Desperately Seeking Susan

Terry Castle

A few weeks ago I found myself scanning photographs of Susan Sontag into my screensaver file: a tiny head shot clipped from Newsweek; two that had appeared in the New York Times; another printed alongside Allan Gurganus’s obituary in the Advocate, a glossy American gay and lesbian mag usually devoted to pulchritudinous gym bunnies, gay sitcom stars and treatments for flesh-eating strep. It seemed the least I could do for the bedazzling, now-dead she-eminence. The most beautiful photo I downloaded was one that Peter Hujar took of her in the 1970s, around the time of I, Et Cetera. She’s wearing a thin grey turtleneck and lies on her back – arms up, head resting on her clasped hands and her gaze fixed impassively on something to the right of the frame. There’s a slightly pedantic quality to the whole thing which I like: very true to life. Every few hours now she floats up onscreen in this digitised format, supine, sleek and flat-chested.

No doubt hundreds (thousands?) of people knew Susan Sontag better than I did. For ten years ours was an on-again, off-again, semi-friendship, constricted by role-playing and shot through in the end with mutual irritation. Over the years I laboured to hide my growing disillusion, especially during my last ill-fated visit to New York, when she regaled me – for the umpteenth time – about the siege of Sarajevo, the falling bombs, and how the pitiful Joan Baez had been too terrified to come out of her hotel room. Sontag flapped her arms and shook her big mannish hair – inevitably described in the press as a ‘mane’ – contemptuously. That woman is a fake! She tried to fly back to California the next day! I was there for months. Through all of the bombardment, of course, Terry. Then she ruminated. Had I ever met Baez? Was she a secret lesbian? I confessed that I’d once waited in line behind the folk singer at my cash machine (Baez lives near Stanford) and had taken the opportunity to inspect the hairs on the back of her neck. Sontag, who sensed a rival, considered this non-event for a moment, but after further inquiries, was reassured that I, her forty-something slave girl from San Francisco, still preferred her to Ms Diamonds and Rust.

At its best, our relationship was rather like the one between Dame Edna and her feeble sidekick Madge – or possibly Stalin and Malenkov. Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer. Whenever she came to San Francisco, usually once or twice a year, I instantly became her female aide-de-camp: a one-woman posse, ready to drop anything at a phone call (including the classes I was supposed to be teaching at Stanford) and drive her around to various Tower record stores and dim sum restaurants. Most important, I became adept at clucking sympathetically at her constant kvetching: about the stupidity and philistinism of whatever local sap was paying for her lecture trip, how no one had yet appreciated the true worth of her novel The Volcano Lover, how you couldn’t find a decent dry cleaner in downtown San Francisco etc, etc.

True – from my point of view – it had all begun extraordinarily well. Even now I have to confess that, early on, Sontag gave me a couple of the sweetest (not to mention most amusing) moments of my adult life. The first came one grey magical morning at Stanford in 1996, when after several hours of slogging away on student papers, I opened a strange manila envelope that had come for me, with a New York return address. The contents – a brief fan letter about a piece I’d written on Charlotte Brontë and a flamboyantly inscribed paperback copy of her play, Alice in Bed (‘from Susan’) – made me dizzy with ecstasy. Having idolised Sontag literally for decades – I’d first read ‘Notes on Camp’ as an exceedingly arch nine-year-old – I felt as if Pallas Athene herself had suddenly materialised and offered me a cup of ambrosia. (O great Susan! Most august Goddess of Female Intellect!) I zoomed around, showing the note to various pals. To this day, when I replay it in my mind, I still get a weird toxic jolt of adolescent joy – like taking a big hit of Crazy Glue vapours out of a paper bag.

Things proceeded swiftly in our honeymoon phase. Sontag, it turned out, was coming to Stanford for a writer-in-residence stint that spring and the first morning after her arrival abruptly summoned me to take her out to breakfast. The alacrity with which I drove the forty miles down from San Francisco – trying not to get flustered but panting a bit at the wheel nonetheless – set the pattern of our days. We made the first of several madcap car trips around Palo Alto and the Stanford foothills. While I drove, often somewhat erratically, she would alternate between loud complaints – about her faculty club accommodation, the bad food at the Humanities Center, the ‘dreariness’ of my Stanford colleagues (‘Terry, don’t you loathe academics as much as I do? How can you abide it?’) – and her Considered Views on Everything (‘Yes, Terry, I do know all the lesser-known Handel operas. I told Andrew Porter he was right – they are the greatest of musical masterpieces’). I was rapt, like a hysterical spinster on her first visit to Bayreuth. Schwärmerei time for T-Ball.

