Pankaj Mishra on Susan Sontag

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964­1980, by Susan Sontag, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£18.99, 544 pages

How odd it is that, long before she died of cancer in 2004, Susan Sontag should have become the intellectual icon of postwar America. Her saturnine looks were of course photographed more keenly and frequently than those of her peers – right up to her last moments. There was also something stentorian about her many public pronouncements: the impatient 1960s cultural radical who called for a new “erotics of art” and denounced the white race, after a visit to the war in Vietnam, as a “cancer”; who described communism in 1982 as “fascism with a human face”, staged Waiting for Godot in besieged Sarajevo in 1993 and then responded to 9/11 with a broadside against US politicians and opinion-makers and their apparently joint “campaign to infantilise the public”.

Her reputation may still seem unearned. Alfred Kazin, whose recently published journals are a remarkable document of American intellectual life, was a much finer reader of individual texts. William F Buckley, Christopher Lasch and C Wright Mills had more influence on their contemporaries. Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer sold more books.

Besides, Sontag rarely wrote about America or American writers. Recoiling from what the critic Van Wyck Brooks once described as “the immense and vague cloud-canopy of idealism” hanging over America’s national culture, she preferred the astringent clarity of European self-reckonings. But it is also true – and the posthumous publication of her journals confirms this – that few other writers dramatised their political and intellectual journey, or proclaimed their alienation from the postwar US scene, as revealingly as Sontag.

Itemising her “intellectual formation” in this, the second volume of her journals, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-1980, Sontag invokes personalities and institutions that would have denoted glamour to any wannabe intellectual in the American provinces in the 1940s: Knopf, Modern Library and, most importantly, Partisan Review. Established in 1934, Partisan Review grew out of the discontent among educated sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants at the extreme inequalities and philistinism of US society. Partisan Review also published Sartre, Camus and Orwell, upholding a cosmopolitan radicalism that was anti-Stalinist but firmly socialist in political orientation and hospitable to literary modernism.

Sontag once admitted that her “highest ambition” was to write for Partisan Review. But by the early 1940s the magazine was moving away from its roots in America’s literary and political counterculture of the 1920s and 1930s. The exposure of Stalinism’s brutalities followed so quickly by the horrors of Nazism mocked the utopian hopes of writers and intellectuals who hoped to build an equitable society in the US. Indeed, political programmes such as socialism seemed to have been rendered moot by the postwar emergence of the US as the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth.

As Philip Rahv, one of Sontag’s earliest heroes, argued in a Partisan Review symposium – “Our Country and our Culture”– in 1952, intellectuals previously disaffected with America were now keen to effect a “reconciliation” with it. Once blithely penurious, they were looking for status and money in the new political and economic dispensation, and increasingly more inclined to be its propagandists than critics. And since the rapidly expanding cold-war economy and its institutions required many intellectual toilers, the former bohemians didn’t have much trouble finding powerful employers and patrons.

These timely career moves were necessarily accompanied by an ideological make­over, if not as extreme as one insisted upon by McCarthyism. As Rahv warned presciently, America’s extraordinarily successful and profitable war effort had revived old illusions that “‘good Americanism’ contains within itself the secret of overcoming the hazards of history” and that America was magically immune to socio­economic traumas suffered by the rest of the world.

In Rahv’s view, the widely shared belief in America as a global power and beacon had shifted the locus of political action to the “sphere of foreign policy”. Early in the cold war, the ex-radicals and ex-Marxists had started to endorse American leadership of the “free world” against monolithic communism. These professional anti­communists were the precursors of the militant humanitarians and neoconservative democracy-exporters of our own time.

The assumption that history had reached its apotheosis with Pax Americana did not quite match the experience of most people, particularly those in Asia and Africa struggling for liberation from white overlords. They – the vast majority of the world’s population – had entered what Irving Howe, another distinguished Partisan Review writer, called a “revolutionary age”. “Everywhere except in the United States,” Howe wrote in 1954, “millions of human beings, certainly the majority of those with any degree of political articulateness, live for some kind of social change.”

However, in America, these hundreds of millions entering modern history for the first time were largely seen through the distorted lens of the cold war: if you are not with us, you are against us, and that kind of thing. This aggressive provincialism had its effect on literary as well as intellectual life. Rahv noted how the complacent “mood of acceptance” among intellectuals had not only “depoliticised literature” but was turning into a philistine reverence for the American way of life and hostility to the literary and artistic avant-garde.

Susan Sontag’s early career manifests how she both absorbed and reacted to these tendencies. Pursuing a romance with French culture (and an American woman) in Paris in the summer of 1958 at the age of 25, and buoyed like all Americans in the city by the strong dollar, Sontag was oblivious to the intense fighting between Algerian rebels and the French police amid fears of a rightwing coup – events that did not leave untouched any of the French intellectuals she revered. “Politics interested me,” the narrator of her first novel, The Benefactor (1963), confesses, “no further than the daily newspaper”; the revolutions he cares for are those of “feelings and seeing”.

