By Susie Day
Susan Sontag. She was a brand long before most writers knew they needed one. Even if you’ve never read a Sontag book, you can still engage with her seriousness by studying her darkly handsome, scathingly sensible face, as photographed by Richard Avedon or Diane Arbus or Annie Leibovitz. A major 20th-century cultural critic, as well as novelist and filmmaker, Sontag was all about interrogating Western art and literature to discover their embedded morality (or lack thereof): “The wisdom that becomes available over deep, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic,” she wrote, “cannot be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.”
Decades ago, Susan Sontag meant the world to me. My pals and I were, to use the 1970s label, “lesbian feminists.” We were also insecure, angry, unformed, and uninformed. Then, like a Genius-IQ Wonder Woman, Sontag landed, wielding game-changing books like Notes on “Camp,” Against Interpretation, Trip to Hanoi, AIDS and Its Metaphors, The Volcano Lover… Some were great; some not; all demanded rethinking lots of your life. The fact that this drop-dead brilliant woman was also beautiful and famous seemed to us 20-somethings like simple moral Justice; we couldn’t have asked for more. Looking back, though, we probably should have.
Recently, Benjamin Moser published Sontag: Her Life and Work, his 800-page biography of Sontag, which is brilliantly comprehensive and, in terms of Sontag’s personal life, possibly the most engaging outlay of Too-Much-Information I’ve ever read. Moser frames Sontag’s conflicted, sexually ambivalent life by studying it through her preoccupation with metaphor: a thing itself in play with its image. “Sontag’s real importance increasingly lay in what she represented,” summarizes Moser. “The metaphor of ‘Susan Sontag’ was a great original creation.”
Moser’s biography is the story of a woman who craved, even as a child, becoming part of the liberal wing of Western culture’s literary establishment. By her early thirties she was securely ensconced in what pundit Norman Podhoretz called “the Family,” a predominantly New York Jewish intellectual lineage, shaped in the 1940s around Partisan Review and extending through The New York Review of Books. Though she grew up, a ferociously intelligent female in the mid-twentieth century and had to fight for every ounce of intellectual independence, Sontag didn’t denounce the Patriarchy; she deeply knew and appreciated its aesthetic power.
Sontag began life in 1933, as Susan Rosenblatt. After her father died when she was five, Susan and her sister were raised in the more culturally stultifying parts of Tucson and Los Angeles by an alcoholic mother who, when Susan was 12, married WWII pilot Nathan Sontag. Other than giving her a more euphonious surname, Nat wasn’t too useful, warning his book-addicted stepdaughter that men don’t marry girls who read all the time. But at the age of 17, Susan, precocious in all things, married her university professor, Philip Rieff, and at 19, gave birth to a son, David. Finding the relationship increasingly suffocating, Sontag spent most of her marriage breaking away and gaining child custody, while her work garnered critical attention.
Nat Sontag, however, may have been on to something. Susan, who kept a diary from childhood, wrote as a teenager, “My desire to write is connected to my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon to match the weapon society has against me.” Sontag’s tortured lesbian identity is in fact the central nervous system of Moser’s book. Though her affairs with men were relatively short and less complicated, Sontag pursued, throughout her life, a series of passionate, unhappy, sometimes abusive relationships with women –Irene Fornes, Lucinda Childs, Annie Leibovitz, among others – which were open secrets in the art world.
Reading Sontag’s biography, you’re sadly aware of the paralyzed horror this woman would feel at seeing this rendition of her life. Moser devotes a chapter to the likelihood that Sontag’s closetedness – long after it was remotely necessary – was largely responsible for her signature lack of self-awareness and empathy, her occasional homophobia, her reliance for selfhood on the opinions of others.
Having conducted a phenomenal amount of interviews and research, Moser connects as many psychosexual, interpersonal, and historical dots as he can to present Susan Sontag as an epically accomplished and complicated woman. It’s an authoritative book and, as such, can presume too much, judge too easily, and evade the mystery that lies at the heart of any human being. It can also focus on the personal at the expense of the political.
