Notes on a Budding Public Intellectual: An Excerpt From Daniel Schreiber’s Susan Sontag Biography

The first biography to be published after the writer and public intellectual’s death in 2004, Daniel Schreiber’s Susan Sontag has been translated from German into English, for release in America by Northwestern University Press, at a time when its subject’s star is the brightest it’s been since her passing. With her legacy well established, a new generation of writers is looking to Sontag as the gold standard for cultural criticism.

The chapter we’re proud to excerpt from Schreiber’s biography focuses on the Partisan Review essay “Notes on Camp,” which remains one of Sontag’s most well-known works, and the crucial time in her career when she was ascending from “intellectual It-Girl” status to become one of the most important public intellectuals of the 20th century.

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“Camp (1964)”

If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then—of course—I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?

Susan Sontag, Where the Stress

Falls (2001)

The year 1964 is generally regarded as the beginning of the “sixties” in America—not the actual decade but the mythical era of rebellion and social upheaval. The year 1964 was the point at which various threads from the late fifties and early sixties—social criticism, subcultures, pop culture, and political liberalism—seemed to weave together into various radical movements that fought their battles in the arenas of politics, the press, art, theater, and especially in the typically American arena of lifestyles. 1964 was the year Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Prize and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. It was the year the peace movement and the New Left began to form; the year a pop group from Liverpool crossed the Atlantic and Beatles hysteria reached the United States; and the year when acts of rebellion, recreational drugs, Eastern religion, and sexual liberation broke out of their bohemian ghetto. Even middle-class kids suddenly began to read Allen Ginsberg, study Zen Buddhism, and smoke marijuana. It was the year Andy Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick moved to New York and Warhol himself moved into a new studio on 47th Street in midtown Manhattan, covered it completely with aluminum foil, and thus founded the legend of the Silver Factory. It was also the year Susan Sontag became famous.

Sontag continued to juggle various demands on her time: her son, David; the New York avant-garde scene with its underground movies and experimental theaters; her university teaching post; and finally her career as writer and essayist. This fast life inevitably led to decisions of lasting consequence. María Irene Fornés became more and more estranged from her sometimes difficult partner, and the couple finally split up completely.

After The Benefactor was published, the contradiction between Sontag’s academic career and her literary ambitions became more acute. The fact that she had not completed her dissertation, instead becoming more and more involved with the literary world, led to difficulties with Columbia University. Roger Straus, who had recommended his author for fellowships from the Rockefeller and Merrill foundations, discreetly but urgently told his friend Harry Ford at the latter foundation, “As you may know, she is a member of the Philosophy faculty at Columbia, where her writing efforts have been greeted most unphilosophi- cally by her senior colleagues. As a result of this stupid attitude, she is now in financial need.”

Sontag’s academic mentor and promoter Jacob Taubes was at this time negotiating his return to Germany to take up a post at the Free University in Berlin, so she could expect no more support from him. Her job would be at risk once he was gone. Finally, however, her publisher’s efforts on her behalf bore fruit. On the basis of her literary and critical publications, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded her a post as writer in residence at Rutgers University during the academic year 1964–1965, and for 1965, she also received a fellowship from the Merrill Foun- dation. These awards put her in a position to leave her unloved instructorship in Columbia’s Department of Philosophy.

Sontag’s friend Annette Michelson seemed very surprised by this turn of events. The art historian was pursuing an academic career in film studies, at the time still a completely obscure discipline, and could not understand why Sontag would so cavalierly abandon her university career in favor of a highly insecure existence as a freelance writer, apparently without a backward glance. But Sontag’s departure from academia was not quite as straightforward as that. Three years later, she still regretted not having finished her dissertation and even planned to complete it after all—probably on recent French philosophy—and earn her PhD from Harvard. But she never carried out this plan. The numerous teaching positions, honorary doctorates, and professorships that were later offered to her she mostly also turned down, often with the flippant justification that she had too much respect for a real PhD to accept an honorary one. Although she kept abreast of scholarly publications in the areas of literature, film studies, and cultural history, her essayistic approach remained basically antiacademic. She repeatedly stressed that the life of a writer and that of an academic were mutually exclusive. She had, after all, seen “academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.” It is not difficult to discern behind this remark a pose of wounded vanity. Herself one of the best authors of her generation, Sontag’s failure in academia was due not only to her wish for an antiacademic life but also to the fact that she was a woman in the still strongly patriarchal world of the universities.

