Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon.
By Carl Rollyson and Lisa Olson Paddock.
One of her earliest memories—she is about four—is set in a park. She listens to her Irish nanny talking to another giant in a starched white uniform: "Susan is very high-strung." Susan thinks: "That's an interesting word. Is it true?"
She is "remembering" an event that occurred circa 1937, an event she describes in her Paris Review interview of 1995. The park is in New York City, the nanny's name is Rose McNulty, and she is illiterate. It is Susan's impression that Rose does not know what to make of her temperamental charge. Sontag will spend her first five years in New York living with her grandparents and being cared for by relatives.
What Sontag wants to tell us is that she felt alone at a very early age, bored with her environment, and that her inner life—the only one she had control over—became paramount. Already at four, she claims, she was engaging in critical analysis, wondering about that word "high-strung." Sontag has preferred to use the word "restless" to describe her child self, one who felt that "childhood was a terrible waste of time."
Where were her parents? In China most of the time. Jack Rosenblatt had a fur-trading business, the Kung Chen Fur Corporation. When Susan was born, on January 16, 1933, in Woman's Hospital in Manhattan, her parents had a residence at 200 West Eighty-sixth Street. She was their first child. Mildred had been nervous about giving birth overseas, but not long after Susan was safely delivered, Mildred returned to China to be with her husband. Another pregnancy brought her back to Manhattan, where she gave birth to a second daughter, Judith, on February 27, 1936, in New York Hospital. By this time, the family had a home in Great Neck, Long Island.
Susan's parents had money, they were young, and they were very much involved in their business. Jack was only twenty-eight, and his wife Mildred, née Jacobson, only twenty-six, when Susan was born. On the company's books Mildred is listed as president-treasurer. Jack, or Jasky (as he was named on his birth certificate), had come a long way from 721 East Sixth Street in lower Manhattan, where his father, Samuel, and his mother, Gussie, née Kessler, both Jews from Austria, had begun a fur business and raised five children, two daughters and three sons. Mildred's family, Jews from Russian-occupied Poland, were also involved in the clothing trades. Her father, Isaac, a tailor, and his wife, Dora, née Glasskovitz, raised seven children. Mildred, born at home (139 Cook Street), was the second-youngest child and the only girl. She and Jack met at Grossinger's, a resort in the Catskills where Mildred had a waitressing job.
On October 19, 1938, just before midnight, Jack Rosenblatt died of pulmonary tuberculosis in the German American Hospital in Tientsin, China. He was not quite thirty-five. Mildred, staying at the Astor House Hotel in Tientsin, telegraphed his father and brother Aaron the next day, and she made arrangements to begin the journey back to New York a week later.
Sontag remembers that her mother waited several months to tell her that her father had died, and then was brief, saying only that he had died of pneumonia.
Then five-year-old Susan experienced her first asthma attack. Asthma is an alarming disease for anyone but is especially frightening in children. Coughing attacks usually occur at night, between the early hours of two and six; the child gasps for air and sometimes regurgitates a sticky mucus.
In 1939 Mildred decided to remove her small family from New York in search of a better climate for Susan, and a doctor recommended Miami. Recalling her family's brief residence in that city for an interviewer, Sontag presented brief vignettes: a house with coconut palms. She is in the front yard with a hammer and screwdriver trying to open the tropical fruit. An obese black cook takes her to a park and Susan notices a bench marked "For Whites Only." She turns to the cook and says, "We'll go sit over there and you can sit on my lap." It all seemed so nineteenth-century, Sontag told the interviewer. The city's humidity only made Susan's asthma worse, and after a few months the family left Miami.
Mildred was only thirty-one when she moved her family to Tucson. In interviews, Susan portrays Mildred as a vain, self-absorbed woman who did not know how to act like a mother, who worried instead about growing old and losing her looks. Mildred told Susan not to call her "Mother" in public because she did not want anyone to know she was old enough to have a child. Susan, puzzled, wondered what her mother did with her time, for even after Jack Rosenblatt's death Mildred would be absent from home for long periods, "parking" Susan and Judith with relatives.
It is likely that Mildred was depressed throughout Susan's earliest years. The massive change in lifestyle that accompanies mothering had to be especially hard on the peripatetic Mildred. Not only had she lost a husband, she had lost the income from their business, her employment, independence, and status—all of which were replaced by the insatiable demands of young children. Alcohol provided temporary relief, a cushion, perhaps even an elevation of feeling, although the image Sontag presents is of a phlegmatic mother, too drowsy or listless to read or comment on her child's all-A report cards. It is a familiar scene, repeated in the lives of many writers who begin writing as children, like the writer Anne Rice, moping at her alcoholic mother's bedside.
Sontag has said little about her upbringing in Tucson, although she remembers that as a young child she walked along the old Spanish Trail toward the Tanque Verde foothills, where she examined the "fiercest saguaros and prickly pears." She searched for arrowheads and snakes and pocketed pretty rocks. She imagined herself the last Indian, a lone ranger. Tucson in the late 1930s occupied nine square miles of broad desert valley, with rolling foothills, unusual colors, and stunning mountains with jagged peaks. The desert is no endless sea of sand dunes. There are thorny bushes and weeds, spiny saguaros, and other trees with bright red fruits and flaming orange, spiky flower buds. When it rains, the desert blooms, the sky spreads wide with double rainbows, and the landscape looks freshly scrubbed. The British writer J. B. Priestley, visiting Arizona in 1937, just two years before Mildred and Susan arrived, never forgot its haunting beauty: "Voices, faces, blue birds and scarlet birds, cactus and pine, mountains dissolving in the morning mirage or glowing like jewels in the sunset, the sweet clear air, the blaze of stars at midnight."
In 1939 these desert delights were close to home. The city had a population of less than forty thousand, although it was rapidly growing as a tourist and military site. It had only two radio stations. Walking down a street, residents heard the same radio programs coming from open windows in almost every house. There were five motion picture theaters, and a few combination book and stationery stores. There was a symphony orchestra, a little theater, music and art programs at the university, a state museum, and a Carnegie library. The pace was leisurely. The city attracted outdoor types and health seekers, with about thirty hospitals and sanitariums catering to sufferers of various respiratory illnesses. Susan's asthma improved in Tucson. She grew into a sturdily built, surprisingly sociable girl.
In September 1939 the school year began with a cloud of dust, and in this haze Susan started the first grade. In retrospect, it seemed a joke: "I was put in 1A on Monday when I was 6 years old. Then 1B on Tuesday. 2A on Wednesday. 2B on Thursday, and by the end of the week they had skipped me to third grade because I could do the work." There were no classes for gifted children then. Susan studied the same subjects as everyone else: writing, spelling, reading, music, art, arithmetic, social studies, health and physical education, and elementary science. Classmates accepted her. "I was born into a culturally democratic situation. It didn't occur to me that I could influence the way these kids were," Sontag later realized. She could always find common ground, saying things like "Gosh, your hair looks great today," or "Gee, those are nice loafers."
Even at the age of six, however, Susan felt a need to dramatize her sense of separation from the other students, telling them that she had been born in China. She wanted to make an impression and to establish her connection with faraway places, and China seemed, she later remarked, "as far as anyone can go."
Already, at seven, Sontag had established a lifelong habit of reading through an author's body of work. To begin with, there was Alfred Payson Terhune: Caleb Conover, Railroader (1907), A Dog Named Chips (1931), The Critter and Other Dogs (1936). Perhaps his most famous series focuses on Lad and his exploits in rural New Jersey. Terhune's themes touch on right and wrong and the abuse of authority, as in Further Adventures of Lad (1922), in which an ignorant, overbearing sheriff threatens to shoot Lad, whose adventures usually involve redressing injustice. Anger at the unfairness and insensitivity of the adult world has often stimulated young writers and readers, and it is what drew nine-year-old Susan to more substantial novels such as Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, which she read in her mother's six-volume set. The chapter in which Fantine sells her hair made the young Susan a socialist, she would later declare.
Even more important, however, was Susan's discovery of the travel writer Richard Halliburton. One only needs to look at his frontispiece photographs to understand why: in The Royal Road to Romance (1925), he stands in front of the Taj Mahal, turbaned, arms akimbo, his legs at ease, and a broad smile on his face; in The Flying Carpet (1932) he sits atop his two-seater plane, poised for adventure; in Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels (1937), a photograph of the handsome, thirtyish-looking author is set next to a letter to the reader explaining how as a boy his favorite book was filled with pictures of the "world's most wonderful cities and mountains and temples." He loved that book because it carried him away to "strange and romantic lands."
Asked what books had changed her life, Sontag later gave Halliburton pride of first place. He showed her how "privileged" a writer's life could be, full of "endless curiosity and energy and expressiveness, and countless enthusiasms." Halliburton described climbing Etna and Popocatépetl and Fujiyama and Olympus. He descended the Grand Canyon and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge when it was still under construction. He visited Lenin's tomb in Moscow and the Great Wall of China. "Halliburton made me lustfully aware that the world was very big and very old; that its seeable wonders and its learnable stories were innumerable; and that I might see these wonders myself and learn the stories attached to them," Sontag recalled.
This remembrance evokes something of the excitement Susan felt as a seven-year-old, realizing how much larger the world was than Tucson—and how small-minded it was of her playmates, teachers, and other adults not to yearn for that larger world. Why were adults so cautious? Susan wondered. "When I grow up I've got to be careful that they don't stop me from flying through open doors," she thought.
Reading made much of the life around Susan shrink in size. She read about the war and about modern life. She had no place in her imagination for, say, Tucson's Pima Indians: "The folklore of the Southwest was static; picturesque even to the people who lived there," she later said.
If you were a small kid discovering George Eliot or Thackeray or Balzac or the great Russian novels, little Indian dolls with turquoise beads sure couldn't hold a candle to the nineteenth century novel—as far as being an experience which could blast you out of your narrow framework. If you're looking for something to take you somewhere, to expand your consciousness it's going to be a great world culture.
In her love of Halliburton, Sontag speaks as an enthusiast who sees a world of marvels. She longed for just that kind of companionable parent-writer—but instead, Mildred told her articulate daughter: "In China, children don't talk." Mildred might, in the right mood, reminisce, telling Susan that in China "burping at the table is a polite way of showing appreciation," but that did not mean Susan had permission to burp.
So much of Susan's early life seemed fragmented. In those early years in Tucson, before Susan reached the age of ten, Mildred moved her family several times and Susan attended several schools. What had gone before quickly disappeared.
In 1943 Mildred moved her two daughters to a neat, compact four-room stucco bungalow at 2409 East Drachman, then a dirt road. Sontag implies that her mother, pressed for money, had auctioned off many of her Chinese mementos. The house still stands, on one edge of the University of Arizona, looking exactly the same as it does in the photograph taken of it in 1943, when it was brand-new—except that now the road is paved. Susan, her sister, and her mother were its first occupants. How Mildred managed to afford the rent, support herself and her family, and pay for household help is not clear. Perhaps there was still money left from Jack Rosenblatt's business. Sontag has said her mother taught. There is no record of Mildred teaching in the Tucson public schools, though she may have been employed in one of the city's numerous private institutions.
In her backyard, Susan dug a hole with the suspiciously exact dimensions of six feet by six feet by six feet. "What are you trying to do," a maid asked, "dig all the way to China?" No, Susan replied, she only wanted "a place to sit in." She laid eight-foot-long planks over the backyard hole to keep out the intense sun. The landlord complained, saying it posed a hazard for anyone walking across the yard. Susan showed him the boards, and the entrance that she could just barely squeeze through. Inside she had dug a niche for a candle, but it was too dark to read, and she got a mouthful of dirt that came in through the cracks in her makeshift ceiling. The landlord told Mildred the hole had to be filled in within twenty-four hours, and Susan complied with the help of the maid. Three months later she dug another hole in the same spot. Taking her cue from Tom Sawyer, who got the neighborhood kids to do a chore for him—whitewash a fence—she conned three playmates into helping her, promising they could use the hole whenever she was not there.
Susan's hole was her hiding place, her miniature world. Her crude dugout also marked the border between "the scary and the safe," as she later put it in an article about grottoes. Her cave was the equivalent of the world elsewhere, of the China where her father had died. All Susan had of her father was a ring with JR on the signet, a white silk scarf with his initials embroidered in black silk, and a pigskin wallet with Jack Rosenblatt stamped in small gold letters. His record, in short, remained unwritten, an "unfinished pain" in her imagination. For this kind of pain, extroverted writers like Halliburton had no cure.
York Times) Susan Sontag, Writer and Social Critic, Dies at 71.
By Maraglit Fox. December 28, 2004.
Susan Sontag, the novelist, essayist and critic whose impassioned advocacy of the avant-garde and equally impassioned political pronouncements made her one of the most lionized presences - and one of the most polarizing - in 20th-century letters, died yesterday morning in Manhattan. She was 71 and lived in Manhattan.
The cause was complications of acute myelogenous leukemia, her son, David Rieff, said. Ms. Sontag, who died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, had been ill with cancer intermittently for the last 30 years, a struggle that informed one of her most famous books, the critical study "Illness as Metaphor" (1978).
A highly visible public figure since the mid-1960's, Ms. Sontag wrote four novels, dozens of essays and a volume of short stories and was also an occasional filmmaker, playwright and theater director. For four decades her work was part of the contemporary canon, discussed everywhere from graduate seminars to the pages of popular magazines to the Hollywood movie "Bull Durham."
Ms. Sontag's work made a radical break with traditional postwar criticism in America, gleefully blurring the boundaries between high and popular culture. She advocated an aesthetic approach to the study of culture, championing style over content. She was concerned, in short, with sensation, in both meanings of the term.
"The theme that runs through Susan's writing is this lifelong struggle to arrive at the proper balance between the moral and the aesthetic," Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and an old friend of Ms. Sontag's, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "There was something unusually vivid about her writing. That's why even if one disagrees with it - as I did frequently - it was unusually stimulating. She showed you things you hadn't seen before; she had a way of reopening questions."
Through four decades, public response to Ms. Sontag remained irreconcilably divided. She was described, variously, as explosive, anticlimactic, original, derivative, naïve, sophisticated, approachable, aloof, condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic, sincere, posturing, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing, profound, superficial, ardent, bloodless, dogmatic, ambivalent, lucid, inscrutable, visceral, reasoned, chilly, effusive, relevant, passé, ambivalent, tenacious, ecstatic, melancholic, humorous, humorless, deadpan, rhapsodic, cantankerous and clever. No one ever called her dull.
