Susan Sontag Sontag, Susan (Vol. 105) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Susan Sontag 1933–

American essayist, critic, novelist, short story writer, editor, screenwriter, dramatist, and film director.

The following entry presents an overview of Sontag's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 10, 13, and 31.

Sontag is one of the most influential contemporary American critics. Considered a popular icon for her role in the development of modern culture and intellectual thought, Sontag addresses issues of interpretation and has exposed Americans to the works of modern European intellectuals.

Biographical Information

Sontag was born January 16, 1933, in New York City, but spent her youth in Tucson and Los Angeles. She graduated from high school at the age of fifteen and entered the University of California, Berkeley, transferring after one year to the University of Chicago, from which she received a B.A. in philosophy in 1951. While at the University of Chicago, Sontag met Philip Rieff, a social psychologist; the couple married in 1950 and had a son, David, two years later, but divorced in 1959. Sontag pursued graduate studies at Harvard from 1951 to 1957, earning master's degrees in English (1954) and philosophy (1955). She continued her graduate studies at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and the University of Paris. After several years of teaching at various universities, Sontag began writing full-time; her first collection of critical essays was published in 1966. In the early 1970s Sontag was diagnosed with breast cancer, which contributed to her writing of Illness as Metaphor (1978.)

Major Works

In her first collection of critical essays, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), Sontag eschewed standard methods of critical analysis that rely on content and various levels of meaning, asserting instead that the function of criticism is to show "how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than show what it means." Included in this collection is the famous essay "Notes on Camp" in which Sontag defends "camp" as a serious art form. Styles of Radical Will (1969) contains the essay "The Pornographic Imagination" in which Sontag argues that pornography is a valid literary genre. Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) both deal with the way in which western society interprets and creates cultural myths about disease. Sontag has also written several works of fiction, including The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), and a collection of short stories entitled I, etcetera (1978). Most noted among her fiction is The Volcano Lover (1992), an unusual account of Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson told from the point of view of Hamilton's husband, Sir William Hamilton. This novel provides a sweeping look at society and culture in Naples from 1764 to 1780, with which the author contrasts contemporary culture. Sontag has also written a play, Alice in Bed (1993), about the life of Alice James, the sister of Henry and William James.

Critical Reception

Sontag's work has generated much criticism. While some reviewers have praised her for providing a new interpretation of modern culture and for exposing Americans to modern European writers and intellectuals, others contend that Sontag's arguments are not supported adequately and that she diverges too much from her central themes. Bruce Bower writes, "It sometimes seems as if Sontag's chief priority as an essayist is not to clarify, persuade, or illuminate, but to demonstrate to the world that she is the highest of the highbrows, an intellectual, a breed apart from the lesser scribblers." Some critics have made similar assessments of her fiction. Richard Jenkyns states that Sontag has put too much of her own voice in The Volcano Lover: "Her characters are squeezed out to make room for her own insistent voice." Most critics, however, are united in their praise of Sontag's descriptive narrative and her depiction of historical trends and settings.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Benefactor (novel) 1963
Against Interpretation and Other Essays (essays) 1966
Death Kit (novel) 1967
Duet for Cannibals (screenplay) 1969
Styles of Radical Will (essays) 1969
Trip to Hanoi (essay) 1969
Brother Carl: A Filmscript (screenplay) 1971
Promised Lands (screenplay) 1974
On Photography (nonfiction) 1977
I, etcetera (short stories) 1978
Illness as Metaphor (nonfiction) 1978
Under the Sign of Saturn (essays) 1980
A Susan Sontag Reader (collection) 1982
Unguided Tour (screenplay) 1983
AIDS and Its Metaphors (nonfiction) 1989
The Way We Live Now (novel) 1991
The Volcano Lover: A Romance (novel) 1992
Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight Scenes (drama) 1993

∗Sontag also directed these films.

Merle Rubin (review date 11 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Susan Sontag's Cavalier Cavaliere," in The Christian Science Monitor, August 11, 1992, p. 11.

[In the following review of The Volcano Lover, Rubin writes that Sontag provides a fresh approach to the story of Admiral Horatio Nelson and his lover Emma Hamilton.]

