Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter
Talking about American Women Writers

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I haven't posted for a long while--have been traveling around to give talks and lectures. In early March, I chaired a panel on "Susan Sontag as a Female Intellectual" at a conference on Sontag at CUNY Graduate Center.  In  fall  2010,  the Louis Vuitton show in Paris  featured animal motifs, neon, sequins, lame, crystals, and chinoiserie. As designer Marc Jacobs explained: "It‘s camp—it’s inspired by  Susan Sontag’s 'Notes on Camp,' which even prompted the music. “  The first model on the runway even wore a “Sontagesque zebra stripe in her hair.”I don’t believe there’s such a thing as good taste or bad taste,” said Jacobs. “I’d rather be fun and decadent, camp and glamorous.”
            It’s startling to imagine Sontag as madcap fashion icon, given her stated distaste for make-up or handbags, and her stern notes to herself in her journal to wash her hair every 10 days whether it needed it or not.   But the fate of the fmeale intellectual icon is hard to predict.  It's interesting to compare Sontag with Jacques Derrida. The deaths of  Derrida,  age 74,  on October 8, 2004 and Susan Sontag,  age 71, on  December 27, 2004,  were seen by many as  symbolic of the death of the intellectual in our time. Derrida and Sontag had much in common. Both were committed to a  rigorous intellectual tradition; both were  secular Jews; both were interested in literature, culture, and politics as well as philosophy;  both wrote about European rather than American or British thinkers; both became celebrities and  icons of the intellectual in ads, movies, documentaries, even rock songs;  both were buried in Paris..
            But despite these similarities, Sontag and Derrida occupied very different places in our culture, and these differences were reflected in the responses to their deaths as well as in their lives. Sontag always stressed her private persona. As she told New York Times critic Richard Bernstein in 1989. "I don't appear on television. I don't write for any newspaper or magazine regularly. I'm not a journalist. I'm not a critic. I'm not a university teacher.. I don't speak out on most public issues…My life is entirely private."   Her  funeral in Montparnasse in January was private too, and attended by famous friends including Salman Rushdie, Isabelle Huppert, and Ian McEwan.  But in the United States and Europe, public and academic tributes to Sontag have been muted, even mixed, and limited; and have come primarily from feminists and women writers, including Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Andrea Dworkin, and Lisa Jardine.   The names of women philosophers, such as Judith Butler, Helene Cixous, or Julia Kristeva,  are strikingly absent from the memorialists of the woman Camille Paglia called “Sontag, bloody Sontag.”. 
          . Of course Derrida had his detractors too, but the responses to his death were very public and official. Jacques Chirac issued a statement about the nation’s loss.  Derrida’s academic disciples, admirers, and followers have rallied to commemorate him in a variety of public and institutional ways.  In protest against what they saw as the disrespectful  tone of the New York Times obituary, American academics  set up a website of testimonials  which now has thousands of signatures. Within the American university world alone, there have been special issues of journals, lecture series, and institutes devoted to Derrida’s work.   Not so for Sontag.
            Why the differences in public attention and honor? In our time, if not in John Stuart Mills’s, the  intellectual role is  also a career choice, and  a game, and those who play it make choices that determine the power  of their ideas to survive.  Sontag chose to work outside the  academy or the press, a decision that perhaps gave her more intellectual freedom, but  also cost her  institutional power. Derrida, in contrast, maintained lifelong affiliations with a number of academic institutions, including  the Sorbonne,  the Ecole Normale SupĂ©rieure, Johns Hopkins, Yale, NYU, and the University of California at Irvine. His willingness to recommend students and endorse colleagues placed him in an intricate network of patronage and discipleship.  Sontag rarely endorsed anyone in the academy, and those she did endorse, such as Terry Castle and Elaine Scarry, have not been active in hre commemoration.
Furthermore, with deconstruction, Derrida invented a term and founded  a school—an indispensable move for any intellectual desiring influence--while Sontag was celebrated for the range and variety of her interests. Even in gay studies, where her pioneering defense of “camp” and her writing about AIDS might have established her as a key figure, her reticence about her personal life and her absence from the conference and lecture circuit kept her from iconic status.
            Moreover, male and female intellectuals are on different  tracks, and even today women pay a higher price for choosing the life of the mind. Few women of our time were  stronger candidates for that life than Susan Sontag, but even she recognized early on  the contradictions and pressures  of her position. In 1972, along with  Simone de Beauvoir, Sontag  participated in a questionnaire about intellectual women set by the Spanish literary quarterly Libre. "Every generation produces a few women of genius (or at least of irrepressible eccentricity),” she wrote, ”who win special status for themselves. But the historical visibility of ... that small band is understood to follow precisely from their possessing qualities that women do not normally have.”
Married young and the mother of a son, Sontag  felt the need to leave her marriage in order to pursue her career. As she told Jonathan Cott, "I did have the idea that I'd like to have several lives, and it's very hard to have several lives and then have a husband... somewhere along the line, one has to choose between the Life and the Project." Sontag never forgot that she had faced the struggles of a single parent: "I was divorced when my child was five years old and I raised him myself. I had all kinds of responsibilities that a man would not have. I had to take care of the apartment, raise the child, put the shoes on him in the morning, take the laundry and so on. You have to be stronger than a man."
