Susan Sontag (; January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004) was an American writer, filmmaker, 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."
Early life and education
Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City, the daughter of Mildred (née Jacobson) and Jack Rosenblatt, both Jews of Lithuanian and Polish descent. Her father managed a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis in 1939, when Susan was five years old. Seven years later, Sontag's mother married U.S. Army Captain Nathan Sontag. Susan and her sister, Judith, took their stepfather's surname, although he did not adopt them formally. Sontag did not have a religious upbringing and claimed not to have entered a synagogue until her mid-20s.
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
Sontag's literary career began and ended with works of fiction. While working on her stories, Sontag taught philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and City University of New York and the Philosophy of Religion with Jacob Taubes, Susan Taubes, Theodor Gaster, and Hans Jonas, in the Religion Department at Columbia University from 1960 to 1964. Sontag held a writing fellowship at Rutgers University for 1964 to 1965 before ending her relationship with academia in favor of full-time freelance writing.:56–57
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)
She wrote and directed four films and also wrote several plays, the most successful of which were Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea.
It was through her essays that Sontag gained early fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art and expanded the dichotomy concept of form and art in every medium. She elevated camp to the status of recognition with her widely read 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'", which accepted art as including common, absurd and burlesque themes.
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.
During 1989 Sontag was the President of PEN American Center, the main U.S. branch of the International PEN writers' organization. After Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa death sentence against writer Salman Rushdie for blasphemy after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses that year, Sontag's uncompromising support of Rushdie was crucial in rallying American writers to his cause.
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.
White civilization as a cancer
Sontag drew criticism for writing in 1967 in the Partisan Review:
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
In "Sontag, Bloody Sontag", an essay in her 1994 book Vamps & Tramps, art and cultural critic Camille Paglia describes her initial admiration and subsequent disillusionment:
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
Ellen Lee accused Sontag of plagiarism when Lee discovered at least twelve passages in In America (1999) that were similar to, or copied from, passages in four other books about Helena Modjeska without attribution. Sontag said about using the passages, "All of us who deal with real characters in history transcribe and adopt original sources in the original domain. I've used these sources and I've completely transformed them. There's a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions."
At a New York pro-Solidarity rally in 1982, Sontag stated that "people on the left", like herself, "have willingly or unwillingly told a lot of lies". She added that they:
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 received angry criticism for her remarks in The New Yorker (September 24, 2001) about the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In her commentary, she referred to the attacks as a "monstrous dose of reality" and criticized U.S. public officials and media commentators for trying to convince the American public that "everything is O.K." Specifically, she opposed the prevalent belief that the perpetrators were "cowards" and argued the country should see the terrorists' actions not as "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".
Tom Wolfe once dismissed Sontag as "just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering to the podium encumbered by her prose style, which had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review."
- The Way We Live Now (1990) about the AIDS epidemic
- A Parsifal (1991), a deconstruction inspired by Robert Wilson's 1991 staging of the Wagner opera
- Alice in Bed (1993), about 19th century intellectual, Alice James, who was confined to bed by illness
- Lady from the Sea, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 1888 play of the same name, premiered in 1998 in Italy. Sontag wrote an essay about it in 1999 in Theatre called "Rewriting Lady from the Sea".
Collections of essays
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.
- (1969) Duett för kannibaler (Duet for Cannibals)
- (1971) Broder Carl(Brother Carl)
- (1974) Promised Lands
- (1983) Unguided Tour AKA Letter from Venice
- (2002) Liner notes for the Patti Smith album Land
- (2004) Contribution of phrases to Fischerspooner's third album Odyssey
- (2008) Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963
- (2012) As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980. ISBN 9780374100766
Awards and honors
- 1978: National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography
- 1990: MacArthur Fellowship
- 1992: Malaparte Prize, Italy
- 1999: Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, France
- 2000: National Book Award for In America
- 2001: Jerusalem Prize, awarded every two years to a writer whose work explores the freedom of the individual in society.
- 2002: George Polk Award, for Cultural Criticism for "Looking at War," in The New Yorker
- 2003: Honorary Doctorate of Tübingen University
- 2003: Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels) during the Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse).