A diplomat by vocation, a collector by avocation, the eponymous "volcano lover" of Susan Sontag's meditative, unconventional, historical romance [The Volcano Lover] is a typical man of the Enlightenment. As the British envoy from 1764 to 1800 to the court of Naples (capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), Sir William Hamilton—or, as Sontag dubs him, "the Cavaliere,"—divides his time between attending upon the outrageously uncouth Bourbon king and attending to his own special passions: collecting antique vases and other objets d'art and exploring the famous, still-active volcano of Mt. Vesuvius.

The Cavaliere is urbane, aristocratic, and possessed of a keenly inquiring mind. He has cultivated an attitude of detached superiority that allows him to take pleasure in life's diversity and vicissitudes. Interested in everything, but disturbed by almost nothing, he is the quintessential expatriate: "Where those stunned by the horror of the famine and the brutality and incompetence of the government's response saw unending inertia, lethargy, and a hardened lava of ignorance, the Cavaliere saw a flow. The expatriate's dancing city is often the local reformer's or revolutionary's immobilized one, ill-governed, committed to injustice. Different distance, different cities."

Volcanoes, too, look better from a safe distance. But the Cavaliere's boundless curiosity drives him to venture up the mountain again and again to peer into the smoldering crater. It is almost as if his familiarity with the volcano, combined with his aristocratic detachment, has left him feeling immune to its dangers.

"To love volcanoes," the narrator elsewhere observes, "was to put the revolution in its place." The Cavaliere's sense of disengagement, his ability to take the long view, helps him to view with equanimity the massive social upheaval that will shake Europe during his tenure as envoy.

The Cavaliere's wife, Catherine, a devoted, musically gifted woman, does not share his enthusiasm—either for volcanoes or for the vulgar, corrupt Neapolitan court. Yet her gentle and loving presence has been very important to him, so much so that when she dies, still in her early...

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Gabriele Annan (review date 13 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Moral Tale," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 39, No. 14, August 13, 1992, pp. 3, 4, 6.

[Below, Annan offers a positive review of The Volcano Lover.]

The Volcano Lover is the story of Nelson and Emma and William Hamilton. Susan Sontag calls it "a romance" and is intrepid enough to describe the first kiss between Nelson and Emma, "the fat lady and the short man with one arm." A frisson of ecstasy comes across; the scene works. And so does the pathos of the whole familiar saga. All the same, I should not call Sontag's book a romance so much as a moral tale, with reflections on many different topics coming out of it like balloons from a cartoon...

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Economist (review date 15 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cuckholded by Nelson," in Economist, Vol. 324, No. 7772, August 15, 1992, p. 77.

[In the review below, the critic argues that, in The Volcano Lover, Sontag "employs the techniques of an essayist and a social historian better than those of a story-teller in her version of the lives of William Hamilton, his wives Catherine and Emma, and Lord Nelson."]

Set mostly in Naples in the last 30 years of the 18th century, Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover follows the career of the British ambassador to the court of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. At the beginning of the narrative, this figure, dubbed "Il Cavaliere" by "polite Naples", is already well known...

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A. S. Byatt (review date 16 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Love and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius," in Washington Post Book World, August 16, 1992, pp. 1-2.

[Below, Byatt praises The Volcano Lover as intelligent and provocative.]

It is difficult to imagine anything more resolutely anti-romantic than Susan Sontag's "Romance," The Volcano Lover. It is set in late 18th-century Naples, in the shadow of Vesuvius. Its main characters are the Cavaliere, an English diplomat, his beautiful second wife, and the Hero, a visiting admiral who becomes the lover of the wife. They are, of course, Sir William Hamilton; Emma, Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson, perhaps always slightly absurd as romantic figures, but here so...

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Richard Eder (review date 16 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "That Hamilton Woman," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 16, 1992, pp. 3, 7.

[In the following review of The Volcano Lover, Eder states that although Sontag digresses and provides commentary, she tells her story well.]

Susan Sontag at play. That is not remarkable in itself. Double-domes make their stabs at levity: George Will writing about baseball; Chief Justice William Rehnquist capering solemnly—I saw him—in an amateur production of "Patience"; John Kenneth Galbraith trying his hand at an academic novel.

