Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004) was an American essayist, novelist, intellectual, filmmaker, and activist. Sontag was an original, who broke the mold, creating a new role for the woman intellectual "gadfly," who engaged topics across a broad spectrum, always seemingly with a contrarian spirit. Her ideas did not always pan out, and she would later retract some of them, but they were always provocative and interesting. A leftist activist, she would take on her allies during the "Siege of Sarajevo," when she angered friends with calls for U.S. and NATO intervention. In later life, she wrote extensively about the role of illness in society, before succumbing leukemia.
Sontag, originally named Susan Rosenblatt, was born in New York City, to Jack Rosenblatt and Mildred Jacobsen, both Jewish-Americans. Her father ran a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis when Susan was five years old. Seven years later, her mother married Nathan Sontag, at which point Susan and her sister, Judith, took their stepfather's surname although they were never formally adopted.
Sontag grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and, later, in Los Angeles, where she graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15. She began her undergraduate studies at Berkeley, but transferred to the University of Chicago, where she graduated with a B.A. She did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard, St Anne's College, Oxford, and the Sorbonne.
At 17, while at Chicago, Sontag married Philip Rieff, American sociologist and author of Freud: The Mind of a Moralist, following a ten-day courtship. Sontag and Rieff were married for eight years, divorcing in 1958. The couple had a son, David Rieff, who later became his mother's editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and, subsequently, a writer.
The publication of Against Interpretation (1966), accompanied by a striking dust-jacket photo taken by the photographer Peter Hujar, helped establish Sontag's reputation as "the Dark Lady of American Letters." No account of her hold on her generation can omit the power of her physical presence on a room full of New York literati: Movie stars like Woody Allen, philosophers like Arthur Danto, and politicians like Mayor John Lindsay vied to know her. In the movie, Bull Durham, her work was used as a touchstone of sexual savoir-faire.
She avoided, in her prime, all pigeon holes. Like Jane Fonda, she went to Hanoi, but wrote of the experience with distaste, in a foreshadowing of her famous rebuke of Eastern European Communist countries as "fascism with a human face."
Sontag died in New York City on December 28, 2004, aged 71, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome evolving into acute myelogenous leukemia. The MDS was likely a result of the chemotherapy and radiation treatment she received three decades earlier, when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and a rare form of uterine cancer. She is buried in Montparnasse cemetery, in Paris, France.
Sontag's literary career began and ended with works of fiction. 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 in the genre, 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 26, 1986, in The New Yorker. Written in an experimental narrative style, it remains a key text on the AIDS epidemic. She achieved late popular success as a best selling novelist with, The Volcano Lover (1992), and at age 67 published her final novel, In America (2000). The last two novels were set in the past, which Sontag had said gave her greater freedom to write in the polyphonic voice.
It was as an essayist, however, that Sontag gained early and enduring fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art.She championed European writers and critics, such as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Antonin Artaud, and W.G. Sebald, along with some Americans, such as Maria Irene Fornes. Over the course of several decades she would turn her attention to novels, film, and photography. In several books, she wrote about cultural attitudes toward illness. Her final nonfiction work, Regarding the Pain of Others, re-examined art and photography from a moral standpoint, speaking of how the media affects culture's views of conflict.
Against Interpretation and Other Essays is a collection which was published in 1966. It includes some of Sontag's best-known works, including "On Style," "Notes on 'Camp'," and the title essay, "Against Interpretation." "Notes on 'Camp'" examined an alternative sensibility to seriousness and comedy, gesturing to the "so bad it's good" concept in popular culture for the first time. In the title essay, Sontag argued that the emphasis which had come to be placed on the intellect under modern social and cultural conditions had given way to a new critical approach to aesthetics that was increasingly usurping the spiritual importance of art. Rather than recognizing great creative works as possible sources of energy and defense against the brute rationality and empiricism that seemed to be seeping into every aspect of western life at the middle of the twentieth century, she argued, contemporary critics were all too often taking art's transcendental power for granted, and focusing instead on their own intellectually constructed abstractions like "form" and "content." In effect, she wrote, interpretation had become "the intellect's revenge upon art." The essay famously finished with the words, "in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art."
