Putting Her Body on the Line: The Critical Acts of Susan Sontag, Part I

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Jim McLaughlin died after a long battle with AIDS in 1995, while still at work on his lifelong study of Susan Sontag. The first time Jim met Sontag was after a lecture she had given in Chicago. Jim was waiting in line to introduce himself to her, all the time discussing her talk with his friends. Suddenly Sontag whirled around and exclaimed, "You're Jim McLaughlin." Then she turned to the person she was talking to and said, "Here is the person who understands my work better than anyone else."

Jim was even more a New Yorker than Sontag for he was born there and had taken his undergraduate degree at Columbia. He was proud that he never learned to drive and that he knew how to brew a better cup of coffee than anyone else in Iowa City, where he lived the last part of his life He was a great storyteller, rendering extraordinary moments more delicious with his wry delivery, such as when he first met Sontag and she turned toward him, or when he greeted Catherine Deneuve in French and she smiled and waved at him. He remained unimpressed with the latest theories just because they were the latest; thorough scholarship and poignant writing were what he respected, and what he achieved. As for Sontag, he appreciated the breadth of her interests, her novels, her films (!), her wit, and the sheer strength of her intelligence. Jim really belonged in a salon in France in the 20s talking about literature and politics ... and delighting in that good coffee.

In the spring of 2002, I crashed a "donors only" reception for Sontag at the University of Illinois. I talked to her a bit about Persona and how useful I still find her article on the film when I teach Bergman. As she signed my copy of the just-released Regarding the Pain of Others, I mentioned that Jim McLaughlin had been a friend of mine. She dropped the pen, took my hands, and said what a wonderful person and what a marvelous reader of her work he had been. She talked about the interview Jim had conducted with her a few months before he died in which they talked--literally--all night about art, writing, and politics.

Now both Sontag and Jim are gone and with them a shared sensibility too rare on this earth. The "introductory" essay Jim had completed and that is printed below begins to tap that sensibility. It is just one flower of an entire garden of ideas germinating in his huge archive of notes, Xeroxes, and interviews. We're glad to have what we've got.

Shari Zeck

In question in all of Sontag's work is a labor, a deliverance. And that labor transpires under singular socio-political conditions, whose elucidation is a necessary prelude to the presentation of Sontag's films, fiction and criticism and the bodies and language exposed therein. That elucidation will be complemented by an overview of Sontag's career, in order that the stratagems of her early critical work, so emblematic of her whole endeavor, can be clarified. As Barthes suggests then, Sontag's work must be situated in a cultural context where the body-talk has been varied and voluminous for almost three decades. But as much as Barthes insists in "Encore le Corps" on the cultural determinations of this profoundly elastic concept--"the body"--he never really considers the theoretical reasons, much less sociological pressures, propelling "the body's" rise to prominence encore. First of all, he doesn't reflect (perhaps because he takes it for granted?) that the break-up of the unity of the subject--a break-up he alludes to over and over again in his own writings and even relishes--necessarily entails a theoretical rupture of the "unified" body as well into a profusion of bodies, breeding, in turn, a profusion of (contradictory) discourses. And once the idea of a unified subject or body goes, the ideas of universality and essentialism go with it.

Hence, my second point, Barthes neglects to credit the extraordinary sway of feminism on the upsurge of body consciousness, no matter what the field, these past two decades--a neglect which is all too common to male, intellectual supposition in France. …