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SUSAN SONTAG LIGHTENS UP : The ‘Dark Lady’ of American Intellectuals Ventures from Her Lofty Terrain into the Steamy Times of an Adultress and Her Besotted Lover

Ellen Hopkins is a free-lance writer based in New York City and is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone

Herbert Mitgang once called her a “literary pinup.” Customarily acerbic John Simon lauded her in a story titled, “The Light That Never Failed.” She has been taken to task in the New Criterion for supposedly promoting a doctrine that would “release high culture from its obligations to be entirely serious.” Carlos Fuentes believes her essays to be “great interpretations and even fulfillments of what is really going on.” Kevin Costner’s character in “Bull Durham” dismissed her novels as “self-indulgent, overrated crap.” And Time magazine canonized her as someone who “has come to symbolize the writer and thinker in many variations: as analyst, rhapsodist and roving eye, as public scold and portable conscience.”

That, in a somewhat bloated nutshell, is the myth of Susan Sontag--the sphinx-like “dark lady” of American intellectuals, a myth that without aid of a single publicist’s release has somehow grown and thrived for nearly 30 years.

The reality of Susan Sontag is a big-boned, beautiful 59-year-old with a great guffaw for a laugh and a sweetly lopsided grin. An Amazon in ratty sweats with a penchant for plopping feet on tables, giving bearhugs to any friend who walks through the door, and inviting perfect strangers to “Tell me about yourself,” Sontag in the flesh is, in every way, endearing. She’s a doting mother who likes to go on at length about “my son, the writer."Her speech is sprinkled with sort-ofs, kind-ofs and you-knows (“I’m a product of bad American public school education,” she says, ruefully). She likes to talk to taxi drivers.

And it is this Susan Sontag--warm, exuberant and direct, rather than her cold, obscurantic legend--that leaps off the page to greet the reader of her about-to-be-released novel, “The Volcano Lover,” her first major book in three years and her first whirl at historical romance. Historical romance?

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“When I started to write it,” Sontag admits, “I thought, this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever written.” Long limbs akimbo, Sontag is standing at ease in the blinkingly sunny Manhattan kitchen that nourishes the mind at the belly’s expense (stacks of papers and books, file cabinets and fax and copying machines occupy the counters and cabinets), seemingly oblivious both to the glare and the fact that it’s the most humid day of the summer. She takes a swig of hot coffee, sprawls into a chair and continues. “I thought, this book about these 18th-Century characters will have the smallest audience ever, but I’m in love and I have to do it.”

Over time, Sontag reassessed her appraisal of the book’s likely mass-market appeal. “About halfway through, I realized,” she says with a deep chuckle, “no, no, a lot of people are going to like this.” Her publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux, apparently agrees. A first run of 50,000 hardcover copies is planned, $75,000 has been allocated for the advertising campaign and, most uncharacteristic (for this normally reticent publisher, that is), jacket copy breathlessly describes the book as being “about sex and revolution . . . (having) all the excitement of a major historical romance--and more.” Publisher Roger Straus says that his first reading of the novel stunned him so “I almost fell out of bed. My God, I thought, what have we here?” The Book-of-the-Month Club has given its own populist endorsement by making the novel its featured alternate selection for September.

Set in Naples in the late 18th Century, “The Volcano Lover” is based on the lives of Sir William Hamilton, his notorious wife, Emma (most popularly immortalized in the movie “That Hamilton Woman”), and Emma’s celebrated lover, Lord Nelson. Not incidentally, the book also happens to be the repository of much of Sontag’s 59 years’ worth of stored-up wisdom on the business of living. She writes knowingly of what it’s like to be famous, to be an obsessive collector, to be under a sentence of death. In the voices of four different women, she examines the many kinds of love (in one of the novel’s most moving passages, she takes on the voice of Emma’s devoted, lower-class mum: “How she was the LIGHT OF MY LIFE, if I can speak like they do in plays”). And at the conclusion, her most formidable female character wryly observes: “Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book.”

