Annotated Bibliography: Sontag’s aphorisms, public and private

By: Iris Cushing

I am using this annotated bibliography assignment as a way to gather materials for a paper I’m working on for our Postwar Women Writers and Intellectuals course. The paper looks at two texts of Susan Sontag’s: her iconic collection of essays, Against Interpretation, published in 1966 (and consisting of writing she’d been making for the previous seven years); and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963, edited by her son David Rieff. I’d like to take a look at what Sontag was writing privately in the years she was writing Against Interpretation,  and how the formation of her signature aphoristic style emerged in her journals and in her responses to the literature and art she was exposed to at that time. Specifically, I would like to trace the influence of French cinema, theory and philosophy on the development of Sontag’s unique style of writing and thinking. I am approaching this bibliography as an opportunity to gather a wide swath of materials, the study of which will certainly lead to a narrower scope in terms of the what information I’ll use. ~Iris

Berman, Jeffrey. Dying in Character: Memoirs on the End of Life. Amherst: University of Massachussets Press, 2013. Print.

Jeffrey Berman is a Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University of Albany, and has authored numerous books around the themes of grief and loss as they relate to literary figures. Chapter 5 of this book is titled  “I Have Never Been Tempted to Write about my own life”: Susan Sontag, David Rieff, and Swimming in A Sea of Death. The title referred to here is Sontag’s son’s memoir about his mother’s 2004 death from cancer. The chapter deals with Sontag’s extreme (and well-known) reticence about exposing any details of her private life, which Reiff had to face in his decision to publish Reborn and the subsequent volume of Sontag’s journals, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. Since Reiff was small child being raised by Sontag at the time she was writing Against Interpretation, his perspectives on his mother’s life will be useful to me. I am interested in Berman’s analysis of Reiff and Sontag’s relationship in the context of other literary life writing by critics and theorists, such as Roland Barthes and Edward Said.

Ching, Barbara, and Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer A, eds. Scandal of Susan Sontag. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 October 2014.

Barbara Ching, a contemporary culture scholar and associate professor of English at the Univerisity of Memphis, co-edited this book of essays on Sontag with Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor, an associate professor of women’s studies and English at Penn State University. This book, published at exactly the same time as Sontag’s journals (October 2009), compiles critical essays by scholars on Sontag’s life, writings and greater influences. Both Terry Castle’s essay on “Notes on Camp” and Jay Prosser’s essay on Against Interpretation and the Illness books (Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors) address questions of Sontag as a public intellectual in the early 1960s; I am interested in comparing those analyses of Sontag with what emerges in her private writing. Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay in the book takes up her aphoristic writing style and its evolution over the course of her writing career.

Kaplan, Alice Yeager. Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis. Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press, 2012. Print.

In this book, Alice Yeager Kaplan, the John M. Musser Professor of French and chair of the Department of French at Yale University, takes up three iconic American women’s experiences living in Paris in the Sixties. As far as Sontag is concerned, this book covers the time spent in Paris, as she was doing graduate work in Philosophy at Oxford,  that she writes about in Reborn; Paris was, naturally, the site of much of Sontag’s discovery of the French theory, literature and cinema that she writes about in Against Interpretation. I am especially interested in Kaplan’s analysis of the perspective that Paris offered Sontag on New York (and America in general).

Lopate, Phillip. Notes on Sontag. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. Print.

This book, by well-known critic, essayist, writer (and fellow public intellectual) Phillip Lopate, uses both Lopate’s personal encounters with Sontag and an in-depth biographical study to examine Sontag’s ongoing influence on cultural criticism since the 1960s. I am interested in Lopate’s analysis of Sontag’s “taste for aphorism” in her writing, as well as his anecdotes about meeting her in the time she was writing Against Interpretation (and keeping the journals published as Reborn). I am also interested in comparing Lopate’s thoughts on Sontag as a person with those of Sigrid Nunez and David Rieff.

