Regarding Susan Sontag Turns the Critical Gaze on the Critic

Susan Sontag. 

Andy Ross/courtesy of HBO

Pursuing a master’s degree in criticism, as I did, is to willingly submit oneself to a crash-course in inadequacy. You go in thinking you have ideas—big ones; good ones, even—about art or culture or whatever, and you likely possess the necessary arrogance to believe that the world needs to hear them. And then you run into a figure like Susan Sontag, and all that intellectual bravado turns to mush. Reading classic, genre-defining work like “Against Interpretation,” On Photography, or even my personal nemesis, “Notes on Camp,” is enlightening and instructive, obviously; but damn if each of Sontag’s sentences, somehow Japanese in their stylized precision, don’t seem to undercut your own—samurai blades against soft, undisciplined flesh. 

Ten years after her death, Sontag’s supreme writerly confidence remains both an inspiration and a terror to would-be critics and public intellectuals, and for good reason—she was the embodiment of a certain school of serious, morally committed, iconoclastic, and often deliciously haughty 20th-century criticism. And yet, as Nancy Kates’ arresting documentary Regarding Susan Sontag demonstrates, much of that swagger was a carefully (and wisely, for a woman in a man’s trade) crafted façade. Behind it lived and wrote a person who, despite having the kind of career most writers can only dream about, felt as inadequate as the rest of us.

That Sontag harbored such self-doubt can almost feel offensive—such as when a confidant reveals to the director that, after publishing the remarkable book On Photography, Sontag could only worry that it wasn’t as good as Walter Benjamin’s work. But if you can get past that initial bristling response, Kates’ documentary offers fascinating and crucial insight into the psychology and motivations of one of the previous century’s greatest, and most mercurial, thinkers. Indeed, the film is so attentive to Sontag’s personal life, so committed to pushing past her decades-long PR campaign, that at moments it felt like a violation. But then, there’s something important about placing the kind of person who is more-than-willing to pronounce upon everyone and everything else under a similar scrutiny, something irresistible in regarding the critic, the figure whose job description is to regard the rest of the world.

And what does Kates see when she looks at Sontag? For one thing, she discovers a woman whose sexuality clearly informed her orientation to culture and who yet declined to directly come out as queer (some oblique textual gestures aside). Though the film is not exactly angry about this omission, it refuses to respect it, dedicating a considerable portion of the run-time to interviews with Sontag’s many female partners and lovers.

In a Sontagian move, I will take the low road for a moment just to say that Regarding is worth watching if only for the bits with Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, a delightfully brash woman who, at Berkeley, first enticed Sontag to a gay bar and lesbian sexual encounter. (After which Sontag wrote in her diary, “Everything begins from now; I am reborn.”) Zwerling has the bemused relationship of a former lover to Sontag-the-Cultural-Icon, gesturing at one point to a signed copy of the first novel, The Benefactor, on her shelf, turning back to the camera, and grimacing: “It’s awful.” And later, she offers an anecdote from further on in their off-and-on affair that functions both as a tasty piece of gossip and as an illustration of the horrid way Sontag often treated her intimates:

Susan was living on West End Avenue, with her son [from an early and brief marriage to a professor at the University of Chicago], and I moved in with her. And she met [María] Irene Fornés. Irene and I had been involved before, and I really loved her. But we had broken up already. Anyway, concerning Susan: Things were going on that I didn’t quite get. I’d be there with David, putting David to bed, and she’d come home at like 3 in the morning reeking of Mitsouko, which is a wonderful perfume of Guerlain, which I had given to Irene, and I didn’t pick up on it [until later]. Irene was her best lover. As I’ve said to many people: Irene could make a stone come. She was really just incredible.

Zwerling treats this mistreatment with the humor granted by hindsight, but not everyone found Sontag’s self-centeredness so funny. In a particularly bracing interview, Sontag’s sister characterizes how the critic treated family tersely: “She just wanted to do what she wanted to do; that’s all there is to it.” And on a less personal scale, though thousands of “grad school lesbians” treated the cover photo of I, Etcetera as a pin-up poster, they were also deeply frustrated by Sontag’s refusal to identify with their community. It is telling that, in a diary entry included in the film, the critic reveals that she felt “guilty” being queer and seems to have feared that a forthright admission would complicate her career.

Beyond Sontag’s relationships with other human beings, Regarding is also concerned with her relationship to her own image and the “look” of a public intellectual—a relationship that was, in a word, conscious. Even in the earliest diary entries, one gets the sense that the writer is not really writing for herself, but with some future reader in mind: There is narrative structure and stylized polish even in mundane entries, and to-do lists—“Tasks for 24: Have better posture; write mother 3 times a week; eat less; write two hours a day, minimally; teach David to read”—seem designed to create a certain effect in the audience. (Jealousy, in my case.) Kates is also careful to show that Sontag knew she cut a striking figure and, though a “militant feminist,” actively used this to her advantage—a clip of Andy Warhol photographing the critic, sunglassed and smoking, is powerful in this regard. 

By covering all these “personal” details, I don’t meant to suggest that Kates ignores Sontag’s critical, literary, or cinematic output; to the contrary, the well-paced film does an impressive job of hitting the highlights of her oeuvre without getting lost in the weeds. But, of course, anyone who cares about Sontag is likely familiar with most of the work; what we need, and what this film provides, is an honest introduction to the person—in this case, a person who comprised qualities both deeply admirable and terribly off-putting in equal measure. Watching Regarding Susan Sontag, I felt awash in that person, carried aloft on the waves of her exquisite curiosities and pulled by the undertow of her messy personal life, suspended in the trough between the figure she wanted to be and the human being she was.

If that sounds rather grandiose, don’t blame me. As Wayne Koestenbaum, a poet, critic, and interviewee in the documentary, wisely points out, Sontag tends to inspire that kind of thing:

She represents grandiosity, I think, and it is a little comic. And there’s an aspect of camp: Susan Sontag is camp, her seriousness is kind of camp, because it seems a bit of a pose, and it’s mannered, and stylized, but that’s part of the fun of the package of Susan Sontag.

I thoroughly enjoyed Kates’ attempt to do justice to that package—the whole package—sex, uncertainty, hubris, and brilliance, all mixed up together. After all, if we really want to understand a person who wanted to understand all the world, we have to try to look at all of her; not just those perfectly hewn blades meant for publication, but the soft, undisciplined parts as well. 

Regarding Susan Sontag premieres on Monday, Dec. 8 at 9 p.m. on HBO.