Reviewing the Reviewer

In “A Very Public Intellectual,” ostensibly a review of Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag (Atlas & Co) in last Sunday’s Wall Street Journal, writer Joseph Epstein aptly observes that “[a]nyone with the least intellectual pretension seemed to have heard of, if not read, her.”

But then, just two sentences later, he jarringly describes Sontag as “the beautiful young woman every male graduate student regretted not having had a tumble with, a fantasy that would have been difficult to arrange since she was, with only an occasional lapse, a lesbian.”

While Epstein is clearly willing to acknowledge the existence of homosexual women, he seems unable to imagine that some of Sontag’s male graduate students might have been homosexual, too. And weren’t there any smitten women in the classroom, or was Sontag the only lesbian?

Epstein’s is the the kind of rhetorical error that editors are supposed to catch—unless they’re too busy pruning florid, overwrought declarations down to journalistic size. Yet somehow the following sentence, purple as any prose I’ve read in newsprint, made the cut: “These cultural pronunciamentos, authoritative and richly allusive, were delivered in a mandarin manner.”

Given Epstein’s meticulous word choices—at least when it comes to alliteration—his remark about “every male graduate student” wanting to sleep with Sontag reads not merely as a rhetorical error, but also as the denial of an entire group of people, people whom Sontag had done so much to make visible in her career-launching 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’”

Written five years before the Stonewall Riots and the emergence of a modern gay movement, “Notes on ‘Camp’” was daring enough not only to acknowledge the existence of homosexuals, but to credit them with contributing to popular culture.

Sontag’s own lesbianism was well-known to many of her colleagues, but her partnership with Annie Liebowitz came as a surprise to many of her readers when they learned of it after her death—not so much because Sontag was in the closet as because of what fellow academicians like Judith Butler termed “the heterosexual presumption.”

Ironically, in reviewing a work about Sontag’s life, Epstein has reinscribed the very presumption that Sontag herself had challenged throughout her career.

None of us are blank slates; we all come to the books we read with certain biases and presumptions already in place, but being aware of these can help us become more objective and engaged readers (and reviewers). Here’s hoping that others will approach Nunez’ wonderful biography—or at least “Notes on ‘Camp’”—with this in mind.
Read the original review @

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8 Responses to “Susan Sontag and the Hetero Presumption”

  1. 11 April 2011 at 11:20 AM #

    I was less astonished by the dismissal of gay men, and more at the characterization of Sontag’s “lapses” from lesbianism, as well as the focus on her as a sexual object rather than an intellectual. Yet you’re right that the erasure of queer desire is something Sontag explicitly worked against. Thought-provoking response, I guess I’m trying to say.

  2. 11 April 2011 at 8:42 PM #

    Edmund White addresses this degaying strategy in “City Boy” when he describs a generation of artists & writers who erased gay or queer from their public biography. (Elizabeth Bishop, & Robert Rauschenberg both come to mind.) In Sontag’s case, Epstein’s erasure seems more like heteronormative wishful thinking or, just plain cluelessness. She was known as a great beauty in her day, and it’s easy to see why a straight man of that generation, would make that assumption though it’s a little difficult to swallow given the ample historical evidence to the contrary – she lived with both Lucinda Childs, & Annie Lebovitz for years (well beyond the time frame of “lapse” which I associate with a hiccup). Wishful thinking aside, it’s a glaringly inaccurate assertion to make in the Wall Street Journal given how that paper prides itself on accuracy. Or, perhaps, consider the source (Epstein) – if Wikipedia is to be believed, no less than William F. Buckley, Jr., in his review of Epstein’s book, Snobbery, called him “the wittiest writer alive.”

    Sontag stature as a practitioner of Belle Lettres was built upon a carefully built reputation. I’ll assume, to Epstein’s mindset, he done her a favor since, during her heyday, a gay orientation or, at least a public one, would have been verboten by her v. small readership (small relative to the readership she’d have until the Volcano Lover) such as the Partisian Review & The New York Review of Books. To have publically admitted her lesbianism during that era would probably have diminished her, esp. in those circles when she reigned (“You will never worry about money again,” she said to White, upon giving his novel a blurb, an assertion of her position as king-maker.)

    But I think there’s something more complex at work than ‘was she gay/was she not gay,’ and it more so relates to her identification as a “professional foreigner” (and who is more oriented towards survival – and ambiguity – than a “foreigner”?) To identify too closely with any political moment or class wouldn’t just have diminished her reputation, but restricted her movement. I cannot, for example, imagine her going undercover in a Bunny costume to explore the Hugh Hefner’s clubs (as Gloria Steinem famously did for New York Magazine.) And it wasn’t just that Sontag’s audience was different or less populist than Steinem’s, but that her aspirations reached across epochs. Even when Sontag wrote about the now, she wasn’t wedded to the present as newspeg. For instance, when she wrote or spoke about AIDS, she related our culture’s hysterical reaction to the 18th century notions of plague (“incidences that are understood as inflicted, not just endured.”)

    What’s most visibly at odds with Epstein’s (presumably) disingenuous attempt to shove Sontag back into a closet are Sontag’s own journals. At fifteen, her budding lesbian orientation has already been set up to conflict with her ambition (s) when, in 1947, she declares, “‘I want to write – I WANT TO LIVE IN AN INTELLECTUAL ATMOSPHERE.” The public / private conflict intensifies in 1948 when she states, ” ‘I feel that I have lesbian tendencies,” and explodes in May 1949 when, at Berkeley, she had her first sexual experience with a woman (Harriet Sohmers.) Then, she momentarily rejects an academic career, in favor of sexual and intellectual freedom (‘I intend to do everything … I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere, and find it, too. I AM REBORN.’ – her capitalization) Soonafter, a male friend from the University of Chicago warns Sontag against the lesbian life: ‘Your only chance of being normal is to call a halt right now. No more women, no more bars.’ In short order, she meets Philip Rieff in 1949, engages him in December, and on 3 January 1950 she married him ‘with full consciousness + fear of will toward self-destructiveness’. She has a baby, and stops journaling from 1951-52 except to note, ‘in marriage, I have suffered a certain loss of personality’. (And lest there be any doubt whether or not Sontag was, in fact, lesbian, in 1958, living in Paris, she writes, “My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me … It doesn’t justify my homosexuality. But it would give me — I feel — a license.”)

