‘On Women’ collects Susan Sontag’s crisp, cutting work about feminism

The nice French author Colette as soon as speculated that “certain highly complex human beings” are marked by their “mental hermaphroditism.” The fabled essayist Susan Sontag was amongst them. She was a girl, however she dressed within the glamorously genderless garb of an mental celeb and wrote on the weighty subjects normally reserved for her male friends. In her journals, she mused that “to be an intellectual is to be attached to the inherent value of plurality.”

At her finest, Sontag refused to truncate herself within the curiosity of legibility or to simplify her considering within the service of simple solutions. At her worst, she was dodgy and noncommittal. For the period of her romance with the photographer Annie Leibovitz, which lasted from 1989 till Sontag’s death in 2004, she by no means publicly recognized as a lesbian. An acquaintance, the formidable critic Terry Castle, recollects that Sontag’s “usual line (indignant and aggrieved) was that she didn’t believe in ‘labels.’” It is simple to see why this cliché may need rankled queer activists — and why “labels” would possibly belong in scornful scare quotes. But whether or not Sontag’s silence was misguided as a matter of political technique, it was half and parcel of her earnest dedication to androgyny as a better type of life.

“The aim of struggle should not be to protect the differences between the two sexes but to undermine them,” she writes in “On Women,” an indispensable new quantity edited by her son, David Rieff. The seven reflections on feminism that make up the e book — a few of them essays, some interviews — had been revealed in numerous venues within the early Seventies, however most have since turn out to be troublesome to trace down. The solely model of “The Double Standard of Aging” that I may discover after I searched a number of years in the past was a smudgy scan on an internet site of doubtful legality. Sontag is finest often called a meticulous critic of excessive tradition, however there’s a purpose I used to be so determined for a duplicate of her bracing meditation on the “humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification” that ladies endure as they age. Her writing on modernist novels and foreign-language movie is erudite, difficult and infrequently ponderous; her writing on girls is crisp and cutting. Heretically, I desire the latter.

In “On Women,” Sontag is worried with each limiting and increasing the scope of feminism. Limiting, as a result of she opposes the motion’s incursion into each side of dialogue. “Fascinating Fascism,” a probing appraisal of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, can be a little bit of an outlier within the e book, if not for the exchange with the poet and feminist theorist Adrienne Rich that it so famously prompted. In a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books, the place the piece first appeared in 1975, Rich faulted Sontag for neglecting to emphasise the connection between fascism and patriarchy. “One is not looking for a ‘line’ of propaganda or a ‘correct’ position,” she wrote, as an unconvincing prelude to doing simply that. Sontag’s reply is satisfying within the method of neatly organized cabinets, effectively packed suitcases and different emblems of exactitude. In response to Rich’s query as to how the “same mind” may have produced each “Fascinating Fascism” and extra explicitly feminist writings, she replied: “Easy. By addressing itself to a different problem, with the intention of making a different point.” In a 1975 interview within the literary journal Salmagundi, additionally included in “On Women,” she clarified:

I’d prefer to see a couple of platoons of intellectuals who’re additionally feminists doing their bit within the struggle in opposition to misogyny in their very own means, letting the feminist implications be residual or implicit of their work, with out risking being charged by their sisters with desertion. I don’t like social gathering traces. They make for mental monotony and dangerous prose.

But Sontag’s perception that feminism was not the be all and finish all of mental life didn’t imply she was a tepid ally. In some of the exhilarating passages in “On Women,” she roars:

Women ought to foyer, exhibit, march. They ought to take karate classes. They ought to whistle at males within the streets, raid magnificence parlors, picket toy producers who produce sexist toys, convert in sizable numbers to militant lesbianism, function their very own free psychiatric and abortion clinics, present feminist divorce counseling, set up make-up withdrawal facilities, undertake their moms’ household names as their final names, deface billboard promoting that insults girls, disrupt public occasions by singing in honor of the docile wives of male celebrities and politicians, accumulate pledges to resign alimony and laughing, convey lawsuits for defamation in opposition to the mass-circulation ‘women’s magazines,’ conduct phone harassment campaigns in opposition to male psychiatrists who’ve sexual relations with their girls sufferers, arrange magnificence contests for males, put up feminist candidates for all public workplaces.

Feminism will not be the one applicable matter of dialog, or the reply to each query, however it should nonetheless be imported into even probably the most intimate sanctums. “Liberal” feminism, which operates on the degree of public coverage, is powerless in opposition to the sexism that’s “expressed on all levels of human interchange, not just in laws but in the detail of everyday life.” Sexism of this type prevails “in forms of politeness and in the conventions (clothes, gestures, etc.) which polarize sexual identity, and in the flow of images (in art, news, and advertising) which perpetuate sexist stereotypes.” It seeps, like a fuel, into each crevice of consciousness.

One set of norms that significantly nervous Sontag — and to which she devoted three of the essays in “On Women” — issues magnificence, which is “women’s business in this society” in addition to “the theater of their enslavement.” The indignity of getting old in a tradition that fetishizes feminine youth just isn’t unrelated to class, as Sontag acknowledges. But even when financial justice may equalize entry to the lotions and poultices presupposed to reverse the creep of the years, it couldn’t overturn the widespread conviction that “only one standard of female beauty is sanctioned: the girl.

Another downside that is still impervious to authorized and financial options entails the fraught inflow of ladies into the workforce. Sontag maintained that the crux of the problem was not solely that ladies didn’t have the means to assist themselves (and thereby escape their abusive husbands), but in addition that they tended to flock to stereotypically female occupations. “The colonialized status of women is confirmed and indeed strengthened by the sexist division of labor,” by girls’s ghettoization in jobs which are “public transcriptions of the servicing and nurturing roles that women have in family life.” Work should subsequently turn out to be “fully desegregated sexually.”

It is a delight to look at such an agile thoughts slicing by way of the flab of lazy considering. To those that declare that ladies have completely different natures than males, Sontag replies succinctly: “The argument from ‘nature’ is self-confirming. Individual lives which do not confirm the argument will always be taken as exceptions, thereby leaving the stereotypes intact.” To those that “deny they believe these differences make women inferior,” Sontag responds:

Their argument is as dishonest because the separate-but-equal argument as soon as used to defend the authorized segregation of the races in faculties. For the precise content material of those supposedly innate variations between ladies and men indicate a scale of values through which the qualities assigned to girls are clearly much less estimable.

The goal of feminism have to be to “abolish the mystique of ‘nature,’” she wrote, to “work toward an end to all stereotyping of any kind.” The wholesale abolition of gender is our solely hope of escaping its cruelties and curtailments.

Whether Sontag’s defiant uncategorizability strikes you as subtlety or evasiveness is determined by your abdomen for uncertainty. “No position can be a comfortable one or should be complacently held,” she stated within the Salmagundi interview. The most necessary debates of the period should stay knotty, “unresolved.” For my half, I desire conclusiveness in argument — however in life, I’m vastly moved by the picture of a world through which everybody has the prospect to embody the “mental hermaphroditism” that allowed Colette and Sontag to be so intricate, so a number of, so ample and so entire.

Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction e book critic for The Washington Post.

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