on sontag

I've long been an avid admirer of Susan Sontag, but--confession time-- have never committed myself to reading her work all the way through. I've read the standard stuff-- you know, parts of "Against Interpretation" in Critical Theory classes, bits of "On Photography" mainly to see what Barthes cribbed from her, a little of her writing on illness, for a seminar on Woolf. And "Notes on Camp," I have the feeling, will be really important for my thesis. But I'm not satisfied with this dabbling-- all this is set to change as soon as I'm back in Paris. The woman deserves a thorough reading! The novels, the essays, all of it.

She has what strikes me as an organized mind, something I keenly feel that I lack: the ability to go headlong into a problem and see it through until it's been completely worked out. I tend to think sideways, in many directions at once; the result of a vivid curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of discipline. I also blame wonderful and damaging inventions like the internet, which does not help in this respect, what with its hyperlinks and the expectation of instaneous comprehension it creates in the reader.

To think well, and to write well, I often find I need to shut my mind to the noise of mass communication. Even Woolf felt this way, as she wrote in a letter to Ethel Smyth, "the fact about contemporaries […] is that they’re doing the same thing on another railway line: one resents their distracting one, flashing past, the wrong way—something like that: from timidity, partly, one keeps ones eyes on one’s own road” (L IV, 315).

I'm reading some extracts of Sontag's journals (who runs in a direct line from Woolf, if any one does) that were published recently in the NY Times. I identify so strongly with what she writes, and dare to hope, idiotically, that similar thoughts on writing might imply similar levels of talent and competence...

For example:

31 December, 1958, in Paris
Nothing prevents me from being a writer except laziness. A good writer.

and 19 November 1959, New York
The only kind of writer I could be is the kind who exposes himself.. . .To write is to spend oneself, to gamble oneself. But up to now I have not even liked the sound of my own name. To write, I must love my name. The writer is in love with himself. . .and makes his books out of that meeting and that violence.

and this is one of my favorites:


Becoming aware of the 'dead places' of feeling — Talking without feeling anything. (This

is very different from my old self-revulsion at talking without knowing anything.)

The writer must be four people:

1) the nut, the obsédé

2) the moron

3) the stylist

4) the critic

1) supplies the material

2) lets it come out

3) is taste

4) is intelligence

a great writer has all 4 — but you can still be

a good writer with only 1) and 2); they're most important.

read the rest of the journal entries here, the whole of which are set to be published by FSG in 2008 or 2009.


Neil said...

My mother works at FSG and I did for a year and a half and I had the honor of meeting Ms. Sontag (her son was also an editor there). I've always been a big fan of her work and she was as impressive in person as she is on the page.

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of the one where you imagined yourself a latter day Gertrude Stein and tried to write in her style (although revealing in the comments section that you were parodying your younger self). You tend to compare yourself to writers like Woolf, Stein and now Sontag, all of whose homosexuality was deeply implicated in their work. Sontag discusses this in many of her journal excerpts recently published in the New York Times which you did not quote. You, what with your references to your current "lovah" and whining about various boys in your past who can't commit, are unequivocally straight and more closely resemble Carrie Bradshaw + M.Phil and its French equivalent, though you have tried to dissociate from that comparison by saying that your bra strap does not hang out of your outfits and that you can't contort your legs in weird positions around your laptop. You should be more careful about approaching queer authors / texts / theory (and modeling your own life/ writing on them)from your straight girl perspective. (You mentioned this once before in your post about the gender panel at the Woolf conference and your surrealism thesis.)
You have misread Woolf in the letter you quoted. She, who fully embraced technology (c.f. Mrs. Dalloway, many of the essays), is using technology in the figurative sense there to make a point about steering her own path and not focusing on the contemporary competition. In the post above this one you chastise bloggers / writers of your generation for their egotism, yet in the context of your blog, I read this as more than a little bit of pot calling the kettle black.

maitresse said...

Dear Anonymous,

You have correctly summarized a tension in my research which I tend to leave alone: the fact that I am extremely straight, and that the authors I work on are part of the "queer canon."