Despite its long-ago setting, the novel has a thoroughly modern subtext, beginning with the narrator entering a flea market in sneakers and jeans in the spring of 1992. And it is recognizably Sontag. In one rather typical aside, the author speculates what would happen if suicide were made easy: “How about . . . a hole, a really deep hole, which you put in a public place, for general use. Say at the corner of Seventieth and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. . . . A sign beside the hole reads: 4 pm-8 Mon Wed & Fri/Suicide Permitted.”

It’s a shocking book. Never before has Sontag been so readable. Suicide chitchat notwithstanding, never before has her printed self been so much fun. Sontag insists, with some basis, that “anyone who has followed my work will see the natural evolution--because all the elements of ‘The Volcano Lover’ were in earlier works.” She does, however, concede that it would have been difficult to predict that the woman who wrote such lines as, “But the pornographic imagination is not just to be understood as a form of psychic absolutism--some of whose products we might be able to regard (in the role of connoisseur, rather than client) with more sympathy or intellectual curiosity or aesthetic sophistication” would one day write straightforward, reader-friendly prose about the steamy times an adulteress and her besotted lover have in the sack.

“It shocked me, too,” Sontag says with a conspiratorial grin, very much aware that “The Volcano Lover” marks the first occasion that her rigorous mind and her capacious heart could so compellingly hammer out their differences and work in concert on the printed page.

SONTAG FIRST CAME TO PUBLIC NOTICE IN 1964, WHEN “NOTES ON CAMP” WASpublished in the Partisan Review. The essay simultaneously defined, paid homage to and raised serious moral and aesthetic questions about a sensibility whose canon, Sontag informed her readers, embraces “Visconti’s direction of Salome,” “Tiffany lamps,” “certain turn-of-the-century picture postcards,” and “stag movies seen without lust.” While celebrating how liberating it can be to have a good taste of bad taste (“It is good for the digestion”), she did not ignore the snobbery inherent in the genre: “Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of camp is continually amused, delighted. The dandy held a perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils and was liable to swoon; the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.” Her closing zinger on camp was in succeeding decades to become the rallying cry of the Irony Generation, what she called “the ultimate Camp statement: It’s good because it’s awful.”

In fairy-tale fashion, 31-year-old Susan Sontag became an overnight sensation. She was lauded, applauded, debated and vilified in a dialogue that continues to this day. The image of her dark, strong-featured beauty, unadorned by lipstick or a smile, seemed the very essence of the home-grown New York intellectual.

In fact, she was not.

Admittedly, Susan Sontag was born in New York City in 1933, but that was only because her peripatetic mother was anxious about giving birth overseas. Sontag’s father was a fur trader stationed in China, her mother a colonialist housewife. Once the birth was safely dispensed with, her mother made her way back to China sans child. Sontag, who has described herself as “a psychologically abandoned child,” began a life of shuttling from relative to relative in the New York area.

Six years passed. Her father died of tuberculosis in China. Her mother returned to the United States, leaving his body behind. Decades later, as Sontag was planning a Chinese pilgrimage, she learned her mother had forgotten where he was buried. “I still weep in any movie with a scene in which a father returns home after a long, desperate absence at the moment when he hugs his child. Or children.”

After Susan developed asthma, the family moved to Arizona, where her mother remarried. They subsequently moved to Southern California, where the already fiercely bookish Sontag was, improbably, ensconced in a cozy cottage in the San Fernando Valley and enrolled in North Hollywood High.

For the most obvious reasons, the lifestyle fit was hilariously off. In a memoir she wrote of that time, Sontag observed: “I felt I was slumming, in my own life. My task was to ward off the drivel (I felt I was drowning in drivel)--the jovial claptrap of classmates and teachers, the maddening bromides I heard at home.” Barbecues on the patio made her jittery. Ballgames on the radio were a torment. While her blue-collar classmates drifted, plodding through the Reader’s Digest texts assigned by North Hollywood’s English teachers, their future in construction work or perhaps with the phone company almost an inevitability, Sontag plotted escape to the University of Chicago. No one familiar with Sontag’s oeuvre would quarrel with her sardonic assessment of those early years as an “unconvincing childhood.”

