Susan Sontag

Claims and concerns that we are creating an increasingly voyeuristic culture are heard frequently these days. The deeply disturbing (but essential viewing IMHO) film, Catfish, is just one of a number of movies, books and articles delving more deeply into how we are constructing relationships with others and how we construct our sense of ourselves. Couple that with our culture’s fixation on celebrities and their dramas, often manufactured like plot lines, and it would be easy to see a serious cultural devolution headed our way.

I’m not of that mind set. Yes we have more tools with which to understand (probe, invade, explore, exploit) the lives of others. But it isn’t all a play to the lowest common denominator in our natures. Small towns used to be the perfect setting for learning from your neighbor’s follies as well as successes. Most of us don’t live in that arena so we have shifted our “learning by watching others” to novels, films and biographies—the more acceptable and “high brow” variation—or by way of the less acceptable realms of reality TV, E! channel, People magazine and Gawker.

I don’t care about the details of Charlie Sheen’s life or his latest twitter rant, but there are life details that do compel me. Is it voyeurism or a more respectable desire to learn by watching a pro? Maybe a little of both?

A new memoir, Sempre Susan, by Sigrid Nunez, describes a young woman’s experience as a housemate with the larger than life and brilliant Susan Sontag. In a review of the book in the Boston Globe, Alice Gregory offers this perspective:

The literature that discloses the private lives of public intellectuals is a category of erotica in itself. For a certain sort of person, nothing is more titillating. Deciphering a persona, anecdote-by-anecdote, to reveal the person behind it is can be a vexed enterprise, since risking their dignity is almost always an occupational hazard…Nunez quietly gets out of the way in this thin volume. Her own writing style is mostly invisible, which is as it should be. We want Sontag’s eccentricities neat — not shaken or stirred by those who witnessed them.

Sontag’s life, told with her flaws and pretensions on display, is of interest to me. She was a seminal influence on my thinking from my college days, and her point of view and writing still stir me. I’m not surprised to learn she was difficult. But all the more credit to Nunez for being able to get past the voyeuristic fodder and deliver up a more full bodied portrait of this brilliant, complex, vulnerable woman.

Gregory does offer up the darker side of Sontagism in her closing comments. And there’s some truth in this, even for a perennial Sontag fan like me:

A premature introduction to Susan Sontag is a dangerous thing. How many 18-year-olds have read “Against Interpretation’’ and taken from it permission to write ruthless polemics that they aren’t quite ready to defend? Sontag is often the gateway drug to intellectual life, lionized by students hell-bent on muscling out a critical worldview. And for good reason. Her essays on art and politics are some of the fiercest and most influential of 20th century letters. “Sempre Susan’’ summons those sophomoric yearnings while also giving us a fair and openhearted portrait. Nunez has constructed a eulogy that mythologizes and humanizes one of the most intimidating figures of contemporary culture.