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Book Review - Susan Sontag's cultural missions


Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag was a formidable influence on my intellectual development. As a callow young student in the 1980s, I devoured the ground-breaking 1960s and 1970s essays which spoke to me of a contemporary and capacious sensibility.

Prior to this short but incisive new tome by Daniel Schreiber, the only extant biography was 2000's Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, an unauthorised and unsympathetic affair, with the authors' neoconservative lens compounding their personal and political animosity.

Growing out of an obituary Schreiber wrote after Sontag's death in December 2004, he strives here to set the record straight. So, who was she?

Conceived in China, where her father Jack Rosenblatt was in the fur business, she was born in Manhattan on January 16, 1933, because mother Mildred feared giving birth in Asia. Left with a nanny in her paternal grandparents' house, she had only the vaguest memories of her father, who died of tuberculosis in China when she was five. By all accounts Mildred, alcoholic and depressed, was not the right mother for Susan. With the decline in family fortunes, Mildred, Susan and little sister Judith moved to Arizona.

When Sontag was 12, her mother remarried, and the family moved to LA. Sontag recalled her stepfather, army pilot Captain Nathan Sontag, advising her: "Sue, if you read so much you'll never find a husband," and: "I thought, 'This idiot doesn't know there are intelligent men out in the world. He thinks they're all like him'. Because isolated as I was, it never occurred to me that there weren't lots of people like me out there, somewhere."

Find a husband she did. Married at 17, a mother at 19, and divorced at 23, the man was Philip Rieff, a sociologist 10 years her senior, whom she met at University of Chicago, where she went when she was 16 - completing the four year undergraduate curriculum in two years. Late 1950s faculty life at Brandeis and Harvard proving too airlessly stuffy, she took off on a fellowship to Oxford. But she didn't like it there much either, and left after four months for Paris, where her bohemian and erotic life bloomed.

Here began a lifetime of serial relationships with brilliant women, finally and most famously, photographer Annie Leibovitz. She asked Rieff for a divorce, and moved with her four year-old son David to New York. Interestingly, although she held a number of part-time lecturing posts in her early years there, she never finished her doctorate. The essays had started appearing by then.

An incident from before she went abroad is revealing. "I remember once, I guess it was 1956… I went into the movie theatre in Harvard Square. The movie that was playing was Rock Around The Clock. And I sat there, I was twenty-three years old, and I thought, My God! This is great! This is absolutely fantastic! After the movie I walked home very slowly: I thought, Do I tell Philip that I've seen this sort of musical about kids dancing in the aisles? And I thought, No, I can't tell him that."

As Schreiber observes: 'Although today it is hard to imagine such a strict separation of lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow culture, in the 1950s there was hardly any overlap between them. Academic culture had almost no contact with mass culture, and it was unheard of for a Harvard graduate student to go to a rock-and-roll film, much less find it exciting.' Sontag had inadvertently stumbled on her mission, and her essays would often compare music by The Supremes, The Beatles or Patti Smith with Robert Rauschenberg's paintings or Nietzsche's philosophy.

It is a considerable irony of Sontag's life and work, as articulated by Schreiber, that the 'cultural values, the defense of desire, sensuousness, and popular culture' promoted in her early writings, 'have in the meantime been revalued under the banner of triumphant consumer capitalism.' However, her later conservatism cannot be read as the usual attributes of aging. Her laments for the death of high seriousness were a genuine reaction to the new mores of the contemporary zeitgeist. Even for those who've never heard of them, her books have helped define the majority of current cultural criticism.

I met her once, at a conference. She signed my book, and we shared a joke about the hollowness of intellectual hero (or heroine) worship. That book, along with most of her others, is still on my shelf today. They have helped to define the majority of current cultural criticism, even for those who have never heard of them. She also, incidentally, led an exemplary life.

Susan Sontag: A Biography

Daniel Schreiber

Northwestern University Press, €40.99


Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

The Interview

Patricia O'Reilly

New Island Fiction, €13.99

Eileen Gray was an Irish artist, designer and the architect of E-1027, the iconic house built in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in southern France. She died aged 98 in Paris in 1976. She has been described as "the most plagiarized designer of the 20th century". And although she should be a famous national treasure here, she's not. The reasons are many and complex, among them her obsessively reclusive nature. But when Yves Saint Laurent bid $36,000 - a king's ransom in 1972 - for her "Destiny" screen, the world press took notice.

In November of 1972, Bruce Chatwin interviewed the elusive Gray for the Sunday Times. But the interview was never published.

Patricia O'Reilly's novel is an imagined account of what occurred in those two hours in Gray's apartment, between the rising star of Fleet Street and the Irish aristocrat who refused to ever use her title. Gray was in her nineties by this time, half-blind, but otherwise fit and still working.

Through a series of seamless flashbacks, O'Reilly takes us through Eileen Gray's life, from her Enniscorthy childhood, on to London and studying in Slade, where she developed a passion for lacquering. The story then moves to Paris, where Gray lived for the rest of her life. Eileen Gray was not your common-or-garden daughter of nobility. She was wealthy, but worked very hard. She drove an ambulance during WW1. Rather than join in with the feminist rhetoric of Paris in the 1920s, she simply lived a life whereby gender was never an obstacle, be it in art or other matters.

This novel is so much more than a thinly-disguised biography. It's an elegant book, atmospheric and engaging, infused with admiration for Gray the visionary artist and the woman.

Eileen Gray's disdain for the press was legendary, and also understandable, given her on-again, off-again fame and notoriety. But something special happened on that November afternoon in 1972. Gray later willed her gouache entitled "Patagonia" to Bruce Chatwin. And the fledgling reporter - later to become a travel writer as esteemed, if not as prolific, as Colin Thubron - published his first travel book in 1977, one year after Eileen Gray's death. It was titled In Patagonia.

Anne Cunningham

Sunday Independent