"Desperately Seeking Susan" [Sontag]
December 12, 2010 3:44 PM   Subscribe

"Desperately Seeking Susan" [Sontag]

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posted by Joe Beese (14 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"I’d first read ‘Notes on Camp’ as an exceedingly arch nine-year-old" is a sentence that tends to give one pause.
posted by Diablevert at 3:59 PM on December 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I paused at "she-eminence" and don't see any signs of resuming again.
posted by cmoj at 4:11 PM on December 12, 2010

we all are. I am sorry I only found Susan Sontag in 2008. It made my year easier, in degrees. It didn't cut the violence. It made it bearable. Never beautiful. Romantic, tender, consuming.
posted by parmanparman at 4:12 PM on December 12, 2010

Great essay.

I still really love Sontag's essay on Leni Riefenstahl, but could never understand what people were getting out of her works on photography or about anything else, though I always wanted to like them. Reassures me about my own judgment that she became that much of a fraud, but it was a very sad waste of a very real talent.

People destroy celebrity intellectuals by worshiping them rather than subjecting the great one's offerings to redoubled scrutiny, and they destroy their own ability to achieve something significant as well.
posted by jamjam at 4:38 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

That was one of the most bizarre reading experiences I've had, at least as far as essays go. You spend the first three-fourths of the piece waiting for the right moment, as it were to gently but firmly begin plucking her fingers from your lapels, and then almost at the ends, she pauses, takes a breath, and slips in this little para:

"But I’ve had the feeling the real reckoning has yet to begin. The reaction, to my mind, has been a bit perfunctory and stilted. A good part of her characteristic ‘effect’ – what one might call her novelistic charm – has not yet been put into words. Among other things, Sontag was a great comic character: Dickens or Flaubert or James would have had a field day with her. The carefully cultivated moral seriousness – strenuousness might be a better word – co-existed with a fantastical, Mrs Jellyby-like absurdity. Sontag’s complicated and charismatic sexuality was part of this comic side of her life. The high-mindedness, the high-handedness, commingled with a love of gossip, drollery and seductive acting out – and, when she was in a benign and unthreatened mood, a fair amount of ironic self-knowledge."

The entirety of the essay preceding this feels like the author's best, wild-eyed leap to the barricades to begin that "reckoning." She lobs bombs left right and center, describing Sontag just as she says some imagines future critic or novelist surely will --- some invisible multitude waiting in the wings, holding back only until the requisite period of plain reverence for the dead shall have passed --- it reads like Bosworth after about nine vodka-and-Red Bulls. There are odd glimmers of self-consciousness in it, occasionally --- but good god, for the most part it's the most unholy mixture of fawning and narcissism I've yet come across. There ought to be a eponym created from this, it's such a perfect example of its kind --- so that a Terry Castle becomes like a jeremiad, and every time someone like Madonna's brother or Diana's butler or something writes a tell-all, the reviewers can say, "as a Terry Castle, the book succeeded in serving up copious luscious dirt under a crackling, sparkling, creme brulee crust of bitterness and thwarted ambition."
posted by Diablevert at 4:41 PM on December 12, 2010 [6 favorites]

Rather than "judge her by her best work," she took her no longer being around (the essay's from 2005) as an occasion to vent all her hostility in one massive dump. I agree with Diablevert -- a 5000-word tour-de-force of seething resentment.
posted by blucevalo at 5:42 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

That Terry Castle piece is awful. Even if Sontag was as terrible as Castle says, Castle comes off as worse.
posted by jayder at 5:48 PM on December 12, 2010

An interesting alternate take on the dinner party Castle highlights can be found here.
posted by retronic at 5:48 PM on December 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm relieved Susan will never know I "read" The Volcano Lover" as an abridged audiobook.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:58 PM on December 12, 2010

Diablevert, I believe that it's already known as "an Albert Goldman", or should be.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:05 PM on December 12, 2010

On reflection, it's not quite the same as what Albert Goldman did, which was to take someone like Terry Castle, only without the accomplishments, and base a book around their resentful recollections. (Amusingly, her website continues to use a pullquote from Sontag as the lead-in to her bio.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:31 PM on December 12, 2010

We always hurt
The ones we love
The ones we shouldn't
Hurt at all

We always take
The sweetest rose
And crush it till
The petals fall

We always break
The kindest heart
With a hasty word
We can't recall

So if I broke
Your heart last night
It's because I love you most of all.

Terry Castle is often a good writer, but not here. You don't have to be much of a Deconstructionist to read the subtext of that piece: I LOVED YOU SO MUCH SUSAN SONTAG WHY DIDN'T YOU LOVE ME BACK EXACTLY THE WAY I WANTED YOU TO LOVE ME AND NOW YOU ARE DEAD AND YOU NEVER REALLY LOVED ME.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:04 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

> Terry Castle is often a good writer, but not here.

Exactly. Someone at the LRB should have had the sense to cut that self-loathing, adolescent essay to shreds, salvaging the part toward the end that Diablevert picks out and telling her kindly but sternly to write more in that vein and knock off the My Diary stuff. That said, I read it all the way to the end with morbid fascination. Annoying as she can be, the woman can write.
posted by languagehat at 8:19 AM on December 13, 2010

retronic, thanks for that link.

While reading Castle's description of that dinner party I found myself enjoying it and relating to it. I've been in situations like that - among people one admires, wanting desperately to fit in among them yet also feeling fearfully outclassed, starting to latch on to anyone's perceived flaws to bring them down off the mental pedestal... So then I click to the other link and read the line about "Lou Reed wasn't talking to anyone because he's practically deaf" and I think ooh, I love this sort of alternative view story, where things turn out to be not what you thought before.... Then I stopped for a second and thought "wait, let me find out who wrote this first, so I have some idea about the point of view."

Looking up at the link address for the first time, and then at the author's bio, I realize I knew him in college! So now this whole reading experience has become a sort of living Proustian labyrinth.
posted by dnash at 8:41 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

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