- 2003: Prince of Asturias Award on Literature.
- 2004: Two days after her death, Muhidin Hamamdzic, the mayor of Sarajevo announced the city would name a street after her, calling her an "author and a humanist who actively participated in the creation of the history of Sarajevo and Bosnia." Theatre Square outside the National Theatre was promptly proposed to be renamed Susan Sontag Theatre Square. It took 5 years, however, for that tribute to become official. On January 13, 2010, the city of Sarajevo posted a plate with a new street name for Theater Square: Theater Square of Susan Sontag.
Sontag's mother died of lung cancer in Hawaii in 1986.
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.
Sexuality and relationships
Sontag became aware of her bisexuality during her early teens and at 15 wrote in her diary, "I feel I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this)". At 16, she had a sexual encounter with a woman: "Perhaps I was drunk, after all, because it was so beautiful when H began making love to me...It had been 4:00 before we had gotten to bed...I became fully conscious that I desired her, she knew it, too".
Sontag lived with 'H', the writer and model Harriet Sohmers Zwerling whom she first met at U. C. Berkeley from 1958 to 1959. Afterwards, Sontag was the partner of María Irene Fornés, a Cuban-American avant garde playwright and director. Upon splitting with Fornes, she was involved with an Italian aristocrat, Carlotta Del Pezzo, and the German academic Eva Kollisch. Sontag was romantically involved with the American artists Jasper Johns and Paul Thek. During the early 1970s, Sontag lived with Nicole Stéphane, a Rothschild banking heiress turned movie actress, and, later, the choreographer Lucinda Childs. She also had a relationship with the writer Joseph Brodsky. With Annie Leibovitz, Sontag maintained a relationship stretching from the later 1980s until her final years.
In an interview in The Guardian in 2000, Sontag was quite open about bisexuality:
'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. 'No, hang on,' she says. 'Actually, it's nine. Five women, four men.'
Many of Sontag's obituaries failed to mention her significant same-sex relationships, most notably that with Annie Leibovitz. In response to this criticism, New York Times Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, defended the newspaper's obituary, stating that at the time of Sontag's death, a reporter could make no independent verification of her romantic relationship with Leibovitz (despite attempts to do so). After Sontag's death, Newsweek published an article about Annie Leibovitz that made clear references to her decade-plus relationship with Sontag.
Sontag was quoted by Editor-in-Chief Brendan Lemon of Out magazine as saying "I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the 'open secret'. I'm used to that, and quite OK with it. Intellectually, I know why I haven't spoken more about my sexuality, but I do wonder if I haven't repressed something there to my detriment. Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, but it's never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody's in drastic need. I'd rather give pleasure, or shake things up."
Sontag used a PowerBook 5300, a PowerMac G4, and an iBook. A digital archive of 17,198 of Sontag's emails is kept by the UCLA Department of Special Collections at the Charles E. Young Research Library. Her archive—and the efforts to make it publicly available while protecting it from bit rot—are the subject of the book On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive, by Jeremy Schmidt & Jacquelyn Ardam.
A documentary about Sontag directed by Nancy Kates, titled Regarding Susan Sontag, was released in 2014. It received the Special Jury Mention for Best Documentary Feature at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.
- ^ abcdefMackenzie, Suzie (2000-05-27). "Finding fact from fiction". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-12-14.
- ^ abSontag, Susan (1967). "What's Happening to America? (A Symposium)". Partisan Review. 34 (1): 57–8.
- ^"Hooking Up".
- ^"Susan Sontag", The New York Review of Books, accessed December 19, 2012
- ^"Susan Sontag Receives German Peace Prize, Criticizes U.S."DW.COM.
- ^"Susan Sontag | Jewish Women's Archive". Jwa.org. Retrieved 2012-06-13.
- ^"A Gluttonous Reader", Interview with M. McQuade in Poague, pp. 271–278.
