Susan Sontag (above), La Belle Dame Sans Merci of American letters, frequently hailed as “America’s leading woman intellectual”, but now deceased through cancer, had me in intellectual thrall ever since I read an essay called “The Pornographic Imagination” published in the Partisan Review in 1967. A masterpiece of elegant argument, it proposed—an idea new to me at the time—that pornography and science fiction were similar because both genres were aimed at disorientation and dislocation. Sontag had a gift for aphorism, pithy summation and unusual linkages of ideas that will ensure her essays will continue to be re-read more often than her novels which, despite impressive credentials, are oddly artificial in flavour.
This memoir appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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After reflecting on The Story of O, de Sade and Bataille, she concluded with this brilliant rebuttal of censorship:
If so many are teetering on the verge of murder, dehumanisation, sexual deformity or despair, and we were to act upon that thought, then censorship more radical than the indignant critics of pornography ever envisaged seems in order. For if that’s the case, not only pornography but all forms of serious art and knowledge—in other words all forms of truth—are suspect and dangerous.
Has a more intelligent defence of literary freedom ever been formulated?
Reading on, I became familiar with her equally brilliant discussions of such twentieth-century colossi as Ionesco, Godard, Camus, Resnais, Sartre, Lukacs, Brecht, Beckett, Weiss, Levi-Strauss and Artaud, plus her famous “Notes on Camp”—all in Against Interpretation. In Styles of Radical Will I encountered “The Aesthetics of Silence” and “Bergman’s Persona”. Clearly, Sontag was intellectually a Europhile; the only Americans who got a look in amid the continentals were Jack “Flaming Creatures” Smith, Norman O. Brown, author of the impossible to ignore Life Against Death, and artists like Allen Kaprow who created the Happenings (linked by Sontag to the European tradition of surrealism). But her first love was obviously the Central and Eastern Europeans. Sophisticated though her stance was, it could be interpreted as a kind of neo-colonial position: “The Europeans are the giants and we, the Americans, pay artistic and literary homage to them.” John Barth has the same kind of reverent attitude towards Vladimir Nabokov—but then who doesn’t? William Burroughs travelled to Beckett’s doorstep and was met with Beckettian silence. (Regarding Burroughs’s famous cut-up method, Beckett said, “That’s not writing, that’s plumbing.”) Later, to pick up the Europhilic skein, Sontag became one of the first critics to champion Roland Barthes in English. Roland gallantly, if not gallically, acknowledged Susan’s New York-cool adoration.
I was a trifle nervous of a critic who could dash off such pronunciamentos as:
Even form is viewed by the historicist critics as a kind of content. This is very clear in the Theory of the Novel, where Lukacs’ analysis of the various literary genres—epic, style, novels—proceeds by an explication of the social change incarnated in the form. A similar prejudice is less explicit but equally persuasive, in the Hegelianism, partly from Marx but mainly from sociology.
So when I arrived in New York in late 1981 on a Fulbright Cultural Travel Award, Susan Sontag was top of my list of writers to meet. With startlingly prophetic insight, I imagined it to be no easy task. Susan Sontag, hair over one eyebrow, was posed like a remote goddess on the oxygen-deprived literary Everest of Gotham City.
From the Village Voice, I learnt that Ms Sontag would be taking part in a panel discussion in Harlem. However, when I arrived—Harlem is relatively safe by day—and scanned the empanelled faces, hers was not among them. Later, it was announced she was ill. I phoned the secretary of New York’s PEN who said, “I’ll be seeing Susan Monday and ask how she is—she may be well enough to talk to people.” The next day I heard that Sontag had had cancer and had both breasts removed. I felt guilty—here I was pursuing a writer who was possibly dying. Needless to say, however, guilt was overtaken by a writerly curiosity.
Meanwhile, I rang Hualing Nieh, the Chinese novelist who together with poet Paul Engle ran the famous International Writing Program at Iowa University. Visiting Iowa a week earlier, I had listened to a writer from China called Ding Ling, a tiny but heroic woman who had spent many years in confinement as a political prisoner but had managed to write fourteen books. Hualing invited me to join her and Ding Ling at a dinner engagement. In truth, I wasn’t that keen. I pictured myself surrounded by numerous small Chinese women who could not speak English. Until a few days ago, I had never heard of Ding Ling and hadn’t read any of her work. Moreover, she didn’t speak any English. However, imagining the encounter might be culturally exotic, I decided to attend.