 Derrida, meanwhile, married a psychoanalyst, had two sons and a comfortable life in the Paris suburbs despite roaming the world as a lecturer, celebrity, and academic icon.. When he had an affair with the feminist philosopher  Sylviane Agacinski  and she became pregnant, he did not wish to maintain two households and so left her to raise their son as a single parent.  When she married the socialist politician Lionel Jospin, Derrida supported Jospin’s successful mayoral campaign—all very civilized but without Sontag’s burdens..
            Sontag's life and values were  permanently changed in 1975 when  she was hospitalized with breast cancer and told that she had a 10% chance of living two years.  She responded to the news of her cancer with fierce intelligence and determination to survive, but she had no medical insurance; friends raised money to pay for her treatment. The experience of illness led to her most original and ground-breaking book, Illness as Metaphor and its sequel, AIDS and Its Metaphors.  Facing the prospect of death also freed Sontag to break away from the political shibboleths of the intellectual Left. In  1982, she outraged many  by declaring at a public meeting  that the American Left had underestimated the evil of Communism. Her  declaration of political independence shocked her former friends, and they retaliated with insults. In Elizabeth Hardwick's view, Sontag was punished because Americans resented outspoken intellectual women. 
            Sontag herself declared that  "writing well is the best revenge," and went on to
develop her interests.in fiction and drama, and to move away from the essay form. This shift was not only a personal struggle for her-- "I have to come out of the closet of the third person and speak in a more direct way," she said – but  a break with the rules of the intellectual game, and a step off the intellectual’s career path.  She did not connect this shift in her aims with the  experience of women intellectuals in the past, from Wollstonecraft and Fuller on, who had yearned to write fiction and deal with passionate feeling, but had forced themselves to adapt to masculine standards of intellectual style. While Sontag was learning to write more directly, Derrida was being encouraged to write ever more obscurely. While she was attempting to speak to wider reading audience, his work –and the professional norm—became ever more elitist.
I think that Sontag’s writing during this period,  especially the short memoir, “Pilgrimage,” she wrote for the New Yorker, her prize-winning short story  about AIDS, “The Way We Live Now,” and her still-neglected play “Alice in Bed (1990),”  will outlive  her essays on writers like Calvino and Barthes. Alice in Bed  is Sontag’s most feminist and personal work, the first to locate itself  in the traditions of women's writing as well as men’s. Influenced by  Caryl Churchill, as well as  Alice James, Margaret Fuller,  Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf,  the play, as Sontag explained, is about "the all too common reality of a woman who does not know what to do with her genius, her originality, her aggressiveness, and therefore becomes a career invalid." More generally, it is a play about "the grief and anger of women", which she claims "to have been preparing to write all my life." Predictably, this work did not get her academic acclaim or attract disciples.
            In other ways too, Sontag  was beginning to assert herself as a professional, and to make demands for herself. In 1989, a fire destroyed  her apartment, and Sontag did not have enough money to move into a hotel.. At the age of fifty-six, she decided that she had  the right to  financial security and that it was not “corrupt” to want some of the rewards of her brilliance. She acquired her first literary agent; she received a  MacArthur Fellowship for $340,000, which allowed her to buy a sunny co-op. "I ask myself all the time," Sontag said, "why did it take me so long?"
It took her so long because she was trying to live a life of intellectual rigour, anti-materialism, and creative independence that she had learned from books, one that men of her generation did not aspire to or attempt. In a sense, Sontag was punishing herself for being an intellectual woman, doing it all the hard way, claiming that she had never experienced any disadvantage because of her sex.. And yet, she was regularly mocked  during her lifetime as a woman, whether   “the Natalie Wood of American avant-garde,” or the intellectual groupie “Susie Creamcheese,” or the “Dark Lady” or  “Feminist Fatale.” During her life, Irving Howe insultingly classed her with lowbrow women’s culture art, calling her “a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from her grandmother’s patches.”  After her death, Roger Kimball  called her work “the simulacra of arguments and the mood or emotion of insights.”  Sontag herself once  self-mockingly told a student who inquired  “What are you most noted for?” that it was “the white streak in my black hair.”
Derrida too had a shock of strikingly silver hair, but he was immune from such attacks on his vanity or sexuality, and  he did not have to contend with  the inner sense that to display genius was in some way to be unmanned, or that he had to live his life in a way that daily proclaimed his deep seriousness and commitment to high culture. . Like his Algerian fellow countryman Camus, he cherished the dream of being a professional footballer; he unashamedly adored  television from news to soap opera, while Sontag, despite her reputation as a champion of popular culture, refused ever to own a TV set, let alone an IT bag.
No doubt future generations of intellectuals are now being born and coming along to take the places of those who have passed. To prosper, they would do well to follow three rules: 1) Found a school. 2) Affiliate with a powerful institution 3) If possible, be French. And for women, perhaps the third of these is the most important.  For even in the 21st century, the French seem to be the only people who can imagine a female genius who is not abnormal as a woman.  


  1. Dear, Elaine Showalter, my name is Natalia, I live in Mexico, and though it has been hard for me to find your books I loved everything I read about you. Right now I´am working on my thesis about why does women in Mexico aren't successful writers, and I was wondering if I could make you an interview. I could´t find your email anywhere sorry I write you here. Your text is great, Susan Sontag was huge. Thank you.

  2. I was trying to find Camille Paglia's criticisms of Sontag's lack of involvement in the feminist movement but this came up first and I have to say I enjoyed your essay a lot.