- ^Turow, Scott (16 May 2013). "A Time When Things Started in Chicago". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
- ^Sontag, Susan (1951). "Review of The Plenipotentiaries". Chicago Review. 5 (1): 49–50. doi:10.2307/25292888.
- ^Sontag, Susan. Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963, ed. D. Rieff, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, p. 144.
- ^Susan Sontag: Public Intellectual, Polymath, Provocatrice. 7 July 2008 – via YouTube.
- ^Vidich, Arthur J. (December 30, 2009). "First Years at The New School"(PDF). With a Critical Eye: An Intellectual and His Times. Knoxville, TN: Newfound Press. p. 370. ISBN 0979729246. Archived from the original(PDF) on 2013-12-25.
- ^See Susan Sontag, 'Literature is Freedom' in At the Same Time, ed. P. Dilonardo and A. Jump, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, p.206 and Morton White, A Philosopher's Story, Pennsylvania University Press, 1999, p. 148. See also Rollyson and Paddock, pp. 39–40 and Daniel Horowitz "Consuming Pleasures: Intellectuals and Popular Culture in the Postwar World", University of Pennsylvania, 2012, p. 314.
- ^"Putting her body on the line: the critical acts ofSusan Sontag, Part I".
- ^ abcdeRollyson and Paddock.
- ^Rollyson, Carl; Paddock, Lisa (2000). Susan Sontag: The Making of Icon. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 40–41. ISBN 0-393-04928-0.
- ^ abSante, Luc. "Sontag: The Precocious Years", Sunday Book Review, The New York Times, January 29, 2009, accessed December 19, 2012
- ^See Morton White, A Philosopher's Story, Pennsylvania University Press, 1999, p.148; and Rollyson and Paddock, pp. 43–45
- ^Field, Edward. The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag, Wisconsin, 2005, pp. 158–170; Rollyson and Paddock, pp. 45–50; and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963, ed. D. Rieff, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, pp. 188–189.
- ^"An Emigrant of Thought", interview with Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber, in Poague, pp. 143–164
- ^Moore, Patrick. "Susan Sontag and a Case of Curious Silence", Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2005, accessed December 18, 2012
- ^"Susan Sontag—whose new novel, In America, has just been published—doesn't feel at home in New York, or anywhere else. And that's the way she likes it". Atlantic Unbound, The Atlantic's online journal. The Atlantic. April 13, 2000. Retrieved October 31, 2017.
- ^ abcdSontag, Susan, "On Photography", 1977
- ^Hitchens, Christopher. "Assassins of the Mind", Vanity Fair, February 2009, accessed December 18, 2012
- ^Personal View (January 2, 2005). "I wish I had kicked Susan Sontag". London: Telegraph. Retrieved 2012-06-13.
- ^John F. Burns (August 19, 1993). "To Sarajevo, Writer Brings Good Will and 'Godot'". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-25.
- ^Goldblatt, Mark (January 3, 2005). "Susan Sontag: Remembering an intellectual heroine". The American Spectator. American Spectator Foundation. Retrieved March 17, 2013.
- ^Weinberger, Eliot (2007). "Notes on Susan". The New York Review of Books. 54 (13): 27–29. Retrieved 27 March 2014.
- ^Hofstadter, Richard: America as a Gun Culture. American Heritage Magazine, October, 1970.
- ^Paglia, Camille (1994). Vamps & Tramps: New Essays. New York: Vintage Books. p. 345. ISBN 0-679-75120-3.
- ^Marsh B. (2007) Plagiarism: Alchemy and Remedy in Higher Education, SUNY Press.
- ^Kort C (2007) A to Z of American Women Writers, Infobase Publishing.
- ^Carvajal, Doreen. (May 27, 2002) "So Whose Words Are They? Susan Sontag Creates a Stir."New York Times Book Review.
- ^ abc"Susan Sontag Provokes Debate on Communism". The New York Times. 1982-02-27. Retrieved 2010-09-13.
- ^"Novelist, Radical Susan Sontag, 71, Dies in New York", The Washington Times, December 29, 2004, accessed December 19, 2012
- ^Sontag, Susan (24 September 2001). "The Talk of the Town". The New Yorker. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
- ^"Hooking Up".
