Susan Sontag Sontag, Susan (Vol. 13) - 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. Her concern is, in her words, "to show how the work of art is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means." As a fiction writer and a filmmaker, her style is often experimental and surrealistic, involving the reader in a world that is dreamlike and ambiguous. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Alfred Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Susan Sontag is a [grim] figure, for the idea of alternatives in every possible situation always replaces the bread of life. In her novels as in her essays, she is concerned with producing a startling esthetic which her words prolong. She is interested in advancing new positions to the point of making her clever, surprisingly sustained novels experiments in the trying-out of an idea. One respects these books, even their total intellectual solemnity, because they are entirely manifestations of Sontag's personal will over esthetic situations defined as those in which originality functions by asserting itself. (p. 180)

[What] makes Sontag's novels more than curiosities is her belief that fiction is a trying-out, an hypothesis which you carry out, not prove. The "world" is entirely plastic. Today we improvise, and tonight we shall improvise something else. Her books are films in the sense that there are shots of one idea after another. And they "work," they operate within their context (if hardly on our emotions), because Sontag is one of those provocative writers, like William Gass trained first in philosophy, for whom a narrative is a situation one "supposes" as philosophers do, in illustration of an argument—now just suppose that this table …—rather than a story the writer himself is the first to believe. (p. 181)

Sontag's two novels advance constructions of reality by the protagonists that then they try to live up to. In The Benefactor a nondescript young Frenchman, Hippolyte, has bizarre dreams and then tries to reproduce them in his life. The "dreams" are really scenarios, not dreams; Hippolyte's actual experiences are intellectually worked out footnotes to the dreams, and without the slightest touch of comedy. Surely a man trying to live by his dreams is naturally comic? But Sontag has no humor, for that would involve her in something like Kafka's whimsical identifications with...

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Robert Melville

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[On Photography] is a surrealistic demonstration of the art of juxtaposition, a St Vitus's dance of modest, ambitious and absurd claims for photography interspersed with advertisements for cameras so simple to use that anyone can obtain instant results of high technical quality. The outcome is an effect of ironic neutrality. [Sontag's] essays on the other hand are analytical, paradoxical, controversial, always clever, often profound—and the outcome is an effect of ironic neutrality. (p. 69)

Sontag refers to a … sequence in Blowup. The photographer is sitting astride the thighs of a fashion model lying on the floor. He is madly clicking his camera at her face while she turns this way and that. The scene is a substitute for a paroxysmal rape…. Sontag cites this sequence from Blowup as evidence that the camera is a poor symbol for the penis, and finds the gun and the fast car more suitable analogies for the camera as a weapon. She quotes from a camera ad ("Just aim, focus and shoot") to prove that the camera is sold as a predatory weapon, but admits that it seems to be all bluff, "like a man's fantasy of having a gun, knife or tool between his legs", but since a man no more fantasises about having a car between his legs than having a camera there the symbolism gets a bit complicated. (pp. 69-70)

Placing her piece on [Diane] Arbus so that it would be immediately followed by her most provocative...

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Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The eight short stories in I, etcetera … reflect a vital and restless imagination cooking away in several directions….

The typical Sontag character is intelligent, self-analytical, and suffering from a non-specific form of anxiety or discontent. He may be obsessed by thoughts of freedom, while continually fettering himself at every turn. He may long for change and space, but he's unwilling to give up the brittle shell he is accustomed to inhabiting…. Generally, he feels burdened by a body of fashionable knowledge that fails to solve any of his real problems….

The drawback to stories written in an unself-aware state is … that at times they may turn too far inward, making no effort in the direction of the reader. Assuming that most writers are saying, "I have something of myself that I want to express," we can't help feeling that on occasion Susan Sontag is adding, "And don't you wish you knew what it was?" Or (even greater insult) a brusque, "But never mind." (p. 29)

Both ["Project for a Trip to China" and "Unguided Tour"] are more like notes for stories, and self-addressed notes at that. Paragraphs tend to consist of one short sentence—the length of easiest impact. Random observations are separated by weighty pauses. There is a scarcity of specific, human characters. None of these qualities are necessarily mistakes, of course. (Think what Donald Barthelme can accomplish with a...

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John B. Breslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Susan Sontag is best known as a critic who has insistently reminded American readers that a vast contemporary world of thought and imagination continues to evolve on the other side of the Atlantic. Whether she is discussing books or movies or philosophical concepts. Sontag finds her apt illustrations, if not her central theme, in the European tradition, especially in France. In this she bears a resemblance to Matthew Arnold whose love affair with Europe gave to his literary and cultural criticism a breadth of reference otherwise lacking in early Victorian England. Like Arnold, too, Sontag holds firmly to her belief in the saving power of reason …, but she never blinds herself to the sometimes dazzling light cast by the experience of the absurd. And so her collections of critical essays map the modern terrain from Camus to Camp, from Simone Weil's tormented life to Bergman's tortured and torturing characters.

