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While Susan Sontag lay dying

About the author
Angela McRobbie is Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths College, London, and the author of Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries (Polity Press 2015).

The unseemliness of Annie Leibovitz, one of the world's best-known photographers, publishing (in the Guardian), intimate portraits of her lover Susan Sontag in the months before she died in December 2004 and then in the immediate aftermath of her death as she was laid out in the mortuary gurney, is perhaps only explicable in terms of her mourning, anger and outrage at being abandoned.

In this respect it outflanks an article by Sontag's son David Rieff published some months earlier. At her bedside, he presented an account of her dying which also might better have remained an important private moment between mother and son. It surely cheapened her stature to describe what seemed to be her sheer disbelief and fury that she too, like everyone else, was having to face extinction. "I'm special", she appeared to be saying, "so special".

Even earlier, Terry Castle, a Californian-based writer and sometime friend of Sontag's wrote a particularly scurrilous, indeed spiteful memoir which was published in the London Review of Books ("Desperately Seeking Susan", 17 March 2005) It was a well-rehearsed piece, as though the author had been saving up for this opportunity for many years, having been sidelined by Sontag despite some period of friendship and even intimacy.

Sontag it seemed had never reciprocated with sufficient warmth and zeal, the abundance of emotion and admiration displayed by the repudiated Castle; but so self-pitying and moralistic was Castle's account of her years of servitude, that this reader at least sympathised fully with Sontag's sudden and unexplained disappearance into a taxi, midway through an evening out with Castle, leaving her friend bewildered on the pavement.

Angela McRobbie is professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, London. She is author of British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry (Routledge, 1998), In the Culture Society (Routledge, 1999), and The Uses of Cultural Studies (Sage, 2005). She has also written extensively on young women and popular culture and about making a living in the new cultural economy

Also by Angela McRobbie in openDemocracy: "'Everyone is Creative': artists as new economy pioneers?"
(30 August 2001)

"Pierre Bourdieu: from the study to the street" (20 February 2002)

"Tony Blair and the Marxists"
(26 March 2003)

Love's work

Love is invariably shot through with ambivalence, and in death an opportunity arises to castigate she or he who has done the leaving. But what is surprisingly conventional about these outbursts in print or in image is the revelation of personality. It is unimaginable in contemporary life not to "have" a personality and, in possession of such a thing, not subsequently to project this authentic self in the context of one's other attributes and capacities.

Sontag has been endlessly berated for many years by gay and lesbian activists for refusing to wholeheartedly take on a lesbian identity, and again it is only on her death and the publication of some of her diaries dating back to the 1950s that her self-description as queer really surfaces. But still this refusal to project identity or personality, a refusal which is now being so busily countered by these biographical sketches, undermines what was surely one of Sontag's most marked contributions - which was to refute the position of writer as dogmatic personality; as the person who presided over the text, who was its owner as well as its author.

Sontag spent a good deal of time in France in the early 1960s, at that moment when literary modernism (Samuel Beckett, Antonin Artaud) with its insistence on divided selves was just about to be supplanted by the even more forceful undermining of the magisterial, authorial self which semiology, structuralism and then post-structuralism inaugurated.

Sontag's writing at that time reflected both these trends, her short fictions I Etcetera and indeed her foray into film-directing each revealing a cold, erotically-charged modernism, with few, if any, traces of authorial personality; while her introduction of Roland Barthes to a wider public demonstrated her enthusiasm for his "death of the author" stance, and for his crisp analysis of those structures set in place which merely had to be activated by the writer. The work writes you, Roland Barthes said, and this permitted a kind of downgrading or removal of the author-God from the scene of the narrative and from the whole burden of originality, inspiration and uniqueness.

It is ironic then that Susan Sontag is now being deified in a way which counters the sensibility of her own style, which was invariably to locate herself behind the work which she wrote about. Her much-quoted comment about mind as passion, her commitment to seriousness, her disavowal of the chat-show circuit, and latterly, her stance on the stifling of dissent in the United States after 9/11, as well as her late return to the portrayal of suffering in the photographic image, all mark her out as an intellectual for whom social and cultural critique are forms of public service, a kind of dedicating of one's intellect to the principle of democracy.

Of course the outpourings of those who loved her most will also bear the signs of the wish that she be remembered, as well as being their staking of a claim to her emotional world. But it is Leibovitz's images which are most disquieting, if only for the reason that they almost ask to be deciphered as Sontag would herself have surely, with enthusiasm, set about doing.

