Susan Sontag

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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

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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 "K." She is proud, but her hero is a ninny, a straw man. "Now let us just imagine that this ninny, Hippolyte…."

But what is striking about The Benefactor especially is the fact that the author can sustain her hypothesis, her fancy, through a novel that takes place not in Paris, where the characters are living, but in Susan Sontag's will to keep this up. (p. 182)

The Benefactor works because its author really sees the world as a series of propositions about the world. Her theoreticalness consists of a loyalty not to certain ideas but to life as the improvisation of ideas. She is positive only about moving on from these ideas, and this makes her an interesting fantasist about a world conceived as nothing but...

(This entire section contains 800 words.)

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someone thinking up new angles to it. Sontag writes about situations, is always figuring out alternatives to her existing ideas about them and thus works at situations in the way that a movie director works something out for an induced effect. But she is always in the book, visibly parallel to the scene she is writing. A book is a screen, as she is a mind visibly "projecting" her notion of things onto it. Screen and mind are separated by Sontag's refusal to tell a story for its own sake.

Death-Kit—which improbably relates the effort of one "Diddy" to discover whether he did or did-he not commit a murder—also has a dummy for hero. His supposed plight is just an occasion for the author's ambitious critical intelligence to think ahead of the reader. Although Sontag admires the "new wave" French writers and movie directors, what excites her is not their hatred of all conventionality but a desire to astonish, to replace someone else's way of looking at things. The total abstractness of even the American setting in Death-Kit is striking. The book is a series of variations on the theme of perception, and just as Diddy is a pun on his need to find out whether he did or didn't kill a workman in a train tunnel, so the tunnel is obviously symbolic, as is the fact that Diddy writes advertising copy for a manufacturer of microscopes and that his girl Hester is blind. Exploring all sorts of interesting considerations about "sight," like exploring the fantasy gimmick of a man trying to make his life conform to his dreams, certainly keeps Sontag more interesting than her characters. Abstractness gives her total authority, and it would seem to be this total control that interests her in the writing of a book, and that interests us in the reading of it. We do not experience a novel; we experience her readiness to see what she can think of next. (pp. 183-84)

Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1937 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with The Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973.

Robert Melville

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[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 statement was good strategy by Sontag, and it is with evident glee that she announces that photography "has managed to carry out the grandiose, century-old threats of a Surrealist takeover of the modern sensibility, while most of the pedigreed candidates have dropped out of the race."

I think we have to remember at this point that Sontag was growing up at a time when Abstract Expressionism was having its greatest triumphs. To a sensitive young American the "revolt against calculation" was what 20th-century painting was all about. The "pedigreed candidates" she mentions were the members of the Surrealist Group in Paris. The Surrealist painters had their great time in the 1930s and '40s. Almost all of them are dead, and it is a long while since any of them hoped to change the world. What Sontag has against them is that they were figurative, and she finds the idea of figurative painting in the 20th century so contemptible that she casts around for an insult and calls the paintings "mostly wet dreams", not a well-considered phrase from someone who admires Pollock's drip paintings. It must be quite confusing to have to argue, however cleverly, that nothing could be more surreal than a photograph "which virtually produces itself and with a minimum of effort", and at the same time be aware that André Breton's famous definition of Surrealism—"pure psychic automatism"—fits some of Pollock's paintings like a glove. (pp. 72-3)

Robert Melville, "Images of the Instant Past," in Encounter (© 1978 by Encounter Ltd.), November, 1978, pp. 69-73.

Anne Tyler

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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 clutch of offhand non-sequiturs apparently directed to himself alone.) And even here—especially in "Project for a Trip to China"—there is an abundance of those startling ironies and wry, quirky jokes that make Susan Sontag so tempting to quote…. But ultimately, we feel cheated. We turn past the last page, looking for one more page that will make the story come together. Even the freest internal voice, listened to with the utmost lack of criticism, must in the final step be screened for readability.

But where these stories succeed, they succeed wonderfully. "Debriefing" is a friend's account of the slow descent of Julia, who starts out asking herself questions with no answers and ends up dead…. This is one story where the stray-observations approach works as it ought to. Everything seems to meander along, hit or miss, come what may, but the cumulative effect is staggering. Gradually, Julia emerges as absolutely specific and individual, even while she is suffering from what some people would probably call the disease of our times. "Why you went under," her friend says, "while others, equally absent from their lives, survive is a mystery to me." It's a mystery to all of us, and remains so, but "Debriefing" gives us a sense of a real person in real trouble and when she's gone we truly share the grief and bewilderment of her friend. (pp. 29-30)

I, etcetera is not always an easy book to read; it's not always a rewarding book, even. But it does possess its own kind of spirit and nerve, and it takes some magnificent chances. (p. 30)

Anne Tyler, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 25, 1978.

John B. Breslin

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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 three-dimensionality in the rendering of personal and social relations." Traditional character development gives way to the depiction of "extreme states of human feeling and consciousness," where the links with concrete individuals may be no more than contingent.