Politically, the book offers a sort of cooked, National-Public-Radio certitude about history, as if “we of the liberal intelligentsia” already know and agree on what’s happened: the fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall were good; the Oslo Accords were promising; Cuba’s revolutionary “New Man” evoked Nazi purity. While Moser would never dismiss Sontag’s lesbianism as a phase, he easily does so with her politics.
Sontag’s “radical” phase began in the 1960s, when she developed an interest in revolutionary societies. She spent some time in North Vietnam during the war and, in Partisan Review, famously wrote of the white race as “the cancer of human history.” In “the American Bloomsbury,” Moser observes, where it was cool to debate revolution, Susan Sontag became “that most radical of radicals.” But this phase came to a definitive halt at a 1982 Town Hall smack-down with the New Left, when Sontag – supported by her friend, Joseph Brodsky, a poet expelled from the USSR – decried Communism as fascism, “Successful Fascism, if you will.” This was the moment, according to a friend, that Sontag finally “ceased being “radical” and reverted to being “intelligent.”
Moser includes a dust-up between Sontag and the poet Adrienne Rich – openly feminist and lesbian. Sontag’s essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” had attributed the newfound popularity of the Nazi-friendly work of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to feminists. Rich wrote to correct Sontag: it was not feminists; it was the cinephile establishment that promoted Riefenstahl. Deeply affronted, Sontag called Rich an “infantile leftist” whose demagoguery was yet another example of fascism. Rich, herself a distant relative of the Family – and writer, according to Moser (and many others, including me), “of essays in no way inferior to Sontag’s” – was effectively banned from The New York Review of Books, which never published her again.
Adrienne Rich probably didn’t miss the Family for long; she was already heading off to society’s “infantile” margins to write some of her best work examining white women’s role in the history of enslavement and colonialism, exposing compulsory heterosexuality in building Empire. Here, on these “fanatical” margins, Susan Sontag would have ceased to think or exist.
But these margins have also encompassed centuries of art, scholarship, and literature by intellectuals and artists – largely Black, Brown, Indigenous – who knew, usually first-hand, the colonialism, enslavement, and genocide on which the esteemed New York Review aesthetic has been built. While James Fennimore Cooper was writing The Last of the Mohicans, David Walker, son of an enslaved father, wrote his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World; while J.D. Salinger was writing Catcher in the Rye, Aimé Césaire wrote Discourse on Colonialism; while Joseph Brodsky was writing poetry, so were Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Essex Hemphill…
It isn’t that radicals don’t deserve criticism. Sometimes, as Sontag alleged, the left does know less about human rights abuses under “Communism” than Reader’s Digest subscribers. But communism was meant to answer centuries of imperial European atrocities: where was Sontag, intellectually, when she wrote about the cancerous white race? Why did she leave that place? She was never without her white, middle-class privilege; she could come and go as she pleased. Her journey leaves many questions…
Why, after the 9/11 attacks, did Sontag seem to return, at least for a moment, to that empire-questioning place? She was one of very few public voices to criticize U.S. policy – and was thoroughly excoriated for it. Not even her son liked: “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened and what may continue to happen.”
Susan Sontag’s mysteries and metaphor are one reason you’d want to read her biography. I just wish Moser – and Sontag herself, for all her seriousness – could have taken radicalism more seriously.
© susie day, 2021
[Sontag: Her Life and Work, New York, Ecco/HarperCollins, 2019, 816 pp.]
Twenty-four years ago, Pedal Miranda was born into a uniquely turbulent American family, designated female, and given the name Gabrielle. Today, Pedal chooses to be known by third-person pronouns and identifies as transgender and non-binary. A poet, artist, and prison abolitionist, they work for Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP, striving to envision a new world of “collective liberation,” where a carceral system is unthinkable.
