Monday, April 11, 2011

More reading: on Susan Sontag

Although I was not giving it my full attention, I was just thinking about Alexander Hamilton and American history while a two-hour documentary about him was being broadcast.  I wonder whether one must become, like me, quite old in order simply to accept the mixed nature (and often what Freud called imperfect ego-formation) of every person.  I mean, it seems to affect even the way that men play golf games.  I know all are mixed, and that the fallibility of each of us will out, often when we least expect it, because I know it in myself: we are very complicated primates.
This realization, in any case, is very helpful.  I need not always agree with William Dean Howells or with Alexander Hamilton or with H. L. Mencken in order to enjoy them and find them worthwhile.  If I disagree, I can only expect that they might uncover my faults, too.  If I have disagreed with Susan Sontag (the more likely since we were almost exactly the same age), I can still admire her mind and the style of her hutzpah.  Of course, co-evally, we were on opposite sides of the continent.  I was astonished that she seemed to think that she was the author of camp, wrote as if it were her idea, when San Franciscans used the word confidently and exactly in the basically theatrical sense (quite old, actually), and she got it all balled up with aspects of post-modern Pop.  And I had to do battle with her very amateurish understanding of photography throughout  the fifteen years that I taught History of Photography.  I don’t think she’d ever tried photography herself.  She could be forgiven for mixing it up with some aspects of cinematography, perhaps, but not for treating a popular exhibit like “The Family of Man” (with quotations from Carl Sandburg, lord help us) just the same as twenty years of Aperture, so to speak.  Anyone should see that they aren’t comparable.  I mean, they both use lenses, but so do microscopes.  Similarly, one might admire Norman Rockwell, or not, but to assess him in the same way as William de Kooning or Joan MirĂ³ plainly would be a waste of ink.
Nevertheless, regrettable as she sometimes seemed to me, her personality and indomitable spirit remained admirable, right down to the last times I saw her interviewed on television.
So I am most grateful for the gift of Sigrid Nunez’s memoir Sempre Susan from a dear friend.  Since I avoid reading about authors when I haven’t read most of their work, or about visual artists whose actual work I have not yet studied, I had formed an idea of Susan Sontag from her essays, from some well known photographers' portraits of her, and from her persona on television—and therefore was interested in Nunez’s firsthand observations.
But the strongest (the indelible) impression I carried away was strangely remote, no matter how many facts I learned, except for the horrendous exposure of a younger and less experienced woman working for and dwelling with another, nearly two decades older and indomitable (not always nicely).  Unfortunately, Nunez spoiled her book by lapsing into what seems like an uncontrolled rant in the last third of it.  I couldn’t help but remember reading Patti Smith about Robert Mapplethorpe.  After the latter, I went and listened to a couple of her albums, too (though punk rock, even by a real poet, was not usually my dish), but after Sempre Susan I don’t think I could read any more Nunez.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d rather re-read The Princess Casamassima, I think.