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Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

Among the literary stars of the radical 1960s, Susan Sontag (born 1933) produced numerous works evaluating and commenting on contemporary life and literature. Her essays appeared in nearly every major publication beginning in 1962, and her assessment of topics such as "camp," pornography, and the Vietnam war earned her a wide readership, well into the 1990s.

Susan Sontag was born on January 28, 1933, in New York City, the daughter of a travelling salesman and a teacher. She recalled that as a child her ambition was to be a chemist, although she had always spent a great deal of time writing. When the family moved to California, she entered North Hollywood High School, graduating at 15. She then entered the University of California at Berkeley, but soon transferred to the University of Chicago. She received a B.A. in philosophy in 1951, a year after her marriage to Philip Rieff, a sociologist. Their son, David, was born in 1952.

Sontag studied at Harvard, receiving her M.A. from the graduate school there and completing all but her dissertation for a Ph.D. She taught at various schools, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Harvard. In 1957 she was awarded a grant from the American Association of University Women which allowed her to study at the Sorbonne, in Paris. The following year she and Rieff divorced, although they collaborated on Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, published in 1959.

Sontag worked as editor of Commentary and settled in New York City with her son. In 1961 she wrote The Benefactor, a novel in the style of the French récit (a type of narrative). She also began contributing regularly to such publications as the Partisan Review, the Nation, and the New York Review of Books. Observers soon hailed Sontag as a leading voice in contemporary criticism, and in 1964 she won Mademoiselle magazine's merit award.

Her statements on "camp" in the fall 1964 issue of Partisan Review were received with delight as she exploded then-current myths concerning the meaning and content of art. In a collection of essays published in 1966 (Against Interpretation) Sontag said, "The function of criticism should be to show how the work of art is what it is … rather than to show what it means."

Although sometimes accused of "intellectual snobbery," she was generally accepted as the enfant terrible on the New York intellectual scene in the 1960s. She received the George Polk Memorial Award in 1966, along with a Guggenheim fellowship. That same year she was also nominated for a National Book Award for Arts and Letters. In 1967 Sontag was a juror at the Venice Film Festival, and she selected movies for the New York Film Festival. Her own film-making efforts led to Duet for Cannibals (1969); Brother Carl (1971); Promised Lands (1974); and Unguided Tour (1983). In 1976 Sontag received further awards, including the Arts and Letters Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was a MacArthur Foundation Fellow from 1990-1995.

Sontag wrote Trip to Hanoi in 1968 in which she explored her reactions to a two-week trip to North Vietnam, and in 1969 she published Styles of Radical Will. The latter discussed, among other things, the value of pornography as a distinct literary form. Another of her fiction works, Death Kit (1967), permitted Sontag to contrast her views on reality and dream, but the book was reviewed in the New York Times as one that "skips, shuffles, and snoozes."

Making her home in New York City, in an apartment that overlooked the Hudson River, Sontag travelled extensively. She spent a number of months each year in Europe, and although she was a sought-after lecturer, she appeared only rarely. Sontag limited her speaking engagements since they were, in her word, often "exploitative."

Sontag published On Photography in 1977 and I, etcetera, a collection of short stories, in 1978. Also in 1978 she brought out Illness as Metaphor, which was prompted in part by her own battles with cancer.

In 1992, Sontag published her first novel in 25 years, The Volcano Lover. During the 1990s, she also published a collection of stories, The Way We Live Now (1991); some essays, Paintings (1995); and a play, Alice in Bed (1993). In 1996, she edited, Homo Poeticus by Danilo Kis, a compilation of essays on social conditions and trends. Also in 1996, Sontag wrote a long commentary for the New York Times Magazine, entitled The Decay of Cinema, which discusses the death of cinephilia—the love of movies as an art form.

Further Reading

For a biography of Susan Sontag, see Liam Kennedy's Premature Postmodern—Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (Manchester, 1995). Sontag's own earlier works were perhaps the best insight into her character. They included: The Benefactor (1963); Death Kit (1967); Against Interpretation (1966); Trip to Hanoi (1968); Styles of Radical Will (1969); and Illness as Metaphor (1978). □

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Sontag, Susan

Susan Sontag (sŏn´täg), 1933–2004, American writer and critic, b. New York City. She grew up in Arizona and California, studied philosophy at the Univ. of Chicago, Harvard, and Oxford, absorbed Gallic culture in Paris, and settled (1959) in New York City. Regarded as a brilliant and original thinker and highly visible as one of the most prominent public intellectuals of the second half of the 20th cent., Sontag became known for her vividly written critical essays on avant-garde culture in the 1960s. Most of these were collected in Against Interpretation (1966), in which she popularized the word camp, referring to exaggerated reproductions of the style and emotions of pop culture.

Sontag's essays on radical politics are collected in Styles of Radical Will (1969). She meditated on the nature of photography in On Photography (1977), explored the ways in which disease is demonized in Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), analyzed various modernist writers and filmmakers in Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), and reassessed her ideas on photography's relationship to human suffering in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Many of her short nonfiction pieces from the 1980s and 90s were collected in Where the Stress Falls (2001). The late essays and speeches in the posthumous collection At the Same Time (2007) reflect her often less than sanguine views of post-9/11 political life and culture.

Her other works include short stories and such novels as The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), and the best-selling historical fictions The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000). Sontag also wrote and directed four motion pictures, including the chamber drama Duet for Cannibals (1969) and the documentary Promised Lands (1974), directed theatrical productions, and was the author of a play, Alice in Bed (1992).

See journals and notebooks ed. by D. Rieff, her son (2 vol., 2008–); L. Poague, ed., Conversations with Susan Sontag (1995) and J. Cott, Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (2013) by J. Cott; memoirs by D. Rieff (2008) and S. Nunez (2011); biography by C. E. Rollyson and L. Paddock (2000); studies by S. Sayres (1990), L. Kennedy (1995), C. E. Rollyson (2001), C. Seligman (2004), and B. Ching and J. A. Wagner-Lawlor, ed. (2009).

