PRINT December 2019


Terry Castle

Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work (Ecco) succeeds as it does—magnificently, humanely—by displaying the same intellectual purchase, curiosity, and moral capaciousness to which his subject laid so inspiring and noble a claim over a lifetime. Susan Sontag was a difficult, galvanic presence in American arts and letters for half a century, and her biographer takes her measure with unfailing intelligence, honesty, and sympathy.

So far, so blurby. (Yet heartfelt.) But there was a glaring problem with Sontag, of course: the fantastical scarecrow unpleasantness she could turn on anyone—friend, lover, helper—who provided her with what she so deeply wanted, namely, love and admiration. She had a stintless, palpably delusional psychic investment in a sort of Shaken Baby story. Having come out of nowhere in the early 1960s to become world-famous for her brilliance and beauty, she never lost a sense of herself as the lonely teenage babysitter with the precocious literary aspirations. We were her dumb, childish, pajama-clad charges, dull and runny-nosed, staring at the TV in a stupor. We needed shaking (it was true), so she shook us till our necks snapped. Not good, not morally capacious. Her bullying pedantry—veering at any moment into sadistic contempt for anyone standing within range—was both her tragic flaw and a revelation of her unceasing, unspoken loneliness and insecurity.

Moser doesn’t gloss over Sontag’s cruelty, the pain she meted out to friendly others even while priding herself on regarding the pain of other others with great (and real) compassion. He is in fact at his finest—graceful, tactful, scrupulous, unerringly insightful—when recounting the manifold sources of Sontag’s emotional distress. It’s all here: the loss of the father; the drunken, cold, catastrophic mother; Sontag’s encumbering guilt over her lesbianism; the strange relationship with her son; the terrifying, unassimilable vulnerability to cancer. Sontag experienced enormous pain in her life, and it made for a deep, unsettled pathos in her character. Moser’s biography is a stunningly generous gift—to readers, obviously, but also to his subject. He is patient with her, truthful yet tender, recognizing both what was thrilling and what was cursed about her. I cried at the end.

Terry Castle teaches at Stanford University and wrote about Sontag in the Professor: A Sentimental Education (Harper Perennial, 2011), a volume of personal essays.