Ms. Sontag's best-known books, all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, include the novels "Death Kit" (1967), "The Volcano Lover" (1992) and "In America" (2000); the essay collections "Against Interpretation" (1966), "Styles of Radical Will" (1969) and "Under the Sign of Saturn" (1980); the critical studies "On Photography" (1977) and "AIDS and Its Metaphors" (1989); and the short-story collection "I, Etcetera" (1978). One of her most famous works, however, was not a book, but an essay, "Notes on Camp," published in 1964 and still widely read.
Her most recent book, published last year, was "Regarding the Pain of Others," a long essay on the imagery of war and disaster. One of her last published essays, "Regarding the Torture of Others," written in response to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib, appeared in the May 23, 2004, issue of The New York Times Magazine.
An Intellectual With Style
Unlike most serious intellectuals, Ms. Sontag was also a celebrity, partly because of her telegenic appearance, partly because of her outspoken statements. She was undoubtedly the only writer of her generation to win major literary prizes (among them a National Book Critics Circle Award, a National Book Award and a MacArthur Foundation genius grant) and to appear in films by Woody Allen and Andy Warhol; to be the subject of rapturous profiles in Rolling Stone and People magazines; and to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut Vodka ad. Through the decades her image - strong features, wide mouth, intense gaze and dark mane crowned in her middle years by a sweeping streak of white - became an instantly recognizable artifact of 20th-century popular culture.
Ms. Sontag was a master synthesist who tackled broad, difficult and elusive subjects: the nature of art, the nature of consciousness and, above all, the nature of the modern condition. Where many American critics before her had mined the past, Ms. Sontag became an evangelist of the new, training her eye on the culture unfolding around her.
For Ms. Sontag, culture encompassed a vast landscape. She wrote serious studies of popular art forms, like cinema and science fiction, that earlier critics disdained. She produced impassioned essays on the European writers and filmmakers she admired, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin and Jean-Luc Godard. She wrote experimental novels on dreams and the nature of consciousness. She published painstaking critical dissections of photography and dance; illness, politics and pornography; and, most famously, camp. Her work, with its emphasis on the outré, the jagged and the here and now, helped make the study of popular culture a respectable academic pursuit.
What united Ms. Sontag's output was a propulsive desire to define the forces that shape the modernist sensibility. And in so doing, she sought to explain what it meant to be human in the waning years of the 20th century.
To many critics, her work was bold and thrilling. Interviewed in The Times Magazine in 1992, the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes compared Ms. Sontag to the Renaissance humanist Erasmus. "Erasmus traveled with 32 volumes, which contained all the knowledge worth knowing," he said. "Susan Sontag carries it in her brain! I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded, with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate."
A Bevy of Detractors
Others were less enthralled. Some branded Ms. Sontag an unoriginal thinker, a popularizer with a gift for aphorism who could boil down difficult writers for mass consumption. (Irving Howe called her "a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from grandmother's patches.") Some regarded her tendency to revisit her earlier, often controversial positions as ambivalent. Some saw her scholarly approach to popular art forms as pretentious. (Ms. Sontag once remarked that she could appreciate Patti Smith because she had read Nietzsche.)
In person Ms. Sontag could be astringent, particularly if she felt she had been misunderstood. She grew irritated when reporters asked how many books she had in her apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan (15,000; no television set). But she could also be warm and girlish, speaking confidingly in her rich, low voice, her feet propped casually on the nearest coffee table. She laughed readily, and when she discussed something that engaged her passionately (and there were many things), her dark eyes often filled with tears.
Ms. Sontag had a knack - or perhaps a penchant - for getting into trouble. She could be provocative to the point of being inflammatory, as when she championed the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in a 1965 essay; she would revise her position some years later. She celebrated the communist societies of Cuba and North Vietnam; just as provocatively, she later denounced communism as a form of fascism. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she wrote in The New Yorker, "Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards." And in 2000, the publication of Ms. Sontag's final novel, "In America," raised accusations of plagiarism, charges she vehemently denied.
Ms. Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in Manhattan on Jan. 16, 1933, the daughter of Jack and Mildred Rosenblatt. Her father was a fur trader in China, and her mother joined him there for long periods, leaving Susan and her younger sister in the care of relatives. When Susan was 5, her father died in China of tuberculosis. Seeking relief for Susan's asthma, her mother moved the family to Tucson, spending the next several years there. In Arizona, Susan's mother met Capt. Nathan Sontag, a World War II veteran sent there to recuperate. The couple were married - Susan took her stepfather's name - and the family moved to Los Angeles.
For Susan, who graduated from high school before her 16th birthday, the philistinism of American culture was a torment she vowed early to escape. "My greatest dream," she later wrote, "was to grow up and come to New York and write for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people."
She would get her wish - Ms. Sontag burst onto the scene with "Notes on Camp," which was published in Partisan Review - but not before she earned a bachelor's and two master's degrees from prestigious American universities; studied at Oxford on a fellowship; and married, became a mother and divorced eight years later, all by the time she turned 26.
After graduating from high school, Ms. Sontag spent a semester at the University of California, Berkeley, before transferring to the University of Chicago, from which she received a bachelor's degree in 1951. At Chicago she wandered into a class taught by the sociologist Philip Rieff, then a 28-year-old instructor, who would write the celebrated study "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist" (Viking, 1959). He was, she would say, the first person with whom she could really talk; they were married 10 days later. Ms. Sontag was 17 and looked even younger, clad habitually in blue jeans, her black hair spilling down her back. Word swept around campus that Dr. Rieff had married a 14-year-old American Indian.
Moving with her husband to Boston, Ms. Sontag earned her master's degrees from Harvard, the first in English, in 1954, the second in philosophy the next year. She began work on a Ph.D., but did not complete her dissertation. In 1952 she and Dr. Rieff became the parents of a son. Ms. Sontag is survived by her son, David Rieff, who lives in Manhattan and was for many years her editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. (A journalist, he wrote "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West," published by Simon & Schuster in 1995.) Also surviving is her younger sister, Judith Cohen of Maui.
After further study at Oxford and in Paris, Ms. Sontag was divorced from Dr. Rieff in 1958. In early 1959 she arrived in New York with, as she later described it, "$70, two suitcases and a 7 year old." She worked as an editor at Commentary and juggled teaching jobs at City College, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia. She published her first essays, critical celebrations of modernists she admired, as well as her first novel, "The Benefactor" (1963), an exploration of consciousness and dreams.
Shaking Up the Establishment
With "Notes on Camp" Ms. Sontag fired a shot across the bow of the New York critical establishment, which included eminences like Lionel and Diana Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe. Interlaced with epigrams from Oscar Wilde, that essay illuminated a particular modern sensibility - one that had been largely the province of gay culture - which centered deliciously on artifice, exaggeration and the veneration of style.
"The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly on refinement," Ms. Sontag wrote. "The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion."
If that essay has today lost its capacity to shock, it is a reflection of how thoroughly Ms. Sontag did her job, serving as a guide to an underground aesthetic that was not then widely known.
"She found in camp an aesthetic that was very different from what the straight world had acknowledged up to that point, and she managed to make camp 'straight' in a way," Arthur C. Danto, the Johnsonian professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia and the art critic for The Nation, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "I think she prepared the ground for the pop revolution, which was in many ways essentially a gay revolution, through Warhol and others. She didn't make that art, but she brought it to consciousness. She gave people a vocabulary for talking about it and thinking about it."
The article made Ms. Sontag an international celebrity, showered with lavish, if unintentionally ridiculous, titles ("a literary pinup," "the dark lady of American letters," "the Natalie Wood of the U.S. avant-garde").
Championing Style Over Content
In 1966 Ms. Sontag published her first essay collection, "Against Interpretation." That book's title essay, in which she argued that art should be experienced viscerally rather than cerebrally, helped cement her reputation as a champion of style over content.
It was a position she could take to extremes. In the essay "On Style," published in the same volume, Ms. Sontag offended many readers by upholding the films of Leni Riefenstahl as masterworks of aesthetic form, with little regard for their content. Ms. Sontag would eventually reconsider her position in the 1974 essay "Fascinating Fascism."
Though she thought of herself as a novelist, it was through her essays that Ms. Sontag became known. As a result she was fated to write little else for the next quarter-century. She found the form an agony: a long essay took from nine months to a year to complete, often requiring 20 or more drafts.
"I've had thousands of pages for a 30-page essay," she said in a 1992 interview. " 'On Photography,' which is six essays, took five years. And I mean working every single day."
That book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1978, explored the role of the photographic image, and the act of picture-taking in contemporary culture. The crush of photographs, Ms. Sontag argued, has shaped our perceptions of the world, numbing us to depictions of suffering. She would soften that position when she revisited the issue in "Regarding the Pain of Others."
The Washington Post Book World called "On Photography" "a brilliant analysis," adding that it " merely describes a phenomenon we take as much for granted as water from the tap, and how that phenomenon has changed us - a remarkable enough achievement, when you think about it."
In the mid-1970's Ms. Sontag learned she had breast cancer. Doctors gave her a 10 percent chance of surviving for two years. She scoured the literature for a treatment that might save her, underwent a mastectomy and persuaded her doctors to give her a two-and-a-half-year course of radiation.
Out of her experience came "Illness as Metaphor," which examined the cultural mythologizing of disease (tuberculosis as the illness of 19th-century romantics, cancer a modern-day scourge). Although it did not discuss her illness explicitly, it condemned the often militaristic language around illness ("battling" disease, the "war" on cancer) that Ms. Sontag felt simultaneously marginalized the sick and held them responsible for their condition..
In "AIDS and Its Metaphors" Ms. Sontag discussed the social implications of the disease, which she viewed as a "cultural plague" that had replaced cancer as the modern bearer of stigma. She would return to the subject of AIDS in her acclaimed short story "The Way We Live Now," originally published in The New Yorker and included in "The Best American Short Stories of the Century" (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
Although Ms. Sontag was strongly identified with the American left during the Vietnam era, in later years her politics were harder to classify. In the essay "Trip to Hanoi," which appears in "Styles of Radical Will," she wrote glowingly of a visit to North Vietnam. But in 1982 she delivered a stinging blow to progressives in a speech at Town Hall in Manhattan. There, at a rally in support of the Solidarity movement in Poland, she denounced European communism as "fascism with a human face."
In 1992, weary of essays, Ms. Sontag published "The Volcano Lover," her first novel in 25 years. Though very much a novel of ideas - it explored, among other things, notions of aesthetics and the psychology of obsessive collecting - the book was also a big, old-fashioned historical romance. It told the story of Sir William Hamilton, the 18th-century British envoy to the court of Naples; his wife, Emma ("that Hamilton woman"); and her lover, Lord Nelson, the naval hero. The book spent two months on The New York Times best-seller list.
Reviewing the novel in The Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote: "One thing that makes 'The Volcano Lover' such a delight to read is the way it throws off ideas and intellectual sparks, like a Roman candle or Catherine wheel blazing in the night. Miniature versions of 'Don Giovanni' and 'Tosca' lie embedded, like jewels, in the main narrative; and we are given as well some charmingly acute cameos of such historical figures as Goethe and the King and Queen of Naples."
Ms. Sontag's final novel, "In America," was loosely based on the life of the 19th-century Polish actress Helena Modjeska, who immigrated to California to start a utopian community. Though "In America" received a National Book Award, critical reception was mixed. Then accusations of plagiarism surfaced. As The Times reported in May 2000, a reader identified at least a dozen passages as being similar to those in four other books about the real Modjeska, including Modjeska's memoirs. Except for a brief preface expressing a general debt to "books and articles by and on Modjeska," Ms. Sontag did not specifically acknowledge her sources.
Interviewed for The Times article, Ms. Sontag defended her method. "All of us who deal with real characters in history transcribe and adopt original sources in the original domain," she said. "I've used these sources and I've completely transformed them. I have these books. I've looked at these books. There's a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions."
Ms. Sontag's other work includes the play "Alice in Bed" (1993); "A Susan Sontag Reader" (1982), with an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick; and four films, including "Duet for Cannibals" (1969) and "Brother Carl" (1971). She also edited works by Barthes, Antonin Artaud, Danilo Kis and other writers.
Ms. Sontag was the subject of an unauthorized biography by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, "Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon" (Norton, 2000), and of several critical studies, including "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," by Craig Seligman (Counterpoint/Perseus, 2004). She was the president of the PEN American Center from 1987 to 1989.
In a 1992 interview with The Times Magazine, Ms. Sontag described the creative force that animated "The Volcano Lover," putting her finger on the sensibility that would inform all her work: "I don't want to express alienation. It isn't what I feel. I'm interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says, be serious, be passionate, wake up."
Post) Writer Susan Sontag Dies at Age 71. By Adam
Bernstein. December 29, 2004.
Susan Sontag, 71, the American intellectual who engaged and enraged equally with her insights into high and low culture, died yesterday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She had leukemia.
Philosophy, photography, pornography -- Sontag explored them all with a defiant gusto, informed by an impressive, if lofty, ability to transcend cultural barriers with a barrage of literary and cultural references.
She was not averse to self-promotion and indicated that she was one of the few writers able to survive as an essayist. Her books seldom went out of print and were translated into more than 25 languages. She spoke five.
Reading by age 3, eating tea and cookies with author and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann at 14, graduating from college at 18, she went on to a long career as a provocateur in dozens of novels and nonfiction works. Cumulatively, they placed her among the foremost thinkers about the meaning of art, politics, war, silence and humanity.
She wrote movingly, but unsentimentally, about her own experiences with cancer -- of the breast at age 43 and the uterus decades later -- and how disease is portrayed in popular culture. Her essay "Illness as Metaphor" (1978) is considered her classic exploration of the subject.
Tall, raven-haired with a streak of white, with bold dark eyes and a wry smile, Sontag was a recognizable figure in the mainstream media firmament through lectures and televised debates. She shoved herself to the forefront of contemporaneous debate with her activism against the Vietnam War -- including a trip to Hanoi -- and later denunciations of Communism as stifling the work of intellectuals. Along the way, she raised her voice against authoritarian -- and sometimes democratic -- leaders around the world.
In the early 1990s, she staged Samuel Beckett's existential masterpiece "Waiting For Godot" in Sarajevo amid bombing and sniper fire.
