Susan Sontag

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Susan Sontag American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2343

Sontag wrote in a highly allusive style; that is, she was constantly referring to other writers and works of art. She assumed—as did Oscar Wilde, one of her great influences—that art of all kinds shaped the world. Writers and artists did not imitate nature—as Aristotle argued—but rather created their own world, so that the works of art are autonomous; they are independent entities that have to be judged in their own terms and not by any standard that society imposed on art or the artist.

Reading a Sontag essay is like taking a course in the history of the arts. Readers without a strong background in literature, art history, and philosophy confront a writer who concedes very little to their lack of knowledge. Even more daunting, she rarely focuses on one work of art or artist. Rather, she refers to many sources to illustrate her point, for example, about the surrealism of photography. In order to grasp her argument, some familiarity with the poet Walt Whitman, the critic Walter Benjamin, and photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Diane Arbus is necessary. Moreover, her books on photography contain no photographs—evidently because it is the style of the argument that is important rather than the explanation of any particular photograph.

One way to understand Sontag’s difficulty as a writer is to realize that she is challenging her readers’ opinions. She is taking issue, in other words, with the way people have been educated. Moreover, she is trying to shape and, in her early essays, to change public opinion. Her writing makes sense insofar as her readers have had the education and life experience to understand and to quarrel with Sontag.

Sontag expects, in other words, to have her ideas attacked. She writes as provocatively as possible to arouse public consciousness about certain issues. She also argues with herself, so that one book may well contradict or at least modify an earlier position she has taken. She called this approach “Thinking Against Oneself,” the title she appended to her essay on the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran.

A classic example of Sontag’s own thinking against herself is the way that she changes positions on the work of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. In Against Interpretation, Sontag defends films such as Triumph des Willens (1935; Triumph of the Will), a work that glamorized Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, because the documentary is a beautifully constructed work of art. Its message may be repugnant, and yet the beauty of its images and the director’s supple grasp of the film medium call for the highest praise. However, in “Fascinating Fascism,” included in Under the Sign of Saturn, Sontag reverses the argument and suggests that it is wrong to praise art apart from its political implications. In this case, she is keen to point out that the glorification of strength that pervades Triumph of the Will is part of a fascist aesthetic that suffuses all of Riefenstahl’s work as an actress and director.

Sontag’s thinking is Hegelian; that is, like the philosopher Hegel, she believes that learning is dialectical—one idea is challenged by its opposite, and eventually a synthesis of opposing ideas will occur. In Sontag’s case, she does not so much reject her earlier praise of Riefenstahl’s art as suggest it was one-sided and that aesthetics cannot be so easily divorced from politics and that all art has to be viewed not only for itself but also in its historical context.

Sontag’s last two novels reflect her desire to see events, personalities, and ideas in a historical context. A novel can encompass the tensions between ideas, characters, and political movements in ways that essays, she believed, could not. Essays demanded a rigor of argument, whereas fiction, though it can be a form of argument, also has to be narrative. In other words, a story must be told.

By setting her stories in the past and writing historical novels, Sontag was able to gain some perspective on ideas that her role as an advocate of ideas in her essays did not allow. In novels, she could contemplate several opposing forces at once and not feel the need to be conclusive. Thus, in The Volcano Lover she can provide an empathetic account of Lord Nelson, the war hero who saved Britain from a French invasion, and his lover Emma Hamilton, while at the same time portraying the radical women of the Romantic period who opposed Nelson and the imperial politics of the age.

If Sontag’s novels have received mixed reviews, however, it is because her attempt to combine narrative and analysis, history and an assessment of history, is troubling. Storytelling (narrating) and explication (explaining ideas and themes) are quite different modes of writing, and Sontag tried to incorporate both the critic and the creator in fiction.

Perhaps her most successful writing has been the biographical essay, in which she offers an appreciation of the writer’s life and career. The best example is “Under the Sign of Saturn,” the title essay of her 1980 collection, an essay which does not merely explain the work of critic Walter Benjamin but attempts to evoke his personality, not only by dwelling on certain episodes of his biography but also by lingering over photographs of him for what they reveal about his sensibility. This essay, like the first essay in the collection, “On Paul Goodman,” defines Sontag’s personal connection to her subject. This autobiographical thrust, reminiscent of some of her short stories in I, Etcetera, is perhaps her highest achievement.

Against Interpretation, and Other Essays

First published: 1966

Type of work: Essays

This work encompasses twenty-six essays revealing the impressive range of Sontag’s interests—from literary theory to film and popular culture, to philosophy, art history, and the theater.

Sontag’s signature essay, “Against Interpretation,” like its companion piece, “On Style,” highlights her concern with form. Sontag feels she is writing at a time when critics tend to discuss content, reducing works of art to their messages or themes. What art says is less important than how the art expresses itself, Sontag insists. In her view, to treat art as simply a conveyer of content is to negate the idea of art itself.

“Against Interpretation” provides an erudite summary of the history of literary criticism, in which Sontag takes issue with Aristotle’s definition of art as mimetic; that is, art as an imitation of nature. To Sontag, this definition makes art beholden to standards outside itself.

The implications of Sontag’s position are apparent when she attacks the idea that art can be judged by society’s notions of morality. Since those notions change over time and differ from one society to another, art has to transcend the immediate circumstances of its production, and art should be judged by its own terms. In other words, Sontag is reiterating the “art for art’s sake” argument advanced by Wilde in his famous essays “The Critic as Artist” and “The Decay of Lying.”