In the essays, Sontag develops these points for a specific purpose—to argue that certain kinds of pornography, as the expression of just such an "extreme state" of consciousness, may be said to achieve the quality of art. But the same ideas apply equally well to her own—definitely nonpornographic—fictions. All of the stories in [I, Etcetera], with varying degrees of success, probe relentlessly at the thin membrane of our modern consciousness. Even the two "travel accounts" that bracket the collection, "Project for a Trip to China" and the splendidly lyrical finale, "Unguided Tour," have much more to do with the inner landscape of memory and imagination than with external geography….

[What is striking about the stories in I, Etcetera] is the wide range of literary forms Sontag has chosen to exploit in presenting her various "extreme states of human feeling and consciousness." "The Dummy," for instance, her earliest effort, borrows a science-fiction prop—the perfect mechanical replica—to explore the desire to escape from one's role in life and yet continue to observe it. With a characteristic ironic twist, the dummy and his replica in turn prove to be much better at being human than their inventor, thus leaving the title suitably ambiguous….

Whatever strategy she chooses in her quest for images of modern consciousness, Sontag deploys it with a sure sense of artistic form and ironic juxtaposition. Occasionally, however, her talent for appropriating and parodying the literary tradition overwhelms her own content and leaves the reader with the uneasy feeling that wit has triumphed over substance. But at her best, and this includes large chunks of even the less successful stories, Sontag illuminates our contemporary situation with the peculiar radiance that comes from the fusion of wide learning, precise thinking and deep feeling. Suddenly we see our own face in the mirror and hear our own voice with a shock of recognition all the greater for the restraint with which the revelation is made.

John B. Breslin, "Complexities of Consciousness," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), December 17, 1978, p. E3.

Michael Wood

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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 mind. "Perhaps I will write the book about my trip to China before I go," the narrator says at the end of the opening story, and it is a measure of Sontag's achievement here that this casual-seeming gag carries the weight of a whole perfect portrait. "China," a set of associations entertained by the narrator since childhood … becomes the ground of an eloquent meditation, a vision of the writer lapsing into the charmed guesswork of literature….

[A] good deal of the book has the flavor of an articulate, affectionate inventory, with its lucid listings of "What is wrong," "What people are trying to do," "What relieves, soothes, helps," "What is upsetting," "What I'm doing," and its amused attention to the pathetic memories we tag onto words and phrases like remember and last time and because, murmured like magical spells that just might make our forlorn adventures come alive for us…. (p. 30)

Travel is the ideal metaphor for the unlived life, since all trips are overloaded with expectation, and visited places are scarcely ever quite real when they are actually seen. Experience is held off, sniffed at, toured. Or once in a while it is simply, overwhelmingly, suffered, and in either case it is missed, uncomprehended, over before we have grasped what it might have meant. This particular sense of exclusion remains American, I think…. I can't imagine an English writer being so preoccupied with the self; but then I can't think of another American writer with so delicate an awareness of the demands of others.

Sometimes the crackle of Sontag's epigrams gets in the way of the compassion which has prompted the writing: "Literature tells us what is happening to words"; "Don't take Mélisande to see Pelléas et Mélisande"; "No one is a devil if fully heard"; "Wisdom is a ruthless business"; "It's not Paradise that's lost." Grand as these glittering things are, they tend to short-circuit the writing, and keep us at arm's length, or even further away. In one or two of the stories, the determined execution doesn't quite catch up with the initial bright idea—I'm thinking especially of "Baby," which is the double monologue of two spoiled parents on the subject of their one spoiled child, as they tell a silent doctor their painful, self-excusing tales. The book in general, however, not only confronts and explores the life which is traveled rather than lived, it records a life fully lived in the face of all such doubts. No pain or horror is avoided, no occasion for despair is ducked. In "Debriefing," the most moving story in the book and surely a small masterpiece, a depressed friend wants to "talk sadness," and the narrator briskly responds like the sensible person she is:

On cue, like an old vaudevillian, I go into my routines of secular ethical charm. They seem to work. She promises to try.

They don't work. Two days later the friend drowns herself in the Hudson…. Confronting this death, and a whole precisely realized panorama of the ills of New York and, by extension, of all sorts of other places, the narrator still refuses to give up, rolls her stone up the hill like a dogged Sisyphus. This is not simply a "positive" message, a mere assertion. It is something won, an earned survival…. "Only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair," Yeats wrote, "rouses the will to full intensity." And Susan Sontag, turning to yet another of those travelers' phrases she notes so acutely, crisply echoes the thought….

The end of the world. This is not the end of the world.

                                          (pp. 30-1)

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), January 25, 1979.

Liz Mednick

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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 discrimination not only unnecessary but impossible….