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Sontag, Susan

SONTAG, Susan

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 16 January 1933. Education: The University of California, Berkeley, 1948-49; University of Chicago, 1949-51, B.A. 1951; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1954-57, M.A. 1955; St. Anne's College, Oxford, 1957. Family: Has one son. Career: Instructor in English, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1953-54; Teaching Fellow in Philosophy, Harvard University, 1955-57; editor, Commentary, New York, 1959; Lecturer in Philosophy, City College of New York, and Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1959-60; Instructor in Religion, Columbia University, New York, 1960-64; writer-in-residence, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1964-65. President, PEN American Center, 1987-89. Lives in New York City. Awards: American Association of University Women fellowship, 1957; Rockefeller fellowship, 1965, 1974; Guggenheim fellowship, 1966, 1975; American Academy award, 1976; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1976; Ingram Merrill Foundation award, 1976; National Book Critics Circle award, 1977; Academy of Sciences and Literature award (Mainz, Germany), 1979; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1990-95; Premio Malaparte award (Italy), 1992. Member: American Academy, 1979; Officer, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1984. Address: c/o Wylie, Aitken & Stone, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10107, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

The Benefactor. New York, Farrar Straus, 1963; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964.

Death Kit. New York, Farrar Straus, 1967; London, Secker and Warburg, 1968.

The Volcano Lover. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1992.

In America. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Short Stories

I, etcetera. New York, Farrar Straus, 1978; London, Gollancz, 1979.

The Way We Live Now, illustrated by Howard Hodgkin. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1991.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Man with a Pain," in Harper's (New York), April 1964.

"Description (of a Description)," in Antaeus (New York), Autumn 1984.

"The Letter Scene," in The New Yorker, 18 August 1986.

"Pilgrimage," in The New Yorker, 21 December 1987.

Plays

Duet for Cannibals (screenplay). New York, Farrar Straus, 1970; London, Allen Lane, 1974.

Brother Carl (screenplay). New York, Farrar Straus, 1974.

Alice in Bed. New York, Farrar Straus, 1993.

Screenplays:

Duet for Cannibals, 1969; Brother Carl, 1971.

Other

Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York, Farrar Straus, 1966; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967.

Trip to Hanoi. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Panther, 1969.

Styles of Radical Will (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1969.

On Photography. New York, Farrar Straus, 1977; London, Allen Lane, 1978.

Illness as Metaphor. New York, Farrar Straus, 1978; London, Allen Lane, 1979.

Under the Sign of Saturn (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, 1980; London, Writers and Readers, 1983.

A Susan Sontag Reader. New York, Farrar Straus, 1982; London, Penguin, 1983.

Aids and Its Metaphors. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Allen Lane, 1989.

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

Women (text), photographs by Annie Leibovitz. New York, Random House, 1999.

Editor, Selected Writings of Artaud, translated by Helen Weaver. New York, Farrar Straus, 1976.

Editor, A Barthes Reader. New York, Hill and Wang, and London, Cape, 1982; as Barthes: Selected Writings, London, Fontana, 1983.

Editor, Best American Essays: 1992. New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1992.

Editor, with Danilo Kis, Homo Poeticus. New York, Farrar Straus, 1995.

*

Bibliography:

Susan Sontag: An Annotated Bibliography, 1948-1992 by Leland Poague and Kathy Parsons, New York, Garland, 2000.

Critical Studies:

Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist by Sohnya Sayres, New York, Routledge Chapman and Hall, 1989; Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion by Liam Kennedy, Manchester, England, Manchester University Press, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995; Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, New York, Norton, 2000.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: Plays As You Desire Me by Pirandello, Turin and Italian tour, 1979-80; Jacques and His Master by Milan Kundera, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985; Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, Sarajevo, 1993-94. Films Duet for Cannibals, 1969; Brother Carl, 1971; Promised Lands (documentary), 1974; Unguided Tour, 1983.

* * *

Traditionally readers have approached works of fiction as verbal structures which reveal and generally make statements about a preexisting "real" subject. The writer may represent his subject directly, "imitating" in accordance with conventional understandings about the probable behavior of the human and the natural order; or he may render his subject indirectly by presenting a metaphor which stands for and usually implies a generalization about the same reality. Thus traditional criticism was designed to judge the verisimilitude of fiction and to provide a way of understanding metaphor, allegory, and parable as symbolic statements. It is impossible, however, to discuss the fiction of Susan Sontag in critical terms derived from this essentially naturalistic tradition, just as Sontag herself has attempted to construct a new critical approach to do justice to those works of avant-garde artists whose rendering of the modern world she finds significant.

The tough, polemical essays collected in Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will are more impressive than Sontag's fiction thus far, which too often seems contrived to illustrate a doctrine. For Sontag, the final "most liberating value of art" is "transparency," which means experiencing "the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are." Interpretation, which seeks to replace the work with something elseusually historical, ethical or psychological paraphraseis essentially "revenge which the intellect takes upon art." To interpret is "to impoverish, to deplete." Sontag's chief interest as a critic is the work of artists (especially film makers) whose work is misunderstood because it resists "being reduced to a story." Thus Sontag observes that in his film Persona Bergman presents not a story, but "something that is, in one sense, cruder, and, in another, more abstract: a body of material, a subject. The function of the subject or material may be as much its opacity, its multiplicity, as the ease with which it yields itself to being incarnated by a determinate plot or action." Deliberately frustrating any conventional attempt to determine "what happens," the new novels and films are able, she maintains, to involve the audience "more directly in other matters, for instance in the very processes of seeing and knowing. The material presented can then be treated as a thematic resource, from which different (and perhaps concurrent) narrative structures can be derived as variations." The artist intends his work to remain "partly encoded": the truly modern consciousness challenges the supremacy of naturalism and univocal symbolism.

While vestiges of naturalistic situations remain in Sontag's fiction (her story "The Will and the Way," for example, seems to be an allegory concerning the image of women in modern life), "interpretation" is by definition more or less irrelevant. The Benefactor is in its general outline a dream novel; its "thematic resource" is the problem of attaining selfhood and genuine freedom. Just as Sontag sees Montaigne's essays as "dispassionate, varied explorations of the innumerable ways of being a self," the hero of The Benefactor uses his dreams as a means of achieving freedom. "It seemed to me," Hippolyte concludes, "all my life had been converging on the state of mind in which I would finally be reconciled to myselfmyself as I really am, the self of my dreams. That reconciliation is what I take to be freedom." The device which keeps the reader from treating the novel as paraphrasable allegory is the deliberate ambiguity of the narrative frame: we are left to decide whether the narrative is an account of what happened or an account which is at least in part the construction of a mad Hippolyte whose dreams are symbolic transformations, in the usual Freudian sense, of "what happened." Sontag owes a good deal to Sartre and Camus, but even more to the auteurs of Last Year at Marienbad and L'Avventura. Death Kit has as its concern the failure of a man who has no true self. "Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Not really the same. Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives." Diddy commits a murder, or thinks he commits a murder; there is no way of determining this, but what matters is how Diddy handles the possibility that he is a murderer, and how he tries to appropriate the self of a blind girl whom he selfishly "loves." Out of the materials of his life Diddy assembles his death; out of his failure the reader may assemble an understanding of vanity, inauthenticity, and death. Wholly successful or not, The Benefactor and Death Kit are haunting works, effective to the degree to which the reader can accept Sontag's powerful arguments elsewhere about the exhaustion of the naturalistic tradition. As the American critic E.D. Hirsch puts it, "Knowledge of ambiguity is not necessarily ambiguous knowledge."