What sets The Volcano Lover apart from such heavy-footed exercises is not just that it is light-footed but also...

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R. Z. Sheppard (review date 17 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lava Soap," in Time, Vol. 140, No. 7, August 17, 1992, pp. 66-7.

[In the following review of The Volcano Lover, Sheppard argues that Sontag uses the novel as a vehicle for discussions of feminism and class.]

Long before the U.S. lost its trade balance, it was lopsided with intellectual goods from Europe. Marx, Freud, Sartre and Lévi-Strauss were required cribbing. Books translated from the French and German were best sellers and their authors culture heroes. So were their interpreters. As a critic and novelist, Susan Sontag handled European ideas and forms with brilliance and style. The camera loved her dark good looks, and she became an American...

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John Simon (review date 31 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Valkyrie of Lava," in The National Review, Vol. 44, No. 17, August 31, 1992, pp. 63-5.

[In the review below, Simon questions whether The Volcano Lover is a romance and argues that Sontag focuses too much on her opinions and not enough on her characters.]

Two of the most arresting things about Susan Sontag's new book, The Volcano Lover: A Romance, are the title and the subtitle. Why "romance," when to all intents and purposes it looks like a novel? In an interview, Miss Sontag declared that, "to find the courage to write this book," she needed "a label that allowed me to go over the top," as if novelists since Proust, Kafka, and Joyce had done...

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Bruce Bawer (essay date September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "That Sontag Woman," in The New Criterion, Vol. 11, No. 1, September, 1992, pp. 30-7.

[In the essay below, Bawer discusses cultural elitism in Sontag's works, focusing on her novel The Volcano Lover.]

In these times when charges of cultural elitism are routinely hurled by East Village poets at their formalist rivals, by au courant English professors at champions of the literary canon, and by the vice president of the United States at Hollywood producers, it seems particularly appropriate to ponder the career of Susan Sontag, who has for decades been the very apotheosis of a certain kind of cultural elitist. To be sure, the cultural elitist—if by those...

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Richard Jenkyns (review date 7 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eruptions," in New Republic, Vol. 207, Nos. 11-12, September 7-14, 1992, pp. 46-9.

[Below, Jenkyns offers a negative assessment of The Volcano Lover.]

Sir William Hamilton, the principal character of Susan Sontag's new novel [The Volcano Lover], was what the eighteenth century called a virtuoso, a cultivated aristocrat with an amateur interest in art and science. As British ambassador to the court of Naples from 1764 to 1800, he became what passed for a vulcanologist, making more than twenty ascents of Vesuvius, and collected antiquities, especially Greek vases. His enduring fame, however, is as one of history's most notorious cuckolds.


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Jonathan Keates (review date 25 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Antique Collector's Guide," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4669, September 25, 1992, p. 24.

[In the review below, Keates finds The Volcano Lover brilliant at its core but lacking in consistency and discipline.]

The historical events, characters and contexts explored by this remarkable book [The Volcano Lover] constitute the richest of rewards to any novelist. There is something instantly enviable in the prospect of being able to embark on a story which, in addition to its exotic setting beneath the minatory shadow of Vesuvius, will embrace Lord Nelson, Lady Hamilton, Goethe, Beckford, and that copper-bottomed harpy, Queen Maria Carolina of...

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Alexandra Johnson (review date 5 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Romance as Metaphor," in The Nation, Vol. 255, No. 10, October 5, 1992, pp. 365-68.

[In the following review, Johnson describes Sontag as a skilled storyteller and The Volcano Lover as an insightful novel.]

"Collecting," muses Susan Sontag in her latest novel, "is a succession of desires…. To collect is to rescue things, valuable things, from neglect, from oblivion, or simply from the ignoble destiny of being in someone else's collection rather than one's own."

In The Volcano Lover, Sontag has rescued a story locked in many a biographer's prized collection: the tangled fortunes of Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson, whose notorious...

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Evelyn Toynton (review date November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Critic as Novelist," in Commentary, Vol. 94, No. 5, November, 1992, pp. 62-4.

[In the following review, Toynton argues that The Volcano Lover leaves readers with Sontag's opinions but not with an understanding of the characters.]

