Daniel Green has an interesting post up at The Reading Experience on her son David Rieff’s chronicle of a death unacknowledged. Green highlights the potentially deleterious effects that succumbing to the “lure of the biographical” could have on future thinking about Sontag. From his post:
The implicit damage that Swimming in a Sea of Death does to Susan Sontag’s legacy as writer and critic will be registered primarily by the degree to which its “revelations” about Sontag’s difficult death will come to dominate future discussions of her work. These revelations will be trotted out again and again as some sort of clue to “vision,” dominated by her fear of death and her own puzzling sense of immunity to it as that vision must surely have been. The image of Susan Sontag as, in Sven Birkerts’s words, “an isolated, deluded figure, terrified of death and filled more with regret than any satisfaction at her achievements” will linger. The biographical will triumph over the exegetic, as it always done in our gossip-obsessed excuse for a literary culture, and even though Sontag’s work, especially the criticism, is focused on the sheer pleasure of life as represented by our encounter with art, the terror of mortality rendered in David Reiff’s book will overshadow conintuing encounters with Sontag’s essays and books. How lamentable that this process will have been initiated by her own son.
I suppose it is worth noting that I agree with the general thrust of Green’s argument here. Too true is his evaluation of our literary culture, a culture too often obsessed with frivolous details and cocktail chatter. I’m less convinced that knowing of Sontag’s fundamental inability to face her mortality as recounted in Rieff’s book (if this is indeed accurate, see below) is the deal-breaker here. May a lust for “the sheer pleasure of life as represented by our encounter with art” not coexist with a crippling fear of annihilation? May not this very lust be the major cause of that fear?
I got the impression while reading Swimming in a Sea of Death that the book revelled in its depiction of that horror. I feel something like guilt when I write this, but that revelling felt vaguely exploitative. I don’t pretend to know David Rieff’s mind and I am not at all suggesting that his intention was to revel or to exploit. I’m merely confessing a sense of unease that was there whether my reading was off or not. To the extent that this feeling (and the subsequent thoughts it provoked) proves Green’s point, he does well to make it. Not taking into account this aspect of her personality, however, leaves the portrait incomplete.
She herself did much to make her personality an issue. She was a rockstar. She carefully cultivated her role as Resident Enthusiast, as guide to and defender of serious art. It is for this reason that I cannot drum up any anger over the publication of her Journals. In his preface, David Rieff makes the valid point that if he didn’t do it, someone else would. While I think that many of the reviews of the first volume were wrong-headed (the word “pretentious” cropped up a few times, as absurd and petty an attack on writings not meant for publication as I can imagine), I hope that the publication of the future volumes will find an audience (whether critical or popular) less under the sway of her still-fresh celebrity.
Too soon, then. Timing is, I think, the major shortcoming of Philip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag. The book is a somewhat informal collection of notes that is, first and foremost, a felt reflection on her writing. Every one of her books gets at least a few lines, but the bulk of Lopate’s considerations are focused on the essays. He has much to say on her aphoristic style, her polemical “radicalism” in art in the sixties (and how this shifted over the years), her public persona, her insecurities, her intelligence, her arrogance. The book, as criticism, suffers from a certain lack of depth. Lopate quibbles with a line here and there, makes clear his opposition to some of her more hyperbolic statements, is quick to note that most of her fiction is mediocre if not outright “awful”, but doesn’t engage with any one text enough to give the reader something new to consider at length. This is perhaps an effect of both Sontag’s lingering ability to polarize opinion and the chosen form of the book itself. One feels that after some time has passed (and after all the Journals are published, fair or no), Sontag’s legacy (or lack of one) will be clarified.
Wait and see.