Susan Sontag (/ˈsɒntæɡ/; January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004) was an American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist. She mostly wrote essays, but also published novels; she published her first major work, the essay “Notes on ‘Camp'”, in 1964. Her best-known works include On Photography, Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, The Way We Live Now, Illness as Metaphor, Regarding the Pain of Others, The Volcano Lover, and In America.
Sontag was active in writing and speaking about, or travelling to, areas of conflict, including during the Vietnam War and the Siege of Sarajevo. She wrote extensively about photography, culture and media, AIDS and illness, human rights, and communism and leftist ideology. Although her essays and speeches sometimes drew controversy, she has been described as “one of the most influential critics of her generation.”
Remembering an unhappy childhood, with a cold, distant mother who was “always away”, Sontag lived on Long Island, New York, then in Tucson, Arizona, and later in the San Fernando Valley in southern California, where she took refuge in books and graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15. She began her undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley but transferred to the University of Chicago in admiration of its famed core curriculum. At Chicago, she undertook studies in philosophy, ancient history and literature alongside her other requirements. Leo Strauss, Joseph Schwab, Christian Mackauer, Richard McKeon, Peter von Blanckenhagen and Kenneth Burke were among her lecturers. She graduated at the age of 18 with an A.B. and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. While at Chicago, she became best friends with fellow student Mike Nichols. In 1951, her work appeared in print for the first time in the winter issue of the Chicago Review.
At 17, Sontag married writer Philip Rieff, who was a sociology instructor at the University of Chicago, after a 10-day courtship; their marriage lasted eight years. While studying at Chicago, Sontag attended a summer school taught by the Sociologist Hans Heinrich Gerth who became a friend and subsequently influenced her study of German thinkers. Upon completing her Chicago degree, Sontag taught freshman English at the University of Connecticut for the 1952–53 academic year. She attended Harvard University for graduate school, initially studying literature with Perry Miller and Harry Levin before moving into philosophy and theology under Paul Tillich, Jacob Taubes, Raphael Demos and Morton White. After completing her Master of Arts in philosophy, she began doctoral research into metaphysics, ethics, Greek philosophy and Continental philosophy and theology at Harvard. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse lived with Sontag and Rieff for a year while working on his 1955 book Eros and Civilization.:38 Sontag researched for Rieff’s 1959 study Freud: The Mind of the Moralist prior to their divorce in 1958, and contributed to the book to such an extent that she has been considered an unofficial co-author. The couple had a son, David Rieff, who went on to be his mother’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as well as a writer in his own right.
Sontag was awarded an American Association of University Women’s fellowship for the 1957–1958 academic year to St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she traveled without her husband and son. There, she had classes with Iris Murdoch, Stuart Hampshire, A. J. Ayer and H. L. A. Hart while also attending the B. Phil seminars of J. L. Austin and the lectures of Isaiah Berlin. Oxford did not appeal to her, however, and she transferred after Michaelmas term of 1957 to the University of Paris. In Paris, Sontag socialized with expatriate artists and academics including Allan Bloom, Jean Wahl, Alfred Chester, Harriet Sohmers and María Irene Fornés. Sontag remarked that her time in Paris was, perhaps, the most important period of her life.:51–52 It certainly provided the basis of her long intellectual and artistic association with the culture of France. She moved to New York in 1959 to live with Fornés for the next seven years, regaining custody of her son and teaching at universities while her literary reputation grew.:53–54
At age 30, she published an experimental novel called The Benefactor (1963), following it four years later with Death Kit (1967). Despite a relatively small output, Sontag thought of herself principally as a novelist and writer of fiction. Her short story “The Way We Live Now” was published to great acclaim on November 24, 1986 in The New Yorker. Written in an experimental narrative style, it remains a significant text on the AIDS epidemic. She achieved late popular success as a best-selling novelist with The Volcano Lover (1992). At age 67, Sontag published her final novel In America (2000). The last two novels were set in the past, which Sontag said gave her greater freedom to write in the polyphonic voice:
In a print shop near the British Museum, in London, I discovered the volcano prints from the book that Sir William Hamilton did. My very first thought—I don’t think I have ever said this publicly—was that I would propose to FMR (a wonderful art magazine published in Italy which has beautiful art reproductions) that they reproduce the volcano prints and I write some text to accompany them. But then I started to adhere to the real story of Lord Hamilton and his wife, and I realized that if I would locate stories in the past, all sorts of inhibitions would drop away, and I could do epic, polyphonic things. I wouldn’t just be inside somebody’s head. So there was that novel, The Volcano Lover.
— Sontag, writing in The Atlantic (April 13, 2000)
The cover of Against Interpretation (1966), which contains some of Sontag’s best-known essays.