In this monography, Sontag expresses her views on the corrosive role of photography in affluent mass-media capitalist societies and refutes the idea that photography is just a sort of note taking. Sontag uses Depression-era documentary photography commissioned by the Farm Security Administration as an example of the "predatory" nature of photographers, and claims that the FSA employees—most of whom were established photographers—"would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film—the precise expression on the subject's face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry." However, the intact FSA archives at the Library of Congress contain 160,000 negatives from which 77,000 finished original prints were made for the press—an FSA "shot to print" ratio not of "dozens" but of just over 2:1.
On publication in 1977, the book received a huge amount of press publicity, and was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in the same year. The work was also seized on by U.S. academics in order to justify the study of photography, although work had been done on photography by European thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes.
Critics have noted that Sontag was not herself a photographer, and that the book is subjective, literary, and polemical rather than being the result of a reasoned methodology. Nor does it arise from her sustained analysis of the work of any particular photographer or photographers. Even before publication, Dru Shipman had published a point-by-point rebuttal of essays that would later be included in On Photography. Many of the reviews from the world of art photography that followed On Photography's publication were skeptical and often hostile, such as those of Colin L. Westerbeck and Michael Lesey.
Over the last twenty years, many of Sontag's key arguments have been questioned or overturned, and several contradictions between the different essays in the book have been pointed out.
Since 1982, no significant book anthologies of photography criticism have contained essays by Sontag. A literature search in 1998, by David Jacobs found that: "By the early '90s, specific references to On Photography have all but disappeared from the critical and scholarly literature."
In 2004, Sontag herself published a partial refutation of the opinions she espoused in On Photography.
In 1989, Sontag was the President of PEN American Center, the main U.S. branch of the International PEN writers' organization, at the time that Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (in this instance a death sentence) against writer Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, which was perceived as blasphemous by Islamic fundamentalists. Her uncompromising support of Rushdie was critical in rallying American writers to his cause.
A few years later, Sontag gained attention for directing Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot during the nearly four-year Siege of Sarajevo. Early in that conflict, Sontag referred to the Serbian invasion and massacre in Bosnia as the "Spanish Civil War of our time," sparking controversy among U.S. leftists for openly advocating for U.S. and European military intervention. Sontag lived in Sarajevo for many months of the siege.
Sontag was a self-styled contrarian whose career was based on making provocative statements. Sontag drew fire for writing that "Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, 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." (Partisan Review, Winter 1967, p. 57). Sontag later offered an ironic apology for the remark, saying it was insensitive to cancer victims.
In a well-circulated essay entitled "Sontag, Bloody Sontag," Camille Paglia describes her initial admiration for Sontag and her subsequent disillusionment and evisceration of the author. Paglia wrote,
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 proceeds to detail a series of vituperations toward Sontag, including Harold Bloom's comment on Paglia's doctoral dissertation of "Mere Sontagisme!" which "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 Sontag's visit to Bennington, in which she arrived hours late, ignored the agreed upon topic of the event, and made an incessant series of ridiculous demands.
Sontag was criticized in 1968, for visiting Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, during the Vietnam war.
Sontag sparked controversy for her remarks in The New Yorker (September 24, 2001) about the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Sontag wrote:
Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.
Sontag had relationships with photographer Annie Leibovitz, choreographer Lucinda Childs, writer Maria Irene Fornes, and other women. In the early 1970s, she was romantically involved with Nicole Stéphane (1923-2007), a Rothschild banking heiress turned movie actress.
"Shall I tell you about getting older?," she says, and she is laughing. "When you get older, 45 plus, men stop fancying you. Or put it another way, the men I fancy don't fancy me. I want a young man. I love beauty. So what's new?" She says she has been in love seven times in her life, which seems quite a lot. "No, hang on," she says. "Actually, it's nine. Five women, four men."
An exhibit of work by Annie Liebovitz currently on display at Atlanta's High Museum of Art includes numerous personal photos, in addition to the celebrity portraits for which the artist is best known. These personal photos chronicle Liebovitz's years-long relationship with Sontag, and feature many pictures of the author taken by the artist, including photographs showing her battle with cancer, her treatment, and ultimately her death and burial.
Sontag also published nonfiction essays in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Granta, Partisan Review, and the London Review of Books.
The first volume of Sontag's journals are expected to be published in 2008 or 2009.
All links retrieved January 12, 2020.
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