The Sarajevo obsession revealed itself early on: in fact, inspired the great comic episode in this brief golden period. We were walking down University Avenue, Palo Alto’s twee, boutique-crammed main drag, on our way to a bookshop. Sontag was wearing her trademark intellectual-diva outfit: voluminous black top and black silky slacks, accessorised with a number of exotic, billowy scarves. These she constantly adjusted or flung back imperiously over one shoulder, stopping now and then to puff on a cigarette or expel a series of phlegmy coughs. (The famous Sontag ‘look’ always put me in mind of the stage direction in Blithe Spirit: ‘Enter Madame Arcati, wearing barbaric jewellery.’) Somewhat incongruously, she had completed her ensemble with a pair of pristine, startlingly white tennis shoes. These made her feet seem comically huge, like Bugs Bunny’s. I half-expected her to bounce several feet up and down in the air whenever she took a step, like one of those people who have shoes made of ‘Flubber’ in the old Fred McMurray movie.

She’d been telling me about the siege and how a Yugoslav woman she had taken shelter with had asked her for her autograph, even as bombs fell around them. She relished the woman’s obvious intelligence (‘Of course, Terry, she’d read The Volcano Lover, and like all Europeans, admired it tremendously’) and her own sangfroid. Then she stopped abruptly and asked, grim-faced, if I’d ever had to evade sniper fire. I said, no, unfortunately not. Lickety-split she was off – dashing in a feverish crouch from one boutique doorway to the next, white tennis shoes a blur, all the way down the street to Restoration Hardware and the Baskin-Robbins store. Five or six perplexed Palo Altans stopped to watch as she bobbed zanily in and out, ducking her head, pointing at imaginary gunmen on rooftops and gesticulating wildly at me to follow. No one, clearly, knew who she was, though several of them looked as if they thought they should know who she was.

In those early days, I felt like an intellectual autodidact facing the greatest challenge of her career: the Autodidact of all Autodidacts. The quizzing was relentless. Had I read Robert Walser? (Ooooh errrg blush, ahem, little cough, um: No, I’m ashamed to say . . .) Had I read Thomas Bernhard? (Yes! – Yes, I have! ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’! Yay! Yippee! Wow! Phew! – dodged the bullet that time!) It seemed, for a while at least, that I had yet to be contaminated by the shocking intellectual mediocrity surrounding me at Stanford U. This exemption from idiocy was due mainly, I think, to the fact that I could hold my own with her in the music-appreciation department. Trading CDs and recommendations – in a peculiar, masculine, trainspotting fashion – later became a part of our fragile bond. I scored a coup one time with some obscure Busoni arrangements she’d not heard of (though she assured me that ‘she had, of course, known the pianist’ – the late Paul Jacobs – ‘very well’); but I almost came a cropper when I confessed I had never listened to Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek. She gave me a surprised look, then explained, somewhat loftily, that I owed it to myself, as a ‘cultivated person’, to become acquainted with it. (‘I adore Janáček’s sound world.’) A recording of the opera appeared soon after in the mail – so I knew I’d been forgiven – but after listening to it once I couldn’t really get anywhere with it. (It tends to go on a bit – in the same somewhat exhausting Eastern European way I now associate with Sontag herself.) The discs are still on my shelf. Given their exalted provenance I can’t bear to unload them at the used CD shop in my neighbourhood.

And she also flirted – in a coquettish, discombobulating, yet unmistakable fashion. She told me she had read my book, The Apparitional Lesbian, and ‘agreed with me entirely’ about Henry James and The Bostonians. She made me describe at length how I’d met my then girlfriend. (‘She wrote you a letter! And you answered? Terry, I’m amazed! I get those letters all the time, but I would never answer one! Of course, Terry, I’m stunned!’) Though I was far too cowed to ask her directly about her own love life, she would reveal the occasional titbit from her legendary past, then give me a playful, almost girlish look. (‘Of course, Terry, everyone said Jeanne Moreau and I were lovers, but you know, we were just good friends.’) My apotheosis as tease-target came the night of her big speech in Kresge Auditorium. She had begun by reprimanding those in the audience who failed to consider her one of the ‘essential’ modern novelists, then read a seemingly interminable section of what was to become In America. (Has any other major literary figure written such an excruciatingly turgid book?) At the end, as the audience gave way to enormous, relieved clapping – thank God that’s over – she made a beeline towards me. Sideswiping the smiling president of Stanford and an eager throng of autograph-seekers, she elbowed her way towards me, enveloped me rakishly in her arms and said very loudly: ‘Terry, we’ve got to stop meeting like this.’ She seemed to think the line hilarious and chortled heartily. I felt at once exalted, dopey and mortified, like a plump teenage boy getting a hard-on in front of everybody.

