Susan Sontag`s Fame: Why?


The normally reliable Arts & Letters Daily links to a 4,800 word review Adam Kirsch in The Tablet of the second volume of the late Susan Sontag`s diaries. Kirsch is quite overwhelmed by Ms. Sontag`s life, but has a difficult time explaining why any man would care. Perhaps his editors just didn`t give him enough space.

That brings up the question: Why was Susan Sontag so famous in the 1960s, other than for saying “the white race is the cancer of human history”? As far as I can tell, it was because Sontag was smart, ambitious, egomaniacal, humorless, pedantic, snobbish, Jewish, sexy, and lesbian. 

I think the sexy lesbian part might have been central. There are lots of lesbians and lots of sexy ladies, but not too many sexy lesbians. (Sorry to break the news, but you have been lied to by your porn downloads.) Sontag`s huge mane of hair had to rank at the 99th percentile among lesbians` hair. She was a giant tease to other lesbian intellectuals, who were all enthralled by her. Lesbian lit-crit Terry Castle`s hilarious 2005 memoir of Sontag says:

I think she was fully conscious of – and took great pride and pleasure in – the erotic spell she exerted over other women. I would be curious to know how men found her in this regard; the few times I saw her with men around, they seemed to relate to her as a kind of intellectually supercharged eunuch. The famed ‘Natalie Wood’ looks of her early years notwithstanding, she seemed uninterested in being an object of heterosexual desire, and males responded accordingly. It was not the same with women – and least of all with her lesbian fans. Among the susceptible, she never lost her sexual majesty. She was quite fabulously butch – perhaps the Butchest One of All. She knew it and basked in it, like a big lady she-cat in the sun.

It`s kind of like Paul Johnson`s unkind revelation (p. 253) of what Picasso`s special secret sauce was that made him so popular with gay critics, gay promoters, and gay collectors. Picasso was muy macho, but in the Mediterranean mode, and was not above rewarding a good review personally.

Unfortunately, Sontag didn`t have much to say of enduring interest, as Mr. Kirsch`s many thousands of words of explication inadvertently demonstrate.