Elmer Borklund

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Sontag, Susan

Sontag, Susan (1933– ) US writer, critic, and essayist. Sontag is perhaps best-known for her cultural criticism, such as Against Interpretation (1966). She has also written novels and short stories, including The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), and In America (1999). The influence of Roland Barthes and structuralism are particularly evident in her Illness as Metaphor (1978) and Aids and its Metaphors (1986).

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Sontag, Susan

SONTAG, SUSAN

SONTAG, SUSAN (1933–2004), U.S. critic and author. Born in New York City, Susan Sontag taught philosophy and aesthetics at the City College of New York, Sarah Lawrence College, and from 1961 to 1965 at Columbia University.

Her first novel, The Benefactor, was published in 1963, but her reputation grew largely from her literary criticism, which appeared throughout the 1960s in a number of journals and was collected in Against Interpretation (1966) and Styles of Radical Will (1969). Consciously avant-gardist, it argued for a purely formalistic approach to literary values, while at the same time seeking to reconcile this position with her left-wing political views. A second novel, Death Kit (1967), was concerned, like her first, with the relation between illusion and reality. She also wrote and directed a movie, Duet for Cannibals (1969). Later works include plays, among them Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight Scenes (1993). In addition to stories and essays, Sontag has written books that include the 1992 novel The Volcano Lover: A Romance. A selection of her writings was collected in the 1982 A Susan Sontag Reader. In her capacity as literary critic she has edited Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings (1988) and A Barthes Reader (1982). Her reflection on the relationships amongst photography, history, and perception, On Photography, appeared in 1977. Her own battle with cancer led her to write Illness as Metaphor (1978), followed in 1989 with a complementary study, Aids and Its Metaphors. In 2000, her sweeping novel of late 19th century America, and the fortunes of Maryna Zalezowska, was published with the title In America: A Novel. It received the National Book Award. Conversations with Susan Sontag, edited by Leland Pogue, appeared in 1995.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Sontag has been the recipient of many awards including the 1978 American National Book Critics prize. She was created Officier de l'Ordre des Artes et des Lettres in France in 1984.

add. bibliography:

L. Kennedy, Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (1995); C. Rollyson, Reading Susan Sontag: A Critical Introduction to Her Work (2001); S. Sayres, Susan Sontag: the Elegiac Modernist (1990).

[Rohan Saxena and

Lewis Fried (2nd ed.)]

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Sontag, Susan

Sontag, Susan

(b. 16 January 1933 in New York City; d. 28 December 2004 in New York City), critic, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, winner of the National Book Award in nonfiction and fiction, and an influential activist writer who was controversial for both her aesthetic and her political positions.

Sontag was the daughter of Jack Rosenblatt, a fur trader who died in China when Sontag was only five years old. Sontag’s mother, Mildred (Jacobson) Rosenblatt, helped in her husband’s business and then became a schoolteacher after his death. Mildred Rosenblatt moved her two daughters to Tucson, Arizona, after her husband’s death to seek a cure for Sontag’s asthma. A precocious child, Sontag began school in the third grade. When her mother married Captain Nathan Sontag, a recently retired U.S. Army officer, twelve-year-old Susan and her sister took his last name as their own. The family then moved to Southern California, settling in Canoga Park. Sontag attended North Hollywood High School, graduating in 1948 at age fifteen.

Sontag wanted to attend the University of Chicago, but her mother worried about sending her young daughter so far away from home and to a city campus well known for its radical atmosphere. Mildred persuaded Sontag to attend the University of California, Berkeley. But after a semester Sontag transferred to the University of Chicago, earning a BA (1951) in little more than two years.

While at the University of Chicago, the seventeen-year-old Sontag married the sociology instructor Philip Rieff in 1950. Sontag said little about these early years, although they are treated obliquely in her short story collection, I, Etcetera (1978). While Rieff pursued his academic career, Sontag earned an MA in English in 1954 and one in philosophy in 1955, both from Harvard University, and began teaching at the University of Connecticut (1953–1954), the City College of New York (1959–1960), Columbia University (1960–1964), and other schools. In 1952 she gave birth to a son, David Rieff, who would become a noted journalist. Sontag also did graduate work at Saint Anne’s College of the University of Oxford in 1957.

Divorced from Philip Rieff in 1958, Sontag embarked on a series of romantic relationships with other women, including the playwright Irene Maria Fornes, the dancer Lucinda Childs, and much later the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Although these liaisons were generally known in New York City, where she lived much of the time, she did not publicly comment on them until the publication of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon in 2000. Also in the late 1950s she began work on a first novel, The Benefactor: A Novel (1963). This work received mixed reviews; some critics deemed it derivative of the French “new novel” (nouveau roman, a 1950s variety of the postmodern novel). With Death Kit (1967) she tried once more to establish her presence as a novelist, but few critics regarded this book as evidence of great talent.

“Notes on ‘Camp,’” part of Sontag’s provocative essay collection Against Interpretation, and Other Essays (1966), showed off Sontag’s range and her claims to originality. Although the word “camp” had been described in the British writer Christopher Isherwood’s “lazy two-page sketch,” Sontag offered a taxonomy of the term. Camp was corny and flamboyant, extravagant and stylized. The camp sensibility constituted an aesthetic—the admiration of style in and for itself. Figures such as the actresses Greta Garbo, Jayne Mansfield, and Mae West and the “public manner of rhetoric of de Gaulle” were “pure camp,” Sontag argued. Camp was important, Sontag concluded, because it cut across all categories of art and formed one sensibility that is “pluralistic,” one that appreciates the “beauty of a machine” as much as a painting by the artist Jasper Johns, a film by the director Jean-Luc Godard, or a song by the Beatles.

