Most of the latter particularly excoriated The New York Times for publishing 4,000 words without mentioning Sontag's 20-year relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz. When the newspaper was confronted by readers about the lacuna, Public Editor Dan Okrent lamely wrote that the paper had not been able to confirm one of the best known "open secrets" of New York's intellectual world. He also wrote that the same paper that couldn't publish enough about Monica Lewinski's blowjob given to Bill Clinton should not publish "intimate information about the private lives of people who wish to keep those lives private."
Gay sleuths pored through Sontag's work and found a few cases where Sontag did in fact mention her affairs with women, thus exposing the lie behind Okrent's first excuse. Nonetheless, the fact is that Sontag really was not forthcoming about her personal life. "I don't talk about my erotic life any more than I do my spiritual life," she said. "It is too complex and always ends up sounding so banal."
Critics have complained that, as a writer who promoted liberal notions of social justice, Sontag should have allied herself with the gay rights movement. They tediously psychologize her reticence: She was a product of her times - times in which even liberals were intolerant of homosexuality. Or, maybe she felt her credibility to speak on issues more important to her would have been compromised by the inevitable gay bashing.
For all their questioning, it's obvious that few of these critics have actually read any of Sontag's work. It's not very different from the criticism of Michel Foucault, whose work literally founded so-called queer theory but who remained close-lipped about his personal life and critical of the gay rights movement. If you read either thinker's work, the intellectual rationale for their relative silence becomes pretty obvious, even if you think they owed gay people political support.
For one thing, it's fairly clear that Sontag, like Foucault, had a radical attitude toward sexuality that many gay people find intolerable. Foucault is famous for the constructivist argument that the homosexual "identity" is a product of modernity's regulation of sex, whereas the Greeks did not associate sex with a member of one's own gender with an identity. So one of the passions of Foucault's private life was trying to find a way to break down the "rule" underlying sexual identity - namely genital penetration. He did that through S&M, which remaps the body's erotic sites in unconventional ways.
You can readily imagine the outrage that caused many gay people. By not subscribing to the notion that homosexuality is given with birth, Foucault, who died of AIDS, discounted one of the gay movement's fundamental arguments for equal rights. And, quite predictably, critics retaliated by dismissing his entire oeuvre on the basis of his kinky lifestyle. And people wonder why he was reticent to describe his personal life!
Sontag's case is a bit more confusing because, unlike Foucault, she did not write widely on the subject. However, the essay that launched her career in 1964, "Notes on Camp," did pertain partly to homosexuality. An aesthete if nothing, Sontag celebrated the camp attitude that some things become "good" just because they are so excessively "awful." She rightly associated that with a "gay sensibility."
Sontag's critics miss that she also made the point that this sensibility had been appropriated by the dominant culture, effectively making the "gay" voice disappear. One can take this in two directions. One argues that she advocated total assimilation and thus it makes sense that she would render her own sex life relatively invisible.
But I suspect, considering her post-modern orientation, that she was more in Foucault's mood. For one thing, calling her a lesbian is somewhat suspect, since she was also married and had affairs with men. Many gay people simply do not accept the notion of bisexuality. They see the bisexual as a gay person in hiding. And why would they not under current definitions? If having sex with a member of your own gender automatically gives you a gay identity, bisexuality makes no sense. So to "come out" fully would have invited the same kind of argument Foucault wished to avoid.
Sontag's point in "Notes on Camp" is partly that a camp sensibility displaces normal categories like "good" and "awful." By transcending these oppositional values in an aesthetic way, gay people modeled for themselves a way of socially bridging the gap between themselves and a hostile culture. But the same sensibility, taken far enough, also transcends all kinds of other categories - including sexual organization.
Thus, while it does not make political sense for Sontag to have remained so silent, it is certainly understandable from an ideological perspective, just as it is in Foucault's case.
email@example.comCliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.
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