Older generations (not unlike mine) habitually envision collective liberation as homogeneous, exulting masses, cheering universal freedoms newly won by some top-down Revolution. But Pedal believes that collective liberation starts within each self, then works its way out – something much harder to picture than happy, liberated multitudes. Maybe, at this stage, we shouldn’t even try. Instead, listen to Pedal.
What Makes a Person
My dad and mom couldn’t decide on a name for me the first week I was alive, but one of my dad’s names for me was Pebbles, because he thought I looked like Pebbles Flintstone. That’s where I got Pedal.
I grew up socialized as a girl. My mom’s a poet and a literature professor, and my dad’s super-smart, self-taught. He grew up in an orphanage in Cincinnati, ran away from home at 15. My dad’s white; my mom’s Puerto Rican. Most people think I’m part Asian. So the idea of passing for me has been a big theme.
I was born into a radicalizing context. Shit was always chaotic in my house. My parents and my brother fought often, a decent amount of domestic abuse. We moved so much and my dad didn’t always have a job. My mom provided for all of us. Puerto Rico’s a colony – my mom was always very loud about that, which has its own particular constructions of race and identity. I think all these identity factors politicized me.
But we also spent a lot of time reading together and talking. When I was 11, my mom put a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves on my bed. That’s how I learned what masturbation was. She schooled me on a lot of the things that people with vaginas face, in ways that were kind of traumatizing because I was so young.
As far as being socialized as a girl, I didn’t experience body dysphoria. I wore pink all day, I wore a dress. I was into princesses. But I was very competitive. In school, I would pick the smartest boy in my classes; that’s who I had to beat. I was often the only “girl” who would speak in class. I guess what I’m saying is – I’ve always felt gender queer. I’m also a switch. Like, I’m both a bottom and a top in sex, and my first sexual encounter was with a girl.
Sometimes people think I’m someone with a penis. In public I’ve been gendered as a man. So, all this stuff about what makes a person always felt in the forefront of my mind.
I have gender-neutral friends of all ages. For a lot of young people – younger than me – navigating this framework of sex and gender becomes fun and kind of playful. More exploratory. I think younger folks have an easier time, in some ways. It’s been interesting to talk to older lesbian and gay people who have had to learn to separate gender from sexual orientation. When for me, they can be very, very, integrated.
Sexuality feeds into this because I’ve had a number of different partners. Some cis men, some cis women, some trans women, some non-binary people. I feel a difference, being intimate with people of different gender identities. I feel like a different “they.”
I decided to start using they/them pronouns one night, out with my friend when I was in college. The college had jazz nights on Thursdays, with live musicians, the little club thing. We were dancing, and it just entered my brain: the beat of the music was “they-they-they-they.” I was so happy.
Afterwards – there’s a fountain in front of the main building – I put my head in the fountain to baptize myself with the new pronouns. Then I lay down in the roots of this tree in front of the library. This moment of coming into who I am and feeling happy about it, with the pronouns, was really good.
I say I’m trans, but trans as a marker is still related to this idea of what you’re assigned at birth. Being assigned anything at birth is part of the tools of oppression. I also identify as queer. And when I date cis men – I tell them, “You’re queer. I’m not a cis woman – you’re attracted to someone who isn’t a woman. So you’re queer.”
So I’m trans but cis-passing, which is a weird concept. I’m not going for looking like a man or a girl. That’s a different experience from someone who is identifying as a woman but was assigned male at birth.
I’ve had people mis-gender me on purpose, people I’ve dated; people I’ve worked for. Mostly cis, het, white men who are just angry that I’m myself. They’re people who, I can tell, have a basic disrespect for me being the author of my own identity.
I say I’m not a woman. But the truth is, in moments when I’ve needed to fight back or be strong or defend myself, I’ve embodied what it means to be a woman. What I fall back on is a woman-self. But I’m gender fluid. I think I also could say I’m gender-queer but my identification is not really grounded in one gender, it’s multiple.
