[Paleopsych] Susan Sontag Package
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Susan Sontag Package
Here comes a whole bunch of obituaries,
appreciations, reviews, and her own writings.
Susan Sontag, Social Critic With Verve, Dies at 71
New York Times (unless specified otherwise) December 28, 2004
By MARGALIT FOX
Susan Sontag, the novelist, essayist and critic whose
impassioned advocacy of the avant-garde and equally
impassioned political pronouncements made her one of the
most lionized presences - and one of the most polarizing -
in 20th-century letters, died yesterday morning in
Manhattan. She was 71 and lived in Manhattan.
The cause was complications of acute myelogenous leukemia,
her son, David Rieff, said. Ms. Sontag, who died at
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, had been ill with
cancer intermittently for the last 30 years, a struggle
that informed one of her most famous books, the critical
study "Illness as Metaphor" (1978).
A highly visible public figure since the mid-1960's, Ms.
Sontag wrote four novels, dozens of essays and a volume of
short stories and was also an occasional filmmaker,
playwright and theater director. For four decades her work
was part of the contemporary canon, discussed everywhere
from graduate seminars to the pages of popular magazines to
the Hollywood movie "Bull Durham."
Ms. Sontag's work made a radical break with traditional
postwar criticism in America, gleefully blurring the
boundaries between high and popular culture. She advocated
an aesthetic approach to the study of culture, championing
style over content. She was concerned, in short, with
sensation, in both meanings of the term.
"The theme that runs through Susan's writing is this
lifelong struggle to arrive at the proper balance between
the moral and the aesthetic," Leon Wieseltier, literary
editor of The New Republic and an old friend of Ms.
Sontag's, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "There
was something unusually vivid about her writing. That's why
even if one disagrees with it - as I did frequently - it
was unusually stimulating. She showed you things you hadn't
seen before; she had a way of reopening questions."
Through four decades, public response to Ms. Sontag
remained irreconcilably divided. She was described,
variously, as explosive, anticlimactic, original,
derivative, na ve, sophisticated, approachable, aloof,
condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic, sincere,
posturing, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing,
profound, superficial, ardent, bloodless, dogmatic,
ambivalent, lucid, inscrutable, visceral, reasoned, chilly,
effusive, relevant, passÈ, ambivalent, tenacious, ecstatic,
melancholic, humorous, humorless, deadpan, rhapsodic,
cantankerous and clever. No one ever called her dull.
Ms. Sontag's best-known books, all published by Farrar,
Straus & Giroux, include the novels "Death Kit" (1967),
"The Volcano Lover" (1992) and "In America" (2000); the
essay collections "Against Interpretation" (1966), "Styles
of Radical Will" (1969) and "Under the Sign of Saturn"
(1980); the critical studies "On Photography" (1977) and
"AIDS and Its Metaphors" (1989); and the short-story
collection "I, Etcetera" (1978). One of her most famous
works, however, was not a book, but an essay, "Notes on
Camp," published in 1964 and still widely read.
Her most recent book, published last year, was "Regarding
the Pain of Others," a long essay on the imagery of war and
disaster. One of her last published essays, "Regarding the
Torture of Others," written in response to the abuse of
Iraqi prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib, appeared in the
May 23, 2004, issue of The New York Times Magazine.
An Intellectual With Style
Unlike most serious
intellectuals, Ms. Sontag was also a celebrity, partly
because of her telegenic appearance, partly because of her
outspoken statements. She was undoubtedly the only writer
of her generation to win major literary prizes (among them
a National Book Critics Circle Award, a National Book Award
and a MacArthur Foundation genius grant) and to appear in
films by Woody Allen and Andy Warhol; to be the subject of
rapturous profiles in Rolling Stone and People magazines;
and to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut
Vodka ad. Through the decades her image - strong features,
wide mouth, intense gaze and dark mane crowned in her
middle years by a sweeping streak of white - became an
instantly recognizable artifact of 20th-century popular
Ms. Sontag was a master synthesist who tackled broad,
difficult and elusive subjects: the nature of art, the
nature of consciousness and, above all, the nature of the
modern condition. Where many American critics before her
had mined the past, Ms. Sontag became an evangelist of the
new, training her eye on the culture unfolding around her.
For Ms. Sontag, culture encompassed a vast landscape. She
wrote serious studies of popular art forms, like cinema and
science fiction, that earlier critics disdained. She
produced impassioned essays on the European writers and
filmmakers she admired, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland
Barthes, Walter Benjamin and Jean-Luc Godard. She wrote
experimental novels on dreams and the nature of
consciousness. She published painstaking critical
dissections of photography and dance; illness, politics and
pornography; and, most famously, camp. Her work, with its
emphasis on the outrÈ, the jagged and the here and now,
helped make the study of popular culture a respectable
What united Ms. Sontag's output was a propulsive desire to
define the forces that shape the modernist sensibility. And
in so doing, she sought to explain what it meant to be
human in the waning years of the 20th century.
To many critics, her work was bold and thrilling.
Interviewed in The Times Magazine in 1992, the Mexican
writer Carlos Fuentes compared Ms. Sontag to the
Renaissance humanist Erasmus. "Erasmus traveled with 32
volumes, which contained all the knowledge worth knowing,"
he said. "Susan Sontag carries it in her brain! I know of
no other intellectual who is so clear-minded, with a
capacity to link, to connect, to relate."
A Bevy of Detractors
Others were less enthralled. Some
branded Ms. Sontag an unoriginal thinker, a popularizer
with a gift for aphorism who could boil down difficult
writers for mass consumption. (Irving Howe called her "a
publicist able to make brilliant quilts from grandmother's
patches.") Some regarded her tendency to revisit her
earlier, often controversial positions as ambivalent. Some
saw her scholarly approach to popular art forms as
pretentious. (Ms. Sontag once remarked that she could
appreciate Patti Smith because she had read Nietzsche.)
In person Ms. Sontag could be astringent, particularly if
she felt she had been misunderstood. She grew irritated
when reporters asked how many books she had in her
apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan (15,000;
no television set). But she could also be warm and girlish,
speaking confidingly in her rich, low voice, her feet
propped casually on the nearest coffee table. She laughed
readily, and when she discussed something that engaged her
passionately (and there were many things), her dark eyes
often filled with tears.
Ms. Sontag had a knack - or perhaps a penchant - for
getting into trouble. She could be provocative to the point
of being inflammatory, as when she championed the Nazi
filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in a 1965 essay; she would
revise her position some years later. She celebrated the
communist societies of Cuba and North Vietnam; just as
provocatively, she later denounced communism as a form of
fascism. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she wrote in
The New Yorker, "Whatever may be said of the perpetrators
of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards." And in
2000, the publication of Ms. Sontag's final novel, "In
America," raised accusations of plagiarism, charges she
Ms. Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in Manhattan on Jan.
16, 1933, the daughter of Jack and Mildred Rosenblatt. Her
father was a fur trader in China, and her mother joined him
there for long periods, leaving Susan and her younger
sister in the care of relatives. When Susan was 5, her
father died in China of tuberculosis. Seeking relief for
Susan's asthma, her mother moved the family to Tucson,
spending the next several years there. In Arizona, Susan's
mother met Capt. Nathan Sontag, a World War II veteran sent
there to recuperate. The couple were married - Susan took
her stepfather's name - and the family moved to Los
For Susan, who graduated from high school before her 16th
birthday, the philistinism of American culture was a
torment she vowed early to escape. "My greatest dream," she
later wrote, "was to grow up and come to New York and write
for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people."
She would get her wish - Ms. Sontag burst onto the scene
with "Notes on Camp," which was published in Partisan
Review - but not before she earned a bachelor's and two
master's degrees from prestigious American universities;
studied at Oxford on a fellowship; and married, became a
mother and divorced eight years later, all by the time she
After graduating from high school, Ms. Sontag spent a
semester at the University of California, Berkeley, before
transferring to the University of Chicago, from which she
received a bachelor's degree in 1951. At Chicago she
wandered into a class taught by the sociologist Philip
Rieff, then a 28-year-old instructor, who would write the
celebrated study "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist" (Viking,
1959). He was, she would say, the first person with whom
she could really talk; they were married 10 days later. Ms.
Sontag was 17 and looked even younger, clad habitually in
blue jeans, her black hair spilling down her back. Word
swept around campus that Dr. Rieff had married a
14-year-old American Indian.
Moving with her husband to Boston, Ms. Sontag earned her
master's degrees from Harvard, the first in English, in
1954, the second in philosophy the next year. She began
work on a Ph.D., but did not complete her dissertation. In
1952 she and Dr. Rieff became the parents of a son. Ms.
Sontag is survived by her son, David Rieff, who lives in
Manhattan and was for many years her editor at Farrar,
Straus & Giroux. (A journalist, he wrote "Slaughterhouse:
Bosnia and the Failure of the West," published by Simon &
Schuster in 1995.) Also surviving is her younger sister,
Judith Cohen of Maui.
After further study at Oxford and in Paris, Ms. Sontag was
divorced from Dr. Rieff in 1958. In early 1959 she arrived
in New York with, as she later described it, "$70, two
suitcases and a 7 year old." She worked as an editor at
Commentary and juggled teaching jobs at City College, Sarah
Lawrence and Columbia. She published her first essays,
critical celebrations of modernists she admired, as well as
her first novel, "The Benefactor" (1963), an exploration of
consciousness and dreams.
Shaking Up the Establishment
With "Notes on Camp" Ms. Sontag fired a shot across the bow
of the New York critical establishment, which included
eminences like Lionel and Diana Trilling, Alfred Kazin and
Irving Howe. Interlaced with epigrams from Oscar Wilde,
that essay illuminated a particular modern sensibility -
one that had been largely the province of gay culture -
which centered deliciously on artifice, exaggeration and
the veneration of style.
"The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery
that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly on
refinement," Ms. Sontag wrote. "The man who insists on high
and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he
continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant
exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself
out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes
upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes
the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the
risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the
If that essay has today lost its capacity to shock, it is a
reflection of how thoroughly Ms. Sontag did her job,
serving as a guide to an underground aesthetic that was not
then widely known.
"She found in camp an aesthetic that was very different
from what the straight world had acknowledged up to that
point, and she managed to make camp 'straight' in a way,"
Arthur C. Danto, the Johnsonian professor emeritus of
philosophy at Columbia and the art critic for The Nation,
said yesterday in a telephone interview. "I think she
prepared the ground for the pop revolution, which was in
many ways essentially a gay revolution, through Warhol and
others. She didn't make that art, but she brought it to
consciousness. She gave people a vocabulary for talking
about it and thinking about it."
The article made Ms. Sontag an international celebrity,
showered with lavish, if unintentionally ridiculous, titles
("a literary pinup," "the dark lady of American letters,"
"the Natalie Wood of the U.S. avant-garde").
Championing Style Over Content
In 1966 Ms. Sontag
published her first essay collection, "Against
Interpretation." That book's title essay, in which she
argued that art should be experienced viscerally rather
than cerebrally, helped cement her reputation as a champion
of style over content.
It was a position she could take to extremes. In the essay
"On Style," published in the same volume, Ms. Sontag
offended many readers by upholding the films of Leni
Riefenstahl as masterworks of aesthetic form, with little
regard for their content. Ms. Sontag would eventually
reconsider her position in the 1974 essay "Fascinating
Though she thought of herself as a novelist, it was through
her essays that Ms. Sontag became known. As a result she
was fated to write little else for the next
quarter-century. She found the form an agony: a long essay
took from nine months to a year to complete, often
requiring 20 or more drafts.
"I've had thousands of pages for a 30-page essay," she said
in a 1992 interview. " 'On Photography,' which is six
essays, took five years. And I mean working every single
That book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award
for criticism in 1978, explored the role of the
photographic image, and the act of picture-taking in
contemporary culture. The crush of photographs, Ms. Sontag
argued, has shaped our perceptions of the world, numbing us
to depictions of suffering. She would soften that position
when she revisited the issue in "Regarding the Pain of
The Washington Post Book World called "On Photography" "a
brilliant analysis," adding that it " merely describes a
phenomenon we take as much for granted as water from the
tap, and how that phenomenon has changed us - a remarkable
enough achievement, when you think about it."
In the mid-1970's Ms. Sontag learned she had breast cancer.
Doctors gave her a 10 percent chance of surviving for two
years. She scoured the literature for a treatment that
might save her, underwent a mastectomy and persuaded her
doctors to give her a two-and-a-half-year course of
Out of her experience came "Illness as Metaphor," which
examined the cultural mythologizing of disease
(tuberculosis as the illness of 19th-century romantics,
cancer a modern-day scourge). Although it did not discuss
her illness explicitly, it condemned the often militaristic
language around illness ("battling" disease, the "war" on
cancer) that Ms. Sontag felt simultaneously marginalized
the sick and held them responsible for their condition..
In "AIDS and Its Metaphors" Ms. Sontag discussed the social
implications of the disease, which she viewed as a
"cultural plague" that had replaced cancer as the modern
bearer of stigma. She would return to the subject of AIDS
in her acclaimed short story "The Way We Live Now,"
originally published in The New Yorker and included in "The
Best American Short Stories of the Century" (Houghton
Although Ms. Sontag was strongly identified with the
American left during the Vietnam era, in later years her
politics were harder to classify. In the essay "Trip to
Hanoi," which appears in "Styles of Radical Will," she
wrote glowingly of a visit to North Vietnam. But in 1982
she delivered a stinging blow to progressives in a speech
at Town Hall in Manhattan. There, at a rally in support of
the Solidarity movement in Poland, she denounced European
communism as "fascism with a human face."
In 1992, weary of essays, Ms. Sontag published "The Volcano
Lover," her first novel in 25 years. Though very much a
novel of ideas - it explored, among other things, notions
of aesthetics and the psychology of obsessive collecting -
the book was also a big, old-fashioned historical romance.
It told the story of Sir William Hamilton, the 18th-century
British envoy to the court of Naples; his wife, Emma ("that
Hamilton woman"); and her lover, Lord Nelson, the naval
hero. The book spent two months on The New York Times
Reviewing the novel in The Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote:
"One thing that makes 'The Volcano Lover' such a delight to
read is the way it throws off ideas and intellectual
sparks, like a Roman candle or Catherine wheel blazing in
the night. Miniature versions of 'Don Giovanni' and 'Tosca'
lie embedded, like jewels, in the main narrative; and we
are given as well some charmingly acute cameos of such
historical figures as Goethe and the King and Queen of
Ms. Sontag's final novel, "In America," was loosely based
on the life of the 19th-century Polish actress Helena
Modjeska, who immigrated to California to start a utopian
community. Though "In America" received a National Book
Award, critical reception was mixed. Then accusations of
plagiarism surfaced. As The Times reported in May 2000, a
reader identified at least a dozen passages as being
similar to those in four other books about the real
Modjeska, including Modjeska's memoirs. Except for a brief
preface expressing a general debt to "books and articles by
and on Modjeska," Ms. Sontag did not specifically
acknowledge her sources.
Interviewed for The Times article, Ms. Sontag defended her
method. "All of us who deal with real characters in history
transcribe and adopt original sources in the original
domain," she said. "I've used these sources and I've
completely transformed them. I have these books. I've
looked at these books. There's a larger argument to be made
that all of literature is a series of references and
Ms. Sontag's other work includes the play "Alice in Bed"
(1993); "A Susan Sontag Reader" (1982), with an
introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick; and four films,
including "Duet for Cannibals" (1969) and "Brother Carl"
(1971). She also edited works by Barthes, Antonin Artaud,
Danilo Kis and other writers.
Ms. Sontag was the subject of an unauthorized biography by
Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, "Susan Sontag: The Making
of an Icon" (Norton, 2000), and of several critical
studies, including "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me,"
by Craig Seligman (Counterpoint/Perseus, 2004). She was the
president of the PEN American Center from 1987 to 1989.
In a 1992 interview with The Times Magazine, Ms. Sontag
described the creative force that animated "The Volcano
Lover," putting her finger on the sensibility that would
inform all her work: "I don't want to express alienation.
It isn't what I feel. I'm interested in various kinds of
passionate engagement. All my work says, be serious, be
passionate, wake up."
An Appreciation | Susan Sontag: A Rigorous Intellectual Dressed in
December 29, 2004
By CHARLES McGRATH
Susan Sontag, who died yesterday at 71, was one of the few
intellectuals with whom Americans have ever been on a
first-name basis. It wasn't intimacy that gave her this
status; it was that like Marilyn and like Judy, she was so
much a star that she didn't need a surname. In certain
circles, at least, she was just Susan, even to people who
had never met her but who would nevertheless talk
knowledgeably and intimately about her latest piece in The
New York Review of Books, her position on Sarajevo, her
verdict on the new W. G. Sebald book. She brought to the
world of ideas not just an Olympian rigor but a glamour and
sexiness it had seldom seen before.
Part of the appeal was her own glamour - the black outfits,
the sultry voice, the trademark white stripe parting her
long dark hair. The other part was the dazzle of her
intelligence and the range of her knowledge; she had read
everyone, especially all those forbidding Europeans -
Artaud, Benjamin, Canetti, Barthes, Baudrillard,
Gombrowicz, Walser and the rest - who loomed off on what
was for many of us the far and unapproachable horizon.
Nor was she shy about letting you know how much she had
read (and, by implication, how much you hadn't), or about
decreeing the correct opinion to be held on each of the
many subjects she turned her mind to. That was part of the
appeal, too: her seriousness and her conviction, even if it
was sometimes a little crazy-making. Consistency was not
something Ms. Sontag worried about overly much because she
believed that the proper life of the mind was one of
re-examination and re-invention.
Ms. Sontag could be a divisive figure, and she was far from
infallible, as when she embraced revolutionary communism
after traveling to Hanoi in 1968 and later declared the
United States to be a "doomed country ... founded on a
genocide." But what her opponents sometimes failed to
credit was her willingness to change her mind; by the 80's
she was denouncing communism for its human-rights abuses,
and by the 90's she had extended her critique to include
the left in general, for its failure to encourage
intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda. She had found herself
"moved to support things which I did not think would be
necessary to support at all in the past," she said in a
rueful interview, adding, "Like seriousness, for instance."
Not that she was ever unserious for very long. There was
about most of her work a European sobriety and
high-mindedness and an emphasis on the moral, rather than
sensual, pleasures of art and the imagination. Her
reputation rests on her nonfiction - especially the essays
in "Against Interpretation" and "Styles of Radical Will"
and the critical studies "On Photography" and "Illness as
Metaphor" - while the 1967 novel "Death Kit," written to a
highbrow formula of dissociation, now seems all but
For a while Ms. Sontag took the French position that in the
right hands criticism was an even higher art form than
imaginative literature, but in the 80's she announced that
she was devoting herself to fiction. She wrote the
indelible short story "The Way We Live Now," one of the
most affecting fictional evocations of the AIDS era, and in
1992 she published a novel, "The Volcano Lover," that had
all the earmarks of the kind of novel she had once made fun
of. It was historical and it was a romance, about the love
affair of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton. Being a Sontag
production, it was of course brainy and stuffed with
fact-laden research, but as many critics pointed out, there
was also a lightness and even - who would have guessed? -
an old-fashioned wish to entertain. Much the same was true
of her last novel, "In America," which came out in 2000,
about a Polish actress who comes to the United States at
the end of the 19th century.
Ms. Sontag was too much a critic and essayist to stick to
her resolve; her last book, "Regarding the Pain of Others"
(2003), was nonfiction, an outspoken tract on how we
picture suffering. Last May she expanded on those ideas for
an article in The New York Times Magazine about the abuses
at Abu Ghraib prison. This piece was classic, provocative
Sontag. But those late novels, playful and theatrical, are
a reminder that behind that formidable, opinionated and
immensely learned persona there was another Sontag, warmer
and more vulnerable, whom we got to see only in glimpses.
'Regarding the Pain of Others'
March 23, 2003
Reviwed by JOHN LEONARD
Toward the end of ''Regarding the Pain of Others,'' her
coruscating sermon on how we picture suffering, Susan
Sontag loses her temper. As usual she's been playing a
solitary hand, shuffling contradictions, dealing
provocations, turning over anguished faces, numbing
numerals, even a jumping jack (''we have lids on our eyes,
we do not have doors on our ears''). But she seems
personally offended by those ''citizens of modernity,
consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity
without risk'' who ''will do anything to keep themselves
from being moved.'' And she is all of a sudden ferocious:
''To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a
breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing
habits of a small, educated population living in the rich
part of the world, where news has been converted into
entertainment. . . . It assumes that everyone is a
spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there
is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to
identify the world with those zones in the well-off
countries where people have the dubious privilege of being
spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other
people's pain . . . consumers of news, who know nothing at
first hand about war and massive injustice and terror.
There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who
are far from inured to what they see on television. They do
not have the luxury of patronizing reality.''
So much, then, for Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard and their
French-fried American fellows in the media studies
programs, looking down on staged events as if from
zeppelins, or like the kings of Burma on the backs of
elephants, remote and twitchy among the pixels, with
multiple views in slo-mo, intimate focus or broad scan, and
an IV-feed of chitchat. When we think about the pictures we
have seen from Bosnia, Rwanda and Chechnya, about the
videotapes available to us of Rodney King being beaten and
Daniel Pearl being murdered, media theory seems merely
Yet Sontag has no more use for the pure of heart and
perpetually incredulous who are always shocked by the
wounds of the world, by evidence of ''hands-on'' cruelty
and proof ''that depravity exists.'' Where have they been?
After a century and a half of photojournalistic witness,
''a vast repository'' of ''atrocious images'' already
exists to remind us of what people can do to each other. At
this late date, to be surprised is to be morally defective:
''No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of
innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance,
So there is suffering, and there are cameras, and it is
possible to worry about the motives of the men and women
behind the cameras, whether one may be too arty, another a
bit mercenary, a third a violence junkie, as it is possible
to worry about whether our looking at the pictures they
bring back from the wound is voyeuristic or pornographic;
whether such witness, competing for notice among so many
other clamors, seems more authentic the more it's
amateurish (accidental, like satellite surveillance);
whether excess exposure to atrocity glossies dulls Jack and
jades Jill; or whether. . . . But then again, maybe these
worries are self-indulgent and beside the point, which
should be to think our way past what happened to why. ''It
is not a defect,'' Sontag says, ''that we do not suffer
enough'' when we see these images:
''Neither is the photograph supposed to repair our
ignorance about the history and causes of the suffering it
picks out and frames. Such images cannot be more than an
invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to
examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by
established powers. Who caused what the picture shows? Who
is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable? Is
there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to
now that ought to be challenged?''
Photographs ''haunt'' us; ''narratives can make us
understand.'' As thinking people used to do, before what
Sontag calls ''the era of shopping,'' we are invited to
make distinctions and connections, and then maybe fix
something. Or have all of us already sold, leased or
leveraged our skepticism, our intellectual property rights
and our firstborn child for a seat at the table and a shot
at the trough?
Sontag of course has done our homework for us, her usual
archaeology. She follows the trail of photojournalism from
Roger Fenton in the Valley of Death after the charge of the
Light Brigade, to Mathew Brady's illustrating of America's
Civil War, to Robert Capa among Spanish Republicans, to the
horrors of Buchenwald and Hiroshima, to famine in India and
carnage in Biafra and napalm in Vietnam and ethnic
cleansing in the Balkans. After consulting Goya on what a
victorious army does to a civilian population, she takes us
to Tuol Sleng, near Phnom Penh, to look at the photographs
the Khmer Rouge took of thousands of suspected
''intellectuals'' and ''counterrevolutionaries'' (meaning
Cambodians who had gone to school, spoke a foreign language
or wore glasses) after they were tortured but before they
She reminds us of how hard it is for the image makers to
keep up with improvements in the technology of torture and
execution, from the stake, the wheel, the gallows tree and
the strappado to smart bombs dreamed up on bitmaps in
virtual realities. (Long-distance mayhem gets longer by the
minute. The British who bombed Iraq in the 1920's and the
Germans who bombed Spain in the 1930's could actually see
their civilian targets, whereas the recent American
bombings of Afghanistan were orchestrated at computer
screens in Tampa, Fla.) She has shrewd things to say about
colonial wars, memory museums, Christian iconography,
lynching postcards, Virginia Woolf, Andy Warhol, Georges
Bataille and St. Sebastian; about ''sentimentality,''
''indecency'' and the ''overstimulation'' Wordsworth warned
us would lead to to (lovely phrase!) ''savage torpor.''
And, as usual, she provokes. It probably isn't true that
''not even pacifists'' any longer believe war can be
abolished, that photos have a ''deeper bite'' in the memory
bank than movies or television, that ''the appetite for
pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the
desire for ones that show bodies naked,'' and that ''most
depictions of tormented, mutilated bodies do arouse a
prurient interest.'' I don't know, and neither does she. On
the other hand, when she revises her own conclusions from
''On Photography'' to say she's no longer so sure that
shock has ''term limits,'' or that ''repeated exposure'' in
''our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force
of photographs of atrocities,'' I agree with her for no
other reason than I want to. Her job is not to win a
verdict from a jury, but to make us think.
And so she has for 40 years. Never mind that Cyndi Lauper
reputation from those essays in ''Against Interpretation''
on happenings, camp and science fiction. Maybe in the early
60's girls just wanted to have fun. By the time of ''Styles
of Radical Will,'' she was already Emma Goldman, if not
Rosa Luxemburg, reviewing Vietnam as if it were a Godard
film. But there was nothing playful about ''On
Photography,'' which deserved all those prizes, or
''Illness as Metaphor,'' which actually saved lives, or
''Under the Sign of Saturn,'' where essays so admiring of
Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti reminded us that she had
always been the best student Kenneth Burke ever had, and
could be relied upon to value Simone Weil over Jack Smith.
''If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky,''
she would write years later, ''then -- of course -- I'd
choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?''
Yes, she had to, with the culture she cared about going
down the tubes. Against that gurgle and flush, she sent up
kites and caught the lightning bottled in ''Where the
Stress Falls,'' asking us to think the prose of poets and
the ''excruciations'' of everybody else, from Machado de
Assis to Jorge Luis Borges to Adam Zagajewski to Robert
Walser to Danilo Kis to Roland Barthes, before he was
struck down by a laundry truck on his way to his mother's,
not to mention side excursions to the dance of Lucinda
Childs, the photography of Annie Leibovitz and the 15-hour
version of Alfred Doblin's ''Berlin Alexanderplatz'' that
Rainer Werner Fassbinder managed to make for German
television. All this, plus what she found out about herself
under the influence of morphine and chemotherapy, and an
essay, hilarious in its very conception, on ''Wagner's
Then there were the novels. If the early ones, ''The
Benefactor'' and ''Death Kit,'' smelled of the lab, the
recent ones, ''The Volcano Lover'' and ''In America,'' are
full of ocean and desert airs. It is an amazing, buoyant
transformation, by a writer with as much staying power as
intellectual wherewithal -- a writer, moreover, who went a
dozen times to Sarajevo while the rest of us were watching
the Weather Channel -- and still she's niggled at even by
people she hasn't sued.
Late in the first act of ''Radiant Baby,'' the new musical
about Keith Haring, they bring on a highfalutin critic. She
is trousered and turtlenecked in black, with a white streak
in her dark mane. She is, of course, a Susan Sontag doll,
maybe even a bunraku puppet. You almost expect her to quote
Kleist. How remarkable, when even the best-known critics in
the history of Western culture pass among us as anonymously
as serial killers, that this one should end up emblematic,
a kind of avant-garde biker chick, and also be so envied
and resented for it. From the political right, you'd expect
vituperation, a punishment for her want of piety or
bloodthirstiness about 9/11, as if all over hate radio, Fox
News and the blogosphere, according to some mystical
upgrade of the Domino Theory, every pip was caused to
squeak. But in our aggrieved bohemias?
Who cares that her picture has been taken by Harry Hess,
Peter Hujar, Irving Penn, Thomas Victor, Diane Arbus,
Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz, not even counting
Woody Allen for purposes of ''Zelig''? That she's shown up
as a character in unkind novels by Judith Grossman, Alfred
Chester, Edmund White, Philippe Sollers, Francis King and
Sarah Schulman? The only Sontag who matters is the one who
keeps on publishing her own books. ''One result of
lavishing a good part of your one and only life on your
books,'' she wrote in 1995, ''is that you come to feel
that, as a person, you are faking it.'' I hope not, but I
don't have time to find out because I have to look up, at
her recommendation, another writer I've never read,
Multatuli, who's written another novel I never heard of,
''Max Havelaar.'' Anyway, in the course of admiring so many
serious thinkers, she became one.
If, however, we must plight some troth to the cult of Gaia,
this is how I imagine her, as the poet Paul Claudel saw the
ornamental sandstone dancing maiden in the jungles of
Cambodia, one of those apsaras that Andre Malraux tried to
steal -- smiling, writes Claudel, her ''Ethiopian smile,
dancing a kind of sinister cancan over the ruins.'' She
knows lots of things the rest of us only wish we did. Think
of Susan Sontag as the Rose of Angkor Wat.
John Leonard reviews books for Harper's Magazine and The
Nation, movies for ''CBS News Sunday Morning'' and
television for New York magazine.
March 12, 2000
Reviewed by SARAH KERR
The narrator of ''In America'' is unidentified save for a
cool, cerebral voice and some quickly dropped biographical
details, like youth in Arizona and California and early
marriage to a formidable intellectual many years her
senior, that self-consciously call to mind the novel's
famous author, Susan Sontag. When we first meet the
narrator, she is out walking in a winter storm. Shivering
from the cold, she passes by a hotel, notices a party on
the ground floor and decides to slip inside and warm up.
And then something strange happens. She speaks an
up-to-date lingo (she ''crashed'' the party, she talks of
''upgrading'' information). But inside the hotel, the
guests chatter away in a language she doesn't know. Odder
still, the ladies are wearing floor-length gowns, while the
gentlemen have on waistcoats; the room is lighted by
stinking gas lanterns, and the cabs everyone arrives in are
powered not by engine but by horse.
Is this some kind of gimmicky costume affair? Has the
narrator unwittingly boarded a time machine? Not quite.
Although she can't speak to the revelers, with a little
effort she is able to suss out who they are and what era
they belong to. The time and place are Russian-occupied
Warsaw, 1876. The guest of honor is the leading Polish
actress of the day, the lovely and charismatic Maryna
Zalezowska. But here is the weird part: our guide knows all
this because, it turns out, she herself has made the whole
scene up. Such an actress really existed, and lived out
adventures roughly resembling those the book is about to
chronicle. But everything else about this party, from the
small talk to the church bells echoing across the city, the
red-faced servant huffing beneath a load of firewood and
the baked black grouse with partridges, comes courtesy of
the narrator's mind. She had, she confesses, been
struggling to work up a story about a different gathering
(another self-reference: the hotel party she first set out
to describe would have taken place in the same era but in
Sarajevo, a city Sontag is widely known to have visited,
bravely, at the height of the bombing in the early 1990's).
Instead, her imagination flew to this party in Warsaw, and
here she has decided to stay. ''I thought if I listened and
watched and ruminated,'' she reasons, ''taking as much time
as I needed, I could understand the people in this room,
that theirs would be a story that would speak to me, though
how I knew this I can't explain.'' Settling into a story --
choosing a setting and characters, working out the
particulars -- is an awkward process for the novelist, part
whim, part a matter of waiting for the authentic detail to
suggest itself; in dramatizing that process Sontag has hit
on a neat metafictional truth.
I dwell on this opening scene because she moves readers
through it with sure-footed and wonderfully daring
technique. At the same time (prelude to a battle that will
rage throughout this book), the ideas about fiction that
Sontag proposes seem the opposite of daring. ''Each of us
carries a room within ourselves, waiting to be furnished
and peopled,'' the narrator announces, sounding a little
passive and complacent. Imagination, she seems to say, is
not much more than a survey of the contents of your own
But back to the story, which improves tenfold once the
narrator gets out of the way and lets the characters do
their thing. Our heroine, Maryna, is heavy-jawed and
sturdily built, too old, at 35, to be strictly beautiful,
but with a diva's ''skillful gestures'' and ''commanding
gaze,'' which make her seem like the most gorgeous creature
anyone has ever seen. Still weak from a recent battle with
typhoid and fed up with the indignities of Russian
occupation, she worries that she is losing her passion for
acting. So she decides to give up her career and sail to
America, and she persuades a full entourage -- including
her decent but sexually absent husband and a young
journalist who longs above all else in life to be her lover
-- to accompany her. Maryna's plan, rather vague, is for
everyone to pitch in toward a humble communal life
somewhere, a more authentic existence; the group is
inspired in part by Fourier's then fashionable ideas but
most of all by the weary actress's desire to be done with
the tired part of Maryna Zalezowska and take on a meaty new
The arrival of these Polish idealists in kitschy America
sets the scene for some charming historical set pieces:
they nibble on that bizarre native delicacy, ''dry airy
lumps made by exploding kernels of white corn,'' and at the
Philadelphia Exposition Maryna marvels at a huge sculpture
of Iolanthe made entirely of butter. Two members of the
party who travel ahead to scout locations pick the unlikely
setting of Anaheim, Calif. (today home to Disneyland, but
back then, apparently, a magnet for Europeans attempting to
learn farming). Living off their savings, the Poles rent a
farm, read agricultural pamphlets, lay out a garden and
na vely attempt to become vintners. And then, after some
stark but rather beautiful months, the idyll falls apart.
The failure is gradual -- drift more than rupture -- and
most of the people involved seem to get over it quickly.
Very quickly, in fact. The novel offers little in the way
of conflict. To support her family, Maryna moves to San
Francisco and returns to the stage under the
easier-to-swallow name Madame Marina Zalenska. At this
point in the story, some novelists might choose to focus on
her insecurities about reviving her abandoned career. But
this heroine is too steely to admit such doubt. ''You feel
strong,'' the narrator says, saluting her willpower. ''You
want to feel strong. The important thing is to go
forward.'' Maryna kicks down barriers as if they were
Styrofoam props. Auditions are a cinch, and famously
tight-fisted impresarios stand in line to put her up in
lavish penthouse suites.
As in her essays, Sontag has a terrific feel for the way
theatrical styles evolve, seeming vital and true when they
burst on the scene, and embarrassing and bizarre the minute
audiences decide they are dated. Maryna appears to stand on
a threshold. Besides Shakespeare, she specializes in the
corny but undeniably moving plays that dominated the
19th-century stage: weepies in the tradition of
''Camille,'' starring a heroine whose love violates social
mores, leading inexorably to her gorgeous, swooning death.
The poignant implication is that in a few decades Maryna
may be regarded as a high priestess of dreck. But for her
time she is an artist of the highest caliber: night after
night, crowd and critics alike get out their handkerchiefs
for her performances.