And yet. And yet . . . she had friends. She had a boyfriend even. She was pretty. She was editor of the school paper. She was elected to the student council.

“I’m an American,” Sontag says, as she struggles to explain in her broad, flat American voice how it was that her classmates never branded her an outcast. “I was born into a culturally democratic situation. It didn’t occur to me that I could influence the way these kids were.” She tugs at her signature lock of white hair. “You can always find a common ground with people as human beings. You know, ‘Gosh, your hair looks great today,’ or ‘Gee, those are nice loafers.’ I do believe the common ground is the most important thing. In that sense I am absolutely a democrat. I didn’t have any problem in high school at all. I just thought, ‘Well, there are alternative lives.’ ”

And alternative L.A.'s.

Southern California was the scene of Sontag’s first great shame. When grown-ups reminisce, it seems that virtually all embarrassing incidents from adolescent past belong--predictably--to the social-sexual realm. Sontag being Sontag, the shame of her teen-age years is that she once had the audacity to foist her admiration on Thomas Mann. In person.

The encounter itself sounds remarkably innocuous and more than a little sweet. The expatriate German novelist probably enjoyed hearing that his work was appreciated by brainy American teens. Still, the incident covered her with so much remorse that decades passed before Sontag told anyone of what she continues to view as an “illicit” invasion, this meeting between an “embarrassed, fervid, literature-intoxicated child and a god in exile who lived in a house in Pacific Palisades.”

THE LITERATURE-INTOXICATED CHILD FLED TO COLLEGE IN JANUARY, 1949, first to the University of California, Berkeley, later to the intellectual haven she’d dreamed of in her Valley home, the University of Chicago, where she majored in philosophy. At 17 she married sociologist Philip Rieff, author of “Freud: The Mind of the Moralist.” Two years later they had a son, David.

“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t live the life I wanted to lead,” Sontag says as she gives a tour of the more than 12,000 books that line the walls of her apartment. (She is so familiar with these books, which are arranged by country and period, that she claims to know by heart the approximate location “within a shelf or two” of every book.) “It never occurred to me that I could be stopped. That’s very American, of course. I had this very simple view: that the reason people who start out with ideals or aspirations don’t do what they dream of doing when they’re young is because they quit. I thought, well, I won’t quit.”

And she didn’t--at least in terms of her literary dreams. The marriage, however, didn’t last--possibly the only life commitment on which Susan Sontag has ever reneged. In 1959, at the age of 26, Sontag brought David to New York and began life anew as a single mother.

Her work began appearing in Partisan Review, The New York Review of Books and The Nation. One day, she took “The Benefactor,” a novel she had written with her son competing for banging space on the typewriter keys, bundled it in a Sphinx paper box and dropped the package off at Farrar Straus Giroux.

“I didn’t have an agent. I just addressed the parcel ‘To the Fiction Editor.’ In my infinite naivete I thought there was one fiction editor at each publishing house.” Two weeks later she was given a $500 advance, and Sontag has been with her first and only publisher, she says with passion, “happily, devotedly, ever since.” She is never too shy to enthuse about what moves her. Soon after she was introduced to the formidable Mary McCarthy, McCarthy flatly announced, “Oh you’re not from New York, you’re from the West.” Sontag asked how she knew. “You smile too much,” McCarthy said. (McCarthy, by the by, also referred to Sontag as “the imitation me,” apparently subscribing to the Attractive Female Intellectual Phoenix Theory: only one per era allowed.)