Sontag won the National Book Award for fiction in 2000 for "In America," about a 19th-century Polish actress who moves to California to start a new life. The author also received a MacArthur "genius" grant, among other honors.
Much of her early distinction arose in the 1960s with her advocacy of European artists and thinkers, including philosophers Simone Weil and Walter Benjamin and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Occasionally, she caused palpitations among the fervently patriotic for her less-nuanced commentary, to the effect that "America is founded on genocide" and "the quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth."
More recently, she wrote in the New Yorker about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, denouncing the use of the word "cowardly" to describe the attackers.
"In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of the . . . slaughter, they were not cowards," she wrote.
Those declarations tended to make easy fodder for those ready to spite her as anti-American or a liberal scourge.
Time magazine made her a pop celebrity in 1964 when it noted her Partisan Review essay, "Notes On 'Camp," in which she plunged into the world of urban and mostly homosexual style. Mentioning the ballet "Swan Lake" along with the fashion accoutrement of feather boas, she wrote that camp style is "serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. . . . The ultimate camp statement: it's good because it's awful."
Her work appeared largely in literary journals, including the New York Review of Books. She was elevated to near-sainthood by her admirers, who considered her an unstoppable literary force and crystalline thinker.
Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Susan Walker described Sontag's career as "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."
She also was lampooned for the headiness of her writing. In a back-handed tribute to her influence in popular culture, the baseball catcher played by Kevin Costner in the 1988 film "Bull Durham" calls her handful of novels "self-indulgent, overrated crap."
Sontag's own motivations were simple, she said: to "know everything." She had a lusty devotion to reading that she likened to the pleasure others get from watching television.
"So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I've read Nietzsche," she told Rolling Stone magazine. "The main reason I read is that I enjoy it." Susan Rosenblatt was born Jan. 16, 1933, in New York City, the older daughter of a traveling fur trader and an alcoholic teacher. She was raised in Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles, and later told an interviewer she was largely left alone as a young girl. Raised by a nanny in her parents' absences, she was 5 when her mother came back from China alone. Her father had died of tuberculosis, and her mother only revealed the truth months later after she pressed for details about his return. She later took the surname Sontag from her stepfather.
Sontag described a girlhood bereft of playmates. Instead, she devoured Djuna Barnes, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Jack London. "I got through my childhood," she told the Paris Review, "in a delirium of literary exaltations."
She met Thomas Mann after reading the German author's 1924 novel "The Magic Mountain," set amid a European sanitarium. On a second read, she spoke the words aloud and was so enthused about the book that she conspired with a friend to meet the author, then living in Los Angeles in exile during the Nazi era.
"He seemed to find it perfectly normal that two local high school students should know who Nietzsche and Schoenberg were," she wrote in a New Yorker account of the visit. Her stepfather warned her that being so interested in books would maker her uninteresting to men. "I just couldn't stop laughing," she once said. "I thought, 'Oh gosh, this guy's a perfect jerk.' " Before graduating from the University of Chicago in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, she married Philip Rieff, a sociologist 10 years her senior whom she would divorce in 1959. They had a son, David Rieff of New York, who survives along with Sontag's sister.
After Chicago, Sontag received master's degrees in English and philosophy from Harvard University and did all but her dissertation for a doctorate in philosophy.
Her first book, "Freud: the Mind of the Moralist" (1959), was completed in collaboration with her husband. They agreed, however, only to keep his name on the title page.
She described this time as the most exciting in her life. She was 26, divorced and ready to experience what she described as a delayed adolescence filled with dance lessons, discussions with politically motivated young people and a desire to make a literary mark.
She taught religion at Columbia University before completing her first novel, "The Benefactors" (1963), the study of a dreamy rogue named Hippolyte who soon cannot tell reality from his own imagination. It impressed reviewers and she began cornering magazine editors, sometimes at cocktail parties, about publishing her work.
Her early essays, including "Notes on 'Camp' " were collected in "Against Interpretation" (1966), her first major nonfiction book. She argued against critics who hunted for heady significance in a work of art at the expense of its sensual impact.
"In most modern instances," she wrote, "interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. But reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art."
As a radical and incisive thinker, she protested and wrote against the Vietnam War, visiting Hanoi to understand the motivations of the Vietnamese resistance to the American military. In other essays from that era, she advanced the idea that pornography and flesh-filled novels such as "The Story of O" were worthy of literary study.
She began examining the presentation of disease in popular culture after she was diagnosed of cancer in her breast, lymphatic system and leg and was given a 20 percent chance of survival. She underwent a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy that cured her of the cancer.
In "Illness as Metaphor" and her book "AIDS and Its Metaphors" (1989) as well as countless interviewers, she condemned the idea of illness as a curse or plague, somehow a metaphor for social, cultural or moral decay. Illness is simply fact, she said.
Despite other health conditions, she remained productive, producing a best-selling novel "The Volcano Lover" (1992), about Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton.
She spent much of her life in transit, living in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere while maintaining a home in what she considered the only livable spot in the United States -- New York City. A restless voyager into the 1990s, she staged "Waiting For Godot" in Sarajevo. Even those who best understood her questioned her sanity to thrust herself into a war zone for the sake of art.
"I didn't think I was invulnerable, because I had a couple of very close calls, and I don't think I'm a thrill-seeker," she told a reporter. "I just thought it's okay to take risks, and if ever I get to the point when I don't then take me to the glue factory."
Susan Sontag. December 29, 2004.
Susan Sontag, the American novelist and essayist who died yesterday aged 71, was a paragon of radical intelligence and austere beauty of whom it was said that, if she had not existed, the New York Review of Books would have had to invent her.
Called "the most intelligent woman in America" by Jonathan Miller, Susan Sontag was a slow, unprolific writer who agonised over her work. In 25 years of grind, she produced six slender volumes of crafted essays. Published intially in popular magazines and periodicals, her work made intelligent criticism of modern culture acceptable and had a profound effect on future generations of authors, critics and journalists.
Sontag's first essay, Notes on 'Camp' - an analysis of the preference of some people for tat rather than art - was published in the Partisan Review in 1964. Camp, she wrote, was a form of consumption that converted "bad" art such as comic strips into a source of refined pleasure, ignoring intention and relishing style.
This sounded like an attack on elite culture, delivered with the skill and authority of someone well-educated in that culture. Added to her defence of such modernist icons as John Cage, Roland Barthes and Jean-Luc Godard, it earned Susan Sontag the titles "Queen Camp" and "the Natalie Wood of the avant garde".
In fact, Susan Sontag's favourite author was Shakespeare, and she was at pains to point out that she did not want to promote bleak modernism for its own sake. "All my work says be serious, be passionate; wake up," she said. "You have to be a member of a capitalist society in the late 20th century to understand that seriousness itself could be in question."
There were few strip cartoons in her own library. An avid reader from early childhood, she possessed a collection of 15,000 volumes and could talk fluently across the arts and humanities, on philosophy, literature, film, opera, neurology, psychology or church architecture. She always found time to read; she said that the memory of her drunken mother sleeping away her life provoked her to make do with four hours' sleep a night.
Critics who denigrated her as "pseudo-intellectual" overlooked the fact that Susan Sontag employed her seriousness to defend the senses against the intellect.
In Against Interpretation - the title of her first collection of essays published in 1966 - she damned Freudian and Marxist interpretation that "excavates; destroys; digs behind the text to find a subtext which is the true one". Interpretation destroyed energy and "sensual capability". It was the "revenge of intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of intellect upon the world."
Despite her awesome abilities as a critic, Susan Sontag was at war with herself. In part, she wanted to be an unthinking, passionate artist. Early on she wrote two novels - The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967) - but these were more intellectual than passionate. As she grew older, the need to express herself grew stronger.
It was not until 1992 that she felt she had done herself justice with her novel The Volcano Lover, a heady mixture of intellect and eroticism, about the love triangle between William Hamilton, his wife Emma and Lord Nelson.
The book was "released" in Susan Sontag after a conversation with her psychiatrist in which she discovered that her difficulty in writing a popular novel came from a fear that giving readers pleasure might seem trivial. "What worried me was that I would not be writing essays, because they have a powerful ethical impulse," she said. "But my psychiatrist said: 'What makes you think it isn't a contribution to give people pleasure?'"
Susan Sontag was born in Arizona on January 16 1933. Her father was a furrier with a business based in China, where he spent much of his time. Her mother, an alcoholic of great beauty, was so afraid of growing old that she forbade her daughters to call her "mother" in public. Susan and her sister lived most of their early childhood with an illiterate Irish nurse.
When she was five, Susan's father died in China. Afterwards, her mother took to travelling a great deal. "I don't know where she went or what she did," Susan said. "I guess she had boyfriends.".
The family became poor and moved to Los Angeles. Susan read books "to ward off the jovial claptrap of classmates and teachers, the maddening bromides I heard at home". By the age of seven she had read a six-volume edition of Les Misérables and had become a socialist. At 14 she took a schoolfriend to tea with Thomas Mann, then living in exile in Los Angeles.
At Hollywood High, when Susan was 15, her principal told her that she had outstripped her teachers and sent her to Berkeley, from where she went to Chicago University. At 17 she married Philip Rieff, a lecturer in social theory 11 years her senior, after a 10-day courtship. She heard one student telling another that Rieff had married a "14-year old Indian".
Rieff provided her with intellectual companionship. At Boston University he wrote about Freud while she took masters degrees in English and Philosophy and added an MA from Harvard. They had a son, David, but in 1958 the couple separated for a year when Sontag took up a fellowship at Oxford. There she was influenced by the teaching of Iris Murdoch and AJ Ayer, but found student life equally engrossing. "It was being young in a way I had never allowed myself to be," she recalled.
On her return to America she divorced Rieff and set off for New York with her son, two suitcases and $70. Her lawyer told her she was the first woman in Californian history to have refused alimony. She taught at Columbia University while writing The Benefactor, and began working on the essays that would secure her reputation.
In addition to Against Interpretation, she published the collections Styles Of Radical Will (1969); On Photography (1977); Illness As Metaphor (1978); Under The Sign Of Saturn (1980) and Aids and Its Metaphors (1989). She also wrote four films and appeared as herself in Zelig, Woody Allen's mock-documentary.
The best of her essays conveyed dense thought in casual, almost thrown-away paragraphs and sentences. They were demanding in the same way that poetry is demanding; each learned reference was used as selectively as a poet might use images. Such pared-down elegance was the refined product of grim endeavour. An essay of a few thousand words took her six to nine months to write. "I've thousands of pages for a 30-page essay," she said, "30 or 40 drafts of each page."
From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, Sontag lived in Paris. In 1976 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and returned to America. Ignoring the advice of American oncologists, she had radically high doses of chemotherapy for two and a half years; the odds were against her living. "I was terrified," she said. "Horrible grief. Above all, to leave my son. And I loved life so much. I was never tempted to say `that's it'. I love it when people fight for their lives."
She never became rich from her writing, but was adept at securing grants and scholarships. In necessity, friends helped her out; the money for her cancer treatment was raised by Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books. It was not until The Volcano Lover that she acquired an agent; and only in 1990, when she was awarded a handsome MacArthur fellowship, was she secure enough to buy her apartment in New York.
Susan Sontag had a high political profile. She visited Hanoi during the Vietnam war (after which she described the white race as "the cancer of human history") and in 1993 she directed a production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo when that city was under siege. She was a vociferous critic of the Soviet Union - particularly in its treatment of writers - and was president of PEN in 1987. Days after the attacks of September 11 2001, she criticised American foreign policy, referring to the terrorists' behaviour as "an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions".
She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Though known for her hauteur and not indifferent to her public image, Sontag avoided the "celebrity" circuit. Her highbrow attitude made enemies, foremost among them the American academic Camille Paglia, best-known for her enthusiasm for the pop singer Madonna. Paglia never forgave Sontag for snubbing her at a party in 1973. By the late 1980s she was declaring that her intellect had eclipsed Sontag's. "I've been chasing that bitch for 25 years," said Paglia, "and at last I've caught her."
"We used to think Norman Mailer was bad," said Susan Sontag, "but she makes Norman Mailer look like Jane Austen."
In 2000 she published a novel, In America, about the 19th century Polish actress Helena Modjeska. Although she was criticised for unauthorised use of source material, it won her the National Book Award.
Susan Sontag never re-married, and her close relationships with several women provoked speculation; in 1999 she wrote an essay for Women, a compilation of portraits by her longtime friend, the photographer Annie Leibovitz. "I don't talk about my erotic life any more than I do my spiritual life," she said. "It is too complex and always ends up sounding so banal."
She is survived by her son, David, whom she described as her "best friend".
Press) Author-activist Susan Sontag dies at 71. By Hillel
Italie. December 29, 2004.
Susan Sontag, a leading intellectual and activist of the past half century who introduced the concept of "camp" to mainstream culture and also influenced the way many thought about art, illness and photography, died Tuesday. She was 71.
Sontag died at 7:10 a.m. Tuesday, said Esther Carver, a spokeswoman for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Her son, David Rieff, said the cause was complications of acute myelogenous leukemia, one of the deadliest forms of leukemia.
Sontag had suffered off and on from cancer since the 1970s. She was so ill last May that she did not attend the funeral of her longtime publisher, Roger Straus, co-founder of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
"I knew Susan since 1962 and I know how much she suffered and how brave she was facing her illness," fellow author Carlos Fuentes told The Associated Press in Mexico City.
"Three times she had cancer. Last time I saw her in Montreal (in March 2004), we were together on the stage and she said, 'This is like baseball, three strikes and you're out.'"
Sontag called herself a "besotted aesthete," an "obsessed moralist" and a "zealot of seriousness." Tall and commanding, her very presence suggested grand, passionate drama: eyes the richest brown; thick, black hair accented by a bolt of white; the voice deep and assured; her expression a severe stare or a wry smile, as if amused by a joke only she could tell.
She wrote a best-selling historical novel, "The Volcano Lover," and in 2000 won the National Book Award for the historical novel "In America." But her greatest literary impact was as an essayist.
Her 1964 piece, "Notes on Camp," which established her as a major new writer, popularized the "so bad it's good" attitude toward popular culture, applicable to everything from "Swan Lake" to feather boas. In "Against Interpretation," this most analytical of writers worried that critical analysis interfered with art's "incantatory, magical" power.
