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Leslie Jamison on Benjamin Moser and Susan Sontag

Breaking radically with the judgment of Merve Emre in The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison appears in the latest issue of The New Republic with a rave review of Benjamin Moser’s official biography of Susan Sontag. Rather than reading the book in view of a split between Sontag’s private and public selves, Jamison searches out Sontag’s attempts to reconcile her bodily experiences with her intellectual appetites:

The struggle to reconcile mind and body is one of the structural dilemmas of literary biography itself: How can we make sense of the relationship between a famous mind and the life of its body? Moser is trying to tell the story of Sontag’s mind — in all its restless and passionate engagements — alongside the story of Sontag as a woman moving through time and space, heartbroken or pregnant, surprised by her period in the Hanoi airport, surprised by her first orgasm with a man, literally missing a roof over her head, after a fire damaged her West Village apartment.

The great ambition of Moser’s book is its willingness to organize itself around guiding ideas rather than simply the chronology of events. Or rather, all of these events illuminate the structuring tensions of Sontag’s life: between intimacy and distance, insecurity and authority, enthusiasm and judgment, metaphor and actuality, repetition and transcendence. Moser continually peels away the mythology of Sontag—as a single-name icon, like Cher or Madonna — to reveal the beating heart of a mortal woman underneath. The book takes this larger-than-life intellectual powerhouse — formidable, intimidating, often stubbornly impersonal in her work — and makes her life-size again, calling her back to the quotidian vulnerability of inhabiting an actual body, in all its desire and fragility.