The venue was in deep Manhattan near the Avenue of the Americas. At the head of the table was the diminutive Ding Ling and beside her, hostess Hualing and husband Paul. Flanking the snowy tablecloth sat half a dozen Chinese writer-envoys all unknown to me plus a number of European writers. I was seated between William Jay Smith, a noted American poet, and a Taiwanese poet whose English, fortunately, was better than my Taiwanese. Also there were a photographer from People magazine plus a reporter from the New York Times and a Chinese interpreter, nice looking. Further down the table was a boyish, almost prettily handsome fellow whom I recognised as W.S. Merwin, a well-known American poet. Opposite him, was a woman in her forties with deep black eyes and hair swept over one eyebrow …
Of course you, Euclidean reader, do not believe me. I didn’t believe it either. Suddenly, I was in the big league. Everyone here, Sontag included, was brushing up their left-wing credentials by being photographed with heroic Ding Ling—me included, the Irish poet—though I had never been to the Emerald Isle.
I glanced in the general direction of the Sontagian bosom. Did Susan Sontag still have breasts? She was clad in a long roomy garment that made it difficult to be sure … and this was a very formal dinner party. Wedged between two poets, I was at some distance from Ms Sontag. All the while, I was thinking how could I get closer to Ms Sontag in order to express my admiration for her essays and to check if she had been de-bosomed. At one point, I overheard her saying to Bill Merwin. “Some of my students have never heard of Mussolini!” Right on, Susan, some of mine have never heard of Dr Faustus.
Or of Susan Sontag.
The young attractive American-Chinese translator must have noticed me casting longing glances down the Sontagian end of the table because she suddenly got up and said, “Swap places?”
Within seconds, I was seated opposite Susan Sontag. She, too, was attractive though in a mature European-Jewish sort of way—no longer the smooth-faced model lookalike on the back of her first book of essays, yet still a woman in her prime, the dark eyes the outstanding feature, an attractive comb of blonde through the hair. Her face was spectacularly handsome in construction, with high arched cheekbones, intimidatingly intelligent eyes, dark defined eyebrows. She appeared to be in good health. I told her I was a writer from New Zealand, a fan of hers—“Are you from Auckland?” she asked, cutting short my dribble of praise. “Yes,” I said, “I—”
Hualing stood up and announced that Ding Ling was tired. Dinner was over. Oddly, it was Hualing who appeared tired; Ding Ling looked ready to party. This small Chinese woman had a warm sociable glow. If I was not mistaken, she was casting an interested glance my way. Apart from the scrumptious translator, I was easily the youngest person present. Susan Sontag’s body language assumed the dialect of urgent departure. No doubt she had another stylish paragraph to write on Lukacs or Jean Luc Godard. I asked if we could talk some more (we had exchanged two sentences so far). She said yes so I took a phone number. As I moved with the crowd past Ding Ling, she asked, “You like jazz?” Everyone laughed. But Ding Ling slipped me a sideways glint as if to say, “What do these folk know of an old woman’s desires?” I subsequently learnt that when young (and beautiful) she had had two lovers and lived with both simultaneously.
I took coffee with the young translator whom I now decided I fancied. Over hot lattes, I opened up on the topic of my neglected genius. She seemed sympathetic but nothing came of our talk. Kisslessly, we said goodbye.
THE next day, a cold winter New York morning, I began my two-week love affair with Susan Sontag’s answering service. Most of the time I got silence—a New York writer’s silence designed to fend off wiseguys, over-eager fans, stalkers. On about the fifth call, a male voice answered my inquiry. “She’s not here. She’s at the opera.” Where else? Susan was a rabid Europhile. What could be more European than a night at the Met with Pavarotti yodelling Italian with his muscular tonsils?
For the next few calls, the phone resumed its endless ringing. My New York life had begun its Warholian film phase. The camera records a man with an expressionless face dialling the same number over and over again, listening to the ringing sound over and over again. He is ringing silence. Sontag is an authority, aesthetically speaking, on the subject of silence, which she sees as an attempt to retrieve spirituality. 336 rings in the void of Sontagian telephone silence was the zenith of electronic spirituality.
Then one morning a female voice answered.
“Is that Susan Sontag?”
“Yes.” Susan Sontag!
“I’m the writer from New Zealand you met the other day. You said I could give you a call.”
“I’m halfway through a sentence.”
“I was just wondering if—”
“I’m just halfway through a sentence,” she repeated in the voice in which one might say, “The house is on fire!”