At the end of the spring semester in 1964, Sontag left her teaching position at Columbia and began life as a freelance author and essayist. After early difficulties earning enough to get by, she increasingly was able to support herself with her writing.

In the few published journal entries from that year, Sontag’s personal problems sometimes shade into self-loathing. With great clarity she mounts attacks against herself, criticizing her tendency “to censor [sic] others for my own vices, to make my friendships into love affairs, to ask that love include (and exclude) all.” What fell victim to her new notoriety was her literary output. After finishing The Benefactor in 1962, Sontag wrote essays almost exclusively. A second novel she had already begun proved too short of breath and appeared as a short story titled “The Dummy” in the September 1963 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Otherwise, journalism and essays predominated until the fall of 1965, and for good reasons. For one thing, the intense life Sontag led in New York was expensive and her essays, reviews, and articles paid much more than novels or short stories. The Atlantic Monthly, for example, paid $500 for a 3,000–3,500 word article, as much as FSG paid her for the completed manuscript of her entire novel. For another thing, her extraordinary articles appeared to gain her more—and more immediate—recognition from colleagues and friends than her fiction.

Yet as her journal shows, writing at this time became a real challenge and even a torture for Sontag. “A freshly typed manuscript, the moment it’s completed, begins to stink. It’s a dead body—it must be buried—embalmed, in print,” she said. By her own admission, she needed to build up pressure to write. Her work got done in intense bursts: “I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down.”

Moreover, she tended to revise again and again for as many as ten drafts. Sontag’s friend Judith Thurman, the biographer of Isak Dinesen, recalls how moved she was by the way Sontag confronted her writing difficulties. She repeatedly told Thurman in great upset how “impossible, impossible in a stupid way” writing was for her. Other friends of Sontag’s tell how dramatically every writing block would be overcome—by writing through the night without eating or sleeping, so that she would lose a lot of weight. Not until she was completely drained would she lie down on the floor next to her desk and sleep for two hours.

Moreover, this way of writing, a way Sontag herself described as “undisciplined,” not only made it difficult to work continuously on a novel but also made it hard to meet the demands of journalism. Deadlines and precise descriptions of content to come were anathema to her. When William Phillips of the Partisan Review offered her the prestigious post of theater critic previously held by Mary McCarthy (at the time the most prominent intellectual in New York), Sontag accepted, although she did not want to write theater reviews. She recalled self-ironically what happened: “After the second round I told Phillips I couldn’t go on.” Although the two reviews (republished in her 1966 collection Against Interpretation) sound like typical Sontag texts of the time—that is, intelligent, polished, and original—she keeps veering off from her actual assignment of writing about a theater production. Instead, she writes at length about films that occur to her as associations but otherwise have nothing to do with the play under review. While in other essays from this time her deep-seated enthusiasm motivates her writing, she had none for the staid, naturalistic plays prevalent in New York theaters. They had little or nothing to offer to the radical aesthetic sensibility that fired her thinking and writing and probed all aspects of culture. Sontag wanted to choose her own topics: artistic work she admired and relatively unknown authors, artists, and films. She understood her essays as “cultural work.” She wrote them, as she would later stress, above all from a feeling for their relevance, with a view to “what needed to be written.”

“Art,” Sontag wrote in her journal in July 1964, is “a way of getting in touch with one’s own insanity.” And so by choice she involved herself in controversies that included the areas of art that brought her into contact with her own “dark side,” the part of her personality that was the object of social discrimination and against which she felt she needed to mobilize her writing as a “weapon.” For example, she found that writing about contemporary underground films that challenged strict American censorship and sometimes had to be screened illegally gave her an opportunity to give these feelings space to express themselves. Richard Howard tells how Sontag called him up in excitement one day, saying there were rumors that somewhere in New York they were going to show Jean Genet’s 1950 Un chant d’amour (A Song of Love), a scandalous art film—banned in the United States—that contains explicit images of gay masturbation in a French prison. Howard and Sontag immediately set out and went from one underground cinema to the next—from the Gramercy Arts Theatre of Jonas Mekas to the New Yorker Theater, a revival house owned and operated by Daniel Talbot— until they finally discovered where the film was playing. Sontag referred to herself as “film crazy.” She indulged the passion for movies she had contracted in France with unusual fanaticism. Whenever her crowded schedule allowed, she still went to the movies several times a day. She wrote essays and reviews of what she had seen and participated in symposia on avant-garde film.

