Few intellectuals (the writers who intervene and influence public life) have been subject to such insistent biographical inquisition as Susan Sontag. This new account of his life, which he intends to present as more or less definitive, is preceded, to cite only some translated works, of the intelligent interview Cott conducted in 1978, of the modest memories of the novelist Sigrid Nunez, of the recent semblance of the German Schreiber or of the ramplona of Rollyson and Paddock, the first of them all, published still in the life of the author of About photography. Not to mention in English the avalanche, always after his death in 2004 but following in the wake of the last cited, of the marginal testimonies of those who treated it in varying degrees and who aspired to stand out through the arrival of contiguity or the incident as collection of alleged grievances.
Benjamin Moser is known in Spanish for his biography of Clarice Lispector, whose publication was not exempt from serious substantive objections among Brazilian specialists. The reader unfortunately should not expect from this new book relevant discoveries that are not already offered in previous biographies and interviews, or that are not present in the important edition by David Rieff of Susan Sontag's notebooks or diaries. Moser also had the author's files deposited at the University of California, Los Angeles; however, this is not an intellectual biography, let alone a new contribution of arguments that allow us to weigh the literary or intellectual legacy of Sontag framed in the trajectory of its influential and debated public interventions (from the Vietnam War to that of Bosnia, of his defense of Heberto Padilla to that of Salman Rushdie in crucial moments, of his assertion that “communism is nothing but fascism with a human face” to his statements on US intervention after the attacks of September 11, 2001). What the surprised reader will notice is that Moser brandishes, again, with a certain intellectual ineptia in view of the enormous material at his disposal, an extended list of charges against the essayist of Regarding the pain of others, and that some have been proclaiming since the seventies. Among them, three stand out, to which he dedicates many pages throughout the book. The first accuses Sontag of not having put his work at the service of feminist militancy; the second, not to be "honest" or "sincere" when Moser blindly tries to reconcile the facts experienced by the private (and intimate) person with the narrative work, and the third, not to have made a public manifestation of his homosexuality. That is, Moser intends, among other objectionable aspects of this book, to deserve punishment for his biography.
Being a writer, the essential thing is the work, because it constitutes, justifies and illuminates life itself, and not vice versa
The first of the charges comes from old. In a famous refutation of 1975 to Adrienne Rich, who accused her puerilely of not integrating feminist militancy into her recent works (accusation repeated years later by Camille Paglia), Sontag wrote that it certainly does not constitute a betrayal to maintain that “other objectives besides of the depolarization of the two sexes, other wounds than those of gender, other identities than the sexual, another policy than the politics of the sexes; and other ‘antihuman values’ that the óg misogynist ’, as if reason and authority should also be thrown into the“ patriarchal history ”dump. Moser, after adopting Rich's position, also holds his hands to the head because Sontag's articles on feminism, published in magazines of maximum dissemination in English, were not included in the book, when precisely in one of them he famously wrote that “ the oppression of women constitutes the fundamental type of oppression in organized societies ”, be they communists or capitalists; this in response to a questionnaire that was originally formulated in 1972 since Free, the Parisian magazine of Juan Goytisolo.
The second seeks to detect the incipient lack of probity of the author in the story Pilgrimage, the initial of the various examples adduced by Moser, since the facts of Susan Sontag's youth visit to Thomas Mann noted in her notebooks do not coincide with those of the story of that same visit to the house of the German novelist exiled in California. That is to say, he is recriminated that the story is not the report of the facts. Moser also attributes the origin of this supposed proclivity to the misrepresentation that Sontag was the firstborn of an alcoholic mother, and believes he discovers in the reductionist reading of his narrative works, from Benefactor until In America, mere hidden psychological or biographical pieces that allegedly explain the discrepancies between the public and the private person, but that very little they say about the narrator and essayist. Of the intellectual and moral influence of Arendt, Taubes, Barthes or Cioran, for example, Moser hardly contributes anything. It is relevant to add that in recent years some Sontag narrative works have been reconsidered, especially from the study that Jerome Maunsell dedicated in 2014, a work very suspiciously absent from the copious bibliography cited by Moser.
The third position, perhaps the most insidious of them all, was formulated more earnestly since the 1980s and the HIV epidemic that has ravaged the lives of millions of people: the concealment of their homosexuality. Moser ignores Sontag's repeated statements with which he categorically refused to publicly refer to his private (and even "spiritual") life. And if the above is not enough, Moser seems unable to recognize throughout the book, in flagrant contradiction with the available information that he presents and with the author's private writings, that Sontag was actually bisexual all his life. (Refer the curious reader to your diaries). That is, for Moser, the bisexual as a traitor to a cause. Sontag's position in this regard, if his career is considered with rigor and seriousness, could well be formulated with a phrase of his own, pronounced upon receiving the Prince of Asturias Award: "Aversion to make mainly instrumental use of writers." At this point it should be a truism to maintain that, since it is a writer, the essential is the work, since it constitutes, justifies and illuminates life itself, and not vice versa.
At the end of this biography fallaciously moralistic, Moser includes a long list of those who collaborated in its writing, but without discriminating in any way the contributions of each one, with which the author's relatives are mixed there, for example, with Jasper Johns. The almost null collaboration of interlocutors such as Edgardo Cozarinsky or Paolo Dilonardo (essential to account for the last decade of Sontag's life), and the absence of informants such as Juan Cruz, Patti Smith or Ed Vulliamy (essential to document the presence of Sontag in Bosnia), explain that Moser's biography is gradually becoming thinner in the last of its four parts, despite the fact that it is the period in which the greatest abundance of materials is supposed to be the most recent.
The procedures in this biography are then quite a symptom of the way some live now: between news that is not news, friends that are not friends, nations that are not nations, and books that are not in this, the Trump era.
Sontag: Her Life. Benjamin Moser Ecco, 2019. 800 pages.
Aurelio Major He is a poet and translator of Susan Sontag's work into Spanish.
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