Book Review


Susan Sontag: A Biography, front cover

Susan Sontag: A Biography

By Daniel Schreiber
ISBN 978-0-8101-2583-4
272 pp, $35.00 Cloth

Reviewed by Trena Machado:

The first biography since her death in 2004, Susan Sontag: A Biography by Daniel Schreiber, gives a seemingly straightforward accounting of a very complex life. She graduated high school at fifteen, married at seventeen, earned a BA from the University of Chicago at eighteen, had a son at nineteen, and was divorced at twenty-five. Sontag left the academic world, not completing a doctorate, pulled to explore the world intellectually on her own terms. She was a novelist, cultural critic, filmmaker, stage director, playwright, political activist. She became an international pop icon and intellectual celebrity. She wrote about photography, illness, human rights, AIDS, media, minority rights, and liberal politics. When doctors told her twice she had cancers that were rarely survivable, she survived—by her own efforts proactively to find new treatments.

Schreiber did a good job organizing the material in short, pithy chapters on Sontag who lived several lives at once at the heart of the second half of the twentieth century uniquely on her own terms while engaging fully—and experimentally—with the era’s cultural changes. She defined and explored a “third aesthetic” she called “Camp,” an aesthetic “not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” She explored illness, challenging the view that a disease expresses one’s character which often leads to the attending association that “one’s character” causes the disease, e.g., cancer and AIDS. In Regarding the Pain of Others, she describes the disjunct of “the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment…suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world…the dubious privilege of being spectators…of other people’s pain…consumers of news, who know nothing at first hand about war….” She called her essays “cultural work.”

There is a troubling underbelly to this biography. Schreiber presages the tone he will take towards Sontag at the end of the first chapter with, “… in her later interviews Sontag seems to have often fallen prey to the seductions of self-dramatization…” and this kind of assessment is continued repetitively throughout the book. Schreiber’s attitude takes on “a questioning” of the motives and intentions of Sontag, usually by way of quoting others who claimed that Sontag went to the war zones of North Vietnam, Israel, Bosnia in order to gain media attention for herself. He lets these stand without a counter balancing view. In the next to last chapter, Schreiber, as he had done several times already, lets a commentator, William Deresiewicz, give the negative interpretation of her intentions, “…While Where the Stress Falls won’t do much to enhance her stature as a thinker, never before has she made such large claims for her moral pre-eminence…she’s the first person in a long while to nominate herself so publicly for sainthood.” This analysis of Deresiewicz, the last words of the chapter, is left on its own as if it is an authoritatively correct take on this piece of Sontag’s writing, with the author standing in the shadows letting the negative comment stand unchallenged. Schreiber never questions the negative judgments of others he chooses to include as to, if the writers were in competition with Sontag and/or what “their motive” was in terms of writing the denigrating commentary.

The other troubling aspect is the way Schreiber will interpretatively question Sontag’s choices. She did not choose to do the dissertation for the PhD from Harvard. She did want it, but choose to continue her own path. In her words about her decision, she said she had seen “academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.” Not letting Sontag speak for herself on this, Schreiber interprets, “It is not difficult to discern behind this remark a pose of wounded vanity.” Why this add-on, when we already had her conflict about this in her words…. Another example is when asked about her divorce, Sontag says in an interview that, “She had to decide ‘between the Life and the Project’—the Susan Sontag project.” “The Susan Sontag project” is another Schreiber add-on. As a biographer, why would he step outside her words to put in such a free-standing authorial interpretation? What was “wrong” with her making the decision of how to live her own life….

Schreiber’s biography is one step up from a College Outline book, but is useful in that regard. He does an adequate job listing the complex set of endeavors Sontag initiated, the many avenues that she followed responding to life, but he shows little regard to her accomplishments against the odds of an impoverished beginning...or even of her as a person “living her life.” In the first chapter of “Memories of a So-Called Childhood (1933-1944), he tells of the emotionally difficult first years she had with a mother who was an alcoholic and depressed and who left Sontag for months at a time, from the ages of one to five, with a nanny while she and Sontag’s father lived in China taking care of his fur business. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was five and the family went into social decline. Her mother took Sontag and her sister to Tucson, Arizona where they lived in a trailer on an unpaved road until Sontag was twelve. During these years her escape was reading. Schreiber does understand that she invented herself through literature and writing even as a child and, yet, throughout the book there is little understanding of how that was a motivating force for the rest of her life…to keep breaking free by invention. Other than a timeline of her writing and activities barely above newspaper information, with minimal discussion of her ideas and little of her actual writing used—and despite her “reported” flaws—the sheer thrust of her life force and insight shines through, and shines through inspiringly as a woman determining her own life at the level of a conversation with culture. The romantic view of the vocation of a writer that she formed in early adolescence, she parlayed by sheer verve to clarify the world until the end.

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