Susan Sontag

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John Simon (review date 15 December 1980)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2770

SOURCE: Simon, John. “From Sensibility toward Sense.” New Leader 63, no. 23 (15 December 1980): 22-4.

[In the following review, Simon judges that many of the phrases in Sontag's collection Under the Sign of Saturn are nonsensical and overly verbose, creating confusion for the reader.]

According to an adage that often performs also as an analogy, if we watched ourselves walking, we could not walk at all. In the process of speculating about just how we propel ourselves forward by putting one foot in front of the other, we would end up paralyzed or falling on our faces. Whether or not this is the truth about ambulation, it unfortunately is not true of criticism: Entire schools of contemporary criticism watch themselves—anxiously, self-importantly, gloatingly—perform in essays that, far from freezing, flow unremittingly on. If anyone becomes numb, it is the reader, unlucky fellow, who finds himself in the position of an innocent traveler pressed into archaeological spade work without being given the necessary equipment or training. Structuralist and semiological criticism, and their various offshoots, have not only buried the texts they belabor under impermeable rubble, they are also hell-bent on burying us.

Susan Sontag is not uninfluenced by the prevailing French or French-derived criticism, witness the tribute to Roland Barthes in her new collection, Under the Sign of Saturn. Although she is basically a comprehensible, generally even lucid, critic, she has a tendency to sprinkle complication into her writing, as for instance in the opening section of her essay on Antonin Artaud, the longest and most interesting in the book. One is reminded of the story about Mallarmé dawdling at a café table over a funerary poem for Verlaine and explaining his holding up the obsequies with: “I am just adding a little obscurity.” Aside from the short mortuary tribute to Barthes, a similar one to Paul Goodman—the latter really a lament over his snubbing her, as well as a portrait of herself as an isolated artist in a Paris garret—and the piece on Artaud that served as the introduction to his Selected Writings, Sontag's book includes essays on Walter Benjamin (himself no mean shedder of obscurity), on Elias Canetti, on Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's seven-hour film about Hitler, and on “Fascinating Fascism,” which deals with both Leni Riefenstahl and a coffee-table book of photographs called SS Regalia.

What is the sign of Saturn, and why are these writers and filmmakers under it? Miss Sontag quotes Walter Benjamin, the complicated German philosopher-critic who alone can compete with the French master obfuscators in current popularity among the literary élite: “I came into the world under the sign of Saturn—the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays. …” The umbrella of Saturn does not really cover every one of the other artists discussed, but they are all, in one sense or another, extreme cases—cas limites, as the French would say: artists who are at the limits of the possible or the permissable. Sontag refers to them admiringly as “the great, daring mapmakers of consciousness in extremis.

Actually, some do not enjoy her full favor: she is against Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's favorite filmmaker, at least ideologically. It is characteristic of Miss Sontag's new critical stance that moral considerations matter. Thus she shows us Riefenstahl's career as a triptych: the early mountaineering films where Leni was both star and director, and physical effort triumphed; the Nazi period's panegyrics to bodily beauty, strength and achievement—Triumph of the Will and Olympia; and the more recent book of photographs about a handsome but vanishing African tribe, The Last of the Nuba.

(This entire section contains 2770 words.)

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The Last of the Nuba. In her Sturm und Drang phase, Miss Sontag would have hailed Riefenstahl's esthetic achievements and disregarded the political and moral aspects; now, at last, she gives us a carefully researched and documented moral-political case against Riefenstahl and her alleged reformation, though Sontag rightly concedes a certain philosophy to the Nazis and admires the unquestionable cinematic values of the Nazi filmmaker's two great documentaries.

Here Sontag reintroduces the concept of “camp” that she championed without ever fully admitting it, essentially to renounce it, albeit not without some reservations and regrets. She speaks of “formalist appreciations” backed up by “the sensibility of camp, which is unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness: and the modern sensibility relies on continuing trade-offs between the formalist approach and camp taste.” This is an irresponsible statement: Neither in her celebrated “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964) nor in “Fascinating Fascism” (1974) does Sontag show how “high seriousness” or “the formalist approach” trades off with camp taste; indeed, not even the meaning of “modern sensibility” is made entirely clear.

But, then, Sontag has a trying habit of issuing wonderfully challenging statements throughout this collection (and elsewhere) without elaborating and elucidating them. She will tell us, “I admire Norman Mailer as a writer, but I don't really believe in his voice,” a voice that she finds “too baroque, somehow fabricated.” Since her statement occurs in the tribute to Paul Goodman, whose voice, apparently, “is the real thing,” we must, perhaps, settle for this foreshortened explanation of what is wrong with Mailer; yet, whatever the context, we must be told how someone with an inauthentic voice can still be admired as a writer.

Similarly, we learn next that although Goodman “was not often graceful as a writer, his writing and his mind were touched with grace.” This means one of three things. Either grace as a writer can coexist with gracelessness in the writing, or being touched with grace is in some mysterious way different from having it, or Miss Sontag tosses off hasty, high-sounding paradoxes without thinking through what, if anything, they mean.

The last hypothesis gains credibility when considered in conjunction with other assertions in the book. We are told that the major works of Baudelaire and Lautréamont “are equally dependent … upon the idea of the author as a tormented self raping its own unique subjectivity.” Quite aside from the clumsiness of that image, the extremely disciplined verse and controlled audacity of Les Fleurs du mal are in no way comparable to the torrential flow of poetic prose and surreal vision of Les Chants de Maldoror; as for the artist's driving himself to the limit and beyond, this applies equally to a good many 19th-and 20th-century poets. But what really confuses the issue is Miss Sontag's wording: What is this “idea of the author”? Is it in the author's or in the reading public's mind? Is it a legitimate concept or a self-deluding notion? Or is it merely verbiage?

Again, when Sontag casually asserts that “Walt Disney's Fantasia, Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here, and Kubrick's 2001 … strikingly exemplify certain formal structures and themes of fascist art,” we cannot accept her parenthetic aside without any further discussion; at the very least we want to know which structures and themes. And if it is true, it requires an examination of what that says about contemporary American society. In fact, if Sontag could prove her glibly dropped point, an essay on it would be much more interesting than the virtually self-evident demonstration of Riefenstahl's fascism.

But to return to camp. Sontag tries to exonerate it, first, on the basis of “continuing trade-offs” between it and high seriousness—which conjures up the image of a close collaboration between Matthew Arnold and Ronald Firbank; soon, contradictorily, she attempts a defense on the grounds of something quite ephemeral: fashion. “Art that seemed eminently worth defending 10 years ago [i.e., in '64 as against '74], as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then.” This is, to put it mildly, bizarre.

To begin with, can something that ceases to be defensible as art in a mere decade still be considered art at all? Whatever outlives its artistic usefulness in 10 short years is precisely a fleeting fashion and the exemplar of nonart. Second, is critical evaluation meant to be a kind of politics of contrariness? That would automatically foster the enshrinement of what the majority resents or ignores—the very procedure that, for a while, raised camp to the level of art.

The giveaway follows apace: “The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in élite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed.” Yet how did camp become a majority taste? It achieved its eminence precisely because the brilliant, young, glamorous Susan Sontag published “Notes on ‘Camp’”—to be sure, in Partisan Review, not exactly the stomping grounds of hoi polloi, but where are the temples of the unco-optable nowadays? Soon enough the media latched on to that essay and its topic, and especially to its eloquent, charming, highly saleable author. Nothing succeeds better than highbrow endorsement of lowbrow tastes: Who would not, at no extra cost, prefer to be a justified sinner? Miss Sontag's “hard truth” strikes me as very soft indeed.

Next, by what right, human or divine, is what is good for the élite taboo for the masses? This kind of intellectual droit du seigneur may well be the epitome of fascist criticism. If, as responsible critics, we preconize, say, Proust, Mallarmé, Joyce, and Beckett, it is not because we want to keep them to ourselves; it is, on the contrary, in the hope, often forlorn, that we may bring more people to the pleasure and insight to be gathered from them. If, on the other hand, our taste is deleterious and culpable—or foolish and irresponsible—we have no business promulgating it either in Partisan Review or in Time magazine. Taste is precisely not context, but that which transcends context; everything else is addiction, fashionable or unfashionable, and, even if pleasing for the moment, headed for the waste basket. But, of course, this is presuming that taste refers to esthetics and not to erotics, and that we do not, as Miss Sontag did in another famous 1964 essay, “Against Interpretation,” celebrate and demand a mere “erotics of art.”

Miss Sontag no longer militantly espouses this outlook, but she continues to hover in its vicinity. Scattered throughout Under the Sign of Saturn are such bits of questionable praise as that for Artaud's “aesthetics of thought … theology of culture … phenomenology of suffering.” Now, I can see how one might worship culture, though I am not sure how this applies to a craving for Artaud; I can likewise see how a phenomenology of suffering might make for a riveting case history for psychiatrists and even some lay readers. But “aesthetics of thought”—surely this is just the “erotics of art” turned inside out and being sneaked, in sheep's clothing, through the back door.

And touting Artaud, that “hero of self-exacerbation,” as “the greatest prose poet in the French language since the Rimbaud of Illuminations and A Season in Hell,” rashly ignores the Mallarmé of Divagations and does scant justice to Valéry, Claudel, Gide, and Jules Renard, among others. Of course, if your criterion is self-exacerbation—“the greatest quantity of suffering in the history of literature”—your candidate may be the greatest prose poet before Rimbaud as well, although even then one might wonder about what kinds of scales, or calipers are needed for the quantitative assessment of suffering. Or does one judge simply by the loudness of the screams?

Yet how silly of me to raise such questions in these post-R. D. Laing and post-Michel Foucault days. Obviously, Miss Sontag is influenced by both these “minority or adversary” thinkers, as witness her condemnation of Jacques Rivière's moving attempts to bring Artaud back to relative sanity (a lost cause, if ever there was one), followed by her Foucaultian definition of sanity as what makes sense to a particular culture, a particular society; whereas “what is called insane denotes that which in the determination of a particular society must not be thought.” Aside from the fact that this statement overlooks the not insignificant distinction in most societies between thought and action, it implies that to a shallow society profundity will appear insane, i.e., madness is context, and the context changes. Yet even if there is something arbitrary about most prevailing definitions of madness, there is nothing specious about regarding acts of violence against others as dangerous, illicit and mad.

But do not consider the foregoing strictures a complete rejection of Miss Sontag's book. Whenever she takes the trouble to be a historian, as in her pointing out the ahistoricity of Riefenstahl's view of the Nuba, or a theological historian, as when she traces Artaud's indebtedness to Gnosticism, she performs with noteworthy acumen and ability. So, too, when she analyzes the quiddity of a work and its background, as with Syberberg's Hitler, a Film from Germany, a seven-hour endurance test she had the stamina (or eccentricity) to see five or six times, to discuss at length with its author, and (apparently) to read up on in great detail. Although my own regard for this film is qualified, I have nothing but respect for a critic who goes to such lengths to understand and interpret (yes, interpret; no “against interpretation” here!) a difficult work.

Regrettably, in the case of this film, too, Miss Sontag indulges in what strikes me as an exaggeration. Just as she asserted that “the course of all recent serious theater in Western Europe and the Americas can be said to divide into two periods—before Artaud and after Artaud” (which, assuming that it is meant as more than a chronological division, sounds like a whopping overstatement), she now tells us that Hitler is “probably the most ambitious Symbolist work of this century,” a masterpiece having “in the era of cinema's unprecedented mediocrity … something of the character of a posthumous event.” It is “like an unwanted baby in the era of zero population growth.” The trouble with Hitler, as I see it, is precisely that it is the equivalent of too many babies in any era, an act of overpopulation on screen—and of decimation in the auditorium.

That, however, is one of the hallmarks of Miss Sontag's criticism; a boundless enthusiasm for certain favorites that ignores or minimizes their shortcomings. In Elias Canetti she loves “his staunchless capacity for admiration and enthusiasm, and his civilized contempt for complaining.” This may be splendid in a novelist and essayist; in a critic, complaining is often necessary where it hurts most, and enthusiasm frequently in need of a little staunching. Thank goodness, Miss Sontag no longer comes out in enthusiastic defense of such stuff as Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures, yet not even Canetti, whose work I do not know, should (in my opinion) be praised unqualifiedly for his tribute to “a brown bundle emitting a single sound (e-e-e-e-e-e) which is brought every day to a square in Marrakesh.” Canetti's “I was proud of the bundle because it was alive” strikes me not as a moving tribute, but as endorsement of a horrible misery for the sake of displaying one's enlightened affirmation of life.

Susan Sontag can write well: “One is always in arrears to oneself” is exquisite and compelling; “Surrealism's great gift … was to make melancholy cheerful,” though debatable, is equally stimulating and exquisite. There is much to be said, too, for this maxim: “One cannot use the life to interpret the work. But one can use the work to interpret the life.” Other boldly hurled maxims boomerang. I find it hard to accept, in a context of her high praise for Walter Benjamin, that “his major essays seem to end just in time, before they self-destruct.”

Rash and unhelpful, again, is the assertion that, though one can be inspired, scorched and changed by Artaud, “there is no way of applying him.” Can any poet-seer be applied? Sontag's argument is not helped by careless use of words: How can Artaud be “profoundly indigestible”? On some deeper level than that of the stomach? And I should be happier if Miss Sontag stopped hinting, especially about the dead, and instead of referring to Barthes as “consciously interested in the perverse” and as “a man of his sexual tastes,” allowed her observations to come out of the closet.

She might also, profitably, stop reaching for grand but nebulous criteria. To praise, as she does, identification “with something beyond achievement” is very much like arguing “against interpretation.” A critic as capable of subtle and illuminating interpretations as Susan Sontag should come down all the way from the cloudy heights of metacriticism.


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Susan Sontag 1933 -

American essayist, novelist, short-story writer, critic, playwright, screenplay writer, and film director.

The following entry provides an overview of Sontag's career through 2004. See also Susan Sontag Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 10, 31, 105.

Sontag is widely noted as one of the most influential and controversial contemporary American essayists and social commentators. 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. Through her essays on illness, she has discredited many of the misinformed opinions and negative associations attached to such diseases as cancer and AIDS, and she has argued for a new understanding of disease based on clinical evidence and free from social stigma. In her fiction Sontag frequently experiments with form and style and uses narrative to underscore the universality of human emotion and actions, to illustrate the fine line between reality and fiction, and to ponder the bounds of free will.

Biographical Information

Sontag was born on January 16, 1933, in New York City, but spent her youth in Tucson and Los Angeles. She was a gifted student and skipped several years in school, graduating from high school at age fifteen. She then entered the University of California, Berkeley, and transferred after one year to the University of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1951. While attending the University of Chicago, Sontag met Philip Rieff, a social psychologist. The couple married in 1950 and had a son, David, but divorced nine years later. Sontag pursued graduate studies at Harvard from 1951 to 1957, earning master's degrees in English (1954) and philosophy (1955). She later continued her graduate studies at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and at the Sorbonne, Paris. Sontag was a regular contributor to the Partisan Review,Harper's Weekly, the Nation, and the New York Review of Books while holding teaching positions at institutions including the University of Connecticut, City College of the City University of New York, Sarah Lawrence College, and Rutgers University. Sontag soon retired from her academic career and began writing full-time; her first novel, The Benefactor, was published in 1963 and her first collection of essays, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, appeared in 1966. In the early 1970s Sontag was diagnosed with breast cancer and her experiences with disease as well as others' reaction to it served as the basis for her Illness as a Metaphor (1978), which in turn led to the writing of AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989). In the early 1990s, Sontag made numerous trips to war-torn Yugoslavia for humanitarian purposes. While there, she also directed a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Sontag has received numerous fellowships and awards, including a National Book Award nomination in 1966 for Against Interpretation and Other Essays, a National Book Critics Circle prize in 1978 for On Photography (1977), and the National Book Award in 2000 for the novel In America (2000).

Major Works

Sontag addresses social, artistic, and political issues, as well as contemporary complacency in her essays. In her first collection, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Sontag eschewed standard critical methods that rely on analysis of 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 and AIDS and Its Metaphors both deal with the way in which western society interprets and creates cultural myths about diseases. In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag examines the stigma associated with cancer and cancer patients and attempts to defuse the negative power that words have in dealing with such an illness. She takes this approach one step further in AIDS and Its Metaphors exposing misconceptions and confusion about AIDS and AIDS patients. Under the Sign of Saturn (1980) is a volume of essays that explore theories in literary criticism. Sontag further delves into the arts and the artist in Where the Stress Falls (2001); this volume also includes the essay titled “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo,” which focuses on her time in Sarajevo during the war in Yugoslavia. Sontag studies photographs and images and their effects on viewers in On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) and comments on humanity's reaction to and morbid fascination with photos and images of the pain of others. Sontag emphasizes the dangerous desensitizing of Westerners who are bombarded by such images on television, in magazines, and films. Sontag has also written several works of fiction, including a play, Alice in Bed (1993), about Alice James, sister to Henry and William James; the novels The Benefactor and Death Kit (1967); and a collection of short stories titled I, etcetera (1978). Most notable among her fiction are The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000). The Volcano Lover is an unusual account of Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson's love affair as told from the point of view of Hamilton's husband, Sir William Hamilton. This novel provides a sweeping look at Italian society between 1764 and 1780, with which the author contrasts contemporary culture and highlights the timeless repetition of human folly and foibles. In America is also a historical novel, and concerns a Polish actress and immigrant and her quest for fame, fortune, and the American dream.

Critical Reception

Sontag's work has generated much reaction from reviewers and ordinary readers alike. Many of her views have run contrary to majority political and intellectual thought and Sontag has actually reversed some of her earlier opinions. Her studies of American culture have earned her both favorable and negative criticism, as well as observations that her own work proves her points in ironic, presumably unintentional ways. For example, some commentators have asserted that her essays censuring American culture of the 1960s and early 1970s are actually themselves a product of the era's discourse. While some reviewers have praised her novel interpretation of modern culture and her championing of contemporary European writers and intellectuals, others contend that Sontag's arguments are not supported adequately and that she often diverges from her central themes. Sontag's groundbreaking works on the power of words to create associations for certain physical ailments are universally well received. Although some note that Sontag's use of epigrams and clichés is at times tedious, most critics approve of her descriptive narrative style and her depiction of historical trends and settings, praising her experiments with language and literary form.

Walter Goodman (review date 13 December 1982)

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SOURCE: Goodman, Walter. “Fair Game.” New Leader 65, no. 23 (13 December 1982): 9-10.

[In the following review of A Susan Sontag Reader, Goodman studies the vehemence and political leanings of Sontag's essays throughout her career. Goodman asserts that Sontag is becoming less radical and extremist as she matures, detecting a more moderate stance in her views and writings.]


Her position has been certified everywhere from Vogue to Rolling Stone. Readers of People magazine know her as “America's prima intellectual assoluta,” and she also holds the ambiguous title of “the Natalie Wood of the U.S. avant garde.” Yet the crowning of Susan Sontag as this country's exemplary intellectual remains a puzzlement. As A Susan Sontag Reader, her new collection of “the work I'm proudest of,” confirms, she is more akin to a species of European intelligentsia than to any homegrown strain, and has no great affection for American society.

Sontag became the talk of the literati in the mid-'60s, with several now-famous essays that were as striking for their combative tone as for their substance. In “Against Interpretation” and “On Style,” she took on critics who, in her view, were so intent on “explaining” what a work of art “meant” that they missed the essence of the work itself. She condemned the seekers after interpretation as “reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.” Her attention-grabbing “Notes on ‘Camp’,” written around the same time, was all about a way of seeing the world that exaggerated style to the point of parody and laughed away content.

For conservative critics like Hilton Kramer, who devoted considerable space to his distaste for Sontag in the premier issue of his magazine, The New Criterion, Sontag was guilty of promoting a doctrine that would “release high culture from its obligations to be entirely serious.” Her essay's catchiest line, “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers,” was an uncharacteristic flash of humor from a writer whose prose is not usually much fun. The Sontag camp has had to grapple with sentences like this one from her essay, “The Aesthetics of Silence”: “Toward such an ideal plenitude to which the audience can add nothing, analogous to the aesthetic relation to nature, a great deal of contemporary art aspires—through various strategies of blandness, of reduction, of deindividuation, of alogicality.”

Would these early essays have brought fame to a homely middle-aged man? An invidious question—but Sontag grants that her gender has contributed to her celebrity. America likes its intellectual glamour girls. If she lacked the wit of Mary McCarthy or the weight of Hannah Arendt, it cannot have hurt to be a good-looking woman in her early 30s, as well as a highly intelligent, formidably read, fiercely assertive one.

During the '70s, Sontag made a mark as the foremost publicist for European bearers of the Modernist sensibility, whose writings even devotees of cultural criticism and philosophy may find hard going. These “master obscurantists,” as John Simon calls them, include Walter Benjamin, the melancholic German-Jewish essayist who was driven to suicide in 1940; the anguished Antonin Artaud, who tried to transmogrify delirium into drama; the misogynistic Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti, author of “Crowds and Power”; and the influential French man of letters Roland Barthes, propounder of “semiotics” or the study of signs, who was killed in a traffic accident in 1980.

Sontag is powerfully drawn to outsiders, writers removed from bourgeois society and most of its works. Among the few Americans to engage her enthusiasm are Paul Goodman, unrecognized for most of his writing life, who found attention in the 1960s when raging against America was all the rage, and Norman O. Brown, who won an audience for his assaults on the West's sexual hangups during the same giddy period. The spirit that draws Sontag to such alien minds also impels her, as David Bromwich put it, to champion a kind of art that “stands outside the mainstream of culture and sometimes at the very periphery of human experience.” Extremity, in art and criticism, is a key to the enthusiasm of this self-described “besotted esthete” and “obsessed moralist.”


It is difficult not to detect a certain trendiness in Sontag's political as well as her esthetic tastes. Her vision of America in the '60s was drenched in New Leftism. In 1966, she contributed to Partisan Review a response to a set of questions on “What's Happening in America” that condemned every aspect of the country except its alienated “kids,” who were extolled for “the way they dance, dress, wear their hair, riot, make love,” and for their homage to Oriental thought and ritual and their interest in drugs. For the rest, America was “a violent, ugly, unhappy country, passionately racist,” run by “genuine yahoos.” She called the white race “the cancer of history.”

Her treatments of Cuba, China and North Vietnam were notably kinder, in the fashion on the Left of the time. In the Third World, she discovered “moral beauty.” Even Sontag's fans do not claim much for her assays into political philosophy. The fuss over her recent Town Hall attack on Communism, which Leon Wieseltier dismissed in Partisan Review as “the political apology of an unpolitical person,” owed less to its novelty than to the fact that it was delivered to an audience that would rather not have heard it.

The omission of the 1966 anti-American diatribe from her new collection may be evidence of a softening of Sontag's attitude toward her country as her hopes for the evolution of Communist regimes toward more openness has faded. As she put it in an interview, “I wrote, ‘What's Happening in America’ at a time of great anguish over Vietnam. I still think this is a crazy, violent, dangerous, horrifying country and that there are other, better possibilities for a prosperous democratic capitalist society than we have here. But between our empire and the Communist empire, I prefer ours.”

Despite or because of her role as adversary of American culture and society, Sontag has gotten her share of praise, grants and awards from the Establishment. Her most popular book, On Photography, won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. These ruminations exhibited her mind at its most venturesome, as it speculated upon the blurring in this age of photography of the line between images and things, between copies and the original.

Even here, however, she could not resist a dig at capitalism so tendentious that it distracted one from the main picture, like the antics of a crackpot in a gallery. She wrote: “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats.” Sontag has always had a sharper eye for the image than for the reality. Numerous magazines have used images of her, sometimes in dramatic poses, the better to stimulate sales of boots perhaps. She has confessed that she finds it “hard to resist the invitation to manifest oneself. …”

As for pictures that move, the filmmakers whom she admires and has borrowed from in her own tries at movie-making are mainly European moderns like Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, whose Hitler, a Film from Germany she hailed, typically, for “the extremity of its achievement.” She has soured on Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's favorite filmmaker. The Susan Sontag Reader contains a vigorous assault on Riefenstahl, written in 1974, that is startling when set against Sontag's previous, thoroughly admiring approach to her work. In 1965, Sontag wrote that the content of Triumph of the Will and Olympia had “come to play a purely formal role,” owing to Riefenstahl's genius; a triumph of the Style. But by 1974, Sontag was exceedingly harsh with those who would blink away the filmmaker's connection with Nazism. The aggressive tone of both these contradictory pieces supports the observation of Denis Donoghue that Sontag's mind is “powerful but not subtle.”


A few years ago, after her recovery from cancer, Sontag vowed to devote more time to fiction, but finds herself now completing a long essay on the travels of intellectuals to Communist countries; it promises to display yet another change of her heart and mind. Her fiction so far has received mixed notices—kinder probably, and more of them certainly, than would have been garnered by a lesser name.

None of her stories, which abjure conventional plot and characterization, carries the passion of her 1978 polemic, Illness as Metaphor. Moved by her personal experience, she inveighed against the literary penchant for using disease, particularly cancer, as a metaphor for all manner of evil, thereby making the victim to a degree responsible for his sufferings, and diverting attention from the cruel reality of the illness. “I just wanted to say that cancer is real and ought to be diagnosed and treated.” (She now regrets having called the white race a cancer.) It is an indication of Sontag's bookish approach to life that even in this deeply personal work there is no mention of her own mastectomy. Her emotions are channelled into an attack on words and their power to do damage.

Benjamin DeMott, who has noted a “thinness of experience, lack of conversance with common life” in Sontag's work, suggests that Illness as Metaphor can be read as a questioning of the “murky Modernist blackishness … the dogmas about the human condition that [have] shaped the work of the artists she has most admired and imitated.” DeMott catches flickerings here of a “genuine affection for middle ways” and advances the possibility that Sontag may have arrived at a belated recognition that “modesty and moderation deserve respect as civilizing values.”

Do the essay on illness, the public split with her former political allies, the turnabout on Riefenstahl represent a shift in the Sontag sensibility, a movement from the extreme toward the middle, some reconciliation with the country that she seems to have written off on the day that she began to write? The question is open. After nearly two decades of “manifesting oneself,” Sontag remains the beneficiary of a society that enjoys conferring celebrity on its most disdainful critics.

Principal Works

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The Benefactor (novel) 1963

Against Interpretation and Other Essays (essays) 1966

Death Kit (novel) 1967

Duet for Cannibals [and director] (screenplay) 1969

Styles of Radical Will (essays) 1969

Trip to Hanoi (essay) 1969

Brother Carl: A Filmscript [and director] (screenplay) 1971

Promised Lands [and director] (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 (essay collection) 1982

Unguided Tour [and director] (screenplay) 1983

“The Way We Live Now” [republished as a novella in 1991] (short story) 1986

AIDS and Its Metaphors (nonfiction) 1989

The Volcano Lover: A Romance (novel) 1992

Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight Scenes (drama) 1993

In America: A Novel (novel) 2000

Where the Stress Falls (essays) 2001

Regarding the Pain of Others (nonfiction) 2003

Geoff Dyer (review date 17 March 1989)

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SOURCE: Dyer, Geoff. “The Way We Live Now.” New Statesman 2, no. 41 (17 March 1989): 34-5.

[In the following review, Dyer judges Sontag as a master of the essay form, praising her work AIDS and Its Metaphors as well as the earlier essay Illness as Metaphor.]

Twelve years ago, when Susan Sontag became a cancer patient, she felt compelled to write a book about the disease, not a confessional account of the struggle against illness—“a narrative, it seemed to me, would be less useful than an idea”—but a broader genealogy and history of the metaphors associated with disease. Like a vaccine for which the world had been waiting, Illness as Metaphor achieved the immediate status of a classic, one of those books which seem always to have been around.

Disease, she argues in that book, should be seen as just that, otherwise the sick have to suffer not only physically but also from the weight of associations that a given sickness brings in its wake. At any time there tends to be one disease whose associations become so ideologically loaded as to make it seem a threat to society's economic or political health. In the era of early capitalist accumulation TB was seen as typifying the dangers of squandering, over-consumption—over-budgeting the body's resources. In the era of advanced capitalism, which requires speculation, credit and expenditure, cancer serves to express the dangers of repressing spontaneity, holding back and hoarding.

And now there is AIDS. With characteristic assurance Sontag notes [in AIDS and Its Metaphors] the way that this new disease has lent itself to military metaphors of invasion, how it quickly assumed the status of a plague against which the nation arms itself with a rhetoric of vague authoritarianism.

After two decades of steadily increasing sexual freedom—“sexual inflation”—we now find ourselves in the midst of a sexual depression. Even before AIDS a counter-current of moderation—diets, looking after yourself—was already challenging the sixties ideal of wild self-realisation; but with AIDS that self-restraining impulse had become an urgent imperative. So it has been in the arts, with a return to landscape and figure in painting, with jazz showing a retreat from free improvisation to the tighter structures of bebop. Neo-classicism, in a word.

So far so predictable, but Sontag extends her inquiry to consider the way that AIDS has taken its place among other possible catastrophes that are in the process of threatening the earth (the ozone layer, nuclear war). From there the argument soars as she wonders how “even an apocalypse can be made to seem part of the ordinary horizon of expectation”—but I want to stop there, just as we are getting to the best part.

It's a convention of fiction reviewing that you don't give the story away and this slim, beautifully produced book offers many of the pleasures of fiction (pleasures almost absent, incidentally, from Sontag's own laboriously modernist novels) as the pattern of ideas, clues and evidence emerges. It is in no way to diminish the content of AIDS and Its Metaphors—or Sontag's stature as a thinker—to emphasise how in her hands the essay becomes the most sensuous of literary forms. Sentences unfold with unruffled calm, bearing an imperceptibly increasing weight of meaning without ever becoming cumbersome. There is none of the back-wrenching strain of John Berger—though she has his urgency—none of the clause-twisting formulations of Raymond Williams—though her arguments have his force—no sense of sweating under the weight of accumulated erudition that we find in George Steiner—though she ranges as widely.

AIDS and Its Metaphors ranks alongside the best essays of any of these three: it is an important book about “the way we live now”—to lift the title of her own story about AIDS published in the New Yorker—and it is also the work of a stylist who, like Barthes, has mastered all the most difficult forms of writing: the colon, parentheses, italics, the semi-colon, ellipses …

Further Reading

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Bedient, Calvin. “Passion and War: Reading Sontag, Viola, Forche and Others.” Salmagundi, nos. 141-142 (winter 2004): 243-62.

Provides discussion of visual and textual representations of war, focusing on several works including Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others.

Sontag, Susan, and Caroline Brothers. “Educating the Heart.” Meanjin 63, no. 1 (March 2004): 73-86.

Sontag describes her experiences in war torn Yugoslavia, elaborates on her views of wars past and present, and discusses her works and how they relate to her social and political views.

Sorensen, Sue. “Susan Sontag and the Violent Image.” Afterimage 31, no. 6 (May-June 2004): 16-17.

Presents a critical analysis of the essays in Regarding the Pain of Others.

Additional coverage of Sontag's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 51, 74, 97; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 10, 13, 31, 105; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 67; DISCovering Authors Modules,Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 10; and Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers.

Sara Maitland (review date 25 March 1989)

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SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “Practising Safe Language.” Spectator 262, no. 8385 (25 March 1989): 29.

[In the following review, Maitland agrees with Sontag's assessment in AIDS and Its Metaphors that society views certain diseases as more than physical ailments, but also as social issues centering on the contraction of the disease.]

Compared to heart attacks, cancer, even road deaths, few people have died of Aids. Yet we have rushed to attach meaning to the condition more than to any other. (We have proliferated so much meaning, indeed, that we have, by and large, lost any sense: ‘God's punishment on homosexuals’ suggests a very bizarre view of God's justice, given that one of the lowest possible risk groups is women homosexuals.) As usual when human communities struggle to create meaning, we have also created a language, a set of metaphors, to use about Aids, which are meant to be descriptive, explanatory, but in fact—as usual—end up being prescriptive, formative and continually read back into the subject that they are supposed to elucidate.

In this essay [AIDS and Its Metaphors] (a postscript to her book Illness as Metaphor, which she wrote ten years ago and which anyone seriously interested in this subject ought to read), Susan Sontag attempts to decode some of these metaphors, exposing them to scientific knowledge and linguistic understanding. She is the right person for the job: Sontag continually struggles to find meaning in the texts and language of society. No postmodernist severance for her; the words we use are words about actual things and they shape our understanding, our ways of seeing and dealing with those things. Language, metaphor, image, sense, do matter; they actually have effect outside the text.

Of course, this insistence on meaning ironically undercuts her commitment to ‘the effort to detach [Aids] from these meanings, these metaphors’ (p. 94)—and by extension all illness—from metaphorical language, because one language must necessarily be replaced by another, as she herself admits: ‘Much in the way of individual experience and social policy depends on the struggle for rhetorical ownership of the illness: how it is possessed, assimilated in argument and cliché.’ We need counter-metaphors not no metaphors as she seems to imply. (For example, she praises the ‘wholesome dedramatisation’ of leprosy in its new name—Hansen's Disease—without acknowledging that to name a disease after the scientist who discovered its causal virus is to enter into a metaphor about individual ownership and the power of scientists.)

But these methodological quibbles apart, Sontag has done an interesting job, particularly in exposing the militaristic metaphors too often employed and linking them with the xenophobia that is common to all infectious diseases, but particularly powerful within the Aids discourse. These wily foreigners invade the body, lurk hidden in the fabric of the microcosm—even as they do in society. While Europe plots the journey of Aids from Africa via Haiti and the USA, Africa—far more seriously affected—traces the germ warfare of a malicious CIA (America). Such an attack ‘justifies’ all-out war, waged by the medical profession and by the larger society, on the disease: internment of suspected or even potential ‘enemy sympathisers’ (read: people who have the disease, the anti-bodies to the disease, life styles which might encourage the spread of the disease, and even those known to consort with such) becomes an option. But a virus cannot actually be ‘crafty’, ‘single-minded’, ‘naked’; it cannot ‘lurk’, ‘attack’ or ‘mobilise’. It certainly cannot be ‘evil’, wicked or treacherous; nor can it select ‘victims’ because of its God-given moral sensibilities about human sexual options.

Of course it can't, we say, but continue to use language structures which blame or victimise or degrade the sufferers of any disease which has to carry the weight of panicked, fear-full meanings that society lays upon it. Aids, with its sexual—and other deviant—transmission, its slow invisible development, its difficulty of treatment, its painful death, its physically disfiguring symptoms—is, Sontag makes clear, a perfect vehicle for social obsession; indeed it has managed even to ‘banalise’ cancer, the previous, but much less amenable, candidate for this rôle.

Aids is a social construct, Sontag argues, which should be deconstructed through language, sense and science. This is the importance of Sontag's essay: it returns the subject of Aids to us all; gives a focus which could be set against both the patronage, or stigmatisation, of the sufferer and the dangerous liberal tendency of laying claim to the sufferings of others. We may not ‘get’ Aids, but we have all got the metaphors of Aids as loose in our brain cells as the virus is in the blood cells.

Leon S. Roudiez (review date autumn 1989)

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SOURCE: Roudiez, Leon S. Review of AIDS and Its Metaphors, by Susan Sontag. World Literature Today 63, no. 4 (autumn 1989): 685.