- ^ ab"National Book Awards – 2000", National Book Foundation, with essays by Jessica Hicks and Elizabeth Yale from the Awards' 60-year anniversary blog, accessed March 3, 2012
- ^Sontag, Susan (1991). Halpern, Daniel, ed. "A Parsifal". Antaeus. New York: Ecco Press: 180–185.
When I read the recently published second volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, which are filled with references to movies, I was reminded of an old (albeit virtual) quarrel I had with her.
Coming up in the seventies as a movie-lover through Jean-Luc Godard’s films, I found Susan Sontag’s famous essays on his work (a 1964 article on “Vivre Sa Vie” and a 1968 essay on his films to date) unsatisfying. Sontag wrote about “Vivre Sa Vie”—his 1962 melodrama about Nana (played by Godard’s then-wife, Anna Karina), a shop girl and aspiring actress who leaves her husband and, unable to make ends meet, turns to prostitution—as if it were a closed system. She treated Godard like a formalist master, like the son of Robert Bresson and the cousin of Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais, and criticized him for wedging into the film a conspicuously personal reference (a lengthy quotation from Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Oval Portrait,” which links Nana’s story to the real-life relationship of Godard and Karina). Sontag described Godard as a onetime practicing critic but didn’t bother to talk about his critical ideas, the movies he loved, or the way that his films were inspired by those movies—in large measure, Hollywood movies.
Sontag ghettoized much of classic Hollywood under the rubric of “camp” (famously, in her “Notes on ‘Camp’”), just as, around the same time, Pauline Kael ghettoized the same movies by calling them “kitsch.” In fabricating a Godard who satisfied her conception of a high European modernist, Sontag elided his critical perspective, the politique des auteurs (or “auteur theory”), which recognized the artistry of some commercial filmmakers working in relative anonymity in the studios and considered them the peers of any artists, in any art form. She willfully ignored the New Wave’s passion for movies by Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray and Otto Preminger, Samuel Fuller and Stanley Donen, as well as the young French filmmakers’ admiration for these Hollywood artists’ outsized personae.
But I revisited Sontag’s early essays on Godard with renewed curiosity after reading this latest installment of Sontag’s journals, which cover the years 1964 to 1980. It turns out that this new volume provides a surprising roadmap to the development of Sontag’s thinking. What she writes there gives us the background to her strangely, anachronistically narrow views on the cinema—and also shows how central to her identity as a critic, and even as a person, those views were.
In her journals, Sontag keeps voluminous lists of movies she watched, and she had an impressive habit (though not one that would be unusual for cinephiles of my acquaintance). She saw lots of movies of all sorts—for instance, she lists twenty-nine that she saw between September 17 and November 12, 1965, including such new ones as Godard’s “Le Petit Soldat,” Preminger’s “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” and Richard Lester’s “Help!”, and, in revival, Josef von Sternberg’s “The Last Command,” Fritz Lang’s “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” and Jean Renoir’s “The Lower Depths.” In the week of December 3, 1965, she saw either eight or eleven movies (depending on the import of a break in the list). But she had hardly anything of note to say about the work of classic American filmmakers, and I suspect that the reason is to be found in another list she provides—“Movies I saw as a child, when they came out.” It’s a list of fifty, including “Citizen Kane,” “The Great Dictator,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Notorious,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Casablanca,” “The Strawberry Blonde,” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Her critical approach to Hollywood movies—that is, essentially ignoring them—shows that she couldn’t rank commercially produced and vulgarly marketed weekend amusements of her youth alongside Picasso’s Cubist masterworks and Beethoven’s quartets. This explains another jolting and indirectly self-revealing journal entry about movies, from the same year:
“0 Degree” films e.g. B-films—no formal elaboration; instead, the violence of the subject Medium is transparent
Godard and the others of the French New Wave didn’t worry about the studios’ internal classification of movies as A-movies or B-movies; the only reason why a critic such as Sontag would even bother watching B-movies in 1965 was that those filmmakers, and a generation of their successors, had identified great directors and great works of art to be lurking in those despised provinces, and found them to be anything but formless and transparent. Sontag knew there was something important about such movies, but they belonged to her less sophisticated younger self, so she relegated them to the category of “camp” and treated them like a realm apart—and ignored their contribution to what she considered the true cinematic art of the day, Godard’s films.