However, my reading of their views of their "homosexuality" respects how complicated their relationships to it were--Woolf, Cahun, and Barnes went through their lives denying that they were "lesbians", eschewing categorization at every step. Sontag, as well, from the entries I read, had a great deal of difficulty claiming her homosexuality for herself and never admitted it in public (a lapse which many queer writers consider to be a major blight on her career).

I am trying to understand what you are accusing me of that is so terrible? Egotism?

For the record I completely disagree with your comments about Woolf. she did not "fully embrace" technology any more than she full embraced lesbianism. In the above post, I said I find I occasionally need to shut my ears and eyes to the noise of my fellow bloggers/writers in order to write what's true for me. I think that's a pretty accurate echo of Woolf's comment.

Honestly I'm not trying to sound defensive of offensive, but I think perhaps I've irritated some key issue for you-- you find me too much of a straight girl to be a serious scholar, and too pretentious a scholar to be a girly girl. I think maybe the problem is your need to assign people to neat little categories.

I do, however, resent your telling me what I should be more careful about doing whil hiding behind your anonymity. If there is in fact a methodological difficulty with my approach to authors who have been claimed by the "queer" theorists, I'll leave it to either one of my very distinguished dissertation directors to advise me.

However, I'd be happy to engage in a real discussion of the issue if you care to unveil yourself.

eurobrat said...

Just this morning I finished reading the excerpts from Sontag's journals in the NY Times.

Love the "the writer must be four people" piece.

reasonably prudent poet said...

as a queer woman and lover of words i would like to *welcome* your scholarly embrace of queer writers and i think your anonymous commenter, as the greek sophists used to say, can suck it. i was recently the recipient of some nasty comments on my own blog by someone equally hidden behind anonymity and i appreciate how you handled this one. seems petty and patently obnoxious to post anonymous criticisms on a blog. the epitome of lame.

maitresse said...

why thank you, RPP!

Anonymous said...

I am the anonymous commenter from above, and I would like to clarify one thing. I never suggested that straight scholars couldn't write about the queer canon, for that would exclude the queen of queer theory, Eve Sedgwick (under who the author of this blog has doubtlessly studied). What I took issue with in this and other posts are maitresse's (a pseudonym, I might add, one step closer to anonymity) attempts to model her life and creative work on queer authors--Woolf, Gertrude Stein, albeit in jest, and now Sontag. For example, Maitresse writes in this post: "I identify so strongly with what she writes, and dare to hope, idiotically, that similar thoughts on writing might imply similar levels of talent and competence..." Statements like these refer to queer authors not as critical subjects but as peers. I thought I was clear in my first post when I used the phrase "modeling your life," not "writing theses" on these authors.

You wrote:
"Honestly I'm not trying to sound defensive of offensive, but I think perhaps I've irritated some key issue for you-- you find me too much of a straight girl to be a serious scholar, and too pretentious a scholar to be a girly girl. I think maybe the problem is your need to assign people to neat little categories. "
As for the "neat little categories," it is you, not I, who make them. You made a huge leap from straight girl to femininity that was in no way implied from my comment. This very logic, and the ignorance it contains (straight girls are feminine; lesbians masculine), reveals that your perspective as a privileged heterosexual is in fact problematic. See, e.g., the L Word, the movies D.E.B.S. and GIA, the actress Portia De Rossi and Starlette parties in NY for the phenomenon of the lipstick lesbian.

The point you raise about whether any of these authors (Woolf, Barnes, Cahun) "embraced" "lesbianism" as a label is an interesting and valid one, but one thing to keep in mind is our distored, anachronistic lens. These women may have passed / "covered" (See Kenji Yoshino's Covering) as the only viable option at the time. It's not fair to compare how Woolf held herself out to the world between the two world wars with Sontag's more contemporary decision not to avow publicly her sexuality. Any scholar--straight, gay, bi, intersex, asexual--is free to pursue this line of inquiry. But when a staight girl who has never felt the phenomenon of the closet in her own life writes about these subjects, she is going to be distanced. And, when she aspires to be these women, she appears not only conceited but also foolish. That was my (not so radical or outlandish) point before, and I'm sticking to it.

