Between Europe and America

Reconsidering Susan Sontag

There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when Susan Sontag somehow became an international star.

Nice Jewish girl. Susan Sontag, 1966.

Whereas previous American cultural critics had usually been dismissed or diminished by their European counterparts, Sontag was celebrated.

But now that star has dimmed dramatically. Even if intellectuals still recognise her name, few read Susan Sontag with the seriousness they once did.  

Part of this decline is simply a function of scholarly fashion. Sontag’s career is now too far away to seem contemporary and too close to be reconsidered by intellectual historians. 

Part of it has to do with the way she managed both her professional and personal life, borrowing from posterity in order to maximise her impact in the present. 

Part of it derives from confusion, since people have a hard time figuring out what, exactly, Susan Sontag was trying to be, making it difficult to determine whether she succeeded. 

Even if these reasons make sense, though, they don’t explain the intensity of her expulsion from the list of thinkers that well-educated people feel they should know. 

That’s why, to put things in the language favoured by quantitative analysts, Susan Sontag is an “undervalued asset” these days. Surely, not all the energy that was invested in her a half-century ago has dissipated. 

Especially now, when the way of life she tried so hard to promote is in greater danger than at any time since World War II, Sontag deserves the same kind of respectful treatment she directed towards her own intellectual heroes. 

I will freely admit that, over the course of the past two decades, I had boxed up whatever reflections I’d had about her and stashed them away in the off-site storage of my consciousness. 

Nor did I expect to get those boxes out anytime soon.

Earlier this year, though, I listened to the audiobook of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain while hiking my favourite trail near my Tucson, Arizona home. 

One day, as I was tripping out on the incongruity of pondering this Great European Novel while trying to avoid stumbling into cacti or, worse, stepping on a rattlesnake — an experience I wrote a three-part essay about for The Battleground – I suddenly remembered two things. 

First, Sontag had been obsessed with The Magic Mountain as a teenager; second, she had spent part of her childhood in Tucson.

As I began the process of unboxing those reflections, I started to realise that her roughly three years in the desert had exerted a profound influence on her. 

Although that span of time can feel insignificant by adult standards, the fact that Susan Sontag lived in Tucson in early adolescence — her middle-school years — must have made it seem a lot longer. Just as the contrast with the New York metropolitan area she had lived in for most of her life must have made everything about the place, from the flora and fauna to its indigenous culture, seem strange. 

I began to revisit the Sontag texts I had already read, as well as ones I had not previously examined. I started reading Benjamin Moser’s massive authorised biography of her. I devoted many hours to the task of determining which experiences she likely had while living in Tucson.

Particularly noteworthy, given my preoccupation with The Magic Mountain, was her account of going to visit Mann in his comfortable Southern California exile while a high-school student, after she and her family had moved from Tucson to Hollywood in 1946. 

Although Sontag indicates that she purchased the novel after arriving in Hollywood, Moser’s research suggests that she might have begun looking at it before leaving the desert, during the time when she would visit a stationery store near her modest home and peruse the Modern Library books for sale there. 

Even if her fixation on the novel didn’t begin until after she had moved away, it’s telling that she describes its appeal to her with an analogy between its setting in the Swiss Alps and the Tucson she knew:

For this was not just another book I would love but a transforming book, a source of discoveries and recognitions. All of Europe fell into my head—though on condition that I start mourning for it. And tuberculosis, the faintly shameful disease (so my mother had intimated) of which my hard-to-imagine real father had died so long ago and exotically elsewhere, but which seemed, once we moved to Tucson, to be a commonplace misfortune— tuberculosis was revealed as the very epitome of pathetic and spiritual interest! The mountain-high community of invalids with afflicted lungs was a version—an exalted version—of that picturesque, climate-conscious resort town in the desert with its thirty-odd hospitals and sanatoriums to which my mother had been obliged to relocate because of an asthma-disabled child: me. There on the mountain, characters were ideas and ideas were passions, exactly as I’d always felt.

Aside from being eerily similar to my own experience with The Magic Mountain, when I listened to it on a Tucson-area mountainside after a serious illness had left me an invalid, this passage makes it clear that the European culture Sontag longed for as a teenager and then devoted her life to exploring was linked in her mind with the “cultural desert” — as Moser puts it — that both disturbed and fascinated her.

Even if Tucson didn’t have much to offer a precocious talent like hers, it was far enough removed from her previous experiences to satisfy her desire for adventure. 

Moser notes that Sontag and her younger sister spent long hours playing outdoors. In her own recollection of that period, she describes the pleasure of going on long hikes along Old Spanish Trail, far from her house. 

When Sontag wasn’t reading voraciously — something she did a great deal during those middle-school years — she was “reading” the physical landscape, finding in its forbidding yet aesthetically pleasing features a temporary substitute for the rich cultural landscape she longed to explore.

