Sontag, Susan 1933–2004

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Sontag, Susan 1933–2004

PERSONAL: Born January 16, 1933, in New York, NY; died of leukemia December 28, 2004, in New York, NY; married Philip Rieff (a professor of sociology), 1950 (divorced, 1958); children: David. Education: Attended University of California, Berkeley, 1948–49; University of Chicago, B.A., 1951; Harvard University, M.A. (English), 1954, M.A. (philosophy), 1955, Ph.D. candidate, 1955–57; St. Anne's College, Oxford, graduate study, 1957.

CAREER: Novelist, short-story writer, critic, and essayist. University of Connecticut, Storrs, instructor in English, 1953–54; Commentary, New York City, editor, 1959; lecturer in philosophy, City College (now City College of the City University of New York), New York City, and Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, 1959–60; Columbia University, New York City, instructor in department of religion, 1960–64; Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, writer-in-residence, 1964–65. Director of motion pictures Duet for Cannibals, 1969, Brother Carl: A Filmscript, 1971, and Promised Lands, 1974; director of stage play Waiting for Godot, 1993.

MEMBER: PEN American Center (president, 1987–89), American Academy of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected 1993).

AWARDS, HONORS: Fellowships from American Association of University Women, 1957, Rockefeller Foundation, 1966, 1974, Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 1966, 1975, and MacArthur Foundation, 1990–95; George Polk Memorial Award, 1966, for contributions toward better appreciation of theater, motion pictures, and literature; National Book Award nomination, 1966, for Against Interpretation, and Other Essays; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, 1975; National Institute and American Academy award for literature, 1976; National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism, 1978, for On Photography; named Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France, 1984; Malaparte Prize, 1992; National Book Award, 2000, for In America; Jerusalem Prize, Jerusalem International Book Fair, 2001; nominated for National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, 2003, for Regarding the Pain of Others; Peace Prize, German Publishers and Booksellers Association, 2003.



Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, Farrar, Straus, 1966.

Styles of Radical Will, Farrar, Straus, 1969.

Trip to Hanoi, Farrar, Straus, 1968.

(Author of introduction) Dugald Stermer, compiler, The Art of Revolution, McGraw-Hill, 1970.

(Author of introduction) E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist, translated by Richard Howard, Quadrangle, 1970.

(Editor and author of introduction) Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, Farrar, Straus, 1976.

On Photography, Farrar, Straus, 1977.

Illness as Metaphor, Farrar, Straus, 1978.

Under the Sign of Saturn, Farrar, Straus, 1980.

(Editor and author of introduction) A Barthes Reader, Farrar, Straus, 1982.

A Susan Sontag Reader, introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, Farrar, Straus, 1982.

(With Cesare Colombo) Italy: One Hundred Years of Photography, Alinari, 1988.

AIDS and Its Metaphors, Farrar, Straus, 1989.

Cage-Cunningham-Johns: Dancers on a Plane, Knopf, 1990.

(Author of introduction) Danilo Kis, editor, Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews, Farrar, Straus, 1995.

(Contributor) Michael Auping and others, Howard Hodgkin Paintings, Harry N. Abrams, 1995.

(Author of introduction) Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans, J. Cape (London), 1996.

(With Robert Wilson and Vittorio Santoro) Rwwm: On Robert Wilson's Production Site Watermill, Distributed Art, 1997.

(With Mikhail Lemkhin and Czeslaw Milosz) Fragments: Joseph Brodsky, Leningrad, Farrar, Straus, 1998.

Where the Stress Falls (essays), Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001.

Regarding the Pain of Others, Farrar, Straus, 2003.


The Benefactor (novel), Farrar, Straus, 1963.

Death Kit (novel), Farrar, Straus, 1967.

I, etcetera (short stories), Farrar, Straus, 1978.

The Way We Live Now (short story), Farrar, Straus, 1991.

The Volcano Lover: A Romance (novel), Farrar, Straus, 1992.

In America: A Novel, Farrar, Straus, 2000.


Duet for Cannibals (produced by Sandrew Film & Teater AB [Sweden], 1969), Farrar, Straus, 1970.

Brother Carl: A Filmscript (produced by Sandrew Film & Teater AB and Svenska Filminstitutet [Sweden], 1971), Farrar, Straus, 1974.


(Author of fiction) Richard Misrach, Violent Legacies: Three Cantos (photography), Aperture (New York, NY), 1992.

Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight Scenes (play), Farrar, Straus, 1993.

Conversations with Susan Sontag, edited by Leland A. Poague, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson), 1995.