Muriel, ou le Temps d’un retour. Dir. Alan Resnais. Perf. Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Kerien, Nita Klein. Argos Films/Arte France Développement, 1963. Film.

This film, directed by French New Wave/Left Bank director Alan Resnais, is one of the numerous films that Sontag–a notorious Francophile–wrote about in Against Interpretation. It was Resnais’ third film, after Hiroshima, Mon Amour and L’Année dernière à Marienbad; Sontag cites it as Resnais’ most difficult and complex in terms of its attempt to combine what his previous films had done independently:  “deal with substantive issues” (the Algerian war among them) as well as “attempt to project a purely abstract drama.” This film in its original language will be useful to my project, as it is something that Sontag watched and wrote about in her journal when it was released in 1963. The ambivalence she expresses about it publicly is characteristic of her rhetorical style.

Nunez, Sigrid. Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. New York : Atlas & Co. : Distributed to the trade by W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

This memoir by novelist and professor Sigrid Nunez documents the years she lived with Susan Sontag and her son, David Rieff, whom Nunez was dating. I am interested in Nunez’s take on Sontag as a friend and mentor, as well as how Sontag negotiated the line between public and private writing and thought in the years following the publication of Against Interpretation.

Reiff, David. Swimming in A Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008. Print.

David Rieff, Susan Sontag’s only child, is a political policy analyst, Senior Fellow at the New School for Social Research’s World Policy Institute, and a Fellow at NYU’s New York Institute for the Humanities.

Sontag held on to her life until its very end; her tenacity in the face of intense physical suffering (as a result of the blood cancer which led to her death) resonates with her lifelong interest in the various phenomenologies of pain, illness, atrocity, and human rights. I am interested in Rieff’s memoir about her life (and death) primarily because of its portrayal of her encounters with the moral and ethical questions that would guide her thinking and writing at the time she was making Against Interpretation. I am also interested in Rieff’s contentious decision to publish Reborn and As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh after Sontag’s death, considering how notoriously private of a person she was.

Rush, Fred. Review of Notes on Sontag by Phillip Lopate and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Vol. 68 No. 2 Spring 2010. Print.

This article by Fred Rush, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, reviews both Lopate’s memoir about Sontag and Sontag’s journals themselves. It provides a useful comparison between writing about Sontag as a near-mythic public figure and a private, complicated person.

Solway, David. Random Walks: Essays in Elective Criticism. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997. Print.

David Solway is a poet, essayist and professor of English at John Abbot College. In this book’s chapter on Sontag, “Never on Sontag,”  Solway takes up the titular essay in Against Interpretation and examines the rhetorical relationship between the essay’s discrete sections, arriving at the conclusion that the essay’s “intended ideological payload” is “erotics replacing hermaneutics.” I think Solway’s take on Sontag’s use of aphoristic language could contribute meaningfully to my examination of Sontag’s use of aphorism in her “public” published prose.

Sontag, Susan. As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Print.

This is the second edition of Sontag’s journals, tracing the years that include the publication of Against Interpretation and follow the publication of her first novel, The Benefactor. This book is Sontag’s notation of day-to-day life as her lifelong dream of becoming a full-time writer–a dream articulated in great detail in Reborn–was being realized.

Vivre sa vie : film en douze tableaux. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Anna Karina and Sady Rebbot. Panthéon Distribution, 1962. Film.

This film, a lesser-known work by French New Wave Director Jean-Luc Godard, was another that Sontag wrote about in Against Interpretation, calling it “one of the most extraordinary, beautiful, and original works of art that I know of.” This was another film that made a significant impact on her in the time span covered in Reborn. In Against Interpretation, she makes use of a series of numbered propositions to create her critique of Godard’s film, something she does at other points in the book (such as in “Notes on Camp”) and in other forms in her journals. Like Resnais’ Muriel, seeing this film in its original language will give me a sense of the experience Sontag was having at the time she was formulating her style and identity as a writer.