That Maryna never phones in a sluggish performance, never
even flubs a line, is hard to believe, but then belief may
not be the point. Sontag's fiction, always ripe with ideas,
has often flirted with fantasy. Early on, in the
avant-garde ''Death Kit'' (1967), she probed an average
man's dissociative dreams. Later, she abandoned novel
writing for some 25 years, and when she returned, with
''The Volcano Lover'' (1992), her virtuosic retelling of
the Lord Nelson-Lady Emma Hamilton affair, she seemed drawn
to fantasy of the more traditional variety. That book, with
its famous lovers and Neapolitan background, had the
romantic glamour of an old Saturday matinee. ''In America''
has glamour, too, but it's all funneled into the character
of Maryna, who never goofs, never seems graceless or
cowardly, never does anything to contradict a worshipful
saloonkeeper who declares: ''You're a star. Everyone loves
you. You can do anythin' you want.'' Even Sontag, one
suspects, would admit that Maryna is part fantasy -- a pure
distillation of diva-ness.
Almost but not quite as lively as in ''The Volcano Lover,''
Sontag's prose here is lithe, playful: in spite of the
listless plot, this book has flow. Indeed, ''In America''
reads so smoothly that one could almost accuse Sontag of
placing too few demands on her readers. Stimulating ideas,
as usual, lurk around every corner. But they tend to arrive
pre-interpreted. So marked out are the themes in this book
that within minutes of finishing I felt ready to conduct a
seminar. There is the problem of impermanent utopias.
(Brook Farm is referred to, and Maryna's favorite role is
plucky Rosalind from ''As You Like It,'' the saddest of
comic heroines, who escapes to the forest of Arden and
feels both free and banished from freedom.) There is the
unexpected kinship between Poland and the United States,
countries that have little in common except the fantasy
that they have been singled out for a remarkable destiny --
America chosen to liberate the rest of the world, and
Poland, after centuries of attacks and occupations,
assigned a noble martyrdom. There is the paradox that
Americans then as now were suspicious of art, preferring
loud capitalist spectacles with junk food, and yet
Shakespeare was so popular in the 19th century that even a
rowdy town like Virginia City had a company of actors who
knew his plays by heart. There is the way Maryna's abrupt
change of roles stands for the changes ordinary
19th-century women may have wanted to make but couldn't.
''It is harder for a woman to want a life different from
the one decreed for her,'' Maryna writes a friend back
home, spelling out her predicament a little too explicitly.
''A woman has so many inner voices telling her to behave
prudently, amiably, timorously.''
And of course there is the classic Henry James problem
turned inside out, with refined intellectuals set loose in
vast, bumpkin America. Of all Sontag's themes, this is both
the most lighthearted and the most labored. The
observations she makes about America (it's a place that
wants ''endlessly to be remade, to shuck off the
expectations of the past, to start anew with a lighter
burden'') have been made for centuries, rather forcefully,
by many of our greatest writers, not to mention by Madonna.
Nor is this the only instance where Sontag plays with
imagery that is startlingly familiar. When the journalist
first crosses the Atlantic, his boat trip matches to a T
what you expect from the movies. Ditto the comic-relief
character of Miss Collingridge, a sexless spinster diction
coach who beseeches Maryna to say ''Idiot. Not eediot. And
kill, not keel''; she could have been invented by James or
Trollope, and played on film by a young Eve Arden. As for
Maryna, with her aristocratic ennui, eroticized yet asexual
glamour, cement-thick but enchanting accent and stardom
lived as a kind of exile, it's hard not to be reminded of
Garbo in ''Grand Hotel,'' tearfully pleading, ''I vant to
Much of this dÈjá vu may well be on purpose. Sontag was the
great champion of camp, after all. Throughout her career
she has been ravenously curious about all categories of
aesthetic experience, and the stereotype is a perfectly
legitimate, even fascinating category to explore. But if
American culture can claim any particular virtue right now,
surely it's a highly evolved, ironic awareness of many of
the clichÈs Sontag is describing as if for the first time.
We have VH1 to tell us all about divas, and talk shows to
remind us that we like to change identities at the drop of
a hat. And didn't Sontag raise the stakes slightly higher
in that opening chapter, when she said, essentially, Here
is what my imagination is capable of; here is what I have
been able to see? The irony is that Sontag's mind has such
a rigorous, dauntingly original reputation; her thoughts,
it is generally assumed, run on ahead of her sometimes dry
prose. Maybe elsewhere but not here. Sentence by sentence,
scene to scene, the writing in ''In America'' is utterly
nimble. It's the ideas, somehow, that lag behind.
Sarah Kerr is a writer on culture and politics.
'Illness as Metaphor'
July 16, 1978
Reviewed by DENIS DONOGHUE
Illness as Metaphor" first appeared as three long essays in
the New York Review of Books last January and February. The
essays have been revised in a spirit of discretion. Wilhelm
Reich's language is no longer described as having "its own
inimitable looniness"; now it has "its own inimitable
coherence." Laetrile is a "dangerous nostrum" rather than a
"quack cure." John Dean is not reported as calling
Watergate "the cancer on the Presidency." The revised
version has him explaining Watergate to Nixon: "We have a
cancer within -- close to the Presidency -- that's
growing." Far-right groups no longer have "a paranoid view
of the world"; now they have a "politics of paranoia." All
the textual changes I have come across serve the cause of
But Susan Sontag is still angry. Her book is not about
illness, but about the use of illness as a figure or
metaphor. She is particularly concerned with the
metaphorical sue of tuberculosis in the 19th century and
cancer in the 20th. Most of these metaphors are lurid, and
they turn each disease into a mythology. Until 1882, when
tuberculosis was discovered to be a bacterial infection,
the symptoms were regarded as constituting not merely a
disease but a stage of being, a mystery of nature. Those
who suffered from the disease were thought to embody a
special type of humanity. The corresponding typology
featured not bodily symptoms but spiritual and moral
attributes: nobility of soul, creative fire, the melancholy
of Romanticism, desire and its excess. Today, if Miss
Sontag's account is accurate, there is a corresponding
stereotype of the cancer victim: someone emotionally inert,
a loser, slow, bourgeois, someone who has steadily
repressed his natural feelings, especially of rage. Such a
person is thought to be cancer-prone.
Most of Miss Sontag's evidence for attitudes about
tuberculosis is taken from 19th-century novels and operas.
Evidence for attitudes about cancer is rarely cited at all,
except from wild men like Reich and George Groddeck. At one
point Miss Sontag says that "there is peculiarly modern
predilection for psychological explanations of disease, as
of everything else" and that these explanations are popular
because psychology is "a sublimated spiritualism," "a
secular, ostensibly scientific way of affirming the primacy
of 'spirit' over matter." But she does not produce any
respectable evidence for these assertions.
If a doctor gave me a psychological stereotype instead of a
cure or an alleviation, I'd demand my money back. If
doctors have nothing better to say than that you have
cancer because you are the type of person to get cancer,
then indeed they should keep quiet. But because they don't
know what causes cancer, their offense is venial if they
hazard a guess.
Miss Sontag says that the most truthful way for regarding
illness is the one most purified of metaphoric thinking. A
disease should be regarded as a disease, not as a sign of
some terrible law of nature or an otherwise unnamable evil.
I agree with her. But anger drives her to the point of
asserting that "our views about cancer, and the metaphors
we have imposed on it, are so much a vehicle for the large
insufficiencies of this culture, for our reckless
improvident responses to our real 'problems of growth,' for
our inability to construct an advanced industrial society
which properly regulates consumption, and for our justified
fears of the increasingly violent course of history." Very
little evidence is produced that would sustain this list of
The gross mythology of tuberculosis did not persist after
the discovery of streptomycin in 1944 and the introduction
isoniazid in 1952. I cannot believe that the sinister
mythology of cancer will persist after the causes of the
disease are known and a successful treatment is produces.
It is appalling that the disease retains its secret. So
long as it dies, the secret is likely to turn itself into a
mystery and to stand for nameless evils of every kind. In
the meantime we should be alert to our attitudes and to our
words. Miss Sontag's book is bound to help in this respect,
even though it is short of evidence. "As long as a
particular disease is treated as an evil, invincible
predator, not just a disease, most people with cancer will
indeed be demoralized by learning what disease they have."
I'm sure that's true, though I'm not convinced that many
cancer patients are encouraged or forced to think of their
disease in that way. What they fear is not an evil,
invincible predator, but the terrible probability that
their disease will result in death. If the metaphorical use
of cancer discouraged doctors from trying to discover its
cause and its cure, the situation would indeed be obscene,
but there is no evidence that this is the case. Still, we
are careless in our language. Miss Sontag is right in that
But she is not innocent in her practice. She confesses that
once, in despair over America's war on Vietnam, she wrote
that "the white race is the cancer of human history." That
is the kind of statement she would now repudiate, not for
its political sentiment but for its recourse to the
metaphor of cancer. In the last chapter of her book she
comments on the fact that the same vocabulary is used in
reference to cancer, aerial warfare and science fiction.
Cancer cells invade the body, patients are bombarded with
toxic rays, chemotherapy is chemical warfare: the enemy is
a nameless Other to be conquered and destroyed. Tumors are
malignant or benign. And so on. "The use of cancer in
political discourse," Miss Sontag maintains, "encourages
fatalism and justifies 'severe' measures -- as well as
strongly reinforcing the widespread notion that the disease
is necessarily fatal."
Miss Sontag is sensitive to this issue partly, I think,
because she knows that her own rhetoric has often been
guilty. Her victims have mostly been literary critic, so
they have not deserved better treatment, but the habit of
mind in her sentences has regularly been punitive. In the
first pages of "Against Interpretation," for instance, she
wrote that "like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy
industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of
interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities."
The works of Beckett, she went on, have "attracted
interpreters like leeches." A few pages later she wrote of
"the infestation of art by interpretations." "Think of the
sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one
of us," she continued, "superadded to the conflicting
tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that
bombard our senses." And the first sentence of her review
of Sartre's "Saint Genet" reports that it is "a cancer of a
book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas
borne aloft by a tone of vicious solemnity and by ghastly
repetitiveness." If any other critic were to write that
sentence, Miss Sontag would italicize "cancer,"
"grotesquely" and "ghastly" and accuse him of having an
None of these sentences represents Miss Sontag at her best.
At her best she is tough but fair. I have found "Illness as
Metaphor" a disturbing book. I have read it three times,
and I still find her accusations unproved. But the book has
some extraordinarily perceptive things about our attitudes:
how we view insanity, for instance, of heart disease.
Nearly everything she writes demands to be qualified, but
that demand is rarely met: she silences it before it has a
chance to utter itself. I think her mind is powerful rather
than subtle; it is impatient with nuances that ask to be
heard, with minute discriminations that, if entertained,
would impede the march of her argument. She is happiest
when attacking a prejudice or a superstition or whatever
she deems to be such, some force at large in the world that
doesn't deserve the qualification that a more scrupulous
mind would feel obliged to propose. She had the mind of a
person who wants results and wants them now. So the
elective affinity between her mind and its object is
explained by the fact that each is present in the world as
a form of power.
To Miss Sontag, writing is combat. If I wanted to see a
fine discrimination made, with precisely the right degree
of allowance for and against, I wouldn't ask Miss Sontag to
supply it. She would be bored by the request. But if I
badly wanted to win, at nearly any cost, I would do
anything to have Miss Sontag on my side. As in "Against
Interpretation," "Styles of Radical Will," "Trip to Hanoi"
and now "Illness as Metaphor," she would use lurid
metaphors to fight lurid metaphors, believing that a good
end justifies any means, any language, any style.
It is my impression that "Illness as Metaphor" is a deeply
personal book pretending for the sake of decency to be a
thesis. As an argument, it seems to me strident,
unconvincing as it stands, a prosecutor's brief that admits
nothing in defense or mitigation. The brief is too brief to
be just. So the reader is left with a case not fully made
but points acutely established; enough, at any rate, to
make him feel not only that he must in future watch his
language but, with the same vigilance, watch his attitudes,
Denis Donoghue is professor of Modern English and American
Literature at University College, Dublin. His most recent
book is "The Sovereign Ghost." He will teach at the
Graduate Center in the City University of New York next
December 18, 1977
Reviewed by WILLIAM H. GASS
Mirrors and fatherhood are abominable, the anonymous
narrator of one of Borges's apocalyptic tales tells us,
because they multiply and disseminate an already illusory
universe; and if this opinion is, as seems likely, surely
true, then what of the most promiscuous and sensually
primitive of all our gadgets -- the camera -- which
copulates with the world merely by widening its eye, and
thus so simply fertilized, divided itself as quietly as
amoebas do, and with a gentle buzz slides its newborn image
into view on a coated tongue?
No simple summary of the views contained in Susan Sontag's
brief but brilliant work on photography is possible, first
because there are too many, and second because the book is
a thoughtful meditation, not a treatise, and its ideas are
grouped more nearly like a gang of keys upon a ring than a
run of onions on a sting. I can only try, here, to provide
kid of dissolute echo of her words. The hollow sounds are
all my own.
Susan Sontag not only has made films -- and written
critical essays ("Notes on Camp," "Against Interpretation")
and fiction -- she also has a passionate interest in the
Nikon's resonant echo or the Brownie's little print, as
this beautiful book attests. Every page of "On Photography"
raises important and exciting questions about its subject
and raises them in the best way. In a context of clarity,
skepticism and passionate concern, with an energy that
never weakens but never blusters, and with an admirable
pungency of thought and directness of expression that
sacrifices nothing of sublety or refinement, Sontag
encourages the reader's cooperation in her enterprise.
Though disagreement at some point is certain, and every
notion naturally needs refinement, every hypothesis
support, every alleged connection further oil, the book
understands exactly the locale and the level of its
argument. Each issue is severed at precisely the right
point, nothing left too short or let go on too long. So her
book has, as we say, a good head: well cut, perfectly
coiffed, uniform or complete in tone of color, with touches
of intelligence so numerous they create a picture of
photography the way those grains of gray compose the print.
Sontag's comments on the work of Diane Arbus are
particularly apt and beautifully orchestrated, as she
raises the level of our appreciation and understanding of
these strange photographs each time, in the course of her
exposition, she has occasion to remark upon them. But these
six elegant and carefully connected essays are not really
about individual photographers, nor solely about the art,
but rather about the act of photography at large, the
plethora of the product, the puzzles of its nature.
Principal among these problems is the fact that "the line
between 'amateur' and 'professional,' 'primitive' and
'sophisticated' is not just harder to draw with photography
than it is with painting -- it has little meaning. Naive or
commercial or merely utilitarian photography is no
different in kind from photography as practiced by the most
gifted professionals: there are pictures taken by anonymous
amateurs which are just as interesting, as complex
formally, as representative of photography's characteristic
powers as Stieglitz or a Walker Evans."
Technical finish is not a measure. Intention scarcely
maters. The subject alone signs no guarantee. I once took a
terribly overexposed photograph of a Spanish olive grove,
but if you thought I had intended the result, you could
admire the interplay of the trees' washed-out form, the
heat that seems to sweep through the grove like the wind.
The fact is that, although there are many calculations
which can be made before any photograph is taken, and of
course tricks can be played during the developing afterward
the real work is executed in a single click. A photograph
comes into being, as it is seen, all at once.
The decisions a photographer must make, compared to those
of the flower-arranger or salad chef, are few and simple
indeed. The effects of his actions are dominated by
accident: the ambiance of an instant in the camera's
apprehension of the world. The formal properties of
photographs, even the most formal ones, are too often
exhausted in a glance, and we return to the subject, again
and again, with other than esthetic interest. So far,
certainly, the artistic importance of the camera has been
secondary to its effect on society, on our knowledge of
processes like aging, of things and beings (like the body
of the opposite sex), on our standards of illustration an
documentation, our ability to influence others with its
powerful rhetoric, its untiring surveillance. It has
changed the composition of our amusements and pastimes
beyond return, altered our attitudes toward seeing itself.
One realizes, reading Susan Sontag's book, that the
image has done more than smother or mask or multiply its
object. My face is only photography, and people inspect me
to see if I resemble it. The family album demonstrates to
me what I don't yet feel: not that I was young once, but
that I'm old now. Time, so long as it lingers in the look,
is visible to us in this photographic age in a way it was
never visible before, among familiar things, we fail to
measure change with any accuracy; but the camera records
one step upon the stone, and then another, until the foot
has worn a hollow like a hand cupped to catch rain. Process
has become perceptible in the still.
And that is strange. For the still photograph is rarely of
a still subject, although in slower days one was cautioned
not to move; and the image the camera caught, and was made
to cough up, was an image already stopped, seized, like the
victims of Pompeii's lava, in the slow flow of the
subject's will. We can easily see the difference now,
because, out of the continuities of experience, the sitter
(that was the word) selected the slice that was to stand
for his or her life, the prettiest or most imposing self
(although this itself took skill that few possess); whereas
it is normally the camera that makes the choice these days,
and we are encouraged to relax, to guard against being on
our guard, as if the pose were merely that, and the candid
camera, more likely to serve up a fairer, fuller share of
us that our own decision would supply. Besides, ceremonies
are another thing of the past, and a visit to the
photographer is itself something to be photographed before
it disappears like the Aborigines. What was once a black
box with a backwards beard, a menacing presence, a
merciless eye, has become as discreet as a quick peek,
friendly as an old chum, ubiquitous as bees at a picnic or
Japanese school children at a shrine.
But camera enthusiasts are nor always fans of the
photograph. There are too many benefits in the point and
click itself. The business of taking a picture is, first of
all, a flattering and righteous one, as Sontag points out,
so the shooter is accorded considerable respect: If the
subject, we are pleased to have been found "pictorial,"
worthy of homage or memorial; if a bystander, we do not
wish so come between the lens and its love, so we stop or
turn aside or otherwise absent our image. It is bad manners
to block the view or be insensitive to the claims of the
We have learned to read resemblance as easily as English. A
photograph is flat, reduced, rigidly rectangular like the
view-finder, cropped out of space like a piece of grass,
sliced from time like cheese or salami, fixed on a piece of
transportable paper, soft or glossy as no perception is,
often taken at artificial speeds, positions, distances, so
we can "see" both shatters and implosions, the pale
denizens of caves or the deep sea, the insides of minerals,
as she says, crystals, sky, the speed of bees; and almost
invariably, in the case of the serious camera, the
photograph is composed wholly of shadow, its shades going
from gray to gray like night or our moods in a state of
depression; yet we breathe in its illusions like a heavy
Sontag omits none of these matters, touching on them
frequently, each time in a more complex and complete way,
though her method (exactly appropriate to the vastness of
her subject, the untechnical level of her language, the
literary nature of her form) allows only the brush, the
mention, the intriguing suggestion. Given my own
philosophical biases, I should have been pleased to see her
weigh more heavily the highly conventional character of the
simplest Polaroid. However, the belief in the realism of
its image is fundamental to the cultural impact of the
camera, and since that is an important part of her theme,
she is right to stress it.
Even if the camera were more like the eye than it is, and
Sontag is both put off and beguiled by the parallels, it
sits steady as the spider for the fly, sees only in a
blink, and is sightless 99 percent of the time -- while we
see between blinks as between Venetian blinds, and our
sight is thus relatively uninterrupted, in a sense
continuing even through our sleep.
When we see, there is always the "I" as well as the eye.
There is the frame of the eye socket, the fringe of hair,
the feel of the face, our hungers, hopes and hates - that
full and exuberant life in which objects seen are seen
because they're sought, complained of, or encountered --
though no photograph contains them. And when we carry away
from any experience a visual memory (remote, conventional,
schematic in its own way, too ... no souvenir), that
recollection is private, not public; it cannot be handed
round for sniggers, smiles or admiration; it cannot lie a
lifetime in a box to be discovered by distant cousins who
will giggle at the quaintness of its clothing.
No. I think that I would want to say that the camera only
pretends to be an eye. It creates another object to be
seen, yet one that exists quite differently than a
perception; not merely differing as people differ who come
from different climates and geography, but as entities
differ which have their homes in different realms of Being.
It is not sight the camera satisfies so thoroughly, but the
mind; for it creates in a click a visual concept of its
object, a sign whose substance seems seductively the same
as its sense, yet whose artificiality is no less than the
S's that line the sentence like nervous sparrows on a
Sontag discusses, it seems to me, a number of separate,
though not necessarily equal or even exclusive views of
what the serious purpose of photography might be, apart
from the immediate needs of sentiment and utility it so
obviously serves. The camera certainly confers an identity
on whatever it isolates, however arbitrary the framing. It
permits its subject to speak to the world, in a way it
would otherwise never be able to do, by multiplying its
presence, taking it from its natural environment and
placing it within the reach of many, as though it could
live well anywhere, like the starling.
The lens removes reality from reality better than a
surgeon, and allows us to witness killing with impunity,
nakedness without shame, weddings without weeping, miracles
without astonishment, poverty without pain, death without
anxiety. It discovers a desirable titillation in
overlooked, humble, ugly, out-of-the-way or unlikely
objects, often reflecting the interest of a social class in
what the camera considers exotic.
It can create an image that will interpret its object , so
that the shot will not be a cartoon balloon fixed to
something real, but a caption of commentary, like an
epitaph, beneath. In addition, the camera finds forms in
nature that are the same as those which establish beauty in
the other arts, an thus proves that photography is itself
an art -- an art of structural epiphany, if God has had a
hand in the laws of Nature.
The camera is a leveler. It makes everything photogenic.
Every angle of an object has an interest, as has every
object from any angle, every entrance, every exit, however
odd or quick or small or previously proscribed. A scullery
maid may make a better picture than a queen. And the eye is
omnivorous as an army of army ants. The perfect cook, the
camera can make anything, in a photograph as on a platter,
look good. Of course, the camera may be registering exactly
that relation of eye and apprehension which give the
machine is particular epistemology.
The image is magically superior to the word because, though
a gray ghost, the photo is believed to possess actual
properties of its object. Furthermore, the relation between
image and object has been made by machine -- a device that
lifts off a look with less wear than a rubbing -- yet what
in the image is the same as its source?
In a sense, what one catches in a photograph is reflected
light, and film is like river sand that receives the
imprint of the drinking deer, or mud that preserves the
tire tread of a robber's car; but the causal connection is
loose, and can be faked. Suppose, for instance, we
contrived to dimple up an image, by artificial means,
created the picture of a person who never existed (doctored
photographs do that for events). The photo would still
"look like" a man, but it would not be the image of
anybody, and so (without its of) would not be an image.
Would it any longer be a photograph?
The great equalizer, the camera has brought democracy to
the visual levels of the world. Now images accompany us
everywhere, even attesting to our quite fragile and always
dubious identity (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein: I am I
because my shrunken photo shows me). Though only a hundred
years old as an art, photography seems already ageless as a
skill, its product without limit, even if its images are
not immortal and do decay, and even if some species are
endangered. Perhaps they move us too easily, as though we
stood on skates. Perhaps, at the same time, we have grown
too familiar with the way the camera makes our common clay
seem strange. Now, not even strangeness is unfamiliar.
Instead of text accompanied by photographs, Susan Sontag
has appended to her book a collection of quotes, framed by
punctuational space and the attribution of source. These
are clipped from their context to create, through collage,
another context -- yet more words. And for a book on
photography that shall surely stand near the beginning of
all our thoughts upon the subject, maybe there is a
message, a moral, a lesson, in that.
William H. Gass is the author of "Omensetter's Luck,"
"Fiction and the Figures of Life," "On Being Blue" and
other books. He is professor of philosophy at Washington
University, St. Louis.
January 23, 1966
Reviewed by BENJAMIN DEMOTT
The lady swings. She digs the Supremes and is savvy about
Camp. She catches the major Happenings and the best of the
kinky flicks. She likes her hair wild and her sentences
intense ("I couldn't bear what I had written," etc.; "I
could not stand the omnipotent author," etc.). She mocks
Establishment biggies (Charles Snow, Arthur Miller) and
worships little mag kings (Genet, Resnais, Artaud, that
whole unruddy gang). And time and time over she flaunts
intellectual pieties, as with her hint that critical
problems are like Kleenex and the mind is a runny nose. ("I
have the impression not so much of having, for myself,
solved ... problems as of having used them up.")
Yet despite all this, despite coterie ties, clever
girlisms, a not completely touching softness toward the
cant of the Edie & Andy world the author of the collection
of essays and reviews at hand stands forth as a genuine
discovery. Her book, which includes 26 pieces published
between 1961 and 1965 in periodicals ranging from Partisan
Review to Film Quarterly, is a vivid bit of living history
here and now, and at the end of the sixties it may well
rank among the invaluable cultural chronicles of these
That this is so owes much to the alertness and integrity
with which Susan Sontag details her own responses to the
more startling and symptomatic esthetic inventions of
recent days. These inventions don't figure, to be sure, in
every piece assembled here. A substantial portion of this
book is about other books -- plain, ordinary,
print-and-paper works of Pavese, Sartre, Simone Weil,
Leiris, Lukacs, Levi-Strauss. What is more, the critical
argument patched on as a unifying line, in introductory and
concluding essays, appears to derive less directly from
experience with new-wave films, pop art and the like, than
from overexposure to certain fringe movements of literary
And, as has to be added, that argument isn't especially
fresh or well-informed. Miss Sontag's announced cause is
that of design, the surface art in the Jamesian sense in
fine, the cause of style. She invokes a (predictable)
string of sages from Ortega y Gasset to Marshall McLuhan in
support of the claim that "interpreters" -- people who
"translate the elements of the poem or play or novel or
story into something else" -- are philistines. And,
impatient with theorists who continue to treat novels and
movies as means of "depicting and commenting on secular
reality," she insists that art now is "a new kind of
instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and
organizing new modes of sensibility."
One weakness of the case, in the present version, is it
rather beamish dependence on crude distinctions between
form and content. Another is that it lacks urgency. The
author believes her sort of thinking is out of favor and
that lit-crit generally in the last few decades has avoided
matters of structure and style. She is wrong by a country
mile on this point, and the embattled sections of her book
seem, in consequence, more like tomboy fantasies than
reactions to critical things as they are.
Competent chatterers about critical things as they are,
though, aren't in short supply these days. What is rare is
the writer who has moved beyond the Gee Whiz or See Here
response to the new art the observer who breathes naturally
in encounters with a Godard film or a nouveau roman and
takes as his critical purpose the re-creation of these
encounters as known an experienced by the feelings and the
imagination. Miss Sontag at her best is such a writer. She
doesn't simply view a Happening, for instance; she inhabits
the moment of its "performance" and gives it back to her
reader as an inward disturbance as well as a set of odd
outward events. We, the audience, feel "teased" and
"abused," she reports. Nobody caters to our desire to see
everything, events occur in semidarkness or simultaneously
in different rooms, we are "deliberately frustrated,"
"enveloped," mocked, turned into scapegoats:
"I, and other people in the audience, often laugh during
Happenings. I don't think this is simply because we are
embarrassed or made nervous by violent and absurd actions.
I think we laugh because what goes on in the Happenings is,
in the deepest sense, funny. This does not make it any less
terrifying. There is something that moves one to laughter
... in the most terrible of modern catastrophes and
atrocities. There is something comic in modern experience
as such, a demonic, not a divine comedy."
As every schoolboy knows, no critic can recover and
re-create an esthetic experience in its wholeness. Formulas
and summarizing ploys inevitably turn up in "Against
Interpretation" -- the key words and phrases are: "mixtures
of attitude," "contradiction" and "radical juxtaposition."
And in a few sections there is laziness and fudging. Miss
Sontag notes that "Pop art lets in wonderful and new
mixtures of attitude which would before have seemed
contradictions" but analyzes the mixtures too sketchily and
doesn't specify the quality of the relevant feelings.
Her patience now and again fails her: she calls up the
weird images in Jack Smith's film "Flaming Creatures,"
claims the film is "a brilliant spoof on sex" that is also
"full of the lyricism of the erotic impulse" -- but races
away with too few words about how this simultaneity of
lyric and satiric modes feels on the pulses. And, since a
good deal of the book consists of reviews, the best work of
the artist under consideration is sometimes scanted. (A
piece about Nathalie Sarraute focuses for most of its
length on this writer's fictional manifesto and deals only
dryly, in a paragraph, with her novels.)
But the final impression, to repeat, is by no means that of
perfunctory writing. Miss Sontag drives herself hard, more
often than not, in the interest of adequacy of response.
Her passing remarks on figures as dissimilar as Taylor
Mead, Tammy Grimes, the Beatles and Harpo Marx are alive
with a sense of what it is like to watch these performers.
Her descriptions of the sensations and feelings engaged or
disengaged during Brecht plays, good and bad Ionesco, Peter
Weiss's "Marat-Sade," and the films of Bresson and Godard
are at once subtle and exact. And there are moments at
which, pressing toward a perception of the kinds of feeling
articulated in a particular esthetic taste, she rises to
analysis that is nothing less than exhilaratingly shrewd --
witness the swift, unpretentious, deliciously comprehending
remarks on "sweet cynicism" and "tenderness" in her famous
"Notes on Camp."
More piquant than any of this, there is at every moment the
achieved character of the observer herself. He "I" of
"Against Interpretation" isn't a mere pallid, neutral
register; it is a self clear enough in outline to provide
answers to many of the cultural historian's bald questions
-- as, for example, the question who needs the new art and
why? Spiky, jealous of her preferences, seemingly
exacerbate by the very notion that others may share them,
Miss Sontag obliquely confirms that enthusiasts of the new
art tend to be people who need badge of difference from the
herd. Impatient, restless, her nerve ends visible in
sentence after sentence (can't bear it, can't stand it),
she further testifies that one pleasure offered by the new
art is a release from that prison of patience and
ploddingness into which traditional art locks its audience.
Finally: suspicious of order, certain beyond doubt that
sanity itself is but a cozy lie, she reveals that the new
art is, most profoundly, a mode of self-torment -- a means
by which guilty men who know the real truth of existence
(life is meaningless) can punish themselves for finkishly
ignoring it and dallying day by day with the comfortable
old deceits of good sense.
To make this last point, is, of course, to say that a
thoroughly American figure stands at the center of "Against
Interpretation." The dress is new, true enough, and the
images strange. The haunting image is that of a lady of
intelligence and apparent beauty hastening along city
streets at the violet hour, nervous, knowing, strained,
excruciated (as she says) by self-consciousness, bound for
the incomprehensible cinema, or for the concert hall where
non-music is non-played, or for the loft where cherry bombs
explode in her face and flour sacks are flapped close to
her, where her ears are filled with mumbling, senseless
sound and she is teased, abused, enveloped, deliberately
frustrated until --
Until we, her audience, make out suddenly that this scene
is, simply, hell, and that the figure in it (but naturally)
is old-shoe-American: a pilgrim come again, a flagellant,
one more Self-lacerating Puritan. A few readers, mainly
swingers, will be vexed by the discovery of this "radical
juxtaposition," for it does rather mock the gospel of
"liberation." But most readers will acknowledge, at the
least, that to have brought such a complex figure to life
in a collection of essays is a feat. Miss Sontag has
written a ponderable, vivacious, beautifully living and
quite astonishingly American book.
Mr. DeMott, the author of "Hells and Benefits," is
professor of English at Amherst.
Some art aims directly at arousing the feelings; some art
appeals to the feeling through the route of the
intelligence. There is art that involves, that creates
empathy. There is art that detaches, that provokes
Great reflective art is not frigid. It can exalt the
spectator, it can present images that appall, it can make
him weep. but its emotional power is mediated. The pull
toward emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements
in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness,
impartiality. Emotional involvement is always, to a greater
or lesser degree, postponed.
-- From "Against Interpretation."
'The Volcano Lover: A Romance'
August 9, 1992
Reviewed by JOHN BANVILLE
At a literary festival some years ago, the critic George
Steiner expressed his impatience at the arrogance of poets
and novelists, most of whom, it seemed to him, believe that
theirs are the only areas of literature in which a writer
can be truly creative. For his part, he declared, he would
happily swap any number of second-rate sonnets for one page
of Claude Levi-Strauss's "Tristes Tropiques," and whole
shelves full of indifferent novels for a single chapter of
Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams." His remarks aroused
anger and vituperation, of course, yet many in the audience
thought he had a point. That point, however, loses some of
its acuity when one recalls that Mr. Steiner has committed
fiction of his own -- three books of it, in fact. Would he
exchange his first volume of tales, "Anno Domini," for a
page of his "Language and Silence"? Perhaps he would; yet
it seems that even the profoundest critics are not content
merely to criticize fiction, but itch also to produce the
"The Volcano Lover" is a surprise. A historical novel by
Susan Sontag? And a historical novel that declares itself
(shamelessly, one almost wants to say) to be a romance, at
that? Who would have thought it? Although she has written
fiction in the past, Ms. Sontag is best known as a critic
who for the last 30 years has been one of the leaders of
the avant-garde in the United States, the American champion
and interpreter of such quintessentially European figures
as Roland Barthes and E. M. Cioran. Surely the author of
that seminal essay "Against Interpretation" would look with
nothing but scorn upon a modern-day attempt to produce
something worthwhile in such a tired old genre as the
historical novel? Well, not a bit of it. "The Volcano
Lover," despite a few nods of acknowledgment toward
post-modernist self-awareness, is a big, old-fashioned
broth of a book. Sir Walter Scott would surely have
approved of it; in fact, he would probably have enjoyed it
THE "volcano lover" of the title is Sir William Hamilton,
the British diplomat and antiquary who is best remembered
as the complaisant husband of Emma Hamilton, notorious
mistress of Admiral Nelson. The book is set for the most
part in Naples, where, from 1764 until his recall under a
cloud in 1800, Sir William was the British envoy to the
court of the egregious Bourbon monarch Ferdinand IV, later
to become Ferdinand I, King of the Two Sicilies, and his
formidable Austrian wife, Maria Carolina, sister of Marie
Antoinette. The novel is a kind of triptych, divided among
Hamilton, his wife and Lord Nelson. Ms. Sontag presents her
characters in a way that is at once stylized and intimate;
they might be figures from an old ballad, or even from the
tarot pack. Thus Sir William is referred to throughout by
his Italian sobriquet of "Cavaliere," Emma is "the
Cavaliere's wife" and Nelson, of course, is "the hero."
This is an effective means of escaping the difficulty all
writers of historical novels face in presenting famous,
often legendary, people from the past as plausible
characters in a work of fiction. ("I say, Brahms, isn't
that old Beethoven over there?")
The novel opens with a prologue that invites us to
accompany the author on a visit to the flea market of
history: "Why enter? What do you expect to see? I'm seeing.
I'm checking on what's in the world. What's left." Some
readers may quail at this self-conscious and rather
ponderous opening; Ms. Sontag, however, has set her aim on
a broad audience, and very rapidly -- indeed, at the turn
of a page -- we find ourselves set down squarely in a solid
and recognizable world: "It is the end of a picture
auction. London, autumn of 1772." Here we meet the
Cavaliere, and at once some of the main themes of the book
are subtly sketched. He has tried and failed to sell a
thing he loves dearly, a "Venus Disarming Cupid" by
Correggio. "Having stopped loving it in order to sell it,"
he tells his nephew, "I can't enjoy it in the same way, but
if I am unable to sell it I do want to love it again."
Throughout her novel, the author will return repeatedly to
the dichotomies of love and money, art and value,
possession and renunciation.
The Cavaliere is a cold fish, but he has two grand
passions. The first is his collection of art and artifacts,
the second is volcanoes, and in particular Mount Vesuvius,
which, thanks to his posting to Naples, he has ample
opportunity to study. It is a measure of Ms. Sontag's skill
and artistic tact that she does not labor the contrasts
between the calmness and frailty of man-made treasures and
the unpredictability and chaotic forcefulness of nature,
while yet managing to keep this theme firmly in view
throughout. In the love that erupts between Emma and Lord
Nelson, the Cavaliere encounters another of those natural
phenomena that he can only observe, never experience.
The first hundred pages or so constitute a portrait of the
Cavaliere and his world, and although in her central
character it might seem the author is working with poor
material, this is, I think, the richest and most
convincingly detailed section of the book. When Emma, and
then Nelson, come on the scene, the perspective broadens,
with a consequent loss of depth. Particularly good is the
portrayal of the Cavaliere's first wife, Catherine, a Welsh
heiress, refined, delicate, unhappy and hopelessly and
unrequitedly in love with her husband. After Catherine, who
has always been frail, dies from what the doctor diagnoses
as "a paralysis," the Cavaliere's nephew, Charles Greville,
sends his mistress to Naples. She presents herself as a
widow, Mrs. Hart, but she is really the impossibly
beautiful daughter of a village blacksmith "who had come to
London at 14 as an underhousemaid, was seduced by the son
of the house" and "soon found more dubious employment."
Although Emma does not know it, the cynical Charles has
"sold" her to his uncle in return for an indefinite loan to
pay his debts. "So the old man collected the young woman,"
becoming "a kind of Pygmalion in reverse, turning his Fair
One into a statue."
EMMA HAMILTON is a splendid character, and Ms. Sontag does
her proud. She catches Emma's gaiety, her cheerful
vulgarity, her selfishness, her love of life, her cruelty.
Nelson, too, is portrayed with vividness and subtle skill.
The author brings a skeptical sensibility to bear on their
grand passion, yet shows us too how lovers delude and
sustain themselves with fictions that are not only
necessary but also plausible. Emma was a rose, though
somewhat overblown by the time Nelson met her. And he was a
hero, though also a martinet, a muddler and a merciless
tyrant, as Ms. Sontag shows when Ferdinand and his vengeful
consort send the British admiral to deal with the
rebellious nobility of Naples after the fall of its
short-lived republic in 1799. The novel closes with the
posthumous testament of Eleonora Pimentel, one of the
leaders of the republican movement, an enlightened thinker
and minor poet who was one of the many important figures of
Neapolitan society whom Nelson summarily executed for their
part in the rebellion.
On a visit to Naples, Goethe (referred to, of course, as
"the poet") tells Emma: "The great end of art is to strike
the imagination. . . . And, in pursuing the true grandeur
of design, it may sometimes be necessary for the artist to
deviate from vulgar and strict historical truth." In this
is detectable, I suspect, the voice of Ms. Sontag herself.
And yet, another of the perils of this kind of fiction is
the tendency of the author to become hypnotized by facts,
to let them weigh down the narrative.
In places, "The Volcano Lover" does become somewhat
dropsical, swollen with the accumulation of historical
evidence (no sources are cited, however), but for the most
part it proceeds with an admirable lightness of step. There
is an operatic quality to the tale (Baron Scarpia makes
frequent, villainous appearances), and a grand, at times
majestic, sweep to the telling. The style is confident,
vigorous, witty. ("Ah, these English," reflects Goethe. "So
refined and so coarse. If they did not exist, nobody would
have ever invented them.") And, for the most part, the
narrative is irresistible in its forward thrust. Some of
the set pieces are worthy of a Marguerite Yourcenar or a
Simon Schama, and there are wonderful touches of grotesque
comedy. When, for example, the ship carrying the
Cavaliere's precious collection of antique vases begins to
sink, the sailors save what they believe is one of his
treasure chests, which turns out to contain the corpse of a
British naval officer -- an admiral, as playful fate would
have it -- pickled in alcohol, being brought home for
I find "The Volcano Lover" impressive, at times enchanting,
always interesting, always entertaining; yet it also seems
to me curiously hollow. I wish I could like it less and
admire it more. What is missing is the obsessiveness of
art, that leporine, glazed gaze that confronts us from out
of the pages of many a less densely textured but altogether
more concentrated work. Will it seem cantankerous in the
extreme if I say that Ms. Sontag cares too much? Art is
amoral, whether we accept this or not; it does not take
sides. The finest fictions are cold at the heart. For all
the author's evenhandedness, we sense clearly behind her
studied fiction a passionate moral intelligence hard at
work; this is to Ms. Sontag's great personal credit, of
course, but peculiarly damaging to her art. But then
perhaps she did not set out to write a work of pure
fictional art. In its almost encyclopedic discursiveness,
"The Volcano Lover" displays -- intentionally, I am sure --
the influence of the 18th-century French philosophe , in
particular Denis Diderot. It operates in that broad but
nebulous area between fiction and essay, in which Hermann
Broch's "Death of Virgil" is the supreme exemplar, and
which in our time is occupied by writers such as Milan
Kundera and V. S. Naipaul.
However, what will stay with me from "The Volcano Lover"
are those moments when the author forgets about the broad
facts of history and homes in on this or that detail of her
grand pageant, letting her imagination have full and
formidable play. When the doings of heroine, hero, king and
poet have faded from my memory, I shall still have a clear
and precise picture of the Cavaliere's pet monkey, Jack:
"The monkey put his paw on the Cavaliere's wig and uttered
a small cry. He patted the wig, then inspected his black
palm, tensing and unfurling it." It is in such seemingly
unconsidered corners of the novel that art resides.
SEE NAPLES AND GAPE
He lives in a place that for sheer
volume of curiosities -- historical, natural, social --
could hardly be surpassed. It was bigger than Rome, it was
the wealthiest as well as the most populous city on the
Italian peninsula and, after Paris, the second largest city
on the European continent, it was the capital of natural
disaster and it had the most indecorous, plebeian monarch,
the best ices, the merriest loafers, the most vapid torpor,
and, among the younger aristocrats, the largest number of
future Jacobins. Its incomparable bay was home to freakish
fish as well as the usual bounty. It had streets paved with
blocks of lava and, some miles away, the gruesomely intact
remains, recently rediscovered, of two dead cities. . . .
Its handsome, highly sexed aristocracy gathered in one
another's mansions at nightly card parties, misleadingly
called conversazioni , which often did not break up until
dawn. On the streets life piled up, extruded, overflowed.
Certain court celebrations included the building in front
of the royal palace of an artificial mountain festooned
with meat, game, cakes and fruit, whose dismantling by the
ravenous mob . . . was applauded by the overfed from
balconies. During the great famine of the spring of 1764,
people went off to the baker's with long knives inside
their shirts for the killing and maiming needed to get a
small ration of bread.
The Cavaliere arrived to take up his post in November of
that year. The expiatory processions of women with crowns
of thorns and crosses on their backs had passed and the
pillaging mobs disbanded. The grandees and foreign
diplomats had retrieved the silver that they had hidden in
convents. . . . The air intoxicated with smells of the sea
and coffee and honeysuckle . . . instead of corpses. . . .
Living abroad facilitates treating life as a spectacle.
. . . Where those stunned by the horror of the famine and
the brutality and incompetence of the government's response
saw unending inertia, lethargy, a hardened lava of
ignorance, the Cavaliere saw a flow. The expatriate's
dancing city is often the local reformer's or
revolutionary's immobilized one, ill-governed, committed to
injustice. Different distance, different cities. The
Cavaliere had never been as active, as stimulated, as alive
>From "The Volcano Lover."
'AIDS and Its Metaphors'
January 22, 1989
Reviewed by PAUL ROBINSON
Susan Sontag's purpose in ''AIDS and Its Metaphors'' is to
show how the way we talk and think about AIDS makes the
disease even worse than it actually is. The metaphorical
packaging of AIDS, she argues, increases the suffering of
the afflicted while creating unneeded anxiety among the
population at large. Readers familiar with Ms. Sontag's
''Illness as Metaphor'' (1978) will recognize a familiar
intellectual tactic. In that work she directed her critical
skills at the metaphorical uses of tuberculosis in the 19th
century and cancer in the 20th, revealing how language
distorted the reality of both diseases and, in the case of
cancer at least, kept patients from pursuing the most
rational course of treatment.
With AIDS, she sees the metaphorical process at work even
in the way the disease is defined. Acquired immune
deficiency syndrome, she points out, is above all a disease
of stages. ''Full-fledged'' or ''full-blown'' AIDS, said to
be invariably fatal, is preceded by infection by HIV, the
human immunodeficiency virus, and AIDS-related complex
(ARC). The metaphor at work is a botanical or zoological
one. It insinuates that the evolution from the original
infection to AIDS is a biological inevitability; the stages
stand in relation to one another as acorn to oak tree. The
effects of this linguistic sleight of hand is to create the
impression that not only AIDS but HIV infection leads
inexorably to death. It is an invitation to despair,
causing much misery in its own right and also diverting
victims from a sensible medical attitude toward their
Virtually alone, Ms. Sontag hopes to combat the fatalism
associated with AIDS. She will not allow that the disease,
even in its mature form, invariably results in death: ''It
is simply too early to conclude, of a disease identified
only seven years ago, that infection will always produce
something to die from, or even that everybody who has what
is defined as AIDS will die of it.'' The high mortality
rate, she speculates, could simply reflect the early,
generally quick deaths of those most vulnerable to the
virus. Above all, however, she resists the illicit
deduction that HIV infection, as the metaphor implies, is
just as lethal as the final manifestations of the disease.
Currently the authorities estimate that between 30 and 35
percent of those testing HIV positive will develop AIDS
within five years, and they further hedge their bets by
suggesting that over a longer stretch of time most or
probably all of those infected will fall ill. For Ms.
Sontag this is metaphorical double talk, an insidious
apology for medical failure.
One wonders whether Ms. Sontag hasn't allowed her
experience with cancer to color her interpretation of the
present epidemic. She was herself a cancer patient in the
1970's, and she triumphed over not only the disease but her
doctors' ''gloomy prognosis'' as well. AIDS, however,
differs from cancer in one striking respect: there has not
been a single known case of recovery. Given this awesome
fact, the bleak view of AIDS implied in its
conceptualization as a disease of stages seems less a
metaphorical trick than a sober assessment of reality.
Likewise, the suspicion that HIV infection may in the long
run prove 100 percent fatal reflects the sober fact that we
have seen that figure rise from well under 10 percent to
over 30 percent in the period the disease has been under
observation. A measure of fatalism seems altogether in
A second metaphor Ms. Sontag wishes to exorcise is the
notion of AIDS as a ''plague'' (in contrast to an
''epidemic,'' the neutral term she prefers). Her principal
objection to the plague metaphor is that it represents the
disease as a punishment, a ''visitation'' inflicted not
only on the ill but on society at large. The punishment, of
course, is for moral laxity - a view supported by the
disease's association with homosexual license and illegal
drugs, although contradicted by the absence of either of
these connections with the disease in Africa. The plague
image is also regrettable, in her view, because, like the
botanical or zoological metaphor of stages, it contributes
to the aura of inevitability: ''The plague metaphor is an
essential vehicle of the most pessimistic reading of the
epidemiological prospects. From classic fiction to the
latest journalism, the standard plague story is of
Curiously, some of the epidemic's most sympathetic and
profound chroniclers have self-consciously employed the
language of plague to very different moral effect.
Particularly striking in this regard is Andrew Holleran,
some of whose columns in the magazine Christopher Street
have recently been published in book form as ''Ground
Zero.'' In Mr. Holleran's eloquent usage, ''the plague''
conveys not only the physical agony of the disease itself,
but the reverberant sense of catastrophe and reasonable
despair the epidemic has unleashed. The word also suggests
something of its character as an ironic atavism. It remains
a metaphor, to be sure, but an appropriate one.
Ms. Sontag also objects to the idea that AIDS is somehow
particularly dehumanizing or degrading. She observes that
these characterizations are invariably applied to diseases
that transform the body, especially the face. AIDS (notably
when it results in Kaposi's sarcoma) is similar in this
respect to syphilis or leprosy. The judgment is merely
esthetic, in Ms. Sontag's view, and adds an illegitimate
psychic burden to the patient's physical sufferings. She
seems not overly impressed that, alone among epidemics,
AIDS typically seeks out its victims in their prime, at the
moment when physical attractiveness is most integral to
one's sense of self. Indeed, for homosexuals this
''esthetic'' concern is far from arbitrary: not only is the
disease hideously disfiguring, but it originates in a
moment of erotic attraction, when physical beauty is very
much to the point. The supremely ironic structure of the
disease - one readily thinks of Blake's ''Sick Rose'' -
makes its ''metaphorical'' association with dehumanization,
once again, seem entirely appropriate.
As Ms. Sontag admits, ''one cannot think without
metaphors,'' so the correct question to ask regarding the
way we think about AIDS is whether its metaphors are well
or ill chosen. They would be ill chosen if they
misrepresented the disease or contributed to its victims'
pain. Despite her ingenuity and her manifest good will, Ms.
Sontag doesn't convince me that either is the case. By
comparison with earlier diseases, the metaphors associated
with AIDS have tended to be both tame and apposite. The
disease itself, and not the way we talk about it, is the
true source of its horror.
Paul Robinson, a professor of history at Stanford
University, is the author of ''The Modernization of Sex.''
'Under the Sign of Saturn'
November 23, 1980
Reviewed by DAVID BROMWICH
Susan Sontag's third book of essays has meditations on
Antonin Artaud, Elias Canetti, Leni Riefenstahl, Walter
Benjamin and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's film about Hitler,
along with brief eulogies for Paul Goodman and Roland
Barthes. Her subjects bear witness to Miss Sontag's range
as well as her diligence. She keeps up - appears, at times,
to do the keeping-up for a whole generation - and has long
been an effective publicist for the more imposing European
offshoots of high modernism. The theater of cruelty, the
death of ''the author'': From ground to summit, from
oblivion to oblivion, she covers the big movements and
ideas and then sends out her report, not without qualms.
For the art she most admires, an inward and recalcitrant
art, exists in tension with her own role as its advocate.
It stands outside the mainstream of culture, and sometimes
at the very periphery of human experience: It refuses to
belong. Nevertheless, Miss Sontag tries to help it belong,
by explaining it to us in calm, reasonable, sympathetic
tones. Her job is to spread the avant-garde word with
evangelical warmth. But what if the word was a curse? To
repeat it too complacently may lead to ''the domestication
The phrase is Miss Sontag's, and she is troubled by it. Yet
for her there seems to b e no way out of the predicament it
describes. Her fondness for the extreme case inclines her
to believe that the extreme case must somehow be
''exemplary'' (a favorite praise-word). To be exemplary it
must first be widely known, and here Miss Sontag faces a
dilemma. She can either do justice to the subtlety of the
thinker in question and increase his following by a very
few; or reduce him to manageable slogans and greatly
increase the frequency with which his name occurs in the
intellectual chatter of the age.
She has chosen the latter course. Her message is always:
''Read these writers; but do not suppose that you can
possess them.'' Yet one critic cannot argue both points
with equal efficiency, and in reading Miss Sontag we are
apt to forget the warning. Thus Benjamin's ferocity and
Artaud's ''unassimilable voice'' are brought into line with
our own readiness to benefit from what is fierce and
unassimilable. By this route, dangerous ideas come to sound
wonderfully acute or wonderfully daring and, of course,
ahead of their time. Eventually they are domesticated.
Miss Sontag's essay on Benjamin shows most plainly how this
can happen, and it is worth a long look in any case.
Benjamin - a German-Jewish essayist, celebrated as a
commentator on Baudelaire and Kafka, who committed suicide
in 1940 when his escape from Nazi Europe seemed impossible
- is both the greatest and the most dangerous of her
subjects; she gets her title from his ''Saturnine''
temperament and writes of him with a brave though slightly
strained familiarity. Benjamin composed some unsettling
aphorisms on ''The Destructive Character,'' in which the
note of self-reference is unmistakable. He sketched an
attitude roughly comparable to that of Nietzsche's
''Critical Historian.'' For both writers, the cultural
achievements of the past have become overwhelming and
therefore oppressive; in the present, we are condemned
merely to preserve or repeat them. Both writers go on to
suggest an alternative: deliberate forgetfulness. Where the
critical historian rewrites history to make room for
himself, the destructive character adopts a wholly negative
relation to the present. His life becomes one continuous
act of destruction: ''What exists he reduces to rubble.''
But here is the way Miss Sontag interprets the same idea:
''The ethical task of the modern writer is to be not a
creator but a destroyer - a destroyer of shallow
inwardness, the consoling notion of the universally human,
dilettantish creativity, and empty phrases.''
Who would not wish to see those things destroyed? Benjamin,
however, when he said destruction meant destruction,
without any dash followed by a limiting clause. It is an
uncompromising credo, and has had consequences for those
who stuck by it. One cannot be sure which of the available
forms of intellectual terrorism Benjamin himself might have
encouraged in the hope of clearing the air. But we have at
least a clue in the admiration he professed for Brecht
during the most intolerant Stalinist phase of Brecht's
Even more temperate, assured and remote from Benjamin is
her interpretation of his belief in a hidden self. For
this, Miss Sontag is indebted to Gershom Scholem's essay
''Walt er Benjamin and His Angel,'' which she alludes to
but never names . She thinks that for Benjamin, ''the
process of building a self and its works is always too
slow.'' But in the writings she has in mind, Benjamin seems
to have denied that the self could be ''built'' at all.
For the self, as Benjamin conceived it, does not belong to
the world of ordinary experience; it does not learn from or
even participate in our daily lives. The part of us that is
engaged with the world grows up separate from the self, and
we live in the unhappy awareness that this exile from the
self makes our existence unintelligible. Benjamin spoke in
apocalyptic language about the day when this hidden self
would return to bless him: It would be the day of judgment.
That is why he announced his intention not to build but to
wait, and said of his attitude toward the self, ''nothing
can overcome my patience.''
His distinction between two realms - a hidden realm of
complete knowledge and a fallen realm of existence - and
his argument for destruction as a weapon to break the
tyranny of an existence that seems a kind of exile, both
have points in common with Gnostic religious doctrine.
Elsewhere, in her essay on Artaud, Miss Sontag describes
Gnosticism as ''a sensibility,'' and by doing so goes some
way toward domesticating it.
About the dates and places of Benjamin's career, Miss
Sontag is oddly precise. Oddly, because they are given in
no special order; a beginner could not use them to
reconstruct even the broad outlines of the life. Their real
importance for Miss Sontag seems to be magical rather than
expository. But her largest difficulty, and this holds for
many of the essays, is a certain vagueness in her
conception of her reader. She seems to be addressing a
reader who knows Benjamin's writings so well that he can
pick up glancing allusions to a dozen titles, but who needs
to be told that Scholem and Theodor Adorno were his
friends, that ''what the French call un triste'' is a
person marked by ''a profound sadness.''
''Approaching Artaud,'' the longest essay in the book,
originally appeared as the introduction to a selection of
Artaud's writings. Miss Sontag has a gift for sympathy but
none at all for quotation, and with Artaud the balance
works very much to her advantage. He took a passion for
literature, and a resentment of literature, as far as it
could go, and ended in the sort of madness that makes
better reading in French than in English. Even here, for
all her caution, Miss Sontag cannot help making the subject
tamer than he sounds in his own words. But she offers a
richly conscientious survey of Artaud's career, and adds a
defense of madness in the familiar style of R.D. Laing and
Michel Foucault. The result may not convince anyone to read
beyond ''The Theater and Its Double,'' which remains
Artaud's best-known work; but the next generation of
students, when they decide to approach him, will be using
Miss Sontag's notes to ease the first rigors of contact.
''Fascinating Fascism,'' on the art of Leni Riefenstahl -
the German movie star and Nazi movie director and, more
recently, photographer of primitive African tribes - is
written in a less friendly spirit. Here Miss Sontag wants
to establish the reality of ''fascist art,'' and to expand
that category beyond works called fascist simply because of
their sponsorship or avowed aim. She names ''Fantasia,''
''2001'' and Busby Berkeley's ''The Gang's All Here'' as
examples of ''fascist art'' - an intriguing list, and one
only wishes she would say something about it. ''Triumph of
the Will,'' Riefenstahl's 1935 propaganda film of a
Nuremberg rally, doubtless belongs in this company. Its
chief apologists have been those who affirm the total
separation of art from the political vision that it serves.
But Miss Sontag once counted herself among them, and her
essay is curiously indifferent to her own earlier position.
At the end Riefenstahl is linked to the sadomasochistic
''scenario'' now available to everyone, and it is this that
Miss Sontag denounces. She calls it, in an awkward but true
enough phrase, an experience ''both violent and indirect,
very mental.'' Yet her peroration spoils the effect by
rhetorical overreach: ''The color is black, the material is
leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is
honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.'' That
slips into bathos because the freight is too heavy; but in
any case the details of costume, which become an absorbing
concern in the second part of Miss Sontag's attack, are
beside the point. Black leather is a symptom and not a
cause of the brutal estheticism she deplores. A better
conclusion would have looked beyond the costumes and more
deeply at the specialized emotions that they satisfy.
But to do so might have led to a reappraisal of the
''camp'' sensibility, of which Miss Sontag was once an
excited interpreter. About camp she now says only, ''art
that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a
minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible
today'' because ''taste is context, and the context has
changed.'' And yet there were many who felt 10 years ago as
she feels now. Is it possible that Miss Sontag has simply
changed her mind and wishes at all costs to avoid saying
After ''Fascinating Fascism'' many readers will supppose
that she has indeed changed her mind. But in general, the
extent of Miss Son tag's commitment to a language of
sensibil ity, and of her willingness to revise it by
stating a moral o bjection in moral terms,remains uncertain
even to herself. Of Benjami n's experiments with hashish
she observes, almost pertly: ''In fac t, melancholics make
thebest addicts.'' So the moralist in her is fre e to
depart without a trace.
To make a strength of Miss Sontag's mixed qualities, it
might be argued that her shifting point of view has
fostered her catholicity of taste. There is probably no
other writer who could feel attached to the ideas of Paul
Goodman and Roland Barthes, and passionately inhabit both
their worlds. For the rest of us, one would drive out the
other: They are too different in tone, interest and
specific density. Miss Sontag unites them, and seems all
the luckier for it. Incidentally, the eulogy for Goodman
also gives us our clearest picture of her: ''I am writing
this in a tiny room in Paris, sitting on a wicker chair at
a typing table in front of a window which looks onto a
garden; at my back is a cot and a night table; on the floor
and under the table are manuscripts, notebooks, and two or
three paperbacks.'' She still cares then, in her own life,
for the romantic ideal of the solitary artist. Having shown
us her fidelity to this ideal, she can afford in the future
to be more suspicious of her occasional desire to make a
clean sweep of things: interpretation, the institution of
authorship, even her apartment in Paris. The important work
gets done in spite of the manifestoes.
David Bromwich teaches English at Princeton and has
contributed to The (London) Times Literary Supplement,
Dissent and other jurnals.
'Styles of Radical Will'
July 13, 1969
Reviewed by LAWRENCE M. BENSKY
The subjects of the essays in this important book --- Susan
Sontag's second collection of essays, containing pieces
written since 1966 -- are major subjects of relevant
intellectual concern in 1969: the avant-garde "esthetics of
science," the pornographic classics of "The Story of O" and
"The Image," French philosopher E.M. Cioran, Ingmar
Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard.
Is this to say she is fashionable? Readers can certainly
find excuses for thinking so. The techniques she employs
have something for everyone in the mind game: vast fields
of reference, an easy use of traditional philosophical and
literary analysis, ruthless self-criticism, a shifting
focus of investigation. But since she uses such techniques
better than almost any other writer today, Susan Sontag
cannot be called fashionable, any more than a statue can be
called statuesque. She's simply there, thoroughly herself.
Where she is can best be seen in her own words. On
esthetics: "As the activity of the mystic must end in a via
negativa, a theology of God's absence, a craving for the
cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence
beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the
elimination of the 'subject' ('the object,' the 'image'),
the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit
of silence.... Art is unmasked as gratuitous, and the every
concreteness of the artist's tools ... appears as a trap.
Practiced in a world furnished with secondhand perceptions,
and specifically confounded by the treachery of words, the
artist's activity is cursed.... Art becomes the enemy of
the artist, for it denies him the realization -- the
transcendence -- he desires. Therefore, art comes to be
considered something to be overthrown." (And the "esthetics
of silence" come to be written.)
Or, on politics: "What the Mongol hordes threaten is far
less frightening than the damage that Western, 'Faustian'
man, with his idealism, his magnificent art, his sense of
intellectual adventure, his world-devouring energies for
conquest, has already done, and further threatens to do....
[In Vietnam] an unholy dialectic is at work, in which the
big wasteful society dumps its garbage, its partly
unemployable proletarian conscripts, its poisons and its
bombs upon a small, virtually defenseless, frugal society
whose citizens, those fortunate enough to survive, then go
about picking up the debris, out of which they fashion
materials for daily use and self-defense."
Who she is can be glimpsed in the following passage from
her essay "'Thinking Against Oneself': Reflections on
Cioran," for it provides something of an auto-portrait of
"More and more, the shrewdest thinkers and artists are
precocious archeologists of ... ruins-in-the-making,
indignant or stoical diagnosticians of defeat, enigmatic
choreographers of the complex spiritual movements useful
for individual survival in an era or permanent apocalypse."
The key words are clear: "indignant," "stoical,"
"enigmatic," "complex," "useful." But one major adjective
must be added: "moral" -- because the eight essays in
"Styles of Radical Will" are mainly exercises in moral
definition, as far as moral definition can be accomplished
today on the two supremely and terrifyingly insecure areas
of modern art and modern political brutality.
Like all moralists, Miss Sontag hopes to inspire readers
with the desire to act upon her principles. But there are
insurmountable difficulties in acting upon them, and this
is the final, most maddening element in the world she so
For example: How is art -- even radical art -- "useful for
individual survival in an era of permanent apocalypse?" As
Miss Sontag has convincingly argued, good and bad have
become useless concepts; the most valid forms -- in art, in
philosophy -- are those which accommodate the greatest
ambiguity; they are profoundly disturbing but are
psychologically appropriate to our condition. Thus
Bergman's "Persona" and the films of Godard are exemplary
esthetic models. But art is not life; life drives one crazy
and corrupts the language with which one could recognize
one's condition, while art reinvents language and makes
sure one recognizes just how badly off one is. Can such a
vicious circle aid us in a moral definition? How "useful to
individual survival" can it -- or similar intellectual
structures -- be?
This issue -- like so many -- reaches the point of crisis
when Miss Sontag confronts the question of Vietnam in her
essay "Trip to Hanoi," based on her visit there in the
spring of 1968. It is her triumph that by being true to
what she sees and feels -- her first concern -- she is able
to transfer her artistic and philosophical values to
politics without distorting them or losing herself, and
find value and meaning where others have lapsed into
political cliches or been struck dumb with horror. The
placement of "Trip to Hanoi" as the concluding piece in the
book is symbolic of the way in which Vietnam has wrenched
many students, writers, teachers and intellectuals away
from their guarded concerns into a field of experience
where they must suddenly cope as never before.
When "Trip to Hanoi" appeared last year in Esquire and
later as a paperback, inmates of the liberal and radical
wards in the cultural asylum roared in pain. How dare Susan
Sontag use the Vietnamese as foils for her own personal
psychological development? How dare she claim to be a
radical and still spend time agonizing over agonizing at
the typewriter? Aren't we getting gassed, clubbed, taxed,
drafted, jailed while she is trying to decide what to say?
Reading "Trip to Hanoi" now as a part of a collection,
one sees how Miss Sontag's sensibility allowed her to risk
these painful accusations. "What I'd been creating and
enduring for the last few years was a Vietnam inside my
head, under my skin, in the pit of my stomach," she writes,
adding that she is "a stubbornly unspecialized writer who
has so far been largely unable to incorporate into either
novels or essays my evolving radical political convictions
and sense of moral dilemma at being a citizen of the
Hanoi changed that -- and "Trip to Hanoi" enables us to see
how her attitude toward Vietnam does follow logically from
the moral philosophy which she applies so successfully to
esthetic questions. In art, she glories in the discovery of
"tact" and "poise" amidst the roaring babble. On her trip,
she delighted in the painful recognition of the virtues of
the Vietnamese who were "fastidious" and "whole" in the
To understand the nature of this achievement -- the
clear-eyed translation of a vocabulary of art and
philosophy into politics -- one must note again that Miss
Sontag has been deeply influenced by the contemporary
radical French intellectual tradition that concentrates on
searching for the underlying structures -- often of an
awesome complexity -- beneath the tangled and chaotic
surface of individual acts. By creating a personal
vocabulary that can permit her to define esthetic
expression or political behavior as "tactful," "poised,"
"fastidious" and "whole," she is demonstrating an
intellectual achievement both foreign to contemporary
American usage and difficult to appropriate in times of
artistic and political change.
Even if one does not accept the annoying and sometimes
difficult validity of intellectual accomplishment in a
period of ferment and horror, one ignores the best of human
creativity and personal honesty at one's peril. It should
be remembered that Miss Sontag has now written four of the
most valuable intellectual documents of the past 10 years:
"Against Interpretation," "Notes on Camp," "The Aesthetics
of Silence," and "Trip to Hanoi." In the world in which
she's chosen to live, she continues to be the best there
Mr. Bensky, a critic and former managing editor of
Ramparts, lives in San Francisco.
'Trip to Hanoi'
February 4, 1969
Reviewed by HERBERT MITGANG
Susan Sontag, last season's literary pin-up, spent a couple
of weeks in Hanoi in the spring as a reward for what the
North Vietnamese regarded as a proper anti-American war
attitude. Was this trip necessary? Not for the ordinary
purposes of her "Trip to Hanoi," which is an interior
journey with reportorial blinders. Although Miss Sontag
proves herself still capable of ascending peaks of
obscurity, her self-examination as a troubled American
trying to balance the immorality of Vietnam and a sense of
conscience makes her journey a thoughtful experience.
A more dense discussion of the war and the future of
American foreign policy is found in "No More Vietnams?,"
edited by Richard M. Pfeffer for the Adlai Stevenson
Institute of International Affairs. The book grew out of a
conference of 26 certified "scholars with relevant
expertise," former government officials and journalists.
The intellectual varsity is all here but the book is
difficult to digest because it has been arranged in
The reason for mixing everybody together is explained in
foundationese: "We judged," writes Stevenson Institute
director William R. Polk, "that at this stage of our
awakening understanding of the implications of Vietnam,
conflicts in interpretation and opinion need to be
emphasized rather than synthesized." The result is that "No
More Vietnams?" has many voices talking at once.
Nevertheless, the blackbirds in the pie do take wing when
Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department consultant on
pacification: "The lesson which can be drawn here is one
that the rest of the world, I am sure, has drawn more
quickly than Americans have -- that, to paraphrase H. Rap
Brown, bombing is as American as cherry pie. If you invite
us in to do your hard fighting for you, they you get
bombing along with our troops."
Stanley Hoffmann, professor of government at Harvard: "The
ethics of foreign policy must be an ethics of
self-restraint. The saddest aspect of the Vietnam tragedy
is that it combines moral aberration and intellectual
Sir Robert Thompson, former Secretary for Defense in
Malaya: "The prospect of going in as a political reformer
frightens me more than anything else. I would not touch
political reform in these territories with a barge pole --
and I certainly would not touch it with an American
Edwin Reischauer, former Ambassador to Japan: "Vietnam has
shown the limited ability of the United States to control
at a reasonable cost the course of events in a nationally
aroused, less developed nation.... I believe we are moving
away from the application to Asia of the 'balance of power'
and 'power vacuum' concepts of the cold war."
It is unfortunate, though hardly to be anticipated, that
this book's round table took place several months before
McGeorge Bundy's speech at DePauw University last October
calling for an end to bombing of North Vietnam. Since Mr.
Bundy was more responsible than any Presidential adviser
for the bombing and escalation of the war in Vietnam, his
speech could have helped to focus the lessons set forth in
"No More Vietnams?" For Mr. Bundy reversed himself not on
grounds of the immorality of the war but of the lack of
success ("its penalties upon us are much too great"). Most
of the voices for sanity in this book, who seek to avoid
future Vietnams, stress not success but morality.
It is fortunate, on the other hand, that Miss Sontag
arrived in Hanoi after the decision had been made in
Washington to stop bombing the North Vietnam capital. For
it gave her the opportunity to look inward.
Being Susan Sontag, she quotes not Ho but Hegel after her
interior journey to Hanoi: "As Hegel said, the problem of
history is the problem of consciousness ... anything really
serious I'd gotten from my trip would return me to my
starting point: the dilemmas of being an American, an
unaffiliated radical American, an American writer....
Radical Americans have profited from having a clear-cut
moral issue on which to mobilize discontent and expose the
camouflaged contradictions in the system."
And that, if one may draw a conclusion from her conclusion,
may bring the ultimate victory here of a lost war there:
Cold-war concepts are being turned inside-out because the
defeat, and convulsive social changes may result in a more
humane America at home and abroad. Miss Sontag's "Trip to
Hanoi" was indeed necessary and is well worth reading
because it blows the mind's cobwebs.
August 18, 1967
Reviewed by ELIOT FREMONT-SMITH
An old saw has it that the critical and creative
imaginations are in some sly way antithetical, that their
sensibilities are mutually subversive, that one cannot
successfully do the job to the other. Like most old saws,
this one is dull, bent and missing teeth; but beneath the
flaking rust there is still an edge of truth. Lacking
something better, one can use the instrument to hack away
at least part of the mystery of how it happens that a
critic of Susan Sontag's refined sensibilities can write
fiction that is both tedious and demonstrably insensitive
to the craft of fiction. As a critic, Miss Sontag has been
original, provocative and intellectually rigorous. She is
best known for her "Notes on Camp" (1964), but her essays
on happenings, science-fiction movies, French writers and
thinkers, etc. (collected in "Against Interpretation,"
1966), have also had conspicuous and deserving impact on
current critical thought, combining as they do, hawkish
intellectuality with "gem-like flame" estheticism, and
conventionally relativistic moral concerns with what
virtually amounts to an ethic of pure style and relativity
to sensation. If her critical writing has not always been
entirely lucid, it has been fresh and fascinating, and
idiomatically true to itself.
Her novels are a different matter. In "The Benefactor"
(1963), she explored, at tedious and wandering length, the
dream- and waking-life of a fellow who wants to fashion
actuality from his dreams -- a seemingly easy chore because
his dreams are so undreamlike, and a chore because so dull.
The novel was infused with ideas that had little dramatic
relation to the narrative; voices where confused (the
novel's and Miss Sontag's) or at any rate confusing, and
the pacing was erratic. On the positive side, the novel was
an attempt at innovation and -- one is grateful for
surprises -- the tone throughout was not French and
decadent, as one might expect, but resolute and even
Much of the same may be said of "Death Kit," which skips,
shuffles and snoozes over very similar territory. Its
nonhero and occasional quasi-narrator is a 33-year-old,
expensively educated, Pennsylvania businessman who is
moderately thoughtful, entirely dependable in everyday
matters, and nicknamed Diddy -- "the sort of man it's hard
to dislike, and whom disaster avoids." But: "Diddy, not
really alive, had a life. Hardly the same. Some people are
their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their
In fact, the life that Diddy inhabits is also unreal, as
Miss Sontag evolves it. But this is as nothing compared
with Diddy's immediate problem, which is: Did he bludgeon
to death a railroad worker while his train was halted in a
darkened tunnel -- as he himself believes -- or was he
sitting all the time quietly in his seat, as Hester, the
sensuous blind girl who hears all, testifies.
The answer, or nonanswer, is suspected all along, though
Miss Sontag seems not to care overmuch, and "all along" is
a long, long way. During the lulls -- Diddy's dreams,
who-knows-who's philosophical ruminations, Miss Sontag's
epistemological riddles, the reader's daydreams, art vs.
life, Gide, Camus, Freud vs. Jung vs. Wilhelm Reich,
authenticity vs. reflection, action as indecisive evidence
of no death quite yet, and so on and on and on -- one comes
to think that Miss Sontag may have been taken in by
Hester's post-tryst (in the train's bathroom) admonishment
to Diddy: "There's no point in not doing what you want, is
there? I mean, if nobody's stopping you."
A novelist might have stopped before even this early point,
and rethought character development, pacing, authenticity
of tone and other antiquarian matters of craft. For
instance, the small but nagging matter of the use of "now,"
in parentheses, presumably to heighten immediacy. What is
its real effect? Or the much larger matter of Diddy's
potentialities for thought.
"Death, thought Diddy," Miss Sontag writes, "is like a
lithographer's stone. One stone, cool and smooth to the
touch, can print many deaths, virtually identical except to
the expert eye. One lightly inscribed stone can be used,
reused indefinitely." Well, no. Not the Diddy I know,
anyway. He wouldn't have had a thought remotely like this,
not in a million years. After a rousing beginning (except
for those silly and reductive parenthetical "nows"), it
heralds, I'm afraid, a rather meandering and fretful
middle; the ending is a slight but well-done shocker,
patterned perhaps on the classic thriller film, "Dead of
Did Diddy do it? Is Hester a loving liar? Is the railroad
worker truly dead? Can Diddy prolong his tenancy in life?
Are dreams more real that real? The persevering reader will
earn what answers he can, with Miss Sontag's good-natured,
earnest and (too) occasionally brilliant help, deduce.
September 8, 1963
Reviewed by DANIEL STERN
For her first book Susan Sontag, a 30-year-old New Yorker,
has chosen to write a carefully "modern" work, a picaresque
anti-novel. The tone is detached, the action almost
nonexistent, and the characters do not lead lives, they
assume postures. We are not told the hero's surname or the
name of his city, though this last is clearly Paris during
the past 40 or 50 years.
"The Benefactor" is the supposed memoir of an aging man
named Hippolyte, who has dreamed his way through an
ambiguous life. As a young man without any of the usual
human ambitions, he abandons his university education and
is supported by his wealthy, indulgent father. His primary
purpose is solitary speculation, and to further this he
lives only on the periphery of other lives. In line with
this he frequents the salon of a foreign couple, the
Anderses, a salon peopled by "virtuoso talkers."
At about this time Hippolyte has the first of a series of
disquieting dreams. Shortly afterward he makes his great
decision: instead of using his dreams to interpret his
life, he will use his life to interpret his dreams. Cued by
a dream, he begins an affair with his hostess, Frau Anders.
She is a plump, sensuous woman in her late thirties, and
there is much talk about sensuality; yet it remains a
curiously cerebral affair.
>From this point on the novel alternates cinematic
descriptions of dreams with what, for want of better words,
must be called waking life. Both are cryptic, both devoid
of identifiable drives and emotions. Along the way
Hippolyte does some occasional acting in films, flirts with
an experimental religion, has frequent conversations with a
thief and sometime homosexual, takes a trip to an Arab
country with Frau Anders, where he sells her into white
slavery, marries and becomes a widower. None of these
activities, however, has any dimensional life. Obviously
meant to be emblematic, they are thin as experiences,
undeveloped as ideas.
Hippolyte also dreams numerous repetitious dreams, ponders
them endlessly and keeps encountering Frau Anders, like a
guilty conscience. The intent is to present waking life as
if it were a dream. And, to present dreams as concrete as
daily living. The result is that whatever Hippolyte does,
participating in the making of a film, having an affair
with a ludicrous leftist named Monique, visiting his dying
father and mourning his young wife ... all are without
motive or feeling.
It has been said of the French that they develop an idea
and then assume that it is the world. Hippolyte has decided
that he is the world, and has proceeded to explore it.
However, Miss Sontag has furnished her protagonist with an
empty spirit. And, she uses irony as the chief instrument
for her examination. The problem, here, is that genuine
irony illuminates because it measures actions, or ideas, by
implication, against an unspoken moral attitude or vision
of life. Of these neither Hippolyte nor the author gives
Part of the obligatory method of the roman nouveau is the
use of the novel as a vehicle for the retelling of an
ancient myth. Towards the end of "The Benefactor" what
might have been suspected is revealed. Hippolyte is, of
course, Hippolytus of the Greek myth, whose stepmother,
Phaedra, attempts to seduce him; he refuses and she wreaks
her revenge. We are told this, typically, in the form of a
dream. "In the dream," Hippolyte recounts, "I am my famous
namesake of myth and drama vowed to celibacy. Frau Anders
is my lusty stepmother. But since this is a modern version
of the story I do not spurn her. I accept her advances,
enjoy her, and then cast her off. As the goddess in the
opening of the ancient play declares, those who disregard
the power of Eros will be chastised. Perhaps that is the
meaning, or one of them, of all my dreams."
The analogy, like the other themes in the book, remains an
abstraction, unfleshed and, finally, unimportant. When, at
the end, Hippolyte is relieved of his compulsion to dream,
the significance is as cloudy as that of the dreams
Miss Sontag is an intelligent writer who has, on her first
flight, jettisoned the historical baggage of the novel.
However, she has not replaced it with material or insights
that carry equal, or superior, weight. Instead she has
chosen the fashionable imports of neoexistentialist
philosophy and tricky contemporary techniques. She has made
an unfortunate exchange.
Mr. Stern is the author of "Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die"
and other books.
Susan Sontag Finds Romance
August 2, 1992
By LESLIE GARIS
As soon as Susan Sontag delivered the last section of her
new novel, "The Volcano Lover," to the offices of her
publisher, she felt bereft. "It was like taking a beloved
person to the airport and returning to an empty house," she
says softly, intensely, during a recent interview in her
New York apartment. "I miss the people. I miss the world."
The principal characters -- although there are many others
-- are Sir William Hamilton, the 18th-century English
minister to the Court of Naples; his wife, Emma, and
Horatio Lord Nelson, England's most revered naval hero,
whose love affair with Emma became as famous as his
impressive victories over Napoleon. Under the title (which
refers to Hamilton's obsession with Mount Vesuvius), Sontag
has appended the words, "A Romance."
A romance by the author of "Against Interpretation,"
"Styles of Radical Will," "Death Kit" and "AIDS and Its
Metaphors"? A romance by the intellectual champion of
modernism; the eloquent admirer of Roland Barthes, Elias
Canetti, Antonin Artaud?
"In order to find the courage to write this book, it helped
me to find a label that allowed me to go over the top," she
explains. "The word 'romance' was like a smile. Also, the
novel becomes such a self-conscious enterprise for people
who read a lot. You want to do something that takes into
account all the options you have in fiction. Yet you don't
want to be writing about fiction, but making fiction. So I
sprang myself from fictional self-consciousness by saying,
It's a novel -- it's more than a novel -- it's a romance!"
She opens her arms and laughs un-self-consciously. "And I
fell into the book like Alice in Wonderland. For three
years, I worked 12 hours a day in a delirium of pleasure.
This novel is really a turning point for me."
At 59, she has already had a remarkable career. Although
she has written fiction, two plays and four films, she is
primarily known for her learned and startling essays.
Dealing from a seemingly limitless store of knowledge, she
has examined the 20th century from widely divergent points
of reference, like literature, painting, illness,
photography, philosophy, pornography, film, sociology,
anthropology, communism and fascism. Having lived for long
periods in France and Italy, conversant in three languages
(translated into 23), she is a true polymath
Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist and man of letters,
and another writer who straddles many cultures, compares
her to Erasmus, the greatest humanist of the Renaissance:
"This is one of the worst-informed eras in history, just
like the beginning of the 15th century. Countries are
ignorant about each other. And, like Erasmus, exactly when
it is needed, Susan Sontag is a communicator in this
broken-down world. Erasmus traveled with 32 volumes, which
contained all the knowledge worth knowing. Susan Sontag
carries it in her brain! I know of no other intellectual
who is so clear-minded with a capacity to link, to connect,
to relate. She is unique."
As she sits in her kitchen, she does have the air of one
who has wrestled prodigiously, and over a considerable
lifetime, with essential questions. Wrinkles and creases
run wild on her unadorned face. Her skin is as pale as a
monk's. Her long, unruly, onyx-black hair is rent by a
dramatic slash of pure white that runs like an ice flow
over the crest of her head. But her candid expression, her
round dark eyes that fill easily with tears, her frequent
laughter and her deep, vibrant voice suggest the eagerness
and avidity of a seeker; a curiously timeworn child who
needs a bit more sleep.
"I think I've always wanted to write this book," she is
saying. "I'm glad to be free of the kind of one-note
depressiveness that is so characteristic of contemporary
fiction. I don't want to express alienation. It isn't what
I feel. I'm interested in various kinds of passionate
engagement. All my work says be serious, be passionate,
"The Volcano Lover" anatomizes immense varieties of
passionate engagement. Hamilton loves abjectly not only his
art collection, which he continually augments, but
Vesuvius, his beloved volcano, whose threats and displays
of destructive energy hold him in permanent thrall. He
loves Emma as a connoisseur loves a Leonardo, with
cultivated, refined appreciation.
Enter Nelson, the man of action, the genuine hero, and
another sort of passion is ignited in Emma, which relegates
Hamilton, the expert on nature's power, to the status of
outsider in the drama of human forces unleashed under his
own roof. And then there are the passions of revolution and
an epic array of 18-century follies engendered by romantic
dreams of reason.
SONTAG, HERSELF, IS A hybrid of reason and romance. One
need only peruse the vast library in her airy five-room
apartment for confirmation. An intellectual who studies the
history of ideas might have many books. But only a person
intemperately in love with reading possesses 15,000.
"I'm an addicted reader," she says, "a hedonist. I'm led by
my passions. It's a kind of greed, in a way." She laughs
happily. "I like to be surrounded by things that speak to
me and uplift me."
I ask how the books are arranged.
"Ahhh. By subject or, in the case of literature, by
language and chronologically. The 'Beowulf' to Virginia
Woolf principle. I'll show you."
"Nothing is alphabetical?"
"I know people who have a lot
of books. Richard Howard, for instance. He does his books
alphabetically, and that sets my teeth on edge. I couldn't
put Pynchon next to Plato! It doesn't make sense."
We enter a room off the kitchen, where Karla Eoff, Sontag's
assistant, sits at a desk answering what she describes as
three years of correspondence -- all let go during the
writing of "The Volcano Lover."
"Here is English literature," says Sontag by a
floor-to-ceiling bookcase. "You need a ladder. It starts
here, and here are the Chaucerians." She sweeps her hand
over several shelves, "and then comes Shakespeare,
Elizabethan Stuart plays, Marlowe, Middleton, Webster, the
poets," she gestures on through dozens and dozens of books.
"It's very approximate. Here's Beckford, William Blake and
"You don't have a separate poetry section?"
"No. It's all
here. It's where they come. There's Byron. I have all of
English literature here. There's Oscar Wilde, and there's
Meredith and Hardy. Of course, when I get into the modern
stuff you can see who I read and who I don't. For instance,
I adore V. S. Naipaul.
"And here's French literature. Up there is Montaigne, then
Rabelais, Pascal, Racine, but it's not just the main
people. I have a lot of so-called minor writers who aren't
minor to me."
We move from shelf to shelf, room to room. Spanish, French,
Italian literature, all untranslated. Japanese, Greek,
Chinese and Russian literature, in English.
In the living room -- almost empty except for one couch,
the only rug in the apartment and one Mission chair -- is
ancient history, Judaism, a huge library of early
Christianity, followed by Byzantium and the Middle Ages.
In Sontag's study is an oddly giant-size burgundy velvet
chair, a desk with an I.B.M. Selectric II typewriter (she
has resisted the computer) and, of course books: here are
philosophy, psychiatry and the history of medicine.
Discreetly recessed next to a rose-colored marble fireplace
is a tiny room that contains books by Sontag.
"I used to keep them in my closet."
sighs deeply, "I don't want to look at my own books. A
library is something to dream over, a sort of dream
"Have you read everything here?"
"Oh, yes. Over and over. You see, they're full of slips of
paper." Indeed, narrow strips of white paper stick up from
the books like shoots of wild vegetation. "Each book is
marked and filleted. I underline. I used to write in the
margins when I was a child. Comments like 'How true!' And
'I have felt this also!' " She roars with laughter.
I ask what she wrote in Aristotle.
" 'Aristotle means
here that' -- Oh, please! It's so embarrassing now."
We enter the long hallway that connects the rooms. "The art
river starts here."
What appears to be a complete library of the history of
art, all oversize books, runs on low shelves from one end
of the hallway to the other. On the wall above the shelves
is a series of engravings of Vesuvius, the hand-colored
originals from a book commissioned by Hamilton in 1776.
Under the prints, on top of the bookcase, is the skull of a
horse and a circle of wishbones -- rather like a pagan
altar to nature and death. In the rest of the apartment is
Sontag's collection of black-and-white prints by Piranesi
and other 18th-century artists. The volcano prints --
almost the only color in the house -- radiate with the
lurid red of flowing lava.
As I walk down the hall, from Greece into the Renaissance
and through the 19th century, I remark on the uncanny
perspective one has just passing by the titles.
"Yes," she says. "What I do sometimes is just walk up and
down and think about what's in the books. Because they
remind me of all there is. And the world is so much bigger
than what people remember."
SONTAG'S childhood world, although not materially
impoverished, was intellectually and emotionally meager.
Her early years were spent in Arizona, where she rarely saw
her alcoholic mother or her father, who had a fur business
in China, because they spent almost all their time in the
Far East. Susan and her younger sister were cared for by a
housekeeper. When Susan was 5, her father died in China of
tuberculosis. Her mother remarried, and the family moved to
Los Angeles. Again, the adults traveled while the children
stayed home. Her enormous intelligence further ordained her
solitude. She read at 3, wrote a four-page newspaper at 8
and had a chemistry laboratory in her garage at 9. Many
ardent, fruitless hours were spent trying to convert
neighborhood children to her interests.
"I can remember my first bookcase when I was 8 or 9. This
is really speaking out of my isolation. I would lie in bed
and look at the bookcase against the wall. It was like
looking at my 50 friends. A book was like stepping through
a mirror. I could go somewhere else. Each one was a door to
a whole kingdom."
"Did you have a mentor?"
"No, no, no. I discovered books. When I was about 10 years
old, I discovered the Modern Library in a stationery store
in Tucson. And I sort of understood these were the
classics. I used to like to read encyclopedias, so I had
lots of names in my head. And here they were! Homer,
Virgil, Dante, George Eliot, Thackeray, Dickens. I decided
I would read them all."
"With absolutely no encouragement?" I'm incredulous.
"I didn't allow myself to look for it. And these people
couldn't encourage me, since they didn't understand what I
cared about. I very quickly located the source of judgment
completely outside my life -- from the great dead. If
somebody said, 'Oh, you're very smart,' I would feel as if
I had been told I had black hair. It was such a given. And
compared to the standards I was setting myself, I didn't
think I was so smart. I thought that I cared more than
other people. If they cared as much, they could do what I
was doing. I didn't think I was a genius."
"Wasn't your mother proud of you?"
"My mother was a very
withholding woman. You have no idea. . . ." Her voice
drifts off. We are back in the kitchen. Her hair, which has
been gathered into the semblance of a ponytail, has been
gradually escaping from its elastic band, which she now
removes entirely and plays with in her fingers. Her nails
are so short I think she must have bitten them.
She continues. "I would put my report card by her bed at
night and find it signed at the breakfast table in the
morning. She never said a word." She sighs. "I have a
vision of my mother lying on her bed, with the blinds
drawn, and a glass next to her that I thought was water,
but I now know was vodka. She always said she was tired. As
a consequence, I am happy to sleep four hours a night."
Sontag's sister, Judith, was only 12 when Sontag left home
at 15, and they hardly saw each other until they were both
in their 50's. Judith, who is also extremely intelligent
and went to Berkeley, is married, has one daughter and
lives on the island of Maui, where she owns a small
business. The two sisters discovered to their surprise that
they had many things in common -- among them a love of
"I think a childhood like that," Sontag says, "breeds a
great talent for stoicism. If you're going to survive, you
say, I can take this; it's bearable. Otherwise you're lost.
I refuse to see myself as a victim. I'm the most unparanoid
person in the world. In fact, I envy paranoids; they
actually think people are paying attention to them." She
laughs. "I didn't feel persecuted, I felt abandoned."
When she was 15, her principal told her she was wasting her
time at North Hollywood High and graduated her. She was
delighted. Now her life would really begin. After one term
at Berkeley, she enrolled at the University of Chicago,
which at that time had a set curriculum and no electives.
She took exams when she entered and placed out of most of
her courses. She had already done the reading.
"I audited classes in the graduate schools, and that was
wonderful. I would start at 9 in the morning and go all
day. It was a feast."
It was there she met Philip Rieff, a young instructor in a
social theory course that Sontag had placed out of. It was
1950, December of her second year. On friends'
recommendations she went to hear him lecture on Freud (his
1959 book, "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist," is essential
reading for scholars). Ten days after the lecture, they
were married. She was 17. It was an endless conversation.
He was, she says today, the first person she could talk to.
He seemed older than his 28 years, and Sontag looked
extremely young. He was a dapper Anglophile, while she, a
Westerner, lived in blue jeans and wore her hair long down
her back. They were an odd-looking couple. Soon after they
were married, she attended one of his lectures and behind
her one student whispered to another, "Oh, have you heard?
Rieff married a 14-year-old Indian!"
For the next nine years, she and Rieff lived an academic
life. Their son, David, was born in 1952. Sontag received
master's degrees from Harvard in English literature and
philosophy and finished her course work for a Ph.D. when
she received a fellowship to Oxford. At the same time,
Rieff was offered a fellowship at Stanford. They went
separate ways for one academic year, but when Sontag
returned to America the marriage unraveled. It was 1959,
and Sontag at last realized one of her childhood dreams:
she moved to New York. She had a child, a furnished mind
and no income. "I had $70, two suitcases and a 7-year-old,"
Sontag recalls. (Her lawyer told her she was the first
person in California history to refuse alimony.)
David Rieff was another prodigy. He calls himself today
"overeducated." His two books, "Going to Miami" and "Los
Angeles, Capital of the Third World," were both critically
acclaimed. I asked him about his childhood, if he felt
under great intellectual pressure, and he said he was
comfortable with scholarly activities -- athletics would
have been a reach. He painted a picture of mother and son
so close in age and interests that "separation -- even the
ability to distinguish between who was who -- was difficult
and took longer than it should have." During the first New
York years, "I was very aware of how precarious our life
was. We lived in very small, close quarters for a long
time. Life was pretty tough. After that, things started to
go much better. She was making a career."
After a stint of teaching philosophy and the history of
religion at various New York colleges, she wrote her first
novel, "The Benefactor," and decided to stake her future on
writing full time. In 1964, she emerged as a literary star
with an audacious essay for Partisan Review, "Notes on
Camp," which defined for the first time that esoteric,
urban, cult sensibility, which exalted artifice and mocked
seriousness. The essay is peppered with Oscar Wilde quotes,
like "To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep
"On Style," an essay published the following year -- an
exhortation to "encounter" art as "an experience, not a
statement or an answer to a question" -- established her as
the seer at the vanguard. She was dubbed the new "dark lady
of American letters," the title previously assigned to Mary
WHEN I ARRIVE AT HER Chelsea apartment for our second day
of talks, she has been correcting the proofs of Emma's
death scene and is awash with emotion. But it is clear that
it is the whole project, the fact of this book -- which is
so different from anything she has ever done -- that is
overwhelming her this morning. I ask her again about her
notion that "The Volcano Lover" is a turning point.
"I think every ambitious writer looks for the right form,
and I always felt whatever form I chose constricted me."
Her two novels, "The Benefactor" and "Death Kit," both
published in the 60's, received mixed reviews. Criticized
for being too self-conscious, more concerned with modernist
literary fashion than with the raw material of life, they
were nevertheless praised for their powerful intelligence,
original ideas and precise language.
It has been 25 years since "Death Kit," during which time
she has become internationally famous for her essays. Now
she says the essay is a dead form for her.
"The essays were a tremendous struggle. Each of the large
ones took nine months to a year. I've had thousands of
pages for a 30-page essay -- 30 or 40 drafts of every page.
'On Photography,' which is six essays, took five years. And
I mean working every single day."
"When you say working, are you looking things up, checking
"No, no, I don't look anything up until after I've finished
and I'm checking. No, it's just writing. I'd get started,
and then I'd run into a ditch, and then I would start again
-- and again."
Temperamentally, Sontag is an admirer. All her best essays
celebrate creators, thinkers or the created work of art.
This quality led her into essay writing -- and led her out
"The Canetti essay was the beginning of the end. I wanted
to honor Canetti." Her essay probably helped win him the
Nobel Prize. "Yet as I was writing, I thought, 'Why am I
doing this so indirectly? I have all this feeling -- I'm in
a storm of feeling all the time -- and instead of
expressing it I'm writing about people with feeling.' "
Twelve years ago in London, while poking around the print
shops near the British Museum, Sontag first saw the volcano
prints Hamilton had commissioned. She was immediately drawn
to them and bought several. Years later, she read a
biography of Hamilton and the story began to simmer.
"When I started the novel, it seemed like climbing Mount
Everest. And I said to my psychiatrist, 'I'm afraid I'm not
adequate.' Of course, that was a normal anxiety. What
worried me was that I would not be writing essays, because
they have a powerful ethical impulse behind them, and I
think they make a contribution. But my psychiatrist said,
'What makes you think it isn't a contribution to give
people pleasure?' "
She stops talking and bites her lip. She is clearly moved
and is trying not to cry. She takes a deep breath.
"And I thought, ohhhhhh. That sentence launched me."
ILLNESS AS metaphor," "AIDS and Its Metaphors" and "On
Photography" -- all book-length essays -- challenge us to
consider a deeper view of the concept of illness and the
effects of the visual image than we ordinarily attempt.
Sontag's object is to liberate perception from the simple
and reductive by offering a more layered analysis. Her
essays equate complexity with clarity and obfuscation with
"Ill people are haunted by dread, shame and humiliation,"
she says angrily. The two illness books are an attempt to
rectify the human cost of these superstitious, medieval
notions. Above all, she adds, "I am always struggling
Robert B. Silvers, the editor of The New York Review of
Books, which has published much of her writing, describes
her quest to reject lazy assumptions as the "cautionary
element in her work." Sontag calls it the "Don Quixote in
Because her prose is polemical and her philosophy
avant-garde, she has, on occasion, angered many older and
more conservative critics. Richard Poirier, for many years
an editor of Partisan Review, remembers when she was an
exotically beautiful young writer for his magazine and
aroused the ire of Phillip Rahv and others of the New York
intellectual establishment, who distrusted both her
enthusiasm for popular culture (film, dance, music) and her
dense academic knowledge.
"She was one of those rare creatures," he told me, "who
knew about what was going on in the universities and in
European criticism, who had the courage and the force of
will and character to challenge the men in the intellectual
community to pay attention to these things."
IF HER INTELLECT IS rigorous and pure, so is her apartment,
for aside from books and papers, the environment is
strikingly Spartan. She says she goes out seven nights a
week with friends for dinner, concerts, plays. She has
phenomenal energy and stays out late, always ready to do
one more thing, go one more place. ("Suddenly it's 4 in the
morning," she says, "and somebody suggests something else.
You go on. You don't say you're tired or you've had enough.
Because you can never have enough.") Considering her
abundant social life, I am amazed at the absence of
furniture -- there are so few places to sit. Doesn't she
have friends over?
"No. This apartment is the inside of my head. It's a map of
"Have you always lived alone?"
"No, no. Not only have I at different times lived with
lovers, but I've had friends come and stay. I like the idea
that there are other bodies in other rooms." She has never
remarried, but she has many intense friendships, which
constitute a kind of multifarious international bond.
FROM THE LATE 1960's to the mid-70's, Sontag was an
expatriot. David had dropped out of Amherst College, and
joined her in Paris, living in separate apartments,
entirely absorbed by French culture, rarely speaking
English. She returned to New York in 1976 (by then David
was at Princeton), when she was diagnosed with breast
"I remember when I was thrown into the world of people with
cancer, one of the things that most surprised me was people
saying, 'Why me?' But I saw that for lots of people these
dramatic illnesses became victim situations. Illness is
like a lottery -- some people get ill and you happen to be
one of them. I didn't feel a victim of my illness."
The prognosis was grim. At that time, New York oncologists
were more alarmist about chemotherapy than they are now, so
she chose to follow the treatment of Lucien Israel, a
renowned French oncologist, who recommended radically high
doses of chemotherapy, which, in the end, were administered
by a reluctant Sloane-Kettering in New York.
"My New York doctors said, 'Don't you realize that this is
very extreme treatment and you're going to suffer a lot?'
And I said" -- her voice is barely audible -- "but you
people don't give me any hope. He's not promising anything,
but he's offering much more treatment."
She underwent chemotherapy for two and a half years -- an
unheard-of amount of time in the 70's. The final cost was
near $150,000. Since she had no medical insurance, Robert
Silvers raised the money for her by writing letters and
calling a number of her friends in the intellectual
community. Almost everyone gave something, and those who
were able gave a great deal.
"Did you always have hope?"
There is a long silence. "You live with two feelings. I
thought I was going to die. But. . . ." She fingers a small
clock with a double face; one for America and one for
Europe. "I really wanted to fight for my life. I was told I
had a 10 percent chance to live two years. I thought, well,
somebody's got to be in that 10 percent."
"How did you react to dying?"
"I was terrified.
Absolutely terrified and horrified. Horrible grief. Above
all to leave David. And I loved life so much. But, I
thought, I must believe I will die, because that's the only
way I can have dignity or use the time that's left. But I
also thought, well. . . ." Her voice rises and disappears.
"I was never tempted to say, that's it. I love it when
people fight for their lives."
She knew Ingrid Bergman during her last illness and tried
to persuade her to see Dr. Israel, but Bergman refused,
saying she'd had a good life and didn't mind dying.
Sontag is incensed as she tells this story. "I said, 'Why
not have more of your life?' But she said, 'No, no, it's
all right.' It drove me crazy -- that anybody would say
that! It's, again, my mother, of course. Resignation,
resignation, it drives me wild."
She is now, except for slight problems with a kidney, in
good health. She says that at 59 she notices no difference
in her energy from her early 20's.
There is a great deal of death -- even gore -- in "The
Volcano Lover," and I ask her if she drew on her cancer
experiences for those sections.
"If you think you are going to die, and you are spared, you
can never completely disconnect from the knowledge. You
always feel a little posthumous. But I think one's
imaginative participation in the horrors that are part of
history. . . ." She looks outside. Her apartment has
sweeping views of the Hudson River. "I can never take my
own unhappiness really seriously because I think so much of
how badly off most people in the world are."
She has always had a high political profile, from her early
radical days to her work on behalf the victims of Soviet
totalitarianism. During the Vietnam War, she made a famous,
controversial trip to Hanoi. She remembers a woman she saw
in a factory there, working under the most abject
conditions. When Sontag expressed outrage, the woman told
her she was so much better off than her parents, because,
as rice farmers, they lived up to their hips in water.
"I don't think a week goes by when I don't think of that
woman. 'I'm dry,' she said. 'I have work in which I'm dry.'
I'm reluctant to believe that social morality can be so
internalized, and ask her if it doesn't seem "artificially
rational" to ameliorate her own grief by making make such
"No, you don't decide!" She is leaning forward
passionately. "You either are in touch with that
imaginatively or you're not. It's not deciding -- it's the
other way around. I can't screen it out. I feel I'm
receiving messages all the time. And sometimes I'm
"Overwhelmed by what?"
"By suffering. A friend once said to me, 'You are lacking a
skin that most people have.' I'm also incredibly squeamish.
I cannot watch most American movies. I don't even have
AS PRESIDENT OF PEN in 1987 and as an original member in
1974 (with the founder, Richard Sennett) of the New York
Institute for the Humanities, she has been an effective
advocate for imprisoned writers.
When Sontag conceived of "The Volcano Lover," she acquired
an agent (Andrew Wylie) for the first time in her life and
won a lucrative four-book deal with her lifelong publisher,
Farrar Straus Giroux. With that advance, she bought this
apartment. Then, in 1990, she was awarded a MacArthur
fellowship, which will pay $340,000 over five years, plus
medical insurance. She is at last comfortably, even
luxuriously, set up.
I experience the monkish silence in her apartment and ask
her an odd question. "Do you believe in an afterlife in
which you'll meet your literary heroes?"
"Most people hope to meet their relatives. You don't
anticipate Homer and Dante?" I'm only partly joking.
"Not at all. What pleases me is just the idea that I'm
doing what they did. That's already so astonishing to me.
Because. . . ." She is speechless. "Literature needs lots
of people. It's enough to honor the project."
"What is the project?"
"Oh . . . to . . ." she sighs
deeply ". . . to produce food for the mind, for the senses,
for the heart. To keep language alive. To keep alive the
idea of seriousness. You have to be a member of a
capitalist society in the late 20th century to understand
that seriousness itself could be in question."
Her leg is propped up childishly on the table. Each day,
like a young graduate student, she has worn the same pair
of sweatpants and sneakers, with different rumpled shirts.
She is reluctant to talk about a next project, except to
say she wants to write fiction.
"To me, literature is a calling, even a kind of salvation.
It connects me with an enterprise that is over 2,000 years
old. What do we have from the past? Art and thought. That's
what lasts. That's what continues to feed people and give
them an idea of something better. A better state of one's
feelings or simply the idea of a silence in one's self that
allows one to think or to feel. Which to me is the same."
Leslie Garis is a frequent contributer to this magazine
on literary subjects.
December 18, 1977
By CHARLES SIMMONS
Q. Why is there more critical attention being paid to
photography nowadays? Is photography getting better?
A. In the time, the three years or so, that I was working
on these essays, it seemed to become much more central. As
late as 1973, photography books in bookstores tended to be
in the back with gardening books and cookbooks. Now they
have a section of their own, right up front near the cash
register. The audience for photography books -- which is an
important index to the interest in photography --
enormously enlarged just in that brief period.
There have been many times more photography shows in
museums in the past couple of years than there were, say,
10 years ago. There are many more photography galleries in
large cities than there were 10 years ago. There's an
interest everywhere. The New Yorker started an occasional
photography column about two years ago.
.But I can't believe it's because photography is better. In
fact, I'm sure it isn't . There's no reason to think that
there are more great photographers now than in the past.
But now photography has respectability. The battle that has
been going on since 1840 for photography to be acknowledged
as an art form has finally been won. Indeed, photography as
an art form interests a lot of people who were formerly
interested mainly in painting and sculpture.
Q. Could it be that painting and sculpture are simply less
A. That's sometimes said. One hears that painting and
sculpture are in a state of demoralization, that there are
no exciting new figures conveying a sense that these are
arts in which very important things are happening, such as
people had in the 1950's and 60's.
Another explanation that's often given is that the
enormously inflated market for painting in the 60's priced
many collectors out of the market and there was a need for
a cheap object that people cold collect.
And the third idea that you hear sometimes is that there's
a reaction against difficulty in art. Not only is
photography an art more easily practiced by large numbers
of people, it's also easier to understand, easier to grasp.
It makes fewer demands. For example, understanding serious
contemporary photography doesn't involve knowing about the
history of photography. But to understand serious
contemporary painting one has to know something about the
history of painting.
Q. Did serious music complicate itself in recent years and
lose its audience, so that popular music is now taken more
A. If that is so, I think the fault is with the audience.
In the past decade people have been less and less willing
to take on difficult things. The very notion of
professionalism came into disrepute as authoritarian,
elitist. I don't think it's that the work got too
complicated, I think it's that the audience got lazier.
Seriousness has less prestige now.
I don't mean to suggest that individual photographers
aren't serious. But I think that the audience -- and we're
still talking about a fairly small audience -- is less
willing to be serious is that old-fashioned way that
modernist art demands. It's very complicated, because part
of modernism is the idea of antiart. So modernism itself,
while being the breeding ground for all these great works
of art starting from the end of the last century, contained
the seeds of its own destruction. Too much emphasis was
placed on outrage, and people got used to taking short
cuts. Enough artists said we had to close the gap between
art and life. Now people aren't willing to put in the work
involved in entering these realms of discourse which
distinguish art from life.
Q. Modern art taught people how to be ironic about art, and
that was a relief for a time.
A. Enough artists said, "Down with art! No more
masterpieces!" So it was inevitable that one day audiences
would take this in a much simpler form and say, "Yes, down
with art! No more masterpieces! We want an art that's
comfortable, that's ironic, that's easy." I think we see
the results everywhere.
.More and more, audiences want quick results, they want
punch lines from the beginning. Modernism always assumed
that the recalcitrant bourgeois audience that could be
shocked was going to hang onto its own standards. But when
modernism became the established mode, it also became a
contradiction in terms. And that, I think, is the situation
in which photography has prospered.
Q. There's a particularly intimate passage in your book in
which you describe seeing in a bookstore in Santa Monica in
1945, when you were 12, photographs of Bergen-Belsen and
Dachau, and you make the extraordinary statement that you
divide you life in half -- before seeing these photographs
and after. And you say that something in you died at that
midpoint. Do you know what that was, and do you want to
talk about it?