Time magazine took Sontag up as the intellectual flavor of the week, and her fame grew. She was photographed by the best photographers of her day, and her jacket photographs had the aura of French film noir. Her status as pop icon was singled out in Contemporary Biography, which called her “The Natalie Wood of the U.S. avant garde.”

During the Vietnam War, Sontag took an activist, dissident stance, writing long essays like “Trip to Hanoi” (1969), which reflected her shame over being part of an American empire she viewed as destroying the hearts and minds of the very people the U.S. administration wished to win over. Whereas Sontag’s literary and cultural essays were sophisticated and nuanced, her political writings were strident, strewn with epithets and calls to action like “Viva Fidel!” Although she later recanted this simpleminded leftism, she was never able to complete the political essay that was meant to answer her critics. Having abandoned the Left, she had nowhere to go and took refuge in dismissing political labeling.

On Photography (1977) is arguably Sontag’s greatest contribution to American literature. Her first essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” is a kind of précis for the book. She plays with the philosopher’s fable of knowledge: the setting of a cave in which the only knowledge possible is what is seen in the reflections on a wall. That is to say, human knowledge of the world is secondhand, a reflection of the truth, not truth itself—a copy, not the original. Saint Paul’s statement that we see as through a glass darkly constitutes a similar comment on the human inability to see clearly and to grasp the whole of existence, let alone the divinity of God (according to Saint Paul) or the idea (perfect world of ideas) posited by Plato. Thus Sontag’s opening sentence carries moral, aesthetic, and almost religious connotations: “Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” Photographs, which can look so real, so much a part of the world, are deceptive, Sontag cautions. Whereas photography seems a way to collect and to encompass the world, it is also a way of fragmenting it into a series of shots—images that have no narrative thread. Instead of integrating the world, photographs atomize it. On Photography won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism (1978).

In the mid-1970s Sontag was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. She sought experimental treatment in France, including a two-and-one-half-year course of chemotherapy after a double mastectomy. She did not write directly about this heroic struggle but instead published Illness as Metaphor (1978), perhaps her most influential and acclaimed book. She boldly attacked the mystique surrounding sickness. She argued for the patient’s right to seek out aggressive treatment and second opinions and above all to treat illness as just that—not a psychological malady that the patient was somehow responsible for, but an illness that could be treated openly without shame. As a result of Sontag’s book patients began exerting more control over their medical conditions, and medical schools assigned her book as a primer on how to deal with patients and their illnesses.

As president of PEN American Center (1987–1989), Sontag campaigned tirelessly for the writer Salman Rushdie when a fatwa (proclamation calling for his death) put his life in danger. She remained active throughout her career, working to save the lives of writers imprisoned unjustly or faced with execution. In 1990 Sontag was awarded a five-year MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

In the late 1980s Sontag turned her attention away from essay writing and toward fiction, publishing the best-selling The Volcano Lover: A Romance in 1992. This historical novel about the British naval hero Admiral Lord Nelson, the ambassador Sir William Hamilton, and his wife, Emma, won Sontag a new generation of readers and was widely praised for a fluency and accessibility absent from her earlier fiction. Her final novel, In America: A Novel (2000), a story of an emigrant Polish actress and her life in Anaheim, California, received far less critical praise but earned her a National Book Award.

Sontag maintained her political activism to the end of her life. She supported U.S. involvement in the Balkans—indeed, she risked her own life directing a production of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (translated 1954) in Sarajevo even as the city was being shelled. But she opposed the second Iraq War, arguing that America’s vital security interests were not threatened by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Sontag died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, New York, and is buried in the Cimetiere de Montparnasse in Paris, France. She had been suffering from acute myelogenous leukemia and complications of chemotherapy and radiation stemming from the uterine cancer that afflicted her in the late 1990s.

Sontag’s supporters hailed her eclecticism and saw her work as bridging the gap between popular and elite culture. Whereas an earlier generation of critics worried that mass culture would inundate and drive out the highest art, Sontag seemed to embrace all forms of art. Later, when college courses made popular culture a legitimate discipline of study and television seemed to obliterate much of the audience for high culture, Sontag retreated to a culturally conservative position barely distinguishable from that of the nineteenth-century writer and critic Matthew Arnold, a figure whom she had once highhandedly dismissed.

Sontag’s model of the intellectual was the Romanian philosopher Emil M. Cioran. Her essay on his work, which appeared in her influential second essay collection, Styles of Radical Will (1969), was titled “Thinking against Oneself”—an apt phrase for Cioran’s neo-Hegelian notion that, in Sontag’s words, “It is the destiny of every profound idea to be quickly checkmated by another idea, which it itself has implicitly generated.” Contradictions were almost a matter of pride with her, not a legacy to live down.

The University of California, Los Angeles, houses an extensive collection of Sontag’s papers, including correspondence and manuscripts. The only full-length biography is by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon (2000). There are several introductory studies of Sontag and her career, including Sohnya Sayres, Susan Sontag: The Elegaic Modernist (1990); Liam Kennedy, Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (1995); and Carl Rollyson, Reading Susan Sontag (2001). Sontag’s interviews are collected in Leland Poague, ed., Conversations with Susan Sontag (1995). A helpful research tool is Leland Poague and Kathy A. Parsons, Susan Sontag: An Annotated Bibliography, 1948–1992 (2000). More advanced and speculative studies include Craig Seligman, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me (2004), and Carl Rollyson, Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag (2005). An obituary is in the New York Times (29 Dec. 2004).

Carl Rollyson

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Sontag, Susan

SONTAG, Susan

Born 16 January 1933, New York, New York

Married Philip Rieff, 1950 (divorced); children: one son

Susan Sontag, the elder of two daughters of a traveling salesman and a teacher, was raised in Arizona and California. She studied at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Chicago, from which she received her B.A. when she was only eighteen, a year after marrying sociologist Philip Rieff. Her M.A. degree in philosophy is from Harvard University. In the late 1950s, she divorced her husband and settled with her son (born in 1952) in New York City, although she has spent a good portion of each year in Europe. Through the mid-1960s she taught English and philosophy at several American colleges and universities. She began writing fiction and critical essays and reviews when she was twenty-eight. She is also a writer and director as well as a critic of films: the provocative Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971) were both made in Sweden; Promised Lands (1974) is a documentary about Israel. As PEN's American Center president (1987-89), she joined a protest at an international conference in Seoul, South Korea, against this government's treatment of writers and publishers. Among her other achievements and awards, including being named in 1984 by the French government an Officier de Arts et des Lettres, she is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1990 she was also granted a five-year fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation.