Lady from the Sea (play; adapted from the novel The Lady from the Sea, by Henri Ibsen; first produced in Ferrara, Italy, 1998), published in Theater, Vol. 29, no. 1, 1999.

(Contributor) Annie Leibovitz, Women, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.

(Contributor) Polly Borland, The Babies, PowerHouse Books (New York, NY), 2000.

Also author of Literature (monograph), 1966; and the screenplays Promised Lands, 1974 and Unguided Tour, 1983. Contributor to Great Ideas Today, 1966; also contributor of short stories, reviews, essays, and articles to numerous periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, American Review, Playboy, Partisan Review, Nation, Commentary, Harper's, New York Times, and New York Review of Books.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Sontag's journals and letters will be edited for publication by her son, David Rieff. No release date has been set.

SIDELIGHTS: Susan Sontag was an American critic who penned controversial essays on topics ranging from "camp" to cancer, encompassing her views on literature, plays, film, photography, and politics. Though best known for her nonfiction, the author also has written novels and short stories and has written and directed several films; in an introduction to A Susan Sontag Reader, Elizabeth Hardwick called Sontag a "foraging pluralist" who is attracted to "waywardness," "outra-geousness," and "the unpredictable, along with extremity." New York Times Book Review correspondent David Bromwich noted that 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…. 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." According to Susan Walker in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Sontag's career as a writer "has been marked by a seriousness of pursuit and a relentless intelligence that analyzes modern culture on almost every possible level: artistic, philosophical, literary, political, and moral…. Sontag has produced a stimulating and varied body of work which entertains the issues of art while satisfying the rigors of her own intellect."

Sontag has been a shaper of contemporary criticism through her call for a new formal aestheticism. Michiko Kakutani observed in the New York Times that Sontag argues "that art and morality have no common ground, that it is style, not content, that matters most of all." Likewise, Saturday Review contributor Edward Grossman suggested that Sontag takes "distinctions between art and science, between high and low, to be largely, though not entirely, false and irrelevant," and she also dismisses the "old, mainly literary notion that art is the criticism of life." According to Stanley Aronowitz in the Voice Literary Supplement, Sontag's reactions "against the dessication of literature by sociology," seen especially in her works Against Interpretation, and Other Essays and Styles of Radical Will, have offered "a liberating vision." Although her ideas have evolved over the more than thirty-five years she has been writing, Sontag is still deeply involved in aesthetic awareness and is an advocate of sensuous perception of the arts. Commentary essayist Alicia Ostriker noted, however, that as an author, Sontag "is distinguished less by a decided or passionate point of view … than by an eagerness to explore anything new." Ostriker concludes: "Sensitive people are a dime a dozen. The rarer gift Miss Sontag has to offer is brains."

As a young critic writing for Partisan Review, Harper's, the Nation and the New York Review of Books, Sontag became known as a champion of European artists and thinkers. Chicago Tribune Books contributor Seymour Krim wrote: "Although she was reared in Arizona and California,… Sontag has been much more at home with modern Europe than with this country. She made this plain … when she gave us fresh studies of such people as Simone Weil, Camus, Sartre, Marxist critic Georg Lukacs, Nathalie Sarraute, Eugene Ionesco, etc. In Sontag's hands the distant and blurred became sharp and immediate, and [she] … is a trailblazer of what might be called America's new cultural internationalism." In a New Republic review, Leo Braudy stated that Sontag's particular polemic has been "to celebrate the leopards in the temple of literature, not those cool and calm consciousnesses … who abided all questions and saw life whole, but those whose own derangement allowed them to explode the lies of order so that better forms might be discovered. In her criticism she labors to turn even the most self-isolating, uncompromising, and personally outrageous of such figures … into humane teachers, whose flame, all the brighter for being trimmed, she will pass on to future generations." With a tone of "eminent rationality," to quote Wendy Lesser in Threepenny Review, Sontag has acquainted readers with "the artist as exemplary sufferer" and with "the fragmentation, exaggeration, morbidity, and lunacy with which art has responded to the modern world."