A. I think that that experience was perhaps only possible
at that time, or a few years after. Today that sort of
material impinges on people very early -- through
television, say -- so that it would not be possible for
anyone growing up later than the 1940's to be a horror
virgin and to see atrocious, appalling images for the first
time at the age of 12. That was before television, and when
newspapers would print only very discreet photographs.
As far as what died -- right then I understood that there
is evil in nature. If you haven't heard that news before
and it comes to you is so vivid a form, it's tremendous
shock. It made me sad in a way that I still feel sad. It
wasn't really the end of childhood, but it was the end of a
lot of things. It changed my consciousness. I can still
remember where I was standing and where on the shelf I
found that book.
Q. While you were writing this book did your attitude
toward photography change? I had a sense that you credited
photography more by the end of the book than at the start.
A. I don't think it changed. What I did come to appreciate
as I was writing these essays is how big a subject
photography really is. In fact, I came to realize that I
wasn't writing about photography so much as I was writing
about modernity, about the way we are now. The subject of
photography is a form of access to contemporary ways of
feeling and thinking. And writing about photography is like
writing about the world.
In fact, as I said in the preface, I never intended to
write all those essays. I wrote one essay in late 1973 and
discovered when I was finishing it that I had more material
left over that I though would be enough for a second essay.
And while writing the second essay, I realized that I had
enough material left over to write a third. And it became a
sorcerer's apprentice situation. By the fourth essay I was
seriously worried whether I could ever end it. And I would
have gone on. I don't think I could have gone on from the
sixth essay -- because that was consciously written in the
spring of this year to close it off and to state the most
general themes. But I could have written another essay
between the fifth and the sixth. I have a lot more
material, and the subject became deeper as I was working on
Q. I was very interested in everything you said about Diane
Arbus. You raised the question of how she got her models to
pose for her. That's something of a mystery, isn't it?
A. As Arbus said, the camera is a tremendous license in
this society. You can go into all sorts of situations with
a camera and people will think they should serve it. I was
in a restaurant recently , and someone decided to take
photographs at a neighboring table. It was a very expensive
restaurant, the people who were there wanted it to be worth
the money they were spending. The taking of photographs at
this neighboring table involved flashbulbs, yet nobody
seemed to mind that this monopolized everybody's attention
for about 15 minutes. I stopped eating, stopped talking to
the people who had invited me, and just watched -- as did
practically everybody else. Everyone was fascinated; nobody
minded the intrusion. The camera gives license to disturb
people without offending them. It's a license to stop
people on the street, ask to be admitted to their private
space by saying, "I want to photograph you." Everybody's
made nervous by it, but they're also flattered, as Arbus
said, by the attention.
Q. Are you put off by Richard Avedon's distorted
photographs? Why do people sit for Avedon?
A. It's difficult to refuse a photographer. This role, this
activity, has a privileged place in our experience and in
our lives. You have to be a professional recluse like
Salinger or Pynchon to refuse being photographed. More
generally, it's hard to resist the invitation to manifest
oneself. I'm doing it with you now. If Richard Avedon asked
to photograph me I would go and be photographed by him. He
may not ask me, because we're friends, and he tends not to
photograph people he knows.
Q. The one he did of Renata Adler is awfully nice.
Well, there are two photographs of Renata. There's the
beautiful one with the hat, and there's another, which he
told me he took the day they met; that was the way he
wanted to photograph her. He has told me that he prefers to
do that sort of photograph.
Q. What sort?
A. The kind you call distorted -- I say revealing. You
could say that the way he photographs emphasized skin
blemishes very much, because it's extremely accurate,
sharp-focus photography. The image is unflattering in that
way. But I don't agree that Avedon's photographs distort. I
think, on the contrary, that we expect to be flattered by
photography, we expect in fact that the photograph will
show us to be better looking than we really are.
A. That notion of being "photogenic"
actually means that you look better in a photograph than
you do in real life. We all want to be photogenic; that is,
we all want -- since the photograph is this thin slice of
time -- to be photographed at that moment when we are
looking better than usual. What Avedon has done is to take
photographs which do not contain in any way the idea of the
Q. Which writers are you reading now?
A. I don't know where to start. Since his death I've been
reading all of Nabokov, I'm overwhelmed by how good he is.
He gets better and better every time I reread him. I'm sad
that he didn't get the Nobel Prize. So many second-rate
writers have gotten it, one wants first-rate writers to get
it too. And I've been reading and rereading Viktor
Shklovsky, Sinyavsky, Joseph Brodsky.
Q. What are you writing now?
A. I'm finishing an essay
called "Illness as Metaphor." And I'm writing a story,
which will be called either "Act 1, Scene 2," or "The
Letter." And then I've been at work on a novel for several
years, off and on. I'll get back to that after the first of
Q. Is it a relief to get off one project and onto another?
A. It's always a relief to do fiction; it's always a trial
to do essays. They're much harder for me. An essay can go
through 20 drafts, a work of fiction rarely goes through
more than three or four drafts. With fiction, I'm almost
there after the first draft. The second, third and fourth
drafts are mostly cutting and fixing up. These photography
essays took, each one of them, about six months. Some of
the stories are done in a week.
Q. On the other hand, the photography book is very
ambitious, perhaps the first literary book on the subject.
A. By "literary book," do you mean it's a book by a
Q. I mean you brought a literary sensibility to it. You
don't agree with that?
A. Well, many people seem to think that one should be a
photography insider to write about photography as I've
done. But no insider would do it. Only an outsider would
write this kind of book. However, I'm not a literary, as
opposed to visual, person. The distinction is trivial. It's
because I do see "photographically" that I came to
understand what a distinctive and momentous way of seeing
that is. More generally, people don't like trespassers, and
to people on the inside I'm a trespasser -- even though in
fact I'm not. Also, I am not and don't want to be a
photography critic. This isn't that kind of book.
The Decay of Cinema
February 25, 1996
By SUSAN SONTAG
Cinema's 100 years seem to have the shape of a life cycle:
an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and
the onset in the last decade of an ignominious,
irreversible decline. It's not that you can't look forward
anymore to new films that you can admire. But such films
not only have to be exceptions -- that's true of great
achievements in any art. They have to be actual violations
of the norms and practices that now govern movie making
everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world
-- which is to say, everywhere. And ordinary films, films
made purely for entertainment (that is, commercial)
purposes, are astonishingly witless; the vast majority fail
resoundingly to appeal to their cynically targeted
audiences. While the point of a great film is now, more
than ever, to be a one-of-a-kind achievement, the
commercial cinema has settled for a policy of bloated,
derivative film-making, a brazen combinatory or
recombinatory art, in the hope of reproducing past
successes. Cinema, once heralded as the art of the 20th
century, seems now, as the century closes numerically, to
be a decadent art.
Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia
-- the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema
inspired. Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that
cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the
conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other:
quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic
and mysterious and erotic and moral -- all at the same
time. Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema
was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated
everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of
As many people have noted, the start of movie making a
hundred years ago was, conveniently, a double start. In
roughly the year 1895, two kinds of films were made, two
modes of what cinema could be seemed to emerge: cinema as
the transcription of real unstaged life (the Lumiere
brothers) and cinema as invention, artifice, illusion,
fantasy (Melies). But this is not a true opposition. The
whole point is that, for those first audiences, the very
transcription of the most banal reality -- the Lumiere
brothers filming "The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat
Station" -- was a fantastic experience. Cinema began in
wonder, the wonder that reality can be transcribed with
such immediacy. All of cinema is an attempt to perpetuate
and to reinvent that sense of wonder.
Everything in cinema begins with that moment, 100 years
ago, when the train pulled into the station. People took
movies into themselves, just as the public cried out with
excitement, actually ducked, as the train seemed to move
toward them. Until the advent of television emptied the
movie theaters, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema
that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke,
to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about
how to be attractive. Example: It looks good to wear a
raincoat even when it isn't raining. But whatever you took
home was only a part of the larger experience of submerging
yourself in lives that were not yours. The desire to lose
yourself in other people's lives . . . faces. This is a
larger, more inclusive form of desire embodied in the movie
experience. Even more than what you appropriated for
yourself was the experience of surrender to, of being
transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be
kidnapped by the movie -- and to be kidnapped was to be
overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image. The
experience of "going to the movies" was part of it. To see
a great film only on television isn't to have really seen
that film. It's not only a question of the dimensions of
the image: the disparity between a larger-than-you image in
the theater and the little image on the box at home. The
conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are
radically disrespectful of film. Now that a film no longer
has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living
room or bedroom walls. But you are still in a living room
or a bedroom. To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie
theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.
No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals --
erotic, ruminative -- of the darkened theater. The
reduction of cinema to assaultive images, and the
unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster
cutting) to make them more attention-grabbing, has produced
a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn't demand
anyone's full attention. Images now appear in any size and
on a variety of surfaces: on a screen in a theater, on
disco walls and on megascreens hanging above sports arenas.
The sheer ubiquity of moving images has steadily undermined
the standards people once had both for cinema as art and
for cinema as popular entertainment.
In the first years there was, essentially, no difference
between these two forms. And all films of the silent era --
from the masterpieces of Feuillade, D. W. Griffith, Dziga
Vertov, Pabst, Murnau and King Vidor to the most
formula-ridden melodramas and comedies -- are on a very
high artistic level, compared with most of what was to
follow. With the coming of sound, the image making lost
much of its brilliance and poetry, and commercial standards
tightened. This way of making movies -- the Hollywood
system -- dominated film making for about 25 years (roughly
from 1930 to 1955). The most original directors, like Erich
von Stroheim and Orson Welles, were defeated by the system
and eventually went into artistic exile in Europe -- where
more or less the same quality-defeating system was now in
place, with lower budgets; only in France were a large
number of superb films produced throughout this period.
Then, in the mid-1950's, vanguard ideas took hold again,
rooted in the idea of cinema as a craft pioneered by the
Italian films of the immediate postwar period. A dazzling
number of original, passionate films of the highest
seriousness got made.
It was at this specific moment in the 100-year history of
cinema that going to movies, thinking about movies, talking
about movies became a passion among university students and
other young people. You fell in love not just with actors
but with cinema itself. Cinephilia had first become visible
in the 1950's in France: its forum was the legendary film
magazine Cahiers du Cinema (followed by similarly fervent
magazines in Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Sweden, the
United States and Canada). Its temples, as it spread
throughout Europe and the Americas, were the many
cinematheques and clubs specializing in films from the past
and directors' retrospectives that sprang up. The 1960's
and early 1970's was the feverish age of movie-going, with
the full-time cinephile always hoping to find a seat as
close as possible to the big screen, ideally the third row
center. "One can't live without Rossellini," declares a
character in Bertolucci's "Before the Revolution" (1964) --
and means it.
For some 15 years there were new masterpieces every month.
How far away that era seems now. To be sure, there was
always a conflict between cinema as an industry and cinema
as an art, cinema as routine and cinema as experiment. But
the conflict was not such as to make impossible the making
of wonderful films, sometimes within and sometimes outside
of mainstream cinema. Now the balance has tipped decisively
in favor of cinema as an industry. The great cinema of the
1960's and 1970's has been thoroughly repudiated. Already
in the 1970's Hollywood was plagiarizing and rendering
banal the innovations in narrative method and in the
editing of successful new European and ever-marginal
independent American films. Then came the catastrophic rise
in production costs in the 1980's, which secured the
worldwide reimposition of industry standards of making and
distributing films on a far more coercive, this time truly
global scale. Soaring producton costs meant that a film had
to make a lot of money right away, in the first month of
its release, if it was to be profitable at all -- a trend
that favored the blockbuster over the low-budget film,
although most blockbusters were flops and there were always
a few "small" films that surprised everyone by their
appeal. The theatrical release time of movies became
shorter and shorter (like the shelf life of books in
bookstores); many movies were designed to go directly into
video. Movie theaters continued to close -- many towns no
longer have even one -- as movies became, mainly, one of a
variety of habit-forming home entertainments.
In this country, the lowering of expectations for quality
and the inflation of expectations for profit have made it
virtually impossible for artistically ambitious American
directors, like Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Schrader, to
work at their best level. Abroad, the result can be seen in
the melancholy fate of some of the greatest directors of
the last decades. What place is there today for a maverick
like Hans- Jurgen Syberberg, who has stopped making films
altogether, or for the great Godard, who now makes films
about the history of film, on video? Consider some other
cases. The internationalizing of financing and therefore of
casts were disastrous for Andrei Tarkovsky in the last two
films of his stupendous (and tragically abbreviated)
career. And how will Aleksandr Sokurov find the money to go
on making his sublime films, under the rude conditions of
Predictably, the love of cinema has waned. People still
like going to the movies, and some people still care about
and expect something special, necessary from a film. And
wonderful films are still being made: Mike Leigh's "Naked,"
Gianni Amelio's "Lamerica," Fred Kelemen's "Fate." But you
hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the
distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply
love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast
appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of
cinema's glorious past). Cinephilia itself has come under
attack, as something quaint, outmoded, snobbish. For
cinephilia implies that films are unique, unrepeatable,
magic experiences. Cinephilia tells us that the Hollywood
remake of Godard's "Breathless" cannot be as good as the
original. Cinephilia has no role in the era of
hyperindustrial films. For cinephilia cannot help, by the
very range and eclecticism of its passions, from sponsoring
the idea of the film as, first of all, a poetic object; and
cannot help from inciting those outside the movie industry,
like painters and writers, to want to make films, too. It
is precisely this notion that has been defeated.
If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too . . . no
matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being
made. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through
the birth of a new kind of cine-love.
Susan Sontag is the author, most recently, of "The Volcano
Lover," a novel, and "Alice in Bed," a play.
Regarding the Torture of Others
May 23, 2004
By SUSAN SONTAG
For a long time -- at least six decades -- photographs have
laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged
and remembered. The Western memory museum is now mostly a
visual one. Photographs have an insuperable power to
determine what we recall of events, and it now seems
probable that the defining association of people everywhere
with the war that the United States launched pre-emptively
in Iraq last year will be photographs of the torture of
Iraqi prisoners by Americans in the most infamous of Saddam
Hussein's prisons, Abu Ghraib.
The Bush administration and its defenders have chiefly
sought to limit a public-relations disaster -- the
dissemination of the photographs -- rather than deal with
the complex crimes of leadership and of policy revealed by
the pictures. There was, first of all, the displacement of
the reality onto the photographs themselves. The
administration's initial response was to say that the
president was shocked and disgusted by the photographs --
as if the fault or horror lay in the images, not in what
they depict. There was also the avoidance of the word
''torture.'' The prisoners had possibly been the objects of
''abuse,'' eventually of ''humiliation'' -- that was the
most to be admitted. ''My impression is that what has been
charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is
different from torture,'' Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld said at a press conference. ''And therefore I'm
not going to address the 'torture' word.''
Words alter, words add, words subtract. It was the
strenuous avoidance of the word ''genocide'' while some
800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda were being slaughtered, over a few
weeks' time, by their Hutu neighbors 10 years ago that
indicated the American government had no intention of doing
anything. To refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib
-- and what has taken place elsewhere in Iraq and in
Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay -- by its true name,
torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the
Rwandan genocide a genocide. Here is one of the definitions
of torture contained in a convention to which the United
States is a signatory: ''any act by which severe pain or
suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally
inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from
him or a third person information or a confession.'' (The
definition comes from the 1984 Convention Against Torture
and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or
Punishment. Similar definitions have existed for some time
in customary law and in treaties, starting with Article 3
-- common to the four Geneva conventions of 1949 -- and
many recent human rights conventions.) The 1984 convention
declares, ''No exceptional circumstances whatsoever,
whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal
political instability or any other public emergency, may be
invoked as a justification of torture.'' And all covenants
on torture specify that it includes treatment intended to
humiliate the victim, like leaving prisoners naked in cells
Whatever actions this administration undertakes to limit
the damage of the widening revelations of the torture of
prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere -- trials,
courts-martial, dishonorable discharges, resignation of
senior military figures and responsible administration
officials and substantial compensation to the victims -- it
is probable that the ''torture'' word will continue to be
banned. To acknowledge that Americans torture their
prisoners would contradict everything this administration
has invited the public to believe about the virtue of
American intentions and America's right, flowing from that
virtue, to undertake unilateral action on the world stage.
Even when the president was finally compelled, as the
damage to America's reputation everywhere in the world
widened and deepened, to use the ''sorry'' word, the focus
of regret still seemed the damage to America's claim to
moral superiority. Yes, President Bush said in Washington
on May 6, standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan, he
was ''sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi
prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families.''
But, he went on, he was ''equally sorry that people seeing
these pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart
To have the American effort in Iraq summed up by these
images must seem, to those who saw some justification in a
war that did overthrow one of the monster tyrants of modern
times, ''unfair.'' A war, an occupation, is inevitably a
huge tapestry of actions. What makes some actions
representative and others not? The issue is not whether the
torture was done by individuals (i.e., ''not by
everybody'') -- but whether it was systematic. Authorized.
Condoned. All acts are done by individuals. The issue is
not whether a majority or a minority of Americans performs
such acts but whether the nature of the policies prosecuted
by this administration and the hierarchies deployed to
carry them out makes such acts likely.
Considered in this light, the photographs are us. That is,
they are representative of the fundamental corruptions of
any foreign occupation together with the Bush
adminstration's distinctive policies. The Belgians in the
Congo, the French in Algeria, practiced torture and sexual
humiliation on despised recalcitrant natives. Add to this
generic corruption the mystifying, near-total
unpreparedness of the American rulers of Iraq to deal with
the complex realities of the country after its
''liberation.'' And add to that the overarching,
distinctive doctrines of the Bush administration, namely
that the United States has embarked on an endless war and
that those detained in this war are, if the president so
decides, ''unlawful combatants'' -- a policy enunciated by
Donald Rumsfeld for Taliban and Qaeda prisoners as early as
January 2002 -- and thus, as Rumsfeld said, ''technically''
they ''do not have any rights under the Geneva
Convention,'' and you have a perfect recipe for the
cruelties and crimes committed against the thousands
incarcerated without charges or access to lawyers in
American-run prisons that have been set up since the
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
So, then, is the real issue not the photographs themselves
but what the photographs reveal to have happened to
''suspects'' in American custody? No: the horror of what is
shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the
horror that the photographs were taken -- with the
perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless
captives. German soldiers in the Second World War took
photographs of the atrocities they were committing in
Poland and Russia, but snapshots in which the executioners
placed themselves among their victims are exceedingly rare,
as may be seen in a book just published, ''Photographing
the Holocaust,'' by Janina Struk. If there is something
comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of
the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between
the 1880's and 1930's, which show Americans grinning
beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman
hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs
were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants
felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the
pictures from Abu Ghraib.
The lynching pictures were in the nature of photographs as
trophies -- taken by a photographer in order to be
collected, stored in albums, displayed. The pictures taken
by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, however, reflect a
shift in the use made of pictures -- less objects to be
saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated. A
digital camera is a common possession among soldiers. Where
once photographing war was the province of
photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all
photographers -- recording their war, their fun, their
observations of what they find picturesque, their
atrocities -- and swapping images among themselves and
e-mailing them around the globe.
There is more and more recording of what people do, by
themselves. At least or especially in America, Andy
Warhol's ideal of filming real events in real time -- life
isn't edited, why should its record be edited? -- has
become a norm for countless Webcasts, in which people
record their day, each in his or her own reality show. Here
I am -- waking and yawning and stretching, brushing my
teeth, making breakfast, getting the kids off to school.
People record all aspects of their lives, store them in
computer files and send the files around. Family life goes
with the recording of family life -- even when, or
especially when, the family is in the throes of crisis and
disgrace. Surely the dedicated, incessant home-videoing of
one another, in conversation and monologue, over many years
was the most astonishing material in ''Capturing the
Friedmans,'' the recent documentary by Andrew Jarecki about
a Long Island family embroiled in pedophilia charges.
An erotic life is, for more and more people, that which can
be captured in digital photographs and on video. And
perhaps the torture is more attractive, as something to
record, when it has a sexual component. It is surely
revealing, as more Abu Ghraib photographs enter public
view, that torture photographs are interleaved with
pornographic images of American soldiers having sex with
one another. In fact, most of the torture photographs have
a sexual theme, as in those showing the coercing of
prisoners to perform, or simulate, sexual acts among
themselves. One exception, already canonical, is the
photograph of the man made to stand on a box, hooded and
sprouting wires, reportedly told he would be electrocuted
if he fell off. Yet pictures of prisoners bound in painful
positions, or made to stand with outstretched arms, are
infrequent. That they count as torture cannot be doubted.
You have only to look at the terror on the victim's face,
although such ''stress'' fell within the Pentagon's limits
of the acceptable. But most of the pictures seem part of a
larger confluence of torture and pornography: a young woman
leading a naked man around on a leash is classic dominatrix
imagery. And you wonder how much of the sexual tortures
inflicted on the inmates of Abu Ghraib was inspired by the
vast repertory of pornographic imagery available on the
Internet -- and which ordinary people, by sending out
Webcasts of themselves, try to emulate.
To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one's
life, and therefore to go on with one's life oblivious, or
claiming to be oblivious, to the camera's nonstop
attentions. But to live is also to pose. To act is to share
in the community of actions recorded as images. The
expression of satisfaction at the acts of torture being
inflicted on helpless, trussed, naked victims is only part
of the story. There is the deep satisfaction of being
photographed, to which one is now more inclined to respond
not with a stiff, direct gaze (as in former times) but with
glee. The events are in part designed to be photographed.
The grin is a grin for the camera. There would be something
missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn't take
a picture of them.
Looking at these photographs, you ask yourself, How can
someone grin at the sufferings and humiliation of another
human being? Set guard dogs at the genitals and legs of
cowering naked prisoners? Force shackled, hooded prisoners
to masturbate or simulate oral sex with one another? And
you feel naive for asking, since the answer is,
self-evidently, People do these things to other people.
Rape and pain inflicted on the genitals are among the most
common forms of torture. Not just in Nazi concentration
camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein.
Americans, too, have done and do them when they are told,
or made to feel, that those over whom they have absolute
power deserve to be humiliated, tormented. They do them
when they are led to believe that the people they are
torturing belong to an inferior race or religion. For the
meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were
performed, but that their perpetrators apparently had no
sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures
Even more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be
circulated and seen by many people: it was all fun. And
this idea of fun is, alas, more and more -- contrary to
what President Bush is telling the world -- part of ''the
true nature and heart of America.'' It is hard to measure
the increasing acceptance of brutality in American life,
but its evidence is everywhere, starting with the video
games of killing that are a principal entertainment of boys
-- can the video game ''Interrogating the Terrorists''
really be far behind? -- and on to the violence that has
become endemic in the group rites of youth on an exuberant
kick. Violent crime is down, yet the easy delight taken in
violence seems to have grown. From the harsh torments
inflicted on incoming students in many American suburban
high schools -- depicted in Richard Linklater's 1993 film,
''Dazed and Confused'' -- to the hazing rituals of physical
brutality and sexual humiliation in college fraternities
and on sports teams, America has become a country in which
the fantasies and the practice of violence are seen as good
What formerly was segregated as pornography, as the
exercise of extreme sadomasochistic longings -- as in Pier
Paolo Pasolini's last, near-unwatchable film, ''Salo''
(1975), depicting orgies of torture in the Fascist redoubt
in northern Italy at the end of the Mussolini era -- is now
being normalized, by some, as high-spirited play or
venting. To ''stack naked men'' is like a college
fraternity prank, said a caller to Rush Limbaugh and the
many millions of Americans who listen to his radio show.
Had the caller, one wonders, seen the photographs? No
matter. The observation -- or is it the fantasy? -- was on
the mark. What may still be capable of shocking some
Americans was Limbaugh's response: ''Exactly!'' he
exclaimed. ''Exactly my point. This is no different than
what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation, and we're
going to ruin people's lives over it, and we're going to
hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really
hammer them because they had a good time.'' ''They'' are
the American soldiers, the torturers. And Limbaugh went on:
''You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm
talking about people having a good time, these people. You
ever heard of emotional release?''
Shock and awe were what our military promised the Iraqis.
And shock and the awful are what these photographs announce
to the world that the Americans have delivered: a pattern
of criminal behavior in open contempt of international
humanitarian conventions. Soldiers now pose, thumbs up,
before the atrocities they commit, and send off the
pictures to their buddies. Secrets of private life that,
formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal,
you now clamor to be invited on a television show to
reveal. What is illustrated by these photographs is as much
the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for
The notion that apologies or professions of ''disgust'' by
the president and the secretary of defense are a sufficient
response is an insult to one's historical and moral sense.
The torture of prisoners is not an aberration. It is a
direct consequence of the with-us-or-against-us doctrines
of world struggle with which the Bush administration has
sought to change, change radically, the international
stance of the United States and to recast many domestic
institutions and prerogatives. The Bush administration has
committed the country to a pseudo-religious doctrine of
war, endless war -- for ''the war on terror'' is nothing
less than that. Endless war is taken to justify endless
incarcerations. Those held in the extralegal American penal
empire are ''detainees''; ''prisoners,'' a newly obsolete
word, might suggest that they have the rights accorded by
international law and the laws of all civilized countries.
This endless ''global war on terrorism'' -- into which both
the quite justified invasion of Afghanistan and the
unwinnable folly in Iraq have been folded by Pentagon
decree -- inevitably leads to the demonizing and
dehumanizing of anyone declared by the Bush administration
to be a possible terrorist: a definition that is not up for
debate and is, in fact, usually made in secret.
The charges against most of the people detained in the
prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan being nonexistent -- the
Red Cross reports that 70 to 90 percent of those being held
seem to have committed no crime other than simply being in
the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in some sweep
of ''suspects'' -- the principal justification for holding
them is ''interrogation.'' Interrogation about what? About
anything. Whatever the detainee might know. If
interrogation is the point of detaining prisoners
indefinitely, then physical coercion, humiliation and
torture become inevitable.
Remember: we are not talking about that rarest of cases,
the ''ticking time bomb'' situation, which is sometimes
used as a limiting case that justifies torture of prisoners
who have knowledge of an imminent attack. This is general
or nonspecific information-gathering, authorized by
American military and civilian administrators to learn more
of a shadowy empire of evildoers about whom Americans know
virtually nothing, in countries about which they are
singularly ignorant: in principle, any information at all
might be useful. An interrogation that produced no
information (whatever information might consist of) would
count as a failure. All the more justification for
preparing prisoners to talk. Softening them up, stressing
them out -- these are the euphemisms for the bestial
practices in American prisons where suspected terrorists
are being held. Unfortunately, as Staff Sgt. Ivan (Chip)
Frederick noted in his diary, a prisoner can get too
stressed out and die. The picture of a man in a body bag
with ice on his chest may well be of the man Frederick was
The pictures will not go away. That is the nature of the
digital world in which we live. Indeed, it seems they were
necessary to get our leaders to acknowledge that they had a
problem on their hands. After all, the conclusions of
reports compiled by the International Committee of the Red
Cross, and other reports by journalists and protests by
humanitarian organizations about the atrocious punishments
inflicted on ''detainees'' and ''suspected terrorists'' in
prisons run by the American military, first in Afghanistan
and later in Iraq, have been circulating for more than a
year. It seems doubtful that such reports were read by
President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or Condoleezza
Rice or Rumsfeld. Apparently it took the photographs to get
their attention, when it became clear they could not be
suppressed; it was the photographs that made all this
''real'' to Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had
been only words, which are easier to cover up in our age of
infinite digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination,
and so much easier to forget.
So now the pictures will continue to ''assault'' us -- as
many Americans are bound to feel. Will people get used to
them? Some Americans are already saying they have seen
enough. Not, however, the rest of the world. Endless war:
endless stream of photographs. Will editors now debate
whether showing more of them, or showing them uncropped
(which, with some of the best-known images, like that of a
hooded man on a box, gives a different and in some
instances more appalling view), would be in ''bad taste''
or too implicitly political? By ''political,'' read:
critical of the Bush administration's imperial project. For
there can be no doubt that the photographs damage, as
Rumsfeld testified, ''the reputation of the honorable men
and women of the armed forces who are courageously and
responsibly and professionally defending our freedom across
the globe.'' This damage -- to our reputation, our image,
our success as the lone superpower -- is what the Bush
administration principally deplores. How the protection of
''our freedom'' -- the freedom of 5 percent of humanity --
came to require having American soldiers ''across the
globe'' is hardly debated by our elected officials.
Already the backlash has begun. Americans are being warned
against indulging in an orgy of self-condemnation. The
continuing publication of the pictures is being taken by
many Americans as suggesting that we do not have the right
to defend ourselves: after all, they (the terrorists)
started it. They -- Osama bin Laden? Saddam Hussein? what's
the difference? -- attacked us first. Senator James Inhofe
of Oklahoma, a Republican member of the Senate Armed
Services Committee, before which Secretary Rumsfeld
testified, avowed that he was sure he was not the only
member of the committee ''more outraged by the outrage''
over the photographs than by what the photographs show.
''These prisoners,'' Senator Inhofe explained, ''you know
they're not there for traffic violations. If they're in
Cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're murderers,
they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them
probably have American blood on their hands, and here we're
so concerned about the treatment of those individuals.''
It's the fault of ''the media'' which are provoking, and
will continue to provoke, further violence against
Americans around the world. More Americans will die.
Because of these photos.
There is an answer to this charge, of course. Americans are
dying not because of the photographs but because of what
the photographs reveal to be happening, happening with the
complicity of a chain of command -- so Maj. Gen. Antonio
Taguba implied, and Pfc. Lynndie England said, and (among
others) Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a
Republican, suggested, after he saw the Pentagon's full
range of images on May 12. ''Some of it has an elaborate
nature to it that makes me very suspicious of whether or
not others were directing or encouraging,'' Senator Graham
said. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said that
viewing an uncropped version of one photo showing a stack
of naked men in a hallway -- a version that revealed how
many other soldiers were at the scene, some not even paying
attention -- contradicted the Pentagon's assertion that
only rogue soldiers were involved. ''Somewhere along the
line,'' Senator Nelson said of the torturers, ''they were
either told or winked at.'' An attorney for Specialist
Charles Graner Jr., who is in the picture, has had his
client identify the men in the uncropped version; according
to The Wall Street Journal, Graner said that four of the
men were military intelligence and one a civilian
contractor working with military intelligence.
But the distinction between photograph and reality -- as
between spin and policy -- can easily evaporate. And that
is what the administration wishes to happen. ''There are a
lot more photographs and videos that exist,'' Rumsfeld
acknowledged in his testimony. ''If these are released to
the public, obviously, it's going to make matters worse.''
Worse for the administration and its programs, presumably,
not for those who are the actual -- and potential? --
victims of torture.
The media may self-censor but, as Rumsfeld acknowledged,
it's hard to censor soldiers overseas, who don't write
letters home, as in the old days, that can be opened by
military censors who ink out unacceptable lines. Today's
soldiers instead function like tourists, as Rumsfeld put
it, ''running around with digital cameras and taking these
unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against
the law, to the media, to our surprise.'' The
administration's effort to withhold pictures is proceeding
along several fronts. Currently, the argument is taking a
legalistic turn: now the photographs are classified as
evidence in future criminal cases, whose outcome may be
prejudiced if they are made public. The Republican chairman
of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner of
Virginia, after the May 12 slide show of image after image
of sexual humiliation and violence against Iraqi prisoners,
said he felt ''very strongly'' that the newer photos
''should not be made public. I feel that it could possibly
endanger the men and women of the armed forces as they are
serving and at great risk.''
But the real push to limit the accessibility of the
photographs will come from the continuing effort to protect
the administration and cover up our misrule in Iraq -- to
identify ''outrage'' over the photographs with a campaign
to undermine American military might and the purposes it
currently serves. Just as it was regarded by many as an
implicit criticism of the war to show on television
photographs of American soldiers who have been killed in
the course of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it will
increasingly be thought unpatriotic to disseminate the new
photographs and further tarnish the image of America.
After all, we're at war. Endless war. And war is hell, more
so than any of the people who got us into this rotten war
seem to have expected. In our digital hall of mirrors, the
pictures aren't going to go away. Yes, it seems that one
picture is worth a thousand words. And even if our leaders
choose not to look at them, there will be thousands more
snapshots and videos. Unstoppable.
Susan Sontag is the author, most recently, of ''Regarding
the Pain of Others.''
Why Are We in Kosovo?
May 2, 1999
By SUSAN SONTAG
The other day a friend from home, New York, called me in
Bari -- where I am living for a couple of months -- to ask
whether I am all right and inquired in passing whether I
can hear sounds of the bombing. I reassured her that not
only could I not hear the bombs dropping on Belgrade and
Novi Sad and Pristina from downtown Bari, but even the
planes taking off from the nearby NATO base of Gioia del
Colle are quite inaudible. Though it is easy to mock my
geographyless American friend's vision of European
countries being only slightly larger than postage stamps,
her Tiny Europe seems a nice complement to the widely held
vision of Helpless Europe being dragged into a bellicose
folly by Big Bad America.
Perhaps I exaggerate. I am writing this from Italy --
weakest link in the NATO chain. Italy (unlike France and
Germany) continues to maintain an embassy in Belgrade.
Milosevic has received the Italian Communists' party
leader, Armando Cossutta. The estimable mayor of Venice has
sent an envoy to Belgrade with letters addressed to
Milosevic and to the ethnic Albanian leader with whom he
has met, Ibrahim Rugova, proposing Venice as a site for
peace negotiations. (The letters were accepted, thank you
very much, by the Orthodox primate following the Easter
Sunday service.) But then it is understandable that Italy
has panicked: Italians see not just scenes of excruciating
misery on their TV news but images of masses on the move.
In Italy, Albanians are first of all future immigrants.
But opposition to the war is hardly confined to Italy, and
to one strand of the political spectrum. On the contrary:
mobilized against this war are remnants of the left and the
likes of Le Pen and Bossi and Heider on the right. The
right is against immigrants. The left is against America.
(Against the idea of America, that is. The hegemony of
American popular culture in Europe could hardly be more
On both the so-called left and the so-called right,
identity-talk is on the rise. The anti-Americanism that is
fueling the protest against the war has been growing in
recent years in many of the nations of the New Europe, and
is perhaps best understood as a displacement of the anxiety
about this New Europe, which everyone has been told is a
Good Thing and few dare question. Nations are communities
that are always being imagined, reconceived, reasserted,
against the pressure of a defining Other. The specter of a
nation without borders, an infinitely porous nation, is
bound to create anxiety. Europe needs its overbearing
Weak Europe? Impotent Europe? The words are everywhere. The
truth is that the made-for-business Europe being brought
into existence with the enthusiastic assent of the
''responsible'' business and professional elites is a
Europe precisely designed to be incapable of responding to
the threat posed by a dictator like Milosevic. This is not
a question of ''weakness,'' though that is how it is being
experienced. It is a question of ideology.