In the Taíno culture, there’s Two-Spirit, a kind of sacred identity. I went to a Taíno Two-Spirit meet-up a couple of years ago; there were little kids introducing themselves with different pronouns. But I don’t think I can say I’m Two-Spirit – I’m not able to connect to my Taíno ancestry without co-opting that Indigenous identity.
My queer family, if I have one, is two trans girls who are dating. I relate to them as my moms; they call me their son. They take care of me, especially this past summer. We got arrested together, protesting the police after the murder of George Floyd. We were handled very aggressively and held in precinct in the Bronx.
One of my moms got put into a boy’s cell, and I was on the other side with these girls. I remember there was a trans woman in my cell, though I wondered where I would place myself in terms of the girls’ and the boys’ cells. In that moment, I thought, What if I’m the wall?
This is about the destruction of prisons and policing, and the creation of new ways of relating to each other. So if I’m the wall, then I have to turn myself into a window, to make those divisions not exist. I have to be a portal, not a solid structure, because where I place myself in the binary is the dividing line itself. In order to do away with this binary culture, do I have to destroy myself – or is my existence a window?
Trans, Non-Binary People Are Living Acts of Resistance
I grew up with some relatively close connections to people in prison. My brother spent time in jail. I never liked the police. I didn’t like when they were called on my family. Yeah, neighbors not liking us, domestic abuse, random shit. I had bad feelings about the police. All of that, in some way, contributed to who I am.
I’m so grateful I found this prison reading group, where I was exposed to the abolitionist framework: building a new world, getting rid of policing. But lately I’ve been thinking I want to use the term abolition less, because it’s lost its specificity. I was reading the mission statement of Critical Resistance [national organization dedicated to ending “prison-industrial complex”] with one of my friends. Unlike most people I know, she was like, “That’s scary, we don’t know what they mean by ‘the world they want to see.’”
Different people have different visions… Honestly, I think it’s a kind of privilege to assume we’re all on the same page. To tie it back to my trans identity, in order to understand our path to collective liberation, you have to start from the self and work outward. I don’t think that looks the same for every single person.
Self-care and self-knowledge are revolutionary. I think trans, non-binary people are living acts of resistance. But any person, even a straight, cis, white guy – maybe he has a disability; maybe he’s poor – has been harmed somehow. I think there’s much more to gain from considering how we treat ourselves, as a form of resistance, than creating a hierarchy of oppression.
Here’s a tiny anecdote. Someone I know is a cis-man. He’s bisexual or gay; he works for a vaginal health company that makes homeopathy things. When I’m at the OB-GYN, I certainly experience dysphoria, but talking to him about medical issues of my vagina felt much better than talking to a woman. It’s the fact that I’m attracted to men but also identify as a boy. Sometimes identify, believe it or not, as a gay man.
What would I tell people to do when they meet someone new? It’s complicated; an individual, case-by-case situation. But it’s also simple. It comes down to respect. Respect for someone’s right to define who they are. That outweighs making someone uncomfortable about identity. Not prioritizing your own assumptions over someone else’s assertion of who they are.
In terms of protocol, I think the best thing when people are being introduced is to give pronouns in addition to your name. Don’t assume, “You’re transgender, so I know your pronouns.” Because someone could use they/them pronouns but not want to be identified as trans.
Thankfully, I have a community where I feel affirmed most of the time. Given my privilege as a mostly white-passing, able-bodied, mixed person with a U.S. citizenship – I don’t really need to be pushing an agenda. But I do owe it to my trans community to raise consciousness around what being trans can mean.
At the end of the day, I’m just one person and sometimes I think I get a little too mystified with my own story. It’s not really the cross I want to die on. But I also have grown to love telling people who I am. It’s fun. I just get nervous about containing it in something that makes sense – because I don’t think the way the world works makes sense. This is about being able to tell the truth – which is limited by existing frameworks and language.
Basically, how we consider and relate to ourselves and “the other” is up for a change.
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© susie day, 2021
Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), where Pedal is NYC Regional Organizer
Abolition Action, Pedal is founding member: