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Susan Sontag

January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004

by Tresa Grauer, updated by Dory Fox
Last updated June 23, 2021

In her essays, or "case-studies," examining art and the "modern sensibility," Susan Sontag covered topics from photography to illness to fascism. One of the most widely read cultural critics of her generation, she is pictured here on a visit to Israel to receive the 2001 Jerusalem Prize, an event which engendered much debate regarding her relationship with the Jewish community.

Institution: Jerusalem International Book Fair

In Brief

Susan Sontag was born in New York City in 1933 and raised mostly in Los Angeles. She showed a voracious interest in literature at a young age and graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. She married while in college and had one son. After several years studying in Boston, England, and France, she settled in New York, where she had a highly successful literary career. Her essay “Notes on Camp,” about the quirky, high-low “camp” aesthetic, earned her early fame. Her book Against Interpretation (1966) further solidified her position as a public intellectual. She went on to write many books of essays, novels, and plays. Some of her most famous works deal with AIDS and illness, photography, aesthetics, and morality. Sontag was first diagnosed with cancer in 1975; after multiple recurrences, she ultimately died of leukemia in 2004.

Introduction

When her essays first began appearing on the American critical scene in the early 1960s, Susan Sontag was heralded by many as the voice—and the face—of the Zeitgeist. Advocating a “new sensibility” that was “defiantly pluralistic,” as she announced in her groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation (1966), Sontag became simultaneously an intellectual of consequence and a popular icon, publishing everywhere from Partisan Review to Playboy and appearing on the covers of Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. She became for many a cultural symbol, the image of the female intellectual; she herself would joke that she was best known for the white streak in her dark hair, rather than for anything she had written. In her work, she rejected the traditional project of art interpretation as reactionary and stifling and called instead for a new, more sensual experience of the aesthetic world: “an act of comprehension accompanied by voluptuousness” (Against Interpretation, 29). Challenging what she saw as “established distinctions within the world of culture itself—that between form and content, the frivolous and the serious, and... ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture,” Sontag stood as a champion of the avant-garde and visual arts in particular (Against Interpretation, 297).

As the only woman among the 1960s world of New York Jewish intellectuals, Sontag was both venerated and villainized, depicted as either a counter-cultural hero or a posturing pop celebrity. In a 1968 essay in Commentary, Irving Howe saw her as the “publicist” for a young generation of critics that was making its presence felt “like a spreading blot of anti-intellectualism.” Focusing on the woman rather than the work, other critics dubbed her “Miss Camp” (after her famous essay “Notes on Camp”) and “The Dark Lady of American Letters” (a moniker borrowed from Mary McCarthy). Indeed, in his 1967 book Making It, Norman Podhoretz snidely attributed her popularity to her gender and to the fact that she was “clever, learned, good-looking, capable of writing family-type criticism as well as fiction with a strong taste of naughtiness.” While Sontag’s public image later shifted from that of sixties radical to nineties neo-conservative, neither representation accounts for either the complexity of her views or the significance of her contribution to contemporary cultural debates—particularly on topics such as photography, illness, and the representation of suffering.

Sontag was the subject of intense media scrutiny throughout her career, despite her own consistent rejection of the biographical as a means of understanding a work. “I don’t want to return to my origins,” she told Jonathan Cott in an interview. “I think of myself as self-created—that’s my working illusion.” Her distrust of the potentially reductive nature of personal, biographical criticism was magnified by her insistence that she herself did not “have anything to go back to.”

Early Life and Education

Susan Sontag was born on January 16, 1933, in New York City, the older of Jack and Mildred (Jacobson) Rosenblatt’s two daughters. Her early years were spent with her grandparents in New York while her parents ran a fur export business in China. When she was five, her father died of tuberculosis and her mother returned from China. A year later, mother and daughters moved to Tucson, Arizona, in an effort to relieve Susan’s developing asthma. In 1945, Mildred Rosenblatt married Army Air Corps captain Nathan Sontag, the daughters assumed their stepfather’s last name, and the family left Arizona for a suburb of Los Angeles. Although her parents were Jewish, Sontag did not have a religious upbringing, and she claims not to have entered a synagogue until her mid-twenties.