On March 3, 1964, the New York Police Department raided one of the centers of underground films, Diane di Prima’s New Bowery Theater, during a showing of Jack Smith’s semipornographic film Flaming Creatures (1963), which includes an orgy participated in by heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, and drag queens. It was not just a question of enforcing censorship laws. Instead, it was an out-and-out purge because that summer New York was hosting the World’s Fair, a gigantic international consumer event. The police arrested both the organizers and audience members, confiscated copies of the film and also of Andy Warhol’s early documentary Jack Smith Filming “Normal Love” (which has been lost ever since), and obtained an injunction to close the theater. This police action unleashed a wave of protests and demonstrations against censorship in which Sontag participated. Her passionate defense of the film appeared in The Nation on April 13, 1964, under the title “A Feast for Open Eyes” and was republished in Against Interpretation. She compares Jack Smith to Luis Buñuel and Sergei Eisenstein and places him in the tradition of abstract expressionism and pop art. She vehemently defends the film against the official accusations of pornography that led a month later to a widely reported trial. On the basis of her article, Sontag was asked to testify as an expert witness, but the director lost the trial nevertheless.

In Sontag’s essay as well as in her testimony before the court, she countered the accusation of pornography with the pathos and innocence of the sexually deviant images. She interpreted them not as pornographic lust but rather as visual play that also manifested itself in the exaggeratedly amateurish use of a handheld camera and overexposed film. Sontag closes her essay with the emphatic declaration, reminiscent of Herbert Marcuse’s theory of repressive tolerance, that Flaming Creatures is “a triumphant example of an aesthetic vision of the world” and represents a type of art that “has yet to be understood in this country,” whose critics have traditionally located art in “the space of moral ideas.”

The remarkable thing about this essay is its development of an individual voice with a precise intellectual vocabulary that takes on supposedly scandalous topics and addresses fundamental questions of cultural politics and criticism. With this combination, Sontag hit precisely on the disruptive atmosphere of those years and at the same time understood that with her essay she could have a much greater influence on contemporary social debates than with her literary texts. In a radical tone, she proclaims in her essays the gospel of a new era and the arrival of a new generation.

“It wasn’t a great period for fiction,” Sontag told the journalist Ellen Hopkins. “People were more interested in talking about ideas.” Even Dwight Macdonald, part of the bedrock of the New York intelligentsia, recommended that his young colleague pursue a career as literary critic. He had met her through Roger Straus, and she had accused Macdonald of not understanding her generation at a symposium on contemporary literary criticism in the fall of 1963. “No one’s interested in fiction, Susan,” he said. “Naaaahhh. Write essays!” Sontag’s publisher Roger Straus and her editor Robert Giroux were of the same opinion. Both of them suggested that Sontag’s next book should be nonfiction.

Among New York’s writers and journalists, Susan Sontag had acquired the reputation of an “intellectual It-Girl.” It was a title she seemed both to seek and to disdain, especially after the New York Times repeatedly used the phrase to refer to her. As contemporaries report, the publication of a new Sontag essay in the Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books was always an event, so unique and fresh was her style, so unexpected and exciting her topics.

A volume of essays seemed to Roger Straus the next logical step to build the reputation of his protégé and make Susan Sontag into a brand name closely associated with his publishing house.

In early April 1964, at Straus’s request, Sontag drew up a list of essays she had already published and a synopsis of articles still in the planning stages. The list included her essays on Albert Camus, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michelangelo Antonioni, Cesare Pavese, and Jean-Luc Godard and ideas for texts on interpretation, camp, style, the new sensibility, and science-fiction films, as well as sketches of essays on the aesthetic of stillness and pornographic literature. These writings were to form “the backbone of her next book or two,” the famous essay collections Against Interpretation (1966) and Styles of Radical Will (1969).

The publication of those two volumes was preceded by a carefully planned marketing campaign. Straus acted as Sontag’s agent for magazines and journals and saw to it that her writings appeared in well-respected publications. FSG staff member Lila Karpf wrote to the publisher’s British, French, and Dutch outlets that “Roger was in many cases instrumental in getting Susan the assignments for some of these essays and reviews” and that she hoped “a similar campaign” in those countries would “produce similar results.” Karpf would understand, she continued, that “there is not much money in this kind of effort” but rather that it was a “literary chore which will only pay off in the long run.”