The claim of intimacy

This makes them strange, uncanny, uncomfortable to look at, but not because they have the capacity to illuminate beyond the frame of the domestic world which they show. Ostensibly they could be considered a treatise on the impending death of one who has both written magnificently about the cultural meanings which are invoked in response to life threatening illness, and who has therefore been well prepared as it were for mortality.

But much more prominent is the narrative they tell about the complexity of love, the rivalry, and anger of abandonment and loss, and the betrayals and disloyalties which also comprise the "psychic life of power". By so inflating, in her death, the stature of Sontag, those who were closest to her produce a kind of grand fictional identity which dwarves the painstaking nature of the work itself, a good deal of which was actually dedicated to bringing to the attention of the world, great writers who like Robert Walser, Leonid Tsypkin, Juan Rulfo or even the filmmaker as well as writer Alexander Kluge, all of whom would otherwise have remained obscure, untranslated or overlooked in the English-speaking world.

If one was to sum up an underlying ethos in Sontag’s oeuvre it was to overturn and angrily contest the drive towards simplification and anti-intellectualism, little Englandism and self-congratulatory Americanism, and the cult of the personality in literature, autobiography and confessional life-writing, all of which shape and police the landscape of literary culture today. (It was widely known to those in the field of European and world literature that often the only possibility of having work translated was to send Sontag a copy requesting that she submit a letter of support to publishers, which invariably she would do).

Most of the pictures printed in the Guardian merit consideration primarily on the topics of love, intrusiveness, publicity and exposure. This includes a banal shot of Sontag in her hotel bed awake, but covering most of her face with a white sheet, as though to ward off the unwelcome gaze of the camera, a moment of private vanity, the desire not to be snapped without having time to compose oneself, having not yet got up and brushed one’s teeth, as it were.

Pictures in her office or walking on a beach with agent Andrew Wylie, or sitting amidst pyramids or again looking weary and tired over a hotel-room breakfast, have little to say other than that there is a claim being made by Leibovitz in terms of proximity, intimacy and of she having-being-there with Sontag, sharing her bed, one assumes, sitting with her at breakfast and accompanying her on trips (see the photographer's interview with Emma Brockes, "My time with Susan", Guardian, 7 October 2006).

Those which show Sontag suffering, and undergoing chemotherapy, especially the shot of her on a stretcher on a cold-looking open tarmac about to be carried onto a waiting plane, and also those of her corpse laid out, further extend this act of claiming. We are meant to be impressed by Sontag’s courage in the months before she died, but the publication of these images conveys instead simply a kind of resignation, sadness and fortitude on Sontag’s part.

What else, after all, can one do when having to undergo chemotherapy, which may or may not work? The green-tinted image of her body laid out, wearing a pleated dress, serves primarily to ask the viewer to reflect on the nature of love and its claims on the other. Leibovitz is doing here what only she can do, this is her privilege. And so the pictures are as much about possession and about being dispossessed in loss, as they are about any social commentary on dying. These pictures suggest that the taker is temporarily "out of her mind" with grief.

A gift to life

There are only two photographs where the intensity of the dialogue between Leibovitz’s work and Sontag’s thinking is realised. The first is the cover image (in the Guardian supplement), a marvellous dark orange-tinted shot of Susan Sontag standing against the stern of a ferry, wrapped in a blanket to ward off the chill air, seemingly at dusk. There is a lifebelt attached to the rail, and the coastline can be seen in the distance. Sontag is tall, slim, and her beauty still proud, animated and engaged. She is undefeated, though it would seem fully aware that this is also for her, a ferry journey to the other side of life. This is so effective as an image of portending death that Leibovitz could easily have omitted the hospital scenes.

The other photograph which transcends the boundaries of domestic intimacy is one which shows Sontag naked, in bed, still sleeping it seems, and shot from the side, amidst the bed clothes, and with a pillow over her breasts, though revealing in a gesture to the life of sexuality and eroticism, even in middle age, part of a large, dark nipple.

This is an extraordinary sculptured image, conveying the intensity of an emotional partnership, as well as the power of love and erotic passion to create art from the passage of life as it is inscribed on the body. Sontag’s thighs are sensuously open, as though in invitation, they are heavy, marbled, and the pubic hair is still black.

There is what looks like a Caesarian scar-line, and her stomach is neither smooth nor shapely, her waist almost disappeared, yet the overall sense is of voluptuousness and sexual energy. Also total self-confidence and disregard for a world otherwise beholden to narrow and tyrannical definitions as to what constitutes female desirability. If Sontag moved uncomfortably around the word feminism, as she also did lesbianism, in her life, then in her death she makes here, of herself, something of a gift, that art and politics can indeed be productively intertwined.


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