Notes on 'Susan'
A front-page obituary published by the New York Times the day after Sontag's death was much more typical. The nearly 4000-word piece leaves the impression that the only significant emotional and sexual relationship that Sontag, an internationally known public figure for well over four decades, had throughout her 71 years was with her ex-husband Philip Rieff, whom she married shortly after meeting at the University of Chicago when she was 17 years old. (Rieff was then 28 and an instructor at the school.) The piece neglected entirely the close relationship Sontag had for twenty years with photographer Annie Leibovitz. To be fair, Times writer Margalit Fox did note that Sontag was once "photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut Vodka ad." This aside prompted New York Daily News gossip columnist Ben Widdicombe to quip the following day in print that the line was "the best euphemism for 'lesbian' that I've ever heard."'
On Jan. 5 Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent issued a statement in response to "challenges and queries" from readers about the omission of Leibovitz in the Sontag obituary. Okrent said that the Times "could find no authoritative source who could confirm any details of a relationship." His statement concluded: "Some might say that such safely accurate phrases as 'Ms. Sontag had a long relationship with Annie Leibovitz' would have sufficed, but I think anything like that would not only bear the unpleasant aroma of euphemism, but would also seem leering or coy. Additionally, irrespective of the details of this particular situation, it's fair to ask whether intimate information about the private lives of people who wish to keep those lives private is fair game for newspapers. I would personally hope not."
Hmmm. Did Okrent somehow miss the Times' reporting of President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky? At any rate, the Times was not the only paper to closet Sontag in death. Nearly every major newspaper in the U.S. and abroad did the same. The Boston Globe ignored both Sontag's sexuality and her relationship with Leibovitz. An obituary in London's Independent does the same even though it observes that in her 30s, "Sontag became the epitome of the new woman, sexually provocative, totally self-confident, treating men either as equals that she could dominate or as inferiors unworthy of her attention." An obituary in The Telegraph recounts Sontag's feud with openly lesbian cultural critic Camille Paglia, but bizarrely ignores that Paglia was a vocal critic of Sontag's refusal to come out. An obituary in The Guardian hints, gamely, at Sontag's lesbianism: "'On Style', the title essay in her first collection, plus 'Notes on 'Camp', set out an economy of culture which was moral without being moralistic, and began a radical displacement of heterosexuality. It was a gay sensibility that she interpreted, and that shaped her response to the visual arts. It was also the central focus of her emotional life."
Although the Associated Press described Leibovitz as Sontag's "longtime companion," it did so only in the context of noting that Sontag had written an essay for Leibovitz's 1999 book length photograph essay, Women. Among mainstream newspapers, only the obituary in The New York Sun, written by Carl Rollyson, who co-wrote with Lisa Paddock Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, an unauthorized biography of Sontag in 2000, deals with the topic: "Sontag divorced Rieff in 1959 in part because she found herself attracted to women and wanted to live unconstrained by marital or institutional ties." People magazine, which did note that Sontag's "close relationships with several women provoked speculation," also addressed the issue.
The gay press wasn't much better. In a short obituary published online the day she died, The Advocate described Leibovitz as Sontag's "long time companion," and made a point of noting that Time magazine was the first publication to have described Leibovitz in this way. To its credit, the Bay Windows obituary, "Susan Sontag Dies At 71," also published online, briefly delves into the ambiguity surrounding Sontag's sexuality. But only an item posted in the New York Blade Blog by Steve Koval bluntly asks how "the obituary of a famous gay (or bisexual) social critic gets de-gayed?"
The answer, of course, is obvious. The mainstream press, out of a misplaced sense of decorum, will often not speak of the homosexual romantic lives of certain well-liked public figures and simply ignore the obvious. This is especially true when the public figure shows any reticence about showing some aspects of their private life. And Sontag fiercely protected her privacy surrounding her romantic life. In his obituary for The Guardian, Eric Homberger noted "you never could claim to know Sontag, however much New York was alive with gossip about her loves, her ex-loves, her next book." And the Daily News' Widdicombe, who took the trouble to call the New York Times to ask why there was no mention of Sontag's relationship with Leibovitz in its obituary, was told: "Our extensive reporting in recent weeks did not substantiate the widespread reports of any relationship of Miss Sontag and Miss Leibovitz beyond friendship ... We should probably have mentioned the friendship, but nothing further was warranted by the facts we could gather."
