(And Oh, young people, with your zealously faddy, bandwagoningly superficial polemics!)
When I read this “revelation,” this afternoon, it made me think of something I’d read, a while back, in Edward Field’s book “The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag and Other Intimate Literary Portraits” (2005), a kind of orgiastically-LGBT behind-the-scenes contextualizer for many of Modernism’s Flagship Avatars, and their works, that I found quite deep and funny (example: this bit about Paul Bowles: “It was fascinating to hear Alfred talk about Moroccan sexuality, admittedly of the lower classes. The boys, it turned out, had a fear of oral sex, worrying that their dicks would be bitten off, though Alfred’s own boyfriend, Dris, soon overcame this fear. Dris repeated a story to us about Paul blowing one of the boys, who held a large rock over Paul’s head, in case he bit off his cock.”). There’s quite a lot about the peculiar, largely forgotten Alfred Chester (whose character I slipped into a short story years ago) and the general sense that much of what happened in the Arts and Literature, in the sexually repressed first two-thirds of the 20th century, was driven by sheer horniness.
As I always say: you don’t need a scrap of autobiography to “understand” a particular short story or a novel, but for insights into a given oeuvre or movement: yes, obviously. Bio helps.
From Chapter 17 of Field’s book:
On Alfred’s return to the States in 1960, after a decade abroad, it was through Harriet and Irene, also back in New York, that he finally met, at last, the brilliant young academic, Susan Sontag—“the dark lady of American letters,” as she would be called—with her shining, straight, black hair, long legs encased in knee-high boots, Left Bank fashion, and perpetual dark glasses. From 1960 to 1963, during his period of celebrity on the New York literary scene, he maintained his friendship with these three extraordinary women, individually and in varying, sometimes dizzying, combinations. At a poetry reading in a Bowery restaurant, when I first met them, this trio of vivid young goddesses surrounded little Alfred Chester, his face beaming under the ragged wig, like handmaidens, or a phalanx of protective amazons. With Harriet he was a buddy, confidant, and after she got pregnant, protector. With Irene, he was romantically smitten with a concomitant holy feeling about her, perhaps aroused by her Spanish madonna looks. And with Susan he was mentor and, as earlier with Cynthia Ozick, rival, for Susan, with her unusual looks and mind, was already making the literary scene in a big way. But for now, Susan sat at his feet adoringly, soaking up the aura of success that he was enjoying—briefly, as it turned out, for he would throw it all away.
Susan had left her husband by this time and was living on West End Avenue with her son David. She was not to be alone for long. Harriet, under her married name of Zwerling, has published a memoir, included in Notes of a Nude Model, in which she reveals, masking the identities of the two women with initials, how Susan, in a particularly brutal way, announced to her over the telephone that Irene, who had been living with Harriet, would not be returning to her. This was such a painful shock that it caused Harriet to renounce lesbianism once and for all.
Susan and Irene and young David were living happily on West End Avenue, when the child’s father sued for custody on the grounds that the lesbian household was not a fit place to raise his son. In spite of a story Harriet tells about Susan throwing a screaming David, frightened of the water, into the ocean to teach him how to swim, it looked to me then that Susan was a good mother, which was also attested to by their lifelong devotion. Once, when Neil and I were having dinner there, David came into the room and Susan immediately left us at the table, sat down on a sofa and devoted herself entirely to him. When the custody case came to court, Alfred told me, Susan and Irene appeared in dresses, high heels, and makeup—they were indeed stunning women—and the judge threw out the case, unable to believe that they were lesbians.
Alfred frequently suffered from a competitive spirit with such powerful women (see Ozick’s memoir), even when he was their creative model, as he was for Susan. Seeing her as competition, though she was only beginning to find her way as a writer, and sensing that her beauty and brains were a winning combination, he liked to cut her down to size by bad-mouthing her legs as heavy, and her mind as academic and conventional. With her photographic memory, he told me, she might know everything, but only superficially. She spouted other people’s ideas, he said, usually the fashionable kind derived from the French avant-garde, which she peddled in New York. But it was chiefly her beauty that he saw as giving her an unfair advantage over him, both in literary and personal matters. Once, after Susan visited him at his apartment over the Sullivan Street Playhouse, Alfred went into a tailspin of jealousy, when his sexually indeterminate boyfriend Extro was smitten and went to call on her, provoking a near-breakdown on Alfred’s part. In this, Susan was undeniably innocent—Extro had nothing to offer her and she wouldn’t have wasted her time. Most likely, it was a device of Extro’s to make Alfred jealous, for he was more taken with Alfred than he openly admitted, and if Alfred felt the youth was unloving, that was rather his own lifelong problem of feeling unloved, rather than the reality. And feeling unloved had nothing to do with his looks, either. Magnetic as he was, Alfred hardly had to step out of his large, ramshackle apartment into the Village streets to be picked up by someone, as in his story “Ismael,” where the young Puerto Rican falls happily into his bed.