But Straus’s real stroke of genius consisted in offering Sontag’s writings not just to the highbrow journals that had already published her pieces but also to such magazines as Vogue, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, and Time. Although these publications had no real connection to high culture, they had significantly larger circulations and paid more for articles. This was a positively unheard-of thing for serious writers to do. In a witty 1966 essay for the New York Times titled “Notes on Cult; or, How to Join the Intellectual Establishment,” Victor S. Navasky wrote that, in addition to publishing articles in the New York Review, Commentary, and Partisan Review, one might also write for the New Yorker from time to time, but anything below that would be a sacrilege for a New York intellectual.

At the end of her essay on Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, Sontag introduces the concept of camp into her description of the film as a “way of relishing mass culture.” At the time, “camp” was mostly a code word in the gay subcultures of New York and London. It designated an ironic attitude that derived sophisticated, knowing amusement from such things as kitschy films, novels, and mass-produced decorative objects. As an attitude, camp (a concept that never really made it into the cultural discourse of the Continent but always remained a specifically Anglo-Saxon phenomenon) was the epitome of a reception that allowed one to enjoy cultural products that did not fit into the traditional patterns of high bourgeois culture. One could enjoy and, at the same time, stand knowingly above camp objects, amused at the aestheticization of the trivial. The idea of camp was a notion of dissident taste, a sensibility that acknowledges high culture while undermining it at the same time.

Sontag had long been planning to write about the concept of camp, not necessarily because she shared this sensibility (as she would write, she was equally attracted to and repulsed by it), but because she was fascinated by how her gay friends, such as Alfred Chester, Richard Howard, Elliott Stein, and the artist Paul Thek, had adopted the camp attitude and turned it into a mark of distinction.

Sontag was aware that her essay on this subject would be controversial. She had offered it to the Partisan Review, where it had unleashed a furious editorial debate. Sontag’s partisan William Phillips was just barely able to get it accepted over the objections of Philip Rahv, the second editor of the magazine, who vigorously objected to Sontag’s unconventional style. For one thing, the topic of homosexuality was taboo. For another— and this weighed more heavily on the scale for the intellectual circles in which Sontag moved, where gays and lesbians were at least tolerated—any engagement with mass culture was scorned.“She knew,” says Richard Howard, “that she was writing the Camp article more or less for the public.”

The 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” written mostly during a visit to Paris in the summer of that year and published in the fall issue of Partisan Review, was Sontag’s big breakthrough and is still considered her most famous essay, especially in the United States. Sontag’s friend Elliott Stein served as her inspiration for the camp sensibility. He rented a room in the Hôtel Verneuil where she often visited him, a room that had also been the model for James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room. Stein’s room was like a catalog of camp taste: kitschy lamps hung from gilded plaster walls, and a photo of Jean-Paul Sartre stood in a place of honor next to one of a gay street walker. Sontag’s essay exploits this random juxtaposition of kitschy artifacts not just in the content but also in the form of her essay. Instead of structuring the piece in the traditional way, Sontag divides her essay into fifty-eight numbered paragraphs, each having the character of a philosophical aphorism and describing one facet of the camp phenomenon. The aphoristic quality is underscored by witty quotes from Oscar Wilde scattered throughout the essay; Sontag considered Wilde’s dandyism to be the original model for the camp sensibility.

But Sontag’s key move consists in raising camp from the status of a subculture and declaring it to be a third path of aesthetic experience, the equal of serious high culture and avant-garde extremes of feeling and consciousness. Accordingly, she capitalizes the word “Camp” throughout the essay as if it were a proper noun like Dadaism or Renaissance, formally elevating a subversive sensibility to the status of a style: “And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.”

