Historical Heroines: Susan Sontag, celebrity intellectual

Words By India Birgitta Jarvis

Susan Sontag came of age in the 1960s and 70s, during the same period as many of the last titans in the canon of chic writers; Joan Didion, Eve Babitz, Fran Lebowitz et al. It is chic to read Susan Sontag because Susan Sontag wrote about chic things, and was chic while she wrote them.

Susan Sontag

Sontag [1933-2004] was many things; a polymath before it became a fashionable way of branding oneself. Her early career was defined by cultural theory and panache for essay writing and critique. Then there was film and fiction, and in some interviews towards the end of her life she was credited as a “human rights activist” even before “writer”. She described herself as a storyteller or sometimes a ruminator. I think of her as a Celebrity Intellectual (chic!!!).

She was a formidable orator and sometimes a quite combative talker.

She could write eruditely about almost anything – aesthetics, AIDs, how to [not] interpret art, volcanoes, ethnic cleansing. Her Partisan Review classic from 1966 Notes on Camp is one of her most enduring and best loved works, and earned her position as master of a new kind of criticism, one which dismantled snobbish boundaries between high and low culture. Fans of Sontag often praise her ability to swing her pen easily from high- to low-brow, but she herself was wary of the suggestion that there was any difference, any kind of binary. Culture was culture, and she treated pop-culture and kitsch with the same consideration – if not the reverence – as she did Kafka or late 16th Century Mannerism.

She was a formidable orator and sometimes a quite combative talker. I adore an acerbic tongue as much as the next woman but even I found myself feeling slightly on edge during the course of my research for this piece, such was the tartness of her tone in many interviews. One stands out in particular, and it is so fabulous, where she claims to have never heard of one Camille Paglia [I mean of course she had]. Paglia’s later retort is wordy and shrill and petulant – a proverbial throwing of her toys out the pram – and despite her best efforts, utterly feeble compared to Sontag’s savagely succinct dismissal. 

I find comfort in the fact that although Sontag was immeasurably convincing in the authority with which she stated her ideas, often casually presenting them as objective fact, she was also unafraid to retroactively reject her own hypotheses. Her strong opinions were loosely held, a notion in which I am very invested. Finding the things one has said in the past to be deeply cringe is relatable as fuck, and it is the curse of the writer that these things are a matter of public record. I love that she backtracked on a lot of her ideas as she grew [whilst still remaining steadfastly immodest and positively self-righteous].

I have had a tweet from @sontagdaily bookmarked for two years which reads ‘No general statements about my own character, tastes, standards–such as “I never…” or “I wouldn’t…” 9/12/61’. It might be this short line from a diary entry which, above all other Sontagisms, has had the biggest impact on me personally. A thread which I think runs through the biographies – potted as I give them – of every woman in this series is this idea of impermanence, of changeability. The women I deem to be badass bitches changed many times throughout their lifetimes, and I think that in order to be comfortable doing this you need to not hold yourself accountable to the previous incarnation of yourself. If you make a grand statement about yourself [“I never…” or “I wouldn’t…”], and then your future actions contradict this – you do the thing you said you’d never do for example – it creates a tension between the two selves; the past one and the present one, which can manifest in confusion or shame or perilous stagnation. Sontag was 28 when she made this observation, demonstrating a wisdom and emotional intelligence regarding identity that for me is as impressive as her many other accolades. She once said that the most American thing about herself was her love of the notion of reinvention.

Susan Sontag - By Andy Ross
Susan Sontag - By Andy Ross
Susan Sontag - By Andy Ross
Terrifyingly intelligent, frustratingly esoteric.

And so we return to where we started. Chic writers are, anyway, a dying breed, but we will never have another Sontag. I’m certain of that. An aesthete who believed so vehemently that there is salvation to be found in creativity that her efforts during the war in the Balkans earned her an honorary citizenship and square named after her in Sarajevo. She was absorbed with language and was a voracious consumer of culture, whilst being politically engaged on a social and international level. She was gorgeous, ambiguous, fierce, terrifyingly intelligent, frustratingly esoteric. Is the grey streak of hair the chicest hairstyle a woman can have? Perhaps. 


India is a researcher and brand consultant living and working in London. She writes across fashion, style, art, design, culture, and photography. Follow her at @indiabirgitta

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