Though otherwise respectful, Allan Gurganus (in the Advocate obit) takes Sontag to task for never having come out publicly as a lesbian: ‘My only wish about Sontag is that she had bothered to weather what the rest of us daily endure. The disparity between her professed fearlessness and her actual self-protective closetedness strikes a questioning footnote that is the one blot on her otherwise brilliant career.’

I have to say I could never figure her out on this touchy subject – though we did talk about it. Her usual line (indignant and aggrieved) was that she didn’t believe in ‘labels’ and that if anything she was bisexual. She raged about a married couple who were following her from city to city and would subsequently publish a tell-all biography of her in 2000. Horrifyingly enough, she’d learned, the despicable pair were planning to include photographs of her with various celebrated female companions. Obviously, both needed to be consigned to Dante’s Inferno, to roast in the flames in perpetuity with the Unbaptised Babies, Usurers and Makers of False Oaths. I struggled to keep a poker face during these rants, but couldn’t help thinking that Dante should have devised a whole circle specifically for such malefactors: the Outers of Sontag.

At other times she was less vehement, and would assume a dreamy, George Sand-in-the-1840s look. ‘I’ve loved men, Terry; I’ve loved women . . .’ she would begin, with a deep sigh. What did the sex of the person matter, after all? Think of Sand herself with Chopin and Marie Dorval. Or Tsvetaeva, perhaps, with Mandelstam and Sophia Parnok. In Paris, all the elegant married ladies had mistresses. And yet in some way I felt the subject of female homosexuality – and whether she owed the world a statement on it – was an unresolved one for her. Later in our friendship, the topic seemed to become an awkward obsession, especially as I came closer to finishing up an anthology of lesbian-themed literature I’d been working on for several years. She frequently suggested things she thought I should include: most interestingly, perhaps, her favourite steamy love scene from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt. As far as Sontag was concerned, Highsmith’s dykey little potboiler – published originally under a pseudonym – was right up there with Buddenbrooks and The Man without Qualities. Something in the story – about a gifted (yet insecure) young woman who moves to Manhattan in the early 1950s to become a theatre designer and ends up falling rapturously in love with a glamorous, outré older woman – must have once struck a chord: Sontag seemed to dote on it.

And invariably she would probe for sapphic gossip – sometimes about opera singers and pop stars, sometimes about other writers. Was it true what everyone said about Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne during the rehearsals for Norma? What about June Anderson? And Jessye Norman? Or Lucia Popp, for that matter? (‘Of course, Terry, the perfect Queen of the Night.’) Did I think Iris Murdoch and Brigid Brophy had had an affair? What was Adrienne Rich’s girlfriend like? When was somebody ever going to spill the beans on Eudora Welty and Elizabeth Bowen?

Was there some way, I wonder now, that she wanted me to absolve her? Was the fact that she never mentioned, on any of the occasions we talked, her equally prominent female companion – they lived in the same Manhattan building – a sign of grande dame sophistication or some sort of weird test of my character? (Actually I did hear her say her name once; when someone at an otherwise fairly staid farewell dinner gave Sontag a vulgar present at the end of her Stanford visit – a book of glossy photos of the campy 1950s pin-up, Bettie Page – she said: ‘I’ll have to show these to Annie.’)

I was never quite sure what she wanted. And besides, whatever it was, after a while she stopped wanting it. I visited her several times in New York City and even got invited to the London Terrace penthouse to see the famous book collection. (‘Of course, Terry, mine is the greatest library in private hands in the world.’) I tried not to gape at the Brice Mardens stacked up against the wall and enthused appropriately when she showed me prized items, such as Beckford’s own annotated copy of Vathek. We would go on little culture jaunts. Once she took me to the Strand bookstore (the clerk said, ‘Hi, Susan’ in enviably blasé tones); another time she invited me to a film festival she was curating at the Japan Society. But there were also little danger signals, ominous hints that she was tiring of me. One day in the Village, after having insisted on buying me a double-decker ice-cream cone, she suddenly vanished, even as I, tongue moronically extruded, was still licking away. I turned around in bewilderment and saw her black-clad form piling, without farewell, into a yellow cab.