Sontag has become a cultural icon of our age. Her intellectual precociousness and her unique critical perspective that takes the influence of American and European thought equally into account has carved her a niche in "the modern critical canon." One critic lauded her by saying Sontag's career as a writer "has been marked by 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." Another critic sees Sontag's critical writing as primarily concerned with discovering "what is the central tradition of Western thought in the 20th century and which writers have contributed most to its creation." While her importance can be interpreted in many ways, she is nonetheless a central figure in both the discovery and the codification of our contemporary intellectual culture. Sontag has disappointed some of the feminist community because of her lack of interest in feminist scholarship. However, averse to labels and stereotypes, Sontag says her writing is "based on freedom and self-revelation."

While Sontag has always insisted she is a fiction writer, she is one of our most influential cultural critics. Her subjects have been European writers, thinkers and filmmakers, and photography, pornography, and the problems with assigning metaphorical meaning to epidemic illness. Throughout, Sontag has insisted her work and the work of her models be allowed to stand on their own as art, to maintain their aesthetic, not decimated by interpretation: "Criticism in all the arts…treats the work of art as a statement being made in the form of a work of art."

Against Interpretation, and Other Essays (1966, reissue 1986) is a brilliant expression of the modernist sensibility. Despite the title, she does interpret, making accessible the most striking experiments in avant-garde film and criticism. From her treatment of new-wave critics to her famous "Notes on Camp," she is always provocative and original, so much so that one critic observed: "Perhaps what makes Against Interpretation valuable and exciting is not so much its erudition, which is considerable…as its passionate irresponsibility, its determined outrageousness." In Under the Sign of Saturn (1980, 1989), which Sontag has described as "seven portraits of consciousness," she explores how modernism has become "the dominant tradition of high literary culture instead of its subversion" through essays on artists who are also her models, particularly Walter Benjamin, Paul Goodman, Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, and Elias Canetti. She thus makes European intellectuals not only available, but also relevant in the United States.

In Styles of Radical Will (1969, 1989), Sontag again investigates the difficulties of confronting new artistic modes. Part of her appeal lies in her ability to move from the world of high culture to low—from Karl Marx to Harpo Marx, for instance. She flirts with the demonic, the underside of human experience. Her "dark and complex vision of sexuality" is not to feminists' taste, but it is worth paying some attention to what she has to say about our impulses towards violence and destruction. Elsewhere, as in "The Third World of Women" (Partisan Review, 1973), she shows she can be, at times, a brilliant spokeswoman for feminism.

Politically, Sontag takes the part of adversary, as in the autobiographical Trip to Hanoi (1968). She sees art as something that expands consciousness; thus, in Styles of Radical Will, her views on politics and art are related, "for it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice."

As a novelist, Sontag has never been autobiographical. The heroes of her full-length works are male. The Benefactor: A Novel (1963, reissue 1994) is about a European man who looks back on his 60-plus years and on such surrealistic adventures as selling his mistress to an Arab merchant. Despite the brilliance of isolated perceptions, the work as a whole lacks the passionate conviction of those writers (Djuna Barnes, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche) who influenced it. For many readers, the work requires an interpreter to give it meaning.

In Death Kit (1967, reissue 1986), Sontag wittily combines mythical, religious, and philosophical elements within the structure of a whodunit making use of the journey-to-hell theme. Despite the high praise of some critics, such as Granville Hicks, most readers are more excited by Sontag's criticism than her fiction.

The reader of the short story collection I, etcetera (1978, 1996) has a greater sense of the intimate self with all its pain and longing than is usual in her fiction. Travel imagery is pervasive. "Unguided Tour" counterpoints a broken love affair and the return to a past pervaded by the cliché-ridden language of tourism. "When I travel, it's always to say goodbye," the narrator laments. "I don't consider devotion to the past a form of snobbery. Just one of the more disastrous forms of unrequited love."

In Illness as Metaphor (1977, 1988), Sontag describes "not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there [a theme that would have had autobiographical relevence], but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation: not real geography, but stereotypes of national character." She applies a moralist's scorn to the use of tuberculosis and cancer as metaphor. AIDS and Its Metaphors (1988) examines the language and interpretation surrounding the disease and argues against the degradation and guilt AIDS patients suffer due to ill-chosen metaphors.

Yet Sontag's own metaphoric power is freely employed in equally dubious contexts, as when, in On Photography (1979, 1989), she labels those who take or view photographs as junkies, rapists, and murderers. In some ways, the aesthetic position here is the antithesis of Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will : art, at least the art of the photographer, is now an amoral force rather than one which enlivens sensibilities and consciousness. "By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals…."—for the worse, it is implied.

After years of important political and cultural work, including speaking out against martial law in Poland at Town Hall in New York City (1982), Sontag became drawn to the particular plight of besieged Sarajevo. In summer of 1993, Sontag braved the Sarajevo siege and directed a production of Waiting for Godot. Her devotion to the arts brought her to the war-torn city to help inspire and bring unity to people oppresses by racial hatred. Deftly, she assembled actors and crew members from all ethnic groups to symbolize the possibility for peace through creativity. Her efforts are extraordinary not just because she orchestrated performances in the midst of bombings and explosions, but because she succeeded in bringing hope to the besieged people. Recognized and respected by the citizens of Sarajevo, she became one of only two foreigners to be named an honorary citizen.

In other projects, Sontag has continued to look toward Europe for her subjects. Her fourth film, Unguided Tour (1983), from the short story of the same title, tells of a relationship that is fragmenting as the couple tours the decaying ruins of Italy. In Sarah (1988), a documentary film about Sarah Bernhardt, Sontag narrates the voice of the actress. She has directed two other plays: As You Desire Me by Luigi Pirandello, whom she calls "the most influential playwright of the 20th century," ran in Italy (1979-81). Jacques and His Master by Milan Kundera played at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1985). In addition to essays on dance, Dutch painting, and Robert Mappelthorpe, Sontag collaborated with Cesare Colombo on One Hundred Years of Photography (1988), and included 10 of her poems, collectively entitled "In Memory of Their Feeling," in a catalog for a London exhibition entitled Cage, Cunningham, and Johns: Dancers on a Plane (1989).

