I do not at all understand what David Rieff thought could be the justification for his book, Swimming in a Sea of Death, about the death of his mother, Susan Sontag. It contributes nothing to our understanding of Sontag's work as critic or novelist, and even as a chronicle of Sontag's harrowing death it seldom seems more than tacky and sensational. Sontag herself isn't even given much of a role to play beyond that of victim and object of Rieff's endless rationalizations about his own behavior during Sontag's struggle with the blood cancer that finally killed her. Besides leaving us with an unpleasant depiction of Sontag in her last months, the book is difficult to admire simply for its repititious, turgid prose, which constantly circles around Sontag's illness, always seeking to extenuate Rieff's response to it.
The portrait of Susan Sontag that does emerge is of a woman utterly unhinged by the prospect of her own death. She is unable to summon any degree of composure or self-possession, and is unwilling, at least in Rieff's account, to acknowledge the reality of her situation. She comes off as cowering, irrational, selfish. Perhaps this is an accurate portrayal of Susan Sontag in her confrontation with death, but I am reluctant to accept it as such, since so much of Swimming in a Sea of Death keeps returning to the effects of this confrontation on David Rieff, on his own struggle with how to mitigate his mother's inappropriate responses. This narrated struggle seems to me both narcissistic and futile, since ultimately he doesn't really do much of anything, preferring to passively acquiesce to Sontag's illusions. If it was the case that Sontag was unable to face the truth about her condition, I am not going to take this book as evidence.
The implicit damage that Swimming in a Sea of Death does to Susan Sontag's legacy as writer and critic will be registered primarily by the degree to which its "revelations" about Sontag's difficult death will come to dominate future discussions of her work. These revelations will be trotted out again and again as some sort of clue to "vision," dominated by her fear of death and her own puzzling sense of immunity to it as that vision must surely have been. The image of Susan Sontag as, in Sven Birkerts's words, "an isolated, deluded figure, terrified of death and filled more with regret than any satisfaction at her achievements" will linger. The biographical will triumph over the exegetic, as it always done in our gossip-obsessed excuse for a literary culture, and even though Sontag's work, especially the criticism, is focused on the sheer pleasure of life as represented by our encounter with art, the terror of mortality rendered in David Reiff's book will overshadow continuing encounters with Sontag's essays and books. How lamentable that this process will have been initiated by her own son.
The lure of the biographical can also be seen at work in Daniel Mendelsohn's review of Sontag's journals. (Although the primary culprit in encouraging biographical readings is again Rieff, who made the decision to publish the journals in the first place.) Although I agree with much of Mendelsohn's commentary on Sontag's writing per se--that her criticism is much more important than her fiction, that her taste in fiction became much narrower and more conservative in her later years, in particular that she had a large and debilitating blind spot where American fiction was concerned--I cannot countenance the basic split in Sontag's sensibility that Mendelsohn finds by focusing on her personality, on her supposedly conflicted sexuality.
"Here again you feel the presence of an underlying conflict: Sontag the natural analyst against Sontag the struggling sensualist," Mendelsohn tells us. He would have us believe that her reticence to speak about her sexuality somehow indicates a "hidden emotional life," that she was essentially asexual. (I don't really know how otherwise to interpret his gloss on Sontag's sexual life: "So the sex is not that good. That leaves the ambition.") From the fact that Sontag apparently didn't use her journals as an opportunity to emote, Mendelsohn concludes that "the outsized cultural avidity, the literary ambition to which these pages bear witness, seems eventually to have occluded the more tender feelings." How does Mendelsohn really know the degree of Sontag's sexual desires or the extent of her "tender feelings"? Should we be making any judgments about Sontag's emotional life based on the selections from these journals? (If she preferred to use them as a way of recording "the cognitive and the analytical" in her experiences, does this make her emotionally enfeebled?) Above all: Should we be using stray comments in a writer's journal and speculations about her sexual nature as the basis of a theory about the disposition of the work?
Mendelsohn thinks that despite her call in Against Interpretation for an "erotics of art" to displace what Sontag calls in that essay the attempt by literary critics "to translate the elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else" through interpretation, she was finally herself an intepreter:
Again and again, the essays themselves give the lie to her agenda of devaluing interpretation: even as she appears to swoon over "the untranslatable, sensuous immediacy" of, say, Last Year in Marienbad, you can't help noticing that there is not a single sensuous surface that she does not try to translate into something abstract and rarefied, that is not subject to the flashing scalpel of her critical intellect.
There is truth to this assertion (especially that Sontag's "critical intellect" could wield a "flashing scalpel"), but it exaggerates the role that "sensuous surface" plays--or should have played--in Sontag's criticism. "Sensuous surface" is where criticism begins, in the actual experience of the work of art, but it does not limit the critic's attention. Indeed, in "Against Interpretation," Sontag is more interested in redeeming "form" than "surface" per se, but this is the subject for another post. The most immediate flaw in Mendelsohn's analysis is still the effort to appeal to Sontag's personal lack of "sensuous" feelings in describing the attributes of her criticism.
In the conclusion to his essay, Mendelsohn tells us that Sontag has now herself become the "text" that must be interpreted. "Infinitely interpretable, she has at last ended up on the inside of a book." I don't know if this is some sort of backdoor justification for his own focus on Sontag's personal quirks or is just a cute way of referring to the journals as Sontag's private--now public--"text." But I fear it does signal the direction much subsequent discussion of Susan Sontag's career will take.