She also wrote such influential works as "Illness as Metaphor," in which she examined how disease had been alternately romanticized and demonized, and "On Photography," in which she argued pictures sometimes distance viewers from the subject matter. "On Photography" received a National Book Critics Circle award in 1978. "Regarding the Pain of Others," a partial refutation of "On Photography," was an NBCC finalist in 2004.
Sontag had an insatiable passion for literature, with thousands of books - arranged by chronology and language - occupying, and defining, her New York apartment. In conversation, she comfortably used words such as "polyphonic" and "surreptitiously." She read writers from all over the world and is credited with introducing such European intellectuals as Roland Barthes and Elias Canetti to American readers.
Unlike many American authors, she was deeply involved in politics, even after the 1960s. From 1987-89, Sontag served as president of the American chapter of the writers organization PEN. When the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie's death because of the alleged blasphemy of Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," Sontag helped lead protests in the literary community.
"She was a true friend in need," Rushdie said in a statement Tuesday. "Susan Sontag was a great literary artist, a fearless and original thinker, ever valiant for truth, and an indefatigable ally in many struggles."
She campaigned relentlessly for human rights and visited the unraveling Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, calling for international action against the growing civil war. In 1993, she went to Sarajevo and staged a production of "Waiting for Godot."
Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, praised Sontag's "devotion to literature, her courage, which she demonstrated once and again in political matters - Vietnam and Sarajevo - in the policies of the Bush administration, in her books on AIDS, on illness as a metaphor."
The daughter of a fur trader, Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933. She spent her early years in Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles. Her mother was an alcoholic; her father died when she was 5. Her mother later married an Army officer, Capt. Nathan Sontag.
Susan Sontag remembered her childhood as "one long prison sentence." She skipped three grades and graduated from high school at 15; the principal told her she was wasting her time there. Her mother, meanwhile, warned if she did not stop reading she would never marry.
Her mother was wrong. At the University of Chicago, she attended a lecture by Philip Rieff, a social psychologist and historian. They were married 10 days later. She was 17, he 28. "He was passionate, he was bookish, he was pure," Sontag later said of him.
Their son, David, was born in 1952. But by the mid-1960s, they were divorced, and Sontag had emerged in New York's literary society. She was known for her essays, but also wrote fiction, although not so successfully at first. "Death Kit" and "The Benefactor" were experimental novels few found worthy.
"Unfortunately, Miss Sontag's intelligence is still greater than her talent," Gore Vidal wrote in a 1967 review of "Death Kit."
"Yet ... once she has freed herself of literature, she will have the power to make it, and there are not many American writers one can say that of."
Sontag's fiction became more accessible. She wrote an acclaimed short story about AIDS, "The Way We Live Now," and a best-selling novel, "The Volcano Lover," about Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton.
In 2000, her novel, "In America," about 19th-century Polish actress Helena Modjeska, was a commercial disappointment and was criticized for the uncredited use of material from fiction and nonfiction sources. Nonetheless, Sontag won the National Book Award.
Sontag also wrote and directed the films "Duet for Cannibals," "Brother Carl" and "Promised Lands" and wrote the play "Alice in Bed," based on the life of Alice James, the ailing sister of Henry and William James. Sontag appeared as herself in Woody Allen's mock documentary, "Zelig."
In 1999, she wrote an essay for "Women," a compilation of portraits by her longtime companion, photographer Annie Leibovitz.
Sontag did not practice the art of restrained discourse. Writing in the 1960s about the Vietnam War she declared "the white race is the cancer of human history." Days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she criticized U.S. foreign policy and offered backhanded praise for the hijackers.
"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 wrote in The New Yorker.
"In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."
Even among sympathetic souls, she found reason to contend. At a 1998 dinner, she was one of three recipients of the Writers for Writers Award, given by Poets & Writers, Inc., a nonprofit literary organization, for contributions to others in the field. Sontag spoke after fellow guest of honor E.L. Doctorow, who urged writers to treat each other as "colleagues" and worried about the isolation of what he called "print culture."
"I agree with Mr. Doctorow that we are all colleagues, but there are perhaps too many of us," Sontag said.
"Nobody has to be a writer. Print culture may be under siege, but there has been an enormous inflation in the number of books printed, and very few of these could be considered part of literature. ... Unlike what has been said here before, for me the primary obligation is human solidarity."
Susan Sontag, writer, political activist and anti-Bush campaigner, dies at 71.
By Andrew Buscombe. December 29, 2004.
Susan Sontag, the writer and activist who loudly criticised US foreign policy and military action in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, died yesterday morning in New York. She was 71 and had been suffering for some time from leukaemia.
"I can confirm she passed away this morning," said a spokeswoman at the city's Sloan Kettering hospital, declining to give more details.
Sontag, the daughter of a fur trader, wrote 17 books, including the influential 1964 study on gay aesthetics called Notes on Camp . But in recent years it was her outspoken opposition to the Bush administration's so-called war on terror that drew most attention.
In the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, Sontag set off a huge row with her suggestion - published in the New Yorker magazine just two days after the hijackings - that al-Qaida's action had not been an "act of cowardice".
"The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling and depressing," she wrote. "The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilise the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilisation" 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?"
Sontag, who described herself as a "zealot of seriousness," was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933 and spent her early years in Tuscon, Arizona, and Los Angeles. Her mother was an alcoholic and her father died when she was five. Her mother later married an Army officer, Captain Nathan Sontag.
Sontag described her childhood as "one long prison sentence". She skipped three grades and graduated from school at 15; the head teacher told her she was wasting her time there. Her mother warned if she did not stop reading she would never get married.
Although she wrote a number of novels, it was as an essayist that she had her greatest literary impact. Notes on Camp , which established her as a major new writer, popularised the "so bad it's good" attitude toward popular culture.
From the Sixties onwards, Sontag was constantly involved in politics. From 1987-89 she served as president of the American chapter of the writers' organisation PEN. When Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, it was Sontag who led protests in the literary community. During the Nineties she travelled to the former Yugoslavia, calling for international action to stop the civil war.
Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, once said of her: "I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate. She is unique."
Angeles Times) Ardent Author, Activist, Critic Dies at 71.
By Steve Wasserman. December 29, 2004.
Susan Sontag, one of America's most influential intellectuals, internationally renowned for the passionate engagement and breadth of her critical intelligence and her ardent activism in the cause of human rights, died Tuesday of leukemia at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, according to her son, David Rieff. She was 71.
The author of 17 books translated into 32 languages, she vaulted to public attention and critical acclaim with the 1964 publication of "Notes on Camp," written for Partisan Review and included in "Against Interpretation," her first collection of essays, published two years later.
Sontag wrote about subjects as diverse as pornography and photography, the aesthetics of silence and the aesthetics of fascism, bunraku puppet theater and the choreography of Balanchine, as well as crafting portraits of such writers and intellectuals as Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Elias Canetti.
Sontag was a fervent believer in the capacity of art to delight, to inform, to transform.
"We live in a culture," she said, "in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression.
"In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying."
In a Rolling Stone article in 1979, Jonathan Cott called Sontag a writer who was "continually examining and testing out her notion that supposed oppositions like thinking and feeling, consciousness and sensuousness, morality and aesthetics can in fact simply be looked at as aspects of each other — much like the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one's touch, provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving."
A self-described "besotted aesthete" and "obsessed moralist," Sontag sought to challenge conventional thinking.
"From the moment I met Susan Sontag in 1962, I felt myself to be in the presence of a woman of astonishing intelligence and the most exemplary literary passions," novelist Carlos Fuentes told The Times on Tuesday. "I admired her work and her life without reservation."
She was born Jan. 16, 1933, in New York City and raised in Tucson and Los Angeles, the daughter of a schoolteacher mother and a fur trader father who died in China of tuberculosis during the Japanese invasion when Sontag was 5.
She was a graduate of North Hollywood High School and attended UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago — which she entered when she was 16 — and Harvard and Oxford.
In 1950, while at the University of Chicago, she met and 10 days later married Philip Rieff, a 28-year-old instructor in social theory. Two years later, at age 19, she had a son, David, now a prominent writer. She divorced in 1959 and never remarried.
Sontag was reading by 3. In her teens, her passions were Gerard Manley Hopkins and Djuna Barnes. The first book that thrilled her was "Madame Curie," which she read when she was 6.
She was stirred by the adventure-travel books of Richard Halliburton and the Classic Comics rendition of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." The first novel that affected her was Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables."
"I sobbed and wailed and thought [books] were the greatest things," she recalled. "I discovered a lot of writers in the Modern Library editions, which were sold in a Hallmark card store, and I used up my allowance and would buy them all."
She remembered as a girl of 8 or 9 lying in bed looking at her bookcase against the wall. "It was like looking at my 50 friends. A book was like stepping through a mirror. I could go somewhere else. Each one was a door to a whole kingdom."
Edgar Allan Poe's stories enthralled her with their "mixture of speculativeness, fantasy and gloominess."
Upon reading Jack London's "Martin Eden," she determined she would become a writer. "I got through my childhood," she told the Paris Review, "in a delirium of literary exaltations."
At 14, Sontag read Thomas Mann's masterpiece, "The Magic Mountain."
"I read it through almost at a run," she said. "After finishing the last page, I was so reluctant to be separated from the book that I started back at the beginning and, to hold myself to the pace the book merited, reread it aloud, a chapter each night."
Not long after, she and a friend visited Mann at his home in Pacific Palisades. Many decades later, she recalled the visit vividly, in a memoir published by the New Yorker, as an encounter between "an embarrassed, fervid, literature-intoxicated child and a god in exile."
Over cookies and tea, while smoking one cigarette after another, Mann spoke of Wagner and Hitler, of Goethe and "Doctor Faustus," his newest book.
"He seemed to find it perfectly normal that two local high school students should know who Nietzsche and Schoenberg were," she wrote. He went on to talk about "the value of literature" and "the necessity of protecting civilization against the forces of barbarity."
But what struck Sontag most were the "books, books, books in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that covered two of the walls" of his study.
She began to frequent the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard, where she went "every few days after school to read on my feet through some more of world literature — buying when I could, stealing when I dared."
She also became a "militant browser" of the international periodical and newspaper stand near the "enchanted crossroads" of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, where she discovered the world of literary magazines.
She was fond of recounting how, at 15, she had bought a copy of Partisan Review and found it impenetrable. Nevertheless, "I had the sense that within its pages … momentous issues were at stake. I wanted desperately to crack the code."
At 26, she moved to New York City where, for a time, she taught the philosophy of religion at Columbia University.
At a cocktail party, she encountered William Phillips, one of Partisan Review's legendary founding editors and asked him how one might write for the journal. He replied, "All you have to do is ask." "I'm asking," she said.
Soon Sontag's provocative essays on Albert Camus, Simone Weil, Jean-Luc Godard, Kenneth Anger, Jasper Johns and even the Supremes began to spice Partisan Review's pages.
Sontag recoiled at what she regarded as the artificial boundaries separating one subject, or one art form, from another.
She devoted herself to demolishing "the distinction between thought and feeling … which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment…. Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking."
Her quest was admired by such writers as Elizabeth Hardwick, a founder of the New York Review of Books, whose editors quickly embraced Sontag.
In her introduction to "A Susan Sontag Reader," Hardwick called her "an extraordinarily beautiful, expansive and unique talent."
Others were less impressed. John Simon accused Sontag of "a tendency to sprinkle complication into her writing" and of tossing off "high-sounding paradoxes without thinking through what, if anything, they mean."
Greil Marcus called her "a cold writer" whose style was "an uneasy combination of academic and hip … pedantic, effete, unfriendly."
Walter Kendrick found her fiction "dull and derivative."
In 1976, at 43, Sontag discovered she had advanced cancer in her breast, lymphatic system and leg. She was told she had a one-in-four chance to live five years. After undergoing a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy, she was pronounced free of the disease.
"My first reaction was terror and grief. But it's not altogether a bad experience to know you're going to die. The first thing is not to feel sorry for yourself," she said.
She set about to learn as much as possible about the disease.
She later wrote "Illness as Metaphor," an influential essay condemning the use of tuberculosis and cancer as metaphors that transfer responsibility for sickness to the victims, who are made to believe they have brought suffering on themselves. Illness, she insisted, is fact, not fate. Years later, she would extend the argument in the book-length essay "AIDS and Its Metaphors."
An early and passionate opponent of the Vietnam War, Sontag was both admired and reviled for her political convictions. In a 1967 Partisan Review symposium, she wrote that "America was founded on a genocide, on the unquestioned assumption of the right of white Europeans to exterminate a resident, technologically backward, colored population in order to take over the continent."
In her rage and gloom and growing despair, she concluded that "the truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself."
Considering herself neither a journalist nor an activist, Sontag felt an obligation as "a citizen of the American empire" to accept an invitation to visit Hanoi at the height of the American bombing campaign in May 1968. A two-week visit resulted in a fervent essay seeking to explain Vietnamese resistance to American power.
Critics excoriated her for what they regarded as a naive sentimentalization of Vietnamese communism. Author Paul Hollander, for one, called Sontag a "political pilgrim," bent on denigrating Western liberal pluralism in favor of venerating foreign revolutions.
That same year, Sontag also visited Cuba, after which she wrote an essay for Ramparts magazine calling for a sympathetic understanding of the Cuban revolution.
Two years later, however, she joined Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and other writers in publicly protesting the regime's harsh treatment of Heberto Padilla, one of the country's leading poets. She also denounced Fidel Castro's punitive policies toward homosexuals.
Ever the iconoclast, Sontag had a knack for annoying both the right and the left.
In 1982, in a meeting in Town Hall in New York to protest the suppression of the Solidarity movement in Poland, she declared that communism was fascism with a human face.
She was unsparing in her criticism of much of the left's refusal to take seriously the exiles and dissidents and murdered victims of Stalin's terror and the tyranny communism imposed wherever it had triumphed.
Ten years later, almost alone among American intellectuals, she called for vigorous Western — and American — intervention in the Balkans to halt the siege of Sarajevo and to stop Serbian aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo. Her solidarity with the citizens of Sarajevo prompted her to make more than a dozen trips to the besieged city.
Then, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sontag offered a bold and singular perspective in the New Yorker: "Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?"
She added, "In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."
She was pilloried by bloggers and pundits, who accused her of anti-Americanism.
