The first thing you notice about Benjamin Moser’s massive biography of Susan Sontag is that the cover has no type on it, no author’s or subject’s name. It’s just a photograph—we don’t need to identify who it is. Sontag, more than any writer of the period, perhaps of any period, was iconic: her coal-black hair divided down the middle by a white skunk’s stripe was as instantly recognizable as Marilyn Monroe’s platinum coif, and as meaningful to the culture. It defined the idea of the modern.
Perhaps it’s hard to remember now how transformative, how shattering Sontag’s first collection of essays, Against Interpretation, was when it appeared on the scene in 1966. I read it that summer, sitting on the terrace of my home in suburban Chicago, and discovered at 17 the life of art. To say that the style was original doesn’t begin to explain it; it pulsed with cerebral authority. Her main argument—that art could only be experienced, not understood, that its supreme value was to elicit feeling—bristled with moral seriousness. In Conrad’s famous formulation, it made you see.