[In the following review, Roudiez contends that AIDS and Its Metaphors is not as cohesive as Illness as Metaphor, but contends that the new essay effectively clarifies confusing facts and misconceptions regarding AIDS.]

In Illness as Metaphor (1977) Susan Sontag had contrasted tuberculosis, the disease that the nineteenth century found “interesting” and even “romantic,” with the “great epidemic diseases of the past, which strike each person as a member of an afflicted community.” In the seventies it was indeed assumed that such major epidemics were a curse of the past; and then AIDS burst upon us—or rather, it spread to the West and spawned a primal fear expressed by means of ugly metaphors.

These metaphors are viewed by [in AIDS and Its Metaphors] Sontag as having been produced by the cultural atmosphere of the eighties. There was, for instance, a reaction against the sexually permissive attitude that prevailed in the sixties; there was also the hyper-Christian, somewhat xenophobic stance affirmed during the early years of the Reagan administration and, in Europe, an increasing resistance to Third World immigrants; later, ecological concerns over the depletion of the ozone layer, dwindling rain forests, and atomic accidents encouraged a doomsday rhetoric. As a result, a complex cluster of metaphors has developed in which none is able to dominate discourse. Whereas cancer, which was at the center of Illness as Metaphor, was seen as “domestic subversion,” in the case of AIDS it is an outside agent that affects the system, giving birth to a “language of political paranoia” in which the vocabulary of science fiction reinforces military metaphors. However, AIDS, in the West, so far has not affected the entire population. Because at first it struck mostly homosexual men, these could be stigmatized as sinners, and metaphors of divine punishment were resurrected. Since the “source” of the disease has been identified as Africa, racist metaphors have inevitably surfaced.

A curious development is that, as the scope of the epidemic became obvious and no cure was in sight, the doomsday metaphors acted as a catalytic agent; nevertheless, “With the inflation of apocalyptic rhetoric has come the increasing unreality of the apocalypse.” There have been so many dire predictions in various domains that we have become inured, mainly because we are still alive and doing well. Who are “we,” however, if not the privileged, cultured, well-to-do elite of the West? And what does our attitude portend concerning the future of humanity?

The disease, like the times we live in, is fearsome and unsettling. Sontag's book, as it deals with the variegated metaphors people use in talking about AIDS, inevitably lacks the focus that made Illness as Metaphor so effective. This is hardly her fault, nor can I in a brief review adequately deal with the tight complexity of her account. It is, however, to her considerable credit that AIDS and Its Metaphors reveals the mental confusion—to say the least—that afflicts our society, as the meaning of John Donne's words, the scope of which he himself could not have fully grasped, is finally understood—“No man is an Iland, intire of itself; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine.”

Sohnya Sayres (essay date autumn 1989)

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SOURCE: Sayres, Sohnya. “Susan Sontag and the Practice of Modernism.” American Literary History 1, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 593-611.

[In the following essay, Sayres examines both Sontag's fiction and her essays, focusing on her epigrammatic style, her multilayered studies into contradictions and negations, and modernist theories.]

Most of Sontag's fictional characters are neither heroes nor antiheroes as we have come to understand these figures. They lack the appeal of having mirrored our condition, satirically or otherwise. They live too separately; they are too much governed by dreams. In a sense, her fiction itself displays what the characters suffer from—excessive control: enigmas tend to reverberate interiorly. Dilemmas and glimpses of the other, nonself-referential world are replaced too often by closed possibilities and imposed wisdoms. Into these hermetically sealed lives come these intrusions, these truncated, pithy, antithetical statements seemingly in the mouths of her characters yet distinctly like Sontag in her other aspects. They are one of her most recognizable devices.

In her essays, she includes so many of these kinds of statements that the logic of her arguments jigsaws. One comes to understand that sharpness and objection matter more than development and substantiation. She cannot be much of a theorist then, some complain. Her interest in the individual work is too slight. Her statements have a melodramatic cast, her thoughts are merely compiled in that moralizing, French epigrammatic way. Then too, occasionally, in the midst of her “reason-dictates” tone, she tosses hand grenades.

How striking is the difference between her voice in her first volume of essays and Trilling's graceful, methodological circumventions of virtually the same years—in Beyond Culture (1965). What Sontag has to say is held in tension, the terms of her questions are more directed, as if she were prompted by a determination to enter the arena, during that lull in the critical controversies, readier to fight. She writes as if she is taking up a gauntlet, however gingerly it had been laid down before her.

That was a time when criticism was smothering modernism in its welcome, a welcome so reasonable that Trilling could write in “The Fate of Pleasure” (1963): “The energy, the consciousness, and the wit of modern literature derive from its violence against the specious good. We instinctively resent questions which suggest that there is fault to be found with the one saving force in our moral situation—that extruded ‘high’ segment of our general culture which, with its exigent, violently subversive spirituality, has the power of arming us against, and setting us apart from, all in the general culture that we hate and fear” (BC [Beyond Culture] 70).

Obscured in Trilling's impenetrable “we” lies a challenge: “whether the perverse and morbid idealism of modern literature is not to be thought of as being precisely political, whether it does not express a demand which in its own way is rational and positive and which may be taken into account by a rational and positive politics” (73). What Trilling means by this is a general permission, given in other times to heroes, saints, martyrs, and in these times to artists, to lead exemplary subversive lives or to create exemplary subversive works.

Sontag recently told an interviewer that she remembers being moved by Trilling's essay. While that remark is an off-handed hint only to the origins of her own search for a method, her essays are full of queries into the exemplariness of this age's spiritual project, full of discussions with herself about what this politics might be like. She is spying into tenets of modernism as if it were a practice, as if it could be put to the test of a politics. What's more, Sontag had just published a novel in which she examines that inheritance of the “perverse and morbid” in literature, especially as it might have been reinterpreted by the younger writers in France in the 1950s from the generation that had preceded them. When Trilling makes his call for “a novelist we do not yet have but must surely have one day, who will take into serious and comic account the actualities of the spiritual life of our time” (71), she had just finished being that kind of novelist. In response to Trilling's thought that the “life of competition for spiritual status is not without its own peculiar sordidness and absurdity,” she could have pointed to the whole character of her protagonist and episode after episode in his story.

Sontag had acceded to a time in America's critical life when the residues of Left puritanism were blowing away, when the hard work to drum out the 1930s broad realist aesthetic (of sentiment, type, and brotherhood of victims and the folk) was finished. What was still being done were efforts to accommodate that “extruded ‘high’” art into American ideals. That became Sontag's stepping-off place, almost certain as she was from the beginning that this was an aesthetic that forbade accommodation. Trilling, on his side, could end his essay with the reassurances that “before we conclude that the tendencies in our literature which we have remarked on are nothing but perverse and morbid, let us recall that although Freud did indeed say that ‘the aim of all life is death,’ the course of his argument leads him to the statement that ‘the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion,’ only through the complex fullness of its appropriate life” (76).

For Sontag, the impact of those lines might have come too close to the other forms of pious fellow-traveling to which Americans are all too prone. What was this complex fullness of a life in such extreme negation? Sontag would write with a sure and quick defense for artworks that shared next to nothing with this imperious aesthetic, such as Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures or Camp, grateful, as she says, for the release they offered. But that question kept returning to her, sending her to Europe to become a critic of all manner of Europe's coming to grips with its recent past. She would skirt the revivals of Left Hegelianism, Left Freudianism, Left Nietzscheanism, Left existentialism and Left structuralism, listening and thinking about them, but not captured. What captures her is the attempt to “name the contours of the sensibility” Trilling felt came after pleasure as a motive in art and life.

The following is a discussion of the terms of her discourse. I have emphasized features that filtered out over time and give some thoughts to their individual troubles. This is not offered as an anatomy of a system—Sontag has avoided systems—rather as spotlights on certain repeated elements that lead her through her questions, while revealing her instincts, and that begin to have a dialogue one with the other. These form part of her practice, for want of a better word, as a writer and critic.


Sontag's writing is epigrammatical, though this is no special observation about her unless one keeps in mind that the epigram, unlike its close cousins the aphorism and the apothegm, includes a sense of inversion. The contradictory inspires a writer given to writing in epigrams, as a mode of thought in itself. The epigram rests on its turn of thought away from sense, as in C. L. Kline's “the sacred duty of lawlessness.” The epigram may be sage and witty but it rarely assumes the burden, in good faith, of addressing the principle of the thing it observes—that is the aphorism's function. Mouthed often, epigrams instead profess, as one character in Sontag's fiction explains, a “line of gnomic crap.”

The epigrammatical mode can be recognized, overall, by the penchant of the writer to make these quizzical statements as little or as large as his or her subject warrants (the set piece for the whole plot, perhaps) and then confound them. The point of the statement seems to be its pointedness, the encapsulation of what is experienced as a paradox—the interminable way in which meanings turn in on themselves, values reverse, and the only worthy gestures are the disruptive ones. The modern epigrammatist writes wisdoms, but not for the sake of enlightenment. They are instead intended as didacticisms of the perverse—truths that hold true because of their power to evoke the negation of what seems. Or truths neatly conceived yet so bland they blow away under the force of the contrary evidence of the story. Combine the hyperreflexivity of modern writing with the later focus on the independence of writing, reading, and interpretation, and the effect is to move the writer towards a voiceless speech that comes from nowhere. In Sontag's fiction, for example, even though the fate of her characters tends to belie what they offer as rationalizations, their voices carry their neutralized assertions out of the story in all headiness. That is, Sontag's characters are often shown to be quite mistaken about what they think they are doing, yet their formulations, suddenly in heaps, are not really to be disregarded. The vacuity of their experience is already presumed. They have explored nether values and the diminution of things, and in that realm their observations hold.

Yet Sontag aches for simpler truths, for aphoristic writing, perhaps the homiletic. Proverbs and folk sayings, everyone's favorite mottoes lie strewn about on placards in the charnel house of the last pages of Death Kit. The dead there have marched to their graves carrying their little judgments. The next reader finds these doomed, happier assurances in splinters.

As for irony—the epigrammatist works inside the strictures of an elaborated awareness of forms; to that extent she or he participates in the spirit of modernist gamesmanship. But the game takes on an edge when the language approaches the discursive wisdom of the epigram. Because the epigram is about reality and its negation, it may be the joke of jokes. Few writers find it a whimsical matter.

As for suffering—the epigram bears the writer away from suffering, being abstract and not dependent on things of the senses. In fact, a text composed of epigrams is tighter than one in which the eye passes over detail. One feels the precision with which the writer's intelligence (Sontag's most revered quality) confers on the world as a triumph for the speaker, against some lesser successes such as the connoisseur enjoys. “Intelligence” finds these other modes a little lugubrious, a little obsequious, a little rhetorical.

This mode attracts the philosophical writer strongly given to thoughts about the Enlightenment's demise, who, nonetheless, takes no delight in the irrational, rather discounts metaphorical vehicles, and distrusts nothing as much as the springs of feeling. The thrilling possibilities of living in media-vision, a melee of fired perceptions, which so excites some recent writers, barely touches the epigrammatist. Sometimes, she may feel left out of the party, and tries to get into the swing of things, high on analytical wit. But she dances in weighted shoes.


I have emphasized the efficacy of the mode of writing in epigrams, when of course epigrams give pleasure. They let the space around them grow rich, like the grass around tombstones, on what is buried. To the very extent they are pointed, precise, they outline the silence of what they do not speak. The pleasure is in the poise won. All around the silences reverberate anew. This is the kind of pleasure that entices the writer who sits reflecting before a commitment or a journey. Afterward the experience may want telling for its own sake. So she stops in unfinished propositions, readying herself against surprises, content to explore some of the contradictions before meeting them. She means to undermine the fallible, or to pay homage to mortality before disappearing beneath.

This mode fits Sontag's purpose well, for example, in her short story “Project for a Trip to China.” We are invited to sit with Sontag as she considers what it means to her to go to China after so many years thinking about it as the place of her father's death and of herself as a political figure. She works downward just as she tells about how, when she was ten years old (her father had died a few years before):

… I dug a hole in the back yard. I stopped when it got to be six feet by six feet by six feet. “What are you trying to do?” said the maid. “Dig all the way to China?”

No. I just wanted a place to sit in. … The ivory and quartz elephants had been auctioned.

—my refuge

—my cell

—my study

—my grave.

(I, e [I, etcetera] 8)

In this story Sontag creates that epigrammatical feel—that uncertainty structured into the assertions—by the interlocking of thought and objects rather than by letting the statement brush up against its foil. What she evokes is a latticework of spaces in which she can place the accounts of what she will see. In this spareness, we do find an Orient of the heart, a porcelain beauty, a world dignified by silences. She prefers not to write about what is consecrated by history. In this hesitation, we recognize a tribute to enormity.

The end story in I, etcetera, “Unguided Tour” (made into a film by Sontag), pulls her themes of repetitions, pain, language, and literature along on another journey. The woman speaker confesses to her weariness with travel, to the predictability of thought and feeling. She knows before she begins, “all the possibilities of travel,” “all the words I am going to utter again.” Wherever she travels, “it's to say goodbye.” Yet she continues to wander insatiably; some wound compels her. And only the wound is sufficient to give “lyricism” to the going which words would otherwise make redundant.

Silence restrains that self, protects it from contact, from being measured by life. This aspect of the “aesthetics of silence” goes unexamined in Sontag's longish study. There is hardly any mention of a personal or historical correlative to the artist's use of silence, as if it were so ubiquitous a choice in the twentieth century, the century itself has borne it.

What Sontag intends for us to understand, though I always suspect she is thinking of the European epoch after the war, is that sensibility which had been nurtured by Gide, Artaud, Genet—composite figures in her fiction—and which came up in the silences of Blanchot or Duras. They walked about as emotional skeletons, these postwar survivors. If they chose life it was from some incomprehensible, innate desire, of the kind Frau Anders displays in Sontag's The Benefactor.

After the war the cruelty in themselves damned them to equations: “I am like them,” writes Duras in The Lover. “Collaborators, the Fernandezes were. And I, two years after the war, I was a member of the French Communist Party. The parallel is complete and absolute. The two things are the same, the same pity, the same call for help, the same lack of judgment, the same superstition if you like, that consists in believing in a political solution to a personal problem.” Survivors by accident, they link themselves to survivors by cowardice and betrayal, and conclude: “It's in the silence that the war is still here.” Toward the cool, distant silences, or above the feverish ones, their language strikes poses. It is that kind of voice which plagues Sontag, so close in tone and purpose to Blanchot's narrator in Death Sentence (1948): “The unfortunate thing is that after having waited for so many years, during which silence, immobility, and patience carried to the point of inertia did not for one single day stop deceiving me, I had to open my eyes all at once and allow myself to be tempted by a splendid thought, which I am trying in vain to bring to its knees. Perhaps these precautions will not be precautions” (30).

Lately Sontag is more prone to wandering in the halls of old cathedrals via their paintings, musing on the melancholy of the body as it is transformed by paint and camera. Even so, her language strains for the epigrammatical effect embedded in the silences of those experiences.


One cannot be a modern epigrammatist without the spirit of negation running through one's head. The “no” advanced the project of the Enlightenment in its strike at authority; the “no” sends one's defiance out against destiny. The “no” outlines the self from all that would incorporate it. The “no” is the movable force of the dialectic, and as such it thus affirms what it negates. Negation's spirit is vigorous, astute, independent. It does not, however, lighten one's way. It sees the world in terms of powerful, weighty oppositions. In the sway of that spirit one is apt to give oneself moral dignity, so strong is the sense that what one is battling against is the necessary enemy.

In 1967, Sontag writes in “The Aesthetics of Silence” that the modern artist is “committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate.” From the comfort of that widely held assumption, Sontag can enter the silence that beckons her with a brisk, objective mind. Silence can then exist “as a decision—in the exemplary suicide of the artist”; and it can also exist “as a punishment—self-punishment, in the exemplary madness of artists” (AI [Against Interpretation] 9). She continues to feel along the walls for the limits of the artistic uses of silence, “boundary notions,” not to be understood without the dialectic.

The dialectic calls up the “leading terms of a particular spiritual and cultural rhetoric” (AI 11). From the earliest part of this century, the dialectic of negation of contemporary values upheld the widest promise of experiencing a whole set of new relations. In art, negation was that tenet of modernism which called upon creation at the moment of destruction of older artistic forms. In the realm of the spirit, for the sake of the autonomy of the spirit, negation was to be exercised in all spheres. In Sontag's carefully retired language of “that particular rhetoric,” one can hear that she senses, faintly concurs in the idea, that by the middle of the century that credo was slipping away.

Curiously, when one considers how she was identified with 1960s radicalism, her phrase was deaf to or cynical about the reenlistment of the ethos of negation in the political upswing of those times. The Frankfurt School had taught that negative dialectics had the power to break through those dementing forces of modern life—its monolithic structures, its paradoxical tolerances, the loony ways it fed consumerism and anesthetized with media. Perhaps Sontag sensed that despite its apocalyptic moods, the age's allegiance to negation was thin. There were too many benefits in living in a very rich, compulsively expansive society. Or as Sontag puts it: “in the post-political, electronically connected cosmopolis in which all serious modern artists have taken out premature citizenship …” (AI 34). The age's feeling for negation, at least as evidenced in its art, was growing more attenuated and mannered. In her words, the aesthetics of negation was living off of myths.

“In my opinion,” she writes, “the myths of silence and emptiness are about as nourishing and viable as might be devised in an ‘unwholesome’ time—which is, of necessity, a time in which ‘unwholesome’ psychic states furnish the energies for most superior work in the arts. Yet one can't deny the pathos of these myths” (AI 11).


That “pathos” cues Sontag's readers that an iconic evaluation is going on. Her moderns possess pathos, as some gift they have for endurance. Pathos keeps futility at bay, when it fixes on that subject with all of its attention. Then the two emotions lock in a kind of tug-of-war. This is the struggle of tragic heroes, and it is tragedy that brightens the star of pathos in the pantheon of sentiments. In any other sense of the word, we tend to be less sure of its virtues.

Sontag has spoken of the pathos of children, by which she invokes our more commonplace appreciation of their fragility and their neediness. A touch of these qualities can be felt in that intimate and bonded way of hers of addressing the hauteur of the modernist aesthetic. But only a touch—the hopefulness of the childhood of an aesthetic. Mostly, it is her modern's steadfastness in suffering that raises them to heroic stature. She admires the inexorability of their ideals, which drive them step by step to self-dissolve, or should they be heroes of the mind, their inexorable pursuit of self-confrontation. They have claims to some of tragedy's merits, if only in their pathos. She would be the first to acknowledge that they would not themselves believe that they are worthy of tragedy's impulses or even believe in its forms.

This pathos is the opposite of the quality of voice and approach to ideas the young Sontag liked to make, that is, those epigrammatical incursions. To steal a phrase from Sontag's essay on Sartre, where she describes his solution “to his disgust,” the epigrammatical mode is “impertinent” (AI 98). Only later, into the 1970s, does the other side of her yearn toward the fullness of pathos.

By then, she has had more time to wrestle with several sides of herself and more time to test the climate in which her respectful, ambivalent looking back at the ethos of modernism is being received. Our sympathy with the pathos of heroes includes the luxury of afterthought. Their stories tend to be conclusive. The pathos we carry away becomes a lovely haze in which we recall the world of their struggles, a far slighter thing than if we thought we were subject to the same purposes. Sontag, having directed her critical energies to the new temperament, had to sense what double or triple ironic release survived in her italicized references to the “heroic age” of modernism and the “pathos” of its myths. Or rather, her statements are an attempt at a release, because to her all serious art, such as the impassioned minimalism of that period, called forth and relied upon these modernist “unwholesome” tenets.


There is much at stake in these clashes of formal temperaments, that is, between what might be called the classical or “heroic” modernism and its later variety, the literature and arts of the '40s and '50s (and, arguably, modernism's rollover into the postmodernism of the late 1960s and on). Two kinds of nourishments of consciousness are at stake, and thus, for Sontag, two kinds of ethical groundings.

As Maire Jaanus Kurrik formulates the matter, classical (modern) novels negate, modernist (or, in my terms, late modernist) novels delete. Admittedly, this is an oversimplification, a conceit. However, by taking a sight along this single line of inquiry, how negation metamorphoses, Kurrik can say things like this: later modernist novels make us uncomfortable not for what the books attack, but for what they override. The old humanist complaints against modernism—that modernism is nihilistic, tradition-destroying, the lamentable outcome of the excesses of Romantic mystification—can be countered with the argument that modernists say no to the power of God, destiny, authority, because the power of these things is mighty. The newer novelists are far less ambivalent; seemingly they can give up, erase, elide in a dispersed totality. The feel of deletion as it acts, then, is one of lessening, while the feel of negation is making something serious, complex, noble, and ignoble.

One of the problems with deletion, as Kurrik writes, is that while “it may bypass the corruption of our yesses and noes” (236), “its own violence displaces the violence of negation” (232). It is left with a state of “nolition”—an inability to wish or want anything. Negativity turns to negativism, and from there a person descends to a deracinated, dematerialized, “gutted,” and “drained” state.

Sontag's characters in her fiction play these scenarios out, literally perform these operations on themselves. Hippolyte sets out to “delete” himself; Diddy to die while his stomach is being pumped. Their stories are exercises in the farcical underside of pathos of modernism's myths. They are meant to be “despised”: that is, they are meant to be analyzed with wonder and indignation, sympathy and revulsion, in a paradigmatically ambivalent fashion. They are antithetical portraits of a sensibility towards which Sontag has tried to establish a position that neither judges nor interprets.

But Sontag is motivated by a larger set of values. The ethics of negation can lift the spirit to the mountaintop of mystical oneness; here the ethical secularist in Sontag is wary. The ethos of nolition of the new novel, on the other hand, cannot be abided with either, not directly, not by a moralist. It challenges Sontag to investigate Nietzsche's thought that art is a “complex kind of willing” set alongside this world, a way of nourishing through its graces our capacity for willing. We are fed by the artist's autonomous spirit; we are provoked to will. But if that spirit claims no autonomy, if it likens the world to a rush of reception—then the challenge moves to the reader, to that artist inside the critic. It forces her to save the seriousness of the modernist project by herself working through it, until she has “exhausted it,” silenced it imaginatively, or in that cryptic word of hers, “disburdened” herself of it. In Sontag's practice, modernism's turn towards deletion begins to dress itself in the vestments of an allegorical struggle.


If all this battling with the paradoxes of deletion only mires one more deeply in the paradoxical, it has to be thus. Paradox is a way of construing how it is to live in a time dominated by metacritical concerns, a time, as Sontag describes, that patronizes itself infinitely. One has to learn to live with that sense of being watched too closely, at every level too aware of historical indebtedness, structural imperatives or deceptive motives about one's own behavior and ideas. Looking back on the modernist flight from bad faith (the failed, incomplete project of negation) into nothingness, one realizes that the moment of pure freedom and creativity—the “present” of modernism—can never be achieved. One is hopelessly bound by the self thinking about the self striving for authentic life. One longs to be disburdened.

The authentic moral spirit, however, does not compromise with the world, and disburdenment can seem a compromise. So a kind of deal is struck: specifically, in the modernist scheme, one achieves authenticity by negating the authorities and conventions generating from one's own work. The self that is then transcended is not suspected of being the originator of sin, error, pollution, or arrogance (the mystic's demons); rather it is seen as an agent imposing false constraints. This self is both imperious and alienated from its own liberation. It can be won back to itself only by a downward slide to the very edge of existence.

Trilling finds in this ideal something he dislikes. He writes in Sincerity and Authenticity (1970)—his way of retreating from that call for a positive politics of 1963—that it is indicative of our times that our intellectuals advocate the overcoming of alienation by completing it.1 What bothers Trilling, what he distrusts in all that negating business of the rule of authenticity, is that the advocacy of completing alienation “involves no actual credence.” To which argument, Sontag, in effect, replies: no actual credence, to be sure, for no artist or intellectual can completely silence his or her own speech, adopt madness over sanity, destroy the creation upon which he or she experiences being an artist or intellectual without ceasing to be one. Short of that final, actual negation—utter silence, complete madness, successful suicide—there is that promise of acting out, and thereby learning from, the paradoxes of one's own positions.

Perhaps another explanation for the modernist phenomenon Trilling dislikes so much—the advocacy of overcoming alienation by completing it—is that advocacy playacts the brave stance of negation while fulfilling a more primitive desire: self-consistency. In a state of total alienation a person finds a certainty of his or her own making. The insane person wills chaos and thereby escapes the disorientation of the sane person who merely suffers it. So does the artist of the aesthetic of silence. The sad realization comes upon the modernist, though (perhaps then covering them with the honor of pathos), that in the self-made world of the alienated there can be a sense of being justified, but there is no justice; of being truthful to oneself, but of sharing no truth. There can only be an affirmation of a negative state in which we find others who are lost.

In Sontag's fiction and in a strain of her criticism—on Artaud, Cioran, Benjamin, for example—there is an advocacy (sharply curtailed, argued with) for the allegorized world in which the artist pursues the negative state in order to know self-completion. And she is quick to point out that that state is morbid, like death, if not a death itself. What surprises her is her own indelible “fascination with morbidity.” Her frequent references to the need to “disburden” the self, to call modern thinking “disembowelment”—seemingly she regrets these capitulations to the reigning ideal. The political side of Sontag, the side that cares for moral action, repudiates both this apocalyptic sense of negation and its encroachment on well-being. She is always buttressing the citadels of modernism to keep them from leaking into the present, spilling out their creeds into our lives.


History, though, has to offer at least a vision of that future where solitude is overcome and action is meaningful in order for it to sustain hope. Mailer thought he saw such a vision in the sea of demonstrators marching to the Pentagon. In the 1960s there was a near devotional enthusiasm for pageantry, as if making a scene could reinforce the dream that progressive forces were alive. Sontag's politics had little interest in such events; she was more interested in having vision reflect on the categorical struggles within herself. Perhaps this is the one reason why Trip to Hanoi appeared to some as a romance. North Vietnam in the midst of its war with America provided a place to witness the instance of the opposite, a place making an “ethical fairytale.” It offered her the chance to compare the spirit of positive action against the passivity of Western intellectualism, with that particular Western concern for individual style. In North Vietnam Sontag thought she found a unity of commitment, a simplicity of purposes and values. To her it was a place of unashamed moralism and nonironical values. It was a place, moreover, where there was no avant-garde. She believed North Vietnam challenged the premise she had helped establish—that the power of art was located in its power to negate; North Vietnam refuted her prescription for intelligence. There, excessive self-consciousness did not even have an audience.

That she writes of her impression of the North Vietnamese with nothing less than the full presence of her complicating, modernist consciousness should not arouse the reader's cynicism. Sontag never intends to complete the transformation of herself into her negated self, since that transformation is an allegory. It suggests only that the self has to look to defeat its own material, intellectual, historical recalcitrance. Sontag's work is an exploration of the desire to negate, of the will to do it, not of the extent. The extent always troubles her.

What she would rather have us contemplate are the styles of this radical willing. She addresses these various styles in her first two collections of essays. By the time she writes of photography in the mid-1970s, she has come around again to adopt the position of some of the Left-humanist critics before her. The modernist era had accomplished what she fears is a terrifying distortion of perception. Modernism, while negating itself as art, turned the world into art. It aestheticized life. Modernism had made antiform, disaster, horror as much subject for aesthetic pleasure as beauty; it forced pleasurable regard beyond all boundaries until it became a wholly inadequate response. Experience and imagination could both be treated as spectacle. All that was needed was a certain, very minimal, integrity of elements.

Readiness, style, demonstration, action: these were the critical terms for the 1960s; Sontag's title Styles of Radical Will captures the essence of that preparedness, that nourishing of contemplation that provokes the will. Still, consciously or not, the paradox of modernist action is already built into the phrase: having a style of radical will stands for the ultimate expression of the aestheticization of life, just as it stands for a complete response to the conditions of alienation.

One can live with contradictions as long as a greater cause by which one justifies oneself remains irrefutable. It is only later, under the sense that something has gone wrong, that paradoxical intentions are examined for what they are. After the radical culture faded in influence, it was not difficult to point out that its impact was weakened by its emphasis on modes or styles of being. Sontag was caught up in the same kinds of corrections, not repudiations, as were many others. In fact, Sontag soon distrusted the politics of style (see her essay on Cuba, 1969) shortly after and perhaps even while she was writing about it. The arguments for such a politics come too close to paralleling arguments for modernist art. In practice, this politics took too much from the ideals of freedom, and had too much the sense of individual volition, or rather, it dematerialized its sense of opposition, was too trusting of and too dependent on notions of the will.

But it has to be said, that in reading Sontag's Trip to Hanoi and the later “Project for a Trip to China,” one realizes that Sontag cannot give up the essential esteem she has for both trips as trips and both places as opposites to her sensibilities. Rather than her attitude being romantic, or pastoral, or Orientalist, her attitude reflects that tendency in her towards abstraction, a certain mechanical sense of negation, the very one that has been her target all along. She may “despise” her protagonists; she may be exasperated with the trajectory of modernist thinking—she spotted and roundly criticized this problem as early as her 1963 essay on Lévi-Strauss. She knows its power, nonetheless.


In Under the Sign of Saturn, which is her sign as well as Walter Benjamin's (and by implication that of the others in this volume), melancholics seek to be contented with the ironies of mortality. But it seems that life is always outpacing them. Nervously, melancholics have a determination to sequester loss. They descend the path to the contemplation of death and vileness and there, at that base, they find they are thinking in allegories. Faithlessly, they have been given a vehicle of redemption. Benjamin writes:

Ultimately in the death signs of the baroque the direction of allegorical reflection is reversed; on the second part of its wide arc it returns, to redeem. … And this is the essence of the melancholy immersion: that its ultimate objects, in which it believes it can most fully secure for itself that which is vile, turn into allegories, and that these allegories fill out and deny the void in which they are represented, just as, ultimately, the intention does not faithfully rest in the contemplation of bones, but faithlessly leaps forward to the ideal of redemption.


Part of what Benjamin means by redemption is that which is gathered up into the idea, into a process which has its own essences but which at the same time bespeaks the totality. “That is its Platonic ‘redemption’” (46). The melancholic here, in the German baroque drama, awaits a transfiguration that would bring him or her back into the eddies of becoming an authentic idea, presumably a tragic hero, or perhaps even a lesser being who is about to experience the satisfaction of self-discovery. Otherwise, the melancholic's “wisdom is subject to the nether world,” as a contemplator of dead things.

How strange that Sontag and others should take up as part of the idea of consciousness of our times this obscure art form, the German Trauerspiel, the emblem-ridden, allegorically coded ceremony of sorrow which the seventeenth century fetishized as melancholic contemplation. Perhaps some of that presumed affinity comes from the desire to write like Benjamin; another cause is that which Benjamin himself characterizes as the “fatal, pathological suggestibility” that is “characteristic of our age” (53). “Like expressionism,” he continues, “the baroque is not so much an age of genuine artistic achievement as an age possessed of an unremitting artistic will. … To this should be added the desire for a vigorous style of language, which would make it seem equal to the violence of world-events” (54-55).

It is an art of epigones, given to exaggeration, the “spectacle of spiritual contradiction” and the antithetical; its common practice is to “pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal, and, in the unrelenting expectation of a miracle, to take the repetition of a stereotype for the process of intensification” (178). The melancholic hero of the allegories adopts the world in ruins as his or her natural place, a place beyond beauty and without revelation, where the “events of history shrivel up and become absorbed in the setting” (179).

“To be exploited as muted cultural commentary does not exhaust the eloquence of ruins. As an allegory of personal as well as historical loss which cannot be repaired, they are an old figure in the aesthetic of melancholy,” Sontag writes in 1986 in her introduction to Veruschka: Transfigurations. “What characterizes the aesthetic of melancholy is that there is no witness, only a single, unmoving protagonist—one who does not witness desolation but is desolation—and whose complete identification with the desolate scene precludes feeling (its exemplary forms: tears), whose gaze is unresponsive, withdrawn” (12). In Sontag's rendering of the sensibility of our age, she begins to tire of finding “the politics of the perverse and the morbid” that Trilling had called for with a half-raised flag. Instead, she is beckoned by the melancholic allegorist. To her, late modernism passes into the shadows, becomes a shade of contemplation of the infernal; to her, the allegorical dimension of thinking sanctions the emptying out of colossal events and turns them into plays of the disembodied that await their and our “faithless leaps.” The principle, as she says in her essay on Cioran, is that one save oneself.

In the baroque world of the seventeenth century, emblems, mottoes, and allegorical narrative were used unmistakably to promote obeisance to the court, church, or some other ideal of incorporated glory. If allegory has returned as a favored explanation of our art and sensibility, it augurs this one felicity: allegory is inaccessible to ironic deflation. The nearly dogmatic commitment to self-traducing—to Sontag, modernism's gnostic complaint—in allegory is relieved of its ironic trivializing. Something is believed in allegory, something stands behind and supports the whole apparatus. There is no meaning immanent in the ruins. But the alienation that exposed rituals—our more common modern experience—turns to the pathos of admiring what is lost. What could that be now but the energy and confidence of heroic modernism, now sheltered by its monumentality in a landscape of horrors?

On those topics she likes, Sontag writes very slowly. In that pace comes the melancholic attachment which sets out to devolve its reasons for empathy. From these dead objects and fallen virtues she discovers and forges a dramaturgy of relinquishment. Inside the writer of the “new” is the writer searching to name the contours of the modern sensibility in the already just past.

In Sontag's first twenty-five years of writing, she is never far from this strange allegory of disburdenment. Her fiction is a tale told from these ending processes; in her essays she puts herself to the task: she exacts from herself the charge of exhausting the Westernizing, metacritical, self-patronizing consciousness that “digests” and “cannibalizes” itself in order to recover a longed for, lighter state. In describing Sontag's choice, I have tried to take her advice and consider “that it is what it is.” That the allegory of disburdenment has crystallized in her work, with its special, inner constitution and outward predilections, has given her work a center and personality. It has become her way of “soliciting self-knowledge” as Cary Nelson has phrased it, a way of doing criticism as a “zone of permission, a special site on which self-extinction can be desired and verbally pursued” (726).


I have to remark upon how highly selective these eight points are. I have dug grooves into Sontag's work in order to make tributaries flow into a river. I protest myself. This is a violation. Sontag deserves a wider, livelier appreciation. Against Interpretation and “The Aesthetics of Silence” are much quoted and taught. Principles from her “The Pornographic Imagination” are drawn upon virtually whenever the subject is discussed. Trip to Hanoi has been under continuous review since its publication in 1968, and On Photography (1977) has enjoyed a few attempts at “application” of its theories. Illness as Metaphor (1978), simply, has helped people, and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) most likely will too when the scientific evidence is more certain and the political climate less explosive around issues of responsibility. Its long view is grating on AIDS workers, while its sympathies seem a little late. Older essays such as “Notes on ‘Camp’” and “Fascinating Fascism” gave permission to a whole new class of intellectuals to look more deeply into popular culture. What she accomplished in keeping alive a debate, on Riefenstahl or Syberberg, not surprisingly, is still fought over. Equally, she set standards and made a lasting contribution to the culture of the United States in introducing European thinkers. It has been said, not so generously, that that has been her chief role. She is less well remembered for how she set out to correct our understanding of Lukács, Lévi-Strauss, Weil, Sartre, Camus, Barthes, Artaud, or for the way she emphasized the moral nature of the form—in disaster films, piety in the secular age, the novel, metatheater. This is a period where she is being more closely watched for her political fumbles, in her place under the spotlights as that kind (the older type) of intellectual who makes statements, takes on polemics, goes to enemy lands, and fights for artistic freedom.

