How Susan Sontag shook the intellectual circles of her time with “Notes on Camp” – Les Inrocks

In “Sontag – His Life and Work”, a monstrous biography retracing the life and work of this intellectual figure – who deciphered the 20th century while marking it in depth -, Benjamin Moser dwells on the impact of one of his essays, published in 1964.

One evening in February 1965, Susan Sontag is dining at Elaine’s, an Upper East Side restaurant known to be frequented by VIPs. Moreover, she is there with Leonard Bernstein, Richard Avedon, William Styron, Sybil Burton and, icing on the cake, Jackie Kennedy. Susan Sontag was then only 32 years old.

She is neither a Hollywood star nor a socialite in sight. She is certainly very beautiful, and has already published a novel, The Benefactor, a little dated in style, but that’s not why she dines (and will dine regularly) with the ex-first lady, or that she was filmed by Andy Warhol, or that she just put the New York intelligentsia at their feet.

It is by the force of a single essay of a few pages, published in the Partisan Review in 1964 (before integrating the collection Against Interpretation in 1966). Entitled Notes on Camp, it is welcomed like a small revolutionary bomb, at a time when ideas, intellectual debates and quite simply the written word still had an incredible importance and reigned at the center of discussions.

One of the leading thinkers of modernity

Benjamin Moser – who received the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for this titanic biography – likes to make Susan Sontag a heroine, she who marked the era by deciphering it, often opposing it, refusing to be its dupe . If we are a little suspicious at the beginning of his almost obsequious poses, it is when he tells how Notes on Camp has made the writer a star that we understand her fascination.

Sontag is the one who is not afraid to capture a singular and pop aesthetic with intellectual tools, against the grain of the intellectual dictates of her time. Then came other landmark essays that would forever establish her as one of the leading thinkers of modernity – Illness as a metaphor, On the photo Where In front of the pain of others. And a few more novels (quite insignificant), political commitments, including his presence in a Sarajevo at war, love affairs with Lucinda Childs or Annie Leibovitz…

“Suddenly, the world, the intellectuals and those who were not, was agitated and spoke only of Camp”

But it is this moment of change that fascinates as much as it intrigues, this moment when a young university student becomes this individual spirit, has the nerve to think outside the box by appropriating subjects denigrated until then.

“Even before its publication, the text was already being debated. William Phillips, one of the magazine’s two editors [Partisan Review], had adored him. His partner, Philip Rahv, ‘didn’t know what to do with her’ – and didn’t know what to make of this essay either. From the moment the magazine hit newsstands, equally contrasting reactions were heard among readers. Susan suddenly finds herself in the pages of the Time. the New York TimesMagazine noted that ‘suddenly, the world, the intellectuals and those who were not, was agitated and spoke only of Camp.’

Finally discover the desire

An innovator, Susan Sontag is also perceived, like a Warhol who imposed the Camp in art, as an enemy of “true culture”, since she blurs any critical hierarchy between popular and low art and noble and high art. elitist – which will be the very basis of the artistic revolution of the sixties and today opens up to contemporary art. But it’s not just that that makes people talk. From the outset, in a still puritanical America, the young woman associates the Camp – the grotesque, the distraction, the kitsch, the diversion, the mixing of noble art and popular art, the exacerbated glamour, the reversal of genres – with homosexual taste.

In Paris, she reconnects with her ex-boyfriend, Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, who does not love her as much as she loves him.

What led Sontag to write this text that will change his life? Her own homosexuality, which she finally accepts and embraces in 1957-1958, settling for a few months in Paris, leaving her husband, Philip Rieff, and their son David in the United States. In Paris, she reconnects with her ex-boyfriend, Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, who does not love her as much as she loves her but opens the doors of the Parisian intelligentsia to her by taking her to Sartre – before leaving with Harriet’s ex, María Irene Fornés, an avant-garde Cuban playwright, with whom she finally discovers pleasure.

“The repercussions, the shock wave that ensued are just beginning to disperse, to irradiate my whole being, the very conception of who I am. This is the first time that I feel the real possibility of being a writer. The coming of orgasm is not salvation but, rather, the birth of my ego. I can’t write until I find my ego,” she writes in her diary. She divorced Philip in 1959 and finally became herself.

As a good American biographer, Benjamin Moser also traces Sontag’s critical gesture – working on images and metaphor, the Camp, in short everything that duplicates reality… – back to childhood. Even before his birth: he places at the opening of the book a photograph of Mildred, Susan’s own mother, then aged 13, with her mother, playing the role of two Armenian women at the time of the genocide – it is in fact of the filming, in Hollywood, in 1919, of the film souls at auction (also known as Armenia violated) – without knowing that a genocide will soon strike the Jews as well.

Born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933, Sontag would later write: “The photographs proclaim the innocence, the vulnerability of existences on the way to their own destruction.” This will be one of the bases of his work: thinking about the XXe century through its representations.

Sontag – His life and work by Benjamin Moser (Christian Bourgois), translated from English (United States) by Cécile Roche, 976 p., €35. In bookstores October 6.
Also, in paperback (Christian Bourgois/“Titres”), in bookstores the same day: Camp Style (unpublished) and In front of the pain of others (reissue) by Susan Sontag.

We want to thank the author of this write-up for this remarkable content

How Susan Sontag shook the intellectual circles of her time with “Notes on Camp” – Les Inrocks