Some 25 years after the publication of her previous novel Death Kit (1967), Sontag's The Volcano Lover (1992, reissue 1993) found a new kind of success. Accepted publicly with greater enthusiasm than her previous fiction met, the historical romance is based on the love triangle between Sir William Hamilton, the famous British ambassador to the court of Naples, his much younger wife Emma, and her lover, Lord Nelson. The novel is said to have a "coolly modern narrative voice that recounts action while commenting on love and grief, cracking jokes, digressing to discuss artistic philosophies, referring to developments…that her 18th-century characters should know nothing about." It's style is difficult for some because of the historical license taken, but most found this temporal aberration "a satisfying saga of high literary quality, a brainy page-turner."

With intellectual passion and great human compassion, unconfined by genre, Sontag has been a renaissance woman with both critical and artistic offering. Like the camera, to which she is addicted at the same time she bewails it, Sontag always brings to the reader a new awareness of the world.

Other Works:

Cage-Cunningham-Johns: Dancers on a Plane—In Memory of Their Feelings (1990). Illness as Metaphor; and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1991). The Way We Live Now (1991). Who Was the Much Admired Sir William Hamilton (1992). Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight Scenes (1993, reissue 1994). Conversations with Susan Sontag (1995). In America (1999).

Contributor of short stories, reviews, essays, and articles to periodicals including New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's.

Bibliography:

Bruss, E., Beautiful Theories (1982). Hiding in Plain Sight: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (1993). Kennedy, L., Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (1995). Markgraf, S. T., "Novelty of/as Metaphor: Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich, and Yvonne Rainer" (thesis, 1994). Misrach, R., Violent Legacies: Three Cantos (1992). Plimpton, G., ed., Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (1998). Poague, L. A., Susan Sontag: An Annotated Bibliography, 1948-1992 (2000). Sayres, S., Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist (1990). Stead, A. A., "Mapping Spiritual Dangers: The Novels of Susan Sontag" (thesis, 1993). The Other Within Us: Feminist Explorations of Women and Aging (1997). Tydeman, W. E., "Photography, Meaning and Methodology: American Writings on Photography Since 1945" (thesis, 1985). Willis, L. A., "Womanist Intellectuals Developing Tradition" (thesis, 1996).

Reference works:

Benet's (1991). CA (Online, 1999). CANR (1988). CN (1986). DLB (1985). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the Untied States (1995).

Other references:

American Literary History (Fall, 1989). Book Review Digest (1992, 1994). Feminist Review (Summer, 1991). Journal of American Studies (April 1990). LATBR (1993). Midwest Quarterly (Winter, 1988). Nation (1992). National Review (31 Aug. 1992). NR (7, 14 Sept. 1992). NYTBR (24 Oct. 1982, 9 Aug. 1992, 24 Oct. 1992). NYTM (2 Aug. 1992). October (Summer, 1989). Performing Arts Journal (interview, 1985). SR (Oct. 1972). Sewanee Rev. (Fall, 1984). Theater (1993). Time (24 Oct. 1988). VVLS (Nov. 1990). WP (1992).

—ELAINE HOFFMAN BARUCH

ANDREW J. SCHIAVONI,

UPDATED BY JULIET BYINGTON

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Sontag, Susan

SONTAG, Susan

(b. 16 January 1933 in New York City), critic, essayist, novelist, and radical New York intellectual who emerged during the 1960s as a provocative commentator on avant-garde art, popular culture, and leftist politics.

Born Susan Lee Rosenblatt, Sontag was the eldest of two daughters of Jack Rosenblatt and Mildred Jacobson, both descendants of European Jewish immigrants. Sontag was born in a Manhattan hospital but spent her early childhood in China, where her father headed a fur-trading business until his death from tuberculosis when Sontag was five. Shortly thereafter, Sontag began experiencing bouts of asthma, prompting her mother to move the family from their American residence in New York to Miami. When the Florida climate failed to improve Sontag's condition, her mother relocated to Tucson, Arizona, in 1939. There Sontag, already recognizably precocious and serious-minded, began elementary school in the third grade.

Sontag has described her childhood as a period of "imprisonment" during which her advanced intellectual development and, later, her disdain for postwar conformist culture chafed against the mediocrity and superficiality of her peers. The early loss of her father and ambivalent relationship with her mother, a vain and distant woman prone to melancholia and alcoholism, further heightened Sontag's sense of isolation. Turning to books for solace and much needed stimulation, Sontag became a voracious reader, adopting as her first literary heroes the adventure writer Richard Halliburton and Edgar Allan Poe.

Sontag's mother married Nathan Sontag, a convalescing Air Force pilot and decorated war hero, in 1945, and the next year the family moved to Southern California. There, Sontag devoted herself to reading nineteenth-century European classics, the avant-garde fiction of the French writer André Gide, and Partisan Review, then the leading intellectual journal of the American Left, which she discovered at age thirteen and to which she dreamed of one day being a contributor. While in high school, Sontag and a friend managed to arrange a visit with the German novelist Thomas Mann at his California home, a formative, if somewhat demystifying, experience that shaped her conception of the literary life. In January 1949 Sontag graduated early from North Hollywood High School and, to placate her mother, enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, for the spring semester.

In the fall of 1949 she transferred to the University of Chicago, her first choice, where she completed the rigorous undergraduate curriculum in two years, graduating in 1951. While at Chicago, Sontag met David Rieff, a sociology instructor and doctoral candidate, whom she married in December 1950 after a mere ten-day courtship. Sontag was seventeen and Rieff twenty-eight. She gave birth to their son, David, on 28 September 1952. During their eight-year marriage, Sontag collaborated with Rieff on his book Freud: The Mind of a Moralist (1959), although she did not receive credit as coauthor.

In 1953 Sontag began a graduate English program at the University of Connecticut but left the next year for Harvard University, where she completed a master's degree in philosophy in 1957. With a recommendation from the philosopher Paul Tillich, Sontag received a fellowship to study at Oxford University in England the next academic year. Leaving her husband and son behind, she traveled alone to Europe. Dissatisfied with the dominance of A. J. Ayer's analytical philosophy at Oxford, however, in 1958 Sontag moved to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne with the intention of completing her dissertation; she never did. In Paris, Sontag befriended the American writer Alfred Chester and his circle and immersed herself in the French intellectual milieu, then under the spell of Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism.