Sontag inventories this style or “creative sensibility” and records a veritable catalog of camp artifacts: from Tiffany lamps, Vincenzo Bellini operas, Der Rosenkavalier, Gina Lollobrigida,and Greta Garbo to the novels of Ronald Firbank, Swan Lake, and Josef von Sternberg’s Marlene Dietrich films. The result is an essay scandalous and serious in equal measure that threatened “the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness” with a love of ironic pathos, exaggerated stylizations and “flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation.” In an American culture saturated by consumer culture and entertainment products, camp represents for Sontag survival by style. Despite its apparent acceptance of mass culture, camp taste is for her not an affirmation of the entertainment industry. Rather it functions as an aesthetic filter that makes it possible to live in that culture. If there was a user’s manual for lifestyle in those years, then it was Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’ ”

Reactions to the essay were many and varied. On the one hand, copies of it were distributed free to enthusiastic patrons of Daniel Talbot’s New Yorker film house, where Sontag had researched camp taste watching countless movies. On the other hand, Partisan Review received a flood of letters from readers upset by the homosexual themes and the serious treatment of pop culture. But the fame that the concept “camp” would achieve in the following years far overshadowed these complaints. Suddenly Sontag’s camp concept was being used as a label for more and more new cultural phenomena. Frequently camp was misunderstood and used as a synonym for “pop” or “ironic.” A long-lived and widely circulated variation of this misunderstanding in the visual arts was to equate camp with the experimental films, silk-screen prints, and Brillo-box sculptures of Andy Warhol or with the pop art paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Claes Oldenburg. While the pop art movement that began in New York and conquered the world during those years had very little to do with Sontag’s concept of camp, it resisted traditional aesthetic categories in the same way. Both explicitly referred to mass culture and ironized the accepted categories of art and entertainment. But while camp taste retrospectively availed itself of a plethora of the kitschy products of mass culture, pop art proclaimed the arrival of a new and much more anonymous media era. Thus, more or less unwillingly, Sontag lent apparent intellectual respectability to an ultrafashionable phenomenon that found expression, for example, in Andy Warhol signing cans of Campbell’s soup that cost twelve cents and reselling them in his gallery on the Upper East Side for six dollars.

As Thomas Meehan reported in a 1965 New York Times article in which he duplicitously dubbed Sontag both the “Sir Isaac Newton of Camp” and “Miss Camp,” within a few months of the publication of her essay the concept of camp had become a catchphrase on everyone’s lips. For a brief time, whether something was camp or not replaced the question of what was “in” and what was “out.” People in the know made a game of speculating about whether something was “real” or “fake,” “conscious” or “unintended,” “high” or “low” camp.

As strange as it seems today that one critical essay could catapult a thirty-one-year-old woman into intellectual stardom, it was possible on the East Coast of America in 1964. Sontag’s reputation achieved a decisive breakthrough with a report about her essay in Time magazine on December 10, 1964. The most important magazine of its time for the American middle class, with a circulation twenty times larger than the Partisan Review, Time called Sontag “one of Manhattan’s most talented young intellectuals.” Other newspaper and magazine articles followed suit. “Suddenly,” summarized the New York Times critic Eliot Fremont-Smith, “Susan Sontag was there—instead of being announced, she had been proclaimed.” As Fremont-Smith described it, “She did not creep modestly and hesitantly onto the intellectual scene. Instead, she burst from nowhere amid some- thing like a ticker tape parade.”

The visual proof of Sontag’s fame are the “Screen Tests,” the three-minute 16-millimeter portrait films of Andy Warhol that are a Who’s Who of the sixties New York avant-garde from Allen Ginsberg and Dennis Hopper to Bob Dylan. Sontag, too, embodied Warhol’s inimitable sense of glamour and pop culture. Warhol was so inspired by Sontag’s essay (and probably even more by the attention it received in the press, as Warhol specialist Callie Angell says) that a year later he would shoot a film titled Camp in which Jack Smith, the director of Flaming Creatures, also makes an appearance. Although Warhol knew that Sontag did not have a very high opinion of him, he was so impressed by her charisma that he made seven “Screen Tests” of her, an honor otherwise accorded only to Edie Sedgwick, Lou Reed, Nico, and Baby Jane Holzer, all members of Warhol’s New York studio the Factory. In the “Screen Tests” now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one sees an attractive young woman whose serious and sometimes arrogant aura also conceals great insecurity—at times smiling, at others bored, pouting, smoking, grinning a grin that does not seem to fit her face, and hiding behind dark sixties sunglasses. Warhol planned to include her in two compilations of the Screen Tests, 13 Most Beautiful Women and 50 Fantastics and 50 Personalities, but he never completed them.