Sexing Susan Sontag

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Yoshie Furuhashi

THE DEATH OF Susan Sontag, one of the most acclaimed intellectuals of her time, on December 28, 2004 immediately inspired controversies about her sexuality. Many writers rightfully questioned major newspapers’ studied silence in their obituaries on her relationships with women.

For instance, Patrick Moore, the author of Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), wrote: “On Dec. 29, 2004, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported Sontag’s death on their front pages, with more stories inside. Yet neither paper mentioned Sontag’s relationships with [Annie] Leibovitz and other women” (“Susan Sontag and a Case of Curious Silence,” Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2005).

So far, so good. Some critics, however, went further, questioning Sontag’s own treatment of her own sexuality. “In a 2000 New Yorker profile, Sontag outed herself as bisexual, familiar code for ‘gay,’” asserts Moore.

Sometimes, the declaration of bisexuality is indeed a cover for homosexuality, as the former — especially for women — is often seen as less threatening than the latter. Nothing hurts the straight male ego more than the idea that some women are simply not sexually interested in them — at all!

In the case of Sontag, though, she said that she had been in love nine times: “Five women, four men” (quoted in “Finding Fact from Fiction,” The Guardian, May 27, 2000). Since there is no good reason to doubt her honesty (certainly Moore offers none), it seems uncalled for to suggest that she was claiming to be bisexual for the sake of expediency when she really was lesbian.

Then Chris Crain, executive editor of the Washington Blade, charges Sontag with “silence on gay rights” (“Don’t Settle like Sontag,” Washington Blade, January 7, 2005). One may disagree with Sontag on many things — for instance, I was disappointed with her support for Washington’s intervention in Yugoslavia — but it is simply wrong to say that she had nothing to say about gay rights.

Quite the contrary, she made many intellectual contributions to the politics of sexuality on the left, in a way that is particularly useful for queer activists, though I don’t think that she ever personalized them — e.g. “Speaking as a lesbian, I support etc., etc.” — as Crain assumes she should have.

To take one example, the longest section in Sontag’s essay “What’s Happening in America” (1966) is devoted to discussion of youth culture. It’s a reply to Leslie Fiedler’s essay on the same topic “The New Mutants” (1965), in which he anxiously analyzes the “post-humanist era” of a “radical metamorphosis of the Western male,” a “revolt against masculinity” and “a rejection of conventional male potency.”

In contrast to Fiedler and others who thought like him, lamenting the changes in gender and sexuality that fascinated them at the same time, she boldly argued:

“The depolarizing of the sexes…is the natural, and desirable, next stage of the sexual revolution (its dissolution, perhaps) which has moved beyond the idea of sex as a damaged but discrete zone of human activity, beyond the discovery that ‘society’ represses the free expression of sexuality (by fomenting guilt), to the discovery that the way we live and the ordinarily available options of character repress almost entirely the deep experience of pleasure, and the possibility of self- knowledge. ‘Sexual freedom’ is a shallow, outmoded slogan. What, who is being liberated?” (Styles of Radical Will, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, 200)

The question she raised is still relevant, as gay and lesbian activists of middle strata put the right to marriage and military service at the top of the political agenda, the priority questioned by radical working-class queer activists.

Sontag’s dissection of Illness as Metaphor (NY: Vintage, 1977) showed how some diseases get romanticized, some are regarded as punishments for bad personalities of patients or their mothers, others become metaphors of absolute evil; modern political discourses across the ideological spectrum tend to designate their targets as cancer and incite violence against them, and such metaphors of absolute evil; modern political discourses across the ideological spectrum tend to designate their targets as cancer and incite violence against them, and such metaphoric uses of illness make it difficult to treat illnesses as they are.

This work was a great intellectual weapon for queer activists even before she authored her own book on AIDS and its metaphors. She was also one of the first major writers who address the AIDS crisis — in a story published in a mainstream magazine: “The Way We Live Now.” (The New Yorker, November 24, 1986)

Less obviously political but no less important, the style of art, literature and philosophy that Susan Sontag championed was the sort that resists reduction of a text to the personal biography of its author (rooted in the same drive to discover the “truth” of a person in the “nature” of the person’s sexuality, which must, in turn, be classified into one of the three limited categories invented by bourgeois culture). In that resistance also lay a mode of queer modernist politics, whether or not she intended it.

Refreshing, Queer and Subversive

Some readers may still wish that Sontag had made the personal political and vice versa in a familiar rhetoric of identity politics, but that was not her style. Gary Indiana, himself one of the finer queer cultural critics, wrote:

“She once told Dick Cavett, after the first of her struggles with cancer, that she didn’t find her own illness interesting. She stipulated that it was moving to her, but not interesting. To be interesting, experience has to yield a harvest of ideas, which her illness certainly did — but she communicated them in a form useful to others in ways a conventional memoir couldn’t be. (To be useful, one has to reach others on the level of thought, not only feeling — though the two are inseparable.)” (“Susan Sontag [1933-2004]: Remembering the Voice of Moral Responsibility — and Unembarrassed Hedonism,” The Village Voice, January 4, 2005)

Her sort of critical detachment and abstraction isn’t the only way to approach the relation between thought and experience, universality and particularity — for instance, one of the writers Sontag admired the most, Jean Genet, arguably created a new universal through insistence upon his particular experience — but it’s certainly a valid way of living and writing, not at all the same as putting one’s life into the closet out of shame.

Susan Sontag’s reserve may seem old-fashioned to some, but, in an age when reality TV programs and tell-all autobiographies are all the rage, it is refreshing — and even queer and subversive.

ATC 116, May-June 2005