From case studies of neglected artists, Sontag moved to theoretical essays on the aims of modern art and the relationship between art and criticism. Her works "encourage, in art and criticism,… respect for sensuous surfaces, for feeling, for form, for style," according to Ostriker. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer observes that in Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, Sontag "is tired of interpretive criticism and mimetic art…. She proposes instead an art which is joyously itself and a criticism which enthusiastically dwells on the fact." John S. Peterson elaborated in the Los Angeles Times: "Sontag has argued that critical interpretation tends to be stifling and reactionary, and that the job of the critic is not to assign 'meanings' but to show how a work of art is what it is. Her own writings [are] not to be regarded as criticism, strictly speaking, but as case studies for an aesthetic, a theory of her own sensibility." Nation essayist Robert Sklar suggested that Sontag makes this aesthetic criticism a form of philosophical inquiry: "Art, particularly the language arts, are themselves caught in the trap of consciousness. When consciousness as we know it is destroyed, art as we know it will also come to an end—art as expression or representation, art as truth and beauty. The 'minimal art' of our own time, in painting, sculpture, the new novel, already aims, in this sense, at the abolition of art." Sklar concluded that Sontag's "form of prophecy and critical insight, this mode of radical will, can be extremely clarifying and stimulating for the willing reader."

Against Interpretation, and Other Essays and Styles of Radical Will, both published in the 1960s, assured Sontag a wide and controversial reputation. In the Atlantic Monthly, Hilton Kramer describes how the American intellectual community reacted to her works: "Sontag seemed to have an unfailing faculty for dividing intellectual opinion and inspiring a sense of outrage, consternation, and betrayal among the many readers—especially older readers—who disagreed with her. And it was just this faculty for offending respectable opinion that, from the outset, was an important part of her appeal for those who welcomed her pronouncements. 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 this won her instant celebrity in the world where ideas are absorbed into fashions and fashions combine to create a new cultural atmosphere." William Phillips in Partisan Review contended that since Sontag was taken as a spokesperson for "The New," she was perceived "as someone to take a stand for or against. Hence, as with so many of the younger writers, the reactions to her have fallen into the stereotypes of polarization. But because she is so articulate and takes all questions as her theoretical province, because her writing has political as well as literary implications, the polarization is both sharper and more distorting. Susan Sontag is both an exponent and a victim of the new polarization; an exponent in that she doesn't go in for modulation and adjustment, a victim because her concern with speculative and literary problems often falls outside the prevailing left-right fashions."

A near-fatal case of cancer interrupted Sontag's career in the mid-1970s, but as she recovered she wrote two of her best-known works, On Photography and Illness as Metaphor. In the Washington Post Book World, William McPherson described On Photography as "a brilliant analysis of the profound changes photographic images have made in our way of looking at the world, and at ourselves over the last 140 years…. On Photography 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." William H. Gass offers even stronger praise for the National Book Critics Circle prize-winning work in the New York Times Book Review. Every page of On Photography, wrote Gass, "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 subtlety or refinement, Sontag encourages the reader's cooperation in her enterprise…. The book understands exactly the locale and the level of its argument." Time columnist Robert Hughes expressed a similar opinion. "It is hard to imagine any photographer's agreeing point for point with Sontag's polemic," Hughes concluded. "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."

Illness as Metaphor is not an autobiographical account of Sontag's own experience with cancer, but rather an examination of the cultural myths that have developed around certain diseases, investing them with meaning beyond mere human debilitation. New Republic contributor Edwin J. Kenney, Jr. called the book "a critical analysis of our habitual, unconscious, and even pathological ways of conceptualizing illness and of using the vocabulary of illness to articulate our feelings about other crises, economic, political, and military. Sontag is seeking to go behind the language of the mind to expose and clarify the assumptions and fears the language masks; she wants to liberate us from the terrors that issue not from disease itself, but from our ways of imagining it." Braudy wrote: "In Illness as Metaphor [Sontag] condemns the way we have used metaphoric language to obscure and mystify the physical and material world, turning diseases into imagery, metamorphosing the final reality of bodily decay and death into the shrouded fantasies of moral pollution and staining sin." Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin DeMott claimed that the work "isn't conceived as an act of conversion. It presents itself as an attack on some corrupt uses of language. In a series of ten meditations on the human failure to grasp that sickness is not a metaphor, not a sign standing in for something else, not a symbol of a moral or cultural condition, Miss Sontag develops the thesis that it is therefore wrong to use sickness as a means of interpreting the character of either individuals or nations."