It is in her criticism, as well, that we find a key to her fiction. An essay on "The Pornographic Imagination" leads Sontag to explore the diversities of prose narrative; in place of a simplified notion of "realism," which would correspond roughly to representationalism in art, she offers as the writer's—and the critic's—principal focus "the complexities of consciousness itself, as the medium through which a world exists at all and is constituted." With this more sophisticated point of view, "exploring ideas" becomes "as authentic an aim of prose fiction" as "dramatic tension or...

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Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is nothing ready-made about the eight stories in I, etcetera. Indeed the question of signature, of putting together an identity, is explicitly raised, and even when the characters worry about their facelessness, this preoccupation itself, and the writing which displays it, clearly wear the faces Sontag has chosen to give them. A man in one of the stories hands over his life to a dummy because he is "tired of being a person": "Not just tired of being the person I was, but any person at all." Simone Weil is quoted as saying that the only thing more hateful than a "we" is an "I"; and at another point this savage old question is fired off: "Who has the right to say 'I'?" The assertion of self is an ugly and dangerous habit, but the suppression of self is a feeble-hearted error. On this shifting terrain we have to learn to say "I" in the right tone of voice, and this, I take it, is the implication of the wry joke in the book's title. Once we have said "I" in the proper way, everything else we might say can be summarized as "etcetera."

In one sense this is a curiously American problem, individualism with a bad conscience. It is more American, even Jamesian, when it is linked to the theme of the unlived life—as if a life which is not aggressively asserted will simply not be there. Thus Dr. Jekyll, in Sontag's agile and funny rewriting of the famous tale, becomes a kind of cousin of the pale hero of James's "Beast in the Jungle": "Nothing is going to happen to me," he says. "I mean, I know what's going to happen to me…. I could already write my obituary." This Jekyll envies Hyde his freedom and his violence, what he sees as his life. Jekyll himself can only think of "all the imaginary crimes he has committed, and of all the real crimes he has never imagined." In another story a sensible Mrs. Johnson, "proud wife and mother of three," "renowned for having the cleanest garbage on the block," sets out in search of a randy liberation and is counseled and bewitched by a variety of "American spirits," including those of Tom Paine, Betsy Ross, Ethel Rosenberg, Leland Stanford, Margaret Fuller, and Errol Flynn.

"Old Complaints Revisited" shows us a narrator who wishes to leave what he or she—nothing in the language or the names used indicates his or her sex—calls the movement or the organization, but can't…. "I accuse the organization of depriving me of my innocence. Of complicating my will." It is the opposite of liberty, it is a morbid loyalty to things beyond the self which means that the self is entirely starved….

At other times this exile from immediate experience is seen as an advantage, a chance to unpack the clutter of the...

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Liz Mednick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Among the world's foremost equivalencers, Susan Sontag is a perpetual curiosity, especially noteworthy for her unequivocal promotion of unlikely equations whose virtues she apparently considers self-evident. In the title of her latest venture, I, etcetera, she manages a truly impressive equilibration. The reference to I is pretty clear, however, the etcetera could mean any number of things, as for instance: I, me, myself and mine; I came, saw, conquered, think therefore etc.; I want-see-say-do-will-can-am; or more probably, I, everyone and everything else. But no matter which you choose, etcetera has a way of equalizing whatever falls into its demesne; it renders further account or...

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Anthony Clare

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The use of metaphors for illness and disease forms the subject of Susan Sontag's remarkable little book [Illness as Metaphor]…. (p. 294)

One can be critical of the process of converting illness into metaphor without having to fall back on a single-cause theory of disease. So why does Miss Sontag yoke them together so tightly? The answer, it seems to me, lies in her fear that any tendency to locate any responsibility for one's disease inside oneself may lead to a relentless scapegoating…. The desire not to add to the victim's terrible misfortune by identifying with any precision his actual responsibility provokes, in some people, the impulse to deny the evidence linking smoking and cancer....

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Frank Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Notes toward an evaluation of I, etcetera, a collection of stories by Susan Sontag:

Be objective. Note general characteristics. Eight stories, conventionally unconventional. Not much plot, not much action, not many incidents. Lots of wondering about things, though. And deadpan serious.

"Don't panic. Confession is nothing, knowledge is everything." That's a quote but I'm not going to tell who said it. Hints:—a writer—somebody wise—an Austrian (i.e., a Viennese Jew)—a refugee—he died in America in 1951.

Confession is me, knowledge is everybody."

S. Quotes a lot. And hints a lot….


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