It is not that Europe is weak. Far from it. It is that
Europe, the Europe under construction since the Final
Victory of Capitalism in 1989, is up to something else.
Something which indeed renders obsolete most of the
questions of justice -- indeed, all the moral questions.
(What prevails, in their place, are questions of health,
which may be conjoined with ecological concerns; but that
is another matter.)
A Europe designed for spectacle, consumerism and hand
wringing . . . but haunted by the fear of national
identities being swamped either by faceless multinational
commercialism or by tides of alien immigrants from poor
In one part of the continent, former Communists play the
nationalist card and foment lethal nationalisms --
Milosevic being the most egregious example. In the other
part, nationalism, and with it war, are presumed to be
How helpless ''our'' Europe feels in the face of all this
irrational slaughter and suffering taking place in the
And meanwhile the war goes on. A war that started in 1991.
Not in 1999. And not, as the Serbs would have it, six
centuries ago, either. Theirs is a country whose
nationalist myth has as its founding event a defeat -- the
Battle of Kosovo, lost to the Turks in 1389. We are
fighting the Turks, Serb officers commanding the mortar
emplacements on the heights of Sarajevo would assure
Would we not think it odd if France still rallied around
the memory of the Battle of Agincourt -- 1415 -- in its
eternal enmity with Great Britain? But who could imagine
such a thing? For France is Europe. And ''they'' are not.
Yes, this is Europe. The Europe that did not respond to the
Serb shelling of Dubrovnik. Or the three-year siege of
Sarajevo. The Europe that let Bosnia die.
A new definition of Europe: the place where tragedies don't
take place. Wars, genocides -- that happened here once, but
no longer. It's something that happens in Africa. (Or
places in Europe that are not ''really'' Europe. That is,
the Balkans.) Again, perhaps I exaggerate. But having spent
a good part of three years, from 1993 to 1996, in Sarajevo,
it does not seem to me like an exaggeration at all.
Living on the edge of NATO Europe, only a few hundred
kilometers from the refugee camps in Durres and Kukes and
Blace, from the greatest mass of suffering in Europe since
the Second World War, it is true that I can't hear the NATO
planes leaving the base here in Puglia. But I can walk to
Bari's waterfront and watch Albanian and Kosovar families
pouring off the daily ferries from Durres -- legal
immigrants, presumably -- or drive south a hundred
kilometers at night and see the Italian coast guard
searching for the rubber dinghies crammed with refugees
that leave Vlore nightly for the perilous Adriatic
crossing. But if I leave my apartment in Bari only to visit
friends and have a pizza and see a movie and hang out in a
bar, I am no closer to the war than the television news or
the newspapers that arrive every morning at my doorstep. I
could as well be back in New York.
Of course, it is easy to turn your eyes from what is
happening if it is not happening to you. Or if you have not
put yourself where it is happening. I remember in Sarajevo
in the summer of 1993 a Bosnian friend telling me ruefully
that in 1991, when she saw on her TV set the footage of
Vukovar utterly leveled by the Serbs, she thought to
herself, How terrible, but that's in Croatia, that can
never happen here in Bosnia . . . and switched the channel.
The following year, when the war started in Bosnia, she
learned differently. Then she became part of a story on
television that other people saw and said, How terrible . .
. and switched the channel.
How helpless ''our'' pacified, comfortable Europe feels in
the face of all this irrational slaughter and suffering
taking place in the other Europe. But the images cannot be
conjured away -- of refugees, people who have been pushed
out of their homes, their torched villages, by the hundreds
of thousands and who look like us.
Generations of Europeans fearful of any idealism, incapable
of indignation except in the old anti-imperialist cold-war
grooves. (Yet, of course, the key point about this war is
that it is the direct result of the end of the cold war and
the breakup of old empires and imperial rivalries.) Stop
the War and Stop the Genocide, read the banners being waved
in the demonstrations in Rome and here in Bari. For Peace.
Against War. Who is not? But how can you stop those bent on
genocide without making war?
We have been here before. The horrors, the horrors. Our
attempt to forge a ''humanitarian'' response. Our inability
(yes, after Auschwitz!) to comprehend how such horrors can
take place. And as the horrors multiply, it becomes even
more incomprehensible why we should respond to any one of
them (since we have not responded to the others). Why this
horror and not another? Why Bosnia or Kosovo and not
Kurdistan or Rwanda or Tibet?
Are we not saying that European lives, European suffering
are more valuable, more worth acting on to protect, than
the lives of people in the Middle East, Africa and Asia?
One answer to this commonly voiced objection to NATO's war
is to say boldly, Yes, to care about the fate of the people
in Kosovo is Eurocentric, and what's wrong with that? But
is not the accusation of Eurocentrism itself just one more
vestige of European presumption, the presumption of
Europe's universalist mission: that every part of the globe
has a claim on Europe's attention?
If several African states had cared enough about the
genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda (nearly a million people!)
to intervene militarily, say, under the leadership of
Nelson Mandela, would we have criticized this initiative as
being Afrocentric? Would we have asked what right these
states have to intervene in Rwanda when they have done
nothing on behalf of the Kurds or the Tibetans?
Another argument against intervening in Kosovo is that the
war is -- wonderful word -- illegal,'' because NATO is
violating the borders of a sovereign state. Kosovo is,
after all, part of the new Greater Serbia called
Yugoslavia. Tough luck for the Kosovars that Milosevic
revoked their autonomous status in 1989. Inconvenient that
90 percent of Kosovars are Albanians -- ethnic Albanians''
as they are called, to distinguish them from the citizens
of Albania. Empires reconfigure. But are national borders,
which have been altered so many times in the last hundred
years, really to be the ultimate criterion? You can murder
your wife in your own house, but not outdoors on the
Imagine that Nazi Germany had had no expansionist ambitions
but had simply made it a policy in the late 1930's and
early 1940's to slaughter all the German Jews. Do we think
a government has the right to do whatever it wants on its
own territory? Maybe the governments of Europe would have
said that 60 years ago. But would we approve now of their
Push the supposition into the present. What if the French
Government began slaughtering large numbers of Corsicans
and driving the rest out of Corsica . . . or the Italian
Government began emptying out Sicily or Sardinia, creating
a million refugees . . . or Spain decided to apply a final
solution to its rebellious Basque population. Wouldn't we
agree that a consortium of powers on the continent had the
right to use military force to make the French (or Italian,
or Spanish) Government reverse its actions, which would
probably mean overthrowing that Government?
But of course this couldn't happen, could it? Not in
Europe. My friends in Sarajevo used to say during the
siege: How can ''the West'' be letting this happen to us?
This is Europe, too. We're Europeans. Surely ''they'' won't
allow it to go on.
But they -- Europe -- did.
For something truly terrible happened in Bosnia. From the
Serb death camps in the north of Bosnia in 1992, the first
death camps on European soil since the 1940's, to the mass
executions of many thousands of civilians at Srebrenica and
elsewhere in the summer of 1995 -- Europe tolerated that.
So, obviously, Bosnia wasn't Europe.
Those of us who
spent time in Sarajevo used to say that, as the 20th
century began at Sarajevo, so will the 21st century begin
at Sarajevo. If the options before NATO all seem either
improbable or unpalatable, it is because NATO's actions
come eight years too late. Milosevic should have been
stopped when he was shelling Dubrovnik in 1991.
Back in 1993 and 1994, American policy makers were saying
that even if there were no United States intervention in
assured, this would be the last thing that Milosevic would
be allowed to get away with. A line in the sand had been
drawn: he would never be allowed to make war on Kosovo. But
who believed the Americans then? Not the Bosnians. Not
Milosevic. Not the Europeans. Not even the Americans
themselves. After Dayton,
after the destruction of independent Bosnia, it was time to
go back to sleep, as if the series of events set in motion
in 1989 with the accession to power of Milosevic and the
revocation of autonomous status for the province of Kosovo,
would not play out to its obvious logical end.
If Europe is having a hard time thinking that it matters
what happens in the southeastern corner of Europe, imagine
how hard it is for Americans to think it is in their
interest. It is not in America's interest to push this war
on Europe. It is very much not in Europe's interest to
reward Milosevic for the destruction of Yugoslavia and the
creation of so much human suffering.
Why not just let the brush fire burn out? is the argument
of some. And the expulsion of a million or more refugees
into the neighboring countries of Albania and Macedonia?
This will certainly bring on the destruction of the fragile
new state of Macedonia and the redrawing of the map of the
Balkans -- certain to be disputed by, at the very least,
Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. Do we imagine this will happen
Not surprisingly, the Serbs are presenting themselves as
the victims. (Clinton equals Hitler, etc.) But it is
grotesque to equate the casualties inflicted by the NATO
bombing with the mayhem inflicted on hundreds of thousands
of people in the last eight years by the Serb programs of
Not all violence is equally reprehensible; not all wars are
No forceful response to the violence of a state against
peoples who are nominally its own citizens? (Which is what
most ''wars'' are today. Not wars between states.) The
principal instances of mass violence in the world today are
those committed by governments within their own legally
recognized borders. Can we really say there is no response
to this? Is it acceptable that such slaughters be dismissed
as civil wars, also known as ''age-old ethnic hatreds.''
(After all, anti-Semitism was an old tradition in Europe;
indeed, a good deal older than ancient Balkan hatreds.
Would this have justified letting Hitler kill all the Jews
on German territory?) Is it true that war never solved
anything? (Ask a black American if he or she thinks our
Civil War didn't solve anything.)
War is not simply a mistake, a failure to communicate.
There is radical evil in the world, which is why there are
just wars. And this is a just war. Even if it has been
Stop the genocide. Return all refugees to their homes.
Worthy goals. But how is any of this conceivably going to
happen unless the Milosevic regime is overthrown? (And the
truth is, it's not going to happen.)
Impossible to see how this war will play out. All the
options seem improbable, as well as undesirable.
Unthinkable to keep bombing indefinitely, if Milosevic is
indeed willing to accept the destruction of the Serbian
economy; unthinkable for NATO to stop bombing, if Milosevic
The Milosevic Government has finally brought on Serbia a
small portion of the suffering it has inflicted on
War is a culture, bellicosity is addictive, defeat for a
community that imagines itself to be history's eternal
victim can be as intoxicating as victory. How long will it
take for the Serbs to realize that the Milosevic years have
been an unmitigated disaster for Serbia, the net result of
Milosevic's policies being the economic and cultural ruin
of the entire region, including Serbia, for several
generations? Alas, one thing we can be sure of, that will
not happen soon.
Susan Sontag is the author, most recently, of ''The Volcano
Lover: A Romance.'' She is completing a new novel.
First Chapter: 'In America'
March 12, 2000
By SUSAN SONTAG
PERHAPS IT WAS the slap she received from Gabriela Ebert a
few minutes past five o'clock in the afternoon (I'd not
witnessed that) which made something, no, everything (I
couldn't have known this either) a little clearer. Arriving
at the theatre, inflexibly punctual, two hours before
curtain, Maryna had gone directly to her star's lair, been
stripped to her chemise and corset and helped into a
fur-lined robe and slippers by her dresser, Zofia, whom she
dispatched to iron her costume in an adjoining room, had
pushed the candles nearer both sides of the mirror, had
leaned forward over the jumbled palette of already uncapped
jars and vials of makeup for a closer scrutiny of that all
too familiar mask, her real face, the actress's under-face,
when behind her the door seemed to break open and in front
of her, sharing the mirror, hurtling toward her, she saw
her august rival's reddened, baleful face shouting the
absurd insult, threw herself back in her chair, turned,
glimpsed the arm descending just before an involuntary
grimace of her own brought down her eyelids at the same
instant it bared her upper teeth and shortened her nose,
and felt the shove and sting of a large beringed hand
against her face.
It all happened so rapidly and noisily her eyes stayed
closed, the door banged shut and the shadow-flecked room
with its hissing gas jets had gone so silent now, it might
have been a bad dream: she'd been having bad dreams. Maryna
clapped her palm to her offended face.
Sound of the door being opened softly. And some anxious
babble from Bogdan. "What the devil did she want? If I
hadn't been down the corridor with Jan, I would have
stopped her, how dare she burst in on you like that!"
"It's nothing," Maryna said, opening her eyes, dropping her
hand. "Nothing." Meaning: the buzz of pain in her cheek.
And the migraine now looming on the other side of her head,
which she intended to keep at bay by a much-practiced
exercise of will until the end of the evening. She bent
forward to tie her hair in a towel, then stood and moved to
the washstand, where she vigorously soaped and scrubbed her
face and neck, and patted the skin dry with a soft cloth.
"I knew all along she wouldn't "
"It's all right,"
said Maryna. Not to him. To Zofia, hesitating at the
half-open door, holding the costume aloft in her
Waving her in, Bogdan shut the door a bit harder than he
intended. Maryna stepped out of her robe and into the
burgundy gown with gold braiding ("No, no, leave the back
unbuttoned!"), rotated slowly once, twice, before the
cheval glass, nodded to herself, sent Zofia away to repair
the loose buckle on her shoe and heat the curling iron,
then sat at the dressing table again.
"What did Gabriela want?"
She took a tuft of down and spread a thick layer of Pearl
Powder on her face and throat.
"She came by to wish me the best for tonight."
"Quite generous of her, wouldn't you agree, since she'd
thought the role was to be hers."
"Very generous," he said. And, he thought, very unlike
He watched as three times she redid the powder, applied the
rouge with a hare's foot well up on her cheekbones and
under her eyes and on her chin, and blackened her eyelids,
and three times took it all off with a sponge.
"Sometimes I think there's no point to any of
this," she said tonelessly, starting again on her eyelids
with the charcoal stick.
She dipped a fine camel's-hair brush into the dish of burnt
umber and traced a line under her lower eyelashes.
It seemed to Bogdan she was using too much kohl, which made
her beautiful eyes look sorrowful, or merely old. "Maryna,
look at me!"
"Dear Bogdan, I'm not going to look at you." She was
dabbing more kohl on her brows. "And you're not going to
listen to me. You should be inured by now to my attacks of
nerves. Actor's nerves. A little worse than usual, but this
is a first night. Don't pay any attention to me."
As if that were possible! He bent over and touched his lips
to the nape of her neck. "Maryna ..."
"You remember that I've taken the room at the Saski for a
few of us afterward to celebrate "
"Call Zofia for me, will you?" She had started to mix the
"Forgive me for bringing up a dinner while you're preparing
for a performance. But it should be called off if you're
feeling too ...
"Don't," she murmured. She was blending a little Dutch pink
and powdered antimony with the Prepared Whiting to powder
her hands and arms. "Bogdan?"
He didn't answer.
"I'm looking forward to the party," she said and reached
behind for a gloved hand to lay on her shoulder.
"You're upset about something."
"I'm upset about
everything," she said dryly. "And you'll be so kind as to
let me wallow in it. The old stager has need of a little
stimulation to go on doing her best!"
MARYNA DID NOT RELISH lying to Bogdan, the only person
among all those who loved her, or claimed to love her, whom
she did in fact trust. But she had no place for his
indignation or his eagerness to console. She thought it
might do her good to keep this astonishing incident to
Sometimes one needs a real slap in the face to make what
one is feeling real.
When life cuffs you about, you say, That's life.
feel strong. You want to feel strong. The important thing
is to go forward.
As she had, single-mindedly, or almost: there had been much
to ignore. But if you are of a stoical temperament, and
have a talent for self-respect, and have worked hard with
another talent God gave you, and have been rewarded exactly
as you had dared to hope for your diligence and
persistence, indeed, your success arrived more promptly
than you expected (or perhaps, you secretly think,
merited), you might then consider it petty to remember the
slights and nurture the grievances. To be offended was to
be weak like worrying about whether one was happy or not.
Now you have an unexpected pain, around which the muffled
feelings can crystallize.
You have to float your ideals a little off the ground, to
keep them from being profaned. And cut loose the
misfortunes and insults, too, lest they take root and
strangle your soul.
Take the slap for what it was, a jealous rival's frantic
comment on her impregnable success that would have been
something to share with Bogdan, and soon put out of mind.
Take it as an emblem, a summons to respond to the whispery
needs she'd been harboring for months this would be worth
keeping to herself, even cherishing. Yes, she would cherish
poor Gabriela's slap. If that slap were a baby's smile, she
would smile at the recollection of it, if it were a
picture, she would have it framed and kept on her dressing
table, if it were hair, she would order a wig made from it
... Oh I see, she thought, I'm going mad. Could it be as
simple as that? She'd laughed to herself then, but saw with
distaste that the hand applying henna to her lips was
trembling. Misery is wrong, she said to herself, mine no
less than Gabriela's, and she only wants what I have.
Misery is always wrong.
Crisis in the life of an actress. Acting was emulating
other actors and then, to one's surprise (actually, not at
all to one's surprise), finding oneself better than any of
them were including the pathetic bestower of that slap.
Wasn't that enough? No. Not anymore.
She had loved being an actress because the theatre seemed
to her nothing less than the truth. A higher truth. Acting
in a play, one of the great plays, you became better than
you really were. You said only words that were sculpted,
necessary, exalting. You always looked as beautiful as you
could be, artifice assisting, at your age. Each of your
movements had a large, generous meaning. You could feel
yourself being improved by what was given to you, on the
stage, to express. Now it would happen that, mid-course in
a noble tirade by her beloved Shakespeare or Schiller or
Slowacki, pivoting in her unwieldy costume, gesturing,
declaiming, sensing the audience bend to her art, she felt
no more than herself. The old self-transfiguring thrill was
gone. Even stage fright that jolt necessary to the true
professional had deserted her. Gabriela's slap woke her up.
An hour later Maryna put on her wig and papier-mÃchÈ crown,
gave one last look in the mirror, and went out to give a
performance that even she could have admitted was, by her
real standards for herself, not too bad.
BOGDAN WAS so captivated by Maryna's majesty as she went to
be executed that at the start of the ovation he was still
rooted in the plush-covered chair at the front of his box,
hands clenching the rail. Galvanized now, he slipped
between his sister, the impresario from Vienna, Ryszard,
and the other guests, and by the second curtain call had
made his way backstage.
"Mag-ni-fi-cent," he mouthed as she came off from the third
curtain call to wait beside him in the wings for the volume
of sound to warrant another return to the flower-strewn
"If you think so, I'm glad."
"Listen to them!"
"Them! What do they know if they've
never seen anything better than me?"
After she'd conceded four more curtain calls, Bogdan
escorted her to the dressing-room door. She supposed she
was starting to allow herself to feel pleased with her
performance. But once inside, she let out a wordless wail
and burst into tears.
"Oh, Madame!" Zofia seemed about to weep, too.
by the anguish on the girl's face and intending to comfort
her, Maryna flung herself into Zofia's arms.
"There, there," she murmured as Zofia held her tightly,
then let go with one arm and delicately patted Maryna's
crimped, stiffened mass of hair.
Maryna released herself reluctantly from the girl's
unwavering grip and met her stare fondly. "You have a good
"I can't stand to see you sad, Madame."
"I'm not sad, I'm ... Don't be sad for me."
I was in the wings almost the whole last act, and when you
went to die, I never saw you die as good as that, you were
so wonderful I just couldn't stop crying."
"Then that's enough crying for both of us, isn't it?"
Maryna started to laugh. "To work, you silly girl, to work.
Why are we both dawdling?"
Relieved of her regal costume and reclothed in the
fur-lined robe. Maryna sponged off Mary Stuart's face and
swiftly laid on the discreet mask suitable to the wife of
Bogdan Dembowski. Zofia, sniffling a little ("Zofia,
enough!"), stood behind her chair embracing the sage-green
gown Maryna had chosen that afternoon to wear to the dinner
Bogdan was giving at the Hotel Saski. She put the gown on
slowly in front of the cheval glass, returned to the
dressing table and undid the curls and brushed and
rebrushed her hair, then piled it loosely on her head,
looked closer into the mirror, added a little melted wax to
her eyelashes, stood again, inspected herself once more,
listening to the ascending din in the corridor, took
several loud, rhythmical breaths, and opened the door to an
enveloping wave of shouts and applause.
Among the admirers well connected enough to be admitted
backstage were some acquaintances but, except for Ryszard,
clasping a bouquet of silk flowers to his broad chest, she
saw no close friends: those invited to the party had been
asked to go on ahead to the hotel. And more than a hundred
people were waiting outside the stage door, despite the
foul weather. Bogdan offered the shelter of his
sword-umbrella with the ivory handle so she could linger
for fifteen minutes under the falling snow, and she would
have lingered another fifteen had he not waved away the
more timid fans, their programs still unsigned, and
shepherded Maryna through the crowd toward the waiting
sleigh. Ryszard, finally pressing his bouquet into her
hands, said the Saski was only seven streets away and that
he preferred to walk.
How strange, in her native city to be receiving friends in
a hotel, but for the last five years her talents having led
her inexorably to the summit, an engagement for life at the
Imperial Theatre in Warsaw she no longer had an apartment
in Krak w.
"Strange," she said. To Bogdan, to no-one, to herself.
A thunderbolt, like the crack of gunfire, as they arrived
at the hotel. A scream, no, only a shout: an angry
They walked up the carpeted marble staircase.
"Of course I'm all right. It's only another entrance."
"And I have the privilege of opening the door for you."
Now it was Maryna's turn to frown.
And how could there not be applause and beaming faces,
customary welcome at a first-night party but she really had
given a splendid performance as Bogdan opened the door (in
answer to her "Bogdan, are you all right?" he had sighed
and taken her hand) and she made her entrance. Piotr ran to
her arms. She embraced Bogdan's sister and gave her
Ryszard's silk flowers; she let herself be embraced by
Krystyna, whose eyes had filled with tears. After the
guests, gathering closely around her, had each paid tribute
to her performance, she looked from face to face, and then
sang out gleefully:
May you a better feast never behold,
You knot of mouth
Upon which words everyone laughed, which means, I suppose
(I had not arrived yet), that she said Timon's lines in
Polish, not English, but also means that nobody except
Maryna had read Timon of Athens, for the feast in the play
is not a happy one, above all for its giver. Then the
guests spread about the large room and began talking among
themselves about her performance and, after that, about the
larger question afoot (which is more or less when I
arrived, chilled and eager to enter the story), while
Maryna had forced herself toward humbler, less sardonic
thoughts. No jealous rivals here. These were her friends,
those who wished her well. Where was her gratitude? She
hated her discontents. If I can have a new life, she was
thinking, I shall never complain again.
"Maryna, what's wrong?"
"What could be wrong ... doctor?"
He shook his head. "Oh, I see."
"I'm disturbing you."
"Yes" he smiled "you disturb me, Maryna. But only in my
dreams, never in my consulting room." Then, before she
could rebuke him for flirting with her: "The splendors of
your performance last night," he explained.
He saw her still hesitating. "Come in" he held out his
hand "Sit" he waved at a tapestry-covered settee "Talk to
me." Two steps into the room, she leaned against a
bookcase. "You're not going to sit?"
"You sit. And I'll continue my walk ... here."
came here on foot in this weather? Was that wise?"
He sat on the corner of his desk.
She began to pace. "I thought I was coming here to besiege
you with questions about Stefan, if he really "
"But I've told you," Henryk interrupted, "that the lungs
already show a remarkable improvement. Against such a
mighty enemy, the struggle waged by doctor and patient is
bound to be long. But I think we're winning, your brother
"You talk rubbish, Henryk. Has anyone ever told you that?"
"Maryna, what's the matter?"
"Everyone talks rubbish "
"So" he sighed "it isn't Stefan you wanted to consult me
She shook her head.
"Then let me guess," he said, venturing a smile.
"You're making fun of me, my old friend," Maryna said
somberly. "Women's nerves, you're thinking. Or worse."
"I?" he slapped the desk "I, your old friend, as you
acknowledge, and I thank you for that, I not take my Maryna
seriously?" He looked at her sharply. "What is it? Your
"No, it's not about"---she sat down abruptly "me. I mean,
"I'm going to take your pulse," he said, standing over her.
"You're flushed. I wouldn't be surprised if you had a touch
of fever." After a moment of silence, while he held her
wrist then gave it back to her, he looked again at her
face. "No fever. You are in excellent health."
"I told you there was nothing wrong."
"Ah, that means
you want to complain to me. Well, you shall find me the
most patient of listeners. Complain, dear Maryna," he cried
gaily. He didn't see the tears in her eyes. "Complain!"
"Perhaps it is my brother, after all."
"But I told
"Excuse me"---she'd stood "I'm making a fool of myself."
"Never! Please don't go." He rose to bar her way to the
door. "You do have a fever."
"You said I didn't."
"The mind can get overheated, just like the body."
"What do you think of the will, Henryk? The power of the
"What sort of question is that?"
"I mean, do you think one can do whatever one wants?"
"You can do whatever you want, my dear. We are all your
servants and abettors." He took her hand and inclined his
head to kiss it.
"Oh" she pulled away her hand "you disgusting man, don't
He stared for a moment with a gentle, surprised expression.
"Maryna, dear," he said soothingly. "Hasn't your experience
taught you anything about how others respond to you?"
"Experience is a passive teacher, Henryk."
"But it "
"In paradise" she bore down on him, her grey eyes
glittering "there will be no experiences. Only bliss. There
we will be able to speak the truth to each other. Or not
need to speak at all."
"Since when have you believed in paradise? I envy you."
"Always. Since I was a child. And the older I get, the more
I believe in it, because paradise is something necessary."
"You don't find it ... difficult to believe in
"Oh," she groaned, "the problem is not paradise. The
problem is myself, my wretched self."
"Spoken like the artist you are. Someone with your
temperament will always "
"I knew you would say that!" She stamped her foot. "I order
you. I implore you, don't speak of my temperament!"
(Yes she had been ill. Her nerves. Yes she was still ill,
all her friends except her doctor said among themselves.)
"So you believe in paradise," he murmured placatingly.
"Yes, and at the gates of paradise, I would say, Is this
your paradise? These ethereal figures robed in white,
drifting among the white clouds? Where can I sit? Where is
"Maryna ..." Taking her by the hand, he led her back to the
settee. "I'm going to pour you a dram of cognac. It will be
good for both of us."
"You drink too much, Henryk."
"Here." He handed her one of the glasses and pulled a chair
opposite her. "Isn't that better?"
She sipped the cognac, then leaned back and gazed at him
"What is it?"
"I think I will die very soon, if I don't do something
reckless ... grand. I thought I was dying last year, you
"But you didn't."
"Must one die to prove one's sincerity!"
LETTER to nobody, that is, to herself:
It's not because my brother, my beloved brother, is dying
and I will have no one to revere ... it's not because my
mother, our beloved mother, grates on my nerves, oh, how I
wish I could stop her mouth ... it's not because I too am
not a good mother (how could I be? I am an actress) ...
it's not because my husband, who is not the father of my
son, is so kind and will do whatever I want ... it's not
because everyone applauds me, because they cannot imagine
that I could be more vivid or different than I already am
... it's not because I am thirty-five now and because I
live in an old country, and I don't want to be old (I do
not intend to become my mother) ... it's not because some
of the critics condescend, now I am being compared with
younger actresses, while the ovations after each
performance are no less thunderous (so what then is the
meaning of applause?) ... it's not because I have been ill
(my nerves) and had to stop performing for three months,
only three months (I don't feel well when I am not working)
... it's not because I believe in paradise ... oh, and it's
not because the police are still spying and making reports
on me, though all those reckless statements and hopes are
long past (my God, it's thirteen years since the Uprising)
... it's not for any of these reasons that I've decided to
do something that nobody wants me to do, that everyone
regards as folly, and that I want some of them to do with
me, though they don't want to; even Bogdan, who always
wants what I want (as he promised, when we married),
doesn't really want to. But he must.
"PERHAPS IT IS a curse to come from anywhere. The world,
you see," she said, "is very large. I mean," she said, "the
world comes in many parts. The world, like our poor Poland,
can always be divided. And subdivided. You find yourself
occupying a smaller and smaller space. Though you're at
home in that space "
"On that stage," said the friend helpfully.
will," she said coolly. "That stage." Then she frowned.
"Surely you're not reminding me that all the world's a
"BUT HOW CAN you leave your place, which is here?"
place, my place," she cried. "I have none!"
"And you can't abandon your "
"Friends?" she hooted.
"Actually, Irena and I were thinking of your public."
"Who says I am abandoning my public? Will they forget me
if I choose to absent myself? No. Will they welcome me back
should I choose to return? Yes. As for my friends ..."
"You can be sure I have no intention of
abandoning my friends."
"MY FRIENDS," she repeated, "are much more dangerous than
my enemies. I'm thinking of their approval. Their
expectations. They want me to be as I am, and I cannot
disabuse them entirely. They might cease to love me.
"I've explained it to them. But I could have announced it
to them, like a whim. Recently, I thought I was ready to do
it. At dinner in a hotel, the party after a first-night
performance. I was going to raise my glass. I am leaving.
Soon. Forever. Someone would have exclaimed, Oh Madame, how
can you? And I'd have replied, I can, I can. But I didn't
have the courage. Instead, I offered a toast to our poor
Susan Sontag Found Crisis of Cancer Added a Fierce Intensity to Life
January 30, 1978
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
She didn't even have a doctor -- "I'd always been in
excellent health," she shrugs -- and Susan Sontag made the
appointment for herself as an afterthought while arranging
a checkup for her son. Fortuitous timing, as it turned out:
Not only did she have breast cancer, "but they said I'd
have been dead in six months if I hadn't caught it."
That was two years ago. In the meantime, Susan Sontag has,
among other things, has a mastectomy and various follow-up
operations; written another book (the provocative "On
Photography," which was published by Farrar, Straus &
Giroux and last week won the National Book Critics Circle
Award for criticism); undergone chemotherapy, started her
third novel, and re-evaluated her whole life.
Being Susan Sontag, a name regularly coupled with the
description "the intellectual" (if not "the essayist," "the
filmmaker" or "the novelist"), she has also put her
critical mind to work on the matter at hand, and come up
with a thoughtful treatise called "Illness as Metaphor."
The work, which started out as a lecture and is now being
converted into another book, deals with the cultural and
literary associations that have long surrounded such potent
diseases as cancer and tuberculosis. Her own first
responses, Miss Sontag admits, were on a more visceral
level: "Panic. Animal terror. I found myself doing very
primitive sorts of things, like sleeping with the light on
the first couple of months. I was afraid of the dark. You
really do feel as though you're looking into that black
These days Miss Sontag, who turned 45 last week, neither
looks nor sounds like a woman in the grip of terror. Tall,
rangy and handsome, her coal-black hair streaked
dramatically with silver, she exudes energy and warmth.
Nonetheless, she makes a point of openness about her
illness, "because it can be helpful to other people, and
because it's very important to break the taboo. People are
very reluctant to deal with the thought of death; they see
it as some shameful secret, and to many people cancer
equals death. I thought that, too. And I had to rethink
everything -- what I thought, what I wanted to do."
After considering such possibilities as abandoning routing
and taking off for exotic, faraway places, Miss Sontag
decided what she most wanted was just to continue her
normal life: living with her son, David ("my best friend"),
who at 25 is commuting to Princeton University, writing,
going to movies, seeing friends.
"For the first eight months, all I wanted was to be with
loved ones and hold hands and talk. The entire first year I
was thinking about death all the time, but in many ways
it's been a positive experience," she said. "It has added a
fierce intensity to my life, and that's been pleasurable.
It sounds very banal, but having cancer does put things
into perspective. It's fantastic knowing you're going to
die; it really makes having priorities and trying to follow
them very real to you. That has somewhat receded now; more
than two years have gone by, and I don't feel the same sort
of urgency. In a way I'm sorry; I would like to keep some
of that feeling of crisis."
Despite a couple of later scares that the cancer might have
spread, Miss Sontag's doctor announced cheerily not long
ago: "Your actuarial prospects are sprucing up."
"I laughed," she says, grinning. I laugh a lot, which is
partly my black sense of humor, but also I think it is good
to be in contact with life and death. Many people spend
their lives defending themselves against the notion that
life is melodrama. I think it is good not to damp down
these conflicts and dramas and agonize. You get terrific
energy from facing them in an active and conscious way. For
me, writing is a way of paying as much attention as
In addition to living her illness -- and thus her life --
as fully as possible, Miss Sontag is concentrating on her
fiction. She now says she regrets all the years spent
writing the essays for which she became renowned on
subjects ranging from the esthetics of camp to Cuba,
Vietnam and political radicalism.
Fierce intensity does not appear to be a new element in the
life of Miss Sontag, who grew up in Arizona and California,
where she attended "dreadful high school" where she was
reprimanded for reading Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure
Reason" instead of the assigned portion of Reader's Digest.
She graduated from high school at 15, married at 17,
graduated from the University of Chicago at 18 and went on
to graduate work in philosophy at Harvard. Along the way
she bore a son and began evolving the esthetic and
political iconoclasm that became the hallmark of her work.
Having cancer has prompted Miss Sontag to re-examine,
among other things, her early and unhappy marriage to
Philip Rieff, who is now a sociology professor at the
University of Pennsylvania. She is disturbed by current
notions about a "cancer-prone character type: someone
unemotional, inhibited, repressed."
"I immediately thought, I'm exactly the type," she says
with a laugh. "You look back on you life and think, I was
married for eight years, why did I stay married that long;
why was I a good student in school, maybe I was repressing
my delinquent impulses; I repress my emotions! And then I
realized, who doesn't? That's also called being civilized.
I don't know a single person who doesn't repress emotions.
How can you now, if you're educated and involved in mental
activity that requires control, planning, routine?
"But of course I identified with that profile, because
those are the things we all fear now, that we're not
expressive enough. That's the going psychological dogma,
just as in the 19th century it was the opposite. But I
don't believe emotions are the cause of disease."
Among Miss Sontag's present emotions is "a little bit of
glee," she concedes, looking pleased with herself. "I have
this irrepressible optimism now that so far I'm getting
away with it."
Damocles over your head," Susan Sontag says with a gentle
smile. "It's an important truth. Death is part of the
dignity and seriousness of life."
Screen: 'Brother Carl'
August 12, 1972
By ROGER GREENSPUN
Brother Carl" is Susan Sontag's second movie. But it is the
first movie in which she seems to see film as a means to
life rather than as a repository for ideas. "Duet for
Cannibals" (1969) really dealt with a kind of rarefied
mental cannibalism. In a very open way, "Brother Carl"
really deals with human relationships.
Two women, Karen and Lena, visit an island, a Swedish
resort, where Lena's ex-husband, Martin, lives in
comparative seclusion with a mentally disturbed ballet
dancer named Carl. Carl is brother by guild rather than
blood, for Martin is somehow responsible for his breakdown,
and Carl, who totally depends upon him, regards him as an
Lena is young and full of life, and to some extent "Brother
Carl" is the story of how she offers her life, first to
Karen, then to Martin, and finally to Carl -- before
committing it in total and apparently wasteful sacrifice.
