Writing to Hannah Arendt in December 1967, Mary McCarthy reported Susan Sontag’s arrest in an antiwar demonstration, and then abruptly asked: “And what about her? When I last watched her with you at the Lowells, it was clear that she was going to seek to conquer you. Or that she had fallen in love with you — the same thing. Anyway, did she?”
Arendt’s response is not known. But it is not hard to see why the young Sontag chose the German-Jewish philosopher as one of her “models of the serious.” As a precocious reader in Arizona and California, Sontag grew up on the high idea of European literature and thought upheld by The Partisan Review, the primary magazine of New York liberal intellectuals in the 1940s and ’50s. After moving to New York in the early 1960s, Sontag decided that the liberal imagination needed to loosen up a bit. Joining in the emerging counterculture, she called for an “erotics of art” and celebrated the “defiantly pluralistic” new sensibility “dedicated both to an excruciating seriousness and to fun and wit and nostalgia.” She argued for an understanding of the “revolutionary implications of sexuality in contemporary society.”
In later years she would come to refine and even abandon some of these views.