[Paleopsych] LRB: (Sontag) Terry Castle: Desperately Seeking Susan

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Terry Castle: 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 Janácek'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 Janácek'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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

    [14]Terry Castle lives in San Francisco and teaches at Stanford. She
    is the editor of The Literature of Lesbianism, and the author of Boss
    Ladies, Watch Out!, a book of essays, many from the LRB.


   14. http://www.lrb.co.uk/contribhome.php?get=cast01

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