Sontag 101

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.

24 Responses

  1. What I RememberThe only thing
    What I Remember

    The only thing I ever read that was written by Sontag was her piece in the New Yorker a week after 9/11. printed in the talk of the town section, the magazine published accounts or commentary from several writers, hers included.

    She blamed America for the attacks. when I read it, it seemed contrived and pandering. She struck me as a hack.

    A blog about her death mentioned that even her fans were embarrassed by most of her recent writing. Maybe she was sinking into some kind of angry/confused senility.

    At any rate, I miss Jerry Orbach more.

  2. Sontag on CampA recurring
    Sontag on Camp

    A recurring theme in different biographies of Susan Sontag is that she possessed a perfect balance between intellectual analysis and popular culture. Her graduate work at Harvard included philosophy, literature, and theology – I personally can’t think of a more fascinating combination.

    Of her many humanitarian endeavors, I will defer to someone else to elaborate. What grabbed me was her interest in that difficult-to-define genre known as camp. Indeed, how do you explain camp? The Rocky Horror Picture Show was called “camp.” So was much of Oscar Wilde’s work. John Waters is mischievously camp.

    Here, from the Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia are some quotes from Sontag’s book, Notes On Camp:

    “Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.”

    “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”

    I am impressed by the fact that Susan Sontag dedicated such well-researched scholarship to what I find so entertaining a subject.

  3. Firsty, I remember that whole
    Firsty, I remember that whole furor, and I agree with you that her comments were pretty offensive. I remember she wrote that it was wrong to refer to the terrorists in the airplanes as cowards because they faced death in their actions. I actually wrote a letter to the NY Times (okay, an email) about Sontag’s article, saying that the terrorist’s actions *were* cowardly in the sense that they did not face their victims, or give their victims a chance to fight back. The Times did not print my email, which made me even more mad at them than I was at Susan Sontag.

    However, I don’t discount her right to an opinion I disagree with. I don’t think this one incident discredits her career at all. She’s a social critic, and it’s her job to piss people off. Apparently she’s always been pretty good at this.

  4. I agree … and I think her
    I agree … and I think her findings were pretty prescient in the sense that camp/kitsch continues to dominate pop culture today. She died the year “The Real Gilligan’s Island” became a hit TV show. I think this must have been an “I told you so” moment for her.

  5. I don’t know enough about
    I don’t know enough about that controversy to add much, other than to say, others, including John Lennon, Jane Fonda, and Ezra Pound, could be quite vitriolic in protesting what they saw as the misdirection of the U.S. and England. It can be difficult to separate a government from its people, and the fact that our government wants it that way is all the more infuriating. But of course, those hijackers were bloody, shameful cowards. There has to be better ways to solve grievances than by killing innocent people.

  6. I agree that it’s pretty
    I agree that it’s pretty clear that Sontag was an important cultural figure and I appreciate that this site has started to summarize some of her contributions.

    (From what I’ve read) I think that it was around the late 80s when her views started betraying the fact that she wasnt moving along with society as quickly as she might have.

    B, I read and enjoyed your quotes from her about camp and I think her description is precise. Maybe I’ll get a chance to read her sometime.

    Pound being a Nazi sympathizer and Fonda, well…not exactly someone whose views force one to reconcile their artistic contributions with their politics (Fonda’s artistic contributions being mostly empty and temporal), not sure how well these correspond. Sontag wasn’t merely expressing her opinion (although of course I agree she’s entitled to it), it seemed that she was trying to be controversial more than anything else. Her argument wasn’t very well thought-out. Pound may have been an ignorant shit, but at least he seemed to really believe it, no (I wasn’t there)? And Lennon was nothing if not extraordinarily consistent in his world philosophy. I got the feeling that she missed being relevent and wanted to make some (any) statement that would bring her name back up.

    Of course, I’m just making all this up. This was just the impression I got from one piece of hers. I’m sure if I had been reading her contemporary, meaningful writing forty years ago, I’d have a different impression.

  7. You are right, firsty. The
    You are right, firsty. The Jane Fonda example is weak. Lennon was, as we know, very much about peace. Ezra Pound … damn … you know, I was planning to write an article about him but his faults really get in my way. Even though The Academy of American Poets says, “Ezra Pound is generally considered the poet most responsible for defining and promoting a modernist aesthetic in poetry” I have all but given up writing about him because of his personal prejudices. Thanks for the reply.

  8. I, like firsty, have only
    I, like firsty, have only ever read the post 9/11 piece by Sontag, and had about the same reaction.

    Old counter-culture figures seem to end up just kind of sad and pathetic. Maybe it’s because they’re so closely associated with youth and rebellion that it’s kind of a transference of our own self-loathing for getting old and ‘selling out.’ Maybe they’re just so desperate to be back in the limelight, they try to be increasingly ‘controversial.’ Whatever, the only recent person I can think of who aged well was Ginsberg.

  9. Well, Shamatha, I definitely
    Well, Shamatha, I definitely know what you mean in theory. That’s kind of how I feel about Garry Trudeau, who used to be so original but now seems to just repeat the stories from the evening news. So, I do know what you mean — but I really don’t think of Susan Sontag as having been over the hill in her last years. I think she was very active on the international scene — for instance I know that Sarajevo and Bosnia gave her some kind of major honor after she died, for work she did there. Also, a short story she wrote in 1987 (about a person with AIDS — not a great story in my opinion but a memorable one at least) was selected by John Updike in the Beat American Short Stories of the Century collection. Best of the century — that sounds pretty major.

    Anyway, though, I appreciate everybody’s thoughts on this subject. And I still want to know — has anybody here ever actually read her books?

  10. I Did Not Know Sontag Was
    I Did Not Know Sontag Was Dead

    The two Sontag essays that I am familiar with are “Illness as metaphor” and “AIDS and its metaphors”. “Metaphors” are basically predetermined fears that society holds in regards to those suffering from disease, and that these determine society’s reaction towards them, rather them reality.

    Two favourite quotes of mine are from Susan Sontag:

    “One can never underestimate how irrational people become when they are really frightened.”


    “Literature is freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are son strenously challenged, literature is freedom.”

  11. Academia and its metaphorsI
    Academia and its metaphors

    I once heard a story about Susan Sontag. She was introduced at an event as, “The smartest woman in the world,” and as she took the microphone, she said, “Actually, the smartest person in the world.” This could be an academic legend, or it could be the gospel truth.

    I first read Susan Sontag’s “AIDS and Its Metaphors” a few years ago when researching the AIDS imagery in 1980s horror films. I was immediately impressed by just how readable the book was. Seemingly complex ideas were conveyed in relatively simple prose. Over the years, I’ve read a few other pieces by Sontag.

    In some ways, Sontag seemed to write academic work for non-academics. I think in this way, she belongs to the tradition of the public intellectual. As much as she valued academic rigor and intellect, she always seemed to intend for her work to have practical applications, for her work to help people comprehend and confront issues in their daily lives.

  12. I always thought T. S. Eliot,
    I always thought T. S. Eliot, not Ezra Pound, was the master craftsman in the first place.

  13. A ProphetOf the left and
    A Prophet

    Of the left and moral philosophy –what I read of/about her reminded me of Alexandra Kollontai, even Rosa Luxemburg (and an ‘activist’ girlfriend of mine) — and I even found a (relatively) narrow) list of feminists of all ages which gives a link between these three …

    Susan Sontag won the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (2003) and, of course, seemed much less offensive/attackable here especially because of her attitude/clear standpoint wit regard to the Jewish reality in Israel of today, and in German history, having Jewish ancestry herself.

    There is, e.g., a comprehensive essay by a German Peace Initiative, comparing quotes by Kert

  14. I’m amazed by the level and
    I’m amazed by the level and atmosphere of this discussion,
    the attitudes – and the topic itself as well, of course – Litkicks at its finest.

    Thank You for making me learn and think !


  15. My two cents — fuck Ezra
    My two cents — fuck Ezra Pound.

    Not only was the guy convicted of treason against the U.S. but this was right after WWII. You might not agree with the current U.S. administration, but I don’t think any rational person (and Pound wasn’t) would disagree with the U.S. coming to Europe’s aid in WWII.

    Also, Pound was a raging anti-semite. I find it interesting that ee cummings was also quite the anti-semite, (which is apparently discussed in the new biography of cummings) but I digress.

    So, screw the guy.

    And while were at it, screw Better than Ezra.

  16. Yeah, I like them too. Though
    Yeah, I like them too. Though that “son” in the second one should be a “so”.

  17. The Pornographic
    The Pornographic Imagination

    The only exposure I had to Sontag was when I read George Bataille, the Story of the Eye, and Sontag was quoted in the introduction, and she said Bataille was: “the chamber music of pornographic literature, indicating the aesthetic possibilities of the genre … Histoire de l’OEil is, in my opinion, the most perfect aesthetically of all pornographic fiction… [It] makes such an extreme and upsetting impression because Bataille understands more clearly than anyone else that pornography is ultimately not about sex, but death.” I was sceptical, with all the proliferation of sex talk, images, sex in movies, sex in books, sex on the beach, that any book written sixty years ago could leave an extreme and upsetting impression. Aren’t we inured? However, she was right, it does leave an upsetting impression and it is the height of aesthetic in pornography.

  18. Her ChildhoodIn her obit, she
    Her Childhood

    In her obit, she was said to have concisely described her childhood as a prison sentence.

  19. Thanks, singlemalt, I feel
    Thanks, singlemalt, I feel better now about giving up on my Pound article. I like Eliot’s work better anyway. Although Pound is credited with promoting the work of Eliot and Joyce, I look at it this way: They would have been recognized for their talent anyway, by someone else, even if Ezra hadn’t come along. Reminds me of the Seinfeld episode when George says de Soto is his favorite explorer because he discovered the Mississippi River, to which Jerry replies, “Oh, like they wouldn’t have found that anyway.”

  20. Sontag the NovelistHasn’t
    Sontag the Novelist

    Hasn’t anyone read “The Volcano Lover” ? It’s a very well researched book about Lord Nelson’s affair with the wife of the British Consulate in Naples. I haven’t read any of Susan Sontag’s essays, but her novels are really worth reading.

  21. vague memories of
    vague memories of Sontag

    Pulling red scarves out of a bottle,
    red bull’s-eye
    swing, swing away at them

    (the bell tips back and forth
    between us,)

    ((inebriated slumber.))


    What place
    is the sun setting?
    corpse-like on the couch–
    legs crossed, palms pressed together–
    damn, but wine’s the worst
    after moonshine.

    And that’s where I find you,
    Sontag, within arm’s reach,
    my friend’s wife must’ve tossed you
    there, On Photography.,
    Sontag I think, I read, therefore
    you are
    I forget

    Oh Susan, I can’t help but
    realize you are almost as full of
    it as I am– now smile for the
    camera, as if it were that
    easy, as if any of this could be explained away in terms of theory,
    as if desire
    could be categorized.

    I toss you aside after the first
    thirty pages, and pick-up a copy
    of Joyce instead.

    And read through the morning.

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