Why then have I here stuck to the trying themes of negation and disburdenment in the face of all these separate, explicit, fulminating, and controversial accomplishments? Answer: to advance the case Sontag herself likes to put forth about her work. She is to herself a complete artist, welding her essays and fiction and films into one aesthetic. She told an interviewer in May 1988, while in Lisbon at an international conference of writers, that she does not “write about things, period. Everything that I write is fiction even when I write an essay. When I write an essay it is a type of fiction.” She starts, in the morning at her desk, with language, “and then I go on an adventure for the next sentence. I try to follow ideas of seriousness and good use in language” (Rattner A-31). She wishes to present herself thus, as a formalist and an artist. This essay takes her at her word, for the sake of what she is after.


  1. Trilling also quietly responds to Sontag's Against Interpretation in the essay “The Heroic, The Beautiful, the Authentic.” She is mentioned in the text, and pointedly, in a footnote in which Trilling shows that his essay “The Fate of Pleasure” came first (171). By implication Sontag is linked to the likes of Sarraute's “relentlessly censorious tone [which] suggests the moral intensity we now direct upon the questions of authenticity” (101). She, like Gide, Lawrence, and Sartre himself has added to the “gabble”—those conventions, maxims, etc., of “anyone who undertakes to satisfy our modern demand for reminders of our fallen state and for reasons why we are to be ashamed of our lives” (105).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: New Left Books, 1977.

Blanchot, Maurice. Death Sentence. Trans. Lydia Davis. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1978.

Kurrik, Maire Jaanus. Literature and Negation. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.

Nelson, Cary. “Soliciting Self-Knowledge: The Rhetoric of Susan Sontag's Criticism.” Critical Inquiry 7 (Summer 1980): 726.

Rattner, Jair. “Sontag diz que há uma superpopulação de escritores.” Fohla De S. Paulo 28 May 1988: A-31.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. New York: Farrar, 1966.

———. AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Farrar, 1989.

———. The Benefactor. New York: Farrar, 1963.

———. Death Kit. New York: Farrar, 1967.

———. I, etcetera. New York: Farrar, 1978.

———. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, 1978.

———. Introduction. Veruschka: Transfigurations. By Vera Lehndorff and Holger Trulzsch. New York: Little, 1986. 6-12.

———. On Photography. New York: Farrar, 1977.

———. Styles of Radical Will. New York: Farrar, 1969.

———. Trip to Hanoi. New York: Farrar, 1968.

———. Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, 1980.

Trilling, Lionel. “The Authentic Unconscious.” Sincerity and Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971.

———. “The Fate of Pleasure.” Beyond Culture. New York: Harcourt, 1965.

———. “The Heroic, the Beautiful, the Authentic.” Sincerity and Authenticity.

Harriet Gilbert (essay date 29 March 1991)

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SOURCE: Gilbert, Harriet. “Education of the Heart.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 144 (29 March 1991): 23-4.

[In the following essay, Gilbert discusses Sontag's writings on cancer and AIDS, using interview quotes to illustrate the author's opinions and confusion surrounding the social implications involved with these diseases.]

Like Woody Allen in Zelig, Susan Sontag appears to have been there, boots planted centre-stage, at every cultural high spot of the last quarter-century: the “youth movement” of the 1960s; opposition to the Vietnam war; feminism; anti-censorship … Aptly enough, she even popped up in Zelig itself.

This week, she has been in London raising money for Aids, an event centred on the re-publication of her New Yorker story “The Way We Live Now”—about a network of friends, of whom one is in hospital with Aids—in book form, with lithograph illustrations by Howard Hodgkin, the Turner Prize-winning British artist. In a gap between readings, fund-raising dinners and interviews, I met Susan Sontag in her Soho hotel and asked her how this “campaigning” persona clashed with her other existence, as one of our era's most complex and subtle analysts.

Her answer was swift: she has never been a campaigner. “The amount that I do is vastly exaggerated. I mean, what's the last political statement I made? I organised the American writers' response to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Since then I haven't opened my mouth.

The last should not be taken literally. Sontag speaks fluently and likes to speak. Both language and ideas give her so much palpable pleasure that you feel that, were strangers to accost her in the street, she would want to answer whatever they asked. This explains why she may under-estimate the number of platforms on which she has stood; but it also explains why people exaggerate her presence in the public arena. Not only is she mesmerising, with great intellectual and physical grace; but her mixture of thoughtfulness, mercury awareness and non-stop internal argument continues to echo long after the voice has stopped.

Writing, however, is what she does. “I really try to convey what I think in a way that has pockets, you know; that does acknowledge the complexity. That's why I don't generally like to do television. When I'm talking, I can't remember all the different sides of it. But then, when I write … it's a kind of layering process. You know, I lay down one layer and then I lay down another layer and then that sort of modifies the first thing, and then I get something that seems not too simple and seems eloquent and seems powerful and that's the argument that I want to make: one that one might want to re-read; not one that one would want to summarise and say, ‘Oh, I know what she thinks about this, she's against it, she's for it.’”

The problem is that Sontag bestrides a crossroads where art, academe, politics and street-life converge. She is therefore particularly vulnerable to having her feet run over. In her youth, fellow academics accused her of debasing critical writing by using its rigour to examine popular culture. Now she is charged that AIDS and Its Metaphors, the non-fiction book she wrote after “The Way We Live Now”, could reduce the pressure for action on Aids by its calm assurance that a cure will be found, and its undermining of the metaphors by which the syndrome is made into something more portentous than an illness.

“Oh, that's absurd,” said Sontag. “What else could it be but an illness? Even if it were some of the things that people act as if it were, if it were a state of mind, if it were a symptom of social disorder or moral degeneracy, would that make it more imperative to do something about it? Oh, you know, it's so … I often have the feeling that people don't really read what you write. I mean, there's all sorts of arguments in the book to try to understand why people need to use these metaphors.”

“The Way We Live Now” was also written, in part, to help in understanding: what Sontag describes as “an education of the heart”. It does this by weaving a lattice of voices expressing the pain, fear, compassion and euphoria (Sontag refuses to ignore this last) that greet the arrival of probable death within a close-knit community. The comfort that it offers is an artist's: not the comfort of meaning but of shape. This does not, however, make either it or its need less emotionally real.

The story's catalyst was the news that Sontag's friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer, was in hospital. She wrote it fast, and talks about it now as a “kind of premonition”, Mapplethorpe being the first of 30 close friends in whose death from Aids she has since been involved. However, as with the non-fiction book that she wrote about her cancer, Illness as Metaphor, the personal experience at once rippled out to form a larger, more general statement, thus feeding into the criticism that Sontag is distanced, uncommitted.

In a study of Sontag published last year, Sohnya Sayres points particularly to a passage in AIDS and Its Metaphors where Sontag writes that fear of Aids has enforced “a much more moderate exercise of appetite”. Sayres reads this as approval, a sign of Sontag's ever-increasing “conservatism”. The truth is less straightforward.

“I start absolutely by assuming that what is desirable is a pluralistic society, a society that does not impede a number of ways of being and feeling, and that includes different kinds of sexual relations. So, in that sense, I couldn't possibly be censorious about sexual experimentation. But, on the other hand—there's always another hand—I've lived long enough to see become publicly acceptable extremely cynical and callous ideas about personal relations, about sexuality.”

As illustration, Sontag cited such films as The Silence of the Lambs and David Lynch's Wild at Heart, the second of which she has been appalled to hear described as a “charming comedy”. “I wear turtle-neck sweaters when I go to the movies, so that I can pull the thing over my head, and I turn around and everyone's sitting there, not even blinking; so I mean, there is a kind of mutation of feeling and a rise in the tolerance for brutality.” The crucial point, however, is this: when I asked her whether this “tolerance” was growing in real as well as in representational life, she looked for a moment surprised that there might be a difference. Similarly, when I asked her whether she felt moral conflict about raising funds, some part of which could be paying for experiments on chimpanzees, she sounded sincerely perplexed. “I don't know what to say. I'm horrified by cruelty to animals and all the examples of unnecessary use of animals in laboratories, and I don't know what the practical consequences of disapproving of it so much … I don't know whether one should want not to use animals, if it could mean finding proper treatment earlier. I just don't know … I don't know how to think about it.”

“Practical consequences” ought, perhaps, to be marginally better considered. But then, as she said, Sontag is not a campaigner. She is a public figure whom we still desperately need: someone for whom imagining, thinking, saying and feeling are indivisible. If some of us know more clearly where we “stand” on, for example, vivisection, we should also know the ambivalence that we trampled in order to get there. As much as political positions, or more so, contradictions need a guardian.

Elin Elgaard (review date autumn 1993)

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SOURCE: Elgaard, Elin. Review of The Volcano Lover, by Susan Sontag. World Literature Today 67, no. 4 (autumn 1993): 825-26.

[In the following review, Elgaard finds flaws in the narrative style in The Volcano Lover, yet compliments Sontag's characterizations, and especially the development of the protagonist, Emma.]

Set in revolution-threatened, late-eighteenth-century Naples and subtitled “A Romance,” The Volcano Lover casts a net of passions: a British envoy's for Vesuvius, his first wife Catherine's for him, his own for second wife Emma, and finally hers, requited, for Admiral Nelson. Crisscrossing the net run other loves: the collecting envoy's for art; the starving mob's (as is the king's hunting lust) for butchery; that of the queen's confidant, Scarpia, for power. The storyteller (of ancient origin, now termed “postmodern”) freely manipulates and interrupts action—even letters!—in comments witty, scathing, and wistful, tightening the net till there is scarcely room for the reader. Deliberate tense shifts—often in midsentence—may serve artistically, like filmic stills (the momentous moment), but also irritate as mere mannerism.

Forestalling character delusions (“Catherine may have thought, wrongly, that she had escaped male egoism”) or coloring reader reception (“What we agree with leaves us inactive, but contradiction makes us productive—a wisdom and a brand of felicity unavailable to the Collector which he would never miss”) may be mock-Victorian, but any such intention is vitiated by tahsome impact. Led by the nose, and mostly within earshot of Vesuvius—variously androgyne, monster, principle of disaster, projection of ourselves (even willed identification)—we soonest see the connection between humanity's lust for destruction (spectacle at all cost) and appropriation: both are “appetitive.” A wholly negative cuneiform is the cuccagna, an obscene, live mountain of terrified animals built to entertain and feed the poor on feast days; and equally Swiftian is the inverted(?) volcano of the King's protracted bowel movements.

Preachily explicit on the societally oppressed, as in many a feminist dictum, the novel yet triumphs in its portrayal of Emma. Related to mythical Galatea (and Balzac's Sarrasine story), she is statue come alive, endearing and empowering herself through sheer vitality. Fat and faded, she meets her one-armed, one-eyed hero, and in a marvelous “funhouse” full of Bacchanalian statuary, they kiss. With their separate imperfections they attain perfect passion: “She never imagined that a man could feel as she did—that he wanted to be taken by her as much as she by him. We are all, in that best sense, little volcanoes, even Jack the monkey, whom the Collector mistakenly saw as “co-mocker” (versus embracer) of life and who died for lack of affection—to be resurrected “sitting on my breast” in the envoy's death delirium, a reminder of failure.

Since obsession is here defined as the opposite of ecstasy, even the martyred intellectual Eleanora, who comes to judge all posthumously, must, in her desire to be “pure flame,” be seen as having failed; the sybil Efrosina, whom the Collector sought and feared as the erotic connection to life, remains (with Emma) closer to the pulse.

Tess Lewis (review date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Lewis, Tess. “Wild Fancies.” Belles Lettres 9, no. 3 (spring 1994): 25-6.

[In the following review, Lewis provides a negative assessment of Alice in Bed, contending that the character's words and actions are inaccurate, implausible, and laden with banalities and trite cliches.]

“How wild can be the fancies of the unimaginative female!” the bedridden Alice James wrote in her diary in 1891. Unfortunately, wild, self-indulgent fancy rather than quickening imagination is the guiding spirit of Alice in Bed, Susan Sontag's play based on Henry and William James's invalid sister. Intended as a play “about women, about women's anguish and women's consciousness” and about the imagination, Alice in Bed is in fact little more than a procession of emblematic figures uttering portentous, clipped sentences at one another. Rather than bring the historical and fictional figures to life on stage, Sontag exploits them for all the sociocultural atmosphere they are worth, leaving the intellectual heavy lifting to the spectator. Alice, for example, informs Emily Dickinson, “I think your interest in death is more interesting than mine.” That may well be, but how, and why, and what difference does it make? Such pronouncements as the fictional Dickinson's “Death is the lining. The lines.” hardly clear things up.

Sontag's emblematic use of historical and literary figures was far more successful in her recent novel The Volcano Lover, in which the main characters—Sir William Hamilton; his wife, Emma; and Lord Nelson—are not referred to by name, but as the Cavaliere, the Cavaliere's wife, and the hero. Goethe; William Beckford, the notorious collector, amateur architect, and author of Vathek—the scandalous tale of a sadistic sultan; and the Baron Scarpia from Tosca also make their appearances. But whereas The Volcano Lover's elaborate settings and dramatic action bring most of the characters convincingly to life, Alice in Bed's intellectual scaffolding remains woefully bare.

Alice in Bed opens in 1890 with a 40-ish Alice in bed under several thin mattresses bickering with her nurse about whether she can, will, or even wants to get up. She eventually does, smokes opium, delivers a monologue, and gets back into bed. Throughout the play, the mattresses—social pressures, family expectations, etc.—are piled upon her or taken away by a man and a woman in sailor outfits. In the central scene, inspired by a fusion of Alice James with the heroine of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Alice is joined for a mad tea party by Margaret Fuller; Emily Dickinson; Alice's mother; Kundry from Wagner's Parsifal, who wishes to sleep away her adulterous guilt; and Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis—a group of women in Adolphe Adam's ballet Giselle who died before their wedding days and returned to torment unfaithful lovers. Utterly devoid of humor, this scene reduces such eloquent, passionate women as Fuller and Dickinson to mouthing superficial banalities. For example, Sontag has Dickinson say, “I trust that my flowers have the good grace to be seared by our shouts,” and Margaret Fuller, “Women despair differently. I've observed that. We can be very stoical.”

Henry James makes an appearance, quoting from Alice's diary and from his own writings about her. In another scene a younger Alice asks her father's permission to commit suicide, a request the senior Henry James did in fact grant his then 30-year old daughter. However, that he should then remove his wooden leg and beat it with a hammer is dramatically, not to mention historically, implausible.

A touch of nostalgie de la boue enters in the form of a gentle, bumbling young thief with “a Cockney or Irish accent.” Assured that Alice was ill and would not wake up, he agrees, despite his inexperience, to break into her room only to find a suddenly energetic Alice who drinks his gin, points out the choice pieces he should steal, and reveals her dark visions.

Intended as proof of Alice's victorious imagination as well as the imaginative climax of the play, Scene 6 consists of a monologue delivered by a shrunken Alice in an oversized bed. She describes her mental flight to Rome but fails to draw the reader in. Her constant repetition of the qualifier “in my mind” not only ensures that the imagined scene remains Alice's alone, but also prevents us from believing that she herself is wholly caught up in her imaginative displacement. Alice has, it seems here, constructed an insurmountable barrier between her self and her imagination. Moreover, if this monologue reflects Sontag's view of the limitations and advantages of the mental defense mechanisms of 19th-century women, why does she not illustrate her view at greater length and with greater subtlety? We are offered no insight into the suffering and invalidism prevalent among intelligent women in the 19th century, into the pressures suffered by such women as James, Fuller, and Dickinson, or into their very different reactions to these pressures.

The best thing about the book is the afterword, lumbering though it is. In this “Note on the Play” Sontag explains what she has tried to accomplish. In fact, she explains her intentions so thoroughly that there is no real need for the play at all. Sontag ends her afterword with the rallying cry: “But the victories of the imagination are not enough.” Yes, and how dismal are its failures.

Henry James, himself a surprisingly unsuccessful playwright, wrote that “the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.” Sontag has clearly taken far too many here.

Susan Sontag and Edward Hirsch (interview date July 1994)

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SOURCE: Sontag, Susan, and Edward Hirsch. “Susan Sontag: The Art of Fiction CXLIII.” Paris Review 37, no. 137 (winter 1995): 176-208.

[In the following interview, conducted in July, 1994, Sontag reveals the authors who have inspired and influenced her literary career, comments on the craft of writing, and elaborates on the different approaches she takes between writing essays and writing fiction.]

Susan Sontag was interviewed in her Manhattan apartment on three blisteringly hot days in July, 1994. She had been traveling back and forth to Sarajevo—she has now been there nine times—and it was gracious of her to set aside time for the interview. Sontag is a prodigious talker—candid, informal, learned, ardent—and each day at a wooden kitchen table held forth for seven and eight-hour stretches. The kitchen is a mixed-use room, but the fax machine and the photocopier were silent; the telephone seldom rang. The conversation ranged over a vast array of subjects—later the texts would be scoured and revised—but always returned to the pleasures and distinctions of literature. Sontag is interested in all things concerning writing—from the mechanism of the process to the high nature of the calling. She has many missions, but foremost among them is the vocation of the writer.

Sontag was born in 1933 in New York City, grew up in Arizona and later, Southern California. She graduated from high school at fifteen, attended Berkeley for a year, graduated from the University of Chicago (1951) and received two M.A.s from Harvard: one in English (1954), one in philosophy (1955). In 1950, she married Philip Rieff, with whom she had a son, the writer David Rieff; the marriage lasted nine years. Since 1957, when she spent a year in France, Sontag has often lived abroad, though New York City has generally served as her base. In the early sixties she taught philosophy and the history of religion at various universities, but since then has eschewed academic life. She has won many awards and fellowships, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography, and a five-year MacArthur Fellowship.

Sontag has published fifteen books, including the novels The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967) and The Volcano Lover (1992), a collection of short stories, I, etcetera (1978) and three collections of essays: Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969) and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980). On Photography, a collection of related essays, was published in 1977. A Susan Sontag Reader appeared in 1982. Illness as Metaphor (1978) and its companion volume, AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), anatomize the putative uses of metaphors for tuberculosis, cancer and AIDS in our culture. Her latest work is a play employing elements from the life of Alice James entitled Alice in Bed (1993). Sontag has also written and directed four films—Duet for Cannibals (1969), Brother Carl (1971), Promised Lands (1974) and Unguided Tour (1983)—and edited and introduced writings by Antonin Artaud (1976), Roland Barthes (1981) and, most recently, Danilo Kiš (1995), as well as written prefaces to books by Robert Walser (1982), Marina Tsvetaeva (1983), Machado de Assis (1990) and Juan Rulfo (1995), among others.

Sontag lives in a sparsely furnished five-room apartment on the top floor of a building in Chelsea on the west side of Manhattan. Books—as many as fifteen thousand—and papers are everywhere. A lifetime could be spent browsing through the books on art and architecture, theater and dance, philosophy and psychiatry, the history of medicine and the history of religion, photography and opera and so on. The various European literatures—French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, etc., as well as hundreds of books of Japanese literature and books on Japan—are arranged by language in a loosely chronological way. So is American literature as well as English literature, which runs from Beowulf to, say, James Fenton. Sontag is an inveterate clipper, and the books are filled with scraps of paper (“each book is marked and filleted,” she says), the bookcases festooned with notes scrawled with the names of additional things to read.

Sontag usually writes by hand on a low marble table in the living room. Small theme notebooks are filled with notes for her novel-in-progress, In America. An old book on Chopin sits atop a history of table manners. The room is lit by a lovely Fortuny lamp, or a replica of one. Piranesi prints decorate the wall (architectural prints are one of her passions).

Everything in Sontag's apartment testifies to the range of her interests, but it is the work itself, like her conversation, that demonstrates the passionate nature of her commitments. She is eager to follow a subject wherever it leads, as far as it will go—and beyond. What she has said about Roland Barthes is true about her as well: “It was not a question of knowledge … but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention.”

[Hirsch]: When did you begin writing?

[Sontag]: I'm not sure. But I know I was self-publishing when I was about nine: I started a four-page monthly newspaper, which I hectographed (a very primitive method of duplication) in about twenty copies and sold for five cents to the neighbors. The paper, which I kept going for several years, was filled with imitations of things I was reading. There were stories, poems and two plays that I remember, one inspired by Čapek's R.U.R., the other by Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria de Capo. And accounts of battles—Midway, Stalingrad and so on; remember, this was 1942, 1943, 1944—dutifully condensed from articles in real newspapers.

We've had to postpone this interview several times because of your frequent trips to Sarajevo which, you've told me, have been one of the most compelling experiences of your life. I was thinking how war recurs in your work and life.

It does. I made two trips to North Vietnam under American bombardment, the first of which I recounted in “Trip to Hanoi,” and when the Yom Kippur War started in 1973 I went to Israel to shoot a film, Promised Lands, on the front lines. Bosnia is actually my third war.

There's the denunciation of military metaphors in Illness as Metaphor. And the narrative climax of The Volcano Lover, a horrifying evocation of the viciousness of war. And when I asked you to contribute to a book I was editing, Transforming Vision: Writers on Art, the work you chose to write about was Goya's The Disasters of War.

I suppose it could seem odd to travel to a war, and not just in one's imagination—even if I do come from a family of travelers. My father, who was a fur trader in northern China, died there during the Japanese invasion: I was five. I remember hearing about “world war” in September 1939, entering elementary school, where my best friend in the class was a Spanish Civil War refugee. I remember panicking on December 7, 1941. And one of the first pieces of language I ever pondered over was “for the duration”—as in “there's no butter for the duration.” I recall savoring the oddity, and the optimism, of that phrase.

In “Writing Itself,” on Roland Barthes, you express surprise that Barthes, whose father was killed in one of the battles of the First World War (Barthes was an infant) and who, as a young man himself, lived through the Second World War—the Occupation—never once mentions the word war in any of his writings. But your work seems haunted by war.

I could answer that a writer is someone who pays attention to the world.

You once wrote of Promised Lands: “My subject is war, and anything about any war that does not show the appalling concreteness of destruction and death is a dangerous lie.”

That prescriptive voice rather makes me cringe. But … yes.

Are you writing about the siege of Sarajevo?

No. I mean, not yet, and probably not for a long time. And almost certainly not in the form of an essay or report. David Rieff, who is my son, and who started going to Sarajevo before I did, has published such an essay-report, a book called Slaughterhouse—and one book in the family on the Bosnian genocide is enough. So I'm not spending time in Sarajevo to write about it. For the moment it's enough for me just to be there as much as I can: to witness, to lament, to offer a model of non-complicity, to pitch in. The duties of a human being, one who believes in right action, not of a writer.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I read the biography of Madame Curie by her daughter Eve Curie when I was about six, so at first I thought I was going to be a chemist. Then for a long time, most of my childhood, I wanted to be a physician. But literature swamped me. What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer's life seemed the most inclusive.

Did you have any role models as a writer?

Of course I thought I was Jo in Little Women. But I didn't want to write what Jo wrote. Then in Martin Eden I found a writer-protagonist with whose writing I could identify, so then I wanted to be Martin Eden—minus, of course, the dreary fate Jack London gives him. I saw myself as, I guess I was, a heroic autodidact. I looked forward to the struggle of the writing life. I thought of being a writer as a heroic vocation.

Any other models?

Later, when I was thirteen, I read the journals of André Gide, which described a life of great privilege and relentless avidity.

Do you remember when you started reading?

When I was three, I'm told. Anyway, I remember reading real books—biographies, travel books—when I was about six. And then free fall into Poe and Shakespeare and Dickens and the Brontës and Victor Hugo and Schopenhauer and Pater, and so on. I got through my childhood in a delirium of literary exaltations.

You must have been very different from other children.

Was I? I was good at dissembling, too. I didn't think that much about myself, I was so glad to be on to something better. But I so wanted to be elsewhere. And reading produced its blissful, confirming alienations. Because of reading—and music—my daily experience was of living in a world of people who didn't give a hoot about the intensities to which I had pledged myself. I felt as if I were from another planet—a fantasy borrowed from the innocent comic books of that era, to which I was also addicted. And of course I didn't really have much sense of how I was seen by others. Actually, I never thought people were thinking of me at all. I do remember—I was about four—a scene in a park, hearing my Irish nanny saying to another giant in a starched white uniform, “Susan is very high-strung,” and thinking, “That's an interesting word. Is it true?”

Tell me something about your education.

All in public schools, quite a number of them, each one more lowering than the one before. But I was lucky to have started school before the era of the child psychologists. Since I could read and write I was immediately put into the third grade, and later I was skipped another semester, so I was graduated from high school—North Hollywood High School—when I was still fifteen. After that, I had a splendid education at Berkeley, then in the so-called Hutchins College of the University of Chicago, and then as a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard and Oxford. I was a student for most of the 1950s and I never had a teacher from whom I didn't learn. But at Chicago, the most important of my universities, there were not just teachers I admired but three to whose influence I gratefully submitted: Kenneth Burke, Richard McKeon and Leo Strauss.

What was Burke like as a teacher?

Completely inside his own enthralling way of unpacking a text. He spent almost a year with the class reading Conrad's Victory word by word, image by image. It was from Burke that I learned how to read. I still read the way he taught me. He took some interest in me. I had already read some of his books before he was my teacher in Humanities III; remember, he wasn't well-known then and he'd never met an undergraduate who had read him while still in high school. He gave me a copy of his novel, Towards a Better Life, and told me stories about sharing an apartment in Greenwich Village in the 1920s with Hart Crane and Djuna Barnes—you can imagine what that did to me. He was the first person I met who had written books that I owned. (I except an audience I was roped into with Thomas Mann when I was fourteen years old, which I recounted in a story called “Pilgrimage.”) Writers were as remote to me as movie stars.

You had your B.A. from the University of Chicago at eighteen. Did you know by then you would become a writer?

Yes, but I still went to graduate school. It never occurred to me that I could support myself as a writer. I was a grateful, militant student. I thought I would be happy teaching, and I was. Of course, I had been careful to prepare myself to teach not literature, but philosophy and the history of religion.

But you taught only through your twenties, and have refused countless invitations to return to university teaching. Is this because you came to feel that being an academic and being a creative writer are incompatible?

Yes. Worse than incompatible. I've seen academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.

Do you mind being called an intellectual?

Well, one never likes to be called anything. And the word makes more sense to me as an adjective than as a noun, though, even so, I suppose there will always be a presumption of graceless oddity—especially if one is a woman. Which makes me even more committed to my polemics against the ruling anti-intellectual cliches: heart versus head, feeling versus intellect, and so forth.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

That's one of the few labels I'm content with. But even so … is it a noun? I doubt it.

What women writers have been important to you?

Many. Sei Shōnagon, Austen, George Eliot, Dickinson, Woolf, Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova, Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Hardwick … the list is much longer than that. Because women are, culturally speaking, a minority, with my minority consciousness I always rejoice in the achievement of women. With my writer's consciousness, I rejoice in any writer I can admire, women writers no more or less than men.

Whatever the models of a literary vocation that inspired you as a child, I have the impression that your adult idea of a literary vocation is more European than American.

I'm not so sure. I think it's my own private brand. But what is true is that, living in the second half of the twentieth century, I could indulge my Europhile tastes without actually expatriating myself, while still spending a lot of my adult life in Europe. That's been my way of being an American. As Gertrude Stein remarked, “What good are roots if you can't take them with you?” One might say that's very Jewish, but it's also very American.

Your third novel, The Volcano Lover, seems to me a very American book, even though the story it tells takes place in eighteenth-century Europe.

It is. Nobody but an American would have written The Volcano Lover.

And The Volcano Lover's subtitle: “A Romance.” That's a reference to Hawthorne, right?

Exactly. I was thinking of what Hawthorne says in the preface to The House of Seven Gables: “When a writer calls his work a romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he been writing a novel.” My imagination is very marked by nineteenth-century American literature—first by Poe, whom I read at a precocious age and whose mixture of speculativeness, fantasy and gloominess enthralled me. Poe's stories still inhabit my head. Then by Hawthorne and Melville. I love Melville's obsessiveness. Clarel,Moby-Dick. And Pierre—another novel about the terrible thwarting of a heroic solitary writer.

Your first book was a novel, The Benefactor. Since then you've written essays, travel narratives, stories, plays, as well as two more novels. Have you ever started something in one form and then changed it to another?

No. From the beginning I always know what something is going to be: every impulse to write is born of an idea of form, for me. To begin I have to have the shape, the architecture. I can't say it better than Nabokov did: “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing.”

How fluent are you as a writer?

I wrote The Benefactor quickly, almost effortlessly, on weekends and during two summers (I was teaching in the Department of Religion at Columbia College); I thought I was telling a pleasurably sinister story that illustrated the fortune of certain heretical religious ideas that go by the name of Gnosticism. The early essays came easily, too. But writing is an activity that in my experience doesn't get easier with practice. On the contrary.

How does something get started for you?

It starts with sentences, with phrases, and then I know something is being transmitted. Often it's an opening line. But sometimes I hear the closing line, instead.

How do you actually write?

I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don't see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don't retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.

Is there anything that helps you get started writing?

Reading—which is rarely related to what I'm writing, or hoping to write. I read a lot of art history, architectural history, musicology, academic books on many subjects. And poetry. Getting started is partly stalling, stalling by way of reading and of listening to music, which energizes me and also makes me restless. Feeling guilty about not writing.

Do you write every day?

No. I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don't want to do anything else. I don't go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It's a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I'm too interested in many other things.

Yeats said famously that one must choose between the life and the work. Do you think that is true?

As you know, he actually said that one must choose between perfection of the life and perfection of the work. Well, writing is a life—a very peculiar one. Of course, if by life you mean life with other people, Yeats's dictum is true. Writing requires huge amounts of solitude. What I've done to soften the harshness of that choice is that I don't write all the time. I like to go out—which includes traveling; I can't write when I travel. I like to talk. I like to listen. I like to look and to watch. Maybe I have an Attention Surplus Disorder. The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention.

Do you revise as you go along or do you wait until you have an entire draft and then revise the whole thing?

I revise as I go along. And that's quite a pleasurable task. I don't get impatient and I'm willing to go over and over something until it works. It's beginnings that are hard. I always begin with a great sense of dread and trepidation. Nietzsche says that the decision to start writing is like leaping into a cold lake. Only when I'm about a third of the way can I tell if it's good enough. Then I have my cards, and I can play my hand.

Is there a difference between writing fiction and writing essays?

Writing essays has always been laborious. They go through many drafts, and the end result may bear little relation to the first draft: often I completely change my mind in the course of writing an essay. Fiction comes much easier, in the sense that the first draft contains the essentials—tone, lexicon, velocity, passions—of what I eventually end up with.

Do you regret anything you've written?

Nothing in its entirety except two theater chronicles I did in the mid-1960s for Partisan Review, and unfortunately included in the first collection of essays, Against Interpretation—I'm not suited for that kind of pugnacious, impressionistic task. Obviously, I don't agree with everything in the early essays. I've changed, and I know more. And the cultural context which inspired them has altogether changed. But there would be no point in modifying them now. I think I would like to take a blue pencil to the first two novels, though.

The Benefactor, which you wrote in your late twenties, is narrated in the voice of a Frenchman in his sixties. Did you find it easy to impersonate someone so different from yourself?

Easier than writing about myself. But writing is impersonation. Even when I write about events in my own life, as I did in “Pilgrimage” and “Project for a Trip to China,” it's not really me. But I admit that, with The Benefactor, the difference was as broad as I could make it. I wasn't celibate, I wasn't a recluse, I wasn't a man, I wasn't elderly, I wasn't French.

But the novel seems very influenced by French literature.

Is it? It seems many people think that it was influenced by the nouveau roman. But I don't agree. There were ironic allusions to two French books, hardly contemporary ones: Descartes' Meditations and Voltaire's Candide. But those weren't influences. If there was an influence on The Benefactor, though one I wasn't at all conscious of at the time, it was Kenneth Burke's Towards a Better Life. I reread Burke's novel recently, after many decades (I may never have reread it since he gave me a copy when I was sixteen), and discovered in its programmatic preface what seems like a model for The Benefactor. The novel as sequence of arias and fictive moralizing. The coquetry of a protagonist—Burke dared to call his the novel's hero—so ingeniously self-absorbed that no reader could be tempted to identify with him.

Your second novel, Death Kit, is quite different from The Benefactor.

Death Kit invites identification with its miserable protagonist. I was in the lamenting mood—it's written in the shadow of the Vietnam War. It's a book of grief, veils and all.

Hardly a new emotion in your work. Wasn't your first published story entitled “Man with a Pain”?

Juvenilia. You won't find it in I, etcetera.

How did you come to write those theater chronicles for Partisan Review?

Well you have to understand that the literary world then was defined by so-called small magazines—hard to imagine because it's so different now. My sense of literary vocation had been shaped by reading literary magazines—Kenyon Review,Sewanee Review,The Hudson Review,Partisan Review—at the end of the 1940s, while still in high school in Southern California. By the time I came to New York in 1960, those magazines still existed. But it was already the end of an era. Of course, I couldn't have known that. My highest ambition had been and still was to publish in one of these magazines, where five thousand people would read me. That seemed to me very heaven.

Soon after I moved to New York, I saw William Phillips at a party and got up my nerve to go over and ask him, “How does one get to write for Partisan Review?” He answered, “You come down to the magazine and I give you a book to review on spec.” I was there the next day. And he gave me a novel. Not one I was interested in, but I wrote something decent, and the review was printed. And so the door was opened. But then there was some inappropriate fantasy, which I tried to squelch, that I was going to be “the new Mary McCarthy”—as Phillips made plain to me by asking me to do a theater chronicle. “You know, Mary used to do it,” he said. I told him I didn't want to write theater reviews. He insisted. And so, much against my better judgment (I certainly had no desire to be the new Mary McCarthy, a writer who'd never mattered to me), I did turn out two of them. I reviewed plays by Arthur Miller and James Baldwin and Edward Albee and said they were bad and tried to be witty and hated myself for doing it. After the second round I told Phillips I couldn't go on.

But you did go on and write those famous essays, some of which were published in Partisan Review?

Yes, but those subjects were all of my own choosing. I've hardly ever written anything on commission. I am not at all interested in writing about work I don't admire. And even among what I've admired, by and large I've written only about things I felt were neglected or relatively unknown. I am not a critic, which is something else than an essayist; I thought of my essays as cultural work. They were written out of a sense of what needed to be written.

