A similar thing happened to me many years ago with the half-blind Argentinean writer Borges. I was warned by friends to stay away from his books because they had the power to obsess and transfix the reader like a wild animal caught in the headlights of a speeding car. But I ignored these warnings, read the miniature fiction in Labyrinth, and, sure enough, was hooked for days and years, trying to solve the trick of his unearthly magic. But whereas Borges bewitched me with his madness, Susan Sontag bewitched me with her beauty. Indeed, Susan Sontag offers something like a beauty of thinking. Her best essays are not poetic like Roland Barthes, daydreamy like Walter Benjamin, or saintly like Charles Baudelaire, but beautiful like the image of an attractive person whose features (lips, hair, cheeks, nose) are impressive, striking, and easily recognized when spotted at a big party or a popular restaurant. More impressively, her essays remain within the limits of the image: They never go deeper than what they are saying. In this respect, Sontag frustrates "the reader's innate desire to 'fall back on a psychology.' The idea that depths are obfuscating, demagogic; that no human essence stirs at the bottom of things, and that freedom lies in staying on the surface, the large glass on which desire circulates." This is her strategy, the strategy of a "late" aesthete.
It is easy to understand why Susan Sontag left her husband, David Reiff (whom she married when she was only 17, and divorced seven years later): He was a Freudian, whose first book, Freud, The Mind of the Moralist, attempted to articulate an American use of Freud. But Freud, like her husband, is about depth, about deep symbolic structures. They see the human as something of an iceberg: small, bright, and clear on top; massive, ominous, and dark underneath. Nothing could be further from Susan Sontag's intellectual enterprises. She celebrates surfaces, sees them as important (indeed, more important at times) as depth. "The aesthete's principle is [this]," she writes in "On Roland Barthes," "that surface is as telling as depth." It is not Freud who matters to her, but Nietzsche. But whereas "Nietzsche scorned 'depths,' and exalted 'heights,'" for a post-Nietzschean Sontag, "there are only various kinds of surfaces, of spectacle," and no heights. "I think rock & roll was the reason I got divorced," she once said in an interview. "I think it was Bill Haley and the Comets and Chuck Berry [laughing] that made me decide to get a divorce and leave the academic world."
Like the French (Baudelaire, Mallarme, Cocteau), like all dandies and true aesthetes, Susan Sontag takes fashion seriously. In fact, fashion does not end with the look of her clothes (she has a taste for cowboy boots), but permeates every aspect of her intellectual life. From the photos on her book covers and sleeves (her new novel features an Annie Leibovitz photo of her and -- my god! -- she is still beautiful, radiant, and vain in her twilight years), to her style of writing, to the political positions she taken on local and international politics (praising Cuban revolutionaries in the '60s, directing Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in the '90s), Sontag is inspired and motivated by fashion and how things look at the moment. To accuse her of ideological and political inconsistencies, as some stupid critics have done, is like accusing her of wearing bellbottoms in the '60s. Such is the power of fashion!
Altogether, Susan Sontag's greatest contribution is that she found "late ways" for the bookish soul, the intelligent artist, or the sophisticate to claim a place, a home, a voice in this oversized, overdeveloped, and hyper-democratic (in the consumer sense) society. In a word, she has shown us how to be a dandy (a diaphanous dandy, no less) in this age of information.
Susan Sontag reads from her new novel, In America, Tues March 14 at Town Hall, Eighth & Seneca, 621-2230, 7:30 pm, $10.