Against Interpretation, and Other Essays contains many of Sontag’s most famous essays, including “The Imagination of Disaster” (her anatomy of science-fiction films) and “Notes on ’Camp,’” the work that made her virtually an overnight sensation when Time magazine published a summary of it. The essay on camp is hardly an essay at all but rather a series of numbered pithy passages. Sontag defines camp in many different ways, but the essential point is that it is a sensibility that values style—works of art that are flamboyant, exaggerated, and even corny. A film such as King Kong is campy, for example, because it is so overdone, so self-consciously attempting to be a monster film meant to thrill its audience.

What made “Notes on ’Camp’” so startling is Sontag’s willingness to discuss virtually in the same breath high culture (opera) and popular culture (film) as camp. She blurs the distinction between elite and mass cultural tastes, shocking certain critics and exciting others who see her work as revolutionary—a new way to unify disparate kinds of art.

Illness as Metaphor

First published: 1978

Type of work: Essay

A probing essay on the nature of human reactions to illness, especially to cancer.

Sontag wrote this polemical book in the wake of her own arduous recovery from breast cancer. Although she nowhere mentions her own illness in the book, her own experience with a life-threatening disease (as she admitted in interviews) was the inspiration for her work.

Sontag’s main concern is to refute the idea that there are psychological causes of disease. To her, disease is a physical problem that is best treated by securing the best possible medical diagnosis and therapy. She is particularly disturbed by the idea that cancer, for example, can be induced through the repressing of emotions. She likens this belief to earlier notions that tuberculosis was somehow associated with the artistic sensibility or with especially sensitive natures. In the end, the disease, scientists discovered, had nothing at all to do with personality but with a bacillus that could be treated with antibiotics.

Sontag argues that a mystique envelops diseases such as tuberculosis and cancer, which is only dispelled when the physical causes of these illnesses are revealed. In the nineteenth century, for example, a body of Romantic literature associated tuberculosis with the long-suffering artist, just as cancer in Sontag’s own time was associated with certain inhibited personality types. Sontag draws on an impressive body of literature to demonstrate how art has shaped the public’s reaction to illness.

The consequences of such Romantic thinking are that the ill person feels doomed—even feeling that he or she has in some mysterious way caused the sickness. This sense of fate works against the patient’s efforts to secure the best medical treatment. It even prevents doctors from being honest with the patients for fear that the dreaded word “cancer” will sap the patient’s desire to get well. Sontag argues vigorously against this tendency to succumb to fear and shame, urging her readers to take charge of their own medical care by aggressively seeking the best treatment.

The Volcano Lover

First published: 1992

Type of work: Novel

The Volcano Lover is an erudite historical novel about diplomat and art collector Sir William Hamilton, his wife, Emma, and her lover, Lord Nelson, the British hero who saved England from a Napoleonic invasion.

A historical novel seems a radical departure for Sontag, whose critical work scorns realistic fiction and argues in favor of avant-garde styles that challenge conventional ideas about the self and society. However, on another level, The Volcano Lover is an experimental novel. The narrator writes what are, in effect, mini-essays about the nature of art, why people collect it and prize it, and why Sir William Hamilton, in particular, was drawn to the beautiful. The novel is, in other words, about the aesthetic view of life which is, nevertheless, attached to the world of politics and history. Sir William Hamilton is, after all, a British ambassador living in Naples. He is a volcano lover and traverses the hot surface of Mount Vesuvius, an obvious metaphor for the passion that he is able to express only intermittently in his political life and in his marriage to Emma.

Into this aesthetic world Nelson (called only “the hero”) intrudes, enticing both Sir William and his wife to his side. Nelson’s boldness, his attentiveness, and his single-minded devotion to England and to his destiny as a hero make him irresistible—except to the narrator, whose ironic tone questions the brutal consequences of Nelson’s devotion to honor and patriotism.

Both a critical and popular success (the novel was a best seller), The Volcano Lover came at a unique moment in Sontag’s career, justifying her shift away from the essay form to that which she regarded as a more creative, capacious, and spontaneous kind of writing. Her radical politics and her aesthetics remain an important ingredient in the novel, but in this new form of fiction, she is able to harness her ideas to a very romantic and appealing story.

In America

First published: 2000

Type of work: Novel

This historical novel describes the emigration of the great Polish actress Maryna Zalewska to Anaheim, California, where she tries to establish a utopian community.

For a writer often deeply critical and even dismissive of her native land in essays such as “What’s Happening in America” (included in Styles of Radical Will), In America is another surprise. Setting her novel in nineteenth century America, however, allows her to gain some perspective on her ambivalent feelings toward her native land.

On one hand, Zalewska has unrealistic expectations, thinking that she can create and sustain a commune formed of those followers (most of them male) who have followed their charismatic leader to the new world. On the other hand, her mission reflects the grandeur of America, where no dream seems impossible to fulfill. The epigraph for Sontag’s novel is poet Langston Hughes’s ecstatic remark “America Will Be!”

This sense that the United States has an unlimited future is what draws emigrants to the new land, even though many of them, such as Maryna, fail to achieve their dreams. In her case, she abandons her commune for a return to the theater, providing Sontag with wonderful comic moments as Maryna tours the United States and is exposed to an amusing array of eccentric characters.

Sontag’s last novel reflects her desire to write fiction that unifies her interests in art and politics. It also reflects her own self-dramatizing personality and her often-stated view that the United States, for all its faults, is a world in which individuals feel they can invent and reinvent themselves.

Critical opinion divides sharply on this novel, with a minority feeling it is Sontag’s best work and the majority considering it rather static and lacking in the deft handling of narrative and characters exemplified by The Volcano Lover. Nevertheless, the novel won the National Book Award.

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