Susan Sontag arrived at her present intellectual eminence with the publication of her first collection of essays, Against Interpretation (1966), a consideration of such chic cultural phenomena as happenings, the nouveau roman, French movies, and camp. In the title essay of that book, she argued for a radical new approach to art, one in which the emphasis would be on form rather than content. Interpretation,...

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Linda Colley (review date 3 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Elitism," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 23, December 3, 1992, p. 18.

[In the following review, Colley ponders Sontag's reasons for writing The Volcano Lover.]

Why did Susan Sontag write [The Volcano Lover]? Essayist and cultural critic, interpreter of Aids, cancer, the cinema, Fascism and pornography, recipient of Jonathan Miller's burdensome accolade 'probably the most intelligent woman in America', why should she want to attempt a historical novel? It's been a success of course. There have been the entries into the best-seller lists, the interviews and profiles in the right magazines, the respectful and often rapturous reviews. Only the...

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Marie Olesen Urbanski (review date 10 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Festering Rage," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 10, 1993, p. 8.

[In the following review, Urbanski writes that the subject matter of Alice in Bed is challenging and interesting but the play suffers from numerous limitations.]

How do you write a play about emptiness, about a woman whose "career choice" was to be an invalid? Who retreated from life to her bed with recurrent, undefined—perhaps imaginary—illnesses? Who read a lot, had a few friends and kept a journal, but never held a job or took a lover? This is the difficult subject Susan Sontag has chosen to dramatize in Alice in Bed, her new play about Alice James, who lived from...

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Marcie Frank (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Critic as Performance Artist: Susan Sontag's Writing and Gay Cultures," in Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, edited by David Bergman, University of Massachusetts Press, 1993, pp. 173-84.

[In the following essay, Frank explores the relationship between camp and gay culture in Sontag's writing.]

—I think the main question people have is, creature, what is it you want?

—Fred, what we want, I think, what everyone wants, is what you and your viewers have—civilization.

—But what sort of civilization are you speaking of, creature?

—The niceties, the fine...

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Susan Sontag with Erika Munk (interview date 19 August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Only the Possible: An Interview with Susan Sontag," in Theater, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1993, pp. 31-6.

[In the following interview, Sontag discusses her production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo.]

[Munk]: What did you hope to achieve, coming here?

[Sontag]: My original motivation was to work with professionals living here and produce for this audience. Had I made a film this would not have been possible. I could have used local people for lighting, etc., but the final work would be for an international audience—Sarajevans would get to see it if I gave them a print, but it wouldn't be for them, as it couldn't be by...

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Boyd Tonkin (review date 2 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Suffering in Silence," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 151, No. 14, October 2, 1994, p. 29.

[In the review below, Tonkin suggests how themes in Sontag's career contributed to her writing Alice in Bed.]

Last year, Susan Sontag defied Serbian gunnery and media mockery to direct Waiting For Godot in Sarajevo. This wasn't just a show of solidarity with a people under siege whose rescuers had failed to turn up. Right at the start of her 30-year career as writer and critic, Sontag argued that the "strenuous modesty" of Beckett and his ilk was more than a fugitive trend. She insisted that their austerity—"the pursuit of silence"—caught the temper of...

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Larissa MacFarquhar (review date 16 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Premature Postmodern," Nation, Vol. 261, No. 12, October 16, 1995, pp. 432-34, 436.

[Below, MacFarquhar reviews Liam Kennedy's Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion, a study of Sontag's writings and their historical context.]

There are certain poignant little facts sprinkled around us by that novelist in the sky that convey with especial vividness the gulf between past and present. One of these facts is that in the sixties some people considered Susan Sontag to be lacking in seriousness. Listen to Irving Howe writing in Commentary in 1968:

We are confronting, then, a new phase in our culture, which in motive and...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Gingrass, Lynn. "Marked by Contrariness." American Book Review 15, No. 3 (August-September 1993): 28.

Reviews The Volcano Lover and claims that the novel is admirable despite its disparate elements.

Olster, Stacey. "Remakes, Outtakes, and Updates in Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover." Modern Fiction Studies 41, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 117-39.

Discusses modernism and post-modernism in Sontag's novel.


Poague, Leland, ed. Conversations with Susan Sontag. University Press of...

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