I am for interpretation. The very title of Sontag’s famous essay “Against Interpretation,” which also became the title of her first collection of essays, is inimical to a useful way of watching movies, whether Hitchcock’s or Godard’s.
Sontag asserts that “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today,” and cites, as examples, Bresson and Ozu and Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game.” She can’t find any Hollywood movies to list, because, in fact, the best Hollywood directors neither seek nor achieve transparence, but create elaborate symbolic systems by means of extraordinary artifice. When Hitchcock shows a tight whorl of hair on the back of Kim Novak’s head in “Vertigo,” he isn’t displaying the craft of hairdressing but creating an erotic web, a genital substitute, to ensnare James Stewart’s idle officer. (And, later in the film, he does display the craft of hairdressing—to dramatize the cinema’s, and his own, fetishistic obsession with artifice.)
When she does deign to mention Hollywood directors, she misunderstands them, lumping them in with the studio system at large and pressing them into the confines of her critical preconception:
In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret. Many old Hollywood films, like those of Cukor, Walsh, Hawks, and countless other directors, have this liberating anti-symbolic quality no less than the best work of the new European directors, like Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” and “Jules and Jim,” Godard’s “Breathless” and “Vivre Sa Vie,” Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” and Olmi’s “The Fiancés.”
It almost seems as if, in praising “directness,” Sontag were putting the immediate pleasures of pop movies beyond serious discussion and then assimilating ostensible art films to the same norms. But, of course, Sontag does take films, and, in particular, Godard’s films, as objects worthy of in-depth discussion—though she ignores the extraordinarily complex symbolic dimension that he condenses into his films (and that he has discussed openly, in interviews, starting even before “Breathless” was released). She completely overlooks the symbolic element that ignited imaginations of the great Hollywood directors—especially that of Howard Hawks, who was one of the greatest of modern symbolists in any art form. (Has anyone ever thought of a dinosaur bone the same way since seeing “Bringing Up Baby”?) Instead, unable to shake her first-order childhood viewings, she wanted to believe what she saw.
Godard’s films of the sixties are made to be interpreted; they’re produced as collections of fragments meant to be picked apart and reassembled, filled with extravagant ranges of references, and in desperate need of extrapolation and intuition. They’re open-ended symbolic collections of the first degree, and his vast range of public appearances and interviews furnished viewers with something of a special Godard lens—the artistic equivalent of 3-D glasses—for the interpretation of his films. For instance, the Poe recitation is only one of a panoply of symbolic elements in “Vivre Sa Vie,” starting with the hairdo that Godard gives Karina’s aspiring actress: the dark bob that Louise Brooks made famous.
Sontag’s critical credo, from “Against Interpretation”—“the function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means”—reveals why she missed out on the essence of the art of the great American directors—and of their greatest acolytes, those of the New Wave, and, in particular, Godard. By contrast, the criticism that Godard wrote in the fifties, like that of his friends and comrades at Cahiers du Cinéma, was uninhibited by the strictures of aesthetic prejudice; it was open, ecstatic, enthusiastic, vituperative, anarchic, and personal. In discovering the inner worlds of such directors as Hawks and Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann and Douglas Sirk, his writing foreshadowed in tone and substance, in insolence and depth, in rapture and creative fury—and in interpretive freedom—the movies he would make. It brought the full range of his knowledge, experience, and passion to bear on movies; and it didn’t leave out the character and the personae of the auteurs themselves. To interpret is to write freely.
Sontag’s resistance to active criticism is of a piece with her formalist advocacy (as she wrote in the 1965 essay “On Style”) of “the “autonomy of the work of art” (what about the autonomy of the artist, the viewer, the critic?); of art as “stylized, dehumanized representation”; and, as she wrote in the journals, against “the bourgeois myth of the artist.”