“To this day, no real New Yorker thinks I’m from New York,” Sontag says. “I’m too friendly. When I came to New York, I thought New Yorkers were so unfriendly. I couldn’t get over the rudeness. I grew up in a world where people said not ‘Have a nice day’ but ‘Thank you,’ ‘It’s nice to see you,’ ‘How are you,’ and ‘Come back real soon.’ ”

The friendly Valley Girl who smiled too much turned her shoulder to the wheel of ever less reader-friendly topics. In “Piety Without Content” she took on the amorphous religiosity in which so many Americans take refuge, coming to the stern conclusion that “one cannot be religious in general any more than one can speak language in general.” She damned the entire practice of interpretation as “the revenge of the intellect on art . . . the Philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone . . . the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius.” She defended “the close-ups of limp penises and bouncing breasts, the shots of masturbation and oral sexuality in Jack Smith’s ‘Flaming Creatures,’ ” claiming that the images were “both too full of pathos and too ingenuous to be prurient.” She reminded us of how “spiritually fashionable” it is to be in pain.

She wrote another novel, “Death Kit,” but fiction for Sontag was suffering a gradual fade-out. One day, the venerable Dwight McDonald made a pronouncement: “No one’s interested in fiction, Susan. Naaaahhh. Write essays.” The prose was on the wall. “It wasn’t a great period for fiction,” Sontag recalls. “People were more interested in talking about ideas.”

Or in acting on them. Around that time, the Vietnam War, says Sontag, “blew up in my face. That and its aftermath derailed me for about 10 years.” She became active in the anti-war movement. She went to Havana and Hanoi, writing sympathetically about both. She made such inflammatory statements as, “the white race is the cancer of human history” (she has since said she regrets using this “disease metaphor”). “I was in a state of such intense agitation and grief. I kind of lost my way as a writer.” From 1968 to 1974, Sontag pretty much lived in Europe. She made films, toyed with the idea of transforming herself into a European director. She laid low. She made next to no money.

During one of her poorest periods, a French friend invited her to use her country house outside Paris as a writing retreat. Sontag gratefully accepted, only to discover that the friend’s hospitality was distressingly expansive. The house was so filled with guests that Sontag had no place to write. Then she discovered a back staircase with deep, old-fashioned treads. “I wrote the better part of one of the essays from ‘On Photography’ sitting on that staircase. The drafts were arranged on different levels. I was very happy. I think now I could write at a bus stop.”

Her photography essays began appearing in The New York Review of Books (they were later collected in “On Photography”), and Sontag drifted back to the United States. She isn’t entirely sure why. Perhaps because “I am an American. It seems like a heavy destiny, because practically everything about this country is not encouraging. But it almost seems too privileged to be a foreigner. I like being on the edge, but I think one can do that very well in New York with a lot of traveling.”

Sontag practices what she preaches. Much of “The Volcano Lover” was written in Berlin, and although she never put down real roots there, she does make frequent, sometimes impromptu visits back. As she extols the virtues of being a perpetual voyager, Sontag is contemplating an emergency visit to a friend dying of AIDS in a Berlin hospital.

The publication of “On Photography” in 1977 reinforced Sontag’s reputation as an acute cultural observer, capable of both riling folks up and chilling them to the bone. She reminded us of how photos keep uncomfortable truths at bay: “A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family--and often is all that remains of it.” She spoiled vacation snapshots for all who took to heart her cool appraisal that “photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.” She slammed photojournalists: “In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.” And in one of her most mournful assessments of how we live now, she wrote: “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.”

TWO YEARS BEFORE THAT BOOK APPEARED IN print, Sontag was found during a routine check-up to have advanced breast cancer. She was 42 years old. The doctors told her she was going to die.

Instead of dying, Sontag--typically--rebelled by reading everything she could get her hands on about the disease. She became convinced that American doctors were far too conservative with their treatments, underwent a series of operations and went to France for a course of chemotherapy so brutal that American doctors warned her that it was dangerous. Sontag’s reaction was: “What’s more dangerous than dying?” She went into remission, and today, 17 years later, is considered cured. And it was while she was under that death sentence that she began the book that to date is probably her best known: “Illness as Metaphor.”