The one autobiographical essay that Sontag published during her lifetime, “Pilgrimage,” depicts the writer’s long-standing sense of rootlessness and fragmentation as “the resident alien” in a “facsimile of family life.” It also expresses her feeling of intellectual isolation and her fear of “drowning in drivel” in suburban America. “Literature-intoxicated” from a very young age, she read the European modernists to escape “that long prison sentence, my childhood” and to achieve “the triumphs of being not myself.” Many of these issues—the fierce individualism of the intellect, the pleasure and nourishment to be derived from knowledge, and the question of what it means to be modern—became central themes in Sontag’s fiction and essays. These concerns are also on display in her posthumously published journals, which record her thoughts, beginning at age fourteen. The journals display a young writer brimming with both precocious intellect and recurrent self-questioning.

At age fifteen, Sontag discovered literary magazines at a nearby newsstand, and she described her excitement in an interview with Roger Copeland by explaining that “from then on my dream was to grow up, move to New York, and write for Partisan Review.” She achieved this dream in 1961, after twelve years in the academic world. Having graduated from high school at age fifteen, Sontag spent one semester at the University of California at Berkeley before transferring to the University of Chicago for the remainder of her college study. There she met Philip Rieff, a sociology lecturer, while auditing a graduate class on Freud. They married ten days later, when Sontag was seventeen and Rieff twenty-eight. Their only son, David, who would later be for some time her editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was born in 1952. That same year, Sontag entered Harvard as a graduate student in English and philosophy. After receiving master’s degrees in both fields (1954 and 1955, respectively), Sontag left her husband and son and spent two years studying at Oxford and the Sorbonne, although she did not complete a dissertation at either institution.

Shortly after her return to the United States in 1959, she divorced Rieff and moved to New York City, with “seventy dollars, two suitcases and a seven-year-old [her son].” As she explained in the interview with Jonathan Cott: “I did have the idea that I’d like to have several lives, and it’s very hard to have several lives and then have a husband. … [S]omewhere along the line, one has to choose between the Life and the Project.” In the final decade and a half of her life, Sontag had a relationship with her the photographer Annie Leibovitz, with whom she would sometimes collaborate artistically.

Literary Career

In New York, Sontag began establishing herself as an independent writer while teaching philosophy in temporary positions at Sarah Lawrence, City College, and Columbia University and working briefly as an editor at Commentary. She published twenty-six essays between 1962 and 1965, as well as an experimental novel, The Benefactor, in 1963. Although best known for her nonfiction, Sontag worked in many creative genres. The 1960s and 1970s saw the production of a second novel, Death Kit (1967), a collection of short stories, I, Etcetera (1978), and the script and direction of three experimental films: Duet for Cannibals (1969), Brother Carl (1971), and Promised Lands (1974). Promised Lands, a documentary on Israel’s The Day of Atonement, which falls on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is devoted to prayer and fasting.Yom Kippur War, was the only one of Sontag’s works that dealt explicitly with Jewish issues.

Sontag’s career-long series of essays—or “case studies,” as she called them in Against Interpretation—revealed an expansive and democratic definition of art, encompassing such diverse subjects as photography, illness, fascist aesthetics, pornography, and the Vietnam War. A self-described intellectual generalist, Sontag explained in an interview with Roger Copeland that her overarching project was to “delineate the modern sensibility from as many angles as possible.” Sontag’s writing was notable for its style, often aphoristic in character. Her essays ranged freely from high modernism to mass culture, from European to American artistic figures, from the aesthetics of silence to the contemporary media proliferation of images and noise. Her career as a writer was characterized by the tension between such oppositions: “Everything I’ve written—and done,” she explained, “has had to be wrested from the sense of complexity. This, yes. But also that. It’s not really disagreement, it’s more like turning a prism—to see something from another point of view.”

In both her fiction and her critical essays, Sontag told Copeland, she used such disjunctive forms of writing as “collage, assemblage, and inventory” to demonstrate her thesis that “form is a kind of content and content an aspect of form.” Insisting that interpretation is “the revenge of the intellect against the world,” Against Interpretation, her first collection of essays, sought to subvert both the style and the subject matter of traditional critical inquiry. The function of criticism should be to help us experience art more fully, she explained, “to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” Against Interpretation introduced an American audience to lesser-known European figures such as Georg Lukács, Simone Weil, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. It also explored the irreverent playfulness and self-conscious artificiality of an underground camp aesthetic.

