Susan Sontag American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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


(The entire section is 2343 words.)