The writer, activist and social critic Susan Sontag died in New York City on December 28 2004. I wanted to recognize her passing on LitKicks, but when I searched my mental archives for my Sontag dossier, I was surprised to realize how little I actually knew about this famous modern “intellectual”.
In fact, the sum total of my knowledge of Susan Sontag on the day I’d heard she’d died amounted to this:
1) she had black hair with a big streak of gray
2) Kevin Costner said something about her in the only good acting performance of his career, as Crash Davis in “Bull Durham”
3) her writings have sharp, thought-provoking titles, like Against Interpretation, Notes on Camp, Where the Stress Falls and Illness as Metaphor.
If I knew so little about her, I wondered if a brief “Sontag 101” might be a more useful LitKicks tribute for Susan Sontag than a pathetic attempt at a memorial for a writer nobody I know has ever read. So I started googling her name and reading her works. I’ve gotten through three essays, which I am going to comment on briefly below. I’d also like to invite you to do the same thing I’ve done here — google her name, find something she wrote, read it, and post something about it here. Hey, it’s something different to do on lunch hour, right?
Here’s as far as I’ve gotten:
Against Interpretation: This was one of the essays that made Susan Sontag famous in the early 60’s. I was pleased to find a simple, passionate and logically drawn argument for a raw, un-mental approach to art, experience and existence. The essay reminded me of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in its insistence on a “pure” way to experience the world. It also reminded me of Sartre and Nietzsche. I was especially pleased to find this essay smooth-sailing in terms of the big words and academic references. If you are looking to knock off a Susan Sontag essay without too much difficulty, Against Interpretation is a good place to start.
Notes on Camp, another seminal Sontag essay from the early 60’s, was a bit more surprising. It’s a discussion of the family of artistic sensibilities known variously as camp, kitsch, or, more recently, “cheese”. She argues that works of this cynical style deserve to stand alongside more dignified and supposedly “sincere” artistic sensibilities. She also ties the tradition of camp to Oscar Wilde, the Romantics and other traditions. I noticed in this essay, again, a strong resemblance to Nietzsche, in this case to his observations of Apolllonian and Dionysian modes of art. Notes on Camp is an exciting essay to read, even if I think I got the point in the first couple of paragraphs and didn’t really need the extended follow-up.
Illness as Metaphor, a much-publicized Susan Sontag essay from 1978, is an expose of the many emotional and psychological currents that accompany our physical ailments and conditions, including the human condition itself. This concept became suddenly more important during the dark crisis of the following decade, and Sontag extended her theory into a new treatise, AIDS and its Metaphors, in 1989.
This is as far as I’ve gotten. I would like to invite anybody else to either share any insights you have into Susan Sontag here, or to go read something she wrote and tell us how you liked it.