Susan Sontag Sontag, Susan (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sontag, Susan 1933–

Sontag is an American novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, essayist, film director, and critic. She is better known as a critic of contemporary art forms than as a writer of fiction. In one of her best known and most controversial works, Against Interpretation, Sontag established her precepts for the evaluation of art. She wrote that art must be responded to with the sensory, not the intellectual, faculties, with greater emphasis given to the form rather than the content of a work. This philosophy is reflected in her novels, notably The Benefactor and Death Kit. Sontag collaborated with Philip Rieff on Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Louis D. Rubin, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whatever became of Camp, both High and Low? A few years ago, before the Revolution became the fashion in New York, there was a period when just about all you heard out of our literary marketplace was talk of the virtues of Camp. The utterances of its high priestess Susan Sontag were being greeted with the kind of adulation previously reserved for such critics and sages as W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Simone de Beauvoir, and Norman Mailer. For a half-dozen years or so she had all the editors charmed with her particular brand of fashionable antiintellectualism. She could toss together a whipped syllabub of Robbe-Grillet, Marat/Sade, and Josef von Sternberg, garnished with phrases like "the poetry of transvestitism" and "moral and aesthetic tact," that made her every printed observation a cultural event. But now the vogue for High and Low Camp has recessed into our cultural annals along with that for Krazy Kat and Significant Conversions. Ms. Sontag, I gather, has taken to writing novels, and the Beatles have long since been sprung for dope.

It is too bad, in a way. There was a delightful innocence about Camp and its followers that I found intriguing. It was determinedly and doggedly antiintellectual, in a very, very intellectual way. Its devotees were trying so hard not to seem Profound, though there was really no danger at all of that, and yet they couldn't help but intellectualize everything, because they knew no other mode of perception. Miss Sontag's program was very simple: she was against thinking. But she was not really antiintellectual. Indeed in a way she was the very epitome of intellectuality: she was all ideas, and her emotions were not so much felt as thought. She got her thrills out of abstractions, which she reified into attitudes....

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William H. Gass

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[On Photography] is a thoughtful meditation, not a treatise, and its ideas are grouped more nearly like a gang of keys upon a ring than a run of onions on a string. (p. 7)

Every page of "On Photography" raises important and exciting questions about its subject and raises them in the best way. In a context of clarity, skepticism and passionate concern, with an energy that never weakens but never blusters, and with an admirable pungency of thought and directness of expression that sacrifices nothing of subtlety or refinement, Sontag encourages the reader's cooperation in her enterprise. Though disagreement at some point is certain, and every notion naturally needs refinement, every hypothesis support, every alleged connection further oil, the book understands exactly the locale and the level of its argument. Each issue is severed at precisely the right point, nothing left too short or let go on too long. So her book has, as we say, a good head: well cut, perfectly coiffed, uniform or complete in tone or color, with touches of intelligence so numerous they create a picture of photography the way those grains of gray compose the print.

Sontag's comments on the work of Diane Arbus are particularly apt and beautifully orchestrated, as she raises the level of our appreciation and understanding of these strange photographs each time, in the course of her exposition, she has occasion to remark upon them. But these six elegant and carefully connected essays are not really about individual photographers, nor solely about the art, but rather about the act of photography at large, the plethora of the product, the puzzles of its nature. (pp. 7, 30)

Instead of a text accompanied by photographs, Susan Sontag has appended to her book a collection of quotes, framed by punctuational space and the attribution of source. These are clipped from their context to create, through collage, another context—yet more words. And for a book on photography that shall surely stand near the beginning of all our thoughts upon the subject, maybe there is a message, a moral, a lesson, in that. (pp. 30-1)

William H. Gass, "A Different Kind of Art," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 18, 1977, pp. 7, 30-1.

Richard Kuczkowski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In On Photography Sontag suggests that] photography is an aggressive, appropriating act (one shoots/takes a picture) which "makes reality atomic, manageable, opaque … denies interconnectedness, continuity … confers on each moment the character of a mystery." Alienating us from direct experience, the photo provides a more intense second-hand experience, an illusion of knowledge; essentially discrete, disjunct, mute, ahistorical, the photo cannot tell the truth that comes only from words and narration. Photography levels hierarchies, fosters seeing for seeing's sake…. Along with modernizing and surrealizing our perspective on reality, however, the camera also consumerizes it. The world becomes "a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation." And governments exploit the photographic image as another medium for capitalist ideologies….

