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Susan Superstar

Even before Sontag wrote her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” and Against Interpretation, New York intellectuals had begun to collapse this strict cultural hierarchy. Robert Warshow had written about the movies for Commentary, where he questioned whether critics were entitled to claim a perspective any more Olympian than the average fan. Leslie Fielder played in the sandbox of popular culture, writing about comic books and horror films. Macdonald wrote about film for Esquire.

But it was Sontag who struck the biggest blow. She told the New York intellectuals to open their eyes to the world around them—photography, dance, as well as Pop Art and mass culture. She also told them to loosen up and to absorb art with the full arsenal of their senses, not just their intellects. “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more,” she wrote in Against Interpretation. By embracing “the erotics of art,” she captured the sexual revolution and turned it into an aesthetic theory.

In the harsh but richly reported 2000 biography Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock found a paper trail showing that Sontag initially wanted to publish “Notes on Camp” in a glossy mass-market magazine called Show, to get maximum exposure for her ideas. But when that fell through, she placed it in Partisan Review. By running in the lower-circulation journal, her essay actually had a far greater effect and enraged far more of her comrades. Philip Rahv and William Phillips quarreled over Sontag in splenetic letters, according to Edith Kurzweil, Phillips’s widow and another PR editor. Rahv wrote to Mary McCarthy in 1965 and sniped, “Susan Sontag. Who is she? . . . Above the girdle, the girl is square.”

It’s easy to read this hostility as sexism. (Mary McCarthy, to be sure, was as condescending as any male critic, calling Sontag “the imitation me.”) But more than reacting to her sex, they were reacting to her sensual aesthetic. The New York Jewish intellectuals were hardly sexually well-adjusted men, a tendency that Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth would pillory, and embody, until it became a sitcom cliché. What’s more, they had spent the immediate aftermath of the Second World War maturing from radicals into celebrants of bourgeois democracy, a transformation many of them announced to the world in Partisan Review’s 1952 patriotic symposium on “Our Country and Our Culture.” Good believers in bourgeois society, they argued that it was wrong, in Howe’s words, to “entrust ourselves entirely to the beneficence of nature, or the signals of our bodies, as a sufficient guide to conduct.” Or as Rahv moaned in 1965, “Middleclassism à la Trilling is out, perversion is in.”

This split had begun as an aesthetic one, but it inevitably acquired a political dimension. Sontag’s thinking neatly gibed with the emerging New Left—a political movement that Howe and the other New York intellectuals despised for its crude “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker” sloganeering as much as for its actual positions. That’s not to minimize the political differences. Sontag had joined with intellectuals like Jason Epstein, Andrew Kopkind, Noam Chomsky, and others who clustered around the newly created New York Review of Books in questioning the anti-communism of the Partisan Review crowd. When they made their case, they sounded intentionally disrespectful of liberal values and America. Sontag, who returned from Cuba and North Vietnam claiming to have seen the future, wrote in 1969, “Imperialist America is also Babbitt America. To us, it is self-evident that the Reader’s Digest and Lawrence Welk and Hilton Hotels are organically connected with the Special Forces’ napalming of villages in Guatemala this past year.”

Words like these earned her the eternal enmity of the right, which made Sontag-bashing one of its favorite pastimes. They also provide the context in which many readers understood her notorious post-9/11 “Talk of the Town” entry, where she asserted that the Al Qaeda attacks were “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” In the end, those words would seal her final alienation from the magazine that created her.

A year after 9/11, William Phillips died. His friends arranged a memorial service for him on the West Side at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. In addition to publishing “Notes on Camp,” Phillips later took even more credit for shaping Sontag’s reputation, telling friends that he had “taught Susan how to write.” But where Sontag had turned hard-left in the sixties, Phillips had followed the more conventional Partisan Review career path, moving to the right, just a few paces behind Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. At the service, Sontag sat near the front, next to Roger Straus, and listened to loving tributes to Phillips delivered by Cynthia Ozick, Morris Dickstein, and Norman Podhoretz. Describing Phillips’s editorial triumphs, the eulogists couldn’t avoid returning to Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” These references caused the room to keep looking toward her in her prominent seat. Yet, to the surprise of the crowd, Sontag was not displaying pride or mournful sadness so much as acute discomfort. She shifted in her chair. A glower dominated her face. A rumor began circulating in the room: Despite the constant references to her—and despite having asked for time at the lectern—she had been strangely omitted from the program. According to Edith Kurzweil, who organized the occasion, the gap between Sontag and Phillips had become too wide to justify her inclusion on a short speakers’ list.

It was easy to attach a metaphorical meaning to the moment. Sontag had contributed one of the most important essays in the history of Partisan Review. But she had also traveled far beyond the magazine’s comfort zone and helped destroy the world it represented. When Kurzweil later called Sontag and asked her to contribute to the final issue of Partisan Review—an issue dedicated to the memory of William Phillips—Sontag turned her down. “She blew up at me,” Kurzweil recalls.