I was assuming that a principal task of art was to strengthen the adversarial consciousness. And that led me to reach for relatively eccentric work. I took for granted that the liberal consensus about culture—I was and am a great admirer of Lionel Trilling—would stay in place, that the traditional canon of great books could not be threatened by work that was more transgressive or playful. But taste has become so debauched in the thirty years I've been writing that now simply to defend the idea of seriousness has become an adversarial act. Just to be serious or to care about things in an ardent, disinterested way is becoming incomprehensible to most people. Perhaps only those who were born in the 1930s—and maybe a few stragglers—are going to understand what it means to talk about art as opposed to art projects. Or artists as opposed to celebrities. As you see, I'm chock-full of indignation about the barbarism and relentless vacuity of this culture. How tedious always to be indignant.

Is it old-fashioned to think that the purpose of literature is to educate us about life?

Well, it does educate us about life. I wouldn't be the person I am, I wouldn't understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I'm thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It's a creator of inwardness.

Do writing an essay and writing a piece of fiction come from different parts of yourself?

Yes. The essay is a constrained form. Fiction is freedom. Freedom to tell stories and freedom to be discursive, too. But essayistic discursiveness, in the context of fiction, has an entirely different meaning. It is always voiced.

It seems as if you have pretty much stopped writing essays.

I have. And most of the essays I've succumbed to writing in the past fifteen years are requiems or tributes. The essays on Canetti, Barthes and Benjamin are about elements in their work and sensibility that I feel close to: Canetti's cult of admiration and hatred of cruelty, Barthes's version of the aesthete's sensibility, Benjamin's poetics of melancholy. I was very aware that there's much to be said about them which I didn't say.

Yes, I can see that those essays are disguised self-portraits. But weren't you doing much the same thing in early essays, including some of those in Against Interpretation?

I suppose it can't be helped that it all hangs together. Still, something else was going on in the essays that went into the last collection, Under the Sign of Saturn. I was having a kind of slow-motion, asymptomatic nervous breakdown writing essays. I was so full of feeling and ideas and fantasies that I was still trying to cram into the essay mode. In other words, I'd come to the end of what the essay form could do for me. Maybe the essays on Benjamin, Canetti and Barthes were self-portraits, but they were also really fictions. My volcano lover, the Cavaliere, is the fully realized fictional form of what I'd been trying to say, in an impacted way, in the essay-portraits of Canetti and Benjamin.

Writing fiction, is your experience one of inventing or figuring out a plot?

Oddly enough, the plot is what seems to come all of a piece—like a gift. It's very mysterious. Something I hear or see or read conjures up a whole story in all its concreteness: scenes, characters, landscapes, catastrophes. With Death Kit, it was hearing someone utter the childhood nickname of a mutual friend named Richard—just the hearing of the name: Diddy. With The Volcano Lover, it was browsing in a print shop near the British Museum and coming across some images of volcanic landscapes that turned out to be from Sir William Hamilton's Campi Phlegraei. For the new novel, it was reading something in Kafka's diaries, a favorite book, so I must have already read this paragraph, which may be an account of a dream, more than once. Reading it this time the story of a whole novel, like a movie I'd seen, leaped into my head.

The whole story?

Yes, the whole story. The plot. But what the story can carry or accumulate—that I discover in the writing. If The Volcano Lover starts in a flea market and ends with Eleonora's beyond-the-grave monologue, it isn't as if I knew before I started writing all the implications of that journey, which goes from an ironic, down-market vignette of a collector on the prowl to Eleonora's moral wide-shot view of the whole story that the reader has experienced. Ending with Eleonora, and her denunciation of the protagonists, is as far as you can get from the point of view with which the novel starts.

At the beginning of your legendary essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” which appeared in 1964, you wrote that your attitude was one of “deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” This seems a typical attitude of yours: both yes and no to camp. Both yes and no to photography. Both yes and no to narrative …

It isn't that I like it and I don't like it: that's too simple. Or, if you will, it isn't “both yes and no.” It's “this but also that.” I'd love to settle in on a strong feeling or reaction. But, having seen whatever I see, my mind keeps on going and I see something else. It's that I quickly see the limitations of whatever I say or whatever judgment I make about anything. There's a wonderful remark of Henry James: “Nothing is my last word on anything.” There's always more to be said, more to be felt.

I think most people might imagine that you bring some theoretical agenda to fiction—if not as a writer of novels, at least as a reader of them.

But I don't. I need to care about and be touched by what I read. I can't care about a book that has nothing to contribute to the wisdom project. And I'm a sucker for a fancy prose style. To put it less giddily, my model for prose is poet's prose: many of the writers I most admire were poets when young or could have been poets. Nothing theoretical in all that. In fact, my taste is irrepressibly catholic. I shouldn't care to be prevented from doting on Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt and Didion's Democracy, Glenway Wescott's The Pilgrim Hawk and Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father.

You're mentioning a number of contemporaries you admire. Would you also say you've been influenced by them?

Whenever I avow to being influenced, I'm never sure I'm telling the truth. But here goes. I think I learned a lot about punctuation and speed from Donald Barthelme, about adjectives and sentence rhythms from Elizabeth Hardwick. I don't know if I learned from Nabokov and Thomas Bernhard, but their incomparable books help me keep my standards for myself as severe as they ought to be. And Godard—Godard has been a major nourishment to my sensibility and therefore, inevitably, to my writing. And I've certainly learned something as a writer from the way Schnabel plays Beethoven, Glenn Gould plays Bach, and Mitsuko Uchida plays Mozart.

Do you read the reviews of your work?

No. Not even those I'm told are entirely favorable. All reviews upset me. But friends give me a certain thumbs-up, thumbs-down sense of what they are.

After Death Kit you didn't write much for a few years.

I'd been very active in the anti-war movement since 1964, when it couldn't yet be called a movement. And that took up more and more time. I got depressed. I waited. I read. I lived in Europe. I fell in love. My admirations evolved. I made some movies. I had a crisis of confidence of how to write because I've always thought that a book should be something necessary, and that each book by me should be better than the one before. Punishing standards, but I'm quite loyal to them.

How did you come to write On Photography?

I was having lunch with Barbara Epstein of The New York Review of Books in early 1972 and going on about the Diane Arbus show at the Museum of Modern Art, which I'd just seen, and she said, “Why don't you write a piece about the show?” I thought that maybe I could. And then when I began writing it I thought that it should start with a few paragraphs about photography in general and then move to Arbus. And soon there was a lot more than a few paragraphs, and I couldn't extricate myself. The essays multiplied—I felt often like the hapless sorcerer's apprentice—and they got harder and harder to write, I mean, to get right. But I'm stubborn—I was on the third essay before I managed to place some paragraphs about Arbus and the show—and, feeling I'd committed myself, wouldn't give up. It took five years to write the six essays that make up On Photography.

But you told me that you wrote your next book, Illness as Metaphor, very fast.

Well, it's shorter. One long essay, the non-fiction equivalent of a novella. And being ill—while writing it I was a cancer patient with a gloomy prognosis—was certainly very focusing. It gave me energy to think I was writing a book that would be helpful to other cancer patients and those close to them.

All along you'd been writing stories …

Revving up for a novel.

Soon after finishing The Volcano Lover you started another novel. Does that mean that you're more drawn to longer, rather than shorter, forms of fiction?

Yes. There are a few of my stories which I like a lot—from I, etcetera, “Debriefing” and “Unguided Tour,” and “The Way We Live Now,” which I wrote in 1987. But I feel more drawn to polyphonic narratives, which need to be long—or longish.

How much time did it take you to write The Volcano Lover?

From the first sentence of the first draft to the galleys, two and a half years. For me that's fast.

Where were you?

I started The Volcano Lover in September 1989 in Berlin, where I had gone to hang out thinking that I was going to a place that was both very isolated and the Berkeley of Central Europe. Although only two months after I arrived Berlin had started to become a very different place, it still retained its main advantages for me: I wasn't in my apartment in New York, with all my books, and I wasn't in the place that I was writing about either. That sort of double distancing works very well for me.

About half of The Volcano Lover was written between late 1989 and the end of 1990 in Berlin. The second half was written in my apartment in New York, except for two chapters that I wrote in a hotel room in Milan (a two-week escapade) and another chapter which I wrote in the Mayflower Hotel in New York. That was the Cavaliere's deathbed interior monologue, which I thought I had to write in one go, in complete isolation, and knew—I don't know how I knew—that I could do in three days. So I left my apartment and checked into the hotel with my typewriter and legal-sized pads and felt-tip pens, and ordered up BLTs until I was done.

Did you write the novel in sequence?

Yes. I write chapter by chapter and I don't go on to the next chapter until the one I'm working on is in final form. That was frustrating at first because from the beginning I knew much of what I wanted the characters to say in the final monologues, but I feared that if I wrote them early on I wouldn't be able to go back to the middle. I was also afraid that maybe by the time I got to it I would have forgotten some of the ideas or no longer be connected to those feelings. The first chapter, which is about fourteen typewritten pages, took me four months to write. The last five chapters, some one hundred typewritten pages, took me two weeks.

How much of the book did you have in mind before you started?

I had the title; I can't write something unless I already know its title. I had the dedication; I knew I would dedicate it to my son. I had the Così fan tutte epigraph. And of course I had the story in some sense, and the span of the book. And what was most helpful, I had a very strong idea of a structure. I took it from a piece of music, Hindemith's The Four Temperaments—a work I know very well, since it's the music of one of Balanchine's most sublime ballets, which I've seen countless times. The Hindemith starts with a triple prologue, three very short pieces. Then come four movements: melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, choleric. In that order. I knew I was going to have a triple prologue and then four sections or parts corresponding to the four temperaments—though I saw no reason to belabor the idea by actually labeling Parts I to IV “melancholic,” “sanguinic,” etc. I knew all of that, plus the novel's last sentence: “Damn them all.” Of course, I didn't know who was going to utter it. In a sense, the whole work of writing the novel consisted of making something that would justify that sentence.

That sounds like a lot to know before beginning.

Yes, but for all that I knew about it, I still didn't understand all that it could be. I started off thinking that The Volcano Lover was the story of the volcano lover, Sir William Hamilton, the man I call the Cavaliere; that the book would stay centered on him. And I was going to develop the character of the self-effacing first Lady Hamilton, Catherine, at the expense of the story of his second wife, which everyone knows. I knew her story and the relation with Nelson had to figure in the novel, but I intended to keep it in the background. The triple prologue and Part I, with its many variations on the theme of melancholy (or depression, as we call it)—the melancholy of the collector, the ecstatic sublimation of that melancholy—all that went as planned. Part I never leaves the Cavaliere. But then, when I started my Part II—which was to have variations on the theme of blood, from the sanguinic Emma, this person bursting with energy and vitality, to the literal blood of the Neapolitan revolution—Emma kidnapped the book. And that permitted the novel to open out (the chapters got longer and longer) into a furor of storytelling and of reflections about justice, war and cruelty. That was the end of the main narrative, told in the third person. The rest of the novel was to be in the first person. A very short Part III: the Cavaliere—delirious, “phlegmatic”—enacts, in words, his dying. That went exactly as I'd imagined it, but then I was back in the Cavaliere-centered world of Part I. There were more surprises for me when I came to write the monologues of Part IV, “choleric”: women, angry women, speaking from beyond the grave.

Why beyond the grave?

A supplementary fiction, making it more plausible that they are speaking with such insistent, heartfelt, heartbreaking truthfulness. My equivalent of the unmediated, acutely rueful directness of an operatic aria. And how could I resist the challenge of ending each monologue with the character describing her own death?

Were they always going to be all women?

Yes, definitely. I always knew the book would end with women's voices, the voices of some of the women characters in the book, who would finally have their say.

And give the woman's point of view.

Well, you're assuming that there is a woman's, or female, point of view. I don't. Your question reminds me that, whatever their numbers, women are always regarded, are culturally constructed, as a minority. It's to minorities that we impute having a unitary point of view. Lord what do women want? etc. Had I ended the novel with the voices of four men, no one would suppose I was giving the male point of view; the differences among the four voices would be too striking. These women are as different from each other as any of four men characters in the novel I might have chosen. Each retells the story (or part of it) already known to the reader from her own point of view. Each has a truth to tell.

Do they have anything in common?

Of course. They all know, in different ways, that the world is run by men. So, with respect to the great public events that have touched their lives, they have the insight of the disenfranchised to contribute. But they don't speak only about public events.

Did you know who the women would be?

I knew pretty soon that the first three beyond-the-grave monologues would be by Catherine, Emma's mother and Emma. But I was already in the middle of writing Part II, Chapter 6 and boning up on the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799, before I found the speaker of the fourth and last monologue: Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel, who makes a brief appearance toward the end of that chapter, the narrative climax of the novel. And, finding her, I finally understood the unwrapped gift of that last line, which I'd heard in my head before I'd even started writing—that hers would be the voice that had the right to utter it. The events, public and private, of her life, as well as her atrocious death, follow the historical record, but her principles—her ethical ardor—are the novelist's invention. While I'd felt sympathy for the characters in The Benefactor and Death Kit, what I feel for the characters in The Volcano Lover is love (I had to borrow a stage villain, Scarpia, to have one character in The Volcano Lover I didn't love). But I can live with their becoming small at the end. I mean, it is the end of the novel. I was thinking in cinematic terms as I did throughout Part II, Chapter 6. Remember how so many French films of the early 1960s ended with the camera in long shot starting to pull back, and the character moving further and further into the rear of the pictured space, becoming smaller and smaller as the credits start to roll. Seen in the ethical wide shot that Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel provides, Nelson and the Cavaliere and Emma should be judged as harshly as she judges them. Although they do end badly in one way or another, they are extremely privileged, they're still winners—except for poor Emma, and even she has quite a ride for a while. The last word should be given to someone who speaks for victims.

There are so many voices—stories and sub-stories.

Until the late 1980s most of what I did in fiction was going on inside a single consciousness, whether it was actually in the first person like The Benefactor or nominally in the third person like Death Kit. Until The Volcano Lover, I wasn't able to give myself permission to tell a story, a real story, as opposed to the adventures of somebody's consciousness. The key was this structure that I borrowed from the Hindemith composition. I'd had the idea for a long time that my third novel was going to have the title The Anatomy of Melancholy. But I was resisting it—I don't mean fiction, but that novel, whose story hadn't yet been given to me. But it's obvious to me now that I didn't really want to write it. I mean a book written under the aegis of that title, which is just another way of saying “under the sign of Saturn.” Most of my work had projected only one of the old temperaments: melancholy. I didn't want to write just about melancholy. The musical structure, with its arbitrary order, freed me. Now I could do all four.

With The Volcano Lover the door opened and I have a wider entry. That's the great struggle, for more access and more expressiveness, isn't it? You don't—I'm adapting a phrase of Philip Larkin—write the novels you really want to write. But I think I'm coming closer.

It seems as if some of your essayistic impulses are also part of the novel's form.

I suppose it's true that if you strung together all the passages about collecting in The Volcano Lover you'd have a discontinuous, aphoristic essay that might well stand on its own. Still, the degree of essayistic speculation in The Volcano Lover seems restrained if compared with a central tradition of the European novel. Think of Balzac and Tolstoy and Proust, who go on for pages and pages that could really be excerpted as essays. Or The Magic Mountain, perhaps the thinkiest great novel of all. But speculation, rumination, direct address to the reader are entirely indigenous to the novel form. The novel is a big boat. It's not so much that I was able to salvage the banished essayist in myself. It's that the essayist in me was only part of the novelist I've finally given myself permission to be.

Did you have to do a lot of research?

You mean reading? Yes, some. The me who is a self-defrocked academic found that part of writing a novel set in the past very pleasurable.

Why set a novel in the past?

To escape the inhibitions connected with my sense of the contemporary, my sense of how degraded and debased the way we live and feel and think is now. The past is bigger than the present. Of course, the present is always there, too. The narrating voice of The Volcano Lover is very much of the late twentieth century, driven by late twentieth-century concerns. It was never my idea to write a “you are there” historical novel, even while it was a matter of honor to make the historical substance of the novel as dense and accurate as I could. It felt even more spacious that way. But having decided to give myself one more romp in the past—with In America, the novel I'm writing now—I'm not sure it will work out the same way this time.

When is it set?

From the mid-1870s almost to the end of the nineteenth century. And, like The Volcano Lover, it's based on a real story, that of a celebrated Polish actress and her entourage who left Poland and went to Southern California to create a utopian community. The attitudes of my principal characters are wonderfully exotic to me—Victorian, if you will. But the America they arrive in is not so exotic, though I'd thought that to set a book in late nineteenth-century America would feel almost as remote as late eighteenth-century Naples and London. It's not. There is an astonishing continuity of cultural attitudes in our country. I never cease to be surprised that the America Tocqueville observed in the early 1830s is, in most respects, recognizably the America of the end of the twentieth century—even though the demographic and ethnographic composition of the country has totally changed. It's as if you had changed both the blade and handle of a knife and it is still the same knife.

Your play, Alice in Bed, is also about a late nineteenth-century sensibility.

Yes—Alice James plus the nineteenth century's most famous Alice, Lewis Carroll's. I was directing a production of Pirandello's As You Desire Me in Italy, and one day Adriana Asti, who played the lead, said to me—dare I say it?—playfully: “Please write a play for me. And remember, I have to be on stage all the time.” And then Alice James, thwarted writer and professional invalid, fell into my head, and I made up the play on the spot and told it to Adriana. But I didn't write it for another ten years.

Are you going to write more plays? You've always been very involved with theater.

Yes. I hear voices. That's why I like to write plays. And I've lived in the world of theater artists for much of my life. When I was very young, acting was the only way I knew how to insert myself into what happens on a stage: starting at ten, I was taken on for some kiddie roles in Broadway plays put on by a community theater (this was in Tucson); I was active in student theater—Sophocles, Shakespeare—at the University of Chicago; and in my early twenties did a bit of summer stock. Then I stopped. I'd much rather direct plays (though not my own). And make films (I hope to make better ones than the four I wrote and directed in Sweden, Israel and Italy in the 1970s and early 1980s). And direct operas, which I haven't done yet. I'm very drawn to opera—the art form that most regularly and predictibly produces ecstasy (at least in this opera lover). Opera is one of the inspirations of The Volcano Lover: stories from operas and operatic emotions.

Does literature produce ecstasy?

Sure, but less reliably than music and dance: literature has more on its mind. One must be strict with books. I want to read only what I'll want to reread—the definition of a book worth reading once.

Do you ever go back and reread your work?

Except to check translations, no. Definitely no. I'm not curious. I'm not attached to the work I've already done. Also, perhaps I don't want to see how it's all the same. Maybe I'm always reluctant to reread anything I wrote more than ten years ago because it would destroy my illusion of endless new beginnings. That's the most American part of me: I feel that it's always a new start.

But your work is so diverse.

Well it's supposed to be diverse, though of course there is a unity of temperament, of preoccupation—certain predicaments, certain emotions that recur: ardor and melancholy. And an obsessive concern with human cruelty, whether cruelty in personal relations or the cruelty of war.

Do you think your best work is still to come?

I hope so. Or … yes.

Do you think much about the audience for your books?

Don't dare. Don't want to. But, anyway, I don't write because there's an audience. I write because there is literature.

Stacy Olster (essay date spring 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8233

SOURCE: Olster, Stacy. “Remakes, Outtakes, and Updates in Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover.Modern Fiction Studies 41, no. 1 (spring 1995): 117-39.

[In the following essay, Olster analyzes the imagery and the romantic form of The Volcano Lover, examining the novel within the context of postmodern theories and focusing on Sontag's use of language to depict the continuity of human experiences and actions through the ages.]

Our friend Sir William is well. He has lately got a piece of modernity from England which I am afraid will fatigue and exhaust him more than all the Volcanos and antiquities in the Kingdom of Naples.

—James Byres to the Bishop of Killala, 14 June 17861

The “piece of modernity” in question was Emma Hart, formerly Emily Hart, formerly Emy Lyon, recently arrived in Naples after having been dispatched from London by her erstwhile protector Charles Greville in an attempt to exchange the financial burdens of supporting her for the financial rewards that might accrue from a lucrative marriage. The marriage Greville anticipated for himself did not take place; the one he never contemplated did, though, as Emma became the wife of his uncle William Hamilton on September 6, 1791. In so doing, she, whom nephew had dangled before uncle as “a modern piece of virtu,”2 one more beautiful item to add to Hamilton's antiquarian collections, became more than just a companion whose status had been sanctioned legally and whose name could be prefaced with the title “Lady.” She became the heroine of a romance, peculiarly modern perhaps in that her virtue did not hinge on her virginity (which was long lost), but certainly romantic in that the wedding between low-born servant girl and plenipotentiary of British royalty both confirmed the prospects presented in Pamela's fiction and anticipated those socially unequal liaisons, such as that between William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, that later would occur in fact. (And that was before Nelson ever entered the picture.)

That Byres, an art dealer, should refer to Emma as a “piece of modernity” in particular is most appropriate when considering Susan Sontag's re-telling of her story in The Volcano Lover, for Sontag—from whose vocabulary the word “postmodernism” is noticeably absent—professes that “most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots—specifically in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, the so called Romantic revolutionary period” (Cott 49), the very period during which the marriage between Emma and Hamilton and her subsequent affair with Horatio Nelson took place. But that Byres's fears should focus on the possible exhaustion that Hamilton's piece of modernity might exact upon a significantly older benefactor unintentionally raises questions about literary exhaustion—a distinctly postmodern concern—with respect to any contemporary re-telling of the story of the Hamiltons and Lord Nelson as a romance, to cite the subtitle that Sontag appends to her historical novel.

Such distinctly postmodern concerns about literary exhaustion, moreover, are not the only ones that link Sontag to a cultural phenomenon she never identifies by name. Admittedly, different postmodernisms exist for different postmodernist commentators (the, by now, de rigueur caveat by which the work of each is prefaced); that being the case, many of Sontag's remarks nevertheless conform to almost every defining element upon which commentators agree as basic assumptions. Her evolutionary conception of aesthetic forms, in which “exhausted” forms are periodically “replaced by new forms which are at the same time anti-forms” (Against Interpretation 180), actually predates John Barth's 1967 and 1980 pronouncements on exhaustion and replenishment respectively. Her rejection of grand narratives, whether exemplified in the myth imposed by Lévi-Strauss upon all cultures over all times or the single scenario by which the North Vietnamese understand their entire history (Against Interpretation 79; Radical Will [Styles of Radical Will] 219), is no different from Lyotard's repudiation of totalizing systems. Her view of images that displace the reality of their referents, as illustrated by photography's “hyping up the real” (On Photography 169), virtually duplicates Baudrillard's simulacra (not to mention his wording). And if her tracing the production of those images within advanced industrial societies does not duplicate Fredric Jameson's wording in quite the same manner (he would prefer multinational), her proposing that “freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself” (On Photography 178-179) as the ideological upshot of a proliferation of images corresponds completely with his diagnosis.3

Why then the confusion among literary critics, who designate Sontag as, alternately, late modernist and early postmodernist?4 Part, no doubt, is attributable to Sontag's refusal to strait-jacket her conception of the modern—the word she typically employs when delineating the qualities listed above—to a single chronological period. In contrast to a theorist like Jameson, who derives postmodernism's historical situation from its multinationalism being the cultural dominant of “our own period” (36), Sontag conceives different cultures experiencing the historical conditions that promote particular kinds of art at different chronological times. Yet far more categoric confusion, I would argue, results from that admiration of the artist/auteur's will and insistence on the work of art's autonomy that signal, particularly in Sontag's early writings, the lingering perspective of the aesthete who adamantly rejects all notions of “putting art to use” and whose anti-interpretive refusal to “dig ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text” presumes that texts are best experienced as ends in themselves rather than as ideologically constructed (Against Interpretation 21, 6).

The importance of a later work like The Volcano Lover thus derives, in large part, from the way it directly addresses Sontag's straddling of the modernist/postmodernist divide. Framed with respect to cinematic techniques, yet always aware of the moral element inherent in choosing different forms of representational media, Sontag's recycling the story of the Hamilton-Nelson triangle as a historical novel yields a perfect example of the kind of self-reflexive postmodern novel that Linda Hutcheon has dubbed historiographic metafiction (14). At the same time, Sontag's dubbing that same historical novel a romance recycles a narrative form whose representation of an idealized world in which “all the arts and adornments of language are used to embellish the narrative,” to quote Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg (14), “signifies a fiction composed by an individual author for esthetic ends” (248)—a narrative, in other words, perfectly suited to the modernist in Sontag who began her career advancing the priority of form over content.

As Gillian Beer has pointed out, however, the romance is not quite as “esthetic” a production as Scholes and Kellogg presume. While the idealized world presented in romance “is never fully equivalent to our own,” it nevertheless “must remind us of it if we are to understand it at all” (3)—and for the very didactic purposes of instruction. (After all, once Nelson enters the picture, Emma Hamilton's story shifts from a chronicle of upward mobility to a testament to the folly of flouting social conventions.) As a result, in choosing a form with such an implicit utilitarian component, Sontag provides not just a postmodern parody of an earlier admonitory tale, she provides a postmodern parody of her own early aesthetic pronouncements.


“The Romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things.—The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written,” wrote Clara Reeve in The Progress of Romance (1785). Continuing with this line of thought, she went on to distinguish between the two literary forms on the basis of the approximation of verisimilitude each provided:

The Romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen.—The Novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons in the story, as if they were our own.


As Reeve also admitted, such neat distinctions did not apply quite so well in an age of “modern Romances” that “were written with more regularity, and brought nearer to probability,” having “tak[en] for their foundation some obscure parts of true history, and building fictitious stories upon them,” to the extent that “truth and fiction were so blended together, that a common reader could not distinguish them” (64-65). Reeve was not alone in her concern. Distinguishing between those recent works of fiction he termed “comed[ies] of romance” and those earlier works of Knight-Errantry he called “heroic romance[s],” Samuel Johnson warned of the imprudent messages that the modern incarnations could send to their readers:

In the romances formerly written, every transaction and sentiment was so remote from all that passes among men, that the reader was in very little danger of making any applications to himself; the virtues and crimes were equally beyond his sphere of activity. … But when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of the universal drama, as may be the lot of any other man; young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope by observing his behaviour and success to regulate their own practices, when they shall be engaged in the like part.

(67, 69)

The solution was not to dispense with romance, however, but to employ romance for purposes of moral education, for “under proper restrictions and regulations they will afford much useful instruction, as well as rational and elegant amusement” (Reeve xvi). Thus, Johnson advised careful selection of material, based on his belief that an awareness of the excellence of art imitating nature should be tempered by an awareness of which parts of nature were most worthy of being imitated (70). Yet far from such strictures being an imposition upon romance, they in many ways just made more explicit the duties that were always implicit in a genre that, for all the temporal or social distance separating its stories from their audiences, was allusive from the very beginning. As Gillian Beer notes, “[t]he romance tends to use and re-use well-known stories whose familiarity reassures” in such a way that “remote sources are domesticated and brought close to present experience primarily because they are peopled with figures whose emotions and relationships are directly registered and described with profuse sensuous detail” (2), with results of which Doctor Johnson would most certainly have approved: “Because romance shows us the ideal it is implicitly instructive as well as escapist” (9).

Particularly illustrative of this instructive component of romance is the most familiar precursor of Sontag's own re-telling of the Hamilton-Nelson triangle, Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman (1941, released in England as Lady Hamilton), which, for all its director's emphasizing amorous passion as defining his principal characters' desires while filming (“Vincikém,” he reputedly admonished his set designer brother upon viewing the lavish library constructed for Lord Hamilton's home in Naples, “it's a love story. I can't shoot it in a bloody library. Make me a bedroom!” [Korda 150; Walker 152]), was intended from its inception as a piece of propaganda to mobilize support for Britain during World War II. (As Korda informed his screenwriters, “Propaganda needs sugar coating” [Edwards 127].) Suggested as a subject in 1940 by Winston Churchill, who was interested in a vehicle that would promote Britain's historic role as a scourge of tyrants (Hitler here equated with Bonaparte); funded by Korda himself, who had been secretly serving as a courier for transatlantic messages and whose New York City offices were already supplying cover to MI-5 agents gathering intelligence on both German activities in the United States and isolationist sentiments among makers of American foreign policy; and starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, who were interested in quick cash to stabilize their finances in order to evacuate their respective children from Britain for the remainder of the war, the movie repeatedly sacrifices the passion of romantic love in order to send the message that “England expects that every man will do his duty,” as the sails raised prior to the Battle of Trafalgar signal.

And not only men, as it turns out. “Well, we both have our duty, haven't we?” says Alan Mowbray's doddering William Hamilton to his wife, when asking her to convince Nelson of her imminent move to Cairo so that he will return to London as ordered by the Admiralty. “I feel it my duty to tell you of these things,” says Nelson to the Admiralty officers, when imploring them to convince the prime minister not to ratify any peace plan with Napoleon. So clearly, in fact, did the film send its message about the need for continued vigilance against the threat of “men who for the sake of their insane ambition want to destroy what other people build,” so loudly did it proclaim the centuries-old role of Britain (a “tiny little bit,” as Emma says, when first shown its position on the globe) in maintaining a Commonwealth “in which every little spot has its purpose and value to the balanced line of life” against “madmen” who “want to get hold of the whole world” and “dictate their will to others,” that it became Exhibit A in a case brought against Korda by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Committee had accused him of operating an espionage and propaganda center for Britain in the United States—a charge Korda only escaped by virtue of the fact that his scheduled appearance before the committee on December 12, 1941 was preempted by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor five days earlier (Holden 166).5

This is not the movie scenario viewers remember, of course, no more than they remember the film's peculiar abstemiousness that qualifies, if not condemns, the very lushness its romantic surroundings are meant to herald: a Nelson who renounces the Neapolitan fete held in his honor as a “tragic carnival” of “paper caps and toy balloons,” an Emma who replaces banana curls and oversized white hats with sensible dark clothes and embroidery hoops. That viewers remember a love story is due to the fact that the real romance involved in the film's production occurred off-screen, between two actors (who had just completed a run of Romeo and Juliet—another real romance—just prior to the start of filming), each married to another person, who in having “loved before their time,” to quote Life magazine (20 May 1940), had entered the pantheon of “great American lovers—the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, John Barrymore and Elaine Barrie, and John Smith and Pocahontas” (Vickers 128). It did not matter that the two actors in question had obtained their respective divorces and married in secret before production began, for it was the image of two adulterous actors playing two adulterous historical figures that lent the movie the aura of romance that is now remembered.

According to Sontag, such a sentimental residue is, in part, a function of film's being the artistic medium “most heavily burdened with memory,” so much so that “practically all films older than four or five years are saturated with pathos” (Radical Will 113, 114). In even greater part, it testifies to the substitution of image for actuality that Sontag, citing the 1843 preface to the second edition of Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity, sees as forming “a widely agreed-on diagnosis” of a society's modernity (On Photography 153). Just how relativistic that diagnosis is to different societies and different times, however, is suggested by the particularly heavy burden of cinematic imagery with which Sontag has to contend in The Volcano Lover, for Korda's version was not the only movie made of the Hamilton-Nelson affair. Preceding and succeeding it were so many celluloid versions of Lady Hamilton's story produced in so many countries as to make Emma an international commodity: Malvina Longfellow in Nelson and The Romance of Lady Hamilton (Great Britain, 1918 and 1919), Liane Haid in The Affairs of Lady Hamilton (Germany, 1921), Gertrude McCoy in Nelson (Great Britain, 1926), Corinne Griffith in The Divine Lady (USA, 1929), Michele Mercier in Lady Hamilton (West Germany, Italy, France, USA, 1969), and Glenda Jackson in Bequest to the Nation (Great Britain, 1973) (Pickard 91-92). Representing the romance of Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson in a contemporary novel thus means representing an image of an image of an image ad infinitum, the cumulative burdens of which Sontag portrays in the deliberately hyperbolic rhetoric she chooses to delineate the most clichéd (and hence parodied) feature of her narrative, the volcano itself: “a monstrous living body, both male and female,” “an abyss,” “[a] constant menace,” “[t]he slumbering giant that wakes,” “[t]he lumbering giant who turns his attentions to you” (5-6).

This is not to suggest that Sontag reduces her historical personages to celluloid phantasms and their ménage to mirage. “The question is never whether the events of the past actually took place,” Linda Hutcheon remarks in an important qualification:

The past did exist—independently of our capacity to know it. Historiographic metafiction accepts this philosophically realist view of the past and then proceeds to confront it with an anti-realist one that suggests that, however true that independence may be, nevertheless the past exists for us—now—only as traces on and in the present. The absent past can only be inferred from circumstantial evidence.


And the evidence in question, as Sontag's inclusion of letters and other written documents attests, is specifically textual. Therefore, while Sontag's deconstructed rendering of a bloated and boozy Emma may result in a more accurate Emma, in that it corresponds more closely to the Emma described by those of her time as “a dull creature” (Goethe 316) and “terribly fat” (Vigée Lebrun 68), it does not (and cannot) arrive at a truthful Emma because the evidence upon which she bases her own portrait is itself compromised.

In the case of Emma in particular, more than human bias contributes to that compromised quality of her representations. “Few ever see what is not already inside their heads,” Sontag writes in her novel (56), and Emma was very much in the heads of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe. (“She is becoming a local marvel with an international reputation, like the volcano” [137].) Having been painted or drawn by George Romney, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West, John Raphael Smith, Gavin Hamilton, Frederick Rehberg, Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Dominique Vivant De Non, Constantina Coltellini, Henry Fuseli, Thomas Lawrence, Jean Baptiste Monnoyer, Wilhelm Tischbein, Angelica Kauffmann, and James Masquerier; and having in those pictures incarnated such varied figures from history, myth, and literature as Joan of Arc, Magdalen, St. Cecilia, Nature, Circe, Medea, Agrippina, Thetis, Calypso, Hebe, Sibyl, Ariadne, innumerable Bacchanates, Shakespeare's Miranda and Constance, Goethe's Iphigenia, and William Hayley's The Triumph of Temper heroine Serena, Emma as visual image was very much in the heads of Europeans at that time, and often prior to her arrival on the Continent. “Hers was the beauty he had adored on canvas, as a statue, on the side of a vase,” muses Hamilton, referred to throughout the novel as the Cavaliere, who has himself contributed to the advance of Emma's image by commissioning a portrait of her from Reynolds: “Nothing had ever seemed to him as beautiful as certain objects and images—the reflection, no, the memorial, of a beauty that never really existed, or existed no longer. Now he realized the images were not only the record of beauty but its harbinger, its forerunner” (130). Thus, Sontag amends Feuerbach's conception of a modern age's preference for “the image to the thing, the copy to the original” and presents her own version of Baudrillard's précéssion of simulacra that precedes even Baudrillard's conceptualization:6 because notions of reality change as certainly as notions of image, the “true modern primitivism,” in her view, “is not to regard the image as a real thing,” but to define what is real to the degree that it conforms to the visual image that precedes it” (On Photography 153, 161). To put it another way, when the time comes for Emma to sit as portrait subject instead of portrait model, as occurs with Romney's painting her as The Ambassadress in 1791, there is no Emma left to paint, for, as Romney's Sitters's Diaries show, even the image of Emma married to the Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies precedes her actual marriage to him, the nuptials in question taking place on the third day after her sittings begin (177; Great Britain Arts Council 45).