I think it's amusing that you take such issue with my anonymity when you write under a pseudonym with a picture of your face masked by your hair. Granted, it's not difficult to pierce that pseudonymous veil. . .but anonymity is nothing to be condemned. The Supreme Court itself has pointed to the indispensiblity of anonymous authors to contributing to free speech in a democratic society (see McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, at fn. 6-- http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/93-986.ZO.html). This case points out that the Federalist Papers themselves were authored anonymously, and we have Hamilton Madison and Jay masquearading as the pseudonymous "Publius" to thank in large part for the Bill of Rights that make free speech, and by extension, daring, laudable writing on queer texts and other subversive subjects (didn't you describe yourself as "quietly subversive"?) and the narcissistic phenomenon of blogs possible.

Yours truly,
a queer yet "girly-girl" woman English scholar and writer who does not have a blogger id and wishes to remain Anonymous

maitresse said...

Dear Anonymous,

First regarding the issue of anonymity. I began the blog anonymously for professional reasons, like many other bloggers. I've only recently become comfortable with dropping the anonymous façade (my complete name appears below). I still have professional reservations about it, but I stand behind my blog and the opinions expressed on it.

I took issue with your anonymity because it seems to me a comfortable place from which to launch ad-hominem attacks. You are an English scholar, yuo say; perhaps we've met? Are in the same dept? Have crossed paths at a conference? Is that why you prefer to remain anonymous?

If I made an interpretive leap from your comment, it was because it contained an implicit critique of a "Carrie Bradshaw" femininity-- there is obviously something in my so-called "straightness" that bugs you. And yet you know nothing about my personal life beyond what I put on the blog-- so how, in a million years, would you have even the slightest notion of what it means for me personally to approach the work of Woolf, or closer to home, Sontag?

You assume I consider these writers to be peers-- peers!-- and on that point, I must say I'm alarmed that you consider yourself to be a scholar and yet you betray such flawed reading skills. If I say "I dare to hope idiotically" my experiencing simimar problems to those of Sontag when she was my age, you think I'm saying I think I'm Sontag?? I said I threw a party, and you think I'm comparing myself to Stein?? As an undergraduate studying in Paris, I write a couple of lines in blatant imitation of Stein in 1999 and reprint them on my blog six years later for a laugh and you think I think I write like Stein?

If you're using my blog as an excuse to trot out some intro to women's studies jargon, I can recommend a panoply of blogs where your efforts would be put to better use: "This very logic, and the ignorance it contains (straight girls are feminine; lesbians masculine), reveals that your perspective as a privileged heterosexual is in fact problematic." I mean, come on. Save it.

maitresse said...

and where did you read that I described myself as "quietly subversive"?

Anonymous said...

Dear Maitresse,
Happy birthday. I'm sorry if my tone implied that I was launching an ad hominem attack. I think both of my posts reveal my familiarity with the blog. I was and remain a fan who just took issue with perspective. However, now that you have accused me of being a bad reader (way off base) and recycling "intro women's studies jargon," (I can assure you that I never took such a course in my undergraduate days and learned everything I know about queer studies from literature and theory courses) I find it necessary to respond. If you don't think you are writing from the position of a privileged heterosexual, you are willfully blind. I'll leave you with a bunch of your own words to ruminate on, since it is clear that you love, above all else, the sound of your own voice:

Notes from a Woolf conference
. . . . . . . . . .. .

"Afterward, we are treated to a wonderfully insightful talk on the queer coding in 1920s British Vogue by art historian Christopher Reed, the author of Bloomsbury Rooms. Vampy, campy, and as gay as a lark, that magazine was while it was edited by Dorothy Todd (under whose auspices Woolf wrote for the magazine). Not overtly so-- that's the thing about queer codes, you have to know them to recognize them. And no, dears, you don't have to be gay to know the codes, just someone who went to graduate school in a post-Eve Sedgwick/Judith Butler era.

However, a rather militant member of the audience took the opportunity of the question-and-answer session after Reed's talk to castigate him for the crime of attempting to decipher those codes. "As a lesbian, I can tell you, those are our codes, and they are very complex, and there's a lot that you don't know," so don't even try, she didn't need to add as she chased him away from "her" subject matter and "her" people's cultural heritage. I exhaled a silent prayer of thanks that she hadn't attended my panel-- she probably likes straight girls doing queer theory even less. . ."