And the last two times I saw her I managed to blow it – horrendously – both times. The first debacle occurred after one of the films at the Japan Society. I’d been hanging nervously around in the lobby, like a groupie, waiting for her: Sontag yanked me into a taxi with her and an art curator she knew named Klaus. (He was hip and bald and dressed in the sort of all-black outfit worn by the fictional German talk-show host, Dieter Sprocket, on the old Saturday Night Live.) With great excitement she explained she was taking me out for ‘a real New York evening’ – to a dinner party being hosted by Marina Abramovic, the performance artist, at her loft in Soho. Abramovic had recently been in the news for having lived for 12 days, stark naked, on an exposed wooden platform – fitted with shower and toilet – in the window of the Sean Kelly Gallery. She lived on whatever food spectators donated and never spoke during the entire 12 days. I guess it had all been pretty mesmerising: my friend Nancy happened to be there once when Abramovic took a shower; and one of Nancy’s friends hit the jackpot – she got to watch the artist have a bowel movement.

Abramovic – plus hunky sculptor boyfriend – lived in a huge, virtually empty loft, the sole furnishings being a dining table and chairs in the very centre of the room and a spindly old stereo from the 1960s. The space was probably a hundred feet on either side – ‘major real estate, of course’, as Sontag proudly explained to me. (She loved using Vanity Fair-ish clichés.) She and Abramovic smothered one another in hugs and kisses. I meanwhile blanched in fright: I’d just caught sight of two of the other guests, who, alarmingly enough, turned out to be Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Reed (O great rock god of my twenties) stood morosely by himself, humming, doing little dance steps and playing air guitar. Periodically he glared at everyone – including me – with apparent hatred. Anderson – elfin spikes of hair perfectly gelled – was chatting up an Italian man from the Guggenheim, the man’s trophy wife and the freakish-looking lead singer from the cult art-pop duo Fischerspooner. The last-mentioned had just come back from performing at the Pompidou Centre and wore booties and tights, a psychedelic shawl and a thing like a codpiece. He could have played Osric in a postmodern Hamlet. He was accompanied by a bruiser with a goatee – roadie or boyfriend, it wasn’t clear – and emitted girlish little squeals when our first course, a foul-smelling durian fruit just shipped in from Malaysia, made its way to the table.

Everyone crowded into their seats: despite the vast size of the room, we were an intime gathering. Yet it wouldn’t be quite right merely to say that everyone ignored me. As a non-artist and non-celebrity, I was so ‘not there’, it seemed – so cognitively unassimilable – I wasn’t even registered enough to be ignored. I sat at one end of the table like a piece of anti-matter. I didn’t exchange a word the whole night with Lou Reed, who sat kitty-corner across from me. He remained silent and surly. Everyone else gabbled happily on, however, about how they loved to trash hotels when they were younger and how incompetent everybody was at the Pompidou. ‘At my show I had to explain things to them a thousand times. They just don’t know how to do a major retrospective.’

True, Sontag tried briefly to call the group’s attention to me (with the soul-destroying words, ‘Terry is an English professor’); and Abramovic kindly gave me a little place card to write my name on. But otherwise I might as well not have been born. My one conversational gambit failed dismally: when I asked the man from the Guggenheim, to my right, what his books were about, he regarded me disdainfully and began, ‘I am famous for – ,’ then caught himself. He decided to be more circumspect – he was the ‘world’s leading expert on Arte Povera’ – but then turned his back on me for the next two hours. At one point I thought I saw Laurie Anderson, at the other end of the table, trying to get my attention: she was smiling sweetly in my direction, as if to undo my pathetic isolation. I smiled in gratitude in return and held up my little place card so she would at least know my name. Annoyed, she gestured back impatiently, with a sharp downward flick of her index finger: she wanted me to pass the wine bottle. I was reduced to a pair of disembodied hands – like the ones that come out of the walls and give people drinks in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.