When Sontag then writes that Emma “does not know who she is anymore, but she knows herself to be ascending” (134), she describes not just the indeterminate subject of postmodern writing, as the apparent ease of the actual Emma's changes of name might indicate (heightened in Sontag's book by the character's remaining without any name until the last page), but the overdetermined subject. Even her transformation is depicted with respect to an old familiar story—“Pygmalion in reverse” (144). Any “ascension” Emma undergoes is simply a function of having replaced less reputable artistic transposers, like London sex therapist Doctor Graham, in whose tableaux vivants she models at fifteen, with more reputable ones, like society portrait painter George Romney, for whom she begins posing two years later (146). Perhaps more to the point, any “ascension” Emma undergoes proves to be short-lived in the extreme, as renderings of the actual historical figure confirm, for at the same time that her body begins to expand, her images start to shrink—from early canvases of her in classical dress (95″ × 80-1/2″ for Romney's Thetis, 53″ × 62″ for Vigée-Lebrun's Bacchante, 51″ × 38″ for Hamilton's Sibyl), to later likenesses of Emma as herself both anatomized (Joseph Nellekens's 22-15/16″-high marble bust, Thomas Laurence's 7-7/8″ × 6″ penciled head) and miniaturized (Henry Bone's 3-1/2″ × 3″ ivory). Indeed, so many representations of her begin to appear (a 1-3/8″ enamel brooch in Naples's De Ciccio Collection), or are alleged to appear (the figure of Hope on the Duke of Clarence's porcelain dinner service), and in so many different mediums (a 3-1/4″ × 2-1/2″ tortoise-shell snuff box with miniature ivory inset) that all sense of her uniqueness vanishes.7 No longer an artifact of high culture, but available to all through mass merchandising, she becomes easily disposable, as in fact happens when she dies in Calais, penniless and indolent.


The paradigm in Sontag's book for the transformation that Emma undergoes is the transformation of Hamilton's Portland Vase into Etruria Ware at the hands of Josiah Wedgwood, an emblematizing that Sontag highlights through an anthropomorphic rendering of the vase with respect to features of human anatomy. The process delineated is the one sketched by Walter Benjamin concerning the fate of a work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction, and the lesson taught applies as much to the romantic form in which Sontag works as it does to the image of the romantic figure at its center:8

Some twenty replicas of the midnight-blue glass vase were made in smooth black stoneware—the industrial potter and professed lover of simplified forms was to consider it his masterpiece. Wedgwood did not even attempt to match the color or patina of the original and, by simplifying, vitiated its aristocratic contours. The vase's handles lean inward instead of following the curve of the body, the shoulders are more rounded, the neck is shortened. Perhaps the Cavaliere found the slightly dumpy rendering acceptable, having long ago overcome any patrician resistance to this new, mercantile way of spreading the influence of his collections. But he would surely have been startled by the progeny of the vase that the Wedgwood firm began turning out by the tens of thousands in the next century. Olive-green, yellow, pale pink, lilac, lavender-blue, grey, black, and brown Portland vases; Portland vases in many sizes, including small, medium, and large. Everyone could have, should have a Portland vase—and however desired: that was the company's plan. It grew, it shrank, it could be any color. The vase became a notion, a tribute to itself.

Who can really love the Portland Vase now?


According to Donald Barthelme, who portrayed the per-capita production of trash as increasing over the years, the question was moot; with production approaching the one hundred percent mark, disposal of trash was impossible and appreciation inevitable (97). Sontag concurs, if for slightly different reasons. Inheriting an aesthetic artifact that so epitomizes all those overstylized “derelict, inane, démodé objects of modern civilization” enables Sontag to treat it as an artifact of Camp, to be dismembered as part of her long-standing Surrealist program of “cultural disburdenment” and then reassembled with the aim of “destroying conventional meanings, and creating new meanings or counter-meanings through radical juxtaposition” (Against Interpretation 271, 269; Radical Will 167). Far from hampering Sontag in her task, the vulgarization that the history of the vase typifies is an absolute prerequisite for such recycling as depends on objects that cannot be considered “high art or [in] good taste”—indeed, “the more despised the material or the more banal the sentiments expressed, the better” (Against Interpretation 271).

Complementing the description of the Portland Vase's descent into Wedgwood's crass commodification, therefore, is a second description that traces its later re-valuation in the British Museum after it is “decreated” at the hands of a young man in 1845 and subsequently repaired (345). “Can something shattered, then expertly repaired, be the same, the same as it was?” Sontag asks of the restoration that yields a “new vase, neither replica nor original” (347). Again, the answer that she provides applies as much to the romance narrative that she herself is recycling as it does to the piece of first-century B.C. Roman cameo glass that she describes in it:

A perfect job of reconstruction, for the time. Until time wears it out. Transparent glue yellows and bulges, making seamless joints visible. The jeopardous decision to attempt a better reconstruction of the vase was made in 1989. First, it had to be restored to its shattered condition. A team of experts immersed the vase in a desiccating solvent to soften the old adhesive, peeled off the one hundred and eighty-nine fragments one by one, washed each in a solution of warm water and non-ionic soap, and reassembled them with a new adhesive, which hardens naturally, and resin, which can be cured with ultraviolet light in thirty seconds. … The result is optimal. The vase will last forever, now.


Not quite. Sontag ends the passage by qualifying the longevity of the reconstructed artifact—“Well, at least another hundred years”—thereby signaling the limited shelf life that any single rendering can hope to have within an ongoing process of aesthetic fluctuation.

Towards the end of reassembling her own version of the Hamilton-Nelson affair, Sontag sets the story of romantic passion commemorated by antecedents against a story of revolutionary passion that in most earlier accounts serves as mere backdrop.9 Prefigured by the fall of the Bastille, portrayed with respect to those same volcanic eruptions that previously signified amorous desire (Vesuvius's worst eruption since 1631 coinciding here with the Terror in France reaching its climax in 1794 [185]), and embodied in those Jacobin intellectuals and aristocrats who turn Naples into a Parthenopean Republic on January 29, 1799 (celebrated by Vesuvius on the evening of its proclamation [277]), the depiction of political passion in Sontag's book rescues from oblivion those omitted from earlier artistic renderings. In contrast to Emma Hamilton's superfluity of images, these are the people of whom no popular images remain.

Such an absence does not result from lack of desire, however, for Sontag's historically marginalized revolutionaries are as interested in their imagerial renderings as those monarchists at the other end of the political spectrum. And by the time that Sontag introduces the Revolution of 1799 into her book, it is not just the confidante-to-the-Queen-of-Naples Emma who is concerned with the way she will appear to posterity. Nelson, who, as performing self, has envisioned his image “in history paintings, as a portrait bust, as a statue on a pedestal, or even atop a high column in a public square” from the beginning (193), resorts to cosmetic enhancement when the likenesses he has imagined start being crafted upon his return to England (330). True, the martyred revolutionaries contemplate transformation into images at a particular time (prior to their executions) and under particular circumstances (struck by the need to embolden themselves before they die) that the monarchists never have to consider. But in seeking images of themselves that will not just remember them to future generations (much like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in Robert Coover's The Public Burning10) but specifically set an example for future generations, they embark upon a program of instruction that is no different from that pursued by those who seek imagerial transposition for different ideological and social purposes.

Nowhere is this common proclivity of romantic passions better illustrated than in Sontag's juxtaposition of Emma Hamilton, privileged for being at center stage of the book's romantic drama, against Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel, privileged for providing the voice that concludes her historical novel. It is not just a question of Emma's desire for amorous passion to make her “pure sensation” (263) mirroring Fonseca Pimentel's yearning for political passion to turn her into “pure flame” (417). Even more, it is a question of the vehicles through which both women express their differing forms of passion having instruction as their primary ends. “The instruction of the people and their conversion to republican ideas—propaganda—was the only one of the revolution's tasks on which everyone could agree” (280), Sontag writes, and in the newspaper articles that Fonseca Pimentel herself writes, she proposes forms of art that can contribute to that purpose: “puppet shows with more edifying escapades for their Punchinellos,” “operas with allegorical subjects such as those being staged in France” (280). Yet when Emma, draped in tunics and shawls, performs her Attitudes before invited company, the poses she assumes in succession are intended to provide edifying illustrations to her guests, precisely the kind of edifying illustrations, in fact, that the romance writer seeks to evoke through recourse to ancient prototypes. Specifically, Emma is to “[i]llustrate the passion” of figures from antiquity (both male and female) because “[w]hat people made of antiquity then was a model for the present, a set of ideal examples,” with the past providing “familiar names (the gods, the great sufferers, the heroes and heroines) representing familiar virtues (constancy, nobility, courage, grace)” (146, 148). So successful an instructress does Emma become, eventually, that when she poses as successive figures from an earlier age,

[s]he was not just impersonating Cleopatra now, she was Cleopatra, ensnaring Antony; a Dido whose charms detain Aeneas; an Armida who has bewitched Rinaldo—the familiar stories from ancient history and epic everyone knew, in which a man destined for glory makes a brief stop in the course of his great mission, succumbs to the charms of an irresistible woman, and stays. And stays. And stays.


That Emma misses the whole point of the poses she incarnates results from the fact that the images with which she seeks to instruct are static, each governed by the selection of a single moment, “the right moment, the moment that presents meaning, that sums up the essence of a character, a story, an emotion,” the combination of which leaves Emma not with a continuous narrative, but with a set of snapshots, “a living slide show of the iconic moments of ancient myth and literature” (146). And because the significant moment privileged by neoclassical aesthetics is one that “showed suffering with decorum, dignity in the midst of horror,” it “evoked the worst without showing us the worst” (295). Therefore, when those revolutionaries about to mount the scaffold seek to “show an example” through “the didactic art of the significant moment,” these “future citizens of the world of history painting” choose an image of themselves that represents stoicism in the face of death, based on the assumption that “[a]n image, even of the most lamentable events, should also give hope. Even the most horrifying stories can be told in a way that does not make us despair” (295).

Unfortunately, in choosing an image that omits the full extent of the horror they undergo, they leave the future citizens of the world who view their (imagined) portraits unable to reconstruct the story that would provide the greatest amount of edification. Moreover, in assuming that image-makers control image apprehension, they neglect the role of what Victor Burgin has called the seeing subject and that subject's “preconstituted field of discourse” with which images interact to produce a story (69, 65). When all those who live by the image in Sontag's novel (which is to say everybody) thus try to reconstruct a historical narrative, they invariably get the story wrong. Nelson, whose dreams even take the form of disconnected pictures, casts the story of Emma and Hamilton as a sentimental morality play: “the fallen woman, taken under the Cavaliere's protection, who had become an irreproachable wife” (196, 195). Queen Maria Carolina of Naples tells the story of a tragic diva (Sontag's recycling of Tosca), and “the whole story came out, backward” (325). Emma relates to dinner guests the tale of a band of murderers who occupy the Cavaliere's courtyard a few weeks after her arrival, not realizing that the events she describes have occurred a quarter of a century earlier and not even to her (170-172).

What Emma's complete bypassing of all sense of temporal relations reveals, finally, is the ahistorical component of the static image, typified for Sontag in the photographic image that atomizes experience into “a series of unrelated, freestanding particles” and turns “history, past and present, [into] a set of anecdotes and faits divers” (On Photography 23). Psychologically useful, such a separation of actions and consequences can “suppress, or at least reduce, moral and sensory queasiness” (On Photography 40): the Cavaliere, who wants “nothing to disturb the beautiful images he preserved of Naples,” is spared the hangings, shootings, and beheadings of revolutionaries that occur in his fair city, for Naples remains “like a picture,” always “seen from the same point of view” to those who view it from aboard Nelson's ship (284, 294). As a vehicle for transmitting any edifying knowledge of history, however, the static image proves extremely limited. As Sontag again illustrates with respect to the photograph, the static image may goad conscience but never result in any “ethical or political knowledge,” and, as a result, “[t]he knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices” (On Photography 24).

The question, then, concerns what vehicle will transmit the experience of the past most efficaciously—pictures or words, images or narratives. As mediating texts, neither, of course, can presume to transmit that experience accurately. Nonetheless, in Sontag's view, the two encourage very different responses, complicity or responsibility, from their audiences: “While images invite the spectator to identify with what is seen, the presence of words makes the spectator into a critic” (Radical Will 185). The two, moreover, encourage very different temporal and spatial responses in particular. “In contrast to the amorous relation, which is based on how something looks, understanding is based on how it functions,” she writes. “And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand” (On Photography 23). Writing of a period in English history when only ten thousand people read newspapers and during a period of history in which increased literacy is matched by increased media imagery, Sontag has no choice but to maintain “the right velocity of narration” (328, 349), as she describes it, in order for her work to facilitate greater understanding. For that she must move from the image of abbreviated temporality to the narrative of conscious temporal relations.


Ironically, the narrative of temporal relations that Sontag composes as a romance novel takes its cue from the insufficiency of words to describe fully what needs to be communicated, particularly when the subject at hand evokes the most extreme form of sensory response. “How can the Cavaliere communicate to an auditor how disgusting the King is,” she questions, only to conclude that he cannot: “An odor. A taste. A touch. Impossible to describe” (44). How can the Cavaliere communicate how beautiful the cameos, vases, and paintings that decorate his treasure-congested study are? “Their forms, he wrote, were simple, beautiful, and varied beyond description” (73). So frequently do such moments of inadequacy occur, in fact, that “Impossible to Describe” turns into a heading for a list (129).

Faced with this representational insufficiency of language, the Cavaliere opts for narratives that sanitize history. “He only relates,” Sontag writes of his experiences with Naples's flatulent young king, “and in the relating, the sheer odiousness of it dwindles into a tale, nothing to get wrought up over” (44). Hamilton may ease the burden of his conscience by reminding himself that the king is “just one item” that beggars description, but Sontag's Naples, a “kingdom of the immoderate, of excess, of overflow” (44), is a place with more than one source of odious behavior that beggars description in words—this, after all, is a city where people rip apart live animals tied to the base of a mountain of food built for all court celebrations. “And where everyone is shocked is a place where everyone tells stories” (38). Safe stories, like those of the Cavaliere; stories designed to minimize, not dramatize, shock and spectacle.

Sontag, who has long advocated an art of “shock therapy” to awaken those in the West from the “massive sensory anesthesia” that she sees plaguing them since the time of the Industrial Revolution (Against Interpretation 302), takes the opposite approach. If the narrative of linear temporal relations cannot convey the extent of her subject's shock adequately, she fractures the seamless narrative of strict chronology to suggest the shock of her subject analogously, with Hamilton's Vesuvius juxtaposed against Las Vegas's fifty-four-foot-high fiberglass replica (327); Pompeii and Herculaneum against Hiroshima and Nagasaki (113); William Beckford's Fonthill Abbey against Ludwig II's “Disneyesque” Neuschwanstein (344); and gallows against gas chambers (217). With language from one period yoked to phenomena of another, winds of southern Europe promote “a collective PMS that comes on seasonally” (86), and a naval commander who disobeys orders becomes a hero “who has in effect gone AWOL” (319).

The method informing the whole is cinematic, reflecting Sontag's belief that “the distinctive cinematic unit is not the image but the principle of connection between the images” (Radical Will 108), and the specific governing principle of connection is montage. Emma's emotionally charged character raises questions about women's power in patriarchal societies, and with a “flash-forward” Sontag relates the tale of Tosca (309), the story she later has Queen Maria Carolina relate in summary form backwards (325). The Cavaliere normally observes Naples from behind windows and terraces, and with a “reverse shot” Sontag shows how he later views it while at sea aboard the Foudroyant during the 1799 Revolution (298).

“You'll lose track of the time,” the novel's narrator warns in Sontag's opening mise-en-scène in a Manhattan flea market, spring of 1992, prior to the jump-cut that leaves her in a London picture auction, autumn of 1772 (3). In a very real way one does, of course, for what these fragmentations of linear time and space do—techniques comparable to the “rhetoric of disorientation” that Sontag admires in the films of Jean-Luc Godard (Radical Will 165)—is make past, present, and future equally present, as suggested in the oxymoronic phrase that introduces the story of Tosca as an illustration of woman's powerlessness that “a flash-forward may serve to recall” (309). As a result, the narrative perspective of the novel grants its readers the same kind of “dual citizenship in the past and in the future” that the Neapolitan fortune teller Hamilton consults is granted by her oracular vision (58). “The future exists in the present, she said. The future, as she described it, seemed to be the present gone awry” (58). The coming attractions, in short, are already here.

As Efrosina also warns the Cavaliere, “[t]he future is a hole. … When you fall in it, you cannot be sure how far you will go” (55). And what one falls into within Sontag's comparativist history are Derridean “[m]oments of slippage, when anything seems possible and not everything makes sense” (120), the most compelling of which concern that concept of cultural hybridity defined by Homi Bhabha and Edward Said. Naples, the wealthiest, most populous city on the Italian peninsula, and, “after Paris, the second largest city on the European continent” (20), becomes “Ireland (or Greece, or Turkey, or Poland),” another “refractory colony, or a country on Europe's margin,” to be disciplined and dealt with accordingly (298). Palermo is shown to be to Naples what Saigon is to Hanoi, and what Rio is to São Paulo, and what Calcutta is to Delhi—a southern culture in which people who are “never on time” (but who do possess “a wonderful sense of rhythm”) just “charm, charm, charm”—only what Palermo is to Naples is also what Naples is to Rome (225-226). Perhaps most unsettling, the 1799 Neapolitan “fairy-tale revolution” doomed to defeat from the very beginning is also presented as the republic that seeks, in Sontag's deliberately loaded phrasing, “to win the hearts and minds of the people” in the five short (renamed) months of its existence (278, 281).

More than anything else, these moments of slippage call into question all notions of historical progress. The King of Naples decrees that animals tied to the mountain of food are to be slaughtered first and then hung in quarters on a fence. “As you see,” he tells the Cavaliere, “there is progress even here, in this city” (44), a statement whose meaning its own ironic tone immediately cancels. In contrast, then, to a novel like Ragtime, which undermines complacent notions about America “then” being better than “now” in order to show historical continuities and patterns between the early and late periods of the twentieth century, The Volcano Lover offers contiguities and parallels between circumstances that prevail in those late capitalist countries that Sontag terms modern. Viewed in this context, turn-of-the-century (eighteenth to nineteenth) Naples in Sontag's Romantic self-fashioning (to parody Stephen Greenblatt) is no better or worse than turn-of-the-century (twentieth to twenty-first) America—a statement as unsatisfying to liberals who harbor hopes for the future as it is to conservatives who venerate the inheritance of the past.

Writing about the seventeen-million-dollar villa built by J. Paul Getty to house his antiquities and paintings, an architectural structure whose garish appearance seemed at odds with the Renaissance and Baroque art contained within it, Joan Didion saw a similar lesson being taught: that “the past was perhaps different from the way we like to perceive it,” that “[t]he old world was once discomfitingly new, or even nouveau,” finally, that “not much changes,” indeed, “that we were never any better than we are and will never be any better than we were”—a lesson she considered “a profoundly unpopular political statement” (76). As Didion also noted, the Getty was modeled upon a villa buried in 79 A.D. by mud from Vesuvius, unearthed in part by digging around Herculaneum that took place during the eighteenth century (75). Writing about the eighteenth century directly, Sontag offers the massiveness of Vesuvius itself, “instructive as well as thrilling” (6), both “[e]ntertainment and apocalypse” (129), whose unpredictable yet imminent eruptions signal the sense of historical irresolution to which the lesson of her book is ultimately devoted: the “permanent modern scenario” she sketched earlier in which “apocalypse looms … and it doesn't occur. And it still looms” (AIDS [AIDS and Its Metaphors] 175). At the time she first depicted that scenario, she, fittingly, framed it as cinematic narrative, “a long-running serial.” Equally fitting was the name she gave to the soap opera that comprised her view of the process of history: not “Apocalypse Now,” but “Apocalypse From Now On” (AIDS 176)—a variation on another old scenario admittedly, but, then again, what artifact in Sontag's aesthetic flea market isn't?


  1. James Byres, Historical Manuscripts Collection, London, 24: Rutland MSS, vol. 3, 311; qtd. in Fraser, Emma, Lady Hamilton 80. I am indebted to Catherine Belling for bringing this biography, as well as the pamphlet accompanying the 1972 Lady Hamilton in Relation to the Art of Her Time exhibition, to my attention.

  2. Charles Greville, letter to William Hamilton, 10 Mar. 1785, qtd. in Fraser 55.

  3. See Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion” 29-34, and “The Literature of Replenishment” 65-71; Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge 37-41; Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation 1-42; and Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 1-54.

  4. For an extended discussion of Sontag's sensibilities as reflecting the paradoxes of late modernist aesthetics, see Sayres 10-12. For representative citations of Sontag as an early postmodernist, see Brooker 10-11, 17; Maltby 17; and Hutcheon 10. For consideration of Sontag's theorizing as compared with that of more recent French post-structuralists, see Kennedy 30-31.

  5. Even Nelson's return to Naples to evacuate the Hamiltons and the royal family—problematic in that it was in direct defiance of Lord Keith's order to take his fleet to the Mediterranean—is presented in Korda's film as an act of duty, justified by Nelson with the phrase, “I will not see those I love and those I owe loyalty to left alone.” So big a fan of the finished film was Winston Churchill that he had a copy shown to those accompanying him on the Prince of Wales for the Atlantic Charter meeting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in August of 1941. He also had a private print of his own kept at Chartwell that he used for private screenings (Vickers 132).

  6. Baudrillard's “La précéssion de simulacres” appeared in Traverses 11 (1978): 3-37. Sontag's emendation of Feuerbach first appeared in the New York Review of Books, 23 June 1977: 25-27, as part of her essay on “Photography Unlimited” prior to its inclusion in On Photography.

  7. For a listing of the dimensions of these renderings of Emma Hamilton, see Lady Hamilton in Relation to the Art of Her Time, a pamphlet accompanying the 18 July—16 October 1972 exhibition of the same name, organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Greater London Council at the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood.

  8. For Sontag's reading of Walter Benjamin as exhibiting a paradigmatically Surrealist temperament, see the title essay in Under the Sign of Saturn 109-134.

  9. For an earlier example of Sontag's portrayal of political revolution as an expression of passion, see her 1969 piece, “Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for us) to Love the Cuban Revolution” 6, 10, 14, 16, 18-19.

  10. Coover's sympathetic portrayal of this desire in The Public Burning is, in large part, a response to those much more critical charges lodged against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg while incarcerated. See Fiedler 25-45, and Warshow 69-81.

Works Cited

Barth, John. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Atlantic Monthly Aug. 1967: 29-34.

———. “The Literature of Replenishment.” Atlantic Monthly Jan. 1980: 65-71.

Barthelme, Donald. Snow White. 1967. New York: Atheneum, 1980.

Baudrillard, Jean. “La précéssion de simulacres.” Traverses 10 (1978): 3-37.

———. Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.

Beer, Gillian. The Romance. London: Methuen, 1970.

Brooker, Peter. “Introduction: Reconstructions.” Modernism/Postmodernism. London: Longman, 1992. 1-33.

Burgin, Victor. The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1986.

Coover, Robert. The Public Burning. 1977. New York: Bantam, 1978.

Cott, Jonathan. “The Rolling Stone Interview: Susan Sontag.” Rolling Stone 4 Oct. 1979: 46-53.

Didion, Joan. “The Getty.” 1977. The White Album. 1979. New York: Pocket, 1980. 74-78.

Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. New York: Random, 1975.

Edwards, Anne. Vivien Leigh: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Fiedler, Leslie A. “Afterthoughts on the Rosenbergs.” 1952. An End To Innocence: Essays On Politics and Culture. 2nd ed. 1955. New York: Stein and Day, 1972. 25-45.

Fraser, Flora. Emma, Lady Hamilton. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Goethe, J. W. Italian Journey: [1786-1788]. Trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer. 1962. New York: Penguin, 1970.

Great Britain. Arts Council of Great Britain and Greater London. Council at Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood. Lady Hamilton in Relation to the Art of Her Time. Shenval, 1972.

Holden, Anthony. Laurence Olivier. New York: Atheneum-Macmillan, 1988.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Johnson, Samuel. Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose. Ed. Bertrand H. Bronson. 1958. San Francisco: Rinehart, 1971.

Kennedy, Liam. “Precious Archaeology: Susan Sontag and the Criticism of Culture.” Journal of American Studies 24 (1990): 23-39.

Korda, Michael. Charmed Lives: A Family Romance. New York: Random, 1979.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1979. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Maltby, Paul. Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1991.

Pickard, Roy. Who Played Who in the Movies: An A-Z. New York: Schocken, 1981.

Reeve, Clara. The Progress of Romance and the History of Charoba, Queen of Egypt. 1785. New York: Facsimile Text Society, 1930.

Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Scholes, Robert, and Robert Kellogg. The Nature of Narrative. 1966. New York: Oxford UP, 1976.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. 1966. New York: Anchor, 1990.

———. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. 1978, 1989. New York: Anchor, 1990.

———. On Photography. 1977. New York: Anchor, 1990.

———. “Photography Unlimited.” New York Review of Books 23 June 1977: 25-32.

———. “Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for us) to Love the Cuban Revolution.” Ramparts April 1969: 6, 10, 14, 16, 18-19.

———. Styles of Radical Will. 1969. New York: Anchor, 1991.

———. Under the Sign of Saturn. 1980. New York: Anchor, 1991.

———. The Volcano Lover: A Romance. New York: Farrar, 1992.

That Hamilton Woman. Dir. and prod. Alexander Korda. Written by Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff. United Artists, 1941.

Vickers, Hugo. Vivien Leigh. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988.

Vigée Lebrun, Madame Louise-Elisabeth. Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun. Trans. Lionel Strachey. New York: Doubleday, 1903.

Walker, Alexander. Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh. New York: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987.

Warshow, Robert. “The ‘Idealism’ of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.” 1953. The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

Roger Kimball (essay date February 1998)

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SOURCE: Kimball, Roger. “Reflections on a Cultural Revolution-VI: The New Sensibility.” New Criterion 16, no. 6 (February 1998): 5-11.

[In the following essay, Kimball explores the inconsistencies he has found in several of Sontag's essays. Kimball argues against many of Sontag's conclusions, noting that she frequently contradicts herself in her own essays.]

Everyone who feels bored cries out for change. With this demand I am in complete sympathy, but it is necessary to act in accordance with some settled principle. … Nil admirari [nothing is to be marveled at] is … the real philosophy. No moment must be permitted so great a significance that it cannot be forgotten when convenient; each moment ought, however, to have so much significance that it can be recollected at will. … From the beginning one should keep the enjoyment under control, never spreading every sail to the wind in any resolve; one ought to devote oneself to pleasure with a certain suspicion, a certain wariness, if one desires to give the lie to the proverb which says that no one can eat his cake and have it too.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Like all great aesthetes, Barthes was an expert at having it both ways.

—Susan Sontag, “On Roland Barthes”

In an earlier installment of these reflections, we noted that America's cultural revolution, despite the insurrectionary rhetoric that accompanied it, differed in important ways from political revolutions as traditionally understood. To be sure, the endless demonstrations, sit-ins, rallies, petitions, marches, and “non-negotiable demands” that were such a prominent feature of the 1960s and 1970s had myriad political ramifications. Everything that has come under the Orwellian rubric of “affirmative action” is a case in point. Nevertheless, the result of the counterculture's political activism was not to overthrow a government but to transform morals—using “morals” broadly, as Matthew Arnold did in his famous essay on Wordsworth, to encompass “whatever bears upon the question, ‘how to live.’”

There are other distinctions to be observed. For if America's cultural revolution must be distinguished on one side from genuine political revolution, so it must be distinguished on another side from a genuine intellectual or artistic revolution. Of course, talk about “innovation,” “creativity,” and a new “avant-garde” was deafening in the 1960s and 1970s. But looking back on that period—and looking around now at its sordid aftermath—one is left mostly with the embarrassing sensation of hyperactive sterility. What was all the sound and fury about? What did that putative unleashing of “creativity” create? It is as if an entire generation had somehow conspired to infantilize itself, substituting overblown intellectual impersonation for serious cultural endeavor. When one compares it to the last truly important era of artistic and cultural innovation—the era of high modernism, which culminated in the 1920s—one is struck above all by the extent to which the “radical” artistic and intellectual gestures of the counterculture were unwitting repetitions or jejune parodies of ideas that had seemed old before World War II.

Partly, no doubt, what we saw in the Sixties was a venerable case of history repeating itself as farce. But if its combination of vacuousness, self-infatuation, and political grandstanding seems mostly preposterous now, that should not lead us to underestimate its destructive effects. America's cultural revolution was not itself an intellectual or artistic revolution; but it nevertheless has had immense consequences for artistic and intellectual life. It is not simply that there has been a disastrous lowering of standards. There has also been a wholesale attack on the very idea of standards: a process of blurring or (more accurately) inversion that has made critical discrimination seem like an antiquarian pursuit. What we have witnessed is a corruption of taste that is at the same time the triumph of a certain species of aestheticizing decadence.

No one has more lovingly delineated, or more perfectly epitomized, the mandarin ambiguities of this situation than Susan Sontag, the critic, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, theatrical director, professional aesthete, and political radical. Sontag burst upon the New York intellectual scene in the mid Sixties with a handful of remarkable essays: “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964) and “On Style” (1965) in Partisan Review; “Against Interpretation” (1964) in Evergreen Review; “One Culture and the New Sensibility” (1965), an abridged version of which first appeared in Mademoiselle; and several essays and reviews in the newly launched New York Review of Books. (Sontag contributed a short review of Simone Weil's essays for the Review's inaugural issue in 1963.) Almost overnight, it seemed, these essays electrified intellectual debate and catapulted their author to celebrity.

Not that Sontag's efforts were unanimously praised. Far from it. The critic John Simon, to take just one example, wondered in a sharp letter to Partisan Review whether Sontag's “Notes on ‘Camp’” was itself “only a piece of ‘camp.’” No, the important thing was the attentiveness of the response. Pro or con, Sontag's essays galvanized debate: indeed, they contributed mightily to changing the very climate of intellectual debate. Her demand, at the end of “Against Interpretation,” that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”; her praise of camp, the “whole point” of which “is to dethrone the serious”; her encomium to the “new sensibility” of the Sixties, whose acolytes, she observed, “have broken, whether they know it or not, with the Matthew Arnold notion of culture, finding it historically and humanly obsolescent”: in these and other such pronouncements Sontag offered not arguments but a mood, a tone, an atmosphere.

Never mind that a lot of it was mere verbiage: it was nevertheless irresistible verbiage. It somehow didn't matter, for example, that the whole notion of “an erotics of art” was arrant nonsense. Everyone likes sex, and talking about “erotics” seems so much sexier than talking about “sex”; and of course everyone likes art: how was it that no one had thought of putting them together in this clever way before? Who would bother with something so boring as mere “interpretation”—which, Sontag had suggested, was these days “reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling,” “the revenge of the intellect upon art”—when he could have (or pretend to have) an erotics instead?

It was a remarkable performance, all the more so as Sontag was then barely thirty years old. In truth, there had always been something precocious—not to say hasty—about her. Born in New York City in 1933, she had been brought up mostly in Arizona and California (her father died in 1938; Sontag is her stepfather's name). She began skipping grades when she was six. Graduating from high school when she was barely sixteen, Sontag went first to the University of California at Berkeley and then, in the fall of 1949, to the University of Chicago. In December of 1950, when she was seventeen, she met the critic Philip Rieff (author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic [1966], among other works), then a twenty-eight-year-old instructor, who was giving a course that Sontag audited. As she was leaving after the first class, Sontag recalled, “He was standing at the door and he grabbed my arm and asked my name. I apologized and told him I had only come to audit. ‘No, what's your name?’ he persisted. ‘Will you have lunch with me.’” Married ten days later, they found themselves with a son—who would grow up to be the left-wing writer David Rieff—in 1952 and a divorce in 1958. Meanwhile Sontag, having picked up a bachelor's degree at Chicago after three years, had also spent time studying at Harvard—where she took a master's degree in philosophy—and at Oxford and the Sorbonne. Armed with a battery of French names few people knew about here, she returned to New York in 1959, worked briefly at Commentary and elsewhere before taking up, in 1960, a teaching position at Columbia in (mirabile dictu) the department of religion.

But all this was prolegomenon. Looking back on it now, it seems obvious that throughout those years Sontag was constructing, burnishing, perfecting—what to call it? A style, partly; a tone, assuredly; but in the end, perhaps, it might be best described as an altitude. By the time she began publishing in highbrow journals like Partisan Review, Sontag had made herself the mistress of a new brand of cultural hauteur. It was ferociously intellectual without necessarily being intelligent; it deployed, but did not rely upon, arguments. Its invariable direction was de haut en bas. “Formal” and “formalist” are among Sontag's favorite words. In her early essays, she never tires of telling us that works of art must be judged for their formal properties, not their “content.” If we judge Sontag's own essays in “formal” terms, they may appear as models of chic daring; but judged in terms of content, they are little more than a repository of intellectual clichés—witness the insistence, as if it were something original, on judging art for its formal excellence and not its “message,” one of the hoariest of modern half-truths. “The satisfactions of Paradise Lost,” she writes in “On Style,” do not lie in its views on God and man, but in the superior kinds of energy, vitality, expressiveness which are incarnated in the poem.” What she doesn't say is that the energy, vitality, and expressiveness of Milton's poem are unintelligible apart from the truths it aspires to articulate. If this were not the case, Paradise Lost might just as well be about baked beans as about “justify[ing] the ways of God to man.”

It goes without saying that what we are dealing with here is only partly a matter of intellectual style. Sontag was creating a Gesamtkunstwerk, and it had sartorial as well as cerebral leitmotifs. We get a hint of this in the introduction to Conversations with Susan Sontag, a collection of interviews published in 1995. The editor of that volume quotes a description of an author's photograph depicting Sontag “in black trousers, black polo-neck and wearing cowboy boots. She is stretched out on a window-sill with a pile of books and papers under her arm. The seriousness is lightened by the faint flicker of pleasure: this is an image which pleases the author. At home, with books, wearing black.” It is not said whether this was before or after the publication of Texas Boots, David Rieff's celebration of cowboy boots. In any event, it is clear that a less physically attractive woman could never have aspired to be Susan Sontag.

It is hardly surprising that one of Sontag's indisputable contributions has been to the art of pretension—or perhaps it should be called “intellectual impersonation.” It is not every day, for example, that a writer, asked when his interest in “the moral” began, will reply as did Sontag that

I believe that it began when I was three years old. In other aspects, I am not very clear about when I was young, which is a source of strength and a problem at the same time. I remember that I would think much on the things that I think about now before I was ten years old.

It is almost enough to make one join Sontag in her campaign against interpretation.