“It was typical of Susan to use her intensely active, intensely searching mind as a way of dealing with this terrible thing,” says Robert Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books and a longtime friend. (It was Silvers who set up a fund to pay the medical bills of the uninsured and virtually penniless Sontag. By way of thanks, Sontag dedicated the book to him.) Deceptively simple in its presentation, “Illness as Metaphor” is a pained and angry indictment of the ways in which our culture deals with people who are sick.

“Sickness was a way of making people ‘interesting'--which is how ‘romantic’ was originally defined.” “Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning--that meaning being invariably a moralistic one. Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance.” “The tubercular could be an outlaw or a misfit; the cancer personality is regarded more simply, and with condescension, as one of life’s losers.”

Layer by layer, through these and other lines--at once rational and wrenching--the book slowly builds its case. And while the ever dignified, ever private Sontag never mentions her own situation in print, the book clearly derives much of its raw power from her proximity to death.

“It’s a transforming experience to come to terms with your own mortality at a relatively early age,” she says gravely, encircling her coffee mug with her long, strong fingers, remembering those trying nights and days as she awaits news of her gravely ill friend in Berlin.

Collections of both essays and short stories followed. She experimented with different styles (in one of her more startling moments, Sontag crafted a story peopled by such characters as Miss Flatface and Mr. Obscenity). Then in 1980, she wandered into a London print shop she’d been haunting for many years. She picked up a series of delicately colored prints of a volcano. The pictures intrigued her; she wasn’t sure quite why.

The clerk informed her that Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples in the latter part of the 18th Century, had drawn them. She read an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography and thought: “Oh that Sir William Hamilton. Now I realized why his name was familiar--from the movie with Laurence Olivier as Nelson and Vivien Leigh as Emma Hamilton, which I’d sighed through as a small child. From the DNB I learned that he was not only a famous cuckold but a celebrated collector . . . and a noted expert, one of the earliest, on volcanoes.”

Sontag bought 17 of the prints. “Since I am someone who knows how to wait, it did not disturb me that I spent so long dreaming over those images and not knowing what to do with them.” She framed the prints, put them on the wall, and kept on writing essays, kept on enraging people. In 1982, she set off quite a ruckus among left-wing New Yorkers when she made a speech at a Solidarity event. Despite the sympathy she’d evinced for Marxist regimes in the past, Sontag used the occasion to deliver a scathing indictment of the Soviet system, uttering her since oft-repeated line, “Communism . . . is fascism with a human face.”

In the ensuing brouhaha, lefties as diverse as Jessica Mitford and Jacobo Timerman attacked her. Sontag uncharacteristically brought a $50,000 lawsuit against the SoHo News for printing her speech without her permission (since the paper folded the following week--for unrelated reasons--the suit was dropped).

The ‘80s wound down. And as AIDS claimed more and more of her friends, Sontag decided to put a human face on the disease that has become the latest repository for our fears and superstitions. Today, just three years after “AIDS and its Metaphors” was published, she has become an accomplished deathbed watcher. She began to talk of giving up essay writing (“Essay writing was very addictive; I was like a drunk saying, ‘I’m going on the wagon next month’ ”) and giving all her time to fiction. For now, at last, she had figured out what to do with the volcano prints.

“I’VE NEVER ENJOYED WRITing as much before. I never liked a book as much as I like this book. The other books--I respected them, I thought they were good, but I can’t say that I loved them. I feel that I’ve finally achieved the directness of emotional statement that I always wanted and that is mine as a person. I don’t know why I didn’t have the freedom to be so direct in my writing until now.” Sontag fidgets in her hot, humid kitchen. “It’s so exciting I can’t tell you. I’m waiting for the publication of this book like all the Christmases of my life rolled into one.”