Sontag had never been so public as she became over the next three years, publishing steadily, speaking constantly and receiving numerous international awards, including Israel's Jerusalem Prize, Spain's Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts and Germany's Friedenspreis (Peace Prize).
Accepting the prize from Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag said of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians: "I believe the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishments never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean, of course, the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians…."
In late March 2004, she was found to have a condition that, if left untreated, would be fatal: a pre-acute leukemia that doctors concluded was a consequence of chemotherapy she had undertaken to rid herself of a uterine sarcoma discovered five years before.
A little more than four months after the diagnosis, she received a partial bone marrow transplant.
In an interview for the Paris Review, in 1995, Sontag was asked what she thought was the purpose of literature.
"A novel worth reading," she replied, "is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It's a creator of inwardness."
She was the cartographer of her own literary explorations. Henry James once remarked, "Nothing is my last word on anything." For Sontag, as for James, there was always more to be said, more to be felt.
In addition to her son, she is survived by a sister, Judith Cohen.
Her papers — manuscripts, diaries, journals and correspondence — as well as her 25,000-volume personal library were acquired by the UCLA Library in 2002 and will be housed in the Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections.
Susan Sontag Remembering an intellectual hero. By Christopher
Hitchens. December 29, 2004.
Between the word "public" and the word "intellectual" there falls, or ought to fall, a shadow. The life of the cultivated mind should be private, reticent, discreet: Most of its celebrations will occur with no audience, because there can be no applause for that moment when the solitary reader gets up and paces round the room, having just noticed the hidden image in the sonnet, or the profane joke in the devotional text, or the secret message in the prison diaries. Individual pleasure of this kind is only rivaled when the same reader turns into a writer, and after a long wrestle until daybreak hits on his or her own version of the mot juste, or the unmasking of pretension, or the apt, latent literary connection, or the satire upon tyranny.
The 20th century was perhaps unusual in the ways in which it forced such people to quit their desks and their bookshelves and to enter the agora. Looking over our shoulders, we do not find that we have much respect or admiration for those who simply survived, or who kept the private life alive. We may owe such people more than we know, but it is difficult to view them as exemplary. Our heroes and heroines are those who managed, from Orwell through Camus and Solzhenitsyn, to be both intellectual and engaged. (This combination of qualities would also be true of a good number of our fools and villains, from Celine to Shaw, with Sartre perhaps occupying the middle position.)
Susan Sontag passed an extraordinary amount of her life in the pursuit of private happiness through reading, and through the attempt to share this delight with others. For her, the act of literary consumption was the generous parent of the act of literary production. She was so much impressed by the marvelous people she had read—beginning with Jack London and Thomas Mann in her girlhood, and eventually comprising the almost Borgesian library that was her one prized possession—that she was almost shy about offering her own prose to the reader. Look at her output and you will see that she was not at all prolific.
If it doesn't seem like that—if it seems as if she was always somewhere in print—it is because she timed her interventions very deftly. By the middle 1960s, someone was surely going to say something worth noticing about the energy and vitality of American popular culture. And it probably wasn't going to be any of the graying manes of the old Partisan Review gang. Sontag's sprightly, sympathetic essays on the diminishing returns of "high culture" were written by someone who nonetheless had a sense of tradition and who took that high culture seriously (and who was smart enough to be published in Partisan Review). Her acute appreciation of the importance of photography is something that now seems uncontroversial (the sure sign of the authentic pioneer), and her "Notes on 'Camp' " were dedicated to the memory of Oscar Wilde, whose fusion of the serious and the subversive was always an inspiration to her, as it is, I can't resist adding, to too few female writers.
In a somewhat parochial time, furthermore, she was an internationalist. I once heard her rather sourly described as American culture's "official greeter," for her role in presenting and introducing the writers of other scenes and societies. There was no shame in that charge: She—and Philip Roth—did a very great deal to familiarize Americans with the work of Czeslaw Milosz and Danilo Kis, Milan Kundera and György Konrád. In Against Interpretation, published in 1966, she saw more clearly than most that the future defeat of official Communism was inscribed in its negation of literature. When Arpad Goncz, the novelist who eventually became a post-Communist president of Hungary, was invited to the White House, he requested that Susan be placed on his guest list. It's hard to think of any other American author or intellectual who would be as sincerely mourned as Susan will be this week, from Berlin to Prague to Sarajevo.
Mention of that last place name impels me to say another thing: this time about moral and physical courage. It took a certain amount of nerve for her to stand up on stage, in early 1982 in New York, and to denounce martial law in Poland as "fascism with a human face." Intended as ironic, this remark empurpled the anti-anti-Communists who predominated on the intellectual left. But when Slobodan Milosevic adopted full-out national socialism after 1989, it took real guts to go and live under the bombardment in Sarajevo and to help organize the Bosnian civic resistance. She did not do this as a "tourist," as sneering conservative bystanders like Hilton Kramer claimed. She spent real time there and endured genuine danger. I know, because I saw her in Bosnia and had felt faint-hearted long before she did.
Her fortitude was demonstrated to all who knew her, and it was often the cause of fortitude in others. She had a long running battle with successive tumors and sarcomas, and was always in the front line for any daring new treatment. Her books on illness and fatalism, and her stout refusal to accept defeat, were an inspiration. So were the many anonymous hours and days she spent in encouraging and advising fellow sufferers. But best of all, I felt, was the moment when as president of American PEN she had to confront the Rushdie affair in 1989.
It's easy enough to see, now, that the offer of murder for cash, made by a depraved theocratic despot and directed at a novelist, was a warning of the Islamist intoxication that was to come. But at the time, many of the usual "signers" of petitions were distinctly shaky and nervous, as were the publishers and booksellers who felt themselves under threat and sought to back away. Susan Sontag mobilized a tremendous campaign of solidarity that dispelled all this masochism and capitulation. I remember her saying hotly of our persecuted and hidden friend: "You know, I think about Salman every second. It's as if he was a lover." I would have done anything for her at that moment, not that she asked or noticed.
With that signature black-on-white swoosh in her hair, and her charismatic and hard-traveling style, she achieved something else worthy of note—the status of celebrity without any of the attendant tedium and squalor. She resolutely declined to say anything about her private life or to indulge those who wanted to speculate. The nearest to an indiscretion she ever came was an allusion to Middlemarch in the opening of her 1999 novel In America, where she seems to say that her one and only marriage was a mistake because she swiftly realized "not only that I was Dorothea but that, a few months earlier, I had married Mr. Casaubon.")
A man is not on his oath, said Samuel Johnson, when he gives a funeral oration. One ought to try and contest the underlying assumption here, which condescendingly excuses those who write nil nisi bonum of the dead. Could Susan Sontag be irritating, or hectoring, or righteous? She most certainly could. She said and did her own share of foolish things during the 1960s, later retracting her notorious remark about the white "race" being a "cancer" by saying that it slandered cancer patients. In what I thought was an astonishing lapse, she attempted to diagnose the assault of Sept. 11, 2001, as the one thing it most obviously was not: "a consequence of specific [sic] American alliances and actions." Even the word "general" would have been worse in that sentence, but she had to know better. She said that she didn't read reviews of her work, when she obviously did. It could sometimes be very difficult to tell her anything or to have her admit that there was something she didn't know or hadn't read.
But even this insecurity had its affirmative side. She was always trying to do too much and square the circle: to stay up late debating and discussing and have the last word, then get a really early night, then stay up reading, and then make an early start. She adored trying new restaurants and new dishes. She couldn't stand affectless or bored or cynical people, of any age. She only ventured into full-length fiction when she was almost 60, and then discovered that she had a whole new life. And she resisted the last malady with terrific force and resource, so that to describe her as life-affirming now seems to me suddenly weak. Anyway—death be not proud.
The last time I talked with Susan - some months ago - she lamented the way in which her country was becoming increasingly alien, almost unrecognisable. "I live on a ship called Manhattan, parked just off the continental US", she said, and wasn't sure, she added, how much longer she could stand inhabiting even New York. And now she has left us - as if we could afford the loss of her fierce intelligence and wry sense of humour and cool gaze into the maelstrom of pain and war, precisely at a time when her fellow countrymen sink ever more into denial of what happens in the wider world that she so brilliantly explored.
Ariel Dorfman, Chilean living in the USA
Dispatch) Sontag and Tsunami. By Rebecca Solnit.
January 3, 2005.
The news of Susan Sontag's death arrived as a single sentence spoken in the opening moments of a radio news program Tuesday morning, and then the program returned to what had been the main story since the day after Christmas: the tsunami and the death toll, then in the tens of thousands, that would continue to rise. It was strange to weigh these two incidents of mortality against each other. Though for some people it would be considered insensitive or irreverent even to do so, one of the things to be appreciated about Sontag, I think, is that she considered everything a proper occasion for more thinking, more analyzing, more writing.
I knew her very slightly: In the spring of 2003, she had invited me to visit her at home, in her apartment with a view of sky, river, and the back ends of rooftop gargoyles, and I visited a few times. It was an invitation to enter the republic of literature as she saw it, and one of the things clear through all her work is that she was not interested merely in writing, but in tending and cultivating a literature-based public sphere in which ideas and principles mattered. It was a romantic idea, but not an unrealistic one -- since, after all, she realized it. Sontag used her tremendous visibility to enter the political realm directly, going to Bosnia, taking stands on the Vietnam and Yugoslav wars, serving as American president of PEN, berating the Israelis as she accepted the Jerusalem Prize from them, defending Salman Rushdie in particular and free speech and human rights in general.
The BBC set up a tribute website immediately, and a man who had been prompted by On Photography to go back and finish college at age 48 wrote in, as did a man who had been inspired by her Sarajevo production of Waiting for Godot in the ruins of Sarajevo to direct Romeo and Juliet in Beirut; admirers from Vancouver to Gdansk to Taipei posted comments, as did a number of sneering detractors, some still bitter about her post-September 11 comments. Only God is right about everything, which is why we are fortunate that God speaks so seldom. It is not important whether or not Sontag was always right in her conclusions, only that she was right in raising the issues that she did; for the most useful position is the one that prompts people to test an idea and perhaps think for themselves by disagreeing. After all, on key subjects from communism to photography, she eventually disagreed with her earlier self. What she said when writing about the Jewish mystic Simone Weil can be said of her outspoken writing as well: "An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit…"
Sontag has achieved the immortality of people whose work reaches far beyond them in time and space, not one that means death does not matter, only that part of her is still here for us -- a truth born out immediately by the way her comments on photography and representation allow us to continue navigating the news and examine the terms in which it is delivered to us.
In the disaster around the Indian Ocean, you read of people searching among scores of bodies for the body of their child or spouse, you see photographs of the search. One photograph shows untidy rows of dead children who mostly look like they are sleeping, save for the randomness with which they are naked or clothed, and in a corner a woman in a brilliant blue sari, head thrown back, bangle-adorned brown arms clasped to her temples, is contorted with sorrow. People were searching for their own children, for their own dead, among the many dead, for the tragedy that was personal amid the enormity; and anyone who believed that poverty or high levels of infant mortality loosen the bonds of parent to child got over it reading these shattering stories of people who wished they had died with or instead of their children. Photographs are being taken, have been taken, of many of the dead, so that the families can identify them on bulletin boards and websites. Never has photography been more personal or more public. The photographs serve, as photography always does, to make us feel present, to make visible, imaginable what has happened. They serve empathy as much as understanding.
When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area on October 17, 1989, it killed 60 people; but for many of the rest of us, the disaster seemed strangely reassuring. It was an assertion that nature was not so small and diminished as it sometimes seemed that fall when global warming was first entering the public imagination. Nature was more powerful than our plans and impositions. That disaster was not like a war; it was instead like a truce, perhaps like that famous Christmas morning in the First World War when soldiers on both sides stopped fighting. The region's tremendous engines of producing and consuming stopped; people didn't go to work; businesses were shut; the Bay Bridge was out of commission for months, and some of the elevated freeways were gone for good. People localized themselves in the here-and-now that certain disasters bring in their wake, staying home, talking to the people they loved, letting go of discontent, long-term plans and distant travel.
This thousand-times-larger Indonesian earthquake was not like a truce but like a war, and for a while the death count hovered near what the estimated Iraqi death count is in our current war, and then it rose higher. The tsunami has been treated as an occasion when we should know as much as possible, see as much as possible, feel as much as possible, give as much as possible. You can look at the superabundant photographs of those scenes of devastation, those bodies contorted with grief and loss, and extrapolate from them that the assault on Fallujah must have left orphans with the same blank, stunned looks on their faces, mothers without children contorted with the same unbearable grief, must have shattered homes, families, lives, hopes with the same kind of physical force. To realize this is to realize how much imagery -- or its lack -- shapes our response to both disasters. When our military has created the catastrophe, we are not allowed to see so much or encouraged to empathize or attempt to assuage it with charitable contributions --though those contributions are made anyway: the day the tsunami struck, the US peace group Code Pink sent a delegation to Iraq with $600,000 in donations for the people of Fallujah.
The Iraq War has been a strangely unseen war, or rather a war in which conventional and uncontroversial images are the standard fare -- lots of pictures of us, few of them, images of blown-up military vehicles and uninhabited Iraqi ruins, but not in this country the images of the injured and the dead civilians we have been producing in such prodigious numbers, nothing like the images of the tsunami. But it has also been a war of images. There was the staged toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein as our invasion ended. There was the crisis opened up by leakage of photographs of Abu Ghraib torture (which Sontag wrote about in one of her last published pieces, "Regarding the Torture of Others") and more recently the American soldier shooting a wounded man in a mosque in Fallujah. And there are the videotapes of guerrillas beheading their captives in what seemed to be media stunts of a sort. We know that Al-Jazeera shows radically different images of this war and of the Israeli-Palestinian war, a difference both generated by and reinforcing the different views on those conflicts. Even Europeans see more graphic images of such civilian casualties.
You can remember the ways this war has been kept invisible, so out of range of our potential for empathy or outrage that even photographs of the returning coffins of American soldiers were banned -- and then obtained and distributed against the Pentagon's wishes. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a gallery of pictures of the all U.S. dead nine months ago when the casualty figure was 556 and maintains that gallery of what is now 1347 dead. The yearbook of images is a reminder of another gallery of images, the portraits with sentimental biographies the New York Times ran of the victims of September 11, and before that the forlorn flyers posted in Manhattan by family members looking for the missing who almost all turned out to be the dead. Now those kinds of missing-person flyers have been posted on walls in Thailand, but the photographs on the Thai website are of the dead mutilated by the force of the water.