In one early essay, Sontag described the bombastic dramatic events known as “happenings” as “an art of radical juxtaposition.” The same can be said of her essays, singly and taken in comparison with one another. What she produces are not essays, really, but verbal collages. Against Interpretation (1966), her first collection, contains pieces on Sartre and science fiction novels, the literary criticism of the Marxist Georg Lukács and a paean to Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures, a cult film in which, as Sontag cheerfully puts it, “a couple of women and a much larger number of men, most of them clad in flamboyant thrift-shop women's clothes, frolic about, pose and posture, dance with one another, and enact various scenes of voluptuousness, sexual frenzy, romance, and vampirism,” including scenes of masturbation, gang rape, and oral sex. Sontag castigates the “indifference or hostility” of “the mature intellectual and artistic community” to this “small but valuable work” in the tradition of “the cinema of shock.” She praises the “extraordinary charge and beauty of [Smith's] images” and—a signature Sontag touch—the film's “exhilarating freedom from moralism.” Sontag is very big on that “exhilarating freedom from moralism.” Acknowledging that “by ordinary standards”—but not, of course, by hers—Flaming Creatures is composed of themes that are “perverse, decadent,” she insists that really the film “is about joy and innocence,” not least because it is “both too full of pathos and too ingenuous to be prurient.”

This sort of thing was catnip to the intellectual establishment of the mid 1960s. Not that any of it was new, exactly. Nostalgie de la boue has long been a defining disease of bourgeois intellectuals, and has been effectively peddled by many before the advent of S. Sontag. But few if any writers commanded Sontag's air of perfect knowingness, which managed to combine commendation, indifference, and disdain with breathtaking virtuosity.

In his review of Under the Sign of Saturn, a collection of Sontag's essays published in 1980, John Simon noted that “nothing succeeds better than highbrow endorsement of lowbrow tastes.” Sontag's great trick was not merely to endorse lowbrow tastes, but to create the illusion that for the truly sophisticated all intellectual, artistic, and moral distinctions of merit were otiose, dispensable, de trop. This is one reason that she championed the camp sensibility. “Camp,” she observed, “is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.” Camp, she went on to say, “is a solvent of morality,” concluding with one of her famous paradoxes: “The ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful.” (She immediately adds: “of course, one can't always say that. Only under certain conditions”—thus letting you know that not just anyone is allowed to indulge in contradiction and win praise for it.)

One of Sontag's characteristic productions was “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967), which appears in Styles of Radical Will (1969), her second collection. In essence, it is a defense of pornography, not, of course, as something merely salacious—that would grant too much recognition of its “content”—but for its “formal” resources as a means of transcendence. It is hardly news that sexual ecstasy has often poached on religious rhetoric and vice versa; nor is it news that pornography often employs religious metaphors. That is part of its perversity. But Sontag decides to take pornography seriously as a solution to the spiritual desolations of modern secular culture. Writing about Pauline Réage's pornographic Story of O, she solemnly tells us that

O is an adept; whatever the cost in pain and fear, she is grateful for the opportunity to be initiated into a mystery. That mystery is the loss of self. O learns, she suffers, she changes. Step by step she becomes more what she is, a process identical with the emptying out of herself. In the vision of the world presented by The Story of O, the highest good is the transcendence of personality.

Which is about as accurate as saying that the Marquis de Sade's books are essentially about exercise.

One of Sontag's great gifts has been her ability to enlist her politics in the service of her aestheticism. For her, it is the work of a moment to move from admiring pornography—or at least “the pornographic imagination”—to castigating

the traumatic failure of capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsession, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness. The need of human beings to transcend “the person” is no less profound than the need to be a person, an individual.

“The Pornographic Imagination,” like most of Sontag's essays, is full of powerful phrases, seductive insights, and extraordinary balderdash. Sontag dilates on pornography's “peculiar access to some truth.” What she doesn't say is that The Story of O (for example) presents not an instance of mystical fulfillment but a graphic depiction of human degradation. Only someone who had allowed “form” to triumph over “content” could have ignored this. In a way, “The Pornographic Imagination” is itself the perfect camp gesture: for if camp aims to “dethrone the serious” it is also, as Sontag points out, “deadly serious” about the demotic and the trivial. Sontag is a master at both ploys. Having immersed herself in the rhetoric of traditional humanistic learning, she is expert at using it against itself. This of course is a large part of what has made her writing so successful among would-be “avant-garde” intellectuals: playing with the empty forms of traditional moral and aesthetic thought, she is able to appear simultaneously unsettling and edifying, daringly “beyond good and evil” and yet passionately engagé.

“The Pornographic Imagination” also exhibits the seductive Sontag hauteur in full flower. After telling us that pornography can be an exciting version of personal transcendence, she immediately remarks that “not everyone is in the same condition as knowers or potential knowers. Perhaps most people don't need ‘a wider scale of experience.’ It may be that, without subtle and extensive psychic preparation, any widening of experience and consciousness is destructive for most people.” Not for you and me, Dear Reader: we are among the elect. We deserve that “wider scale of experience”; but as for the rest, as for “most people,” well. …

It doesn't always work. As a writer, Sontag is essentially a coiner of epigrams. At their best they are witty, well phrased, provocative. A few are even true: “Nietzsche was a histrionic thinker but not a lover of the histrionic.” But Sontag's striving for effect (unlike Nietzsche, she is a lover of the histrionic) often leads her into muddle. In “One Culture and the New Sensibility,” for example, she enthusiastically reasons that “if art is understood as a form of discipline of the feelings and a programming of sensations, then the feeling (or sensation) given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes.” But of course the idea that art is a “programming of the sensations” (a phrase, alas, of which Sontag is particularly fond) is wrong, incoherent, or both, as is the idea that feelings or sensations might be “given off” by any song or painting, even one by Rauschenberg (odors, yes; sensations, no). As often happens, her passion for synesthesia and effacing boundaries leads her into nonsense.

Charity dictates that we pass lightly over Sontag's fiction and drama. Most of it reminds one of Woody Allen's parody of Kafka. “Should I marry K.? Only if she tells me the other letters of her name”—that sort of thing. Here's a sample from I, etcetera (a book whose title might be reused for Sontag's collected works): “Dearest M. I cannot telephone. I am six years old. My grief falls like snowflakes on the warm soil of your indifference. You are inhaling your own pain.” Readers looking for the comic side of Sontag's oeuvre will want to dip into her fiction: The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967) are particularly fine, provided they are read as parodies of intellectual solemnity. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard advised the aspiring aesthete to look for “a very different kind of enjoyment from that which the author has been so kind as to plan for you.” It is advice that is particularly relevant when approaching Sontag's “creative writing.”

If one wanted to sum up Sontag's allure in a single phrase, it would be difficult to do better than Tom Wolfe's “radical chic.” In her manner, her opinions, her politics, Sontag has always been a walking inventory of radical chic attitudes. Writing about Camus's notebooks in 1963, she naturally patronizes him as having been “acclaimed beyond his purely literary merits,” assuring us that, unlike Sartre (but like George Orwell), he was not “a thinker of importance.” In 1963, Jean-Paul Sartre was still an Approved Radical Figure, whose Communist sympathies and virulent anti-Americanism made him beloved of American intellectuals. Camus, who had had the temerity to criticize Communism, was distinctly not-ARF and had to be taken down a peg or two.

And then there were Sontag's own political activities. Cuba and North Vietnam in 1968, China in 1973, Sarajevo in 1993 (where she went to direct a production of Waiting for Godot—surely the consummate radical chic gesture of all time). Few people have managed to combine naïve idealization of foreign tyranny with violent hatred of their own country to such deplorable effect. Consider her essay “Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for us) to Love the Cuban Revolution,” which appeared in Ramparts magazine in April 1969. She begins with some ritualistic denunciations of American culture as “inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian.” “America is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of productivity that inundates the country with increasingly unnecessary commodities, services, gadgets, images, information.” One of the few spots of light, Sontag tells us, is Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, which teaches that “America's psychic survival entails her transformation through a political revolution.” (It also teaches that, for blacks, rape can be a noble “insurrectionary act,” a “defying and trampling on the white man's laws,” but Sontag doesn't bother with that detail.)

According to her, “the power structure derives its credibility, its legitimacy, its energies from the dehumanization of the individuals who operate it. The people staffing IBM and General Motors, and the Pentagon, and United Fruit are the living dead.” Since the counterculture is not strong enough to overthrow IBM, the Pentagon, etc., it must opt for subversion. “Rock, grass, better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature—really grooving on anything—unfits, maladapts a person for the American way of life.” And here is where the Cubans come in: they come by this “new sensibility” naturally, possessing as they do a “southern spontaneity which we feel our own too white, death-ridden culture denies us. … The Cubans know a lot about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality and freaking out. They are not linear, desiccated creatures of print culture.”

Indeed not: supine, desiccated creatures of a Communist tyranny would be more like it, though patronizing honky talk about “southern spontaneity” doubtless made things seem much better when this was written. In the great contest for writing the most fatuous line of political drivel, Sontag is always a contender. This essay contains at least two gems: after ten years, she writes, “the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression and bureaucratization,” and, even better perhaps, is this passing remark delivered in parentheses: “No Cuban writer has been or is in jail, or is failing to get his work published.” Readers wishing to make a reality check should consult Paul Hollander's classic study Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (fourth edition, 1998), which cites Sontag's claim and then lists, in two or three pages, some of the many writers and artists who have been jailed, tortured, or executed by Castro's spontaneous gaiety.

Sontag concocted a similar fairy tale when she went to Vietnam in 1968 courtesy of the North Vietnamese government. Her long essay “Trip to Hanoi” (1968) is another classic in the literature of political mendacity. Connoisseurs of the genre will especially savor Sontag's observation that the real problem for the North Vietnamese is that they “aren't good enough haters.” Their fondness for Americans, she explains, keeps getting in the way of the war effort. “They genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese population gets, ‘because they're bigger than we are,’ as a Vietnamese army officer told me.” Sontag acknowledges that her account tended somewhat to idealize North Vietnam; but that was only because it was a country that “in many respects, deserves to be idealized.”

Unlike any country in Western Europe, and above all unlike the United States. In “What's Happening in America (1966),” Sontag tells readers that what America “deserves” is to have its wealth “taken away” by the Third World. In one particularly notorious passage, she writes that “the truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.” After a bout with cancer in the 1970s, Sontag emended that last observation because on reflection she had come to realize that it was unfair—to cancer.

What can one say? Sontag excoriates the American economy for its “runaway rate of productivity.” But she has had no scruples about enjoying the fruits of that productivity: a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1964, a Merrill Foundation grant in 1965, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1966, etc., etc., culminating in 1990 with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award.

But it is not simply in such mundane terms that Sontag wants to have it both ways. Inveterate aestheticism entails intractable intellectual and moral frivolity. Sontag went on to blast the Castro regime for its brutal treatment of certain approved writers, but her condemnation meant little more than her initial enthusiasm. It was, as she might put it, merely “formal”: the content didn't count. It was the same with her famous announcement at a left-wing symposium in 1982 that “Communism is fascism.” How piquant that Susan Sontag should utter this elementary truth! In her essay “On Style,” Sontag had assured her readers that Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi films “transcend the categories of propaganda or even reportage”: the content of the films—i.e., their endorsement of Nazi ideology—has come “to play a purely formal role.” Ten years later, in an essay called “Fascinating Fascism” (1974) she says the opposite: that the “very conception” of Triumph of the Will “negates the possibility of the filmmaker's having an aesthetic conception independent of propaganda.” Taxed by an interviewer with the contradiction, Sontag replies that “both statements illustrate the richness of the form-content distinction, as long as one is careful always to use it against itself.” “Rich” is indeed the mot juste. In her book On Photography (1977), Sontag says that photography transforms people into “tourists of reality.” It is a neat phrase: vivid, arresting, overstated. But as she has shown over and over, Sontag herself is just such a tourist. One day she embraces camp, the next day she warns about the “perils of over-generalizing the aesthetic view of life.” As Hilton Kramer observed, “it is not that Sontag was ever prepared to abandon her stand on aestheticism and all its implications. It was only that she did not want it to cost her anything.” Sontag once noted that “the relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated.” One suspects that boredom underlies a good deal of her unhappy radicalism. Discontented with “the Matthew Arnold notion of culture,” she abandoned the question of “how to live” and became instead a prophet of the new sensibility of aesthetic nihilism.

Michael Silverblatt (review date 27 February 2000)

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SOURCE: Silverblatt, Michael. “For You O Democracy.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 February 2000): 1-2.

[In the following review, Silverblatt comments on the disillusionment and Americanization of the characters in Sontag's novel In America.]


Susan Sontag's new novel is a brilliant and profound investigation into the fate of thought and culture in America. Like Sontag's previous novel, The Volcano Lover,In America masquerades as historical fiction, flaunting the stuff of drama and romance. It is something restless, hybrid, disturbing, original.

At its center is a true story. As Sontag tells us in a prefatory statement, she was inspired by “the emigration to America in 1876 of Helena Modrzejewska, Poland's most celebrated actress, accompanied by her husband Count Karol Chiapowski, her fifteen-year-old son Rudolf, the young journalist and future author of Quo Vadis Henryk Sienkiewicz, and a few friends; their brief sojourn in Anaheim, California; and Modrzejewska's subsequent triumphant career on the American stage under the name of Helena Modjeska.” Sontag goes on to explain that most of the characters in the novel “are invented, and those who are not depart in radical ways from their real-life models.”

In fact, In America is a picaresque fable, a historical tragicomedy. The story revolves around a Polish actress, Maryna Zalezowska. More than an actress, she is a national symbol for the triply besieged and conquered Poland, a symbol of patriotism, of seriousness, of achievement on a grand scale in the arts. She is dissatisfied, restless; her brother has died; rival actresses are producing travesties of her work. She decides to surrender, give up the stage and move to California, where she will toil with her comrades on a commune in Anaheim founded on the utopian principles of Charles Fourier. There they discover they have neither the radical ideals nor the practical abilities to maintain a communal farm. They go into debt and disperse. Maryna Zalezowska returns to the stage renamed Marina Zaleska. She tours America, performing in English, and in the process of winning national and even international recognition, she betrays her loves and her artistic beliefs. The book is a melancholic comedy about the defeat of every kind of integrity. In America, Maryna goes from being what Sontag calls “an orphaned talent” to being what Maryna herself calls “a monster,” She becomes a cultured freak, an emotionally overwrought publicity whore: a very American type.

But here are the book's genius and originality. We see Maryna through carefully selected lenses: her own moody self-adoring monologues and arias, the diaries of Bogdan, her patient husband (who, like the husbands of other divas, uses his marriage as a blind for his mostly resisted attraction to boys) and the letters and effusions of Ryszard, her young and besotted would-be lover. Add to these a Polish citizenry mourning the loss of its revered national symbol and a claque of young actors and older impresarios whose well-being depends on keeping brilliant Maryna's self-absorption well-flattered and under control. No one in this book has the freedom to tell Maryna who she is, what she is becoming or what is actually happening to her.

To put it more precisely: Only two characters can break through Maryna's lacquered self-deception. One is Susan Sontag, who has an opening monologue and narrates sections of the book. She is “outside” the tale and cannot speak directly to Maryna. The other is Edwin Booth, the great tragedian, brother of John Wilkes Booth, who makes his appearance in the final monologue. He confronts Maryna with terrifying directness, and she asks him to stop—and the novel ends.

In their monologues, Sontag and Booth are pitiless, anti-sentimental, truth-telling. They stand at a remove from the deceit and vulgarity growing at the heart of the novel, embodied by Maryna's passion for lying and display, her willingness to flatter, conciliate and compromise. Willing to sacrifice everything, even her art, for success, Maryna thinks that she is learning how to live in America, that she is learning the lessons of the dawning of America's celebrity culture.

Sontag's monologue, “Chapter Zero,” which begins with a description of a dream in which she enters, like Alice into the Looking Glass, the world of this novel, stands outside the novel, presenting in small compass the themes, the dislocations, the recreations of the novel in full. Read it carefully, for this chapter, a single 25-page paragraph, shows what prose can achieve in our time. It is a model of the modern split sensibility achieving what integration it can with the past. Not the broken fragments of a modernist text but rather the unfalling and beautiful glide of a long take, it is a prose style that sees consciousness as continuous with what it observes. Sontag has achieved this style over time, from such short fictions as “Description (of a Description)” and “The Letter Scene,” an exploration of the effect, but not the content, of the classical operatic letter aria. Inspired by a passage from one of Kafka's blue octavo diary notebooks and by the eerie first-person obsessional novels of Thomas Bernhard, Sontag has arrived in her new novel at a supple, dream-waltz prose that can look at the world and look at itself looking. Here is a sentence in the form of a cascade; there, one, that opens like a fan. The result is elegant and vertiginous.

The image for best apprehending the book is one Sontag herself has suggested (in a recent interview in Bookforum): “a Scheherazade Rubik's cube.” It is only after you have reconfigured the surfaces, bringing the various facets of the novel together onto the correct planes, that you see that the major characters suffer four distinct American fates.

Ryszard, who rejects America, begins his life again and again, marrying and remarrying, waiting for a jump-start. Bogdan disappears into America, into a peculiar American anonymity: He is freed to follow his sexual yearnings but rejects his freedom, choosing to remain the stage husband, Maryna's consoler and keeper. Booth, the novel's darkest figure, flickers memorably in its final chapter—morose, alcoholic, broken but uncompromised, an American tragedy. Maryna, poor Maryna, deserts her art and her loves and remains untouchable, martyred by her bottomless will and talent for self-reinvention. Maryna succeeds, but she becomes inured to a life without satisfaction. She ends up lonely, humbled, ludicrous.

Along the way, we encounter a regular circus bill of attractions and thrilling sideshows: the theater world of besieged Poland; transatlantic voyages; child prostitutes on shipboard and a chance encounter with a writer in a Manhattan bordello; romance in the California desert moonlight; homosexual yearnings; transcontinental train rides; the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia; a love triangle; an attempted suicide; silver mines; opening nights; productions of “Camille,” “As You Like It,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Doll's House”; the saloon of Minnie, the girl of the Golden West; the hard-bitten story of an itinerant lady photographer's romance with light; a cameo appearance by Henry James; tale telling and debates about narrative. In other words, enough incident, psychology, local color and fascinating detail to stock a flotilla of popular novels, a couple of Ragtimes and a brace of theatrical memoirs.

But though Sontag masters the amusing clockwork trains and trick miniature effects of historical travelogue, she is after something more than showmanship: Showmanship, P.T. Barnum-style, is in fact what American culture uses to conceal what occurs backstage, the vast arena where classically trained actresses are turned into divas, where plays become spectacles and where ideas become entertainment.

It is here that Sontag lets us see Maryna without the filters and lenses of adoring friends, lovers and countrymen. Sontag pours everything she knows about being an artist, an actress, an activist, a diva into this character, Maryna is a flood of uncertainties, resolutions, anguishes resolved by will, manipulations, Intensities. She intrigues; she flirts. She accepts the protection of the wife of an occupying Russian official when her production of “Hamlet” is endangered, hardly the action of a Polish patriot. She is indomitable but easy to flatter. She is often inflexibly wrong but passionately convincing. She ages before our eyes and loses her beauty, but she will still play Juliet. She will go on shopping sprees, and she will tour week after week, spending only a day in an American nowhere before moving on to the next engagement. Sontag gives us a convincing portrait of an artist who is losing her way, and it would be a pity if all the structural brilliance that surrounds her were to distract readers from her imperious, self-dramatizing and fallible character.


What do the Poles learn in America? They learn the usefulness of a happy ending. Here's how:

Anaheim is visited by the traveling Stappenbeck Circus from Los Angeles. And the commune is visited by an obese Polish kleptomaniac from San Francisco. Each visit brings a transgression: A lynch mob forms after the circus; the fatso steals Maryna's jewels (and much more). One cannot trust visitors; even one's own countrymen are treacherous.

This truth is too painful and impolite; it necessitates that most American of alterations: the happy ending, kissing cousin of the American success story. Writing about the circus, Ryszard, the young Polish novelist, decides to alter reality. He lets the escaped lovers elude the lynch mob and sends them to hidden bliss in a romantic cave. And Maryna refuses to mourn her stolen jewels: There must be a lesson and a moral. “One should be ready to part with anything,” she says. Loss and violence give rise to the instinct for transcendence, the American happy ending.

And if success requires a happy ending, then beginnings must be altered as well; the means must justify the end. Everything must be renamed: the names of plays, of people, of towns. Why? To fool the censor, to entice the public, to make things more exotic—and less foreign—to facilitate the myth of the new beginning.” Immigrant children like Piotr, Maryna's son, want to become Peter to be more like other American children.

Even the strongman of the Stappenbeck Circus, the child of a Cahuilla squaw, changes his name. “His real name U-wa-ka died with his mother; in the village and the foothills he was known as Big Neck.” In the circus he gets a circus name, Zambo, the American Hercules. How different is this from the fate of Maryna Zalezowska, who becomes Marina Zalenska, “Countess Zalenska of the Russian Imperial Theater, Warsaw”? She, too, has been given “a circus name,” Unfortunate inconveniences, which she is willing to overlook: that the Russians were the Poles' oppressors, that Marina is the Russian spelling of Maryna and that Maryna is not, and has never been, a countess (the title belongs to her husband).

It is not long before this search for “the enhancing falsehood”—the happy ending—affects the artistic impulses as well. On tour, after abandoning Anaheim in debt, Marina Zalenska will ultimately take on something ambitious, a production of Ibsen's A Doll's House. But as vultures devour a corpse, American concerns descend en masse. The title must be changed: What if people should think it is a play for children? The character's name must be changed: Nora might be an American name and no American woman would behave so perfidiously as to abandon husband and children. Why not call her Thora? It sounds more Scandinavian and, just to be safe, give it a happy ending: “Nora—no, Thora!—will think of leaving. But won't. Will forgive her husband. Should it go well here, we can restore the real ending when we bring it to New York.” Ibsen's “Thora,” with Marina Zalenska in the title role, has its only performance in Louisville, Ky. “Reviewers irate, even with the happy ending. Just as I feared. Offense to Christian morals and the American family.”

Marina retitles “Romeo and Juliet”; she tours in something called “Juliet”; after all, isn't she the main attraction? She thereafter becomes a specialist in tear-jerking dramas like “East Lynne” and “Frou-Frou”; her job is to provoke tears and command attention. “In Poland, you were allowed some practice of the arts of self-indulgence, but you were expected to be sincere and also to have high ideals—people respected you for that. In America, you were expected to exhibit the confusions of inner vehemence, to express opinions no one need take seriously, and have eccentric foibles and extravagant needs, which exhibited the force of your will, your appetitiveness, the spread of your self-regard—all excellent things.”


Why, at this hour of the world, a historical novel built out of letters, diaries, compacted facts? Is this a conservative, traditional novel? If one defines modernism as the set of energies inscribed in the work of Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce, Pound, Eliot—a belief that the world can be seen only in fragments and that these fragments cannot be reassembled, that the world is in ruins—then Sontag owes much more to Proust, to the belief that the past can be recaptured and that this recaptured past includes eruptions, dissolution and breakage.

In this way, Sontag's earlier historical novel. The Volcano Lover, and her new one, In America, attempt to reroute the novel away from further fragmentation. Sontag's stance is one of abject mourning for the tragedies of the past and for what these tragedies have done to our culture and our ideas about art. By means of this acceptance, she has found a way to connect the modern novel to the great monuments of the past, the works of Stendhal, Tolstoy, George Eliot. She embarks upon a journey of construction—the novel is composed as a succession of microstructures—and arrives at a new use of tradition, one that seemed unavailable to the postmodernist sensibility. She is giving us, in fiction, the history of the loss that led to irony and fragmentation, the death of so much that could formerly be called culture, and she bravely attempts a journey beyond that loss.

Sontag has managed to structure a paradox—call it hopeful inconsolability or optimistic pessimism—a belief that the destruction of our ideals and our long-lost innocence can still be narrated, that there is still a story to be told about us and about how we came to be the way we are or to see, as the title of one of her past stories has it (borrowing from Anthony Trollope), the seeds of the past in “The Way We Live Now.”

James Wood (review date 27 March 2000)

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SOURCE: Wood, James. “The Palpable Past-Intimate.” New Republic 222, no. 13 (27 March 2000): 29-33.

[In the following review, Wood contends that in contemporary society the historical novel has become an overworked and tedious genre, but that In America is an exception, characterizing the book as nicely balanced with insight, theatricality, and riveting narration.]

Is it still possible to write the historical novel? There would seem to be powerful arguments, and powerful modern instances, against it. First, it is the least innocent of forms in an all-too-knowing age; one might say, paradoxically, that at this late stage it represents the novel at its most complacently alienated from itself. This has primarily to do with the pace of historical change in the last century. It is true that War and Peace is an historical novel, but rather as The Prelude is an historical poem. Tolstoy felt confident about reaching back sixty or so years from his age to the Napoleonic wars, because he was so sure that nothing essential had changed that he could proceed to write what was, in effect, a contemporary novel.

But there is now a large gulf between, say, the beginning of this century and the beginning of the last, and into this breach may run our quivering self-consciousness. For nowadays we know how acute our historical separateness is, and it is this knowledge that is so dangerous to the unthinking freedom of fiction. It is this knowledge that lends a certain desperate quality to the detail that writers of historical fiction choose to mention. Of course, they do not really choose their detail; it chooses them. If a writer is painting London or New York in 1900, we must be told about coachmen and dandies with canes, or 1900 will not have been evoked. And the characters in historical fiction—especially the minor characters—are not free either, for they are continually being forced to say things like, “Have you seen The Tramp yet?”, just so that we know that it is 1915. Such characters can end up sounding like the paradoxical mathematician described by Plato, who, when counting numbers that he must already know, “sets out to learn from himself anew something he must already be familiar with.”

This is one reason why the historical novel may nowadays be merely science-fiction facing backwards, with the same crudities of detail. Without the ability to move freely, detail is converted from the accidental into the determined, and the book may become stagy, and essentially unliterary. It may also become essentially unhistorical, for if a great deal of time is being wasted on the confirmation of the past, then history is being confirmed in its crudest particulars, rather than challenged or even explored. All these large alienations drive the historical novel away from what Henry James, in the letter to Sarah Orne Jewett in which he condemned the historical novel, called “the palpable present-intimate.”

Alessandro Manzoni, who wrote the historical novel The Betrothed in 1827, argued against the historical novel, surprisingly enough, in his essay On The Historical Novel. Always a great believer in the science of historical inquiry, Manzoni felt that the historical novel could not succeed because it mixed the literary (what he called “the verisimilar”) with actual, historical fact (what he called “positive truth”). He argued that this blending of history and invention mangled both modes of writing, and robbed the historical novel of any purity of purpose: “the historical novel is a work in which the necessary turns out to be impossible … it does not have a logical purpose of its own.”

And yet Manzoni wrote a great historical novel. He reconciled what he saw as the lumpy disjunction of the historical and the invented by combining standard novelistic (or invented) narration with historically aware essayism—by refusing to leave alone his own fictional detail, but often pointing readers towards its actual historical status. In other words, he was self-conscious about his self-consciousness. This was a liberty for Manzoni, but it may be the only possible way to write historical fiction now. It is the method that Susan Sontag adopts in her historical novel In America, and alongside other techniques and contexts, it more than saves her novel from the confident awkwardness of the genre.

Sontag's novel tells the story of a group of educated and adventurous Poles, led by a great actress already famous in her homeland, who leave Poland for America in the 1870s, and settle briefly in a rural commune in Anaheim, California. It is loosely based on the true story of the Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, who emigrated to America in 1876, along with her husband and son, and with the young writer Henryk Sienkiewicz. In America, after a short time in California, Helena reinvented herself as an American actress, with the name Helena Modjeska.

Immediately Sontag inserts herself into the foreground of the novel, as she did in her last historical fiction, The Volcano Lover. The book's first chapter, which is fanciful but oddly moving, gathers the characters in a hotel dining-room in a town in Poland, and Sontag—so the conceit goes—wanders unnoticed around the room, deciding what her characters will do and what names they should have, and generally, as she finely puts it, “scattering seeds of prediction.” The chapter is an introductory confession; indeed, it is startlingly confessional. Referring to her early marriage to a well-known scholar, Sontag writes that at the age of seventeen she read Middlemarch and cried, because she realized that she was Dorothea Brooke and that she had married Casaubon. She tells us that she has perhaps been drawn to write about Poland because all four of her grandparents came from that country; and before we can resist the sentimentality of this thought, she undermines it herself by admitting that she had tried to describe a hotel room in Sarajevo at the same historical moment, and failed.

So we are reading an historical fiction, and we are to be reminded periodically of this throughout the book. This kind of self-reflexiveness can come to seem in weaker books like a repetitive and doomed attempt at self-cleansing—like someone washing her hands again and again—but after the first chapter it is only delicately pressed on. (We hear no more from Sontag, as such.) Yet it is intellectually important, for it suspends the characters in a fluid of modernity (or post-modernity), and releases them from the category of historical idiocy. We know that they know they are being watched by a contemporary writer; but inside this careful panopticon they live and breathe fully as free fictional characters.

In fact, the heroine of the novel, the actress Maryna Załeżowska, is used to being watched, and used to watching herself. Histrionic, imperious, willful, and demanding, she spends her life in a crowd of mirrors; her loving entourage, which includes her loyal husband Bogdan and her ardent admirer and subsequent lover Ryszard (he is based on Sienkiewicz), reflect her glory back to her. Maryna is a powerful creation, alive, not exactly likeable but fizzy with her own essence. She has more than a hint in her of Irina Arkadin, Chekhov's impossible actress in The Seagull.

Sontag shrewdly uses the stageyness of the world, this actress's world—we travel with Maryna on her triumphant American tour—further to complicate the certainties of the historical novel. For the book is suffused with a certain plush, melodramatic stageyness of its own, half-parody and half-innocence; it is always proposing performance. Its world is being watched, but it is also watching itself, and watching us, too. And this is done in a manner that seems both self-conscious and genuinely unconscious on Sontag's part. One is reminded of her unfashionable belief in the theater, which is similarly innocent and now necessarily also a self-consciousness. The result is that the inevitable artificiality of historical detail is coated in a certain buoyant irony, which breaks into true creative gaiety.

In general, it is striking how little historical detail seems to clog the surface of this novel; it has been smoothed into underground discretion. The book is not a disquisition on the America of the 1870s. That is not to say that Sontag does not occasionally bully her data into historical confession. There is a somewhat crude moment, for instance, when Ryszard is buttonholed by a man who seems to want to talk about someone he calls “Tockveel,” and “Tockveel's” visit to America fifty years before. It is one of those encounters that happens only in novels. And later in the book the reader becomes restless when Sontag writes that the Poles were nostalgic for Polish music: “they had longed for the sound of Polish composers, a song by Kurpiński, a waltz by Ogiński …” The Poles, being Polish, would not have had to name these familiar composers to themselves (shades of Plato's mathematician); and since the names mean little to us non-Poles, it is simply a matter of homework being presented for reward by the author.

At such moments, the joists of the enterprise of the historical novel are exposed. This leads to a further suspicion of the form as currently practiced, which is that historical fiction may get a borrowed gravity from its subject, a gravity for which fiction set in its own time must more dirtily labor. Hasn't Sontag avoided some of the messy chanciness of fiction by choosing to write about educated Poles in the 1870s? A certain language and grammar of manners—a set of conventions that are themselves derived from nineteenth-century fiction—is already in place, not to mention the furniture and the couture of the period (lorgnettes, hats, silks, and so on). These things come already solemnized by literature, whereas the novelist who wants to write about modern Brooklyn or modern Knightsbridge must strive for his or her own solemnity.

To be fair, Sontag uses the story of this emigration precisely to throw a nineteenth-century (or “European”) gravity into the unclaimed space of an America that does not recognize these conventions. And Sontag is very subtle in the way she approaches historical detail, properly treating it as fictive detail. The description of the Atlantic crossing made by Ryszard and a friend is extremely good. It includes a painful scene in which Ryszard, seeking journalistic information, wanders below decks into steerage, where he encounters an Irishman who is pimping for his six captive “nieces.” Ryszard is cajoled into having lukewarm sex with one of the girls, who is barely fifteen, but he cannot do it, and only pretends to go through the motions behind a dirty curtain, so that the “uncle” will not beat his “niece” afterwards for rejecting the gentleman visitor.

Once in America, Maryna takes her little son Piotr to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. There she marvels at the new American inventions, and writes to an old friend in Poland of what she has seen. But Sontag does not overplay her hand here. Maryna is especially taken with a typewriter, which she describes as “a porcupine-like machine for stamping inked letters on blank paper.” And she is enthusiastic about the telephone, which she imagines will one day be in every household. But since she cannot imagine the television, she thinks that the telephone will be a kind of television, and expresses educated caution: “And what a boon to humanity that will be, when, by means of this device, anyone can have an Italian opera, a play of Shakespeare, a debate in the Congress, a sermon by their favorite preacher laid on like gas in one's own house … Still, I worry about the consequences of this invention, human laziness being what it is, for nothing can replace the experience of entering a temple of dramatic art …” This is just the right pressure of self-conscious irony; we enjoy the fatalism of our televisual retrospect, and subtly correct Maryna's fatalism in our minds. Delicacy is all, here; for anything heavier would fail.

Eventually, after several weeks on the east coast, the group find their separate ways to California, and it is California that prompts some of Sontag's finest writing. Sontag grew up in California, and this novel may be seen as almost invisibly watermarked by her own nostalgia for that early landscape. “Even now … it thrills me to write CALIFORNIA,” writes Maryna to her old friend, and one feels this to be Sontag's sentiment, also. A kind of ecstasy takes over her prose when she writes of the California desert, and she is both lyrical and precise:

Hardly anything is near anything here: those slouching braided sentinels, the yucca trees, and bouquets of drooping spears, the agaves, and the squat clusters of prickly pears, all so widely spaced, so unresembling—and nothing had to do with anything else … The purity of the vista, its uncompromising bleakness, seemed first like a menace, then an excitement, then a numbing, then a different arousal. Their real initiation into the seductive nihilism of the desert had begun. The soundless, odorless, monochrome landscape, so drastically untenanted, had the same effect on everyone: an intoxicating impression of aloneness …

At first, the quixotic European attempt at frontier farming seems to prosper. Maryna, though famous in Europe, is a mere immigrant in California, and involved, like the rest of her family and friends, with the graft of subsistence. She loves it, and loves America, if complicatedly, feeling that “the sudden drop in the volume of meanings in the new life worked on her like a thinning out of oxygen.” But schism soon threatens, as if in a secular mimicry of religious fracture: two of their number are lured away to a rival commune, and another couple returns to Poland after the unhappy wife tries to kill herself. Those left are not especially good farmers; in a nice detail, Sontag writes that none of the women were very good at milking, for “they felt they were torturing the cows.”

Meanwhile Maryna, Bogdan, and Ryszard, who constitute the novel's controlling trio, are becoming restless. Bogdan, a faithful husband but a repressed homosexual, is attracted by novel American flesh, and confides secret desires to his tense diary. Ryszard, who is in love with Maryna, veers between elation and depression. On the one hand, “even if my life ended now, he said to himself, I would still think, My God, what a journey I have made.” On the other hand, he feels that farming ill becomes his heroine, and that to extract the most from America one must stay on the move, as the hunter does.

Eventually Maryna decides to return to the stage—in America. Thus begins the last third of the book, an intensely imagined, superbly Dreiserian account of Maryna's lavish American victory. What may surprise some readers of Sontag's criticism is how easily she subjugates her intelligence, and yields to the fairy-tale textures of this episode. An initially skeptical theater manager, Angus Barton of the California Theatre in San Francisco, is won over, and soon Maryna—now retitled Marina Zalenska, because a Russian name sounds more impressive to the American public than a Polish one—is playing various melodramatic hits of the day, such as Adrienne Lecouvreur and East Lynne (which she disdainfully calls Beast Lynne).

