outlandish behavior, broken relationships, including with her son and only child.
Of her marriage to Philip Rieff, she claimed that “not only was I Dorothea [from George Eliot’s Middlemarch] but that I had married Mr. Causaubon.” A comic touch in connection with their divorce is that Rieff and Sontag apparently came to blows over who would get to keep the couple’s collection of back issues of Partisan Review.
In compensation for her mother’s indifference, Susan Sontag did her best to arrange her life so that the world would never be indifferent to her. Her weapons in this endeavor were her wide and international reading; her keen sense of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the time; and her highly photogenic good looks.
As for those good looks—tall, dark, with lush long hair and pleasing strong features, every young man’s fantasy notion of a bohemian lover—it is not easy to calibrate to what extent they figured in Sontag’s fame. Her writing alone, which was often abstruse, without distinctive style, often reading as if a translation from the French (“The thinness of my writing,” she noted in her journal. “It’s meager, sentence by sentence—too architectural, discursive.”) is unlikely to have received the attention it did had it been written by a plain young woman named Susan Rosenblatt. At her death, the New York Times printed no fewer than four photographs with her obituary. Sontag was, no doubt about it, intellectual cheesecake.
She was also, as Benjamin Moser writes, “America’s last great literary star, a flashback to a time when writers could be, more than simply respected or well-regarded, famous.” How her fame came about is perhaps of greater interest than anything Sontag wrote over a career of nearly 50 years. As F.R. Leavis said of the Sitwells in England, Susan Sontag, one often feels, belongs less to the history of literature than to that of publicity.
Her celebrity began in 1964 with an essay called “Notes on ‘Camp.’” The essay was a study of sensibility, homosexual sensibility chiefly, one that was “wholly aesthetic.” Camp was about “the spirit of extravagance,” about “a seriousness that fails.” Positing a comic vision of the world, “the whole point of camp is to dethrone the serious.” What is most interesting about the essay is Sontag’s far-flung connections and examples of camp, perhaps the best of which come from the movies. Camp movie actors in her reading included “the corny flamboyant femaleness of Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Jane Russell, Virginia Mayo; the exaggerated he-manness of Steve Reeves, Victor Mature. The great stylists of temperament and mannerism, like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Edwige Feuillere.” Other examples in the essay are less telling. What is campy about “much of Mozart,” for one, or “the qualities of excruciation in Henry James,” for another, beats me.
“Notes on ‘Camp’” was published in Partisan Review, a magazine that never had more than 5,000 readers. But in that day the editors of the mass-market magazines scoured it and other little magazines for news of the next great thing, and “Notes on ‘Camp,’” announcing a new sensibility, qualified beautifully. The essay was quickly taken up by Time and discussed in the New York Times Magazine. Thought among the hippest of the hip and dazzlingly attractive into the bargain, its author became grist for Vogue, dined with Jacqueline Kennedy and Leonard Bernstein, became a celebrity herself. She would later be on the cover of Vanity Fair; play in Woody Allen’s movie Zelig; be photographed by Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, Richard Avedon, her lover Annie Leibovitz, and others; and appear in an Absolut Vodka ad.
Sontag also became the enemy of those who held high culture to be sacrosanct. “One cheats oneself, as a human being,” Sontag writes in “Notes on ‘Camp,’” “if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.” Sontag was proposing more than merely an interest in popular culture. Her essay was in fact an attack on the importance of content in art. Camp, for her, “incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.” She offered a mild disclaimer about her own position: “I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.” But it was as the Queen of Camp, its champion and explicator, that she initially achieved prominence.
Benjamin Moser quotes Hilton Kramer against the essay. In vaunting the aesthetic over the moral, Kramer wrote, Sontag made “the very idea of moral discrimination seem stale and distinctly un-chic.” Inside Partisan Review itself, there was opposition to publishing “Notes on ‘Camp.’” It came from Philip Rahv, one of the magazine’s two co-editors, who thought Susan Sontag bad news generally and loathed this essay in particular. Sontag, apparently, was undaunted. She ended her other famous essay of the time, “Against Interpretation,” by writing: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”
Which brings one to the erotics of Susan Sontag. She was, technically, bisexual, but, like most bisexuals, favored her homosexual side. In instinct and inclination, she was lesbian, though she preferred not to have this public knowledge. Until nearly the end of her life, for example, her sister did not know Susan was lesbian. Her relations with male lovers were for the most part casual, transitory. Those with women, of longer duration, left her confused and often heartbroken.