Styles of Radical Will (1969) advanced Sontag’s aesthetic argument by looking closely at pornography, theater, and film, and by examining the impact of self-consciousness on the modern art and philosophy of E. M. Cioran, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard. But the collection suggested a political as well as an aesthetic mode of transforming consciousness. The essay “Trip to Hanoi,” originally published in 1968 as a separate book, was Sontag’s candid response to her trip to North Vietnam as she grappled with the limits of her own culturally formed perceptions. Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), which comprised seven essays of the 1970s, combined personal reflections on Paul Goodman and Roland Barthes with sustained analyses of Walter Benjamin, Antonin Artaud, and Elias Canetti. It also contained the well-known piece “Fascinating Fascism,” in which Sontag used Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films to discuss the ways in which history becomes theater.

Sontag’s award-winning volume On Photography (1977) analyzed how photographic images have changed our ways of looking at the world. Resistant to the acquisitive nature of photography and its consequent leveling of meaning, Sontag here displayed a growing suspicion of the “sublime neutrality” of art that she had so heralded in Against Interpretation. Although hopeful about the value of photography when it awakens the conscience of the audience, she was also concerned about its potentially predatory nature, explaining that “[t]o photograph people is to violate them.” Like On Photography, Illness as Metaphor (1978) broke new critical ground by examining the significance of a common cultural phenomenon, specifically regarding pain and suffering: in this case, the discursive representation of disease. Growing out of Sontag’s own diagnosis of breast cancer in 1975, the book sought to expose the fantasies and fears that are masked by the vocabulary of illness. In 1989, she elaborated on this theme in AIDS and Its Metaphors, which was received with some controversy. Many in the gay community criticized her efforts to disentangle the cultural metaphors of AIDS from its politics.

Sontag also focused her efforts on fiction and theater in these years. Unguided Tour, the film version of an earlier short story, appeared in 1983. In 1985, she directed the premier production of Milan Kundera’s play Jacques and His Master. Her own play, Alice in Bed, premiered in Bonn, Germany, in 1991 and was published in 1993. That same year, she traveled with her partner, photographer Annie Leibovitz to act, in her words, as a “star witness” during the Bosnian War. While there Sontag directed Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in war-besieged Sarajevo. Twenty-five years after the publication of her previous novel, Sontag’s critically acclaimed The Volcano Lover (1992) appeared, bringing together concerns that long animated her writing: the relationship between style and form, the moral pleasure—and service—of art, and the psychology of collecting. A historical novel with a self-consciously modern narrator, The Volcano Lover was a revisionary retelling of the eighteenth-century love affair between Lady Emma Hamilton and Lord Horatio Nelson that moved away from the abstraction of Sontag’s earlier fiction while still remaining a novel of ideas. Sontag’s final novel, In America (2000), which won the National Book Award for Fiction, was also set in the past; based on the life of a nineteenth-century Polish performer who immigrated to America with the dream of establishing a utopian community, the novel relied on the language of theater and acting in order to consider the thematic possibilities of re-inventing both the individual and the nation.

Sontag continued to write essays about photography toward the end of her life. She returned to the topic, first with an essay written to accompany a series of women’s portraits by Leibovitz (published as Women in 1999; an exhibition of the photographs then went on national tour), and then with Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), which discussed the ramifications of the near ubiquity of images of war. Her final work published during her lifetime was Regarding the Torture of Others (May 23, 2004), an essay in the New York Times Magazine about American soldiers’ torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Building on her body of work, she explored the moral ramifications of the seemingly banal, widely circulated, cell phone-captured photographs of this torture.

End of Life and Intellectual Legacy

Over the course of her career, Sontag remained committed to the idea of cultural criticism, explaining that it is “what being an intellectual—as opposed to being a writer—is.” Her contributions were recognized through numerous awards and grants, which included two Rockefeller Foundation Grants (1964, 1974), two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships (1966, 1975), the Arts and Letters Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1976), the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1990), the Writers for Writers award (1998) and the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society (2001). In 1999 she was named a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, after having been named an Officier in the same order in 1984. She received two additional European tributes in 2003—the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. She served as a member of the selection jury for the Venice Film Festival and the New York Film Festival and was a founding member of the New York Institute for the Humanities. Sontag also served as president of the PEN American Center from 1987 to 1989. When the Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie to death for his “blasphemous” book The Satanic Verses (1988), Sontag spearheaded protests on his behalf within the literary community. “Her resolute support,” Rushie said after Sontag’s death, “helped to turn the tide against what she called ‘an act of terrorism against the life of the mind.’”