As her fame grows, Maryna is given a private train to travel in, and crosses America. Some of Sontag's detail may have been taken from the historical record; but most of it must have been invented, and it has the high zest of invention on it like a sheen. In Jacksonville, a man presents her with two lime-green baby alligators, and her manager immediately converts the place of donation to New Orleans, because it sounds more glamorous. In Fort Wayne, an obese man wearing a yellow wig gives her a dog. He has already “pressed on her a bronze statuette of Hiawatha, the collected speeches of Ulysses S. Grant, and a music box, set on a nearby table and repeatedly wound up to unwind ‘Carnival in Venice.’” In a curiously affecting scene, one admirer writes her a poem after her performance; and the last couplet, “Keep Polish memories in your heart alone, / America now claims you for her own,” makes her weep. Soaps and scents named after her are being sold. Her only rival is Sarah Bernhardt.

The novel ends where, in a sense, it began, with Maryna occupying the only home she knows, the only one she is unnostalgic about: the theater. The book shuttles between homelessnesses. Being Polish, these men and women were already nostalgic for their country even while living in it. Maryna suspects that they are now suffering not only from nostalgia, but also from “a new illness, the inability to become attached to anything.” In a way, the novel combines old nostalgia and new homelessness; these are the epochs that it moves between, for one might say that these characters are nostalgic for what they cannot be attached to anyway. And this means that they are out of place in America, too, because the America that Sontag portrays is a country of brutal, adhesive immigration. Yet these educated, upper-class, artistic Poles are emigrants rather than immigrants, and thus somehow both lost and found in America. And so Ryszard and Maryna exist most fully in their respective arts, the novel and the theater, and America becomes both a novel and a theater—for them, and, designedly, for the reader of this book.

For Sontag's other area of intellectual exploration is that of theatrical illusion. Here she braves didacticism, even un-originality. After all, there is not much new to say about masks and the diabolical flexibility of the actor. Yet Sontag novelistically grounds her discussion in the concrete, and in the arrogantly anxious bosom of her heroine. Maryna is an intensely nineteenth-century creation, after all. Though she has played Schiller and Shakespeare, her most popular roles are watery melodramas, in which the very air of the theater is dropleted with the audience's cheap tears, and at the end of which the adulterous heroine must make sacrificial expiration.

Maryna is expert at these dying falls, practically a mortician of the melodramatic. As such, she is a luridly expressive actress, accustomed to the raucous support of her adoring Polish audiences. She is torn between a cold professionalism, in which, in the classic theatrical way, she is simply a soul for hire, ready to inhabit any emotion; and a Romantic authenticity, in which she exhaustingly undergoes the same emotions that she plays on stage. She argues, early in the novel, that acting ought to be about “not feeling,” and longs to be more restrained in her playing. Yet her heart vibrates with the language of Shakespeare, and it is clear that, in an equally classic theatrical manner, she has become her roles.

The novel wisely does not seek to adjudicate between these rival approaches, but lets them lie complicatedly in the same woman. Is the theater, then, an art of easy falsity, or is it a difficult, self-expressive form, worthy of taking its place with the other mimetic arts, such as writing and painting? I take Sontag to be nudging us to such a question, and perhaps finally to be suggesting that of course the theater is both falsity and authenticity, for mimesis is never innocent.

Certainly, Maryna does not attempt to reconcile these attitudes, and we are grateful for it. In a striking scene, Sontag dramatizes what might have been presented essayistically: the inevitable corruption of mimesis. Maryna, surrounded by her American actors, begins to speak, lyrically and expressively, some words of Polish. They are perhaps a hymn or a recitation, perhaps a poem. She finishes, and her colleagues express their delight. Then Maryna tells them that she has simply been reciting the Polish alphabet. She has been acting meaningless letters, and has almost brought her audience to tears.

This, presumably, is what Horace meant when he asked, rhetorically, “do good poems come by nature, or by art?” The same question might be asked of good novels, such as this one. One suspects that Sontag wants us to ask such a question, wants us to use the dilemma of theater's mimesis as a way of reflecting on the dilemma of the historical novel's relation to reality. For her book is both Romantically expressive and artfully sly; it is unconscious and self-conscious in equal measure. If this is the only possible way to write historical fiction in a postmodern time, then Sontag has magnificently managed to make it look like freedom rather than determination. It is certainly an achievement; but surely fiction has more primary duties than the recovery (even the enraptured recovery) of the past, and I wish that Sontag would release herself into the wide and even more unsettled straits of the palpable present-intimate.

Carl Rollyson (review date April 2000)

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SOURCE: Rollyson, Carl. “The Will & the Way.” New Criterion 18, no. 8 (April 2000): 80-2.

[In the following review, Rollyson judges Sontag's In America as a trite, underdeveloped historical novel.]

In America begins with an epigraph from Langston Hughes: “America will be!” It is a fitting start to the story of a group of Poles who travel to Anaheim, California in 1876 to establish a utopian community. Their leader is Maryna Zaleska, Poland's greatest actress, who has forsaken her career in order to establish a farming commune. She is aware of the likelihood of failure, but the romance of starting anew, the challenge of succeeding where communities such as Brook Farm failed, is too enticing not to pursue. She takes with her a devoted husband, Bogdan; a young son, Piotr; and a young writer, Ryszard, who aspires to win her love.

In a note on the copyright page, Sontag explains that her novel was inspired by the career of Helena Modrzejewska, Poland's renowned actress, who did indeed emigrate to America in 1876 and settle in Anaheim with her husband Count Karol Chapowski; Rudolf, their fifteen-year-old son; Henryk Sienkiewicz, the future Nobel-Prize-winning writer; and a group of friends. Sontag insists on the word “inspired,” since she does not follow the historical record too closely. She has allowed herself, she emphasizes, the freedom to invent.

Thus the journey to the new world and the making of a new community are yoked to Sontag's effort to create a new story out of the material of history. I insist on the word “effort” because in the novel's preface, “Zero,” Sontag explores her personal relationship to her characters. She fancies herself a Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Custom House telling his readers how he acquired the scarlet letter.

Sontag once said to Pete Hamill that she would not be able to write a detective novel unless she could first invent the writer writing the story. “Zero” tells us who the writer of In America is. Sontag rehearses a good deal from the interviews she has given over the past thirty years: she grew up in Arizona and California wanting to be, like Marie Curie, a great scientist and humanitarian; her grandparents came from Poland; at eighteen she read Middlemarch and “burst into tears because I realized not only that I was Dorothea but that, a few months earlier, I had married Mr. Casaubon” (i.e., Philip Rieff). She has been to Sarajevo (the novel is dedicated to “my friends in Sarajevo”), and thinks of the Poles she overhears talking in a room (she has been magically transported to the past) as precursors of her beloved Bosnians—like the Poles, suffering occupation and partition.

The Sontag narrator of “Zero” appears only once in the novel—and then very briefly. What, then, is the point of “Zero”? It portends some grand link between past and present, author and material that the novel itself never delivers. “Zero” is important only because it is written in Susan Sontag's own voice, and Susan Sontag must be noticed as the writer. In her interviews (conveniently collected in Conversations with Susan Sontag), she is at pains to explain that she became a writer not to express herself, but to contribute to the body of great literature. To be recognized as a writer means more to her than what she writes. Style predominates over content—to apply the terms of her famous essay, “Against Interpretation,” to herself.

Therein lies the problem. Sontag has never come to ground. She dreams of herself as a writer just as she dreams of an America that will be. The America that is has rarely appealed to her, and has usually merited her disapproval. In her essays, she has dismissed most of American fiction, and her comments on American history are about as superficial and ill-informed as those of any writer who has achieved her prominence.

It is very American to think of oneself as being in a constant state of becoming. But to soar one needs a firm launchpad, and Sontag has never been able to see herself or her native land in terms concrete enough to create palpable fiction. In the essay form, her abstract longing for becoming has a certain flair and speaks to a yearning that readers, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, find appealing. The very idea of a “new sensibility”—as she called it in her first book of essays, Against Interpretation (1966)—had a rousing sound to it. Having been there before, however, and with no startling new Sontag work to exemplify the new sensibility, “Zero” lands with a thud.

Reviews of Sontag's fiction often speak of a willed enterprise. She takes her cue from the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran, who advocates a spiritual strenuousness that requires us to “sever our roots” and become “metaphysically foreigners.” Her essay on Cioran perfectly captures her own willed existence. In it, she embraces a thinker who counsels extrication from the world and from domestic commitments in order to experience life as “a series of situations” that leaves the consciousness free to explore its own labyrinth. What Sontag loves most about Cioran is his elevation of the “will and its capacity to transform the world.”

Not surprisingly, then, In America evokes the “power of the will.” While acknowledging her utopian tendencies and her doubts that she will prevail in America, Maryna declares, “I must and I will!” She is reminiscent of the earlier Sontag who weighed the risks of idealizing North Vietnam but then insisted the country deserved to be idealized! Maryna writes to a Polish friend that with a “strong enough will one can surmount any obstacle.” America, Maryna concludes, is a “whole country of people who believe in the will.”

In America fails because so much of it is declaiming without dramatizing. Even Sontag's fabled talent for epigram eludes her here: “passion is a beautiful thing, and so is understanding, the coming to understand something, which is a passion, which is a journey, too.” Banal expressions make the novel a bore.

Only rarely does a character or a scene catch fire, as with Angus Barton, the theater impresario, who auditions Maryna when she decides to forsake her utopia for a career on the American stage. Henry James enters the narrative for a few pages, and Sontag does a nice parody of his style. But her effort to close the novel, as she did The Volcano Lover, with a dramatic monologue is inept, even though the speaker is Edwin Booth. We are invited to measure his anguished, if successful, career against Maryna's faith in the American promise of a new life, but the effort falls flat.

The biggest disappointment is Maryna herself. Sontag mentions in “Zero” how taken she is with divas. She even describes a scene she witnessed between Maria Callas and Rudolf Bing that occurred just as Sontag herself was beginning to establish a reputation in New York. But we learn little from Maryna or from the other characters about what it means to be a diva. Divahood, seemingly, would once have made an ideal subject for a Sontag essay, but she no longer seems willing to exercise the discipline demanded by the genre.

Sontag told a Polish interviewer in Warsaw last year that she had always wanted to write a novel about an actress. Sontag emphasized that she knew a lot about acting, having been in productions Mike Nichols staged at the University of Chicago. But her Maryna, rather like Sontag herself, takes refuge in the aesthetics of silence. Maryna does chatter on about her hopes for America, her attitude toward her husband, son, and lover, and about all manner of subjects—except the one that would engage readers. What does it feel like to be a diva? Her silence abut this matter, like Sontag's, seems almost perverse.

Although Sontag says she felt free to invent in her new novel, much of In America reads like a diligently researched report, replete with quaint passages about what America was like in nineteenth-century New York and the Western United States. Popular novelists like Caleb Carr have done a much better job with similar material, and it is hard to see why Sontag bothered. Without a driving plot, the historical background only makes a static novel more static.

In The Scarlet Letter, the introductory Custom House section succeeds because Hawthorne takes on the burden of the past, establishing his link to the seventeenth century even as he would like, in some ways, to shed its influence. The past was unquestionably an ineluctable part of the novelist and his novel. History was palpable, and it suffused both his style and content. Sontag writes like an exile who believes she can through sheer force of will conjure up the past. The reader soon tires of the novelist as eavesdropper, one who never commits herself to her characters, who in fact seems to feel superior to her creations, since, after all, they are only products of her will.

Diana Postlewaite (review date June 2000)

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SOURCE: Postlewaite, Diana. “Scene Stealer.” Women's Review of Books 17, no. 9 (June 2000): 5-6.

[In the following review, Postlewaite maintains that In America is not only a superbly written historical novel, but that Sontag's characterization of protagonist Maryna provides insight into Sontag's mind and personality.]

In 1992, critics were surprised and readers delighted when Susan Sontag, formidable essayist of the au courant, published The Volcano Lover, a romantic historical fiction set in late eighteenth-century Naples. And now she's done it again: a nineteenth-century tale based on the true story of Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, who emigrated to a farming commune in Anaheim, California, in 1876 and subsequently became a darling of the American stage.

Sontagians have made much of this writer's later-life new beginnings, her protean self-reinvention (qualities she shares with the heroine of her latest fiction). But Susan Sontag's avant-garde postmodernism and her old-guard historicism, her fierce intellectualism and her equally fiery romanticism, were there all along, inverted images of one another—photograph and negative, to use a metaphor from an art form which continues to fascinate her.

If Sontag was a prophet, she's always been a historian, too. Re-read today, her famous 1964 essay “On ‘Camp’” from Against Interpretation offers an uncanny prevision of the retro-crazed, sensibility-in-cheek way we live now. Sontag got famous writing about “The Way We Live Now” (her short story by that title was recently chosen for The Best American Short Stories of the Century); but it's worth noting she borrowed that title from a classic novel by Anthony Trollope. Even as she denominated “the canon of Camp,” from Cuban pop singers to old Flash Gordon comics, she was reminding us of the “pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness.” George Eliot's Middlemarch made it onto Sontag's “high culture” list back in 1964, and it pops up again in Chapter Zero of In America, wherein our narrator (manifestly Susan Sontag herself) engages in some “alert eavesdropping” on her heroine-to be: “If I thought of Maryna as a character in a novel, I would have liked her to have something of Dorothea Brooke (I remember when I first read Middlemarch. I had just turned eighteen, and a third of the way through the book burst into tears because I realized not only that I was Dorothea, but that, a few months earlier, I had married Mr. Casaubon).” No doubt we are to read this as a reference to Sontag's youthful marriage to academician Phillip Rieff.

Poor old Henry James (glimpsed at a dinner-party walk-on in In America as a “fattish, wordy, manifestly brilliant man”) was relegated to the corridors of Camp back in 1964 for his “quality of excruciation.” Nonetheless, James' eyewitness description of George Eliot came to mind as I read In America: “Her manner is extremely good though rather too intense and her speech, in the way of accent and syntax peculiarly agreeable. Altogether, she has a larger circumference than any woman I have ever seen.”1 He could be describing Susan Sontag.

In America, fourteen Polish emigrés pose for a group photograph by Mrs. Eliza Withington, Photographic Artist extraordinaire (“Secure the shadow 'ere the substance fade,” her card reads). At their center, poised on the brink of the modern age and “the far edge of … the American sublime,” stands the charismatic actress Maryna Zalezowska, who has left behind stardom at Warsaw's Imperial Theater to join a utopian commune at the western border of the national experiment. “Picture-taking transported everyone into the future,” Sontag writes of her little band of European adventurers, “when their more youthful selves would be only a memory. The photograph was evidence … that they were really here, pursuing their valiant new life; to themselves, one day, it would be a relic of that life at its hard, rude beginning or, should their venture not succeed … of what they had attempted.”

Photographs and historical novels, literary snapshots of the past, have something in common. “To take a photograph,” Sontag wrote in 1977 in On Photography, “is to participate in … mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.” But a photograph is also a treasured “relic,” a testimony to the human spirit, that which those who came before us valiantly attempted.

Shortly after Mrs. Withington freezes that moment, the commune disbands: some return to Poland, others seek their fortunes in America. “Time's relentless melt” haunts the pages of In America. Our heroine, fashioning yet another “new self,” returns triumphantly to the stage, touring the western states under a new name, “Marina Zaleska.” That's the novel's fairy-tale plot in a nutshell: idealistic agrarian isolata reinvents herself as imperial, media-darling diva.

But “with this story you feel you can tell many stories,” the narrator of Chapter Zero tells her readers. This wonder-full, unapologetically overreaching and unabashedly exuberant novel tells us stories about (among other things): the idea of “America”; the actor's art; the Old World versus the New; the earnest sensibilities of the nineteenth century and the self-conscious sensibilities of intellectuals in every century; the birth of the modern; self-transformation; history, memory and mutability; and—above all—the splendid prerogatives of diva-dom.

“Authority, idiosyncrasy, velvetiness—these are what make a star. And an unforgettable voice.” Not since George Eliot's Princess Halm-Eberstein, the Jewish birth-mother of Daniel Deronda, has there been a more fascinating, egomaniacal nineteenth-century fictional actress than Maryna Zalezowska. “This woman's nature was one in which all feeling … immediately became a matter of conscious representation: experience immediately passed into drama, and she acted her own emotions,” Eliot wrote of her histrionic heroine—words which perfectly describe Maryna. But in 1876, George Eliot was profoundly (or at least publicly) ambivalent about a woman who placed her art above motherhood and religion: “I am not a monster, but I have not felt exactly what other women feel—or say they feel, for being thought unlike others,” the Princess tells her long-lost son—just before revealing her fatal illness.

No such guilt or retributive health problems for Sontag's Polish stage-princess, “vibrant,” “fluent” and “agile”—whose story also happens to begin in 1876, the same year as Deronda's. “I need ordeals, challenges, mystery. I need to feel not at home. That's what makes me strong,” Maryna freely confesses. Maryna has a young son, Piotr, with no father in sight, but motherhood doesn't cramp her style. She also has the three men in her life every woman needs: a (rich) husband, a (romantic) lover and a (wise) friend. Wealthy husband Bogdan, estranged from his aristocratic Polish family, is latently homosexual, openly adoring of Maryna's every flamboyant move and calmly accepting of lovers and absences (“Bogdan brought support; Bogdan brought harmony”). Ryszard, novelist and Don Juan, follows Maryna to America and gets his reward (“quick bruising kisses”) after the star takes eleven curtain calls on her triumphant American opening night (“I can give you my heart, Ryszard. But I can't give you my life”). To complete the triumvirate, there's Henryk, an urbane doctor straight out of a Chekhov play, who remains in Poland to give Maryna an outlet for epistolary musings.

This isn't the first time Susan Sontag has placed a divine diva center stage in a historical novel. Emma Hamilton, heroine of The Volcano Lover, notoriously unfaithful wife of the British Ambassador to Naples and paramour of British naval hero Horatio Nelson, was famous in her day for her striking “living statues” of famous historical/mythological figures. “Once she was in possession of the subject, came the challenging part—finding the … moment that represents meaning, that sums up the essence of a character, a story, an emotion. It was the same hard choice painters [and novelists, too, I would add] were supposed to make.” Like Maryna, Emma isn't just an artist, she's a star. Although Emma's life ends in poverty and decrepitude, she comes back from her grave at the end of The Volcano Lover to address us directly: “there was some magic about me. … I had [something] that was more inclusive [than talent, intelligence, and beauty], that compelled attention, like a ring of light.”

Sontag has said repeatedly that she'll never write her memoirs. They'd be a bestseller, of course: from being buddies with Mike Nichols at the University of Chicago in the 1950s to dodging bombs in Sarajevo in the 1990s, Sontag has, like her fictional heroines, toured widely. But to read In America is to know more than you could ever have hoped to learn about Susan Sontag: to tour not her life, but her brain. “We're always talking about ourselves when we talk of anything else,” Maryna tells her husband.

The cover of In America presents a vintage photograph of an elaborately-coiffured nineteenth-century woman—her back, startlingly, to the camera. In what direction is this faceless woman gazing: backwards, or forwards? “Like many writers,” Sontag writes of her novel's novelist, “Ryszard did not really believe in the present, but only in the past and in the future.” Like the photograph, the novel is, paradoxically, a memento mori that lives on. “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,” writes George Eliot in Middlemarch's “Finale.” And the final line of In America? “We have a long tour ahead of us.”


  1. Henry James, letter to his father, 10 May 1869; quoted in Gordon Haight, George Eliot (Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 417.

Sven Birkerts (review date October 2000)

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SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 88, no. 4 (October 2000): 158-62.

[In the following review, Birkerts contends that In America lacks dramatic tension and character plausibility.]

“In place of a hermeneutics,” wrote Susan Sontag in 1964 at the conclusion of her essay “Against Interpretation,” “we need an erotics of art.” It may have been the first arresting formulation in what has become a venerable career of pronouncements and instigatory postures, not to mention achieved works of prose in diverse genres. Through it all—and because of it all—Sontag has made herself into one of our very few brand-name intellectuals. She is striking, memorable, the bearer of the standard of high seriousness in a culture that has essentially capitulated to the easy lifting of the ironic mode or the ready clasp of pure entertainment.

This early pronouncement serves us as an immediate point of departure, not least because of the utterly grating contradiction between message and manner. It is as intellectualized a plea for getting past the intellectualizing reflex as one could imagine. And somewhere in its lumbering insistence I catch a hint of what has irritated and frustrated me about Sontag's most recent novel, In America.

Although it is true that Sontag's plea for an erotics of art was directed not at the novelist—or artist—but at the critic, the fact is that Sontag has for many years now been trying to refashion herself from critic-intellectual into something more like artist-creator, a private battle (or evolution) that in many ways wants to enact the displacement of the hermeneutic by the erotic. But as the apothegm cannot unbend itself—get funky or erotic—neither in the largest sense can its author. In America, though it shows us how much can be achieved by the energized and purposeful will, also shows us exactly the limits of a fiction filtered through intellect that nevertheless refuses to become a fiction of ideas.

First erotics, then hermeneutics. In America, as anyone who has perused any of the myriad reviews knows, is a novel loosely premised on the real-life story of Polish stage actress Helena Modrzejewska, who, with her husband, son, and writer-friend Henryk Sienkiewicz, moved to America in the 1870s to remake her life. Sontag's protagonist, Maryna Zalezowska, is the very prototype of the successful, temperamental performer. Think of Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve. Maryna, too, is proud, willful, forever angling her face in the available light, and maturely practiced in the arts of frontal and oblique emotional assault. She lives for her nightly bath of adoration, an occupational narcissism that thrusts the rest of her life—her stolid husband, Bogdan, and the impetuous if somewhat self-regarding writer-friend, Ryszard—into the shadowy areas at stage left and right.

But Maryna dreams of change, of rebirth, of something outside the pale of her by-now familiar success, and when she quits the national stage to sail to America, it is to settle—with believable improbability—in a commune in Anaheim, California. There are some socialist political ideals percolating in the background, but Sontag is plainly not interested in exploring these for themselves.

The immersion in rural self-sufficiency proves short-lived for Maryna. An actress of her caliber—and artistic will—cannot live long away from the footlights. Sontag has her thinking thus in her phase of reconsidering: “Happiness depended on not being trapped in your individual existence, a container with your name on it. You have to forget yourself, your container. You have to attach yourself to what takes you outside yourself, what stretches the world.” The counterpointing irony, of course, is that Maryna finds her roles—standard romantic leads—a perfect home for her inchoate longings and her grandiosity.

Before long, then, Maryna has hooked up with an enterprising impresario, has brushed up her roles, and is on her way to an American acting career as Marina Zalenska. She will achieve a triumph commensurate with the scale and appetites of her adopted land. Bogdan recedes, psychologically and literally, into the distance (he stays behind to tend his land), Ryszard breaks into the foreground briefly as an ardent lover—is taken up, dropped—and Maryna's son, well, he might as well not even exist.

Sontag ends the novel with Maryna in full career, spending an evening with the great American thespian—and grandiloquent drunk—Edwin Booth, who tries to articulate his feelings, his torments, but has become so grown together with his vocation that he cannot pry apart the suffering man and the posturing, self-dramatizing player. Maryna's final words in the book are: “Stop, Edwin.”

Given how much In America turns on the themes of dramatic impersonation and self-invention, there is surprisingly little drama or tension in the work itself. Indeed, so smoothly does Sontag render Maryna living her life in her historical moment, and with such studied-up rightness does she set out her mise-en-scène, the half-tamed American West, the rude whistlestop towns where Maryna travels to reprise her roles, that there is precious little for the reader to engage with—no nap or burr. What's more, the complexity of Maryna herself is so opaque, so finished, so closed off to any speculative entry, that the reader must watch her move as upon a stage of her own devising. The whole thing is so artfully done, so combed into place. And in the absence of any sustained emotional conflict—there are only local weather patterns, situational storms (Maryna and Bogdan, Maryna and Ryszard)—we meet with nothing that can destroy, or even rupture, the closed circle of her self-regard. We are neither moved nor provoked by anything that happens, really. What Maryna said to Booth, we want to say, more stridently, to our heroine. Stop. Stop being so cunningly and coquettishly yourself all the time, with such wan regrets and ineffectual countermanding impulses. Bend, break, change, grow, do something besides strutting the boards and drinking the mead of inevitable applause. Young America slides by beautifully outside the windows of your personal railroad car, but it is not enough to hold us.

Because Sontag is such a reflective and self-conscious artist, the problem with In America runs deeper than a mere failure to dramatize her material. There is a flaw in the very conception, one that takes us back, I believe, to the author's willed determination to transform herself from intellectual to creator. Simply, she has tried but has not been able to go far enough; she has not killed off the gnawing worm, the consciousness that is so fatal—not to the novel necessarily, but to the kind of novel that Sontag seems to have aspired to write.

The opening chapter—“Zero”—is, in this sense, a giveaway. Here Sontag ventures the risky postmodern move of inserting herself into the period and place, enacting, in effect, how it is that a novelist's imagination comes to possess its subject. “Irresolute, no, shivering, I'd crashed a party in the private dining room of a hotel.” So she begins. Moving through the room, ghost from the future come back to haunt the past, she studies the people, searching for her characters. Then she spots the woman she wants:

No longer in her first youth, as people then said of an attractive woman past thirty, of medium height, straight-spined, with a pile of ash-blond hair into which she nervously tucked a few escaping strands, she was not exceptionally beautiful. But she became more compelling the longer I watched her. She could be, she must be, the woman they were discussing. When she moved about the room, she was always surrounded; when she spoke she was always listened to. It seemed to me I'd caught her name, it was either Helena or Maryna—and supposing it would help me to decipher the story if I could identify the couple or the trio, what better start than to give them names. I decided to think of her as Maryna.

The gambit is intriguing, and sustained with subtle care for pages. Sontag gives body, motion, and growing particularity to what are finally figments of imagination. And how concisely she dramatizes the opportunistic motions of inspiration. But in thus intruding herself, she also begins to undermine the whole ensuing enterprise. For with this bit of sketching, these revealed flights of the modeling fancy—which compel us and draw us in—she effectively fills the gap we require in order to suspend our readerly disbelief. At a stroke, Sontag breaches the conventions of the stage, which the novel is otherwise so keen to memorialize, spilling the action into the aisles and compromising the illusionism by suggesting real-life personalities behind the assumed roles.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that this breach of artifice—itself, as suggested, a postmodern artifice—cannot or ought not be attempted. Milan Kundera, for one, makes similar gestures all the time to brilliant effect. But Kundera does so in the service of the novel of ideas, a cause he has argued for persuasively in The Art of the Novel and elsewhere. Sontag, by contrast, in her project of self-remaking, not only has turned away from the procedures of critical intellect but seems bent on not writing a novel of ideas. She has almost perversely deprived herself of the resource of her powerful idea-making faculty, which, freed to the task, might have compensated for what feels to the reader like a considerable dramatic shortfall. If we can't get a real erotics (and true drama is erotic), we could be won over by something a bit more hermeneutic. As it is we're in a neither-nor situation.

Michael Wood (review date summer 2001)

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SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Susan Sontag and the American Will.” Raritan 21, no. 1 (summer 2001): 141-47.

[In the following review, Wood analyzes the depiction of self-determination in In America, noting that many of Sontag's theories on society, American culture, and human will are apparent in the novel.]

For Roland Barthes photographs were announcements of mortality, “imperious signs” of future death. The characters in Susan Sontag's new novel feel the same but at the moment of being photographed, not when they contemplate the result. And what dies for them is not a self but a project, a hope. In the very act of photography, one character writes—we are in California in 1876—there is “a kind of foreboding. Or regret—as if we were taking the first step toward accepting the eventual failure of our colony, by making sure that we would have in our possession an image of what we are now.” A few pages earlier another character thinks of a photograph as both “evidence” and “a relic”; proof for the future that the present will have existed. Why would they need proof? Why wouldn't memory and their senses be enough? One answer is that these characters are “in America,” as the title of the novel says, in a place so prone to hope that time and reality seem to be effects of the will rather than material measurements or resistances. The photograph doesn't create this mythology or the concurrent anxiety about it, but it does crystallize the perception, display its secret kinship with defeat and melancholy.

In America is a historical novel which is also a subtle and complex meditation on America as the land of the will. More precisely, as a land where the will is not so much a presence or a force as the object of a collective act of faith, “a whole country of people who believe in the will,” as the central character suggests. The same character, a page or so later, recognizes “the old American tune, which conflates willing strenuously and taking for granted.” The singer of the tune in this case is Henry James, imagining he is more English than he is, taking himself for English because that is what he wants to be. “Henry James was very American after all,” our heroine concludes. “He'd contrived to have at his disposal a vast allotment of willing.”

Who is this expert on the American will? She is a Polish actress, and it's important to remember that this novel is mainly peopled by Europeans, and that virtually all of its many fine reflections on the idea of America come from them. It's also important to remember that the expert on the Polish actress and on the European view of America is an American novelist, Sontag herself, fully present in this text as an imagining and reimagining mind. America is not a fantasy or an illusion in such a framework, but it is doubly dreamed as well as geographically real. It's a European idea, as its name suggests; but not only a European idea. There are Americans who have forgotten Europe, and there are Americans who never knew it. And there are Americans, Sontag's intricate fiction suggests, who need to keep starting out again from Europe in order to arrive in their own history and their own present time.

The novel begins “Irresolute, no, shivering, I'd crashed a party in the private dining room of a hotel.” The party is taking place in Warsaw in 1876, but the gate-crasher already knows about Maria Callas and 1960s New York and the “besieged Sarajevo” of our day. She doesn't understand Polish (“I was in a country I'd visited only once, thirteen years ago”), but she picks up scraps of meaning from the conversations she hears, and she tells us something about herself. “For it should be mentioned, why not here, that all four of my grandparents were born in this country (hence, born in a country that had ceased to exist some eighty years earlier), indeed, born around the very year to which I'd traveled in my mind in order to co-inhabit this room with its old-timey conversations, though the couple that engendered me were quite unlike these people, being poor unworldly villagers with occupations like peddler, innkeeper, woodcutter, Talmud student.” The narrator also tells us that she has “tried conjuring up a hotel dining room from the same era in Sarajevo, and failed,” and more intimately that she first read Middlemarch at the age of eighteen and cried “because I realized not only that I was Dorothea but that, a few months earlier, I had married Mr. Casaubon.”

Our narrator clearly much resembles our novelist, but we should pause over the careful descriptions of her activities. She travels in her mind, she tries to conjure up. “These people” are not her people, they are Polish aristocrats and artists and intellectuals, and there is a difference between a mental journey to a remembered place and the same journey to an imagined place, and still another difference between either of those trips and a journey to a place which is both actual and imagined, both documentable and dreamed. I hear the voice of Salman Rushdie reminding us (in Midnight's Children) that “reality can have a metaphorical content,” and Sontag's narrator comments shrewdly and elegiacally on the same topic:

The past is the biggest country of all, and there's a reason one gives in to the desire to set stories in the past: almost everything good seems to be located in the past, perhaps that's an illusion, but I feel nostalgic for every era before I was born; and one is freer of modern inhibitions, perhaps because one bears no responsibility for the past, sometimes I feel simply ashamed of the time in which I live. And this past will also be the present, because it was I in the private dining room of the hotel, scattering seeds of prediction. I did not belong there, I was an alien presence … but even what I misunderstood would be a kind of truth, if only about the time in which I live.

The compelling truth here seems to be the felt shame of the present. The innocence of the past is perhaps not entirely an invention but it is inseparable now from the fallen time it precedes and rebukes. What speaks in a nostalgia “for every era before I was born” is not the historical imagination but a lyrical scorn for the writer's own day.

But the historical imagination is at work here too. The well-known historical events of the period are alluded to very discreetly. There is an American financial panic “of three years ago”; there is the “ignominious defeat” of General Custer “early this summer.” And there is the less recent assassination of President Lincoln “by a deranged actor, as you'll recall.” The deranged actor is the younger brother of a more famous actor, Edwin Booth, who is given a long soliloquy (a conversation in the form of a brilliant monologue) at the close of the novel, which rests in all its major details on further historical events which are not exactly unknown. The Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, her name later shortened to Modjeska, emigrated to America in the late nineteenth century, founded a utopian colony in California, and became the age's most famous stage diva, rivaled only by Sarah Bernhardt. She was accompanied to America by her husband and her son and her friend and lover the writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, later to become known as the author of Quo Vadis. Sontag's novel is “inspired by” these travels and these figures, she says, “no less and no more.” The historical Modjeska becomes the fictional Maryna Zalezowska, shortened to Zalenska; her husband, the count, is Bogdan; her son is Piotr; Sienkiewicz is Ryszard. We even watch the writer handing out these names—“yes, I know it could have been Helena, but I'd decided that it would be, or must be, Maryna,” “I ruled that he could not be a Karol, that I had misheard his name, and gave myself permission to rechristen him Bogdan.” The point, I take it, is not only to express the liberty of fiction to rework and complement history, but to remind us of fiction's haunting by history, the substantive, continuing existence of what is there to be reworked.

In America takes us from Zalenska's Warsaw to her rural retreat in the Tatra mountains; follows the outriders of her community across the Atlantic as they explore possibilities for settlement in America, and decide on Anaheim in California; traces Maryna's own travels from Hoboken through the Panama Canal; describes the start-up and ongoing life and abrupt failure of the community; and chronicles in rich detail Maryna's return to the stage, including a visit to Poland and a tour in England, complete with conversation with Henry James. The last sentences of the book record Edwin Booth's hatred of improvisation, and strike the same complicated note about history and reality and their alternatives. “An actor can't just make it up,” Booth says to Maryna. “Shall we promise each other, here and now, always to tell first when we're going to do something new? We have a long tour ahead of us.” They may be actors and have a long tour ahead of them, but they are also versions of the historical novelist. They will do something new, but they won't just make it up.

Maryna didn't want to feel like a child, even as a child, and certainly not when she was an adult. “It was partly so as not to feel like a child, ever, that she had become an actress.” To be a child, in this perspective, is to be vulnerable, prey to parents and memory and your old submissive habits. An actress, in the same perspective, is something like an American as the novel thinks of this brave creature, an instance of perpetual self-invention. And to become an American actress, having been a Polish one, is to carry the sense of an always renewable world to extreme lengths. To be an American, Ryszard thinks at the beginning of his voyage, is “to be free to think yourself something you're not (not yet), something better than what you are.” Bogdan writes in his journal: “In Poland I thought that I was what I had to be. America means one can strive with fate.”