In 1977, Sontag published the series of essays On Photography. These essays are an exploration of photographs as a collection of the world, mainly by travelers or tourists, and the way we experience it. In the essays, she outlined her theory of taking pictures as you travel:
The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic—Germans, Japanese and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures. (p. 10)
Sontag writes that the convenience of modern photography has created an overabundance of visual material, and “just about everything has been photographed”.:3 This has altered our expectations of what we have the right to view, want to view or should view. “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notion of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe” and has changed our “viewing ethics”.:3 Photographs have increased our access to knowledge and experiences of history and faraway places, but the images may replace direct experience and limit reality.:10–24 She also states that photography desensitizes its audience to horrific human experiences, and children are exposed to experiences before they are ready for them.:20
Sontag continued to theorize about the role of photography in real life in her essay “Looking at War: Photography’s View of Devastation and Death”, which appeared in the December 9, 2002 issue of The New Yorker. There she concludes that the problem of our reliance on images and especially photographic images is not that “people remember through photographs but that they remember only the photographs … that the photographic image eclipses other forms of understanding—and remembering. … To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture” (p. 94).
She became a role-model for many feminists and aspiring female writers during the 1960s and 1970s.
The former Sarajevo newspaper building during the Siege of Sarajevo, when Sontag lived in the city
A few years later, during the Siege of Sarajevo, Sontag gained attention for directing a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in a candlelit theatre in the Bosnian city. In the Daily Telegraph, Kevin Myers called it “mesmerisingly precious and hideously self-indulgent.” and wrote, “By my personal reckoning, the performance lasted as long as the siege itself.” However, many of Sarajevo’s besieged residents disagreed:
To the people of Sarajevo, Ms. Sontag has become a symbol, interviewed frequently by the local newspapers and television, invited to speak at gatherings everywhere, asked for autographs on the street. After the opening performance of the play, the city’s Mayor, Muhamed Kreševljaković, came onstage to declare her an honorary citizen, the only foreigner other than the recently departed United Nations commander, Lieut. Gen. Phillippe Morillon, to be so named. “It is for your bravery, in coming here, living here, and working with us,” he said.
If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far…. The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al, don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.
According to journalist Mark M. Goldblatt, Sontag later “recanted” the statement, saying that “it slandered cancer patients,” but according to Eliot Weinberger, “She came to regret that last phrase, and wrote a whole book against the use of illness as metaphor.”
In a 1970 article titled “America as a Gun Culture”, the noted historian Richard Hofstadter wrote:
Modern critics of our culture who, like Susan Sontag, seem to know nothing of American history, who regard the white race as a “cancer” and assert that the United States was “founded on a genocide”, may fantasize that the Indians fought according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. But in the tragic conflict of which they were to be the chief victims, they were capable of striking terrible blows.
From Camille Paglia
Sontag’s cool exile was a disaster for the American women’s movement. Only a woman of her prestige could have performed the necessary critique and debunking of the first instant-canon feminist screeds, such as those of Kate Millett or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose middlebrow mediocrity crippled women’s studies from the start. No patriarchal villains held Sontag back; her failures are her own.
Paglia mentions several criticisms of Sontag, including Harold Bloom’s comment of “Mere Sontagisme!” on Paglia’s doctoral dissertation. Paglia states that Sontag “had become synonymous with a shallow kind of hip posturing”. Paglia also describes Sontag as a “sanctimonious moralist of the old-guard literary world”, and tells of a visit by Sontag to Bennington College, in which she arrived hours late, ignored the agreed-upon topic of the event, and made an incessant series of ridiculous demands.[page needed]
Allegations of plagiarism
believed in, or at least applied, a double standard to the angelic language of Communism … Communism is Fascism—successful Fascism, if you will. What we have called Fascism is, rather, the form of tyranny that can be overthrown—that has, largely, failed. I repeat: not only is Fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies—especially when their populations are moved to revolt—but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of Fascism. Fascism with a human face… Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or [t]he New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?
Sontag’s speech reportedly “drew boos and shouts from the audience”. The Nation published her speech, excluding the passage comparing the magazine with Reader’s Digest. Responses to her statement were varied. Some said that Sontag’s current sentiments had been, in fact, held by many on the left for years, while other accused her of betraying “radical ideas”.
On the September 11 attacks
Sontag had a close romantic relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz. They met in 1989, when both had already established notability in their careers. Leibovitz has suggested that Sontag mentored her and constructively criticized her work. During Sontag’s lifetime, neither woman publicly disclosed whether the relationship was a friendship or romantic in nature. Newsweek in 2006 made reference to Leibovitz’s decade-plus relationship with Sontag, stating, “The two first met in the late ’80s, when Leibovitz photographed her for a book jacket. They never lived together, though they each had an apartment within view of the other’s.” Leibovitz, when interviewed for her 2006 book A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005, said the book told a number of stories, and that “with Susan, it was a love story.” While The New York Times in 2009 referred to Sontag as Leibovitz’s “companion”, Leibovitz wrote in A Photographer’s Life that, “Words like ‘companion’ and ‘partner’ were not in our vocabulary. We were two people who helped each other through our lives. The closest word is still ‘friend.'” That same year, Leibovitz said the descriptor “lover” was accurate. She later reiterated, “Call us ‘lovers’. I like ‘lovers.’ You know, ‘lovers’ sounds romantic. I mean, I want to be perfectly clear. I love Susan.”
Sontag died in New York City on 28 December 2004, aged 71, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome which had evolved into acute myelogenous leukemia. She is buried in Paris at Cimetière du Montparnasse. Her final illness has been chronicled by her son, David Rieff.