“Do stuff. be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration's shove or society's kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It's all about paying attention. attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. stay eager.”
Yes, it's almost cliche for young queer women who like art theory and cultural critique to claim allegiance to Sontag. Whatever, I'm a cliche, I can admit it. Her works are varied in scope and quality, but I enjoy her essays (for the most part) because they aren't exactly inviting, but aren't condescending. They're well argued, but not in a pontificating way. They've left their mark on our culture and it's understanding of itself, post-WWII and beyond.
It's been said that one can't really separate Sontag's writing style from her personal style- she was an "intellectual rock star" and she played the part well. And while I'd read some of her essays, I didn't quite know her or her story.
'Regarding Susan Sontag' is the new documentary reflecting on Sontag's life and legacy (just released on HBO Go this week.) While it doesn't go too deeply into her writings and other works, it does present a mesmerizing look into her personal life. The director interviewed like, four of her ex-girlfriends, which while posthumously mortifying, I'm sure, does make for juicy and intimate discussion. It also looks at her journals and private writings, which reveal certain struggles and insecurities that truly add a human dimension to the "mental behemoth" image of Sontag. Her old lovers and friends, while speaking highly and warmly of their Susan, were also quite frank with her mean streaks. More than one ex said she was not a sensitive person, and beyond being controlling in relationships, was often cruel. But they also agreed that she was an old school intellectual in certain ways, who held everything and everyone to high standards. The most impossibly high standards were the ones she held herself to.
Sontag has been hailed as America's last great intellectual, a title she would have utterly adored, though secretly questioned. And that duality, the brazen sharp wit and powerful mind combined with the struggling confidence and lonely soul, was carefully and lovingly brought to light in the film. It's also a sentiment I relate to- not the intellectual part, the questioning. It's difficult to read great works and feel inspired to write something for yourself, only to sit back and know "But it's not as good as ____." Not that I would ever consider myself capable of literary fame, but no matter what I write, there's always a feeling of embarrassment. It's just not original, or insightful, or good.
There's a moment towards the end of the film that really stuck with me. An old friend revealed that Sontag felt disappointed in herself at the end of her life. That she believed her younger self wouldn't have been satisfied with what she accomplished. "She feared extinction." While I can't relate to the desire to have my image carved in marble and put in the halls of genius, I do have a deep fear of not accomplishing what I want to in the little time I have. Perhaps all people driven to create share that fear.
At any rate, Sontag is still widely known today, even if not at the caliber she had hoped to achieve. Hey, at least she had a touching, insightful, romantic, and stirring documentary made about her. I feel it gave me the other side of her story, as best it could, and made me appreciate her legacy all the more. It is a very beautiful film, with poetic audio and visuals. Highly recommended to all Sontag fans (cliched or not), and even the curious who are unfamiliar with this American icon.