“Then I have to visit a friend in hospital,” she added.
“Maybe I could call tomorrow? I don’t have long in New York.”
“… O … K …”
The next day: silence.
Next time: a new male voice answered. Mr Sontag?
I explained my mission. He wondered if I might call over. To my amazement he gave me the address.
I called around the next day. Soon after I rang the doorbell, a shutter opened and a head appeared in a small opening about twenty feet up on the side of the building. The head was female, dark-haired. I began talking furiously to the head. “Hullo … uh … I met you the other night when we were having dinner with Ding Ling. You said I could call back but I wasn’t having much luck so I took the bold step of paying you a visit. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Who do you think I am?” asked the head.
“I’m not Susan Sontag,” denied the head. “She’s not here.”
“Where is she?”
“Do you know when she’ll be in?”
“Can you tell her the writer from New Zealand called around to see her?”
The head nodded non-committally then withdrew inside behind the shutter, leaving the wall featureless once more.
Next day when I knocked, a small girl answered the door. Very formally, she asked, “Can I help you?”
“I hope so,” I said, “I’ve come to see Susan Sontag.”
Showing a trust suicidally dangerous for a downtown New Yorker, she invited me in. Just as I was about to enter, a man in a wheelchair came to the door.
“Aha,” he nodded knowingly. “You must be the Irish-Australian writer who’s come to see Susan Sontag.”
Now I was getting somewhere—despite the ethnic inaccuracy which was a marginal improvement on being identified at a UCLA afternoon garden party as Michael Murphy from Australia.
“Is she in?”
“Just a minute.”
The man closed the door.
A minute later, he re-opened the door and said, “She’s not in.”
“Any idea when she might be in? She gave me her phone number.”
“She’s got three phone numbers. Which one did she give you?”
I read out the digits.
“That’s the one she never answers.” But she had answered once!
“That’s what she gave me,” I mumbled.
“That’s the one she doesn’t answer,” he repeated.
I looked at him questioningly.
“I’ll see if I can get another number,” he disappeared again.
A minute later a door opened. Instead of the wheelchaired man, the small girl reappeared. Boldly, I stepped forward and peered inside. There was a woman in the half darkness, silent, unmoving.
A second man came down the stairway.
“Miss Sontag has fallen asleep,” he said curtly. He spoke with a Central European accent.
“Working too hard,” I said, grinning. It was eight o’clock.
“I am her Polish translator,” the man said. “I sympathise with trying to get hold of writers but she is busy with essays and seeing no one—except professionally.”
But I just had dinner with her and she gave me her phone number.
“The stereo is too loud,” the woman said.
“No music is on,” the Polish translator said.
The woman called the little girl inside.
The door closed.
At this point a less determined fan would have given up. Sontag had put up the following smoke screen:
- a phony phone number
- a half-finished sentence
- a sick friend in hospital
- a talking head twenty feet off the ground
- a small girl
- a man in a wheelchair
- a hallucinogenic stereo
- a Polish translator.
It all meant one thing—she was desperate to see me. But she couldn’t admit it to herself. For two seconds in the cold New York air, I was suffering from literary erotomania. Then reality hit: she didn’t want to see me. I went into denial—of course she wanted to see me! She was being held captive by a Polish translator and a man in a wheelchair. Her essays were coded messages that said—Help me! I am being held captive against my will!
I realised this whole pantomime was a brilliant example of the Absurdist genre, a drama worthy of Ionesco, Adamov, Kafka or Beckett. The talking head twenty feet above the ground was clearly a reflection of Not I. The apparently welcoming little girl, the man in the wheelchair who deliberately mistook my ethnic identity, and the curt, even sinister Polish translator who had feigned sympathy for my plight were all worthy of Kafka or Beckett. Had Ms Sontag read The Castle? Of course she had! She was living in one! The schizophrenic char woman who had heard loud music when all was silent was clearly an Adamovian touch. Or should that be Ionesco? Was there a live rhinoceros hiding in the shadows of the Sontagian modernist apartment? My entire enterprise in endeavouring to reach her was indisputably derived from The Castle. I did not flatter myself that this panoply of distraction was conscious drama but surely it was an unconscious one. Clearly, Ms Sontag had so saturated herself with the literary extremes of European avant garde theatre that it had unconsciously rubbed off onto her real-life scenarios. She was writing the script and I had a large speaking part.