    Prior to the Diaries publication, her son David’s ambivalence about their publication perhaps best expresses the challenges Sontag probably found herself making: “she avoided, to the extent she could, without denying it, any discussions of her own homosexuality or any acknowledgment of her own ambition.” Presumably, Reiff was (if he read Epstein’s piece) unbothered by the inaccurance. When he was asked in a interview, “But you know there will be future biographies of Susan Sontag. You could set the record straight,” he answered,
    “Oh, you never set the record straight. People write what they want to write.”

  3. […] Susan Sontag and the Hetero Presumption […]

  4. 15 April 2011 at 9:56 AM #

    When I read Epstein’s “review” (which may more aptly be termed a smear), my blood pressure rose perceptibly with each paragraph, but I chalked it up to not having read enough of Sontag’s work to have a cogent opinion. That makes your blog and these two comments very reassuring.

    The passage you quote was the first tip off, and by the end I was wondering if Epstein was himself one of those lust-filled grad students and he was taking posthumous revenge. Intelligent criticism is always fine, whether I happen to agree with the writer or not, but Epstein’s screed was anything but intelligent. It read to me like axe grinding, pure and simple. If his antipathy is a result of Sontag’s sexuality (or unavailability for whatever reason), then I will comfortably add Epstein to my virtual file of why-bother-to-read writers.

    It also brought to mind Helen Vendler’s wonderful essay about Roland Barthes, in which she champions a writer and thinker her colleagues dismiss: ” ‘How can you like that silly homosexual?’ I was asked by an eminent literary critic in tones of impatience and revulsion,” she writes (The Music of What Happens). Takeaway: Homosexuals must never be taken seriously, for that way lies chaos—and the end of civilization as we know it.

  5. […] Read the full review at […]

  6. 3 September 2011 at 8:26 PM #

    Tomas – certainly there were de-gaying strategies but I am very empathetic of Bob Rauschenberg. He was in reality bisexual and continued a sexual and romantic relationship with Susan Weil even after their divorce, and while he was in his relationship with Jasper Johns, which pretty much broke them up. I don’t think it was homophobia per se but a lack of identity with “gay”. Especially when such an identity makes the love you have for a woman illegitimate. He willed his estate to his lover and xwife. I have talked to a good friend of Bob Rauschenberg who told because of my own bisexuality. This reality is still not well accepted in the general culture. Straights will erase his homosexuality and Gays will erase his heterosexuality. For me personally I want it pretty much engraved on my tombstone that I loved both men and women no matter what sex my partner is (currently a woman).

  7. 11 September 2011 at 10:11 PM #

    I notce that there has been a rather long delay in the publication of vol. 2 of the diaries. Perhaps David Reiff has hit a crucial snag in the editing process. I hope not. I want to read more.

    In 1970, a friend of mine who taught at Harvard told me that he got to know Susan Sontag in Provincetown the summer before. When his vacation was over, Sontag asked for a lift into Boston. My friend obliged, and Sontag sat beside him in his red convertible MG. Along the way they passed a hitchhiker, a young blond hippie youth, “a very cute guy,” according to my friend. Sontag insisted that they give him a lift. In the car, Sontag and the blond hit it off so well that by the time they arrived in Boston she asked to be dropped off at a hotel–with the hitchhiker. At the time the implication was clear: they were going to spend the night together. Of course, instantantous hookups like this were common in the late 60s and early 70s. I mention this to illustrate Sontag’s once vibrant bisexuality, something I think Epstein missed entirely. He seems to think that the exercise of her “hetero” side was a very rare event.

    In those days, my Harvard friend was convinced that Sontag was lesbian, despite her sojourn with the blond boy. He “read” her to me then as “a pushy bull dyke.” “A what—?!” I remember saying. That she could be lesbian (bisexual) but so silent on gay issues seemed to me to be the worst sort of ‘human rights’ violation. (In The Village Voice people like Jill Johnston were always goading Sontag to come out; Johnston, in fact, was always making appeals to the Empress of Culture to “announce” herself. The rest is history, as they say.)

    Years later, when I would usually speak with Sontag whenever she would visit Philadelphia, I mentioned my Harvard friend’s name to her and asked if she remembered the Provincetown-Boston convertible ride. She managed a cantankerous smile and said, “Oh my God, that was a long time ago.”

    Hearing her say this, there was some reassurance in knowing that my Harvard friend, who passed away in the mid 1990s, wasn’t spinning tales..

  8. 20 September 2011 at 5:02 AM #

    Cool story, I talked to a gay performance artist, an arguement really about the bisexual vs gay reality, and then in the heat of the arguement began to out everyone in the performance art and art world. (I should not have but really needed to prove my point for once) He said what do they have to do with it. It was clear to me in that moment the full extent of the “bisexual closet” in the art world today that very very few men or women will come out to their gay peers and will perpetually be seen as “straight”, while they would come out to me and introduce me to there past or present same sex partners. I only recently began to appreciate the implications of this phenomenon of contemporary discretion.

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