Meanwhile, Leibovitz once made a very clear, on the record, denial of having anything more than a friendship with Sontag. In 1999, during a publicity interview for Women with The Washington Post, Leibovitz described Sontag as her "great friend" and told Post writer Paula Spann, who made a point of noting that the two "have separate apartments in the same Chelsea complex," that "You'd be wrong to say anything else."
The other part of the answer lies in the ridiculous burden of proof of sexual activity that our culture, and the media, places on women's homosexual relationships. As Blanche Wiesen Cook observes in her marvelous essay "Women Alone Stir my Imagination," enormous energy has gone into denying that same-sex female couples such as Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West ever had a physical relationship, even though such intimacy is presumed to have existed between heterosexual couples such as General Dwight Eisenhower and his wartime driver and "companion" Kay Summersby. We see the same thinking today when Sontag and Leibovitz's very public relationship is read as asexual, yet former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's equally public relationship with Judy Nathan is understood, and accepted, as including, if not predicated upon, sexual intimacy. Lesbianism, unless it is forthrightly and loudly declared, is generally invisible, and beneath the cultural radar. So even though Sontag or Leibovitz were never connected romantically with men, spent a huge amount of social and working time together, lived right next to one another, and for twenty years were rumored to be lovers, the New York Times could not "substantiate" any relationship.
But misreporting, perhaps under-reporting is a better term, by the media is not news. The more interesting question concerns Sontag herself. Given that we know Sontag was a woman who enjoyed sexually intimate relationships with other women (indeed, Sontag's friend Doug Ireland recalls in a blog post published the day Sontag died that, "We often talked about sexuality she was quite amusing in recounting her own amorous adventures with women"), what does it mean that Sontag, given her feminism, her progressive politics, and her commitment to human rights, would not publicly identify herself as a lesbian?
One possible, even obvious, answer is that Sontag's career benefitted by her remaining closeted. People don't choose to remain closeted on a whim or a mood. Homophobia exists and when people come out they are often punished for it in a wide variety of ways. Even when they are not severely punished, it is important to remember that society always rewards those who decide to remain closeted. There is little doubt that, if she had publicly declared her lesbianism, Sontag and her ideas would have been attacked, or at least held up to a whole new level of scrutiny. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Sontag spoke out on national and international politics in addition to art and literature. She was a vehement, and highly articulate, critic of a wide range of US policies from the Vietnam War to military interventions in Central America and the suppression of free speech. Because of her prominence she was frequently the focus of conservative and right-wing anger. Indeed, after her article in the New Yorker about 9/11 she was labeled a "fifth columnist" and a "traitor."
There can be no doubt that throughout the last four decades, many of these attacks would have been tinged with queer bashing. For instance, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Commentary, which was then an influential monthly that set a tone on policy, cultural, and political affairs, published a number of vile articles accusing homosexuals of everything from destroying Western culture to making the world safe for Communism. The most notorious of these piece were by Midge Decter (her "Boys on the Beach" piece in the September 1980 issue accused the gay movement of contributing to the death of gay men) and Norman Podhoretz (in November 1996 his "How the Gay Rights Movement Won" was a near-hysterical jeremiad against most forms of gay equality and visibility) the reigning monarchs of neo-con New York intellectuals. These attacks were simply a response to the gay movement. Had Sontag been out, she would surely have been dragged into this sewage, and it would have been used to discredit her views on everything from foreign policy to contemporary film.
But if she could not have come out in 1969 after the Stonewall riots, couldn't she have done so in the 1970s as feminism became mainstream? Couldn't she have done so in the 1980s as AIDS ravaged a generation of gay men, something she wrote about so movingly in her short story "The Way We Live Now" and her book AIDS and Its Metaphors? Couldn't she have done so in the 1990s as the secret nature of her relationships with other women evolved into an "open secret" (open to everyone, that is, except for the intrepid reporters at the Times)? Of course, she could have. But she didn't. She obviously decided this was a woman who took all of her decisions very seriously not to.
