Susan Sontag | Critical Review by Boyd Tonkin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of Susan Sontag.
This section contains 525 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Boyd Tonkin

Critical Review by Boyd Tonkin

SOURCE: "Suffering in Silence," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 151, No. 14, October 2, 1994, p. 29.

In the review below, Tonkin suggests how themes in Sontag's career contributed to her writing Alice in Bed.

Last year, Susan Sontag defied Serbian gunnery and media mockery to direct Waiting For Godot in Sarajevo. This wasn't just a show of solidarity with a people under siege whose rescuers had failed to turn up. Right at the start of her 30-year career as writer and critic, Sontag argued that the "strenuous modesty" of Beckett and his ilk was more than a fugitive trend. She insisted that their austerity—"the pursuit of silence"—caught the temper of the times as chattier art never could.

Vietnam, fascism, Bosnia, Aids: Sontag has fought the public monsters of our age with conspicuous gallantry. Yet through all her work, in essays and in fiction, persists the figure of a suffering and often silent body. This reduced self lingers on in pain, in despair, or in the spiritual deadlock of Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon. In 1992, readers seized on The Volcano Lover, her frolicsome romance of Nelson and the Hamiltons, as welcome proof that the sibyl of Manhattan had lightened up at last. Perhaps; but that novel's most poignant creation was surely Lady Catherine, Sir William Hamilton's valetudinarian first wife, whose "repressed rage" leaves her "ailing for decades".

Alice In Bed, a dramatic fantasy written in 1990, resuscitates another "career invalid". Alice James, the learned sister of novelist Henry and philosopher William, sank into illness as a refuge from—or revenge on—her "brilliant talkative family". After 24 years of vague ailments, cancer killed her at 43. Did she fall, or was she pushed? Sontag stresses that her exemplary Victorian plight embodies the "grief and anger" of thwarted women.

But Sontag erases one crucial fact about the real Alice. For 20 years, her emotional lifeline was a companion called Katherine Loring. Why? It could be that the idea of Alice abed—a mute reproach to power and lies—has plagued Sontag too long for mere history to dilute it. In her author's note to the play, she admits that "I have been preparing to write Alice In Bed all my life". Return to her 1967 novel Death Kit, and you find a tormented soul whose guilt over a random killing renders him "entirely bedridden and debilitated".

Styles Of Radical Will—her critical pieces from the same period—includes not only her minimalist manifesto but also a famous essay on "The Pornographic Imagination". Sontag views erotic frenzy as one route to the "loss of self". Madness, mysticism, orgasm, even revolutionary zeal: all can lead from breakdown to breakthrough. Very New York; very sixties.

Sontag grew and changed, of course. Her brave texts on cancer (which she overcame) and then Aids reaffirmed the sheer arbitrariness of disease. Yet even this dauntless good sense failed to exorcise the silent sufferer. The brisk Margaret Fuller, high-achieving New England feminist, tells Alice to "let those hard griefs slither away like curds turned out of their dish".

Sontag's life has been like Fuller's, not like Alice James's. But those "hard griefs" refuse to slide away. The Couch Potato still shadows Action Woman.

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This section contains 525 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Boyd Tonkin
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