Returning to the United States at the end of 1958, Sontag requested a divorce from Rieff. She had come to regard her husband as overly conventional and regretted having married him at such an early age. She collected her six-year-old son and moved to New York to support herself as a writer, even refusing alimony from Rieff. Sontag worked briefly as an editorial assistant for Commentary and taught philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and City College during 1959 and 1960 before securing a position in the religion department at Columbia University beginning in 1960. During this time, Sontag became romantically involved with the playwright María Irene Fornés. Though Sontag has remained silent about her sexuality, her long-time relationship with the photographer Annie Liebovitz, initiated in the late 1970s, reduced the matter to an open secret.

In 1963 Sontag published her first novel, The Benefactor, which she dedicated to Fornés. Sontag's challenging book, influenced by the French nouveau roman, was championed by the renowned editor Robert Giroux at Farrar, Straus (subsequently Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) and received mixed but respectful reviews. Through Giroux and his publishing partner, Roger Straus, Sontag gained entrée to the upper circles of the New York literati and made an immediate impression. The allure of Sontag's superior mind and statuesque beauty, featured in striking photographs that graced the jackets of her books, proved irresistible to many, while inciting the envy of others.

In 1962 Sontag realized her aspiration of writing for Partisan Review with a published review of the Polish-born writer Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Slave. Over the next two years Sontag wrote additional critical pieces for Partisan Review, Evergreen Review, the Nation, and the newly established New York Review of Books, together forming the core of her highly regarded first collection, Against Interpretation (1966). Among these was "Notes on Camp," published in the autumn 1964 issue of Partisan Review, in which Sontag attempted to distill the essential characteristics of "camp" sensibility in both highbrow and popular artistic forms.

Camp, Sontag noted, is predominantly found in the performing and decorative arts, and its hallmarks are unabashed extravagance, sentimentality, theatricality, self-parody, and the primacy of style over content. In contrast to kitsch or art that is merely bad, Sontag argued that the flamboyance and corniness of camp—displayed, for example, by opera, art nouveau, the British writer Oscar Wilde's dandyism, and such film stars as Greta Garbo—can result in an awfulness that is genuinely admirable. This essay in particular—along with writings on such Continental luminaries as Albert Camus, György Lukács, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Eugène Ionesco, Nathalie Sarraute, and Jean-Luc Godard—attracted notice in the mainstream press, leading to a Time magazine feature and widening interest in Sontag's dynamic intelligence and self-styled aesthetic principles. In other essays, notably "Against Interpretation" and "On Style," Sontag delineated her corrective view of criticism as an act of passion and sensuous appreciation rather than a "philistine" obsession with deciphering the content of a work.

While establishing herself as a talented literary polemicist, Sontag began work on a second novel, Death Kit (1967). Like The Benefactor, Death Kit is a novel of ideas, fashioned after experimental French forms, that explores the paradoxical nature of dream, reality, and perception. Although the fanfare surrounding its publication enhanced Sontag's fame, the book was poorly received and invited a backlash against the author's celebrity, including charges of pretentiousness, aesthetic detachment, and hypocritical self-promotion. All these criticisms would become the staples of Sontag's detractors and the subject of various literary feuds throughout her career.

In 1967 Sontag's political consciousness, dormant since adolescence, was reawakened by escalating American military action in Vietnam. In January 1968 Sontag was arrested, along with the writers Allen Ginsberg and Grace Paley, during an antiwar demonstration in New York. In May of that year Sontag accepted an invitation from the Communist government of North Vietnam to visit Hanoi. Sontag recorded her cultural disorientation and observations of the North Vietnamese people, whose foreign demeanor and morality she naively struggled to understand, in "Trip to Hanoi." Sontag's self-described "neo-radicalism," conveyed in spirited Marxist declamations of American-style capitalist imperialism, also extended to commentaries on Cuba during the late 1960s, leading to a visit to that country in December 1968 and support for Castro's Communist revolution. More than a decade later, however, after these regimes proved repressive rather than democratic, Sontag reversed her position. In a notorious speech, given at Manhattan's Town Hall in February 1982, she condemned Communist tyranny and denounced Communism itself as "fascism with a friendly face." The speech and Sontag's apostasy were sharply criticized by members of the American Left.

By the late 1960s Sontag was an international star. She traveled to Sweden in the spring of 1968 to begin work on her first feature film, Duet for Cannibals, which premiered in 1969. Though the film was well received at Cannes and the New York Film Festival, Sontag's subsequent work as filmmaker failed to live up to its promise. Like her fiction, it was relegated to the periphery of her creative endeavors, vastly overshadowed by the acclaim of her critical proclamations and the inseparable mystique of her celebrity persona.

Sontag's second essay collection, Styles of Radical Will (1969), included "Trip to Hanoi" and essays previously printed in Partisan Review and other journals. Among these are two landmark essays: "Aesthetics of Silence," a philosophical argument for silence as a valid mode of resistance and transcendence in modern art, and "The Pornographic Imagination," a defense of literary pornography as a radical art form, exemplified by The Story of O and certain erotic works by Georges Bataille. The volume also contains "What's Happening in America (1966)," Sontag's dire diagnosis of contemporary American politics and culture, and masterly critiques of Ingmar Bergman's Persona and of Godard that reveal Sontag's sophisticated understanding of cinema.

Hailed during the 1960s as a model of the new, independent woman—glamorous, wildly brilliant, outspoken, and, above all, self-defined—Sontag established herself as an audacious and prescient authority on matters of culture and style. Her high-profile appearances in glossy women's magazines and her willingness to treat belittled subjects of popular art with serious critical attention leveled distinctions between high and low culture, encouraging others to do the same and adumbrating the omnivorous approach of cultural studies in the coming postmodern age. Likewise, her affinity for postwar Continental literature, which she showcased in much of her writing, precipitated, if not directly influenced, the influx of French literary philosophy into the American academy during the 1970s and 1980s.