You can say in some ways that what has happened in Iraq is a tsunami that swept ten thousand miles from the epicenter of an earthquake in Washington DC, an earthquake in policy and principle that has devastated countless lives and environments and cities far away -- and near at hand, where friends and families of dead soldiers also grieve, and tens of thousands of those kids sent abroad to carry out a venal foreign policy are maimed in body and spirit. You can add up the numbers we spent to achieve all this devastation like that of the tsunami, the more than $150 billion it cost us to make this suffering and devastation. You can compare that price to the tiny offering of money Bush made, when he was forced to interrupt his Texas vacation -- first $15 million, then $35 million (approximately the cost of his inauguration), and then, under shaming pressure, $350 million. You can understand the harnessing of the forces of nature -- aerodynamics, chemistry, atomic fission -- as means of making war more like natural disaster in its indifference, its scale, its ruination. But never natural.
One of the challenges of a natural disaster is that there is no one to blame, to allow us to make the shift from the difficulty of grief that is a kind of love to the ease of scorn or loathing that is a kind of hatred. Some polemicists have already moved to castigate governments, perhaps as a way of moving away from the uncertain, uneasy realm of such vast suffering that is in many ways natural, suffering that can be mitigated and sometimes prevented but not banned or outlawed. The economics that kept these countries from having warning systems and pushed the poor into living on the perilous coastal edge are part of the disaster, but no government generated or even foresaw this earthquake with, says my local paper, the force of 2 million atomic bombs the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima. The fault on which it occurred was thought to be inactive.
Thus politics plays a small role in this disaster, which is therefore not entirely natural, but not nearly as unnatural as drought- and war-induced famine, as anything having to do with the weather nowadays, like the four hurricanes to hit Florida in 2004. Not even like the 1985 earthquake in Mexico, where shoddy building codes, shoddy enforcement of those codes, and governmental indifference and incompetence had everything to do with the thousands who died, not like last year's earthquake in Bam, Iran, where old buildings collapsed so that one can say that it was the man-made structures and not the earth itself that inflicted such mortality, not even like the cyclones that killed half a million Bangladeshis in 1970, 140,000 in 1991-- colossal catastrophes that journalists and commentators seem to have forgotten as they frame the scale of this event as unprecedented. As so many images press us to feel and respond to this disaster, other unseen disasters come to mind, notably this year's displacement of Chinese and Indian farmers and villagers by the rising water of huge dam projects.
Sontag wrote beautifully about the images that we see, particularly those of suffering and of war. Now I wish she had said more about what we don't see, about how photographs must be weighed against the obliviousness they dispel as well as against the callousness they might generate, the exploitation they might cause, and the perils of interpretation. In her most recent book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag writes, "Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half's worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds." And then she took up her old argument, in On Photography, that there should be an "ecology of images" to keep "compassion, stretched to its limits" from "going numb." She argues with her former self, "There isn't going to be an ecology of images. No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock." But the images of Abu Ghraib were shocking anyway, and the images of the tsunami are harrowing.
What is now most striking now about Sontag's argument is that it is not so much about photography but about compassion, an emotion and an ethic that photographs can awaken or undermine. Elsewhere in Regarding the Pain of Others, she writes, "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People don't become inured to what they are shown -- if that's the right way to describe what happens -- because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling."
We can act to deal with the consequences of the earthquake and tsunami, but the disaster was only faintly political -- not only the poor died but thousands of Europeans and Americans. The relief will be very political, in who gives how much, and to whom it is given, but the event itself transcends politics, the realm of things we cause and can work to prevent. We cannot wish that human beings were not subject to the forces of nature, including the mortality that is so central a part of our own nature. We cannot wish that the seas dry up, that the waves grow still, that the tectonic plates cease to exist, that nature ceases to be beyond our abilities to predict and control. But the terms of that nature include such catastrophe and such suffering, which leaves us with sorrow as not a problem to be solved but a fact. And it leaves us with compassion as the work we will never finish.
The Other Sontag. By Jess Row. January 31, 2005.
When scholars write the history of the American short story in the late 20th century, Susan Sontag will most likely be, at best, a footnote. Her only collection of stories, I, etcetera, published in 1978, was admired by critics but never widely read, and while her 1987 story "The Way We Live Now" was one of the most acclaimed of the decade, it is now remembered more as a document of the AIDS crisis than as an influential work of fiction. Nor is Sontag herself likely to be remembered for her short stories. In the weeks since her death on Dec. 28, critics and cultural commentators have praised her essays, her work in bridging postwar European and American culture, her humanitarian efforts in Sarajevo and elsewhere, and, less prominently, her novels, The Volcano Lover and In America. Her stories have gone all but unmentioned.
This is a shame, because if we put questions of her career and cultural significance to the side and read her stories as stories, it is not difficult to imagine that if they had not been eclipsed by other aspects of her reputation, Sontag might be remembered as a widely influential writer of short fiction. Given her relative obscurity in the field, it's all the more startling to discover how accurately her work anticipates the evolution of the short story over the last 30 years.
Consider, for example, a passage from "Debriefing," originally published in the American Review in 1975:
All around us, as far as I can see, people are striving to be ordinary. This takes a great deal of effort. Ordinariness, generally considered to be safer, has gotten much rarer than it used to be.
Julia called yesterday to report that, an hour before, she had gone downstairs to take in her laundry. I congratulated her.
People try to be interested in the surface. Men without guns are wearing mascara, glittering, prancing. Everyone's in some kind of moral drag.
And now a passage from "And Lead Us Not Into Penn Station," by Amy Hempel, published in 1988:
Everything you can think of is going on here. Plus things that you can't think of, too. Those things are going on in groups. Men who have sex with vacuum cleaners—these men are now outpatients, in therapy down the block.
Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him along to the front of the line where he ordered a BLT.
A boy on a tricycle pedals past a mother and son. "Why can't you ride a tricycle?" the mother says to her son. "That boy is younger than you! Why can't you even go to Harvard!"
The terse, clipped phrases, the combination of boredom and barely suppressed panic, the deliberate non sequiturs, the narrator's disembodied voice floating over the city, omniscient but powerless—in places these stories are so similar that one might have been written as an imitation of the other. In both the experience of city life (and particularly life in New York) is both a source of trauma and a reflection of the narrator's feeling of dislocation and numbness, whether brought on by a specific incident (in "Debriefing" the death of a dear friend and companion) or coming from some unnamed source. By 1988 this was almost a default mode in the American short story, most visible in the early work of Lorrie Moore, Deborah Eisenberg, Susan Minot, and Mary Gaitskill, among many others. In all these writers the narrator's struggle to narrate, to compose a coherent order of events, or even a sequence of thoughts, is a struggle for mental, if not physical, survival. "I don't know what to say about all of this," the narrator of Hempel's story finally admits. "I am as cut off from meaning and completion as all of these crippled people."
Another kind of disembodiment takes place in Sontag's "Project for a Trip to China," the first story in I, etcetera. This story is a classic example of what the novelist and critic Charles Baxter calls an "inventory": a story in the form of a list. In this case, the narrator assembles a jumble of memories, facts, quotations, to-do lists, epigrams, and free associations ("Warlords, landlords; mandarins, concubines. Old China Hands. Flying Tigers."), all of which present an absorbing, and disturbing, impression of her longing for a country that exists only in those fragmentary scraps of language.
This way of presenting a story by alternate means was very much in vogue in the late '80s and throughout the '90s. The story could take the form of a sequence of photographs in a wedding album (Heidi Julavits, "Marry the One Who Gets There First"), a personal bibliography (Rick Moody, "Primary Sources"), or a group of reviews (Anthony Giardina, "The Films of Richard Egan"). Implicit in the inventory form is a certain structural irony: The surface text (whether a "catalog," a "project," or a "bibliography") has its own logic, and the story emerges in spite of that logic—through gaps, omissions, parenthetical remarks, footnotes. It's surely no accident that the inventory-story became popular at a time when we swam in a sea of trivial, distracting, often useless data—stock quotes, "factoids," logos, advertising jingles, spam. Sontag herself might have pointed out that it bears a certain resemblance to the collage, which became popular in the 1920s and '30s, in an era of anxiety about the mass reproduction of visual images.
There is one way in which Sontag's stories stand decidedly apart from the writers who followed her: their sense of historical and cultural context. Even her most disengaged, solipsistic characters make references to Diderot, the Lincoln Brigade, the Internationale. Some, like the narrator of "Old Complaints Revisited," are refugees from the struggles of the '60s, now embittered, weary of clichés but unable to escape them. In the stories of Hempel, Minot, and Eisenberg, this world-weariness is replaced by a sense of complete moral isolation. The confusion of the characters' lives, the feeling of anomie or disillusionment, is presented without context, often even without explanation. One can't help wondering whether "The Way We Live Now" attracted as much attention as it did in 1987 because it evoked a social and political crisis at a time when the horizons of the short story had become so claustrophobically small: a single apartment, a single failed relationship, a single line of cocaine. "The Way We Live Now" depicts a young's man death from AIDS as a series of anxious conversations among his friends, who worry and analyze, preen and bicker, compete for attention and wonder if anything they do matters. Here, as in all of Sontag's best stories, we are left with the impression of a world filled with characters hovering on the edge of myopia but never quite falling in. As the title of the story (an allusion to the Trollope novel) suggests, her great ambition was to recapture some of the panoramic vision of 19th-century realism, if only in a fragmented, ironized, miniaturized way. This effort by itself makes her stories worth reading and remembering.
Against Postmodernism, etcetera--A Conversation with Susan Sontag.
By Evans Chan.
1. This interview took place in late July,
2000 at Susan Sontag's [Susan Sontag]penthouse apartment in Chelsea on a
sunny, tolerably hot day. Just as I entered the building, Sontag's assistant
was returning from some errands and we went up the elevator together. As we
opened the apartment door, Sontag was emptying some trash into a bin. Later
she mentioned that since her illness--she has been recovering from a second
cancer that was diagnosed in 1998--her apartment had become a mess.
"These days I'm mostly trying to make space for all the books I've
acquired in the last two years and sorting papers and manuscripts," she
said. What makes the apartment at once austere and elegant are the dozens of
Piranesi prints on the walls. I was reminded of lines in the Alice James
monologue from Sontag's play, Alice in Bed: "With my mind I can see, I
can hold all that in my mind. Everyone says [Rome]'s so beautiful. I've looked
at the pictures, the engravings. Yes, Piranesi" (81).
2. I had brought with me a copy of a Chinese
periodical review of my recent book The Last of the Chinese (also in Chinese)
to show her. The editor had used the cover of her latest novel In America to
illustrate the review--a delightful surprise for me, since Sontag has been an
important influence on my own writing and filmmaking endeavors. An admirer of
The Benefactor, Sontag's first novel, before reading her critical writings, I
translated into Chinese her essay "Fascinating Fascism" and her
short story "Project for a Trip to China" back in the mid-'80s in
Hong Kong, without thinking much about copyright issues. Over the years, I saw
Chinese translations of her work appear here and there in Hong Kong, Taiwan,
and China, invariably without her knowledge. Several friends urged me to
interview her for Chinese publications, and perhaps to edit an anthology of
Sontag's writings in Chinese. As the Sontag anthology project became more
realistic, I finally introduced myself to her at a Trisha Brown concert at the
Joyce Theater and she agreed to my interview request right away. When I
described the chaotic Chinese publishing scene, she shrugged it off.
"People think that I'll be angry because it's pirated. But I'm not a very
good citizen of capitalist society. Of course, I'd like to be paid, and I'm
hardly difficult to get in touch with. I have a publisher and an agent, whose
addresses are listed in the entry on me in Who's Who, which I assume anybody
can access online. But no, I'm not angry. Most of all I'd like to be
3. Then we settled into a table in the
kitchen. Behind me was a door that opened onto a wrap-around balcony, which
overlooked the shimmering Hudson and the Manhattan skyline in late afternoon.
Sontag put her leg on the table, tilted her chair back, and sipped her coffee.
Two years ago she quit smoking. She started talking about Shower, the most
recent Chinese film she had seen. She found it "mildly interesting"
because of its setting in a Beijing in transition. Among Hong Kong filmmakers,
Wong Kar-wai is naturally the one she is familiar with. She quite liked Fallen
Angels, but was disappointed by Happy Together. (Serving on the jury of Hawaii
Film Festival in 1986, Sontag apparently helped A Time to Live, A Time to Die,
the breakthrough film by Taiwan's preeminent auteur, Hou Hsiao-hsien, win top
prize. She also named YiYi, by Edward Young, another major Taiwan filmmaker,
the best film of 2000 [Sontag, "Best" 26]). I brought her up-to-date
on the activities of our mutual friend Simone Swan, a founding director of the
de Menil Foundation and an old acquaintance of hers, who has been trying to
preserve the legacy of the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy by building
low-cost adobe housing along the Texas border. Sontag responded positively,
but suspected that "poor people might want concrete" rather than mud
bricks for their houses. After such preliminary small talk, the interview--C:
Chan; S: Sontag--formally began:
4. C: In the '60s, you were among the first
to try to bridge the gap between high and low cultures. Now, after three
decades, we've seen high culture, or the so-called canon, besieged by popular
culture and multiculturalism. We have today a new sensibility that, depending
on one's perspective, either surpasses or parodies the kind of sensibility
that you heralded in the last essay of Against Interpretation (1966). We now
live in an age of total eclecticism and global interpenetration, which many
people, including myself, call the postmodern. So far, your reaction to
postmodernism seems largely inimical. And you refused to allow the Camp
sensibility that you helped make famous to be co-opted by the postmodernists
because "Camp taste... still presupposes the older, high standards of
discrimination" ("Writing Itself" 439).