Sontag's novels, The Benefactor and Death Kit, have received mixed reviews. Both works "emphasize fiction as a construct of words rather than as a mimesis," to quote Leon S. Roudiez's appraisal in World Literature Today. In a New Republic piece, Stanley Kauffmann called The Benefactor "a skillful amalgam of a number of continental sources in fiction and thought" and adds that it contains "a good deal of well fashioned writing." Kauffmann maintained, however, that the book "remains a neat knowledgeable construct, reclining on the laboratory table." Conversely, Alfred Kazin felt that the novel "works because its author really sees the world as a series of propositions about the world. Her theoreticalness consists of a loyalty not to certain ideas but to life as the improvisation of ideas. She is positive only about moving on from those ideas, and this makes her an interesting fantasist about a world conceived as nothing but someone thinking up new angles to it." New York Review of Books essayist Denis Donoghue found Death Kit "an extremely ambitious book," but notes that it is "undermined by the fact that its ideas never become its experience: the ideas remain external, like the enforced correlation of dream and act in The Benefactor." Maureen Howard, on the other hand, praised Death Kit in a Saturday Review column. "The writing is vigorous, the plot highly imaginative," Howard claims. "Death Kit … is about the endless and insane demands put upon us to choose coherence and life over chaos and death."

Sontag's 2000 novel, National Book Award-winning, In America is "a novel of ideas in which real figures from the past enact their lives against an assiduously researched, almost cinematically vivid background," noted a critic for Publishers Weekly. The novel revolves around an actress from the latter-nineteenth century named Maryna Zalezowska, based on the renowned Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska. In her mid-thirties, Maryna has become disenchanted with her life and, feeling a spiritual emptiness, decides to seek a more simple rural life which eventually finds her living for a time on a ranch in Anaheim, California—an experimental commune.

Reaction to In America was mixed. Donna Seaman in Booklist argued "Maryna's evolution as a woman and an artist is a tremendously compelling story by virtue not only of Sontag's consummate narrative skills but also by its embodiment of her passionate commitment to creativity as a path to freedom." Carl Rollyson in New Criterion did not agree, commenting that "much of In America reads like a diligently researched report, replete with quaint passages about what America was like in nineteenth-century New York and the Western United States…. Without a driving plot, the historical background only makes a static novel more static." James Wood in the New Republic, on the other hand, found that "it is striking how little historical detail seems to clog the surface of this novel; it has been smoothed into underground discretion. The book is not a disquisition on the America of the 1870s." Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times Book Review noted that a "theme of transcendence—of overcoming cultural and personal history … runs through" Sontag's oeuvre, but finds that "Sontag has said what she has to say in this novel more persuasively and with far more nuance and subtlety many times before." Wood, however, concluded: "[In America] is both Romantically expressive and artfully sly; it is unconscious and self-conscious in equal measure. If this is the only possible way to write historical fiction in a postmodern time, then Sontag has magnificently managed to make it look like freedom rather than determination. It is certainly an achievement."

Some critics express reservations about Sontag's work, most notably about her critical stance and her highly erudite presentations. For instance, writing in the Nation, Walter Kendrick claimed that the author's "eminence in American letters is disproportionate to the quality of her thought" because "she perpetuates a tradition of philosophical naivete that has always kept America subservient to Europe and that surely should have run its course by now." Saturday Review correspondent James Sloan Allen called Sontag "a virtuoso of the essay, the Paganini of criticism," who "has often overwhelmed her subjects and intimidated her readers with intellectual pyrotechniques, pretentious erudition, and cliquish hauteur. Lacking has been the quality of mind that deals in modern but sure understanding rather than bravura." Donoghue offered a similar opinion 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." In his book The Confusion of Realms, Richard Gilman stated that while Sontag's essays are "true extensions of our awareness," they nevertheless reveal that beneath the "clean-functioning, superbly armed processes of her thought exists a confused, importunate, scarcely acknowledged desire that culture, the culture she knows so much about, be other than it is in order for her to be other than she is."

"Thinking about Susan Sontag in the middle of her career is to feel the happiness of more, more, nothing ended," wrote Hardwick. Indeed, although a compendium of her work was published in 1982 as A Susan Sontag Reader, the author continues to write, especially fiction. In the Village Voice, Kendrick suggests that Sontag is engaged in the lifetime project of "making a multifaceted creative and critical presence of herself." She undertakes this task with very exacting standards, as she told the New York Times Book Review: "Of course, I want readers, and I want my work to matter. Above all I don't just want the work to be good enough to last, I want it to deserve survival. That's a very great ambition because one knows that 99.9 percent of everything that's written at any given time is not going to last." Sontag remains a prominent figure in the American literary community; her presence in the intellectual world is felt through speeches as well as writings. Reflecting on her accomplishments in the Threepenny Review, Sontag once said, "What readers do with it, whether I am (as I hope) making work which will last—my part ends with my doing the best I can."



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