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August 10 2019
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Susan Sontag in France, 1972.

Every researcher is looking for surprises—but the more research you do, the more you learn the secret of surprises. If you’re well-enough acquainted with your subject, you know in advance what those surprises are going to be. Once you’ve assembled A, B, C, and E, you know that D is out there somewhere. The surprise is whether, and where, and how you’re going to find it.

I was the first person allowed into Susan Sontag’s secret archives. These are kept at U.C.L.A., and will be restricted for decades. They contain, among other things, private writings not included in the published versions of her diaries. And so many of her writings, public and private, were lists. So was her most famous essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” which consisted of 58 numbered theses on a sensibility called “Camp.” In it, Sontag patiently explains why Cocteau is camp but not Gide; Strauss but not Wagner. Caravaggio and “much of Mozart” are grouped, in her ranking, with Jayne Mansfield and Bette Davis. John Ruskin effortlessly sidles up alongside Mae West.

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