At that period of her life, Susan Sontag was not yet much of a writer and had only published a few scholarly articles, though she claimed, according to Alfred, to have had more than a hand in her ex-husband Philip Rieff ’s magisterial work on Freud. By the time she came into Alfred’s circle, she was teaching philosophy, first at Columbia University and then at Sarah Lawrence College and, using Alfred as an example, had embarked on her own first attempts to write fiction, as Irene was beginning to write plays. She belonged to a group of women writers that Alfred maliciously liked to call La Societé Anonyme des Lesbiennes. Irene told me that she and Susan would sit across a table from each other, each at their typewriters, stopping to read to the other a passage they were proud of. It was at this time that Susan began her first novel. And on the basis of what Alfred dismissed as little more than a collection of dreams, she immediately landed a contract with Farrar, Strauss for The Benefactor. Alfred, again jealous, claimed it was Roger Strauss’s hots for her that got her the contract. It is true that her publisher was a particularly devoted champion.
I hardly imagined at the time that the worshipful Sontag I saw so frequently at Alfred’s apartment was an intimate of the likes of Hannah Arendt, William Phillips, and a whole panoply of iconic older figures on the New York intellectual scene. She actively courted “names,” instinctively combining social life and intellectual discourse with career building. It was perhaps admiration for the way she operated via this social promiscuity, combined with his jealousy, that caused Alfred, unfairly, of course, to call Susan, invariably, “a whore” and “the enemy.” “Susan is so famous,” he wrote me. “Shows you how far you can get with a good memory, no scruples, a pretty face and an indifferent cunt.” And again: “Susan is probably writing nice reviews for political reasons, in order to win a kind reception for her next book. (She is such a whore that it never occurs to her anyone might judge a book on merits; she probably imagines Shakespeare had the best press agent in Elizabethan times.” And later:
“How dare you say ‘your friend S. Sontag’? You rat, she is my enemy. She is everybody’s enemy. She is The Enemy.”
But Alfred also had a healthy respect for Susan. When he left for Morocco in 1963, he turned over to her his job as theater critic for the Partisan Review, which she made good use of, resulting, a few months later, in the landmark publication in that journal of her “Notes on Camp,” which created a sensation. And when he “glanced through her essay at Paul’s,” Alfred wrote me, he was surprised that she understood “about the true depth of a work being in the surface,” a quality he was aiming for in his new novel. Perhaps it was natural that he agreed with her, since her ideas for the essay largely came from discussions she had had with him about W. H. Auden’s article on Oscar Wilde, which had been published in the New Yorker the previous winter.
And then Sontag on Alfred Chester, from Sontag’s Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, edited by her son (with Phillip) David Rieff:
Underneath the bully, the charmer, the wit, the sage, the betrayer—Tiresias, Oscar Wilde, Isidore—was this hysterical, ill-tempered child who cannot finish a sentence or answer a question or listen to what anyone else is saying.
Yet Alfred always was looking for an oracle (St. Stanislaus, Irene, Edward, Paul Bowles).
Now he has burnt his wig [Chester was entirely hairless] + talks about having a small cock + no pubic hair. He has always felt hideous, + now he talks about it, wants to talk of nothing else.
Was he ever wise? Or has he lost his wisdom? (It being a “number,” like his charm.) And he looks for “meaning” (“symbols,” romance) where there is none.—Pseudo-problems!
Like Susan T[aubes, who committed suicide in 1969 by drowning herself off Long Island; SS identified the body] not being able to concentrate on what someone is saying because she wants to understand what the connection is between that + the leaf at her feet—and she can’t.
Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.
I couldn’t fall for Alfred as I am today—even if he were still what he was (+ no longer is). Because I respect myself now.
I always fell for the bullies—thinking, if they don’t find me so hot they must be great. Their rejection of me showed their superior qualities, their good taste. (Harriet, Alfred, Irene) I didn’t respect myself. (Did I love myself?)
Now I have really known suffering. And I have survived. I am alone—unloved + w[ith]o[ut] someone to love—the thing I feared most in the world. I have touched bottom. And I survive.
Of course, I don’t love myself. (If I ever did!) How can I, when the one person I ever trusted has rejected me—the person I made the arbiter, + the creator, of my loveableness. I feel profoundly alone, cut off, unattractive—as I never did before. (How cocky + superficial I was!) I feel unloveable. But I respect that unloveable soldier—struggling to survive, struggling to be honest, just, honorable. I respect myself. I’ll never fall for the bullies again.
*Couldn’t bear to link to The Guardian