5. S: I never thought I was bridging the gap
between high and low cultures. I am unquestioningly, without any ambiguity or
irony, loyal to the canon of high culture in literature, music, and the visual
and performing arts. But I've also enjoyed a lot of popular music, for
example. It seemed we were trying to understand why that was perfectly
possible and why that wasn't paradoxical... and what diversity or plurality of
standards might be. However, it didn't mean abolishing hierarchy, it didn't
mean equating everything. In some sense I was as much a partisan or supporter
of traditional cultural hierarchy as any cultural conservative, but I didn't
draw the hierarchy in the same way.... Take an example: just because I loved
Dostoevsky didn't mean that I couldn't love Bruce Springsteen. Now, if
somebody says you have to choose between Russian literature or rock 'n roll,
of course I'd choose Russian literature. But I don't have to choose. That
being said, I would never argue that they're equally valuable. But I was very
struck by how rich and diverse one's experiences are. Consequently, it seems
to me a lot of cultural commentators were lying about the diversity of their
experiences. On the other hand, there are a lot of things in mass culture that
didn't appeal to me, notably what's on television. It seems very
non-nourishing, conventional, bland, trivial. So it wasn't a question of
bridging the gap. It's simply that I saw a lot of simultaneity in my
experiences of pleasure, and felt that most discourse about culture was either
philistine or shallowly snobbish. So it wasn't this is "here," and
that's "there," and I can make a bridge. It was that I understood
myself to have many kinds of experiences and pleasures, and I was trying to
understand why that was possible, and how you could still maintain a
hierarchical sense of values.
6. This is not the sensibility that's called
the postmodern--by the way, that's not the word I use or find useful to use. I
associate postmodernism with leveling and with recycling. The word modernism
arose in architecture. It has a very specific meaning. It meant the Bauhaus
School, Corbusier, the box skyscraper, the rejection of ornament. Form is
function. There are all sorts of modernist dogmas in architecture, which came
to prevail not only because of their aesthetic values. There was a material
support for these ideas: it's cheaper to build buildings this way. Anyway,
when the term postmodernism began to be used across the field for all the arts
it became inflated. Indeed, many writers who used to be called modern or
modernist are now called postmodern because they recycle, use quotations--I'm
thinking of Donald Barthelme, for instance--or practice what's called
7. C: Yes, the way writers are being
relabelled as postmodern is at times baffling. For example, I was startled
when Fredric Jameson, whose work I greatly admire, cited Beckett--who for me
is a terminal product of high modernism--as a postmodern author.
8. S: Jameson is the leading scholar who has
tried to make more sense of the category of postmodernism. One of the reasons
I remain unconvinced by his use of the term is that I don't think he's
interested in the arts. Not really. Not even in literature. He's interested in
ideas. If he cared about literature he wouldn't have quoted--at great
length--Norman Mailer. While you illustrate your ideas with quotations from
novels, you're also implicitly suggesting to people that they read these
books. I think that either Jameson doesn't know that Mailer isn't a very good
writer, or that he doesn't care. Another example is when Van Gogh and Warhol
are treated as equivalent by Jameson for the sake of theory-building, for
fitting examples into his theory. That's when I get off the bus. In my view,
what's called postmodernism--that is, the making everything equivalent--is the
perfect ideology for consumerist capitalism. It is an idea of accumulation, of
preparing people for their shopping expeditions. These are not critical
9. C: However, in your long essay AIDS and
Its Metaphors (1989), you characterized the current moment as "a...
grateful return to what is perceived as 'conventions,' like the return to
figure and landscape... plot and character, and other much vaunted
repudiations of difficult modernism in the arts... the new sexual realism goes
with the rediscovery of the joys of tonal music, Bouguereau, a career in
investment banking, and church weddings" (166-67). I, for one, almost
felt you were singing the praises of postmodernism.
10. S: Did you? That was certainly not my
point. I thought I was being sarcastic.
11. C: And you seem to have tapped new
sources of energy in transforming yourself into a historical novelist by
writing The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000), which I guess would
come under the rubric of postmodern novels.
12. S: Although I have written two novels
that take place in the past, I don't call them historical novels. That is, I
don't consider myself working in a specific genre like crime novels, sci-fi
novels, or the Gothic novels. I want to enlarge my resources as a writer of
narrative fiction and I found it liberating to set them in the past. These
novels can't be written in any other time but the late 20th century, written
in a combination of first and third person narrations, and with a commingling
of voices. I don't think there's anything like a return to convention, or
return to figuration. Maybe these novels should be viewed as books about
travel, about people in foreign places: The Volcano Lover is about the British
in Italy; In America is about the Poles emigrating to the US; the novel I'm
about to start is about some Japanese people in France in the 1920s. However,
I'm not trying to fulfill a program--I'm trying to stretch myself.
13. C: Do you feel that in your current
novels you can treat more effectively entities like "characters?"
Are characters conventional items?
14. S: I'm not sure "characters"
are conventional items. But I always start with people, even with The
Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967). The Benefactor explores a certain
reclusive nature, which is in fact very nihilistic--a gentle nihilism.
(Laughs.) Death Kit is about a man committing suicide. During the time I wrote
these two novels I began to become more interested in history--not exactly
related to current events or particular topics--but just history and what it
meant to understand something historically--just what is behind the way
anything is at any given moment. I used to think that I was interested in
politics, but after I read a lot of history, I came to think that the notion
of politics is very superficial. Actually, if you care about history, you
couldn't care that much about politics.
15. After writing the first two novels, I did
more travels. I had already set foot outside of the wealthy countries of North
America and Western Europe. For example, I had been to North Africa and
Mexico. But Vietnam was the first country I visited where I saw real
suffering. And I looked at such experiences not just in aesthetic terms, but
also with moral seriousness. So it's not that I'm disenchanted with modernism.
I want for myself to take in more reality, and still with the tools of
modernism, to address real suffering, the larger world, and to break out of
the confines of narcissism and solipsism.
16. C: Isn't the portrayal of the Cavaliere
in The Volcano Lover a study of the saturnine, melancholic temperament that
harks back to your early, "solipsistic" novels? At the same time, we
see that consciousness is being dramatized by your placing it within a wider
world, within the currents of history.
17. S: I suppose all my work is placed under
the sign of melancholy. Saturn. At least so far. I expect that won't always be
18. C: Haven't you said that you don't like
your early novels very much?
19. S: I've said all sorts of stupid things.
(Laughs.) Luis Bunuel once expressed an interest in filming Death Kit. That
could have been very nice.
20. C: Recently, I reread your first novel
The Benefactor after almost twenty years. That was the first book of yours
that I read and it remains one of the most eccentric and brilliant novels I've
ever come across. When I first stumbled upon it I was living in Hong Kong,
completely unaware of contemporary literary scene, and by chance I started
reading Hannah Arendt. I saw her endorsement of The Benefactor somewhere. She
praised your originality and expressed admiration for your ability to
"make a story out of dreams and thoughts." I guess what Arendt found
fascinating in it might be what she called "thought-experiments."
Now, I was also struck by how much The Benefactor has encapsulated so many of
the themes and concerns in your writing career. It is, first of all, Against
Interpretation written as fiction. Hippolyte is someone who doesn't want to
interpret his life through dreams, but to act through, and along with, his
21. S: You're right on the mark about The
Benefactor having all the themes of my work. That's very startling to me, as
if you started with the cards in your hand, but you're blindfolded. And then
maybe only halfway through your life do you actually get to look at the cards
you're holding. Every once in a while, I catch a glimpse of the way my work
fits together. For instance, the essays I wrote about illness--Illness as
Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors--was also kind of "against
interpretation": Don't interpret being ill. Being ill is just being ill.
Don't invest it with all these myths and fantasies....
22. C: In The Benefactor, you wrote: "No
part of the modern sensibility is more tiresome than its eagerness to excuse
and to have one thing always mean something else" (109).
23. S: I'd forgotten that. How did I know
what I knew, all too unconsciously at the time? When I began The Benefactor, I
hadn't the faintest idea of what I was doing; unlike later writing, when I
really did think through the basic ideas before I would start. I just went
sentence by sentence, I had no idea where it was going to go. But at the same
time it was very easy to write, as if it was already there and I just had to
take it down. A few of the dreams have elements of the dreams of mine, but
they are mostly invented.
24. C: One critic suggested that Hippolyte
and Jean-Jacques are modeled after Artaud and Genet.
25. S: Jean-Jacques is, in part, inspired by
Genet--well, by the idea of Genet. Hippolyte? No, that's no one in particular.
26. C: I was spellbound by The Benefactor's
opening epigram: Je reve donc je suis! Maybe because I'm Chinese and every
Chinese is familiar with Chuang Tzu's tale about the man and the butterfly:
The man dreams a dream in which he becomes a butterfly. Upon waking up, he
wonders whether he's actually a butterfly that dreams of becoming a man. I can
see how The Benefactor was influenced by Kleist's essay "On the Puppet
Theater," as it makes Hippolyte's journey a quest for the equilibrium and
tranquility of the self.
27. S: You're right about Kleist. I read the
Kleist essay when I was very young and was completely overwhelmed. However,
the point is you have to write out of a deep place, and these things, like the
Kleist essay, sink down to a deep place and then you find you can write. Many
people have asked me why I haven't written something in the form of fiction or
play about the siege of Sarajevo. The answer is that I feel that experience
hasn't yet gone to the deepest place it can go.
28. C: In response to your political
intervention in Sarajevo by staging Waiting for Godot, Jean Baudrillard said,
"Even if there are any intellectuals left... I do not share in that
complicity of intellectuals who perceive themselves as responsible for
'something,' as privileged with a sort of conscience-radicalness that used to
be the privilege of intellectuals.... Subjects such as Susan Sontag cannot
intervene anymore, even symbolically, but once again this is not a prognosis
or diagnosis" (qtd. in Bayard). What's your reaction to his idea about
"the privilege of the intellectuals," as well as his so-called
diagnostic statement about our time?
29. S: Baudrillard is a political idiot.
Maybe a moral idiot, too. If I ever had any thought about functioning in a
typical way as a public intellectual, my experiences in Sarajevo would have
cured me forever. Look, I did not go to Sarajevo in order to stage Waiting for
Godot. I would have had to have been insane to do such a thing. I went to
Sarajevo because my son, a journalist who had begun covering the war,
suggested that I make such a trip. While there for the first time in April
1993, I told people I would like to come back and work in the besieged city.
When asked what I could do, I said: I can type, I can do elementary hospital
tasks, I can teach English, I know how to make films and direct plays.
"Oh," they said, "do a play. There are so many actors here with
nothing to do." And the choice of doing Godot was made in consultation
with the theater community in Sarajevo. The point is, that doing a play in
Sarajevo was something I did at the invitation of some people in Sarajevo,
while I was already in Sarajevo, and trying to learn from Sarajevans how I
might be, in some small way, useful.
30. It had nothing to do with "the
privilege of the intellectuals!" My visit wasn't intended to be a
political intervention. If anything my impulse was moral, rather than
political. I'd have been happy simply to help some patients get into a
wheelchair. I made a commitment at the risk of my life, under a situation of
extreme discomfort and mortal danger. Bombs went off, bullets flew past my
head.... There was no food, no electricity, no running water, no mail, no
telephone day after day, week after week, month after month. This is not
"symbolic." This is real. And people think I dropped in for a while
to do a play. Look, I went to Sarajevo for the first time in April 1993 and I
was mostly in Sarajevo till the end of 1995. That is two and a half years. The
play took two months. I doubt if Baudrillard knows how long I was in Sarajevo.
I'm not a Bernard-Henri Levy making his documentary Bosna. In France they call
him BHL; in Sarajevo they called him DHS--deux heures a Sarajevo--two hours in
Sarajevo. He came in the morning on a French mlitary plane, left his film
crew, and was out of there in the afternoon. They brought the footage back to
Paris, he added an interview with Mitterand, put on the voice-over, and edited
the film there. When Joan Baez came for twenty-four hours, her feet never hit
the sidewalk. She was going around in a French tank and surrounded by soldiers
the entire time. That's what some people did in Sarajevo.
31. C: Did you ever call Baudrillard a
32. S: I doubt it. I don't think I would call
him nihilistic. I think he's ignorant and cynical. And he definitely has
opinions about intellectuals. There are intellectuals and intellectuals. The
majority of them are conformists. But some are brave, very brave. And what are
intellectuals doing with postmodernism? How people move these terms around
instead of looking at the concrete reality! I'm for complexity and the respect
for reality. I don't want to think anything theoretically in that sense. My
interest is to understand the genealogy of ideas. If I'm against
interpretation, I'm not against interpretation as such, because all thinking
is interpretation. I'm actually against reductive interpretation, and I'm
against facile transposition and the making of cheap equivalences.
33. C: Yet, in retrospect, your book On
Photography (1977) can be considered a pioneering work on postmodernity. For
example, you said that the photographic taste is inherently democratizing and
leveling--capable of abolishing the difference between good and bad taste.
Photography, or the culture of images, has aestheticized tragedies and
disasters, fragmented our world, replaced (virtualized?) reality, and
instilled a sense of fatalism: "In the real world, something is happening
and no one knows what is going to happen. In the image-world, it has happened,
and it will forever happen in that way" (168). (That comment presaged
Virilio's observation that our Past, Present and Future has been replaced by
Fast Forward, Play and Rewind--the image of modern/postmodern man being that
of a sitter with a remote.) For you, photography is the culmination of
modernism and its undoing.
34. S: Yes, I suppose so. But again I don't
think I need to use that term "postmodern." But I do think seeing
the world photographically is the great leveler. And yet I'm puzzling a lot
over the consequences of viewing disasters and the horrors of the world
through photographic images. Does it anaesthetize us? Does it make us used to
things? Does the shock value wear off? I don't know. Then there's a big
difference between the still and the moving images. The moving image is very
powerful because you don't know where it's going to go. In the last essay in
On Photography, I talked about the experience I had in China watching an
operation under acupuncture anaesthesia. I saw someone have most of his
stomach removed because of a catastrophic ulcer. Clearly it worked. His eyes
were open and he was talking and sipping some liquid through a straw. There
was no way of faking that; it did work. The doctor said it tends to work well
for the torso but not so well for the limbs, and doesn't work for some
patients at all. But it worked for this one. I watched the operation without
flinching, the cutting open of the abdomen, the huge ulcerous part of the
patient's stomach, which looked gray as a tire. This was the first operation I
had seen, I thought maybe I'd find it hard to watch, but I didn't. Then, six
months later, I was in a movie theater in Paris watching Chung Kuo,
Antonioni's China film, which has a scene showing a Caesarian delivery with
acupuncture anaesthesia. The moment the abdomen of the pregnant woman was cut,
I couldn't watch it. How strange! I couldn't watch the image, but I could
watch the real thing. That is very interesting. There are all sorts of puzzles
about what the culture of image is.
