Sontag: Her Life – the sage of America’s cultural elite

Lara Feigel in The Guardian:

In November 1959 aged 26, Susan Sontag announced her rebirth as a writer and as a sexual being. She’d been married for seven years to Philip Rieff and slept with 36 men and women. But it was only now, in bed with Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés, that she’d had her first orgasm. It “has changed my life”, she declared proudly in her journal. “The orgasm focuses. I lust to write. The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of the ego … The only kind of writer [I] could be is the kind who exposes himself … To write is to spend oneself, to gamble oneself. But up to now I have not even liked the sound of my own name.” The passage raises questions about Sontag’s relationship with her body (what had gone wrong previously? What had changed?) but more importantly about her relationship with writing. She had known as a small child that she wanted to write. Aged six, she’d planned to win the Nobel prize for literature. But until now, she had produced only college essays and the book – Freud: The Mind of the Moralist – that she had written for her husband, based on his research. It lacked the stridency, the aphoristic wit for which her writing would soon be known. So what convinced her that she had to be a writer “who exposes himself” – and why that unnecessarily masculine “himself”? Her new model seemed to be Norman Mailer, whose 1957 essay “The White Negro” had shocked the establishment with its proclamations about orgasms as the basis for creative identity, just as Sontag was dismissing her own voice as “puny, cautious, too sane”.

Sontag’s relationship with Mailer is itself fascinating (and was immortalised in the documentary Town Bloody Hall, filmed in 1971, where Sontag chastised him for referring to “lady writers”). But what her Mailer impersonation heralds here is a moment of wilful self-invention of the kind she performed throughout her life with extraordinary success. She often goaded herself to transform at the same time as castigating herself for her fakeness in doing so.

More here.