Karen is older and very tired, and to some extent the film
is the story of how her life is saved by the enigmatic
Carl, who forms a bond with her own desperately withdrawn
young daughter, Anna, and effectively brings the girl out
of her private distances and back into the world.
I have greatly simplified the story, which is very complex
and full of symbolic event and confrontation, and which is
also a little foolish. In a sense, "Brother Carl" is all
about learning to give, and its climactic "miracle" (Miss
Sontag's word) is essentially to evoke laughter from a
little girl. These suggest sentiments worthy of Hollywood
in the 1930's and 1940's, but that Miss Sontag is willing
to treat them openly and seriously is, paradoxically,
perhaps her greatest source of strength.
There are a directness and an awkwardness of gesture and of
larger movement in "Brother Carl" that count among its most
attractive qualities, and that go a long way to compensate
for its occasionally strained pretensions. It is a very
imperfect film, with one bad performance (Genevieve Page as
Karen) and several performances that seem to have been
directed toward an excessive inexpressiveness.
But I think that it indicates the taking of considerable
imaginative and emotional risks, as "Duet for Cannibals"
did not, and the result is a real movie.
"Brother Carl" was filmed in Sweden with an
English-language sound track. It opened yesterday at the
New Yorker Theater.
Susan Sontag's 'Duet for Cannibals' at Festival
September 25, 1969
By ROGER GREENSPUN
The special providence that protects movie critics decrees
that when they do take up honest work they often make
surprisingly good movies. Godard and Truffaut come to mind
at once, but also a whole line of "Cahiers du Cinema"
critics including Chabrol, Rivette, and Eric Rohmer.
In America, we have Peter Bogdanovich ("Targets") and now
Susan Sontag with "Duet for Cannibals," which played last
night at the New York Film Festival. Miss Sontag's credits
extend, of course, a considerable distance beyond movie
criticism, but she has been one of the best of critics, and
I have heard some of her colleagues remark, with disarming
generosity, that she has proved herself so good at making
movies you'd never guess she had written about them.
Except for some bandages out of Godard, two wigs out of
Antonioni, and a leading lady out of Bernardo Bertolucci
(Adriana Asti, who is more interesting here than she was in
"Before the Revolution"), "Duet for Cannibals" doesn't seem
to owe much to anybody except to Miss Sontag and her own
idiomatic, uncluttered sense of the medium.
The film is in Swedish, made in Sweden for a Swedish
producer, but the subtitles are Miss Sontag's, and I
suspect that as much has been gained as lost in the various
translations and transpositions required in realizing the
The cannibals are a middle-age radical German political
activist and the theoretician, Bauer -- Hans Erborg --
living with his young Italian wife Francesca -- Miss Asti
-- in Sweden. Their victims are a young Swede who goes to
work as Bauer's secretary, and his mistress, who eventually
finds herself working as the Bauers's cook and companion.
For all the movie tells us, Bauer's credentials are real
enough (down to a chrome-plated cigarette lighter -- gift
of Bertolt Brecht), but everything in his present life
partakes of fraud calculated to intrigue, upset, and entrap
His erratic and violent behavior, the temptation palpably
and leeringly offered of his beautiful young wife,
eventually the intellectual challenge of what move he will
make next, engage the young man and put him repeatedly off
Before it is all over the girl is at work too, making love
to the master, accepting advances from the mistress,
feeding and being fed by both of them, and lying between
them in their connubial bed.
There are too many insane people in the world, comments the
young hero after he is attacked by a madman on a city
street and of course he included the Bauers, who also
attack -- and win -- because they try anything and stand by
Nevertheless, I don't think "Duet for Cannibals" means to
be a parable about the power of the insane over the sane,
or the strong over the weak, or even the inventively absurd
over the rational and passionate. I don't know what it does
mean to be, and I am content for a while to rest with its
moods and its complicated, often funny motions.
But if the movie fails -- as I think it does -- to open up
beyond the strength and the tact of its specific scenes, it
invites that failure in the limitations of its own point of
view and in its insistence on insoluble mystery to the
point where mystery grows boring without getting less
The young couple's final escape offers relief of a rather
low level -- mostly that the charade is over for them and
us. The personal games increase in intensity, but nothing
very much is at stake, and personality is never deeper than
the next level of plausible disguise.
"Duet for Cannibals" will be shown again at Alice Tully
Hall on Friday at 6:30 P.M.
Screen: Sontag's 'Promised Lands'
July 12, 1974
By NORA SAYRE
Susan Sontag's film about Israel, "Promised Lands," which
was made in October and November of 1973, isn't intended to
be a documentary. However, that country's situation is just
too factually complex to be treated as a tone poem. In an
effort to eschew talking heads, there's a lot of voice-over
narration, as people walk through the streets, but
sometimes we don't know who's talking. There's some
handsome photography -- especially of figures in landscapes
-- although what's seen and what is said often don't go
together, and many shots seem irrelevant. The movie opened
yesterday at the First Avenue Screening Room.
One's ready to be moved by the subject. But the viewer
almost has to function as an editor, since the selection of
the footage is so haphazard. Hence the emotions of or about
Israel don't come through, even though glimpses of
graveyards and corpses and the consciousness of Auschwitz,
the lingering shock of the October attack and the awareness
that the struggle between Arabs and Jews may be insoluble
-- as one man says, "There's no solution to a tragedy" --
run through the marrow of the picture. Throughout, the
ideas and the people and the machines of war are examined
from a distance, as though everything had been observed
through some kind of mental gauze.
The Israelis -- particularly those in robes -- are filmed
as if they were extremely foreign or exotic. Also, Israel
seems like a nearly all-male country, since few women
appear and none have been interviewed. There are a few
sympathetic words for the Arabs, but their existence seems
shadowy and abstract -- almost as bloodless as the statues
in a wax museum devoted to Israeli history.
Two scenes are particularly disturbing. At a mass burial,
the camera rushes in on a weeping profile in a way that's
intrusive -- because we've been given so little sense of
the dead or even of the war. Later, in a hospital, a
shell-shocked soldier relives his battlefield experiences
under drugs, while a psychiatrist and the hospital staff
recreate the noises of shooting and bombing. (This is said
to be therapeutic for the patient. The staff looks as
though it rather enjoys the task.) It should be devastating
to watch this man burrow into the pillow, shudder, dive
beneath the bed. But these moments have been filmed with
such confusion that we can't respond to his suffering --
indeed, suffering's hardly conveyed in "Promised Lands."
Because the movie is dull and badly organized, the war is
made to seem unreal.
Unlike Claude Lanzmann's very fine documentary, "Israel
Why," which was shown at the 1973 New York Film Festival,
the Sontag film won't increase your understanding of
Israel. Perhaps the latter should have been a book instead
of a film.
Novelist, radical Susan Sontag, 71, dies in New York
Washington Times, 4.12.29
From combined dispatches
Susan Sontag, a critic, novelist and essayist who blamed America
for the September 11 terror attacks and once declared that "the white
race is the cancer of human history," died in New York yesterday at
Mrs. Sontag died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in
Manhattan. The hospital did not release the cause of death, although
Mrs. Sontag was first treated for breast cancer in the 1970s.
Mrs. Sontag was 31 when her essay "Notes on 'Camp' " established
her as a prominent critic. Her essays on art, culture and politics
were published in influential journals, including the New York Review
"The white race is the cancer of human history," she wrote in a
1967 essay in Partisan Review. "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
Such comments led novelist Tom Wolfe to dismiss Mrs. 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."
An outspoken admirer of communist revolutionaries, including
Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh and Cuba's Fidel Castro, Mrs. Sontag was a
fierce opponent of U.S. foreign policy. She angered many Americans in
2001 when, less than two weeks after the terrorist hijackings of
September 11, she wrote an article that suggested the United States
deserved to be attacked.
"Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly'
on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world,' "
Mrs. Sontag wrote, "but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed
superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American
She added: "In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue):
whatever may be said of the perpetrators of [the September 11]
slaughter, they were not cowards."
In 2000, Mrs. Sontag won the National Book Award for the
historical novel "In America."
Born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933, she later described
childhood as "one long prison sentence." Her father died when she was
5, and her mother later married an Army officer, Capt. Nathan Sontag.
At age 17, she married social psychologist Philip Rieff, then 28,
just 10 days after meeting him at the University of Chicago. The
couple had a son, David, born in 1952, but divorced in the 1960s. In
later years, she described her lesbian relationship with photographer
Annie Leibowitz as "an open secret."
Ex-radical author David Horowitz noted yesterday that in 1969, he
published the Sontag essay, "On the Right Way (For Us) to Love the
Cuban Revolution" in Ramparts magazine.
"There is no right way to love the Cuban Revolution. That was my
second thought. It's a pity [Mrs. Sontag] never had second thoughts,
too," Mr. Horowitz said.
Telegraph: Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag, the American novelist and essayist who died yesterday
aged 71, was a paragon of radical intelligence and austere beauty of
whom it was said that, if she had not existed, the New York Review of
Books would have had to invent her.
Called "the most intelligent woman in America" by Jonathan Miller,
Susan Sontag was a slow, unprolific writer who agonised over her
In 25 years of grind, she produced six slender volumes of crafted
essays. Published intially in popular magazines and periodicals, her
work made intelligent criticism of modern culture acceptable and had
profound effect on future generations of authors, critics and
Sontag's first essay, Notes on 'Camp' - an analysis of the preference
of some people for tat rather than art - was published in the
Review in 1964. Camp, she wrote, was a form of consumption that
converted "bad" art such as comic strips into a source of refined
pleasure, ignoring intention and relishing style.
This sounded like an attack on elite culture, delivered with the
and authority of someone well-educated in that culture. Added to her
defence of such modernist icons as John Cage, Roland Barthes and
Jean-Luc Godard, it earned Susan Sontag the titles "Queen Camp" and
"the Natalie Wood of the avant garde".
In fact, Susan Sontag's favourite author was Shakespeare, and she was
at pains to point out that she did not want to promote bleak
for its own sake. "All my work says be serious, be passionate; wake
up," she said. "You have to be a member of a capitalist society in
late 20th century to understand that seriousness itself could be in
There were few strip cartoons in her own library. An avid reader from
early childhood, she possessed a collection of 15,000 volumes and
could talk fluently across the arts and humanities, on philosophy,
literature, film, opera, neurology, psychology or church
She always found time to read; she said that the memory of her
mother sleeping away her life provoked her to make do with four
sleep a night.
Critics who denigrated her as "pseudo-intellectual" overlooked the
fact that Susan Sontag employed her seriousness to defend the senses
against the intellect.
In Against Interpretation - the title of her first collection of
essays published in 1966 - she damned Freudian and Marxist
interpretation that "excavates; destroys; digs behind the text to
a subtext which is the true one". Interpretation destroyed energy and
"sensual capability". It was the "revenge of intellect upon art. Even
more. It is the revenge of intellect upon the world."
Despite her awesome abilities as a critic, Susan Sontag was at war
with herself. In part, she wanted to be an unthinking, passionate
artist. Early on she wrote two novels - The Benefactor (1963) and
Death Kit (1967) - but these were more intellectual than passionate.
As she grew older, the need to express herself grew stronger.
It was not until 1992 that she felt she had done herself justice with
her novel The Volcano Lover, a heady mixture of intellect and
eroticism, about the love triangle between William Hamilton, his wife
Emma and Lord Nelson.
The book was "released" in Susan Sontag after a conversation with her
psychiatrist in which she discovered that her difficulty in writing a
popular novel came from a fear that giving readers pleasure might
trivial. "What worried me was that I would not be writing essays,
because they have a powerful ethical impulse," she said. "But my
psychiatrist said: 'What makes you think it isn't a contribution to
give people pleasure?'"
Susan Sontag was born in Arizona on January 16 1933. Her father was a
furrier with a business based in China, where he spent much of his
time. Her mother, an alcoholic of great beauty, was so afraid of
growing old that she forbade her daughters to call her "mother" in
public. Susan and her sister lived most of their early childhood with
an illiterate Irish nurse.
When she was five, Susan's father died in China. Afterwards, her
mother took to travelling a great deal. "I don't know where she went
or what she did," Susan said. "I guess she had boyfriends.".
The family became poor and moved to Los Angeles. Susan read books "to
ward off the jovial claptrap of classmates and teachers, the
bromides I heard at home". By the age of seven she had read a
six-volume edition of Les MisÈrables and had become a socialist. At
she took a schoolfriend to tea with Thomas Mann, then living in exile
in Los Angeles.
At Hollywood High, when Susan was 15, her principal told her that she
had outstripped her teachers and sent her to Berkeley, from where she
went to Chicago University. At 17 she married Philip Rieff, a
in social theory 11 years her senior, after a 10-day courtship. She
heard one student telling another that Rieff had married a "14-year
Rieff provided her with intellectual companionship. At Boston
University he wrote about Freud while she took masters degrees in
English and Philosophy and added an MA from Harvard. They had a son,
David, but in 1958 the couple separated for a year when Sontag took
a fellowship at Oxford. There she was influenced by the teaching of
Iris Murdoch and AJ Ayer, but found student life equally engrossing.
"It was being young in a way I had never allowed myself to be," she
On her return to America she divorced Rieff and set off for New York
with her son, two suitcases and $70. Her lawyer told her she was the
first woman in Californian history to have refused alimony. She
at Columbia University while writing The Benefactor, and began
on the essays that would secure her reputation.
In addition to Against Interpretation, she published the collections
Styles Of Radical Will (1969); On Photography (1977); Illness As
Metaphor (1978); Under The Sign Of Saturn (1980) and Aids and Its
Metaphors (1989). She also wrote four films and appeared as herself
Zelig, Woody Allen's mock-documentary.
The best of her essays conveyed dense thought in casual, almost
thrown-away paragraphs and sentences. They were demanding in the same
way that poetry is demanding; each learned reference was used as
selectively as a poet might use images. Such pared-down elegance was
the refined product of grim endeavour. An essay of a few thousand
words took her six to nine months to write. "I've thousands of pages
for a 30-page essay," she said, "30 or 40 drafts of each page."
From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, Sontag lived in Paris. In 1976
she was diagnosed with breast cancer and returned to America.
the advice of American oncologists, she had radically high doses of
chemotherapy for two and a half years; the odds were against her
living. "I was terrified," she said. "Horrible grief. Above all, to
leave my son. And I loved life so much. I was never tempted to say
`that's it'. I love it when people fight for their lives."
She never became rich from her writing, but was adept at securing
grants and scholarships. In necessity, friends helped her out; the
money for her cancer treatment was raised by Robert Silvers, editor
the New York Review of Books. It was not until The Volcano Lover that
she acquired an agent; and only in 1990, when she was awarded a
handsome MacArthur fellowship, was she secure enough to buy her
apartment in New York.
Susan Sontag had a high political profile. She visited Hanoi during
the Vietnam war (after which she described the white race as "the
cancer of human history") and in 1993 she directed a production of
Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo when that city was under siege. She was
a vociferous critic of the Soviet Union - particularly in its
treatment of writers - and was president of PEN in 1987. Days after
the attacks of September 11 2001, she criticised American foreign
policy, referring to the terrorists' behaviour as "an attack on the
world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of
specific American alliances and actions".
She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an
Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Though known for her hauteur and not indifferent to her public image,
Sontag avoided the "celebrity" circuit. Her highbrow attitude made
enemies, foremost among them the American academic Camille Paglia,
best-known for her enthusiasm for the pop singer Madonna. Paglia
forgave Sontag for snubbing her at a party in 1973. By the late 1980s
she was declaring that her intellect had eclipsed Sontag's. "I've
chasing that bitch for 25 years," said Paglia, "and at last I've
"We used to think Norman Mailer was bad," said Susan Sontag, "but she
makes Norman Mailer look like Jane Austen."
In 2000 she published a novel, In America, about the 19th century
Polish actress Helena Modjeska. Although she was criticised for
unauthorised use of source material, it won her the National Book
Susan Sontag never re-married, and her close relationships with
several women provoked speculation; in 1999 she wrote an essay for
Women, a compilation of portraits by her longtime friend, the
photographer Annie Leibovitz. "I don't talk about my erotic life any
more than I do my spiritual life," she said. "It is too complex and
always ends up sounding so banal."
She is survived by her son, David, whom she described as her "best
Guardian: Susan Sontag dies aged 71
Cultural critic called herself a 'zealot of seriousness'
David Teather in New York and Sam Jones
Wednesday December 29, 2004
Susan Sontag, the writer and activist whose powerful intellect helped
shape modern American thinking for nearly half a century, died
yesterday at the age of 71.
Sontag had described herself as a "zealot of seriousness",
the avant-garde as well as dissecting contemporary ideas and mores.
Her writings covered a wide range of subjects from pornography to the
aesthetics of fascism and science fiction films. She had also called
herself a "besotted aesthete" and an "obsessed moralist". She died of
leukaemia in a specialist cancer centre in New York, the city she was
Her outspokenness enraged as much as it attracted admiration.
She was attacked for visiting Hanoi during the Vietnam war and
declaring "the white race is the cancer of human history"; more
recently she caused many to bristle with her comments following the
September 11 terrorist attacks on the US.
"In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be
said of the perpetrators of (the) slaughter, they were not cowards,"
Lynne Segal, professor of gender studies at Birkbeck College, said:
"She had had a particular resurgence over the last 10 years with her
stand in criticism of the ongoing military activity in the world,
whether from America or from the global growth in ethnic violence.
"But long before that, she was one of the lone female Jewish voices
appear as some kind of authority in the shifting American cultural
scene," she added. "She helped introduce the voices of those who had
been outsiders in American society, like the Jews, and she became
of a new cutting edge cultural elite."
Sontag, showered with awards during her career, wrote 17 books, first
attracting attention and critical acclaim with her 1964 Notes on
The book helped to introduce the notion that something can be "so bad
"She was very clever at taking something that was part of a cultish
interest - like the gay male - and turning it into her own interest,"
said the writer Andrea Dworkin.
She penned four novels, winning the American National Book Award in
2000 for In America, a portrait of the nation on the cusp of
in the west of 1876.
Her short story The Way We Live Now, published in 1987, was recently
chosen for inclusion in an anthology titled The Best American Short
Stories of the Century. The story charted the varying responses of a
group of people in New York when they discover a close friend has
Ms Sontag's impact, however, has been most keenly felt as an
"The non-fiction was where she was strongest and it is the
that people will keep reading," said Dworkin.
Her works included Illness as Metaphor, in which she condemned the
trend of transferring responsibility of diseases such as cancer to
victim, making them feel they have brought the suffering on
themselves. She wrote the essay after her own bout with cancer in her
breast, lymphatic system and leg. After being diagnosed in 1976 she
underwent a mastectomy and was pronounced free of the disease.
She wrote and directed four films and penned the play Alice In Bed.
Her most recent theatre work was a staging of Samuel Beckett's
for Godot in the summer of 1993 in besieged Sarajevo.
An impassioned human rights activist, she led campaigns on behalf of
persecuted or imprisoned writers and helped galvanise support for
Salman Rushdie after his Satanic Verses brought a fatwa from Iranian
Sontag had a degree from the University of Chicago and did graduate
work in philosophy, literature and theology at Harvard and Saint
Anne's College, Oxford.
Guardian: Susan Sontag
The Dark Lady of American intellectual life, an aesthete who
reorientated its cultural horizons
Wednesday December 29, 2004
Susan Sontag, the "Dark Lady" of American intellectual life for over
four decades, has died of cancer. She was 71.
Sontag was a tall, handsome, fluent and articulate woman. She settled
in New York, where she lived, off and on, after separating from her
husband, the social thinker Philip Rieff, in 1959, and her career
stellar there. Sontag belonged to the small number of women writers
and intellectuals, led by Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt and Elizabeth
Hardwick, who gave New York life its brilliance, without becoming a
"New York Intellectual". She regarded all provincialisms, of Paris,
Oxford or New York, as uninteresting. Even America failed to engage
her. "I don't like America enough to want to live anywhere else
Manhattan. And what I like about Manhattan is that it's full of
foreigners. The America I live in is the America of the cities. The
rest is just drive-through."
Her first collection of essays, Against Interpretation, published in
1966, was followed in 1969 by Styles Of Radical Will. Under The Sign
Of Saturn appeared in 1980, and the long-awaited Where The Stress
Falls in 2001. Her passions were for cinema (preferably European),
photography, European writers and philosophers, and for aesthetic
pronunciamentos of a particular pugnacity.
Despite a brimming and tartly phrased political sensibility, she was
fundamentally an aesthete. She offered a reorientation of American
cultural horizons. On Style, the title essay in her first collection,
plus Notes On Camp, set out an economy of culture which was moral
without being moralistic, and began a radical displacement of
It was a gay sensibility that she interpreted, and that shaped her
response to the visual arts. It was also the central focus of her
emotional life. But she remained essentially private, and when she
wrote about herself, there was always an element of self-distancing.
In a culture expecting easy intimacies from its great figures, she
aloof, poised, posed: she was camera-friendly. But you never could
claim to know Sontag, however much New York was alive with gossip
about her loves, her ex-loves, her next book.
She moved readily from references to philosophers, poets, literary
theoreticians and film auteurs. Reviewers were, rightly, dazzled.
Though she changed her mind repeatedly, it was always done with style
and conviction. If you wanted to argue with Sontag, you had to enter
into her work in terms of the way a stance, a position, made sense as
Sontag dismissed Leni Reifenstahl in 1975, after the photographer had
put in decades of work on her rehabilitation - all of which were
ruined by the cool brilliance of Sontag's analysis of the allure of
fascism. "The color is black," she wrote in Fascinating Fascism, "the
material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is
honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death."
Her astringent attack against interpretation ("the project of
interpretation is largely reactionary") carried an aesthete's
preference for readers, or consumers, to leave works of art alone,
to seek to replace them with something else. This was not a view that
found favour among Deconstructionists, but Sontag was indifferent to
the corporate earnestness of Yale or Harvard.
Born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933, she was the daughter of a
fur trader. When he died in 1938, her mother Mildred, and sister
Judith (who suffered from asthma) left New York in search of warmer
weather. Settling in Miami, and then Tucson, Arizona, they arrived in
Los Angeles in 1945 when Mildred married army captain Nathan Sontag.
Susan was never formally adopted, though she took his name.
She had a deeply solitary and precocious childhood. Intimacy was not
the Sontag family style, and she grew up without a gift for small
talk, and little gaiety. There was little encouragement to the life
the mind. At North Hollywood high, she was remembered for her style
Sontag attended the University of California, Berkeley, for a
semester, before in 1949, at the age of 16, she was admitted to the
University of Chicago, where she formed strong bonds with teachers
including critic Kenneth Burke and political philosopher Leo Strauss,
intellectual father of the current neoconservatives. Sontag had a
for cultivating men of influence and intellectual power. Later, at
Harvard, Paul Tillich became her mentor.
But it was a younger teacher at the University of Chicago,
Philip Rieff, whom she married. As a 17-year-old sophomore she walked
into his class on Kafka, late. He asked for her name when the class
ended. Ten days they were married. Their son David, a writer, was
She moved with Rieff to Boston after graduating in 1951. Their
marriage had intense conversations but little intimacy. Sontag took a
master's degree in philosophy at Harvard, and in 1957 won a
to study for a year at St Anne's College, Oxford. She hated Oxford's
sexism, and by Christmas had relocated to Paris, falling in with the
expatriate American community around the Paris Review. She met the
writer Alfred Chester, who introduced her to Robert Silvers. He
provided Sontag with an incomparable platform when the New York
of Books was launched in 1963.
In Paris, Sontag made serious efforts to engage with French
film-making, philosophy and writing. Returning to America in 1958,
met by Rieff at the airport, she told him before they got into the
that she wanted a divorce. Reclaiming her son, who had been living
with Rieff's parents, she declined Rieff's offers of child support or
alimony, moved into a small apartment, took an editorial job on
Commentary, and wrote furiously. A self-conscious first novel, The
Benefactor (1963) in the nouveau roman style, was accepted by Robert
Giroux. Roger Straus, the senior partner of the publishers Farrar,
Straus & Giroux, took her under his wing, kept her novels in print
(The Death Kit appeared in 1967), and acted as literary impresario.
She was invited to the important parties, and appeared regularly in
leading literary journals.
In 1965 she remarked, in a Partisan Review symposium, that "the white
race is the cancer of human history". The age of radical chic had
arrived, and Sontag - serious, gorgeous, striding across New
Yorkintellectual life, was its most striking adornment. In 1968,
indignant at the US role in Vietnam, she visited Hanoi, and published
an account of it, Trip To Hanoi.
In the early 1970s, Sontag began to write about photog raphy, in a
series of essays in the New York Review of Books. She was gripped by
the problems, principally aesthetic, of interpreting images. The
further she explored, the stronger became her doubts about whether
photographs gave what they seemed to be delivering: a slice of truth,
a piece of reality. In a gesture of immense self-confidence, her book
On Photography (1977) did not contain a single photograph as specimen
She later returned to many of its themes in Regarding The Pain Of
Others (2003), a thinner book, perhaps more directly shaped by her
life as a public person, giving learned lectures to large audiences.
Many of the most provocative arguments of On Photography were
abandoned in the later book.
Her studies of languages of illness, Illness As Metaphor, (1978) and
AIDS And Its Metaphors (1989) were writ ten under the shadow of her
diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, for which she sought
experimental therapy in Paris. In 1998 she was diagnosed with a rare
form of uterine cancer, from which she has died.
In her studies of language and illness, she sought to remove the
second punishment, of blame, that the metaphors of illness sustain.
Her career as a novelist came full circle in 1992, when she published
Volcano Lover, and In America, winner of the National Book award in
2000. Drawing on historical sources, and written with little of the
spirit of her earlier novels, they brought her to a wider readership,
but did not have much of the provocative rigour of her essays.
Her son survives her.
Susan Sontag, writer, born January 16 1933; died December 28 2004
Guardian: 'A courageous and unique thinker'
Wednesday December 29, 2004
There were tributes yesterday to Susan Sontag from fellow writers and
Margaret Atwood, writer:
"She was a unique and courageous woman. Even if you didn't agree with
her, she was always courageous and always a unique thinker. She
made you think. What made her unique? She wasn't like anyone else.
"Whatever she set her mind to - whatever she'd come up with - it
wasn't going to be the received opinion. She ran received opinion
through the shredder and looked at things again. She was a grown-up
emperor's new clothes child. When kids say the emperor's naked, you
tell them they shouldn't say those things in public. When adults say
it, they get in a lot of trouble - and she didn't mind getting into
Lisa Jardine, professor of English and dean of the faculty of arts at
Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, and an
honorary fellow of King's College, Cambridge:
"It's the end of an era for women. She will leave behind an
legacy - everything from self-fulfilment to the morality, or lack of
morality, of illness. And I think it will be an all-round legacy. The
essays fill out the fiction."
Andrea Dworkin, writer:
"She did phenomenal work on the camera and how it looks at people,
made a very fine film about Israel and Palestine. But she also wrote
several novels that she wanted to be taken seriously as art. I think
the fact that they weren't was a consequence of her being a woman."
Lynne Segal, professor of gender studies at Birkbeck college:
"She helped introduce the voices of those who had been outsiders in
American society, like the Jews, and she became part of a new
cutting-edge cultural elite.
"She wasn't strongly identified with feminism until much later on
because, like many mid-century women, she was ambivalent about it.
Many feminists would probably have been suspicious of her stand, but
she softened as she aged and talked about the vulnerability of
and of ageing itself."
Elizabeth Wurtzel, writer:
"She got to have that kind of life where she could write essays for
both academics and normal people. I think her passing is very sad for
what she was, as much as for what she wrote.
"I think it's her essays that she will be remembered for, but I
liked her fiction. It's not about whether her essays were better than
her fiction; it's about the fact that she was able to do both."
Guardian: A fighter armed with a pen
Wednesday December 29, 2004
To some she was "a political pilgrim", to others a "liberal lioness",
but there was never debate about Susan Sontag's first love: the
Born in New York in January 1933, she spent her formative years in
Arizona and Los Angeles poring over Shakespeare, Hopkins, Hugo, Poe
and Mann. However, it was only after reading Jack London's Martin
that she decided to become a writer.
"I got through my childhood," she told the Paris Review, "in a
delirium of literary exaltations."
At 16 she began studying at the University of Chicago, where she met
and married Philip Rieff, a 28-year-old social theory lecturer. They
had a son, David, when she was 19 but divorced in 1959
Her studies took her on to Harvard and then Oxford, laying the
foundations of what she later termed "probably the best university
education on the planet".
Sontag wrote novels, non-fiction books, plays and film-scripts as
From 1987 to 1989 she was president of the Pen American Centre, the
writers' organisation, where she led a number of campaigns on behalf
of persecuted writers.
Salman Rushdie, the current Pen president, expressed his gratitude
her backing over the fatwa issued against him in 1989 for his book
Satanic Verses. "Her resolute support, at a time when some wavered
helped to turn the tide against what she called 'an act of terrorism
against the life of the mind'."
She caused outrage after the 9/11 attacks by writing in the New
Yorker: "Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly'
attack on 'civilisation' or 'liberty' or 'humanity or 'the free
but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken
a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?"
Guardian: Snap judgments
James Fenton on how Susan Sontag has adjusted her thinking on
Saturday July 5, 2003
I was surprised to read this, in Susan Sontag's admirable essay on
photography, Regarding the Pain of Others: "Only starting with the
Vietnam war is it virtually certain that none of the best-known
photographs were set-ups." I don't say this certainty is misplaced.
But the thought surprised me.
In earlier days, participants seem to have thought nothing of, for
instance, "reconstructing" the famous moment of the raising of the
stars and stripes on Iwo Jima, for the sake of the camera. But Sontag
suggests that photographers are now "being held to a higher standard
of journalistic probity".
And she adds that, since the arrival of television crews on the
battlefield, "the witnessing of war is now hardly ever a solitary
venture". And "the practice of inventing dramatic news pictures,
staging them for the camera, seems on its way to becoming a lost
What surprised me was the notion that this raising of journalistic
standards had its origin in Vietnam - in, as the context makes clear,
the practice of American and other western photographers. It is the
western news editors and picture desks who must have pressed for a
harsh ban on staged news photographs. It is they who must have made
faking it a sacking offence.
The North Vietnamese, during this period, were not in the least
associated with that sort of realism in their photojournalism.
Anything that came out of North Vietnam would have been carefully
weighed for its propaganda value, and that included a 1950s
documentary on Dien Bien Phu in which the French prisoners of war
made to re-enact their moment of surrender for the sake of the film
Sometimes an event can really have taken place, and yet the
of it can turn into a deception. In the Philippines, during the
revolution that overthrew President Marcos in 1986, a handsome young
priest in a white soutane stood with his arms outstretched in the
middle of a road, supposedly defying the tanks. He was facing the
setting sun, and the beautiful image was widely used.
My Filipino photographer colleagues used to laugh at this photograph
which, when you saw it in all its glory, clearly showed in the
foreground the lengthened shadows of a row of photographers and
cameramen who must have been standing between the priest and the
"tanks", which were anyway rather less than tanks and more like
armoured cars. The photograph, to my friends, showed an exhibitionist
putting on a display of defiance for the sake of the press. (My
friends were envious, of course, not to have taken the snap
Sontag discusses the famous photograph from the Tet offensive in
Saigon, 1968, in which General Loan executes a Vietcong prisoner,
a single shot to the temple. In a sense, as she says, this photograph
too was staged, since Loan led the prisoner out on to the street
the journalists were gathered, and would not, she believes, "have
carried out the summary execution there had they not been available
witness it". The general was making an example of the prisoner.
Neil Davies, a famous cameraman in his day (who ended by filming his
own death on the streets of Bangkok, during an abortive coup) told me
a curious anecdote about this notorious incident. If you watch the
film of this execution, you believe that what you see is a man
screwing up his face in anticipation of death, another man firing the
shot, the blood pouring from the head wound and the body slumping to
the ground. You think you witness a complete execution, and this is
both horrible and a kind of initiation.
But in fact at the moment the shot was fired someone stood between
cameraman (whose name I forget) and the victim, blocking the view for
a few seconds. When the film was processed in the studio, the
offending moment soon hit the cutting-room floor. Spliced together,
the footage was utterly remarkable. The subliminal jerkiness
from the cut moment is a part of what makes you think: this is what
is like to be killed, this is how fragile the body is, how powerfully
the force of the shot pushes it to one side. You think this is the
ultimate reality. But reality has been tidied up for you in this
Regarding the Pain of Others was written in part out of an argument
with the author's former self, with certain passages in that famous
earlier book, On Photography, in which Sontag wrote, for instance,
that "concerned" photography had "done at least as much to deaden
conscience as to arouse it". Our capacity to respond to images of
suffering was being, on that view, "sapped by the relentless
of vulgar and appalling images".
But this time around, Sontag has her own experience of Sarajevo very
much in mind, and she particularly dislikes a kind of "fancy
that downplays the reality of war and pretends that everything has
turned into spectacle. Reality is not to be downplayed in this way.
the heart of the issues concerning photography and conscience there
are real people, actually suffering. "To speak of reality becoming a
spectacle," she says, "is breath-taking provincialism."
Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag, is published by
Hamish Hamilton on August 7
Guardian Unlimited Books | By genre | Observer review: Regarding the
Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
What the eye can't see...
A censorious Susan Sontag reproves our lust for horrific images in
second book on photography, Regarding the Pain of Others
Sunday August 3, 2003
Regarding the Pain of Others
by Susan Sontag
Hamish Hamilton ú12.99, pp128
This is Susan Sontag's second book on photography and, like the
published in 1977, it contains no photographs. Omission or
suppression? Sontag is concerned with photography's prurient
intrusiveness, its surreal dislocation of reality, its irrelevant
aestheticism. Actual photographs are of less interest to her, and are
mentioned, in stern verbal paraphrase, only to be reproved for their
Her earlier book concluded with a call for 'an ecology of images',
censuring and perhaps censoring the visual stimuli with which a
consumerist society assaults us. She remembers that resonant,
demand in Regarding the Pain of Others, and admits that it will never
happen. No 'Committee of Guardians' is going to reform news media
enjoy disaster, gloat over horror and operate on the principle that
'If it bleeds, it leads'.
Those media have trained us only too well, and we now instinctively
transform an intolerable, unintelligible reality into fiction. People
who watched the planes slice through the World Trade Centre, or
witnessed the collapse of the towers, agreed that the scene was
'unreal' and compared it with an action movie; the Pentagon caters to
this craving for scenarios that are apocalyptic but ultimately
harmless by deciding in advance on blockbusting titles for its wars,
such as Operation Desert Storm.