Jasper Johns, Joseph Brodsky, Warren Beatty, and her publisher Roger Straus were among Sontag’s male liaisons. One of Moser’s more interesting revelations is the extent to which Roger Straus in effect supported Sontag, paying most of her bills and later in her career proffering an $800,000 advance on four books, even though her books did not sell well. She slept, apparently once, with Robert Kennedy, and also, in the Kennedy circle, with Richard Goodwin, to whom she paid what I consider perhaps the greatest mixed compliment I have ever come across: “The ugliest person I’ve ever slept with was the best in bed.”
Benjamin Moser, himself gay, takes Sontag to task for not coming out and announcing her own homosexuality during the AIDS epidemic. It would, he claims, have had a great effect in helping reduce the stigma then associated with homosexuality generally. “Silence=Death” was a motto of the anti-AIDS campaign of that day. Sontag held back. She didn’t want to be reduced to being a lesbian, or even merely a woman, writer. Her ambitions were grander than that.
One can tell a good deal about a person, and especially about a writer, by his or her admirations. In Sontag’s case, two prominent savant-idiots were among them. She much admired Arendt—“the kind of writer she wanted to be,” Moser writes, “a woman but a writer first of all”—and took her as a model writer. She also greatly esteemed Sartre. “I realize how important Sartre has been to me,” Sontag wrote in her journal. “He is the model—that abundance, that lucidity, that knowingness. . .” Walter Benjamin, Moser reports, occupied “pride of place” in her personal pantheon. Her admiration for Paul Goodman, a 1960s guru, was unbounded: “He was our Sartre and our Cocteau.” She praised the avant-garde composer John Cage. She saw herself in the intellectual line of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and the Romanian aphorist E.M. Cioran. She esteemed Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett, and Roland Barthes. Not a lot of laughs here.
Unlike many of these figures, Susan Sontag was herself very much an establishment figure—established, that is, among the radical left and among what remained of the avant-garde. A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, she was a figure of the 1960s, a member of high standing of elite leftism. Her Against Interpretation appeared in 1967 and was, according to Camille Paglia, “among a dozen books that defined the cultural moment and seemed to herald a dawning age of revolutionary achievement, by students of the Sixties as well as Sontag herself.”
Sontag may have been radical, she may have been wildly detached from reality, but she was never unfashionable. However outré her opinions, however abstruse her writing, the world had nonetheless decided to shower its attentions on her. She claimed to have no interest in fame, yet, Jasper Johns reported, “she very early on believed she would win the Nobel Prize” and at the end of her life fell into depression when J.M. Coetzee, and not she, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.
Much of Sontag’s nonfiction—her books On Photography and Illness as Metaphor, her essays, and the rest—is an elaborate attempt to grasp reality behind the various screens and masks the world tends to place before it and the metaphors used to describe it. (“Metaphors mislead,” she wrote in her essay “On Style.”) Yet she was oddly miscast for the task. The photographer Lisette Model wrote of On Photography that “this is a book by a woman who knows everything and understands nothing.” Many of her friends and others who knew her attested to Susan Sontag’s inability to put herself in the place of others. “She was not smart or intuitive emotionally,” a friend named Don Levine told Moser. Joan Acocella, interviewing her late in life for a New Yorker profile, was astonished at how extraordinarily unaware of herself she was. After spending time in Sarajevo during the Bosnian crisis, she began to think of herself as Joan of Arc, a self-image that did not get in the way of her ordering vast quantities of caviar on her friend Larry McMurtry’s tab.
None of these qualities, or rather absence of qualities, made for the accomplished novelist Susan Sontag hoped to become. As Moser notes, “she recognized her own inability to write narrative fiction.” Herbert Marcuse, who for a period lived with Sontag and Philip Rieff, said that “she could make a theory out of a potato peel,” but, without a feeling for experience and understanding of other people, she never wrote fiction with characters who came alive. As a young woman, she much admired the arid, idea-driven fictions of Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet (an admiration she later disavowed). Moser, who wishes to put the best face on Sontag’s fiction, calls her novels “brave, noble failures—unforgettable.” Brave and noble, I am not prepared to say, but I can personally attest that they are eminently forgettable. “Maybe art has to be boring, now,” she wrote, and hers—including her fiction and two films shot in Sweden—all driven solely by ideas, too often was.
The last sentence of Moser’s Susan Sontag reads: “And she warned against the mystifications of photographs and portraits: including those of biographers.” In his biography, Moser, I believe, came to praise Susan Sontag. Biographer and subject, after all, seem to share the same politics, that of conventional American leftism. He gives her writing the benefit of nearly every doubt. In his summing-up final pages, he writes that, though her answers to the questions of the day may not always have been right, she, for nearly 50 years, “more than any other prominent public thinker, had set the terms of the cultural debate in a way no intellectual had done before or has done since.”