Sontag gave up trying to include me and after a while seemed herself to recede curiously into the background. Maybe she was already starting to get sick again; she seemed oddly undone. Through much of the conversation (dominated by glammy Osric) she looked tired and bored, almost sleepy. She did not react when I finally decided to leave – on my own – just after coffee had been served. I thanked Marina Abramovic, who led me to the grungy metal staircase that went down to the street and back to the world of the Little People. Turning round one last time, I saw Sontag still slumped in her seat, as if she’d fallen into a trance, or somehow just caved in. She’d clearly forgotten all about me.

A fiasco, to be sure, but my final encounter with Sontag was possibly more disastrous: my Waterloo. I had come to New York with Blakey, and Sontag (to whom I wanted proudly to display her) said we could stop by her apartment one afternoon. When we arrived at the appointed time, clutching a large bouquet of orange roses, Sontag was nowhere to be seen. Her young male assistant, padding delicately around in his socks, showed us in, took the roses away, and whispered to us to wait in the living-room. We stood in puzzled silence. Half an hour later, somewhat blowsily, Sontag finally emerged from a back room. I introduced her to Blakey, and said rather nervously that I hoped we hadn’t woken her up from a nap. It was as if I had accused her of never having read Proust, or of watching soap operas all day. Her face instantly darkened and she snapped at me violently. Why on earth did I think she’d been having a nap? Didn’t I know she never had naps? Of course she wasn’t having a nap! She would never have a nap! Never in a million years! What a stupid remark to make! How had I gotten so stupid? A nap – for God’s sake!

She calmed down after a bit and became vaguely nice to Blakey – Blakey had just read her latest piece on photography in the New Yorker and was complimenting her effusively on it – but it was clear I couldn’t repair the damage I’d done. Indeed I made it worse. Sontag asked B. if she had read The Volcano Lover and started in on a monologue (one I’d heard before) about her literary reputation. It had ‘fallen’ slightly over the past decade, she allowed – foolishly, people had yet to grasp the greatness of her fiction – but of course it would rise again dramatically, ‘as soon as I am dead’. The same thing had happened, after all, to Virginia Woolf, and didn’t we agree Woolf was a great genius? In a weak-minded attempt at levity, I said: ‘Do you really think Orlando is a work of genius?’ She then exploded. ‘Of course not!’ she shouted, hands flailing and face white with rage. ‘Of course not! You don’t judge a writer by her worst work! You judge her by her best work!’ I reeled backwards as if I’d been struck; Blakey looked embarrassed. The assistant peeked out from another room to see what was going on. Sontag went on muttering for a while, then grimly said she ‘had to go’. With awkward thanks, we bundled ourselves hurriedly into the elevator and out onto West 24th Street – Blakey agog, me all nervy and smarting. When I sent Sontag a copy of my lesbian anthology a few months later, a thousand pages long and complete with juicy Highsmith excerpt, I knew she would never acknowledge it; nor did she.

Enfin – la fin. I heard she was dead as Bev and I were driving back from my mother’s after Christmas. Blakey called on the cellphone from Chicago to say she had just read about it online; it would be on the front page of the New York Times the next day. It was, but news of the Asian tsunami crowded it out. (The catty thing to say here would be that Sontag would have been annoyed at being upstaged; the honest thing to say is that she wouldn’t have been.) The Times did another piece a few days later – a somewhat dreary set of passages from her books, entitled: ‘No Hard Books, or Easy Deaths’. (An odd title: her death wasn’t easy, but she was all about hard books.) And in the weeks since, the New Yorker, New York Review of Books and various other highbrow mags have kicked in with the predictable tributes.

But I’ve had the feeling the real reckoning has yet to begin. The reaction, to my mind, has been a bit perfunctory and stilted. A good part of her characteristic ‘effect’ – what one might call her novelistic charm – has not yet been put into words. Among other things, Sontag was a great comic character: Dickens or Flaubert or James would have had a field day with her. The carefully cultivated moral seriousness – strenuousness might be a better word – co-existed with a fantastical, Mrs Jellyby-like absurdity. Sontag’s complicated and charismatic sexuality was part of this comic side of her life. The high-mindedness, the high-handedness, commingled with a love of gossip, drollery and seductive acting out – and, when she was in a benign and unthreatened mood, a fair amount of ironic self-knowledge.