Over the next several decades Sontag remained a preeminent woman of letters, renowned for her verve, intellectual commitment, and complex, often self-contradictory engagement with controversial issues of the day. She continued to produce important collections of critical essays, including On Photography (1977); Illness as Metaphor (1978), inspired by her near-death experience with breast cancer in the mid-1970s; and AIDS as Metaphor (1989). Her novel, In America (2000), received the National Book Award.

Sontag's semi-autobiographic stories in I, etcetera (1978) offer insight into her formative experiences. Conversations with Susan Sontag (1995), edited by Leland Poague, contains interviews with Sontag dating from 1969 through 1993. Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon (2000), by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, is a highly informative biography that does much to counter Sontag's reticence on personal matters. Critical studies include Sohnya Sayres, Susan Sontag: Elegiac Modernist (1990); Kennedy Liam, Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (1995); and Carl Rollyson, Reading Susan Sontag: A Critical Introduction to Her Work (2001).

Josh Lauer

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Sontag, Susan

SONTAG, Susan

SONTAG, Susan. American, b. 1933. Genres: Novels, Plays/Screenplays, Essays. Career: University of Connecticut, Storrs, instructor in English, 1953-54; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, teaching fellow in philosophy, 1955-57; Commentary, NYC, editor, 1959; lecturer in philosophy, City College of New York, and Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, 1959-60; Columbia University, NYC, Dept. of Religion, instructor, 1960-64; Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, writer-in-residence, 1964-65. PEN American Center, president, 1987-89. Publications: The Benefactor, 1963; Against Interpretation (essays), 1966; Death Kit, 1967; Duet for Cannibals (screenplay), 1969; Trip to Hanoi, 1969; Styles of Radical Will (essays), 1969; Brother Carl (screenplay), 1971; On Photography, 1976; Illness as Metaphor, 1978; I, Etcetera, 1978; Under the Sign of Saturn (essays), 1980; A Susan Sontag Reader, 1982; AIDS and Its Metaphors, 1989; (with others) Cage Cunningham Johns: Dancers on a Plane, 1990; The Way We Live Now, 1991; The Volcano Lover: A Romance, 1992; Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight Scenes, 1993; Howard Hodgkin: Painting, 1995; Bellocq, 1996; In America, 2000 (National Book Award); Where the Stress Falls (essays), 2002; Regarding the Pain of Others (essays), 2003. Address: c/o Publicity Dept, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 19 Union Sq W, New York, NY 10003, U.S.A. Online address: www.susansontag.com

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Sontag, Susan

Susan Sontag

Born Susan Rosenblatt, January 16, 1933, in New York, NY; died of leukemia, December 28, 2004, in New York, NY. Author. Essayist and critic Susan Sontag was one of the most widely known figures in American intelligentsia in the late twentieth century. Known as equally for her provocative pronouncements as for her photogenic beauty, Sontag was a leading figure in the cultural debates that swept through her era.

Sontag had a rather bleak childhood. She was born Susan Rosenblatt in 1933 in New York City, but her mother had returned to the United States only to deliver her and then leave the infant with relatives. Sontag's parents were fur traders in China, and neither she nor her younger sister ever met their father, who died in 1938. When their mother returned to the United States and reclaimed the pair, they moved to Tucson, Arizona, because Sontag suffered from asthma, and from there to Los Angeles. Sontag eventually took the surname of her stepfather, a former U.S. Army officer.

Sontag was a voracious reader even as a child, and boasted a formidable intellect by the time she reached her teens. Promoted ahead in school three times, she graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15, entered the University of California at Berkeley for one semester, and then transferred to the prestigious University of Chicago. By then she was a stunning young woman, tall and with long dark hair and dark eyes, and at the age of 17 she married one of her professors just ten days after their first meeting. Dr. Philip Rieff was 28 at the time, and the two had a son together. Before she turned 26, Sontag finished at Chicago, earned a master's degree from Harvard University, and studied at the universities of Oxford and the Sorbonne.

Moving to New York City in the late 1950s after she and Rieff divorced, Sontag wrote for Commentary magazine and taught at various New York City colleges. Her debut novel, The Benefactor, was published in 1963, but both that and a subsequent work of fiction, 1967's Death Kit, earned poor reviews. She had far more success with her essays on cultural topics, such as her famous 1964 piece, "Notes on Camp." In it, she defended various aspects of low culture and kitsch, asserting that such works as Snow White serve to, in the end, energize more mainstream cultural patterns. The work established Sontag as a maverick on the fringes of American intellectualism, where the fashion was to deride all forms of popular culture, even film. Sontag participated eagerly in the new wave of music, art, and scenesterism herself, attending rock concerts and appearing in a couple of Andy Warhol films during the artist's experimental-filmmaking era. "Her work, with its emphasis on the outre, the jagged, and the here and now," noted Margalit Fox in the New York Times, "helped make the study of popular culture a respectable academic pursuit."

Sontag continued to shock the established order throughout her career. A 1966 collection of essays, Against Interpretation argued that criticism may inhibit creativity. Often drawing upon European theorists, such as Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Elias Canetti, Sontag was said to have introduced the ideas of both Barthes and Canetti to American readers at a time when their works were not yet widely available in English translation. Her other major work, Illness and Metaphor came out of her bout with cancer in the mid-1970s, and a 1977 book, On Photography, argued that the medium may serve to deaden the senses of the viewer to the suffering of others, in part by allowing him or her to satisfy a curiosity about atrocious acts from a safe distance. That work won her a National Book Critics Circle Award. A 2000 novel, In America, received a National Book Award.

Sontag served as president of the prestigious writers' organization PEN for a time, and was a committed human-rights activist for much of her career. She remained outspoken, even in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. In an oft-quoted essay she wrote for the New Yorker, she chastised the U.S. political leadership for calling the al-Qaeda hijackers "cowards." "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 fumed in it, according to her Los Angeles Times obituary by Steve Wasserman.

In her later years Sontag was the companion of photographer Annie Leibovitz. Her son, David, became a book editor in New York City at Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, and edited some of his mother's volumes. Sontag was undergoing treatment for acute myelogenous leukemia when she died at the age of 71 on December 28, 2004, at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.Sources: CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/books/12/28/obit.sontag.ap/index.html (December 28, 2004); Entertainment Weekly, January 14, 2005, p. 18; Independent (London), December 30, 2004, p. 36; Los Angeles Times, December 29, 2004, p. A1, pp. A24-25; New York Times, December 29, 2004, p. A1.

CarolBrennan

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