Yet Sontag did not make it easy, even for an admiring biographer. In Moser’s biography, it soon enough becomes plain that she was, not to put too fine a point on it, not a nice person. Once fame had arrived, she became a diva, with all the deficiencies of temperament inherent in the role but without the great voice for justification. The record of Sontag’s kindly and generous acts is brief; that of her egotism, selfishness, and cruelty, copious.
For openers, the Susan Sontag who resented the inattention of her mother was herself a less than attentive mother. She often exclaimed her love for her son to various friends. Yet early in the child’s life she abandoned him to spend a year in Oxford. At age four, she had him reading Candide, Gulliver’s Travels, Homer; at eleven, she had him reading War and Peace. Maria Irene Fornés, a Cuban-American playwright and one of her lovers, thought she gave David, in Moser’s words, “a bad combination of too much latitude and too little attention, and told her so.” Another lover, Eva Kollisch, said, “I think she shortchanged him of a lot of love and affection.” She often deposited the boy in the care of others and pretty much left him to raise himself. The writer Jamaica Kincaid wrote that “she really wanted to be a great mother, but it was sort of like wanting to be a great actress, or something… I would say there was [in Susan] no real instinct for caring for another person unless they were in a book.”
In Moser’s biography several people attest to Sontag’s insensitivity, her tactlessness, her humorlessness, her self-grandiosity. “It was not that she wanted to hurt people,” said a friend who knew her from University of Chicago days. “It was that she was simply oblivious.” Eva Kollisch claimed that Sontag “was one of the most immoral people I ever knew.” Moser records that she had no compunction about sleeping with her best friend’s husband. She saw nothing wrong with regularly humiliating Annie Leibovitz, her last and perhaps most faithful lover, a woman Benjamin Moser estimates spent more than $8 million on her. Sontag corrected Leibovitz’s grammar and pointed out her ignorance in public.
Sontag was also ignorant of the basic facts of life. On more than one occasion Moser refers to her poor hygiene: “not brushing her teeth or bathing, not knowing that she was going to get her period or that childbirth was painful.” She early went on amphetamines, to stay awake and hasten her writing, and suffered the effects in mood swings, rudeness, loneliness, and fear of abandonment. She was one of those people who needed others to clean up after her, and she found them in paid assistants, editors, friends, sycophants. She couldn’t stand to be alone yet treated nearly everyone near her badly.
The most controversial aspect of Moser’s biography is his repeated assertion that Sontag, in her late teens, actually wrote Rieff’s career-making study, a book entitled Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. Sontag herself claimed it was so, and Moser takes it for the truth. At various places, he writes sentences that begin “As she wrote in The Mind of the Moralist…” My own guess is that Sontag did what in the trade is known as a heavy edit of her husband’s book. Rieff, true enough, was not an easy writer, but he could be a powerfully intelligent one, and his Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966) is one of the key books of the past half century. No 19-year-old girl, no matter how precocious, could have written Freud: The Mind of the Moralist.
How, then, could a woman who was so inadequate a mother, so untrustworthy a friend, so out of touch with the most commonplace realities, have been a penetrating analyst of culture and politics? The short answer is that she wasn’t.
In politics, Susan Sontag’s views were standard left-wing ones. She couldn’t seem to imagine figures of greater evil than Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. She early revered Fidel Castro. She condemned that by now hoary leftist cliché, the consumer society. All this dovetailed nicely into her general anti-Americanism. In 1967, she declared that “living in the United States hurts so much. It’s like having an ulcer all the time.” America was for her a “too white, death-ridden culture.” All this culminated in her notorious incendiary New Yorker statement that on 9/11 America got what it deserved.
Sontag’s observations on culture, though pitched on a higher level, were scarcely more subtle. Consider her youthful reverence for the films of Leni Riefenstahl, The Triumph of the Will and The Olympiad, both produced under the Nazis. “The Nazi propaganda is there,” she wrote in her essay “On Style.” “But something else is there, too, which we reject at our loss…these two films of Riefenstahl (unique among works of Nazi artists) transcend the categories of propaganda or even reportage…. Through Riefenstahl’s genius as a film-maker, the ‘content’ has—let us assume even against her intentions—come to play a purely formal role.” Later, Sontag would, as we now say, walk back her views of Riefenstahl, but not her view that a central concern with the content of art was to miss its point and was essentially to prove yourself a Philistine. What eluded her was that style was the way an artist, any artist, views the world—that style is, in the end, content.
Friends claimed that Susan Sontag was blind to much visual art; others that, though she regularly dragged herself to the opera and concerts, she was not truly responsive to music. Ideas, and ideas alone, lit her fire. Her own ideas in the political realm unfortunately were unoriginal; those in the realm of culture, unhelpful. Yet the utter absorption in ideas, which permits no contradiction from experience, no rebuff from reality, is the hallmark of the savant-idiot, and what made Susan Sontag the American savant-idiot par excellence.