The first piece, "Project for a Trip to China," introduces what might be called Sontag's trademark—that is, her careful attention to the phenomenon of acquisitiveness. (p. 13)

The theme of travel as accumulation harks back to On Photography, where Sontag claims that "travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs." The strategy of "Project" is remarkably similar but it avoids the bothersome necessity of going anywhere. What Sontag accumulates and then presents as the material for this piece is a series of static images, like photographs, arranged in sequence but intended for further psychic rumination…. She relies on selective, discontinuous images of a photographic nature to provoke some kind of mental response. However, Sontag is careful to distinguish between literary and photographic imagery…. Since the act of photographing does not in fact materially disturb reality, the distinction she makes seems to rest more securely with the image itself than the process. Those images which are further from the appearance of reality are to Sontag less objectionable; conversely, as images approach reality she considers them parasitic. Sontag's preference for abstraction shows itself in the detached, two-dimensional quality of her characters….

"Old Complaints Revisited" is about as exciting as the title might lead you to believe…. [The] story's protagonist refuses to commit itself to one sex or the other….

Sontag's fascination with empirical gain and, in "The Dummy," the theme of the unlived life mark her a literary descendant of Henry James, but "Old Complaints" suggests a progenetrix of sorts as well; I mean Virginia Woolf. It is clearly paradoxical to speak of Woolf this way for several reasons, not the least of which is that the feature she shares with Sontag is a passion for androgyny. The same supposition that allows Woolf's Orlando to undergo a spontaneous change of sex without a commensurate shift in psychology gives Sontag license to regard sexual differentiation as an irrelevant and otherwise invisible part of her character's makeup, a mere hindrance to the reader's equity. Indeed, without being told, it would be hard to assign a sex confidently to any of her characters, and this may help account for their missing dimensions. Sontag and Woolf both intimate that male and female are mentally equivalent, emotionally the same—in other words, that the mind is an androgynous organ, a mere malevolent equisetum.

In a sense, androgyny works like etcetera and other less voluminous equivalences; it is a device for avoiding certain kinds of definition or differentiation. This sort of evasive tactic pervades Sontag's work, but it's easiest to observe in her critical rhetoric. (p. 14)

[There] are a few quirks in Sontag's critical methodology which are problematic in her fiction as well. Her work is constructed along predictable lines of defense and it aims to avoid certain distinctions as well as any vocabulary by which they might be implied. In her criticism, this evasiveness shows itself in a lack of rhetorical rigor, a dogged and shifty reliance on fashionable and abstruse authors with exotic surnames, a penchant for calling the particular absolute, for sapping terms like "aggression" of all significance except as a form of blind dodge, and a really irritating habit of withdrawing prematurely from a metaphor, generally one which is doomed in the end to be inconsistent.

As for her short stories, Sontag's problem is largely a formal one. For the most part I, etc. is a stilted fictional reiteration of her otherwise intractable Weltanschauung, but in the last three stories she begins to find a form capable of accommodating her ponderous cerebral equipage….

Like the first piece, [the last,] "Unguided Tour" is about travel—a short dialogue between two women, one of whom recounts a trip to France, Italy and foreign places she has taken with an erstwhile lover—only this time a satirical eye is focused on the itinerant I, and apart from a brief lapse into sanctimony it remains constant throughout. The protagonist is not more or less attractive than the rest of Sontag's menagerie, in fact quite similar, only more tolerable for the satirical context. By its nature an admission of idiosyncracy, satire takes the categorical edge off of her private obsessions, leaving room in the world for the rest of us and at least tacitly allowing that if all things are equal, no two are exactly the same. (p. 15)

Liz Mednick, "Apres Moi, etcetera," in New York Arts Journal (copyright © 1979 by Richard W. Burgin), #13, 1979, pp. 13-15.

Anthony Clare

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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. How much this impulse is strengthened by her single-cause theory of disease is unclear; yet it does seem that she believes that the only alternatives lie between absolving the individual of any responsibility, or blaming him totally for his predicament. Yet the answer to the cancer expert's, and indeed Miss Sontag's, dilemma is the realisation that smoking does not simply cause cancer any more than heavy drinking causes liver cirrhosis. It is a great pity that an otherwise scholarly, pungent and needle-sharp dissection of some of the woollier and moralistic notions that surround serious disease should be disfigured by a simplistic and excessively biological view of disease. It says a great deal for the power and persuasiveness of Susan Sontag's beautiful prose that the disfigurement is neither obvious nor lethal. (p. 295)

Anthony Clare, "The Guilty Sick," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of Anthony Clare), February 22, 1979, pp. 294-95.

Frank Wilson

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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….

In sum: pseudo-random selection of quasi or cyrpto-autobiographical details. Not much fun. Not very funny.

"No man"—or woman, for that matter—"ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the American people"—or by flattering the prejudices of self-styled cognoscenti. That's—in part—a quote too, but I'm not going to tell who said it (two can play this game).

Hints:—a journalist—a scourge of boobs and bunkum—he died in Baltimore in 1956.

Sontag. Sunday. Day of rest.

A good book to read in front of the fire. And nod off over. Or use as kindling. (p. 10)

Frank Wilson, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), April, 1979.


Sontag, Susan (Vol. 105)


Sontag, Susan (Vol. 195)