“The Volcano Lover” took Sontag three years to write. Given that the book is 415 pages and crammed full of historically accurate detail (she read four books on carriages in the 18th Century just to find out how people got into them), given that she still insists on writing longhand and has a reputation for working at an agonizingly slow pace (many of her essays went through as many as 20 drafts), it’s astonishing it didn’t take her a decade.

“I work harder than other people,” Sontag says simply.

And for the first time in her life, the hard work has paid off in material terms. After decades spent in fly-by-night rentals, a year and a half ago Sontag bought and moved into her present home--a rambling Chelsea penthouse decorated most notably by her inevitable books and the volcano prints. A devoted assistant is on board. A number of fellowships and grants, including a MacArthur, as well as a generous advance from her publisher, have obliterated money worries for the foreseeable future.

It’s clear that the trappings of success make her uncomfortable. She doesn’t like the idea of being beholden to a mortgage: “I don’t want the responsibility, I don’t want to have to earn any money. I want to be free to put all the books in storage and live in one room if it’s necessary.” And however plush her life may now seem, she is quick to note that other than her apartment, she has none of the “toys” that most successful people her age consider necessities, such as a country house or even a car.

“I want to be part of literature,” she says by way of explanation. “I want to write a few books that will last. And to do that, I think you have to do it with complete commitment. It never occurred to me to live in any other way. I never understood why people think it’s so amazing that I write only what I want, that I don’t--to put it bluntly--write for money. I’m always amazed that people do.”

Nearly all of life’s compromises leave her befuddled. Take the aging process. “I do think that age has a great deal to do with attitude. I’m 59 years old. I don’t look the same when I look in the mirror, but I don’t feel any different than I felt when I was 30. Looking at everybody nearing 60 when I was young--I felt sorry for them. They seemed to have wound down so much and to live so differently, and I always wondered why. It didn’t seem to me inevitable. And I found in my own life that it’s not at all inevitable. I have lots of friends who call me at 2 in the morning and say, ‘Hey, I’m here,’ and want to go out.”

“She’s the most curious person alive,” says David Rieff, the man Sontag describes on the dedication page of “The Volcano Lover” as her “beloved son, comrade” (Rieff, a respected free-lance writer, actually spent a short time as his mother’s editor). “It’s not as though my mother doesn’t get tired like other people, it’s not as though she couldn’t use an afternoon nap. It’s simply that she marries her tremendous will to her voracious curiosity. She wants to learn everything, experience everything. There’s a line of Canneti’s that she quotes approvingly in one of her essays: ‘I try to imagine someone saying to Shakespeare, Relax!’ That line could easily have been written about my mother.”

Age cannot wither her infinite enthusiasms. Or her singularly high standards. She still doesn’t own a TV (a decision she refers to as “psychic economy”), and she mourns what MTV has done to young people’s attention spans. Her idea of small talk: ruminating on Bush’s “family values” (“Imagine running a family values platform in Italy--it would be like saying, ‘I’m for feet’ ”); speculating on how our country’s history (“This country was founded on a tax revolt”) has compromised our future; spiritedly endorsing a new art cinema (“Do you know Jean Vigo’s work?”).

Politics still can inflame her. Sontag deplores the idea that “the values of public life are business values.” And she despairs that so few people in this country are idealistic enough to dedicate themselves to the intellect. “It’s not that I think I’m so exceptional. I’m just having the life of dedication to things I care about and honor which I think many people have had in the past. I’m astonished that this has become so discredited or problematic. Why is it that this culture is so corrupt, so hollow that integrity seems odd? It’s become almost obligatory to say, ‘Well, everybody has his or her price.’ It seems to me that no society can work in which there is not a large minority of people who don’t have a price.”

Sontag is between books now. It doesn’t particularly worry her. “I don’t want to write a lot of books. I want to write a few wonderful books that people will read 100 years from now. It’s up to me to produce work of sufficient quality that will last. I don’t know whether I have. It’s not up to me to decide--it will be decided.” She drops her lofty oracle guise for a moment and grins, adding with a matter-of-fact shrug, “The judgment of posterity is infallible.”


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