Sontag's six essays—really linked meditations or even prose poems—all take up these themes again and again, placing them in progressively more complex contexts, squeezing (now and then with visible strain) every bit of significance out of each disquieting aspect of the photographic image and its ambiguous but potent force in the modern consciousness. There are no illustrations here, just lean prose studded with tight-mouthed, provocative aphorisms (the intellectual's equivalent of the stand-up comic's one-liners): "All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability."… (p. 88)

A splendid performance—intellectual pinball on the French model where the goal is to keep a subject in play for as long as possible, racking up a brilliant score of cultural references and profound (if somewhat obscure) mots. Yet On Photography is less self-consciously self-advertising than that; more disenchanted with pure esthetics, less against interpretation than one might have expected. It is, finally, a moralistic (Marxist persuasion) indictment of our common lot as "image junkies." The last sentences of Sontag's book call for an ecology of images without specifying the meaning of that term. Rather than mindless delight and preservation (save the seals! save the snapshots!) or puritanical proscription (only the pure may survive!), On Photography's analytical exposé of the dynamics and extent of our addiction should serve as a definition by example of such an ecology. (pp. 88-9)

Richard Kuczkowski, in Commonweal (copyright © 1978 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 3, 1978.

George P. Elliott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If photography were in fact the primary subject of [On Photography], one would be obliged to take exception to the many omissions and odd emphases to be found in it. Susan Sontag says everything worth saying about Diane Arbus's grotesquerie, almost nothing about Ansel Adams's photographs (though she does sneer at some of his prose), and nothing valuable about Dorothea Lange; she finds Richard Avedon interesting but does not mention Wright Morris (who in God's Country and My People combines words and photographs better than anyone else has ever done)…. Moreover, if this book were really about photography one would look closely at some of the outrageous assertions she flashes about, in the manner of French intellectuals: "the way photography inexorably beautifies". Does it indeed? "Cameras are … a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete." A very jazzy notion. But since photography is secondary to the main theme of this book, such oddities as these are not lapses but strategies in an altogether other argument….

Sontag observes that, after … Arbus killed herself, "the attention her work has attracted … is of another order [from what it had been before]—a kind of apotheosis. The fact of her suicide seems to guarantee that her work is sincere, not voyeuristic, that it is compassionate, not cold". This is an accurate observation of what in fact happened, and Sontag accurately "places" Arbus as a Surrealist, intense but very narrow.

However, note the "seems to guarantee" in the above quotation. Seems to whom—to the world at large, to Arbus's admirers, to all or some of those alert to current attitudes towards art and/or photography? More important, does it seem that way to Sontag herself? She is usually very slippery in this respect, as she is here, being able to claim or disavow ideas at her convenience so that, quite often, to pin her down is to appear ridiculous in the eyes of her camp.

When she comes to discuss a far more substantial photographer, Dorothea Lange, Sontag slurs her in a way she never slurs Arbus…. For Sontag, I...

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Maren Stange

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sontag] attributes her essays [in On Photography] to "my obsession with photography" and expresses herself often in the language of disease. She particularly favors "addiction" and "pollution"—"Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution"—and "compulsive consumption"—"We consume images at an ever faster rate and … images consume reality." Evidently, her intention is to tell what she has learned from her own forced closeness.

In choosing to deal with what William Gass aptly calls "the act of photography at large," Sontag associates herself with a group of writers on photography that includes Hawthorne, Baudelaire,...

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Maggie Scarf

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sontag's Illness as Metaphor is a message sent to us from someone who has sojourned in what she calls "the kingdom of the sick." It is not, however, a personal statement about what can be learned by living there; rather, it is a plea from the ill to the healthy for nondiscrimination against the citizens who live there—specifically those people who happen to be suffering from cancer. In a careful, scholarly, and yet passionate argument, the author compares our own century's most dreaded and feared disease with the 19th century's romantic (often fatal) malady, tuberculosis. (pp. 111-12)

Sontag also takes short quotations from other writers and poets—Blake, Lermontov, Dostoevsky—that appear...

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