I think she was fully conscious of – and took great pride and pleasure in – the erotic spell she exerted over other women. I would be curious to know how men found her in this regard; the few times I saw her with men around, they seemed to relate to her as a kind of intellectually supercharged eunuch. The famed ‘Natalie Wood’ looks of her early years notwithstanding, she seemed uninterested in being an object of heterosexual desire, and males responded accordingly. It was not the same with women – and least of all with her lesbian fans. Among the susceptible, she never lost her sexual majesty. She was quite fabulously butch – perhaps the Butchest One of All. She knew it and basked in it, like a big lady she-cat in the sun.

Perhaps at some point there will be, too, a better and less routine accounting of her extraordinary cultural significance. Granted, Great Man (or Great Woman) theories of history have been out of fashion for some time now. No single person, it’s usually argued, has that much effect on how things eventually turn out. Yet it is hard for me to think about the history of modern feminism, say – especially as it evolved in the United States in the 1970s – without Sontag in the absolutely central, catalytic role. Simone de Beauvoir was floating around too, of course, but for intellectually ambitious American women of my generation, women born in the 1940s and 1950s, she seemed both culturally unfamiliar and emotionally removed. Sontag, on the contrary, was there: on one’s own college campus, lecturing on Barthes or Canetti or Benjamin or Tsvetaeva or Leni Riefenstahl. (And who were they? One pretended to know, then scuttled around to find out.) She was our very own Great Man. If there was ever going to be a Smart Woman Team then Sontag would have to be both Captain and Most Valuable Player. She was the one already out there doing the job, even as we were labouring painfully to get up off the floor and match wits with her.

In my own case, Sontag’s death brings with it mixed emotions. God, she could be insulting to people. At the end – as I enjoy blubbering to friends – she was weally weally mean to me! But her death also leaves me now with a profound sense of imploding fantasies – of huge convulsions in the underground psychic plates. Not once, unfortunately, on any of her California trips, did Sontag ever come to my house, though I often sat around scheming how to get her to accept such an invitation. If only she would come, I thought, I would be truly happy. It’s hard to admit how long – and how abjectly, like a Victorian monomaniac – I carried this fantasy around. (It long antedated my actual meeting with her.) It is still quite palpable in the rooms in which I spend most of my time. Just about every book, every picture, every object in my living-room, for example – I now see all too plainly – has been placed there strategically in the hope of capturing her attention, of pleasing her mind and heart, of winning her love, esteem, intellectual respect etc etc. It’s all baited and set up: a room-sized Venus Fly-Trap, courtesy of T-Ball/ Narcissism Productions.

There are her books of course: the vintage paperbacks of Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, Under the Sign of Saturn, the quite-wonderful-despite-what-everybody-says The Volcano Lover. There’s Aids and Its Metaphors, On Photography, Where the Stress Falls. The now valedictory Regarding the Pain of Others. And then there are some of my own productions, to remind her, passive-aggressively, I guess, that she’s not the only damned person who writes. (Caveat lector: Lilliputian on the rampage!) But then there’s heaps of other stuff sitting around, I’m embarrassed to say, the sole purpose of which is – was – to impress her. A pile of ‘tasteful’ art books: Popova, The History of Japanese Photography, Cy Twombly, Nadar, Bronzino, Hannah Hoch, Jeff Wall, Piranesi, Sol LeWitt and Jasper Johns, the big Bellocq volume (with her introduction). My 1930s picture of Lucienne Boyer. My Valentine Hugo photo of Breton and Aragon. The crammed CD cabinet – with the six different versions of Pelléas. (Will I really listen to any of them all the way through again before I die?) My little 19th-century optical toy from Paris: you crank a tiny lever and see a clown head, painted on glass, change expressions as if by magic.

Yet now the longed-for visitor – or victim – is never going to arrive. Who will come in her place? At the moment it’s hard to imagine anyone ever possessing the same symbolic weight, the same adamantine hardness, or having the same casual imperial hold over such a large chunk of my brain. I am starting to think in any case that she was part of a certain neural development that, purely physiologically speaking, can never be repeated. All those years ago one evolved a hallucination about what mental life could be and she was it. She’s still in there, enfolded somehow in the deepest layers of the grey matter. Yes: Susan Sontag was sibylline and hokey and often a great bore. She was a troubled and brilliant American and never as good a friend as I wanted her to be. But now the lady’s kicked it and I’m trying to keep one of the big lessons in view: judge her by her best work, not her worst.