Significantly, though Susan Sontag never returned to Tucson in person during her lifetime, she did so in her imagination. 

Towards the end of her second novel Death Kit, her somewhat dim-witted protagonist keeps dreaming versions of a story he had written as a teenager. It centres on an encounter with a strange Wolf Boy who lives for a long time in a cave high above Sabino Canyon, a tourist destination on the outskirts of Tucson.

The Wolf Boy explains that only once during his long residency in this cave does anybody come close to finding him. 

One day, someone starts to climb the cliff, “a tall, skinny girl about twelve or thirteen years old with long black hair; wearing sneakers, blue jeans, a red checked shirt, and a fringed leather jacket probably bought at the tourist store on the Pima Indians reservation south of Tucson”.

The closer this girl approaches, the more panicked Wolf Boy becomes. He wonders whether he will have to kill her to save himself. But then her parents call out to her, demanding that she climb back down, and the crisis is averted. In his biography, Moser suggests that Sontag identified with this strange creature, because she always felt like an outsider, wherever she travelled, no matter how famous she became. 

But that is clearly only part of the story, since the girl climbing the cliff is the same age Sontag was during her last year in Tucson and matches her physical description. She even has a whistle around her neck, which she uses to summon her dog Lassie, the name of Sontag’s dog during this period. 

It’s not hard to discern parallels between this hallucinatory vision and the ones that beset Hans Castorp, the protagonist of The Magic Mountain, when he goes astray during a solo skiing trip and nearly perishes in a sudden snowstorm. 

That’s the moment in Mann’s novel when the intransigent powers of nature, which are impossible to tame, make themselves most powerfully felt, both in terms of the physical landscape in which Castorp gets lost and the psychological one for which it serves as a figure, that wilderness of human nature that no amount of intellectualising will ever wholly subdue. 

Sontag was writing Death Kit in the middle of the 1960s, during the time when her first collection of essays Against Interpretation was consolidating her fame. 

The novel represents an attempt — not entirely successful, it must be said — to apply lessons she had learned in writing about the French nouveau roman to her own fiction. However, despite Death Kit’s high-brow pretence, and its self-conscious Europeanness at the level of the sentence, the crucial Wolf Boy sequence plays out as an archetypal American adventure story.

As the passage describing the Wolf Boy’s near-encounter with her teenage doppelgänger suggests, even though Sontag never returned to Tucson physically, she felt a need to revisit her memories of living there. 

In this regard, Tucson must have functioned for her much as the Berlin of Walter Benjamin’s childhood did in his two memoirs, which Sontag read and wrote about before they had been translated into English. 

Certainly, it’s no accident that the biography on the Susan Sontag Foundation’s website — one surely approved, if not actually written by her son David Rieff – succinctly notes that she, “was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles.” It may have only been three years, but they were crucial ones. 

In her wonderful essay on Benjamin, “Under the Sign of Saturn”, one of the crowning achievements of her career as a critic, Sontag quotes him – I believe she translated the passage herself — declaring that, “‘to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires practice’.” His goal, she adds, “is to be a competent street-map reader who knows how to stray. And to locate himself, with imaginary maps.”

If Susan Sontag “grew up” during the comparatively short time she spent in Tucson, maybe it’s because what she learned to do there was the wild American equivalent of what Benjamin learned to do in Berlin, learning her way around well enough so that she could stray but still make it back to safety when she was done. 

The surprising neglect that Sontag’s work has suffered in recent years provides an opportunity to redeem her literary reputation. But I don’t think this endeavour will succeed if it proceeds along the same paths that commentators followed while she was alive. 

Her intense love of Europe, the need she felt to get away from the United States in both mind and body, do not represent a renunciation of her homeland. On the contrary, they could not be more American. 

And that Americanness is exemplified in Susan Sontag’s feelings about the three years she spent in Tucson. 

As I revisit her books and career in the hope of communicating what Sontag has to offer the harrowing post-pandemic world we confront today, I’m increasingly convinced that the best way to approach her work is in relation to her feelings about Europe on the one hand and her experiences of the United States on the other.

For Sontag, the idea of Europe was a refuge for people like her who always felt like outsiders in their native land, equivalent to the cave in which her Wolf Boy finds shelter. But she was too mindful of the gap between that idea of Europe and its actually existing reality — and too self-aware — to be satisfied with being reduced to a Wolf Child herself. Because she knew, in her heart, that she would never wholly transcend her inner twelve-year-old, doggedly climbing up that cliff,  playing make-believe the way adventurous American youth of her era learned to do.

It is in the relationship between the Wolf Boy and that girl, between her extreme sense of otherness and her insuperable Americanness, that the value of her work for our times must be sought.

This article is the first in a series. Look for the second instalment in two weeks time.

Photograph courtesy of Peter Hujar/Wikipedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.