Accordingly, in the early 1960s, Sontag became an advocate of the supposedly revolutionary spirituality of French art and philosophy, the Nouveau Roman, the Nouvelle Vague and structuralism. She hailed the “defiantly pluralistic” new sensibility, which was “dedicated both to an excruciating seriousness and to fun and wit and nostalgia”.

The essays collected in her book Against Interpretation (1966) anointed her as the primary American interpreter of cutting-edge European culture. But the Vietnam war, which intensified after 1964, was already breaking into her preoccupations with the “pleasure principle” in art. Writing in her journals in 1966, she muses that for a country founded on genocide, the war in Vietnam was “merely an application to the ‘world’ of the American idea of nation-building, clearing the wilderness of natives, dark People”. The Vietnamese themselves, encountered on a trip to Hanoi in 1968, seemed to baffle her. Their culture seemed to possess none of the “complexity” and “seriousness” (her favourite words) of European art and thought. But the US ravaging of Indochina had made the word “imperialism” resonant to her again for the first time since she first absorbed a leftwing vocabulary from Partisan Review.

Sontag’s mood about her country continually darkened; and she came to doubt her earlier beliefs in the autonomy of art. In a journal entry of 1975 she is already worrying about her “problematic” essays of the 1960s and justifying them as a reaction to the “going ideas” then: bourgeois “conformity” and “middle brow culture”. But Sontag never did much with the “historical memory” of political action and social change that Vietnam had helped revive in her. Like many of the figures she wrote about – Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Victor Serge – she seemed to pride herself on being a homeless radical, European-style. She stayed aloof from the New Left in the 1960s. A tony infatuation with communism was cast off during the 1970s; the reasons seem more aesthetic than political. “One has the feeling of having lived through an old script,” she confessed to her journals in 1975. She was tired of being a fellow-traveller of “other people’s revolutions”.

A mostly apolitical moralism would henceforth dictate her world view. But she remained nostalgic for what in one of her very last essays she called “an era that seems very remote today in its introspective energies and passionate intellectual quests and code of self-sacrifice and immense hope”. Sontag seemed to have known all along that the passion for art and thought she valued in herself and others, and her own quest for “ethical and spiritual distinction”, was inseparable from the larger quest for a just society.

As it turned out, most of her peers had found the society in which they enjoyed status and wealth to be adequately just. Alfred Kazin’s journals, which examine both self and the world much more penetratingly than Sontag’s, record an appalled fascination with the hectic social climbing and political apostasies of his generation of Partisan Review radicals. They relate how, depleted of the progressive imagination, mainstream intellectual life in America was steadily taken over by a resourceful and belligerent neoconservative movement from the 1960s onwards. The stagnation and depoliticisation of the middle class, the retreat of many 1960s radicals into academia, and the disappearance of the old left accelerated the process whereby, as described by Arthur Koestler, “the intelligentsia, once the vanguard of the ascending bourgeoisie, becomes the lumpenbourgeoisie in the age of its decay”. Like the many ex-Trotskyite intellectuals Alfred Kazin took to attacking in The New York Review of Books, the successor to Partisan Review, Sontag could never adjust to whispering advice to power. She had also absorbed too many bitterly paradoxical lessons of Europe’s successes and defeats to be impressed by post-cold-war triumphalism – the resurrected vulgar notion that civilisation had arrived at the terminus of US-style capitalism and democracy.

Post-1989, her feeling for a vanished world of iconoclasts and idealists seems to have deepened. Speaking of the 1960s, she wrote: “How one wishes that some of its boldness, its optimism, its disdain for commerce had survived.” The nostalgia went together with her distaste for a heedlessly globalised world that was “committed to unifying greeds” and where everyone fed “at the same trough of standardized entertainment and fantasies of eros and violence”.

Responding to 9/11, she moved quickly from shock and grief to fury against the “self-righteous drivel and outright deception being peddled by public figures and TV commentators”. “Let’s by all means grieve together,” Sontag pleaded in The New Yorker, “but let’s not be stupid together.”

But it was already too late. The lumpenbourgeois intellectuals – formerly left-wing “contrarians” as well as retro imperialists and Washington’s neoconservatives – were quick to seize the opening for themselves in a fervid ideological climate, and Sontag mostly watched aghast until her death in 2004 as they identified the new enemies of freedom and cheer-led calamitous wars.

It is not hard to imagine what she would have said about the now obvious infirmities of US democracy and capitalism. But what might she have made of the Arab Spring? The overthrow of seemingly eternal pro-American dictators is one proof among many in the past half-century that though, as Irving Howe wrote, “the revolutionary impulse has been contaminated, corrupted, debased, demoralized”, the “energy” behind it remains, now bursting “out in one part of the world, now in another”. The strange irony of Sontag’s career is that she wanted to live and work in just such a revolutionary age – and did. That she failed to identify it as such says something about her own political and aesthetic choices. But it speaks more of the self-cherishing and myopia of the postwar intellectual culture to which she, despite many vigorous dissents, inescapably belonged.

Pankaj Mishra’s new book, ‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia’, is published by Allen Lane in August

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