Anonymous said...

"About Me:
bookworm; quietly subversive; impatient; headstrong; reflective; obsessive and a little compulsive. I'm also a terrible snob.
see also: maitresse.blogspot.com.

Who I Want to Meet:
people who speak my language(s)."

maitresse said...

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to accuse you of being a "bad" reader, I just felt that you'd misread some of my statements. My comments about the Woolf conference are entirely in line with the tension I mentioned in reaposne to your first comment-- of knowing that "lesbians" like this particular woman were arguing that there's no way a non-"lesbian" could even begin to fathom queer codes. The scare quotes are intentional. I felt then, and I felt now, that it's tantamount to telling a female critic that she can't study Shakespeare because she can't appreciate the specificity of what it is to be a man. The entire premise of my dissertation is centered around an attempt to understand what it meant for Woolf, Cahun, et al to write about gender given their specific historical context-- so for you to come along and accuse me of anachronicity struck me as completely absurd.

I really appreciate that you've rad my writing so attentively that you can comment from it at will!

And I did think you had gotten that phrse from my Friendster profile-- which supports my theory that we've met and that's why you don't want me to know who you are.

As for loving the sound of my own voice... there are times when I do like a certain turn of phrase. But they're outnumbered by the times when I tear my hair out in dissatisfaction. We write not because we love our voice but because we'd implode if we didn't--don't you agree? I make [and have never made] no pretenses to be Woolf or Sontag or Stein. But I see nothing wrong with being inspired by them.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. Sontag does call for a healthy dose of self-love to inspire writing in the passage you quoted in the post that started the comment chain. So, be inspired.

With regard to my identity, rest assured, I am not in your department in NY or in France. We have never met at a conference (no, I'm not that militant conference attendee from England).
I originally found this blog through friendster--it is in your about me section, as a "see more, at this url." We might have been three, four, five or six degrees removed on Friendster, but then again, who isn't? And, again, to be fair, you did welcome anonymous comments when you first invited your readership to make use of the comment section:

Interactive literary criticism

Dear readers,
. . . . . . .. . . . .
Pleeeeeease leave me your comments. Let me know if you need a tutorial on how to use the comments function (i.e. you don't have to register as a blogger user to leave a comment; you can just be "anonymous")."

If you didn't have time to click on the link I sent you to the Supreme Court case, here are some gems on the topic:

"Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. "

"'[p]ersecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.'. . .Justice Black recalled England's abusive press licensing laws and seditious libel prosecutions, and he reminded us that even the arguments favoring the ratification of the Constitution advanced in the Federalist Papers were published under fictitious names. On occasion, quite apart from any threat of persecution, an advocate may believe her ideas will be more persuasive if her readers are unaware of her identity. Anonymity thereby provides a way for a writer who may be personally unpopular to ensure that readers will not prejudge her message simply because they do not like its proponent. Thus, even in the field of political rhetoric, where "the identity of the speaker is an important component of many attempts to persuade," City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U. S. . .the most effective advocates have sometimes opted for anonymity. "

""Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind." Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 64 (1960). Great works of literature have frequently been produced by authors writing under assumed names. [n.4] Despite readers' curiosity and the public's interest in identifying the creator of a work of art, an author generally is free to decide whether or not to disclose her true identity. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one's privacy as possible. Whatever the motivation may be, at least in the field of literary endeavor, the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry. [n.5]"

"n. 11 "Of course, the identity of the source is helpful in evaluating ideas. But `the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market' (Abrams v. United States, [250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting)]). Don't underestimate the common man. People are intelligent enough to evaluate the source of an anonymous writing. They can see it is anonymous. They know it is anonymous. They can evaluate its anonymity along with its message, as long as they are permitted, as they must be, to read that message. And then, once they have done so, it is for them to decide what is `responsible', what is valuable, and what is truth." "

--Justice Stevens, McIntyre v. Ohio Electins Comm'n, 514 U.S. 334 (1995)