This raises some complicated questions: What does it mean to set yourself up as an arbiter of moral issues, plumbing the intersections of public action and personal responsibility even as you avoid discussing vital, personal issues? In most of her political writings Sontag explicated how institutionalized power structures racism, colonialism, state-sponsored violence hurt individual people as well as nations. It is not as though she did not understand how homophobia works. Interestingly, while Sontag never spoke openly of her sexual or romantic life, she also (for an ostensible feminist) spoke very little on explicitly women's liberation issues. And she rarely addressed much from the position of a Jewish identity as well. She certainly knew what it was like to live as a lesbian, a woman, and a Jew. Essentially, when Sontag arrived in New York, as the New York Times put it, with "$70, two suitcases, and a 7-year-old," she made a decision to be one of the boys. She would make it in their world, their way.
To say that she succeeded would be an understatement. Sontag managed to become a public intellectual in a country that is profoundly anti-intellectual. That is why, as opposed to most European countries, we have produced so few women and men who are accepted, much less lauded, as shapers of national thought and contributors to important public discussions such as: Simone de Beauvior, Rebecca West, Gunter Grass, Christa Wolf, Jean-Paul Sartre, C. P. Snow, Michel Foucault. Could Sontag have become, as she did, the American equivalent to these thinkers if she had come out as a lesbian? I doubt it.
Sontag was probably acutely aware of her precarious position in American culture. Even with her success you can still feel the resentment against her in many of the obituaries. The fact that she changed her mind about many issues was used as evidence that she was not consistent in her analysis. The examples range from art to politics: in 1965 she praised Leni Riefenstahl for her filmmaking despite her fascist politics ("On Style") and in 1975 attacked her for being a fascist because of her art ("Fascinating Fascism.") In 2003 she revised some of her opinions from her 1975 "On Photography" in her new book "Regarding the Pain of Others." The obituaries seemed to think that these inconsistencies were a sign of intellectual flakiness or proof that she was somehow less-than-steady in her thinking. This is ridiculous. The very nature of being a thinking person, an intellectual, is to continually revise and rethink the very issues on which you have previously made up your mind.
Sontag understood that her broad range of interests, as well as a stance as a serious moralist, put her at risk of attack. In "On Paul Goodman," her eulogy on the death of the great (and now mostly forgotten) public intellectual who died in 1972, Sontag noted that "There is a terrible, mean American resentment toward a writer who tries to do many things." Interestingly, in this same essay there is the most telling sentence: "I admired his courage, which showed itself in so many ways one of the most admirable being his honesty about his homosexuality in Five Years for which he was much criticized by his straight friends in the New York intellectual world; that was six years ago, before the advent of Gay Liberation made coming out of the closet chic."
Here, in her own words, Sontag articulates a clear understanding of the problems faced by people when they come out. And, in truth, she grossly underestimated the problem; Goodman's career had suffered from his public presentation of homosexuality since the late 1940s when his sexual interests became evident in his work. But more revealing is Sontag's decision to dismissively write that the gay movement rendered "coming out" as chic. Sontag's mixture of admiration and sympathy for Goodman also exhibits a profound, and one can only think purposeful, misunderstanding of the weighty consequences of coming out. It is infuriating.
As much as there is to admire in Sontag's thought and writing the bravery evident in her New Yorker piece written after the 9/11 attacks, one of the first published pieces bringing a much needed reality check to what was happening, as well as her recent piece in the New York Times about torture in Iraqi prisons her refusal to address her own life as a woman who loved women and make those connections to the broader world is astonishing.
In a recent essay, "On Courage, Truth and Resistance" (published in Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict) she writes movingly of those who resist injustice:
"Let's start with the risks: The risk of being punished. The risk of being isolated. The risk of being injured or killed. The risk of being scorned. We are all conscripts in one sense or another. For all of us it is hard to break ranks; to incur the disapproval, the censure, the violence of an offended majority with a different idea of loyalty. We shelter under banner words like justice, peace, and reconciliation that enroll us in new, if much smaller and relatively powerless, communities of the like-minded. To fall out of step with one's tribe; to step beyond one's tribe into a world that is much larger mentally, but smaller numerically if alienation or dissidence is not your habitual or gratifying posture, this is a complex and difficult process."
We'll never know whether she was thinking about her sexuality when she wrote those words. But she may as well have been. What we do know is that in the many remembrances of Sontag's life published since she died in December, the media missed a rare opportunity to grapple with a profound contradiction that may have been at the center of Sontag's life. Much more regrettable, no, perplexing and even unnerving, is Susan Sontag's failure to grapple with the topic herself.