against the background imperative of seriousness


Rather, it is precisely her reverent—or, more precisely, her acquisitive—attitude toward seriousness that makes her essays so solemnly, ostentatiously intelligent. “I make an ‘idol’ of virtue, goodness, sanctity. I corrupt what goodness I have by lusting after it,” she writes in 1970. The same could be said of her worship of seriousness: A person who is instinctively sure that she is serious does not spend so much time proving it. Irony and wit, qualities signally absent from Sontag’s work, are only possible when seriousness is the premise of one’s self-conception, rather than the result that must be achieved. This explains why so much of what has been written about Sontag after her death paints her as a rather ludicrous figure. In Terry Castle’s barbed elegy “Desperately Seeking Susan,” or in Sigrid Nunez’s short book Sempre Susan, Sontag often comes across as hugely self-centered and inadvertently comic—and the best way to be inadvertently comic is to always insist on being, and looking, serious. If Sontag’s inner life, as revealed in the diaries, is a moving drama, to other people she evidently seemed more like Dr. Johnson—a figure of massive egotism and unconscious eccentricity. It’s too bad that she had no Boswell following her around day after day to put her fully on paper; but even if she had, an outsider could have known only part of the truth about her. The more important parts are to be found in her essays, her novels, and—above all—in her diaries.

more from Adam Kirsch at Tablet here.