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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Susan Sontag (1933-2004)


American essayist, short story writer, and novelist, a leading commentator on modern culture, whose innovative essays on such diverse subjects as camp, pornographic literature, fascist aesthetics, photography, AIDS, and revolution gained a wide attention. Sontag also wrote screenplays and directed films. She had a great impact on experimental art in the 1960s and 1970s, and she introduced many new stimulating ideas to American culture.

"Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive. However, despite the extravagances of ordinary language and advertising, they are not lethal. In the hyperbole that markets cars like guns, there is at least this much truth: except in wartime, cars kill more people than guns do. The camera/gun does not kill, so the ominous metaphor seems to be all bluff  like a man's fantasy of having a gun, knife, or tool between his legs." (from On Photography, 1977)

Susan Sontag was born in New York, N.Y. Sontag's father, Jack Rosenblatt, had a fur trading business in China – he died in China of pulmonary tuberculosis when she was five. Her mother, Mildred, married Capt. Nathan Sontag seven years later. Sontag grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and Los Angeles California. "What saven me as schoolchild in Arizona," she once wrote, "waiting to grow up, waiting to escape into a larger reality, was reading books . . . "

At the age of fifteen Sontag entered  the University of California at Berkeley. After a year she transferred to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1951. At the age of seventeen Sontag married in her sophomore year the 28-year-old Philip Rieff, a sociology instructor; they divorced in the late 1950s. "I was lucky enough to have a child and be married when I was very young;" Sontag later said. "I did it and now I don't have to do it anymore." With Rieff Sontag moved to Boston and continued her studies at Harvard, where she was a Ph.D. candidate from 1955-1957.

In 1957-58 Sontag studied at the University of Paris. She worked as a lecturer in philosophy at the City College of New York and Sarah Lawrence. From 1960 to 1964 she was an instructor in the religion department of Columbia University, and then a writer-in-residence for one year at Rutgers. In the 1960s Sontag's connection with the Partisan Review brought her in close contact with the 'New York intellectuals.' She contributed to various other periodicals, including New York Review of Books, Atlantic Monthly, Nation, and Harper's. Her first films made in Sweden, Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971), received poor reviews.

As a novelist Sontag started her career at the age of 30 with The Benefactor. The heavily symbolic work was partly a pastiche of the 19th-century Bildungsroman, a novel about the formation of character. In the story the protagonist, Hippolyte, a wealthy man, attempts to make his daily life conform to his bizarre dreams and to have them to serve as solutions to his normal life. Hippolyte finally achieves complete freedom by rejecting outside interpretations of his real/dream life, and finds peace at living in silence. The novel prepared way for Sontag's essays about art – she stated that people should not attempt to find the 'meaning' in a work of art but experience it as a thing in itself.

On the bohemian New York scene of the early sixties, Sontag swiftly acquired a reputation as the radical-liberal American woman, who had not only deep knowledge ancient and modern European culture, but could also reinterpret it from the American point of view. A selection of her writings appeared in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1968), where she stated that the understanding of art starts from intuitive response and not from analysis or intellectual considerations. "A work of art is a thing in the world, not just text or commentary on the world." Thus she could defend the fascist aesthetics of Leni Riefenstahl, whose Triump of the Will (1935) is the most famous example of Nazi propaganda. Later Sontag reconsidered her views and coined the slogan of 'fascinating fascism' in her essay from 1974. It was an assault on the rehabilitation Riefenstahl. "Incidentally, her ideas were not new," answered Riefenstahl in her book of memoir in 1987, "she was merely rehashing an opinion that Siegfried Kracauer had voiced in his film catechism From Caligari to Hitler".

Rejecting interpretation, Sontag advocated what she called 'transparency', which means "experiencing the luminousness of thing in itself, of things being what they are." The 'meaning' of art lies in the experiencing both style and content together without analysis. "Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art." Sontag's other influential works include The Style of Radical Will (1969), which continued her explorations of contemporary culture and such phenomena as drugs, pornography, cinema, and modern art and music. The essays in On Photography (1976) were first published in The New York Review of Books. This book, which took five years to finish, was a study of the force of photographic images which are continually inserted between experience and reality. Sontag developed further the concept of 'transparency.' When anything can be photographed and photography has destroyed the boundaries and definitions of art, a viewer can approach a photograph freely with no expectations of discovering what it means. Later the famous celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, a close friend of Sontag, told that Sontag's views deeply influenced her life. "When I first met her, she said, 'You could be good,' and I've always been trying to rise to that place," Leibovitz confessed in an interview. On Photography was not illustrated with photograps, and the same policy Sontag followed in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), dealing with the imagery of war. Again Sontag rests solely on the power of words in the world, where "our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities."

