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Merve Emre on Benjamin Moser and Susan Sontag

In The Atlantic, Merve Emre takes issue with Benjamin Moser’s new official biography of Susan Sontag, and particularly Moser’s distinction between Sontag’s private and public selves:

Moser packs in an extraordinary amount of detail. Yet the book feels strangely vacuous, or at least no more psychologically revealing than either Sontag’s diaries or the earlier unauthorized biography by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. Aptly enough, the problem is one of interpretation. Moser’s analysis of Sontag’s life as an unwinnable battle between her public self and her private self traffics in the crudest of oppositions: appearance versus character, mind versus body, intellectualism versus eroticism, persona versus private self. Erecting these dichotomies is the biography’s narrative mode, its method of building intrigue and suspense. Can you believe, Moser wonders, that a beautiful and intelligent woman could be insecure about her professional success? Can you believe that inhuman productivity, fueled by chronic insomnia, a violent disdain for napping, and an addiction to speed, might be an attempt to compensate for social isolation? Can you believe that having sex and falling in love with many people, of many persuasions, might trouble the divide between mind and body? “Susan — human — drove people away,” Moser concludes. “But the symbolic Sontag was tremendously attractive.”