Sontag’s cultural criticism took many forms and did not conform to a single political ideology. In the 1960s, her writing aligned with the avant-garde; in later years, she was frequently criticized for aesthetic and political conservatism. She publicly broke with the New Left at a town hall in 1982 when she denounced communism. Her politics consistently evaded categorization. “I don’t like party lines,” she explained in an interview published in Salmagundi. “They make for intellectual monotony and bad prose.”  In the early 2000s, Sontag was an outspoken opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq, and she criticized President George Bush’s response to the September 11th terrorist attacks within weeks of their occurrence.

While her consistent advocacy of critical autonomy did not itself mark a turn to the political right, toward the end of her career her insistence on being considered a universalist, and her refusal to be identified by gender, religion, or sexual orientation, did leave her outside crucial debates that fueled contemporary critical discourse. This suspicion of particularist affiliations placed Sontag at some distance from contemporary art and culture; however, it also stood as an unresolved tension within her own work. For example, despite her disavowal of feminism as “an empty word,” The Volcano Lover ends with the admission by a female character that “all women, including the author of this book … lie to [themselves] about how complicated it is to be a woman.” 

Although Sontag did not write explicitly about Jewish issues, Jews are frequently a point of reference in her writing, from which she drew analogies to other groups. Moreover, Sontag traced her personal interest in photographs of suffering (what she called an “inventory of horror”) back to seeing images of the Holocaust at the age of twelve. She wrote that “Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life— ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts”: before seeing the images and after (On Photography 19-20).

Sontag’s relationship to the Jewish community received much attention in light of her selection as the Jerusalem prize laureate for 2001, particularly as Shimon Peres’s claim that “[F]irst she’s Jewish, then she’s a writer, then she’s American” ran counter to her own self-definition. Furthermore, Sontag’s willingness to accept an award that is “given to writers whose works reflect the freedom of the individual in society” from Israel—a country frequently criticized for violating those same individual rights—raised significant political protest, most notably from left-wing Jewish women’s organizations who saw her acceptance of the prize as “a tacit legitimization of the occupation.” Lashing out at this suggestion, Sontag used the occasion of the award ceremony to criticize Israel’s actions in the territories, accepting the prize “in homage to all the writers and readers in Israel and Palestine struggling to create literature made of singular voices and the multiplicity of truth.” This response, in turn, raised the ire of the right, who attacked her criticism of Israel as the words of a “perfect example of a self-hating Jew.”

Thus, while the “particular” was clearly a matter of concern for Sontag and her critics, Sontag refused to limit herself to any single critical perspective. In her acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize, she explained, “If literature has engaged me as a project, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other dreams, other territories of concern.” What she wrote of Roland Barthes applied well to her own project: “The point is not to teach us something in particular. The point is to make us bold, agile, subtle, intelligent, detached. And to give pleasure” (“On Roland Barthes,” xvii).

Sontag, who had suffered from cancer intermittently for thirty years (she had been told after her original diagnosis in 1975 that she had a ten percent chance of surviving for two years), died of complications of acute myelogenous leukemia on December 28, 2004, two weeks shy of her seventy-second birthday. Leibovitz photographed Sontag’s final days, as she was caring for her, and published images of Sontag on her deathbed in the book A Photographer’s Life:1990-2005 (2006), to some controversy. This would be but the first in a series of posthumous biographical and autobiographical works about Sontag. These include her journals, edited by her son and published in two volumes (Reborn covers 1947-1963 and As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh covers 1964-1980), a play, Sontag: Reborn (2013), based on the journals, an authorized biography, and a documentary film. Sontag has continued to inspire reexamination in as many forms as she herself engaged in.

Of the woman who once described a writer as one who should be “interested in everything,” the New York Times wrote: “What united Sontag’s output was a propulsive desire to define the forces—aesthetic, moral, political—that shape the modernist sensibility. And in so doing, she hoped to understand what it meant to be human in the waning years of the twentieth century.”

Selected Works

Essays

Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus &Giroux, 1966.

Trip to Hanoi. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968.

Styles of Radical Will. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.

On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977.

Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.

“Pilgrimage.” New Yorker (December 21, 1978): 38–54.

Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980.

A Susan Sontag Reader. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982.

AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989.

“Why Are We in Kosovo?” New York Times Magazine, May 2, 1999.