But the politique des auteurs is perhaps the ultimate enshrinement of that “myth” as well as the biggest story in the modern cinema—a story that the New Wave told as critics and then enacted as filmmakers. They achieved the definitive personalization of the cinema; they experienced it with an extraordinary intimacy and they evoked that intimacy by discussing their connection with directors. In 1964, Sontag wrote, in her journals, “This is the first generation of directors who are aware of film history; cinema now entering era of self-consciousness”—but didn’t concern herself with the content of that consciousness. Why did she resist that experience?
Godard, as a young filmmaker, was movie-mad in another way. He didn’t solely admire or imitate certain formal aspects of Hollywood movies he loved, but also their gestural, verbal, even sartorial styles—and, strangely, Sontag doesn’t bother with this, either. For instance, Sontag refers, in the 1968 essay, to “the formal impenetrability of the plots of Hawks’s ‘The Big Sleep’ and Aldrich’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly’” without noting that Humphrey Bogart’s air of cool insolence is the propulsive center of “Breathless” or that Godard was fascinated by the rudely lowbrow, even apocalyptic, yet stylish violence of “Kiss Me Deadly”—and also learned from that movie about the grafting of literary and musical quotations into a roughneck context (Aldrich’s adaptation of Mickey Spillane features Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and poetry by Christina Rossetti).
Yet, as the journals touchingly show, Sontag was movie-mad too, as she wrote there in 1967:
Those hundreds of movie stills on my walls. That’s populating the empty universe, too. They’re my “friends,” I say to myself. But all I mean by that is that I love them (Garbo, Dietrich, Bogart, Kafka, Vera Chytilová): I admire them; they make me happy because when I think of them I know that there aren’t just ugly leaden people in the world but beautiful people; they’re a playful version of that sublime company to which I aspire…. For me, they’re reinforcements! They’re on my team; or rather, I am (hope to be) on theirs. They’re my models. They guard me from despair, from feeling there’s nothing better in the world than what I see, nothing better than me! …
Sontag found her own models of cool remoteness and control in the movies. And, strangely, her critical project was as radically personalizing as was Godard’s—but in lieu of actual intimacy and self-revelation, in lieu of speaking in the first person, she conjured a persona. Her colorless, flavorless, odorless, quasi-academic prose was a sleekly alluring mask that, in turn, reflected a brilliant young woman’s striking, worldly, knowing, infinitely remote, infinitely alluring persona. (That may be why she mistakes Godard’s cinematic intimacy for formal distance.) She was the auteur among critics; her writing was the synecdoche for her very self.
Her opposition to interpretation locked criticism into a self-abnegating passivity, abstemiousness, and austerity (as if borrowed from a work by one of her heroes and models, Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist”: “I always wanted you to admire my fasting”). The “erotics of art” that she endorsed in the last line of “Against Interpretation” wasn’t a lust for the work of art itself but, rather, signified the critic’s own erotic aura. Instead of “interpreting” a work, it would suffice for her to anoint it with her approval, and thereby elevate it to her canon of contemporary cynosures. She turned criticism into a performative gesture, a stylization of desire akin to that of Garbo or Dietrich.
Just as neither Garbo nor Dietrich could love the boy next door, so Sontag couldn’t embrace the popular art at hand—pop movies, pop music—without fatally dispelling her exotic aura. She loved, but couldn’t unite her intellect with her love. She couldn’t speak of her pleasures; in her journal, in late 1965, she wrote that her “biggest pleasure the last two years has come from pop music (The Beatles, Dionne Warwick, The Supremes) + the music of Al Carmines”; yet there’s no trace of this demotic passion in her essays. She couldn’t write about rock stars because she was, in effect, becoming one. She couldn’t personalize movie directors because she was becoming a movie star.
Imagine the truly radical impact Sontag might have had on her cultural circles, on her times, if she had considered and praised actual rock stars, or Jerry Lewis and John Wayne and Joan Crawford, or Samuel Fuller and Vincente Minnelli.
Photograph by Bob Peterson//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.