Sontag retells the familiar stories about photographs that sanitise
falsify the conflict they are supposed to be documenting. In the
Crimea, Roger Fenton represented war as a 'dignified all-male
avoiding all evidence of carnage: in the valley through which the
Light Brigade charged, he supervised the placing of cannonballs on
road. In 1945, the Russian victors hoisting the Red Flag over the
Reichstag in Berlin took direction from a Soviet war photographer who
dreamt up this iconic moment.
Having been drip-fed fantasies and outright lies, how can we properly
respond to the remote, exotic miseries on which photographic
journalists report? In our 'culture of spectatorship', have we lost
the power to be shocked? The pain of others titillates us, so long as
it is kept at a safe distance. The victims of famine and massacre are
always, as Neville Chamberlain dismissively said of the Poles, people
we do not know; when genocide recurred during the Bosnian war, we
reminded that the Balkans should not be considered part of Europe.
young Afghan refugee photographed by Steve McCurry for National
Geographic became, a poster girl for atrocity; we could see her pain
but not feel it.
Sontag blames the eyes' indiscriminate lust, claiming 'the appetite
for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire
for ones that show bodies naked'. Her book, unillustrated, caters to
neither hunger (though she does tantalisingly describe a photograph
that obsessed the perverse philosopher Georges Bataille, in which a
Chinese criminal, while being chopped up and slowly flayed by
executioners, rolls his eyes heavenwards in transcendent bliss).
Words are Sontag's antidote to images. Hence her argument that the
photographs of Robert Capa or David Seymour belong in newspapers,
where they are 'surrounded by words', rather than in magazines, which
juxtapose them with glossy advertising images: the explanatory
verbiage is a bulwark, and turns the fickle viewer into a reflective,
questioning reader. If you ask me, she has too much faith in the
veracity of scribbling hacks.
I'm also unconvinced by her contention that images can easily be
conscripted as the 'totems of causes', because 'sentiment is more
likely to crystallise around a photograph than around a verbal
slogan'. Again, her self-denying ordinance prevents her showing any
evidence. Before photography, revolutions were instigated by verbal
slogans, contagiously chanted by crowds: 'No Taxation without
Representation' in 1776, or 'LibertÈ, EgalitÈ, FraternitÈ' in 1789.
Sontag gives us nothing to look at, so I cannot see that anything has
At the end of the book, she proposes that 'photographs with the most
solemn or heart-rending subject matter' - Matthew Brady's dead
soldiers from the Civil War, the walking cadavers at Buchenwald and
Dachau photographed by Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller, perhaps
also Nicholas Nixon's Aids victims - should not be exhibited in
galleries or museums, where like 'all wall-hung or floor-supported
art' they become incidental to a stroll, displayed as if they were
plates on a sushi railway which we can sample or ignore as we please.
The 'weight and seriousness' of images like these is more aptly
honoured privately in sober silence, she believes, in a book.
I hope she does not mean the book - or booklet - she has written.
Regarding the Pain of Others is serious enough, but hardly weighty.
is short, and by rights should be a good deal shorter: it derives
an Amnesty lecture, and labours to amplify and relentlessly repeat
Perhaps I am not being entirely just to a writer I usually admire.
book, I should admit, does contain a single photograph. You can find
it on the inside back flap of the jacket, and it shows Sontag herself
- a mater dolorosa whose grieving face is framed by a sleek cascade
time-defying jet-black hair - posed next to a wall beside the Seine
near the Ile de la CåtÈ.
The photographer is her close friend, Annie Leibovitz, who
in the glamorous consecration of celebs for the covers of Rolling
Stone and Vanity Fair. In her starchy text, Sontag says that
'beautifying is one classic operation of the camera', and regrets the
vanity of people who are 'always disappointed by a photograph that is
not flattering'. By including Leibovitz's portrait, she has exempted
herself from her own rule.
Do her 30,000 words really balance or outweigh the missing images? It
all depends on how you regard the vanity of others, or how much pain
you want to cause by telling the truth.
WP: Cultural Author, Activist Was a Fearless Thinker
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page A01
Susan Sontag, 71, the American intellectual who engaged and enraged
equally with her insights into high and low culture, died yesterday
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She had leukemia.
Philosophy, photography, pornography -- Sontag explored them all with
a defiant gusto, informed by an impressive, if lofty, ability to
transcend cultural barriers with a barrage of literary and cultural
She was not averse to self-promotion and indicated that she was one
the few writers able to survive as an essayist. Her books seldom went
out of print and were translated into more than 25 languages. She
Reading by age 3, having tea and cookies with author and Nobel
laureate Thomas Mann at 14 and graduating from college at 18, she
on to a long career as a provocateur through dozens of novels and
nonfiction works. Cumulatively, they placed her among the foremost
thinkers about the meaning of art, politics, war, silence and
She wrote movingly but unsentimentally about her own experiences with
cancer -- of the breast at age 43 and the uterus decades later -- and
how disease is portrayed in popular culture. Her essay "Illness as
Metaphor" (1978) is considered her classic exploration of the
Tall, raven-haired with a streak of white, with bold dark eyes and a
wry smile, Sontag was a recognizable figure in the mainstream media
firmament through lectures and televised debates. She shoved herself
to the forefront of contemporaneous debate with her activism against
the Vietnam War -- including a trip to Hanoi -- and later
denunciations of Communism as stifling the work of intellectuals.
Along the way, she raised her voice against authoritarian -- and
sometimes democratic -- leaders around the world.
In the early 1990s, she staged Samuel Beckett's existential
masterpiece "Waiting for Godot" in Sarajevo amid bombing and sniper
Sontag won the National Book Award for fiction in 2000 for "In
America," about a 19th-century Polish actress who moves to California
to start a new life. The author also received a MacArthur "genius"
grant, among other honors.
Much of her early distinction arose in the 1960s with her advocacy of
European artists and thinkers, including philosophers Simone Weil and
Walter Benjamin and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Occasionally, she
caused palpitations among the fervently patriotic for her
commentary, to the effect that "America is founded on genocide" and
"the quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of
More recently, she wrote in the New Yorker about the Sept. 11, 2001,
terrorist attacks, denouncing the use of the word "cowardly" to
describe the attackers.
"In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be
said of the perpetrators of the . . . slaughter, they were not
cowards," she wrote.
Those declarations were easy fodder for those ready to scorn her as
anti-American or a liberal scourge.
Time magazine made her a pop celebrity in 1964 when it noted her
Partisan Review essay, "Notes On 'Camp,' " in which she plunged into
the world of urban and mostly homosexual style. Mentioning the ballet
"Swan Lake" along with the fashion accouterment of feather boas, she
wrote that camp style is "serious about the frivolous, frivolous
the serious. . . . The ultimate camp statement: it's good because
But her work appeared largely in literary journals, including the New
York Review of Books. She was elevated to near-sainthood by her
admirers, who considered her an unstoppable literary force and
Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Susan Walker
described Sontag's career as "marked by a seriousness of pursuit and
relentless intelligence that analyzes modern culture on almost every
possible level: artistic, philosophical, literary, political, and
But she also was lampooned for the headiness of her writing. In a
backhanded tribute to her influence in popular culture, the baseball
catcher played by Kevin Costner in the 1988 film "Bull Durham" calls
her handful of novels "self-indulgent, overrated crap."
Sontag's own motivations were simple, she said: to "know everything."
She had a lusty devotion to reading that she likened to the pleasure
others get from watching television. "So when I go to a Patti Smith
concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better
because I've read Nietzsche," she told Rolling Stone magazine. "The
main reason I read is that I enjoy it."
Susan Rosenblatt was born Jan. 16, 1933, in New York, the older
daughter of a traveling fur trader and an alcoholic teacher. She was
raised in Tucson and Los Angeles and was largely left alone as a
girl, she later told an interviewer. Raised by a nanny in her
absences, she was 5 when her mother came back from China alone. Her
father had died of tuberculosis, and her mother revealed the truth
months later only after the girl pressed for details about his
She took the surname Sontag from her stepfather.
Sontag described a girlhood bereft of playmates. Instead, she
Djuna Barnes, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Jack London. "I got
my childhood," she told the Paris Review, "in a delirium of literary
She met Thomas Mann after reading the German author's 1924 novel "The
Magic Mountain," set in a European sanitarium. On a second read, she
spoke the words aloud and was so enthused about the book that she
conspired with a friend to meet the author, then living in Los
in exile during the Nazi era.
"He seemed to find it perfectly normal that two local high school
students should know who Nietzsche and [composer Arnold] Schoenberg
were," she wrote in a New Yorker account of the visit.
Her stepfather warned her that being so interested in books would
her uninteresting to men. "I just couldn't stop laughing," she once
said. "I thought, 'Oh gosh, this guy's a perfect jerk.' "
Before graduating from the University of Chicago in 1951 with a
bachelor's degree in philosophy, she married Philip Rieff, a
sociologist 10 years her senior whom she would divorce in 1959. They
had a son, David Rieff of New York, who survives, along with Sontag's
After Chicago, Sontag received master's degrees in English and
philosophy from Harvard University and did all but her dissertation
for a doctorate in philosophy.
Her first book, "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist" (1959), was
completed in collaboration with her husband. They agreed, however, to
put only his name on the title page.
Still, she described this time as liberating. She was 26, divorced
ready to experience what she described as a delayed adolescence
with dance lessons, discussions with politically motivated young
people and a desire to make a literary mark.
She taught religion at Columbia University before completing her
novel, "The Benefactors" (1963), the study of a dreamy rogue named
Hippolyte who soon cannot tell reality from his own imagination. It
impressed reviewers, and she began cornering magazine editors,
sometimes at cocktail parties, about publishing her work.
Her analysis, for the Nation magazine, of Jack Smith's erotically
flamboyant film "Flaming Creatures" (1963) brought her attention as
enthusiastic filmwatcher but caustic observer of American morality,
which she saw as preventing a full-blown appreciation of the film's
Her early essays, including "Notes on 'Camp,' " were collected in
"Against Interpretation" (1966), her first major nonfiction book. She
argued against critics who hunted for heady significance in a work of
art at the expense of its sensual impact.
"In most modern instances," she wrote, "interpretation amounts to the
philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the
capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its
content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art."
As a radical and incisive thinker, she protested and wrote against
Vietnam War, visiting Hanoi to understand the motivations of the
Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. military.
She began examining the presentation of disease in popular culture
after her diagnosis of cancer in her breast, lymphatic system and leg
and was given a 20 percent chance of survival. She underwent a
mastectomy and chemotherapy that cured her of the cancer.
In "Illness as Metaphor" and her book "AIDS and Its Metaphors"
as well as countless interviewers, she condemned the idea of illness
as a curse or plague, somehow a metaphor for social, cultural or
decay. Illness is simply fact, she said.
Despite other health conditions, she remained productive, producing a
best-selling novel, "The Volcano Lover" (1992), about Lord Nelson and
his mistress, Lady Hamilton.
She spent much of her life in transit, living in Paris, Berlin and
elsewhere while maintaining a home in what she considered the only
livable spot in the United States -- New York. "And what I like about
Manhattan is that it's full of foreigners," she said.
A restless voyager into the 1990s, she staged "Waiting for Godot" in
Sarajevo. Even those who best understood her questioned her sanity to
thrust herself into a war zone for the sake of art. "I didn't think I
was invulnerable, because I had a couple of very close calls, and I
don't think I'm a thrill-seeker," she said. "I just thought it's okay
to take risks, and if ever I get to the point when I don't, then take
me to the glue factory."
WP: Thinking Woman
Susan Sontag Was An Irresistible Force Among Intellectuals
By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page C01
I first saw Susan Sontag in a New York bodega near the corner of
Street and Broadway. This was in 1969. My God, I thought, that's
Sontag, the most public of our public intellectuals -- though perhaps
not the most intellectual of them, if you listened to her critics.
And there she was, studying the ice cream case with a calm,
ferocity -- a tall woman with long, thick hair. She looked strong,
an intellectual, strong and big-chinned to the point of a slight
mannishness that I did not hold against her -- androgyny being a sort
of psychological beauty spot that can heighten the allure of the
possessing it. I believe she wore a very long scarf that signaled her
citizenship in bohemia. She was almost, but not quite, what I was
shopping for in a woman.
I thought of speaking to her, of saying something like: "What are you
doing in this grungy neighborhood when you're supposed to be down in
the Village sipping wine beneath someone's groaning bookshelves; with
Cream on the turntable, and blended scents of cat pee, pipe smoke and
marijuana in the air; and you talking about the gay-driven fashion of
facetiousness you described in the essay that made you famous: "Notes
on Camp"? She extracted a few pints of Haagen-Dazs, I think it was,
from the cooler. Good taste in ice cream.
I wanted to ask her if it was true she didn't own a television. I
wanted to ask her about her writing, but I'd read so little of it. I
wanted to ask her if she was as stoned as I was. I didn't ask her
anything. She paid for her ice cream (Oh if I could only remember the
flavors! Rum raisin? She seemed like a secondary-flavor type who
eschew the primary chocolate, strawberry and vanilla -- with a slight
chance that she would eat only vanilla, for its minimalist
authenticity.) I watched her out the door and sighed to myself:
it is: my Susan Sontag moment."
Why did I care so much? Would I have gotten as worked up if I'd
a bodega with Hannah Arendt or Alfred Kazin?
Sontag, who died Tuesday at the age of 71, had the gift of fame,
is to say she possessed charisma, which may be why she ended up being
called overrated, the fate of charismatic people. I had read more
about her than by her.
An Internet biography site quotes the cranky Hilton Kramer in the
Atlantic Monthly: "She was admired not only for what she said but for
the pain, shock, and disarray she caused in saying it. Sontag thus
succeeded in doing something that is given to very few critics to
achieve. She made criticism a medium of intellectual scandal, and
won her instant celebrity in the world where ideas are absorbed into
fashions and fashions combine to create a new cultural atmosphere."
Also quoted is Commentary essayist Alicia Ostriker, saying that
was "distinguished less by a decided or passionate point of view --
than by an eagerness to explore anything new." She concluded:
"Sensitive people are a dime a dozen. The rarer gift Miss Sontag has
to offer is brains."
Sontag wrote essays about Sartre and novels about the nature of
consciousness. She had a taste for the crepuscular haunts of the
psyche. After a struggle with breast cancer she wrote one of her most
talked-about books, "Illness as Metaphor," about how we make
far-fetched meaning out of illness and blame people for their
diseases. Another was "On Photography," the most morbid of our art
forms. Critic Robert Hughes is quoted as saying: "It is hard to
imagine any photographer agreeing point for point with Sontag's
polemic. But it is a brilliant, irritating performance, and it opens
window after window on one of the great faits accomplis of our
culture. Not many photographers are worth a thousand of her words."
Denis Donoghue said in the New York Times Book Review: "Her mind is
powerful rather than subtle; it is impatient with nuances that ask to
be heard, with minute discriminations that, if entertained, would
impede the march of her argument."
She won prizes, wandered into moviemaking and playwriting, and wrote
about science fiction and pornography. Also, she was profiled in
Rolling Stone and People magazines, she posed for an ad for Absolut
vodka and she appeared in films by Andy Warhol and Woody Allen. I
reading about her changes of mind, changes made with a blitheness
concealed by her conspicuous gravitas: changes on communism (good,
bad), Hitler's staff photographer, Leni Riefenstahl (good, bad).
In a speech at Town Hall in 1982, delivered to an audience of New
intellectuals, she had the deftness to insert the knife between their
panting, left-leaning ribs and then twist it with: "Imagine, if you
will, someone who read only the Reader's Digest between 1950 and
and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or the New
Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the
realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause.
it be that our enemies were right?"
Oh, the broadsides against her! And the counter-broadsides!
In my mind, at least, she metamorphosed from intellectual
flavor-of-the-month to anti-Vietnam war provocateur to a template for
the life of the mind. (I read somewhere recently that she had
a television but never watched it.) Gradually, she calcified into an
icon, a sort of walking statue who didn't so much go to parties as
appear at them. As for me, I gradually had gotten into the criticism
game, and in 1998, I found myself at the 35th anniversary party of
New York Review of Books, in the atrium of the Frick mansion in
I hoped -- I knew -- she'd be there.
She was -- with a magnificent stripe of white through her still-long
hair. (I read that she later switched to a Gertrude Stein crew cut.)
She swanned through the crowd of intellectual superstars, projecting
what only Queen Elizabeth II had conveyed before to me: "Do not speak
to me unless I speak to you first." I obeyed. Everybody seemed to
obey. I'm not sure I saw her talk with anyone, though she must have.
In any case, I saw that no one has ever or will ever do a better job
of being Susan Sontag. Maybe she didn't deserve all the laurels that
came with that high station, but she was, in fact, Susan Sontag, an
epitome of her age, what cultural historians call a "modal
personality," a woman who thought hard and wrote even harder.
I wanted to ask her, "You probably don't remember, but in 1969 you
were buying ice cream in a bodega at 103rd and Broadw. . . " I
forbore. There was nothing that I wanted to talk to her about, and
there hadn't been two decades before. I just wanted her to be Susan
Sontag. Maybe I wanted her to want to talk to me, but I realized with
a wistful realism that there was no reason she would. There we were,
ships that once passed in the fluorescent night of a bodega.
Maybe if I'd just handed her a pint of Haagen-Dazs rum raisin, and
walked away. Maybe vanilla.
Los Angeles Times: Ardent Author, Activist, Critic Dies at 71
SUSAN SONTAG / 1933-2004
Ardent Author, Activist, Critic Dies at 71
Intensely curious and intellectual, she long challenged conventional
in her writing.
By Steve Wasserman
Times Staff Writer
December 29, 2004
Susan Sontag, one of America's most influential intellectuals,
internationally renowned for the passionate engagement and breadth of
her critical intelligence and her ardent activism in the cause of
human rights, died Tuesday of leukemia at Memorial Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center in New York City, according to her son, David Rieff.
The author of 17 books translated into 32 languages, she vaulted to
public attention and critical acclaim with the 1964 publication of
"Notes on Camp," written for Partisan Review and included in "Against
Interpretation," her first collection of essays, published two years
Sontag wrote about subjects as diverse as pornography and
the aesthetics of silence and the aesthetics of fascism, bunraku
puppet theater and the choreography of Balanchine, as well as
portraits of such writers and intellectuals as Antonin Artaud, Walter
Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Elias Canetti.
Sontag was a fervent believer in the capacity of art to delight, to
inform, to transform.
"We live in a culture," she said, "in which intelligence is denied
relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is
defended as an instrument of authority and repression.
"In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical,
dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying."
In a Rolling Stone article in 1979, Jonathan Cott called Sontag a
writer who was "continually examining and testing out her notion that
supposed oppositions like thinking and feeling, consciousness and
sensuousness, morality and aesthetics can in fact simply be looked at
as aspects of each other -- much like the pile on the velvet that,
upon reversing one's touch, provides two textures and two ways of
feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving."
A self-described "besotted aesthete" and "obsessed moralist," Sontag
sought to challenge conventional thinking.
"From the moment I met Susan Sontag in 1962, I felt myself to be in
the presence of a woman of astonishing intelligence and the most
exemplary literary passions," novelist Carlos Fuentes told The Times
on Tuesday. "I admired her work and her life without reservation."
She was born Jan. 16, 1933, in New York City and raised in Tucson and
Los Angeles, the daughter of a schoolteacher mother and a fur trader
father who died in China of tuberculosis during the Japanese invasion
when Sontag was 5.
She was a graduate of North Hollywood High School and attended UC
Berkeley and the University of Chicago -- which she entered when she
was 16 -- and Harvard and Oxford.
In 1950, while at the University of Chicago, she met and 10 days
married Philip Rieff, a 28-year-old instructor in social theory. Two
years later, at age 19, she had a son, David, now a prominent writer.
She divorced in 1959 and never remarried.
Sontag was reading by 3. In her teens, her passions were Gerard
Hopkins and Djuna Barnes. The first book that thrilled her was
Curie," which she read when she was 6.
She was stirred by the adventure-travel books of Richard Halliburton
and the Classic Comics rendition of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." The first
novel that affected her was Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables."
"I sobbed and wailed and thought [books] were the greatest things,"
she recalled. "I discovered a lot of writers in the Modern Library
editions, which were sold in a Hallmark card store, and I used up my
allowance and would buy them all."
She remembered as a girl of 8 or 9 lying in bed looking at her
bookcase against the wall. "It was like looking at my 50 friends. A
book was like stepping through a mirror. I could go somewhere else.
Each one was a door to a whole kingdom."
Edgar Allan Poe's stories enthralled her with their "mixture of
speculativeness, fantasy and gloominess."
Upon reading Jack London's "Martin Eden," she determined she would
become a writer. "I got through my childhood," she told the Paris
Review, "in a delirium of literary exaltations."
At 14, Sontag read Thomas Mann's masterpiece, "The Magic Mountain."
"I read it through almost at a run," she said. "After finishing the
last page, I was so reluctant to be separated from the book that I
started back at the beginning and, to hold myself to the pace the
merited, reread it aloud, a chapter each night."
Not long after, she and a friend visited Mann at his home in Pacific
Palisades. Many decades later, she recalled the visit vividly, in a
memoir published by the New Yorker, as an encounter between "an
embarrassed, fervid, literature-intoxicated child and a god in
Over cookies and tea, while smoking one cigarette after another, Mann
spoke of Wagner and Hitler, of Goethe and "Doctor Faustus," his
"He seemed to find it perfectly normal that two local high school
students should know who Nietzsche and Schoenberg were," she wrote.
went on to talk about "the value of literature" and "the necessity of
protecting civilization against the forces of barbarity."
But what struck Sontag most were the "books, books, books in the
floor-to-ceiling shelves that covered two of the walls" of his study.
She began to frequent the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard,
where she went "every few days after school to read on my feet
some more of world literature -- buying when I could, stealing when I
She also became a "militant browser" of the international periodical
and newspaper stand near the "enchanted crossroads" of Hollywood
Boulevard and Highland Avenue, where she discovered the world of
She was fond of recounting how, at 15, she had bought a copy of
Partisan Review and found it impenetrable. Nevertheless, "I had the
sense that within its pages ... momentous issues were at stake. I
wanted desperately to crack the code."
At 26, she moved to New York City where, for a time, she taught the
philosophy of religion at Columbia University.
At a cocktail party, she encountered William Phillips, one of
Review's legendary founding editors and asked him how one might write
for the journal. He replied, "All you have to do is ask." "I'm
asking," she said.
Soon Sontag's provocative essays on Albert Camus, Simone Weil,
Jean-Luc Godard, Kenneth Anger, Jasper Johns and even the Supremes
began to spice Partisan Review's pages.
Sontag recoiled at what she regarded as the artificial boundaries
separating one subject, or one art form, from another.
She devoted herself to demolishing "the distinction between thought
and feeling ... which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual
views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and
judgment.... Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of
Her quest was admired by such writers as Elizabeth Hardwick, a
of the New York Review of Books, whose editors quickly embraced
In her introduction to "A Susan Sontag Reader," Hardwick called her
"an extraordinarily beautiful, expansive and unique talent."
Others were less impressed. John Simon accused Sontag of "a tendency
to sprinkle complication into her writing" and of tossing off
"high-sounding paradoxes without thinking through what, if anything,
Greil Marcus called her "a cold writer" whose style was "an uneasy
combination of academic and hip ... pedantic, effete, unfriendly."
Walter Kendrick found her fiction "dull and derivative."
In 1976, at 43, Sontag discovered she had advanced cancer in her
breast, lymphatic system and leg. She was told she had a one-in-four
chance to live five years. After undergoing a radical mastectomy and
chemotherapy, she was pronounced free of the disease.
"My first reaction was terror and grief. But it's not altogether a
experience to know you're going to die. The first thing is not to
sorry for yourself," she said.
She set about to learn as much as possible about the disease.
She later wrote "Illness as Metaphor," an influential essay
the use of tuberculosis and cancer as metaphors that transfer
responsibility for sickness to the victims, who are made to believe
they have brought suffering on themselves. Illness, she insisted, is
fact, not fate. Years later, she would extend the argument in the
book-length essay "AIDS and Its Metaphors."
An early and passionate opponent of the Vietnam War, Sontag was both
admired and reviled for her political convictions. In a 1967 Partisan
Review symposium, she wrote that "America was founded on a genocide,
on the unquestioned assumption of the right of white Europeans to
exterminate a resident, technologically backward, colored population
in order to take over the continent."
In her rage and gloom and growing despair, she concluded that "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
-- 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
Considering herself neither a journalist nor an activist, Sontag felt
an obligation as "a citizen of the American empire" to accept an
invitation to visit Hanoi at the height of the American bombing
campaign in May 1968. A two-week visit resulted in a fervent essay
seeking to explain Vietnamese resistance to American power.
Critics excoriated her for what they regarded as a naive
sentimentalization of Vietnamese communism. Author Paul Hollander,
one, called Sontag a "political pilgrim," bent on denigrating Western
liberal pluralism in favor of venerating foreign revolutions.
That same year, Sontag also visited Cuba, after which she wrote an
essay for Ramparts magazine calling for a sympathetic understanding
the Cuban revolution.
Two years later, however, she joined Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas
Llosa and other writers in publicly protesting the regime's harsh
treatment of Heberto Padilla, one of the country's leading poets. She
also denounced Fidel Castro's punitive policies toward homosexuals.
Ever the iconoclast, Sontag had a knack for annoying both the right
and the left.
In 1982, in a meeting in Town Hall in New York to protest the
suppression of the Solidarity movement in Poland, she declared that
communism was fascism with a human face.
She was unsparing in her criticism of much of the left's refusal to
take seriously the exiles and dissidents and murdered victims of
Stalin's terror and the tyranny communism imposed wherever it had
Ten years later, almost alone among American intellectuals, she
for vigorous Western -- and American -- intervention in the Balkans
halt the siege of Sarajevo and to stop Serbian aggression in Bosnia
and Kosovo. Her solidarity with the citizens of Sarajevo prompted her
to make more than a dozen trips to the besieged city.
Then, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,
Sontag offered a bold and singular perspective in the New Yorker:
"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?"
She added, "In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue):
Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they
were not cowards."
She was pilloried by bloggers and pundits, who accused her of
Sontag had never been so public as she became over the next three
years, publishing steadily, speaking constantly and receiving
international awards, including Israel's Jerusalem Prize, Spain's
Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts and Germany's Friedenspreis
Accepting the prize from Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag said
of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians: "I believe the doctrine
of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective
never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean, of course, the
disproportionate use of firepower against civilians...."
In late March 2004, she was found to have a condition that, if left
untreated, would be fatal: a pre-acute leukemia that doctors
was a consequence of chemotherapy she had undertaken to rid herself
a uterine sarcoma discovered five years before.
A little more than four months after the diagnosis, she received a
partial bone marrow transplant.
In an interview for the Paris Review, in 1995, Sontag was asked what
she thought was the purpose of literature.
"A novel worth reading," she replied, "is an education of the heart.
It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is,
of what happens in the world. It's a creator of inwardness."
She was the cartographer of her own literary explorations. Henry
once remarked, "Nothing is my last word on anything." For Sontag, as
for James, there was always more to be said, more to be felt.
In addition to her son, she is survived by a sister, Judith Cohen.
Her papers -- manuscripts, diaries, journals and correspondence -- as
well as her 25,000-volume personal library were acquired by the UCLA
Library in 2002 and will be housed in the Charles E. Young Research
Library Department of Special Collections.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
An author of wide-ranging interests
A partial list of Susan Sontag's work:
Essay collections: "Styles of Radical Will," "On Photography," "Under
the Sign of Saturn," "Illness as Metaphor," "Regarding the Pain of
Novels and short stories: "The Benefactor," "Death Kit," "I,
etcetera," "The Volcano Lover," "In America."
Films: "Duet for Cannibals," "Brother Carl," "Promised Lands,"
Plays: "Alice in Bed," "Lady From the Sea."
Source: A Times staff writer
Boston Globe / Obituaries / Susan Sontag, essayist, social activist,
dead at 71
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff | December 29, 2004
Susan Sontag -- one of America's preeminent intellectuals, whose
essays, novels, and political pronouncements made her both revered
reviled for four decades -- died of leukemia yesterday in Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She was 71.
Ms. Sontag was a unique figure in world culture, uncategorizable and
larger than life. For the most part, she avoided academe and any
institutional affiliation, going her own severe way. She refused to
pigeonholed. Along with the essays that won her fame, she wrote
novels, short stories, and plays; made four films; and directed
Ms. Sontag took all of culture as her preserve. Although she
to be proudest of her novels, which include the National Book
Award-winning ''In America" (2000), she was best known for her
She wrote extensively on literature and film, but her two most widely
read books are ''On Photography" (1976) and ''Illness as Metaphor"
(1978). The latter, a study of the slippery cultural uses that
diseases such as cancer and tuberculosis have been put to, grew out
her own experience with breast cancer in the mid-1970s.
A formidable, intimidating personage, Ms. Sontag was alternately
acclaimed as a priestess of high culture and scorned, in the words of
the novelist John Updike, as ''our glamorous camp follower of the
Even Ms. Sontag's harshest detractors had to concede her towering
erudition. The novelist Carlos Fuentes once likened her to the great
Renaissance thinker Erasmus. ''Erasmus traveled with 32 volumes,
contained all the knowledge worth knowing," Fuentes wrote. ''Susan
Sontag carries it in her brain! I know of no other intellectual who
so clear-minded with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate."
That capacity to link and connect helped give Ms. Sontag's work its
distinctly cosmopolitan cast. She divided her time between New York
and Europe, and the world of Anglo-American letters held little
interest for her. The figures she most admired tended to be European
-- Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Elias Canetti, Jean-Luc Godard --
and, like her, tended to be more comfortable with thought than
Indeed, Ms. Sontag's erudition lent a slightly inhuman aspect to her
work. Her bookishness flirted with airlessness, and not a few readers
detected solemnity and self-aggrandizement in her lofty intellectual
An innate intellectual austerity informed everything she wrote.
''Somebody says: 'The road is straight,' " she said in a 1978
interview. ''OK, then: 'The road is straight as a string.' There's
such a profound part of me that feels that 'the road is straight' is
all you need to say and all you should say."
Ms. Sontag professed to disdain the machinery of publicity, yet this
seemed only to add to her fame. She had an undeniable mystique, one
that drew as much on her striking appearance as on her intellectual
firepower. ''Very intense, very pretty, and very interested in
absolutely everything" was how her publisher, Roger Straus, once
described her. At various times dubbed ''the Natalie Wood of the US
avant-garde" and ''the Dark Lady of American Letters," Ms. Sontag was
that rarest of creatures: a celebrity intellectual.
Irving Penn photographed her for Vogue. Kevin Costner's character in
the movie ''Bull Durham" hails Ms. Sontag as ''brilliant," even as he
dismisses her fiction as ''self-indulgent, overrated crap." A song in
the Broadway musical ''Rent" cites her. She appeared as herself in
Woody Allen's movie ''Zelig." Her habit of dying her hair so as to
preserve a lightning-bolt-like white streak inspired a New Yorker
Ms. Sontag's celebrity sprang in part from her sense of political
engagement. During the late 1980s, she served a term as president of
the American branch of PEN, the international literary organization,
and she was one of the first writers to denounce the death sentence
imposed on the novelist Salman Rushdie. To draw attention to the
plight of Sarajevo during the early '90s, she visited the besieged
city 11 times and directed a production of ''Waiting for Godot"
''She was a true friend in need," Rushdie said in a statement
yesterday. ''Susan Sontag was a great literary artist, a fearless and
original thinker, ever valiant for truth, and an indefatigable ally
Ms. Sontag's political commitment earned her attacks as well as
plaudits. She notoriously wrote that ''the white race is the cancer
human history" (a statement she later lamented, as much rhetorically
as politically, in ''Illness as Metaphor"). She rhapsodized over
Vietnam in her 1968 ''Trip to Hanoi." Conversely, she drew the ire of
radicals when she spoke at a pro-Solidarity rally in 1982 and said
Reader's Digest had more accurately described the reality of Soviet
Communism than The Nation had.
Even so, nothing could have prepared Ms. Sontag for the firestorm
followed her writing in The New Yorker shortly after Sept. 11, 2001,
''Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack
'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?"
Although Ms. Sontag tempered her radicalism over the years, she
remained very much on the left. Her political views mirrored her
aesthetic views. She championed the avant-garde and esoteric. Critics
accused her of being an over-eager promoter of the new in such early
essay collections as ''Against Interpretation" (1966) and ''Styles of
Radical Will" (1969). She famously argued that ''in place of a
hermeneutics [interpretation] we need an erotics of art."
Yet in many ways Ms. Sontag was a deeply conservative figure. There
an Old Testament righteousness to her cultural pronouncements, and a
high moral seriousness informs everything she wrote. Prime instances
would be ''AIDS and Its Metaphors" (1988) and ''Regarding the Pain of
Others" (2003), which analyzes images of atrocity. It's no small
that Ms. Sontag's most famous essay should be called ''Notes on
Nonetheless, it was entirely characteristic of her to take so
seriously something so inherently frivolous.
Susan Lee Rosenblatt was born on Jan 16, 1933, in Manhattan, the
daughter of Jack Rosenblatt and Mildren (Jacobsen) Rosenblatt. The
Rosenblatts ran a fur-trading business in China. Ms. Sontag and her
sister, Judith, were reared in New York by a nanny.
After Ms. Sontag's father died, in 1938, the family moved to Miami,
then Tucson, because of her asthma. Ms. Sontag's mother met an Air
Force captain, Nathan Sontag, and the couple married in 1945. The
family moved to California a year later. When Ms. Sontag graduated
from North Hollywood High School at 15, the principal announced there
was nothing more the school could teach her.
Ms. Sontag briefly attended the University of California at Berkeley
and then went to the University of Chicago. At 17, she married Philip
Rieff, a lecturer at the university. The couple, who divorced in
had a son. Years later, David Rieff would become an editor at Farrar,
Straus, & Giroux and edit his mother's books.
Taking only two years to graduate from Chicago, Ms. Sontag earned
master's degrees in English and philosophy at Harvard. She also did
graduate work at Oxford and the Sorbonne. Moving with her son to New
York after her divorce, she briefly worked for Commentary magazine
held a series of short-term teaching posts at the City College of New
York, Sarah Lawrence, and Columbia University.
Ms. Sontag's first book was a novel, ''The Benefactor" (1963). Her
other novels include ''Death Kit" (1967) and ''The Volcano Lover"
(1992). She also published one collection of short fiction, ''I,
etcetera" (1978), and the essay collections ''Under the Sign of
Saturn" (1980) and ''Where the Stress Falls" (2002).
''I guess I think I'm writing for people who are smarter than I am,"
Ms. Sontag told The Guardian newspaper in 2002, ''because then I'll
doing something that's worth their time."
In addition to her son, she leaves a sister, Judith Cohen.
Her funeral will be private. A public memorial service will be held
a later date.
More information about the paleopsych