Women, photographs by Annie Leibovitz, essay by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape, 1999.

“The Talk of the Town,” by Susan Sontag et al. The New Yorker, September 24, 2001.

Where the Stress Falls. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001.

Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin, 2003.

“Regarding the Torture of Others.” New York Times, May 23, 2004.

Novels and Short Story Collections

The Benefactor. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1963.

Death Kit. New York: New American Library, 1967.

I, Etcetera. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.

“The Way We Were,” The New Yorker, 1986.

The Volcano Lover. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992.

In America. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000.

Plays

Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight Scenes. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993.

Films and Filmscripts

Duet for Cannibals (1969).

Duet for Cannibals: A Screenplay (1970).

Brother Carl (1971).

Brother Carl: A Filmscript (1974).

Promised Lands (1974).

Unguided Tour (1983).

Diaries

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, ed. David Rieff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008.

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries, 1964-1980, ed. David Rieff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012.

Bibliography

Angelos, Moe. Sontag: Reborn. New York: The Builders Association, 2013.

Aronowitz, Stanley. “Sontag versus Barthes for Barthes’ Sake.” Village Voice Literary Supplement (November 1982): 1+.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. “Eximplosions.” Genre 14:1 (Spring 1981): 9–21.

Brooks, Cleanth. “The Primacy of the Reader.” Mississippi Review 6, No. 2 (1983): 289–301.

Cole, Teju. “What Does It Mean to Look at This?” NYTimes, May 24, 2018.

Contemporary Authors. Vol. 25. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research Co., 1989).

EJ.

Emre, Merve. “Misunderstanding Susan Sontag.” The Atlantic, Sep. 9, 2019.

Fox, Margalit. “Susan Sontag, Social Critic with Verve, Dies at 71.” NYTimes, Dec. 28, 2004.

Hentoff, Nat. “Celebrity Censorship.” Inquiry 5, No. 10 (June 1982): 8.

Hirsch, Marianne. “Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 14, no. 1 (2001): 5–37.

Holdsworth, Elizabeth McCaffrey. “Susan Sontag: Writer-Filmmaker.” Dissertation Abstracts International 42 (April 1982), Ohio State University, 1991.

Hollander, Paul. Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba 1928–1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Howe, Irving. “The New York Intellectuals.” Commentary 46 (October 1968). Reprinted in Selected Writings 1950–1990, by Irving Howe, 267-268. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. “Susan Sontag.” In The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Kendrick, Walter. “In a Gulf of Her Own.” The Nation (October 23, 1982): 404.

Kennedy, Liam. Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Kramer, Hilton. “Anti-Communism and the Sontag Circle.” New Criterion 5, No. 1 (September 1986): 1–7.

Kramer, Hilton. “The Pasionaria of Style.” The Atlantic 50, No. 3 (September 1982): 88–93.

Kaplan, Alice. Dreaming in French. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Kates, Nancy. Regarding Susan Sontag. New York: Women Make Movies, 2014.

Light, Steve. “The Noise of Decomposition: Response to Susan Sontag.” Sub-stance 26 (1980): 85–94.

Linkon, Sherry Lee. “Susan Sontag.” Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook, edited by Ann R. Shapiro et al. New York: Greenwood, 1994.

Lopate, Phillip. Notes on Sontag. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Manson, Aaron. “Remembering Susan Sontag.” Literature and Medicine 24, no. 1 (2005): 1–4.

Moser, Benjamin. Sontag: Her Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 2020.

Moser, Benjamin. “The Pictures Will Not Go Away’: Susan Sontag’s Lifelong Obsession with Suffering.” The Guardian, Sep. 17, 2019.

Nelson, Cary. “Soliciting Self-Knowledge: The Rhetoric of Susan Sontag.” Critical Inquiry (Summer 1980): 707–729.

Nelson, Deborah. Tough Enough. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Podhoretz, Norman. Making It (1967). Cited in Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion, by Liam Kennedy, 133. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Poague, Leland, ed. Conversations with Susan Sontag. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Rich, Frank. “Stage: Milan Kundera’s ‘Jacques and His Master.’” NYTimes, January 24, 1985, C19.

Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Shapiro, Ann R. ed. et al., Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood, 1994).

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How to cite this page

Grauer, Tresa and Dory Fox. "Susan Sontag." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 30, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sontag-susan>.