Notes on Sontag, Phillip Lopate. Princeton University Press. 247 pp, $19.95.
Phillip Lopate’s alternatively admiring and exasperated take on Susan Sontag, Notes on Sontag opens with a confession: he is guilty of the same flaws as his subject. Just like Sontag, he is “something of a snob in aesthetic matters,” has a “habit of boasting,” and “a need to maneuver any situation so as to put myself in a superior light.” For this reason, he encourages the reader’s skepticism: “It is a truism that we have a hard time tolerating in others the defects that reside in ourselves. I say this by way of warning the reader to be armed with skepticism and argumentativeness for what follows.”
While Lopate and Sontag may share a few shortcomings, this self-deprecating, confessional opening and use of a strong “I” voice clearly sets him apart from his subject. Lopate is a writer of personal essays, and Notes on Sontag is, among other things, a study of how Sontag’s discomfort with the self both energized and limited her work. Sontag was deeply paradoxical: a writer whose strength was in nuance but who was often coarse in person, whose best work was borne of experience but who avoided discussing her own experiences, who was preoccupied with controlling her public image but was often woefully unaware of how she came across. Lopate is an ideal guide through Sontag’s troubled relationship to the self, and his unselfconscious style and personal anecdotes provide an informative contrast to his subject’s tightly controlled, epigrammatic formality. Lopate’s differences from Sontag are central to the success of Notes on Sontag, and the book is finally both a reflection on Sontag’s work and a larger study of how writers present themselves on the page.
In keeping with Sontag’s own habit of organizing her essays as a circumspect series of notes on a topic, Notes on Sontag is comprised of short sections that rove around the writer’s most salient qualities. Lopate ranges from heavy hitting criticism in some sections (“Politics and Personae,” “Are the Arts Progressive?”) to chatty, lightly gossipy mini-essays about Sontag’s public behavior and effect on others (“Readers Feeling Stupid,” “Later Memories of Sontag”). Some readers might be put off by Lopate’s habit of intermixing serious philosophical responses with juicy first-hand accounts of rude and imperious public displays, but these stories both lighten the mood and help create a fuller, more sympathetic portrait. Sontag often acted as ungracious, entitled, and irrational as any tabloid pop star, and Lopate would have been justified in leaving his commentary on just such an unflattering comparison. But Lopate’s interest in the personal—the nuances, idiosyncrasies, and particulars of a person and her experience—make even Sontag’s worst behavior endearingly distinct.
Lopate captures both the steady force of Sontag’s mind and the flux of her public and private persona, and the character that emerges in the book is as textured and rounded like a literary creation. The irony is that while this treatment will likely help readers sympathize with her, Sontag herself had little respect for the kind of personal, expressive writing that Lopate uses to do her justice. In fact, one of the pleasures of reading Lopate on Sontag is how neatly the two writers represent opposing poles of the self in writing. What is more authentic? Writing purged of the personal, or personal writing? Is the personal an impediment to the universal? Or is it only through the personal that the universal can be expressed? Do the details matter, or are they just so much flotsam and jetsam on the sea of the fundamental? In Sontag’s case, the specifics of personal experience are clearly secondary to the idea they represent:
I didn’t think it was useful—and I wanted to be useful—to tell yet one more story in the first person of how someone learned that she or he had cancer, wept, struggled, was comforted, suffered, took courage . . . though mine was also that story. A narrative, it seemed to me, would be less useful than an idea. (from AIDS and Its Metaphors)
The fact that Sontag runs through her illness so glibly in this passage shows her belief that the individual narrative is only necessary insofar that it gestures towards a new idea. Since her cancer story progressed like so many others, Sontag considered it useless to include in her writing on illness. For Lopate, however, Sontag’s refusal to trace the link between her personal experience and the ideas she championed is a limiting omission. He believes Sontag’s autobiographical passages show her at her best, because “she achieves the proper balance of honesty, vulnerability, modesty, inward reflection, outgoingness, and cultivated mental alertness. I can’t help thinking it is a pity that she did not write personally more often.”
Indeed, there is something melancholy about Sontag’s stark adherence to the impersonal and lofty, and throughout Notes on Sontag, one cannot help but speculate on feats of suppression that would lead her to describe her own experience with cancer as a list of clichés. Luckily, Lopate seems aware of the grimness inherent in these stories of Sontag’s fierce and lonely ambition, and he makes a point of showing unexpected glimpses of his subject, as in this passage where Sontag describes her television habits after watching coverage of 9/11 on TV in Berlin (where she was at the time of the attack):
My consumption of reality via television has dropped to its usual level—zero. I have, stubbornly, never owned a TV set in America, although needless to say, I do watch TV when I am abroad.” There is something priceless to me about this digression, which, in the midst of assessing the meaning of 9/11, assumes we care about her TV watching habits, and defensively clarifies that God forbid we should think her a couch-potato, though of course she makes an exception for non-American television, which presumably is far superior to the home-grown brand, unless travel itself provokes a homesickness for inane American comforts that makes her lower her guard and indulge in the boob tube.
This passage perfectly captures both Sontag’s senseless paranoia about her public image and Lopate’s warm, lightly satirical touch. Rather than eviscerate Sontag for her runaway ego in the wake of tragedy, Lopate describes the digression as “priceless,” a word one might use to describe a beloved friend’s characteristic foible. Sontag comes across as charmingly out-of-it, and Lopate’s tickled response makes clear that she was more than a distant lioness of the literary. She was a character, as absurd, contradictory, and weird as anyone. Phillip Lopate’s strongest case for the personal in literature is his own riveting sketch of Sontag, his aesthetic opposite.
Monica McFawn is a writer living in Michigan. She has published fiction and poetry in Conduit, Conjunctions, Poetry Salzburg Review, and others. She created and moderates the literature and art website, Litandart. McFawn’s collaborative chapbook (with painter Curtis Rhodes) of drawings and prose, A Catalogue of Rare Movements, will be coming out as issue 42 of Xerolage.
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