Illness as Metaphor (1978) was written after Sontag's cancer treatment. Her point was that although illness is used often punitatively as a figure or metaphor for all sorts of political, military, and other processes, the most truthful way is to resist such metaphoric thinking. Sontag compared TB with cancer, noting that "in the hierarchy of the body's organ, lung carcer is felt to be less shameful than rectal cancer." Newsweek described Illness as Metaphor as "one of the most liberating books of our time." The book was later revised and expanded as Aids and Its Metaphors (1988), in which Sontag saw AIDS as one of the most "mean-laden" of diseases, and criticized the aspect of punishment that was connected to it.

"If consistency is truly the hobgoblin of little minds, Sontag's mind must be very large, for she has never been stopped by her own last pronouncement. In the past decade, for instance, while continuing to champion the kind of elliptical European fiction that meets her much elaborated and stringent critical standards, she began writing best-selling, plot-heavy novels. But whatever the position or wherever the situation, Sontag has managed to hold the limelight as few of her kind have done." (Daphne Merkin in 'The Dark Lady of the Intellectuals', The New York Times on the Web, October 29, 2000)

Sontag's second novel, Death Kit (1967), a was a nightmarish meditation on life, death and the relationship between the two. Like in The Benefactor, the fragmented protagonist cannot always distinguish between dream and reality. Sontag's short stories, I, Etcetera, came out in 1977. Sontag's third novel, The Volcano Lover (1992), was a bestseller. The story was set in the 18th century, and depicted a drama between the 56-year- old ambassador sir William Hamilton, his 20-year-old wife Lady Emma Hamilton, and the hero of the age, Lord Nelson, who won Napoleon but lost his victory for a woman. It is also a story of revolution and the position of women, written in a manner that approaches the formality of late 18th-century English. After the appearance of the book Sontag has declared that she will concentrate on writing fiction rather than essays.

"The principal instances of mass violence in the world today are those committed by governments within their own legally recognized borders. Can we really say there is no response to this? Is it acceptable that such slaughters be dismissed as civil wars, also known as ''age-old ethnic hatreds.'' (After all, anti-Semitism was an old tradition in Europe; indeed, a good deal older than ancient Balkan hatreds. Would this have justified letting Hitler kill all the Jews on German territory?) Is it true that war never solved anything? (Ask a black American if he or she thinks our Civil War didn't solve anything.)" (from 'Why Are We in Kosovo?' 1999)

Sontag's novel In America (1999) was based on a real story. It depicted a woman's search for self-transformation. The protagonist is Maryna Zalewska, an actress, who travels in 1876 with her family and a group of Poles to California to found an utopian commune. When the endeavour fails, Maryna returns successfully on the stage. The work received the National Book Award in 2000. Where the Stress Falls (2001), a collection of essays, made William Deresiewicz in The New York Times attack on Sontag's position as America's leading intellectual: "While ''Where the Stress Falls'' won't do much to enhance her stature as a thinker, never before has she made such large claims for her moral pre-eminence, her exemplary fulfillment of the intellectual's mission as society's conscience. In effect, she's the first person in a long while to nominate herself so publicly for sainthood." (The New York Times, November 4, 2001) The novelist Lisa Appignanesi notes in her review that what sets Sontag apart from most of her academic contemporaries is that "if they care, they can't seem to think; and if they can think, they're often too grand to care" (from Independent, 19 January 2002). During the war in Bosnia, Sontag spent a good part of three years, from 1993 to 1996, in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. "If Europe is having a hard time thinking that it matters what happens in the southeastern corner of Europe," Sontag wrote in her famous essays 'Why Are We In Kosovo', "imagine how hard it is for Americans to think it is in their interest." (The New York Times Magazine, May 2, 1999)

In addition to essays and novels, Sontag wrote screenplays for experimental films and directed for the theatre. She also edited selected writings of such European writers as Roland Barthes and Antonin Artaud (1976). Homo Poeticus (1995) is a selection of Danilo Kis' essays and interviews, in which Sontag wrote an introduction. Among Sontag's several awards are American Academy Ingram Merrill Foundation Award (1976), National Book Critics Circle Award (1977), Academy of Sciences and Literature Award (Germany, 1979). She was appointed in 1979 Member of American Academy. In 1990 Sontag received a five-year fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. Her private life Sontag kept carefully guarded. However, in an interview in The New York Times she told that she had loved both men and women. With Joseph Brodsky, whom she dated for a period, she ate often at the Silver Palace, a New York Chinese reataurant. Sontag died of complications of leukemia in Manhattan on December 28, 2004. She had been ill with cancer intermittently from the 1970s. The famous white streak in her hair was the only part that was its true color: chemotherapy thinned her thick, black hair and mostly white or grey grew back. Sontag's last essays included 'Regarding the Torture of Others,' about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq (May 23, 2004, The New York Times Magazine).