35. C: Some of the most ominous statements in
On Photography have come true. For example, photography--in its latest
incarnation through digital technology--has definitely triumphed over art. TV,
Hollywood, and the infotainment industry have taken over, resulting in, among
other things, what you called "the decay of cinema"--the most
important modern art form. Jean-Luc Godard recently said the cinema as we knew
it is over (see Rosenbaum 165).
36. S: The cinema as he knew it is over.
That's for sure--for a number of reasons, including the breakdown of the
distribution system. I had to wait eight years to see Alan Resnais's
Smoking/No Smoking, which I just saw at the Lincoln Center. Resnais made those
films in the early '90s, but then none of his films were distributed here in
the past 10 years. We're getting a much smaller selection here in New York,
which is supposed to be a good place to see films. On the other hand, if you
can tolerate the small formats--I happen to have a problem with miniaturized
images--you can get the whole history of cinema and watch it over and over
again. You don't have to be dependent on the distribution system. The problems
with cinema seem to me, more than anything, a cultural failure. Tastes have
been corrupted, and it's so rare to see filmmakers who have the aspiration to
take on profound thoughts and feelings. There is a reason that more and more
films that I like are coming from the less prosperous parts of the world,
where commercial value has not completely taken over. For example, I think
people have reacted so positively to Kiarostami is that he shows people who
are quite innocent and not cynical, in this increasingly cynical world. In
that sense, I don't think cinema is over yet.
37. C: It's been suggested that you
redirected your fiction-writing urge toward filmmaking during the long hiatus
between your two groups of novels. [Sontag's filmography includes Duet for
Cannibals (1969), Brother Carl (1971), Promised Lands (1974), and Unguided
38. S: Maybe. But I don't have an industrial
model of productivity. I don't think it's the most important thing, as soon as
I finish one book, to immediately start another one. I want to write books
that are necessary.
39. C: One more question about The Benefactor
and your writing career, because your first novel seems particularly
interesting in light of your lifetime relationship with interpretation,
Freudian and otherwise. Hannah Arendt is antipathetic to psychoanalysis
because it compromises her conception of human freedom. Here's a quote from
The Benefactor: "But one has to declare oneself free in order to be,
truly, free. I have only to consider my dreams as free, as autonomous, in
order to be free of them--at least as free as any human being has the right to
be" (246). I heard echoes of these statements in "Writing
Itself," your essay on Barthes, in which you upheld "the exercise of
consciousness as a life's highest aim, because only through becoming fully
conscious may one be free" (444). To what extent do you feel that the
project of consciousness that you treasure is better served by you as a
fiction writer, rather than as an essayist?
40. S: Yes, I do feel freer, more expressive,
and much closer to what matters to me when I'm writing fiction. The goal is to
become still more expressive. And to take in more and more reality.
41. C: Do you acknowledge that there is an
anti-psychological tendency in your work? Is that an aesthetic, formal,
modernist approach partly derived from the French new novels? Or is it your
moral and philosophical stance vis-à-vis the human condition?
42. S: I don't think I'm anti-psychological.
I am rather anti-autobiographical, however. Maybe the confusion lies there.
And I don't think I've learned anything from the so-called French new novels.
I didn't ever really like them. I thought they were "interesting,"
which is a shallow, dishonest form of praise from which I like to think I've
43. C: You supposedly abandoned two novels.
44. S: Three, I'm afraid. I stopped at fifty,
sixty pages. If I get to a hundred pages I can go on.
45. C: Weren't you supposed to have made a
film based on Simone de Beauvoir's first novel L'Invitee (She Came to Stay)?
46. S: Yes. I'd written a full shooting
script, secured the rights, for a pittance, from Simone de Beauvoir, and found
some modest financing for the film. But at some point I stopped believing in
the script, or the film, or the subject--I'm not sure which. I wasn't
confident it would be good enough.
47. C: Have you said goodbye to filmmaking?
48. S: Movies have been the love of my life.
There have been many periods of my life when I've gone to movies every day,
and sometimes I see two films a day. Bresson and Godard, and Syberberg, and
more recently Sokurov, have been extremely important to me. I love Chantal
Ackerman's Jeanne Diehlmann, Bela Tarr's Satantango, Fassbinder's In a Year of
Thirteen Moons, The American Soldier, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and
Berlin Alexanderplatz; Angelopoulos's Traveling Players, Alain Renais's Melo,
Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye South, Goodbye, Claire Denis's Beau Travail.... I've
learned so much from these films. And no, I haven't said goodbye to
filmmaking. I'm not interested in adapting my own books, but in something
else. Yes, I want to make more films.
49. C: In your 1995 essay "On Wei
Jingsheng," you lamented "the general decline of universalist moral
and political standards of Enlightenment values in the past generation,"
as reflected in the suspension of human rights standards where China is
concerned. I think this piece, together with your (uncollected) 1984 essay
"Model Destinations," goes straight to the heart of the political
dilemma of our post-Cold War and post-ideological era. Dictatorships all over
the world, as you said, "have been emboldened" by the triumphant,
capitalist West's concerns about "sustaining lucrative economic
ties" ("Model Destinations" 699-700).
50. S: For the record, that wasn't something
I wrote. These are impromptu remarks I made at a press conference in New York
organized by Orville Schell when Wei was rearrested, which were recorded,
transcribed, and picked up by The New York Review of Books. The first I heard
that my remarks were to be published was a few days later when I got a
telephone call from The New York Review of Books, telling me that they were
sending down the galleys of my "China piece" by messenger. (Laughs.)
You know, I'm not a relativist. I grew up hearing that Asian culture is
different from Western culture. Generations of Sinologists, including John
Fairbank, have declared that where Asia is concerned, the Western standards of
civil liberties are irrelevant, or don't apply, because these came out of
European Protestant culture which stresses the individual while Asian cultures
are fundamentally collectivist. That is pernicious and colonialist in spirit.
Such standards don't apply to traditional societies or communities anywhere,
including in Europe. But if you live in the modern world, which is by
definition not a traditional world, then you do want these freedoms. Everyone
wants them. And it's important to explain that to privileged people from rich
countries who think they're only for "us."
51. C: And "Model Destinations" was
part of a larger work that you gave up?
52. S: Yes, it was going to be a book, about
100 pages, about intellectuals and Communism--because I was really impressed
by how gullible those visitors to socialist countries were. Those people
normally traveled in a delegation, stayed at hotels and were escorted around.
I remembered my trip to China in January 1973 during the tail end of the
Cultural Revolution. I became friendly with this woman assigned to be my
interpreter. I wasn't very important, so I got this low-level person from the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And obviously she was writing a report on me
every day. She was a sweet but frightened middle-aged woman who had lost her
husband during the Cultural Revolution. I asked her where she was staying. She
said she was staying with friends. As it turned out, she was staying in this
tiny room, which was more like a closet, in the basement of the hotel. I saw
it because I insisted on seeing where she stayed--she wasn't supposed to show
it. One day she invited me to go out for a walk, after indicating that the
room was bugged. She spoke very slowly in her limping English: "Have...
you... read... a... book... called... 19--" When I heard "19"
there was a pain in my chest. I knew what she was going to say next.
"-84." "1984," I repeated, more upset than I wanted to let
on. "Yes," she said, smiling, "China just like that."
53. I think if you troubled yourself to make
a few human contacts, you could find out some truths about these countries. At
least Roland Barthes had the courage of his sexual tastes. He liked countries
in North Africa and Asia where he could sleep with boys; since he didn't get
the chance to do that in China, he was bored. But not fooled. His sexuality
kept him honest about his unflattering impressions of Maoist moralizing and
cultural uniformity. But others on the same trip to China [in 1974], Julia
Kristeva and Philippe Sollers, came back saying it's absolutely wonderful, and
repeating all the Maoist clichés. You can say that their ideological blinders
made them see things a certain way. There are also all the dupes who visited
the Soviet Union in the 1930s. You want to say to such people, "Stop! Do
you know where you are? What you're seeing? Try to start from what is
absolutely concrete. How could you not see?"
54. C: Was there any period in your life when
you were seriously seduced by communism?
55. S: No, not by communism, but by the
struggle against American imperialism. I was obsessed with the American war on
Vietnam. Even to this date, Americans talk about 56,000 American soldiers who
died there. That's a lot of people. But three million Vietnamese soldiers and
countless civilians died. And the country was ruined ecologically. More bombs
were dumped on that country than all the bombs dropped in WWII, the same in
Korea. The disproportionate nature of American firepower when it went into
these countries was mind-boggling. Take the war in Iraq. The war was already
over, and the Americans were dumping napalm and firebombing barefoot Iraqi
soldiers who were retreating north. Those things drove me to despair. One must
remember that between 1963 and August 1968, with the Soviet invasion of
Czechoslovakia--that was a period of thought for a lot of us. In 1963 I became
involved in the anti-war movement before there was really an anti-war
movement. The Vietnam war was just starting. I teamed up with an ex-green
beret and went on a speaking tour in California. We stood at street corners
and twice were stoned. During that period of the mid-'60s I met people from
the Soviet Union who did, in fact, say that things were really much better,
and going in the right direction. Then it all came crashing down in August of
'68. So yes, between 1963 and 1968, I was willing to believe that so-called
Third World countries opposing American imperialism which had adopted
single-party Communist governments--and not just Vietnam or Cuba--could
develop a humane alternative to their previous status of just being
colonies.... That didn't turn out to be true, but in a lifetime of caring
about what goes on in the world, five years doesn't seem too long to have been
56. C: Would you retract your 1982 Town Hall
statement that "Communism is fascism with a human face"?
57. S: Of course not. Communist governments
for a while drew on immense resources of idealism. In the 1930s in Europe,
extraordinary people were drawn into the communist movement and they had no
idea what was going on. And then the people who talked about it were
constantly told to shut up because the most important thing was the struggle
against Hitler and we must not let down the right side in the Spanish Civil
58. C: Did you not finish the book about
intellectuals and communism because you feared the book would be used by the
59. S: Certainly not. It was abandoned
because I wanted most of all to return to writing fiction, only fiction. I
knew this book would take me a couple of years. I've abandoned a lot of
things. And I'm not one of these graphomaniacs who write all the time. There
are periods when I find writing the hardest thing in the world.
60. C: Some critics have suggested that
Maryna in In America is sort of a fictional self-portrait. Would you tell us
how much you identify with this description in the novel, when you offer us
the last glimpse of her in a third person narration? "Maryna sat down and
looked into the mirror. Surely she was weeping because she was so
happy--unless a happy life is impossible, and the highest a human being can
attain is a heroic life. Happiness comes in many forms; to have lived for art
is a privilege, a blessing" (369).
61. S: I identify entirely with those words.
* * *
62. After the actual interview, I was
sidetracked by finishing and launching my new feature film, "The Map of
Sex and Love." Then Susan Sontag won the 2000 National Book Award for In
America, and, following that, the Jerusalem Prize in May of 2001. She had
also been traveling and putting together Where the Stress Falls, a new
collection of essays. By the time she came around to reviewing her
responses and answering the additional questions that I put to her through
writing, a year had passed. However, the piece is finally here. It will be
translated into Chinese and serve as an introduction to Susan Sontag: Selected
Writings in Chinese, to be published in Taiwan and Hong Kong in 2002.
63. I'd like to acknowledge the following
individuals, whose support and assistance made this interview possible: Jeff
Alexander, May Fung, Russell Freedman, Canran Huang, Wendy Lidell, Ivan Ng,
and Professor David Der-wei Wang.
1. More information about Simone Swan's
housing projects for the poor can be found at
2. See Sontag's "The Decay of
3. From "Trailer for Godard's
'Histoire(s) du Cinema'," Jonathan Rosenbaum's interview with Godard in
"Trailer for Godard's 'Histoire(s) du Cinema,'" found in
"Jean-Luc Godard: Histoire(s) du Cinema," Vol. 4, from books
accompanying the 5-CD set of the soundtrack from Godard's video series
released by ECM Records in 1999.
4. Sontag participated in a meeting at New
York's Town Hall on February 1, 1982, which was intended as a rally for the
banned Solidarity in Poland. During the meeting, Sontag made a speech accusing
the left of duplicity and declaring that "Communism is fascism with a
human face." Her speech, reprinted in a somewhat revised form in The
Nation (27 Feb. 1982), drew much political criticism.
5. Sontag's acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize
has generated some controversy. Her speech was published as "The
Conscience of Words" in the Los Angeles Times on June 10, 2001. Available
6. Some pieces cited in this interview have
been anthologized in Sontag's latest collection of essays, Where the Stress
Falls, which includes "Writing Itself--On Roland Barthes" (63-88);
"A Century of Cinema" (117-122), cited here as "The Decay of
Cinema"; and "Questions of Travel" (274-284), cited here as
Bayard, Caroline and Graham Knight.
"Vivisecting the 90s: An Interview with Jean Baudrillard." Ctheory 8
Mar. 1995 <http://www.ctheory.com/article/a024.html>.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Trailer for
Godard's 'Histoire(s) du Cinema.'" Interview with Jean-Luc Godard.
Jean-Luc Godard: Histoire(s) du Cinema. Vol. 4. Books accompanying 5-CD
soundtrack set. ECM Records, 1999.
Sontag, Susan. Alice in Bed. New York:
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993.
---. The Benefactor. New York: Farrar,
Straus, Giroux, 1963.
---. "Best of 2000: Film." Artforum
Dec. 2000: 26.
---. Death Kit. New York: Farrar, Straus,
---. "The Decay of Cinema." New
York Times Magazine 25 Feb. 1996: 6-10.
---. Illness as Metaphor; and, AIDS and Its
Metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1990.
---. In America. New York: Farrar, Straus,
and Giroux, 2000.
---. "Model Destinations." Times
Literary Supplement 22 Jun. 1984: 699-700.
---. On Photography. New York: Farrar,
Straus, Giroux, 1977.
---. "On Wei Jingsheng." New York
Review of Books 15 Feb. 1996: 41-42.
---. The Volcano Lover. New York: Farrar,
Straus, Giroux, 1992.
---. Where the Stress Falls. New York:
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2001.
---. "Writing Itself: On Roland
Barthes." A Susan Sontag Reader. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982.
---. A Susan Sontag Reader. New York: Farrar,
Straus, Giroux, 1982.