Sontag was expertly using the strategy deployed by women pursued by unwelcome suitors—placing barriers my way, using human shields. I should have decoded the code which declared in neon-bright colours—you should leave, literary cowboy from down under. Then why the phone number? This again was classic pretty-girl behaviour—the phony phone number to throw off unwashed bums. Which she had on one occasion answered. Like women the world over, Ms Sontag had fallen into the classic mistake of thinking that hints and Absurdist strategies of avoidance were going to put me off. The male psyche takes scanty notice of hints. They encourage us, they arouse the hunter in us as surely as a fleeing Thompson’s gazelle fires up a cheetah. This had become a compelling challenge, a test of New York survival. I would have dialogue with Ms Sontag or go mad in the attempt. Or turn myself into an Absurdist drama, which was a dignified European way of going mad.
On reflection, it seemed the man in the wheelchair and the small girl were on my side while the sinister Polish translator and the talking head were not. The schizophrenic woman occupied neutral territory. Or was she the deciding factor? My psychotic phone-calling continued. It seemed that the man in the wheelchair was right—she did not answer the number she had given me (except that one time during mid-sentence). It seemed then that Ms Sontag had arranged for a dummy phone number to be given to unwelcome callers—how Absurd. Nevertheless, Sontag had won. My desire for dialogue had been thwarted, blocked, walled out. Our talking time had so far consisted of two sentences at the Avenue of the Americas dinner and a couple of truncated sentences on the phone. The stomach-cramped junkie had been thrown a couple of Panadols.
I RETURNED to New York in 1985. Having been a participant in the International Writers Program at Iowa University, I now became (by default) the New Zealand observer/delegate at the International PEN Conference. At one of the numerous social occasions given for the 700 writers present—many of them world famous, including at least six Nobel Prize winners—I ran into Susan Sontag.
Being cheerfully and aggressively drunk, I wasted no time with small talk.
“Why do you hate me?”
“I don’t hate you,” Sontag replied irritably.
“No, you do hate me,” I insisted, “otherwise why would you give me a phone number that you never answer?”
Her answer was … silence.
Despite this unpromising start—to my astonishment—an arrangement was made for me to call on her. Sontag had either mellowed or capitulated. Apparently. Perhaps she felt sorry for the crazed fan. I intended to give her a copy of my newly published The New Fiction, an anthology of postmodern New Zealand fiction. In the book-length introduction (of which I was inordinately proud), I had quoted more than once from her essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” including what I deemed the high modernist notion: “Art is always an attempt to re-discover the spiritual.” Actually, if I read the great moderns correctly, high art had replaced the spiritual. Once Michelangelo—or was it Da Vinci?—initiated the split between the secular and the spiritual, our non-spiritual age was inevitable. Sontag was trying to take us back to the age of Giotto. My thought had over-reached itself. Of course, Sontag was a modernist. Her critical writings did not examine the past.
I was let into a ground-level dimly-lit apartment with a cool roomy atmosphere. The mainly blank pale walls were only occasionally broken with framed paintings which I somehow felt were Mondrians and Kandinskys but actually it was so dark I couldn’t see them—the feeling of space and quiet elegance remained. I saw no television set. Eerily, I saw no books until the lights came up. I was standing amid a modernist noirish set piece, we were the two cameras.
As our conversation warmed up a notch, I mentioned that Donald Barthelme—whom I considered America’s leading postmodern short story writer—was an enormous influence on my own writing. Her reply was quick but in the millisecond before she started talking, I felt dizzy with delight, hyperventilated with cultural vertigo—I was inside Susan Sontag’s apartment having a one-on-one conversation about postmodernism! With Susan Sontag!
“I think postmodernism is repackaging,” snapped Sontag, thereby tossing the 310-page anthology I had just given her into the elegant waste paper basket hiding in the shadows. “Donald used to be a modern writer, now suddenly he is a postmodern writer.”
Before I could point out there was difference between modern and postmodern, there was a knock at the door.
“I have to talk to Gary Indiana,” Sontag explained. I knew from reading the Village Voice that Gary Indiana was a postmodern commentator. However, he had an advantage over me—he was a gay postmodern critic. And Sontag was bisexual.
Susan had completely outmanoeuvred me. Having apparently given in to my demands for a one-on-one audience, she had arranged for Indiana to call soon after I arrived.
It was time for me to leave.
Michael Morrissey is a New Zealand poet, editor and novelist. His most recent book is Poems about Iris the deadly coronavirus (2020)