For further reading: Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist by Sohnya Sayres (1989); Conversations with Susan Sontag by Leland Poague (1995); Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion by Liam Kennedy (1995); Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock (2000); Susan Sontag: An Annotated Bibliography, 1948-1992 by Leland A. Poague, Kathy A. Parsons (2000); Reading Susan Sontag: A Critical Introduction to Her Work by Carl Rollyson (2002); Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me, by Craig Seligman (2004); Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag by Sigrid Nunez (2011)

Selected works:

  • Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, 1959 (with Philip Rieff)
  • The Benefactor: A Novel, 1963
  • Literature, 1966
  • Death Kit, 1967
    - Musta aurinko (suom. Marja Haapio, 1987)
  • Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 1968
  • Styles of Radical Will, 1969
  • Duett för kannibaler, 1969 (film, prod. Sandrews, written and directed by Susan Sontag, starring Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Gösta Ekman, Agneta Ekmanner, Brita Brunius, Stig Engström, Gunnar "Knas" Lindkvist)
  • Trip to Hanoi, 1969
    - Matka Hanoihin (suom. Ritva Turunen, 1969)
  • Duet for Cannibals: A Screenplay, 1970
  • The Art of Revolution, 1970 (by Dugald Stermer, introductory essay by Susan Sontag)
    - Vallankumouksen taide: 96 kuubalaista julistetta (suom. Jarkko Sauli, 1971)
  • Bröder Carl, 1971 (film, prod. Sandrews, Svenska Filminstitutet, written and directed by Susan Sontag, starring Geneviève Page, Gunnel Lindblom and Keve Hjelm)
  • Brother Carl: A Filmscript, 1974
  •  Promised Lands, 1974 (documentary, prod. Zespól Filmowy "X", written and directed by Susan Sontag)
  • Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, 1976 (translated by Helen Weaver, edited with introduction by Susan Sontag)
    - Lihan estetiikka Artaud'n mukaan (suom. Riika Stewen, 1986)
  • On Photography, 1977
    - Valokuvauksesta (suom. Kanerva Cederström, Pekka Virtanen, 1984)
  • Illness as Metaphor, 1977
    - Sairaus vertauskuvana; AIDS ja sen vertauskuvat (suom. Osmo Saarinen, 1991)  
  • I, etcetera, 1978
  • The Story of the Eye, 1979
  • Under the Sign of Saturn, 1980
  • A Barthes Reader, 1982 (edited, and with an introd. by Susan Sontag)
  • A Susan Sontag Reader, 1982 (introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick)
  • Unguided Tour, 1983 (film, prod. Radiotelevisione Italiana, written and directed by Susan Sontag, starring Claudio Cassinelli and Lucinda Childs)
  • AIDS and Its Metaphors, 1988
  • Italy, One Hindred Years of Photography, 1988 (with Cesare Colombo)
  • Cage-Cunningham-Johns: Dancers on a Plane, in Memory of Their Feeling, 1990 (with Richard Francis)
  • The Way We Live Now, 1991 (with Howard Hodkin)
  • Violent Legacies, 1992 (with Richard Misrach)
  • The Volcano Lover: A Romance, 1992
    - Tulivuoren rakastaja (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1993)
  • Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight Scenes, 1993
  • Conversations with Susan Sontag, 1995 (edited by Leland Poague)
  • Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews, 1995 (by Danilo Kiš, edited, and with an introduction by Susan Sontag)
  • In America: A Novel, 1999 (National Book Award, 2000)
  • Why Are We In Kosovo?, 1999 (essay)
  • Women, 1999 (photographs by Annie Leibovitz; essay by Susan Sontag)
  • Where the Stress Falls: Essays, 2001
  • Regarding the Pain of Others, 2002
  • At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches, 2007 (edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump)
  • Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963, 2008 (edited by David Rieff)
  • As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, 2012 (edited by David Rieff)

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