This is very traditional, and familiar, and a long way from the bitterly negative America Sontag evokes in Styles of Radical Will and elsewhere. But the ideology has its cracks. Would the equation of actress and America mean that America never felt like a child, however much its inhabitants might boast of their innocence and claim to think like children? Even America, Ryszard thinks, “has its America.” If Poles dream of New York, New Yorkers dream of California. The deferral of the dream evokes Langston Hughes, and sure enough, there he is, in the epigraph to the whole novel: “America will be!” That sounds positive enough, but gets a little gloomy if the future is always somewhere else, and gloomier still if the “will” in that sentence expresses effort or even desperation as well as tomorrow's tense. “America is supposed to repair the European scale of injury,” Bogdan writes, “or simply make one forget what one wanted, to substitute other desires.” The supposed repair seems a little remote, and just forgetting what one wanted isn't the most dynamic form of the American dream. “In America,” Bogdan writes again, thinking now of the faltering utopian community, “everything is supposed to be possible. And everything is possible here, abetted by the American inventiveness and the American talent for desecration. America lived up to its part of the bargain. The fault, the failure, is ours.” What happens is different from what's possible, in America or anywhere else, and the very idea of possibility can become a reproach, a source of shame about the actual.

“Every marriage,” Maryna thinks, “every community is a failed utopia. Utopia is not a kind of place but a kind of time, those all too brief moments when one would not wish to be anywhere else.” This is not just European pessimism, or a Polish taste for martyrdom, which are amply celebrated and mocked within the novel. It is an evocation of America as neither repair for injury nor substitution of desire nor sheer bland possibility but as something that can be constantly sought but scarcely ever found. Early in the novel Maryna believes firmly in “the power of the will,” in what she calls the “utopian” idea “that everything we wish can be obtained,” and she achieves a considerable amount of success in this vein. But she realizes that charm and persistence and charisma are not the same as wishing, and begins to think that will is “just another name for desire.” In other words, there are two very different kinds of will to be invoked. One is the planning, originating desire, the one that seeks and finds means for its fulfillment. This is what gets Europeans to America, and gets anyone, Europeans or Americans, to achieve anything at all. Then there is the other, lonelier, powerless evocation of the will, which represents lingering desire without any hope or means of fulfillment, since all we have is the willing itself, supposed to be capable of magically turning thought into action, of unilaterally taking the place of all the now broken instruments of desire.

When Americans conflate “willing strenuously with taking for granted,” they are using the second kind of willing to disguise the absence or failure of the first. And when they are said to “believe in the will,” both senses of the word are in play. Americans believe in wanting things and getting things, Sontag is suggesting, but they are not sure how much they have to do beyond the wanting. Ryszard is described as “one of those extremely intelligent people who become writers because they cannot imagine a better use of their watchfulness,” and the narrator says something very similar about herself and her notion “that steadfastness and caring more than the others about what was important would take me wherever I wanted to go.” “I thought if I listened and watched and ruminated, taking as much time as I needed, I could understand the people in this room, that theirs would be a story that would speak to me.”

Watchers see all kinds of sights, of course, but in this novel they register two things above all. First, America is a place infiltrated with ideas which keep threatening to take it out of place, and out of time, although it can't finally escape history's clutches. Second, the will is a fiction which moves many facts around, which can't be ignored and can't be believed in. The watcher finds these insights in the large country of the past, but the territory is easier to enter than to bring up to date. “I don't consider devotion to the past a form of snobbery,” one of the characters says in a story in Sontag's I, etcetera. “Just one of the more disastrous forms of unrequited love.” In America displays the same unrequited love, but converts it into utopia, the place we can't go beyond and don't wish to leave. The vision is alluring, and Sontag is suggesting we need both to understand its appeal and to shake it off. It is not a style of radical will but rather the reverse: a longing for a historical time when wishing was an option, and for the fantasy time when wishing was enough.

Scott McLemee (review date 16 September 2001)

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SOURCE: McLemee, Scott. “Notes from the Pedestal.” Washington Post Book World (16 September 2001): 9.

[In the following review, McLemee expresses his disappointment with the essays in Where the Stress Falls, finding Sontag's approach egotistical and clichéd, and asserting the writing lacks the biting observations of her earlier writings.]

Anyone who admires the work of Susan Sontag can only greet the publication of a new volume of her essays with mixed emotions, a blend of hope and worry. Her last collection appeared in 1980. That same year, she told an interviewer in Poland that there were no really great writers in America but that the country did have “ten extremely good prose writers, of which,” she helpfully noted, “I am one.” During this same period she began announcing that she would henceforth spend less time writing criticism, in order to concentrate on fiction—a promise she has, unfortunately, kept.

In other words, Where the Stress Falls was written during a period of Sontag's waning commitment to the work for which she has a real gift. Over the past 20 years, I have worn out a few copies of Against Interpretation (1966) and subsequent collections. The authority of that voice, the sensuousness of mind that it evoked, the intellectual restlessness and energy, the knack for the adamantine aphorism—these made for essays in an almost classical vein. In her best writing on literature, film and ideas, Sontag captures the intrinsic drama of moral and aesthetic questions.

But in Sontag's fiction, by contrast, mere will does the work of the imagination. At its worst, the effect is that of an unintentional parody of Borges, lacking the wit or grace of the original. With The Volcano Lover (1992), she overcame the narrative anemia of her previous novels through a transfusion of full-blooded historical drama. But this was temporary. Last year, In America recycled her bestselling formula (adulterous romance among sophisticated emigres in an exotic setting) while also revealing a formidable gift for the platitude. The book was sprinkled with dozens of passages in which her wandering band of Polish intellectuals ponder the American way of life as a ceaseless abolition of history, responsibility, complexity, etc. The line between profundity and triteness has seldom been drawn more finely.

Where the Stress Falls reprints more than 40 essays written while Sontag has been trying to reconfigure herself as novelist—or rather, perhaps, as Nobelist. (With her regular invocation of “the idea of literary greatness” and the frequent suggestion that she is among the last defenders of “seriousness,” she sounds as if she has her eyes on the prize.) The volume includes one of her very best essays, “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes” (1982), plus a half-dozen or so other pieces that bear up to more than one reading. As her own remarks over the years have indicated, rereading is indeed the test. A durable literary work cannot be exhausted the first time through; returning to it is a curious process of defamiliarization, of renegotiating an understanding with something you have already experienced.

A few of Sontag's essays from the past two decades can induce that experience. Most don't. Several essays written as prefaces to collections of photographs read like indifferent paraphrases of the densely textured argument of her book On Photography (1978). The items on dance and opera are pleasantly effusive, but not much else. Her comments on Robert Walser and Danilo Kis sent me scrambling to the library when she first published them years ago; they leave you wishing she would write critical essays on their work, instead of brief introductions.

A short item titled “DQ” is not, alas, about a visit to the Dairy Queen. Rather, it offers five paragraphs about Don Quixote that are both unexceptionable and remarkably uninteresting: She writes that “Cervantes's book is the very image of that glorious mise-en-abime which is literature, and of that fragile delirium that is authorship, its manic expressiveness.” The staleness of that thought has scarcely been forgotten when (two pages later, in an essay on Borges) she denies that reading is escapism: “Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.” A bold thought, to be sure—though nothing can quite compare to this one, in an essay on Adam Zagajewski: “From a great Polish writer we expect Slavic intensities.”

What gives? The early Sontag was ruthless about cultural clichés. Her favorite term of scorn was “philistine,” and her essays embodied, as she says about Barthes, “an ideology of taste which makes of the familiar something vulgar and facile.” Her manner now is virtually indistinguishable from that of George Steiner in his lugubrious moments as Last Intellectual, striking that solemn pose as embodiment of high seriousness—perched atop the Nintendo ruins of Western Civilization. Of course, this attitude can itself be something “familiar … vulgar and facile”—not to mention self-aggrandizing.

Eagerness to mount one's portable pedestal is a definite liability to a writer. For one thing, you can see only so much from that great height. Instead of writing and speaking to her fellow American citizens on behalf of military action against Serbian aggression in Bosnia, Sontag gave another well-rehearsed performance of her contempt for the people who would actually do the fighting. (She has never been shy about expressing her belief that the butt-ugly aesthetics of our mass society is no better than its inhabitants deserve.) Nor has her writing on the arts exactly benefited from her proclamation that she is ultimately responsible to “the republic of letters”—the self-selected cosmopolitan elite of self-regulating excellence. Her essays were better in the early '60s, when she was hanging around with the methamphetaminized drag queens and Eurotrash sponges at Andy Warhol's studio.

The habit of high disdain has its own rewards, of course. But the long-term effect, to judge by Where the Stress Falls, is ultimately impoverishing. At several points, Sontag evokes the idea that a great artist's goal is “wisdom.” That belief is honorable. But what about the belief that one is among the great? It seems the better part of wisdom to keep such thoughts to oneself.

Deborah L. Nelson (review date October 2001)

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SOURCE: Nelson, Deborah L. “Public Intellectual.” Women's Review of Books 19, no. 1 (October 2001): 4-6.

[In the following review, Nelson examines the changing tones amongst the essays collected in Where the Stress Falls.]

You showed that it was not necessary to be unhappy,” Susan Sontag writes in “A Letter to Borges,” “even while one is clear-eyed and undeluded about how terrible everything is.” Sontag's new collection of essays, Where the Stress Falls, drawn from her work of the past twenty years championing artists, art forms and causes, salvages tremendous comfort from acute disappointment. Her idiosyncratic moral aestheticism, which provokes the Left and the Right in this country, sets the terms for the collection, providing the grounds of her esteem for artists in a wide variety of media and her disillusionment with her fellow intellectuals. For the “barely closeted moralist,” as she describes the younger self that wrote Against Interpretation (and she has long since come out of this closet), it is a given that “there is no possibility of true culture without altruism.”

Where the Stress Falls is not a typical Sontag essay collection. First, it contains none of the extended sieges on an idea or form that make up Against Interpretation,Styles of Radical Will,On Photography,Illness as Metaphor and Under the Sign of Saturn. Instead, it offers forty essays parceled out under three headings—“Reading,” “Seeing” and “There and Here”—in just under 350 pages. These pieces are mostly brief, many as short as three pages, most under ten, and only two of roughly 25 pages: “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes” and “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo.” These two are among the most satisfying essays in the volume because Sontag has room to explore, detour and elaborate. Second, the vast majority of these essays—prefaces, introductions and program notes—originally addressed not a general audience but one made up of enthusiasts: those who attended a performance of Bunraku (Japanese puppetry) or a Wagner opera, or who bought a catalogue of painter Howard Hodgkin, a translation of a novel by W. G. Sebald, or a collection celebrating one hundred years of Italian photography.

It is the mark of Sontag's immense authority as a generalist that there is virtually no stylistic difference between an introduction to a new translation of Pedro Páramo and an exploration of the appeal of the grotto in House and Garden. All the same, the obligations of preface-or program-writing require Sontag to restrain the sweep and ambition that marked her most famous work in order to turn attention toward, not compete with, the artists she so fervently admires.

Attention is the coin of Sontag's realm and, sadly for the feminist reader, she rarely chooses to bestow it on women. Only three women artists receive consideration: Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, cultural critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick (to whom she dedicates the volume) and dancer/choreographer Lucinda Childs, the subject of “Lexicon for Available Light.” One wishes this were not so, not only because when she chooses to, Sontag writes thoughtfully about the stubborn asymmetries of gender. The author of the best essay on the position of women never anthologized, “The Third World of Women” from Partisan Review in 1973, Sontag has been extremely astute about feminist concerns. (That essay could have been written yesterday, it anticipates, so many of the later fractures within feminism.) But while never simple-minded about questions of gender, Sontag is no longer at the vanguard, as we can see in the smart but by no means groundbreaking introduction to Women, Annie Liebovitz's extraordinary collection of photographs. She seems to have as little interest in recent feminist thinking as contemporary feminists have had in her. That is, to my mind, regrettable for both.

Perhaps the fact that Sontag feels the injuries of her position as a woman is the reason she rarely elects to write about it. She seems to admire most in Elizabeth Hardwick her refusal to dwell on wounds to the self: “Not a breath of complaint (and there is much to complain of) …” One's own pain is simply never a tasteful or ethical subject of contemplation, taste being a form of ethics for Sontag. Women are not the only ones praised for this reticence. She respects poet Joseph Brodsky's ability to bear “[i]ntractable grief … with great indignation, great sobriety” as much as Hardwick's “[c[auterizing the torment of personal relations with hot lexical choices, jumpy punctuation, mercurial sentence rhythms.” Indeed, disciplined self-transcendence in form is a value extolled in everything from writing to dance (Childs, Lincoln Kirstein and Mikhail Baryshnikov) to painting (Hodgkin).

Gender simply isn't where the stress falls. But to speculate on why this might be violates the terms of reading that she lays out in “Singleness,” one of the essays in which she describes her relationship to her own writing. She warns strenuously against making assumptions about her person from either what she has chosen to write or what she hasn't: “I write what I can: that is, what's given to me and what seems worth writing, by me. I care passionately about many things that don't get into my fiction and essays … My books aren't me—all of me. And in some ways, I am less than them.” While Sontag is more willing to insert herself into some of these essays than one might expect, the entire collection is laced with caveats about autobiography, its capacity to conceal as well as reveal, and her dismay at the indefatigable self-exposure of so much contemporary writing. Autobiography can be a “wisdom project” but only when, like Adam Zagajewski's Another Beauty, it “purges [one] of vanity” or, like Roland Barthes' late work, it is “artfully anti-confessional.”

So where does the stress fall? What is it that absorbs her attention and draws forth her most passionate moral commitments and aesthetic appreciation? In the third of the volume's three sections, “There and Here,” we see a point of moral crisis that unifies the collection as a whole. This section includes essays Sontag wrote about her experiences in Sarajevo in the early 1990s; they deliver both a moving account of the Sarajevans' plight and a stinging rebuke to the European and American intellectual community.

If the intellectuals of the 1930s and 1960s often showed themselves too gullible, too prone to appeals to idealism to take in what was really happening in certain beleaguered, newly radicalized societies that they may or may not have visited (briefly), the morosely depoliticized intellectuals of today with their cynicism always at the ready, their addiction to entertainment, their reluctance to inconvenience themselves for any cause, their devotion to personal safety, seem at least equally deplorable.

(p. 328)

Beyond personal failure, she censures a more general collapse of international solidarity and attenuation of political engagement; this is a time, she concludes, when “[o]nly domestic political commitments seem plausible.” The provincialism and timidity excoriated in “There and Here” provide stark contrast to the heroism extolled in the essays of “Reading” and “Seeing.” The moral compass that US intellectuals have so tragically lost she finds in writers like Yugoslavia's Danilo Kiš, “who spoke up against nationalism and fomented-from-the-top ethnic hatreds” but “could not save Europe's honor, Europe's better idea,” and Poland's Witold Gombrowicz, who in “strengthening his disaffection from nationalist pieties and self-congratulation” became “a consummate citizen of world literature.”

Sontag indirectly explains the diminished expectations of Where the Stress Falls in “Thirty Years Later …,” her introduction to a new edition of Against Interpretation, reprinted here. “The world in which these essays were written no longer exists,” she concludes, but “How one wishes some of its boldness, its optimism, its disdain for commerce had survived.” Suffusing this collection is her awareness that neither aesthetic value nor moral commitment claims serious reflection in advanced capitalist cultures, which have witnessed a “vertiginous shift of moral attitudes” whose “hallmark is the discrediting of all idealisms, of altruism itself; of high standards of all kinds, cultural as well as moral.” The narrower address of Where the Stress Falls and its more limited ambition predict that it will not engender the controversy or the esteem of Sontag's earlier work. But as “Thirty Years Later …” suggests, perhaps it is not so much Sontag who has changed, but the world around her.

Such a powerful sense of disaffection from the present moment might induce a deep nostalgia for the better times of thirty years ago. Thankfully, with one possible exception (“A Century of Cinema,” which yearns for the cinephilia of that era) Sontag does not indulge. The pervasive sorrow of the essays is tempered by her boundless capacity for admiration and pleasure in literature, dance, painting, photography, opera and film. Where the Stress Falls oscillates between melancholy and delight, outrage and a cautious optimism. Collecting these exercises in advanced appreciation, she seems not to have abandoned the hopefulness that supplied the energy of her early work, her then unwavering belief in the value of serious reflection. That hopefulness is muted, but not extinguished: “There is desolation and, as well, so many fortifying pleasures supplied by the genius of others.”

Carl Rollyson (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Rollyson, Carl. “The Benefactor.” In Reading Susan Sontag: A Critical Introduction to Her Work, pp. 44-54. Chicago, Ill.: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

[In the following essay, Rollyson explores the similarities between Hippolyte, the main character in The Benefactor, and John Neal, the protagonist in Kenneth Burke's Towards a Better Life.]



In certain respects, “Dreams of Hippolyte” is a more satisfying title for Sontag's first novel [The Benefactor]. For it is a book of dreams, a reverie reminiscent of Poe. In the first chapter, Hippolyte, the narrator, declares in French, “I Dream Therefore I Am.” He takes a retrospective tone, contrasting the difference between “those days” and “now.” He has written an article that excites comment in the literary world and gains him an invitation to the salon of Frau Anders. In retrospect, it is difficult not to see in Hippolyte the emerging figure of Susan Sontag, about to attain fame for an essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” even as she enters the literary circle centered on Partisan Review. But in the novel autobiography becomes allegory, and New York City is displaced by a foreign capital similar to Paris but not named as such. True to her aesthetic, Sontag does not wish to make her novel a report on reality but rather a counterweight to it.

In the second chapter, Hippolyte relates his dream of two rooms that imprison him. He is ordered about by a sadist in a black wool bathing suit. The sadist limps and carries a flute. Hippolyte tells his dream to Jean-Jacques, a writer, homosexual prostitute, and former boxer, who tells him to live his dream and go beyond it. But to Hippolyte, the dream is an end in itself, or rather, it is a prelude to more dreams. In other words, rather than attempting to connect his dreams (imagination) to the outer world, he prefers to invert Jean-Jacques's advice—Hippolyte moves away from the world and further into his dreams.

In Chapters Three and Four, sexually charged versions of the “two rooms dream” lead Hippolyte to begin a new project: the seduction of Frau Anders. More dreams with pornographic and religious connotations prompt Hippolyte to discuss them with Father Trissotin, who considers whether they are inspired by the devil. Like Sontag, the essayist who resists critiquing art in moral terms, Hippolyte steadfastly refuses to reduce his dreams to psychological or moral terms. Rather, he desires to expand the experience of his dreams by seducing Frau Anders. The sex in his dreams is just that—sex—which Sontag later calls (in “The Pornographic Imagination”) a form of pure pleasure that should be immune to moralistic debates and assessments. Just as literature should be appreciated in its own terms, so Hippolyte's dreams are not to be reduced to an interpretation of their contents. Hippolyte insists that his dreams are a dialogue with himself. He declares he wants to “rid my dreams of me”—implying, apparently, a desire to dissolve himself into his creation, just as Sontag would later argue in her essays that the work is the writer, that no writer is separable from the work. To expunge himself, then, is to attain a “silence,” a kind of state of perfect equilibrium, apart from words, that Sontag will later name, in an important essay, “The Aesthetics of Silence.”

Debating his quest for silence with Jean-Jacques in Chapter Five, Hippolyte announces that he hopes to fashion dreams like silent movies. Although Jean-Jacques has been a kind of model for Hippolyte, the men split on the subject of silence, since Jean-Jacques is very much a man of the world and a believer in theatricality and role playing. He is a participant, Hippolyte is an observer. Hippolyte treasures the sheer sensuousness of images in silent film; Jean-Jacques is a man of the word.

In Chapters Six and Seven, the logic of Hippolyte's dreams drives him to kidnap Frau Anders, to drug her, to share his dreams with her, and then to sell her to an Arab barman in an Arab city. Returning to the capital in Chapter Seven, he has dreams of an old man who becomes his patron, who makes him dig a hole and throw a cat in it. Like other similar dreams, Hippolyte abases himself to an authority who degrades him. Although he awakes cursing the “captivity of his dreams,” a conversation with Professor Bulgaraux convinces him that the dreams are a form of psychic cleansing. Rather than feeling ashamed or humiliated, he appears liberated—evidently because he has divested himself of his worldly personality and submitted himself to the power of his dreams.

To submit to the dream is to relinquish the craving for interpretation, Hippolyte implies in Chapter Eight. He recounts his last role as an actor. Playing the part of a father confessor to a child-murderer, Hippolyte argues with the director who wants to explain the psychology of the criminal. Hippolyte objects to the director's belief that the criminal is passionate. Just the opposite is true, Hippolyte argues: the murderer is supremely indifferent to his crime. Psychology is only a form of exoneration, Hippolyte implies.

When Frau Anders's daughter, Lucrezia, receives a ransom note, Hippolyte agrees to pay the sum for Frau Anders's return. He discusses with Lucrezia, his lover, his theory that dreams are perpetually present—unlike real events which vanish after they occur and are, in a sense, revocable.

In Chapter Nine, Herr Anders, anticipating his wife's return, seeks Hippolyte's help in obtaining a divorce, since he wishes to remarry. Hippolyte's friend, Monique, delivers a letter from Frau Anders, who then appears. She has been maimed by the Arab and demands that Hippolyte tell her what to do. Hippolyte dreams of a piano lesson in which he crawls into a piano played by a Mother Superior in the garden of an ice palace. Inside the piano he meets “a young man with a tiny mustache” and advises him to crawl into a hole in the floor while students attack the piano. Hippolyte then shoots the Mother Superior and everyone in the room. Then he is pulled out of a tree by the man in the black bathing suit. Noticing that the Mother Superior resembles Frau Anders, Hippolyte sets fire to her apartment.

Suspecting that he has murdered Frau Anders, Hippolyte visits Monique in Chapter Ten. She is jealous about his relationship with Frau Anders. He tells her that he is guilty of “real murder.” With Jean-Jacques he explores the concept of individualism, which can be creative or destructive. Hippolyte then leaves the capital to visit his sick father, with whom he discusses marriage and murder. When he returns to the capital, Monique has married, and Frau Anders tells him: “My dear, you're no better as a murderer than as a white-slaver.” When he inherits his father's estate, Hippolyte decides to surprise Frau Anders by refurbishing a town house for her, thus becoming her benefactor.

In Chapter Eleven, Hippolyte takes Frau Anders on a tour of the house and is relieved and delighted to see that she accepts his gift. When he obeys her command to make love to her, he discovers, as in a dream, that in his “erotic fury” he has healed her. The “dream of the mirror” follows in Chapter Twelve. Hippolyte is standing in a ballroom trying to remember a name. When he strips naked and encounters a footman, he announces that he is a “potential amputee” and rips off his own left leg. He then struggles into an operating theatre where he is among volunteers waiting to have their eyes put out with knitting needles. He proposes to donate his body and worldly goods to the man in the black bathing suit if his leg and his sight are restored to him. When he is told to run, he finds himself in the street watching his own house burn. Rescuing his journal, a book of ancient history, and a tray with cups, he confronts his father. What will Hippolyte call his wife? his father asks. This long sequence of dreams involving dismemberment, destruction, and reunification, and the fact that Hippolyte seems to be waking up to see his dream in the mirror, suggests that perhaps the world of waking and dreaming are coming together. He goes back to his country home, marries an officer's daughter, and returns to the capital.

In Chapter Thirteen, Hippolyte seems content with his happy wife, even though Jean-Jacques suggests that Hippolyte expresses his guilt by being a benefactor to Frau Anders. Hippolyte tells his wife the story of a nearly blind princess who marries a talking bear that decides not to talk. They live happily ever after, perhaps because she cannot see whom she has married. Hippolyte's wife makes friends with a Jewess who is being pursued by the authorities. The Jewess turns out to be Frau Anders. Meanwhile Hippolyte thinks about how self-love so perfectly contains the lover.

Hippolyte discovers in Chapter Fourteen that his wife is dying of leukemia. He attends her and they play with tarot cards. Jean-Jacques appears, masquerading as an officer who dies in a fight with Hippolyte, who then delivers (with the assistance of a delivery boy) an unconscious Jean-Jacques to his flat. Hippolyte's wife dies after three days in a coma. Professor Bulgaraux performs a private service, delivering a sermon entitled “On the Death of a Virgin Soul.” Like the criminal, the virgin discovers innocence in the act of defiance, Bulgaraux declares. A tense Hippolyte feels the need of another dream.

Although increasingly estranged from Jean-Jacques, Hippolyte renews their friendship in Chapter Fifteen after learning that Jean-Jacques has been accused of collaboration (the novel is vaguely set during the years of the Spanish Civil War and World War II). The two men argue, with Jean-Jacques accusing Hippolyte of being a “character without a story.” Hippolyte dreams again, and this time he is dismembered several times by three acrobats. He then retires to his town house to live with Frau Anders.

In Chapter Sixteen, Hippolyte reaches the end of his story and suddenly doubts its veracity. What has he been dreaming? What has been “real”? Have the two rooms of his dreams been an expression of his two modes of existence? Apparently evicted from his house, Hippolyte considers that perhaps he has been confined to a mental institution. Has his story been only the outline of a novel he finds in his notebooks? How can he separate his waking from his dreaming?


The Benefactor, as Sontag admitted in 1974 to interviewer Joe David Bellamy, contains “systematically obscure elements … because I want to leave several possible readings open.” On the one hand, the novel is the “dreams of Hippolyte,” and like all dreams his contain unresolvable elements and events that cannot be reduced to a definitive interpretation. Sontag seems to have set out to construct a novel that defies or is “against interpretation.” Even Hippolyte cannot say for sure what his dreams mean and how much he has dreamed. As Sontag told Jonathan Cott in 1979, Hippolyte is a “kind of Candide who, instead of looking for the best of all possible worlds, searches for some clear state of consciousness, for a way in which he could be properly disburdened.” The idea that he can jettison reality, Sontag suggests, is ludicrous, and she means for some of his apparently solemn statements to be taken comically and ironically. He cannot abolish the waking world any more than he can stifle his dreams. The novel's ending, then, is ironic. By attempting to live entirely in his dreams, Hippolyte has no basis for comparison; he cannot know how much he has been dreaming because he has not kept careful track of his waking moments. His problem is not psychological; it is ontological. Like a Poe narrator, his problem is not that he is insane; it is that he has lost a standard or objective by which to measure himself. This is perhaps why Sontag told Edward Hirsch in 1995 that she “thought I was telling a pleasurably sinister story that illustrated the fortune of certain heretical religious ideas that go by the name of Gnosticism.” She seems to have in mind the notion that Hippolyte's Gnostic search for esoteric or privileged knowledge is ironic because in his desire to be unique he destroys any way of grounding his uniqueness.

Sontag also told Hirsch that in retrospect she realized that the model for her first novel was Kenneth Burke's Towards a Better Life. He had given her a copy of the novel when she was at the University of Chicago. Years later he would say that she was his best student, and not surprisingly he wrote to her later to tell her how much he enjoyed The Benefactor. Burke, more renowned for his literary criticism than his fiction, had published a work, Sontag explained to Hirsch, full of “arias and fictive moralizing. The coquetry of a protagonist—Burke dared to call the novel's hero [John Neal]—so ingeniously self-absorbed that no reader could be tempted to identify with him.” Similarly, Sontag had picked a narrator who was a Frenchman in his sixties to forestall any identification between herself and Hippolyte. (Burke's novel and its relationship to The Benefactor is discussed in the next section.)

Sontag resisted any autobiographical reading of The Benefactor, insisting to James Toback in 1968 that “I'm nothing like Hippolyte: at least I certainly hope I'm not. He fascinates me, but I dislike him intensely. He's purposeless and wasteful and evil.”


Reviews of The Benefactor were respectful but mixed. In the New York Times Book Review, Daniel Stern commented, “It has been said of the French that they develop an idea and then assume it is the world. Hippolyte has decided that he is the world, and has proceeded to explore it.” He compared Sontag's work to the nouveau roman. In Against Interpretation, she would secure her status as the foremost interpreter of the French new novel, selecting the work of Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet for her admiration. What her novel had in common with her French colleagues was a style that “concentrates … on itself,” noted reviewer John Wain in the New Republic. She repudiated the American tradition of psychological realism. James Frakes in the New York Herald Tribune was perhaps the novel's greatest advocate, calling it “a very special book, written with care, polish, daring, and certainty. Very sure. Very tough.” Yet he took note of The Benefactor's “frustrating precise design.” Though it reminded him of Kafka, to other readers Sontag's absolute exclusion of psychological insight squeezed life out of the novel. What she gained in purity of form, she lost in chapters that became monotonous. In the New York Review of Books, Robert Adams appreciated Sontag's original depiction of a “mind lost in its own intricate dialectic.” He thought of Candide but complained that Sontag did not have Voltaire's wit or gift for comedy.

Later critics, drawing on Sontag's essays, perceived that Hippolyte resembled her culture heroes such as E. M. Cioran (an alienated Romanian exile who lived and wrote in Paris) and Antonin Artaud (a great writer about the modern theatre's need to explore extreme states of mind, who himself went mad). Sohnya Sayres pointed to Sontag's comment that these writers' “uninhibited display of egotism devolves into the heroic quest for the cancellation of the self.” Although Sontag told interviewer James Toback that she was nothing like Hippolyte and that she found him wasteful and evil, Sayres suspected that Sontag was “hiding from a complex set of feelings.” She was ambivalent about the aesthetic view of the world—the one in which Hippolyte's dreams have first claim on him—because it seems to lead to a solipsism that negates the idea of the individual's ethical obligation to others. Ultimately Hippolyte's devotion to his own vision results in his self-disintegration. Yet the Sontag of the early essays she was soon to include in Against Interpretation extols precisely those artists who favor the beauty of form over the urgency of the message, the content. The Benefactor seems to subvert as much as it supports Sontag's essays. Sontag's first novel has buried in it the seeds of doubt about her aesthetic position that would begin to surface in interviews she gave to coincide with the publication of her most recent novel, In America.

No critic spotted the resemblance between Kenneth Burke's Towards a Better Life and The Benefactor. Burke's protagonist, John Neal, laments, rejoices, beseeches, admonishes, moralizes, and rages against the world, the status quo. He is a Hippolyte, a narcissist concerned with perfecting himself. As critic Merle Brown points out, Neal's language is “pure artifice”; that is, it does not arise out of character development or plot. Instead, he is his arias as much as Hippolyte is his dreams. Both Neal and Hippolyte are fashioning narratives that represent themselves, not the world. In his preface to Towards a Better Life, Burke favors the essayistic over the narrative, admitting that in the books “I had especially admired, I had found many desirable qualities which threatened them as novels.” This is, no doubt, why he taught Joseph Conrad's novel Victory during one of Sontag's semesters with him. In Conrad's narrator, Marlow, Burke seized on the intruding figure—the writer who reminds the reader that stories are artifice.

Burke argues in his preface that the verisimilitude of the nineteenth-century novel that has come to dominate fiction is but a blip in the history of literature, which has traditionally prized form over lifelike content. Here he is foreshadowing Sontag's soon-to-be-published essays fulminating against content, psychologizing, and so-called realism in literature. Her key term will be “artifice” as she argues for an art that is enclosed in its own language—as Neal and Hippolyte are enveloped in theirs. Rejecting the value of pure story, Burke concludes that his hero's bewilderment “charts a process, and in the charting of this process there is ‘understanding.’” Of what? Apparently of how the self construes an identity through words—or, in Hippolyte's case, through dreams.

Sontag seems to acknowledge Burke in Hippolyte's assertion: “I am interested in my dreams as acts, and as models for action and motives for action.” That key phrase, “motives for action,” alludes to Burke titles such as A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives, both of which reveal a sensibility interested in why people or characters in literature act as they do, but which also treats the idea of motives dispassionately—as separate from the notion of a unique personality that must be understood in biographical terms. In his novel, as in his criticism, Burke is simply not taken with the project of analyzing—really psychoanalyzing—the self. Like Sontag's Hippolyte, he explores the range of action open to the individual, which Hippolyte says constitutes his freedom. Otherwise, to inspect his dreams in order to understand himself would be “considering my dreams from the point of view of bondage.” To Sontag, as to Burke, the idea that one is bound to a psychological matrix established in childhood is deeply offensive; it is a provocation to the sui generis.

The denouement of Burke's novel reads like a stencil for The Benefactor, for as critic Merle Brown concludes, “Toward the end … Neal talks to others who are only projections of himself and who reply to him in his own voice. He has lost all sense of an outer world.” Hippolyte, who has been, he thinks, moving toward a better life, suddenly discovers journals and a novel-like narrative similar to the one he has been relating that call into question whether his present account is fiction or fact, a history of what has actually happened to him or simply a delusion. Friends treat him as though he has been in a mental institution. And Hippolyte concedes there are six years of his life about which he is doubtful—his memory wavers. The consequences of choosing himself—as Hippolyte puts it—include not merely narcissism but solipsism.

This impasse of the self-involved is precisely what modern novels have tended toward, Sontag observes in “Demons and Dreams,” her review of an Isaac Singer novel. Why not, then, as in Burke, make that solipsism not just denouement of the novel but its subject? Why not suggest that Hippolyte's desire to become his dreams is the equivalent of the modern novel's desire to free itself from the world, from mimesis, and to become what Poe said a poem is: “a poem and nothing more—this poem written solely for the poem's sake.”

What can be attractive as well as off-putting about this kind of self-contained fiction is that it is so ouvre. Critic Malcolm Cowley admired the virtuosity of Burke's style, its finished quality, but that very rondeur also robs the novel of vitality. Burke tried in Towards a Better Life to return to more “formalized modes of writing,” to what he called the “structural” sentence, the “Johnsonese” manner as opposed to the modern, informal, conversational style. Sontag affects a Johnsonese grandeur in her passive constructions, which she tries to offset by quaint, teasing chapter headings reminiscent of eighteenth-century novels. But, like Burke, she turns away from what he calls the “impromptu toward the studied.” At best such fiction has the alternation of excitement and depression that characterized, in Poe's view, the poetic principle. So much of Poe seems to take place in a dream—or rather, the nightmare that Sontag evokes in her Singer review. Poe's stories, like Hippolyte's dreams, have a redundancy that is both compelling and alienating. Poe wisely measured out his aesthetic in small doses; to string his short story structure into a novel is enervating. If Hippolyte is going mad at the end of the novel—as many critics have supposed—just as Neal appears headed for insanity, both Burke and Sontag confound their readers by insisting on narrators who write, as Merle Brown puts it, in the “same well-rounded, periodic sentences.” Brown is applying this judgment only to Burke, but it holds for his pupil as well; she, like him, remains a “verbalizer and analyst.”

Although Sontag would publish another novel, Death Kit, closely related to The Benefactor's exploration of a disintegrating self, she was already writing herself into a dead end. It would take her twenty-five years to reverse her theories of fiction and to recoup her confidence as a writer of fiction. Roger Straus, an astute observer of her developing talent, suggested that her next book be a collection of essays. He recognized that Sontag's nonfiction was bold and provocative. Compared to the attentive but not exactly enthusiastic reviews of her first novel, the reception of Against Interpretation, Straus seemed to foresee, would be intense and wide ranging, so that the name of Susan Sontag would become a cynosure for controversy.

Works Cited in the Text

Note: For the biographical details of this study I draw on Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. Where I have used traditional print (hard-copy) sources, I have cited page numbers. For articles retrieved from websites, I have supplied the website address.

Adams, Robert M. “Nacht und Tag.” New York Review of Books, October 17, 1963, 19.

Bellamy, Joe David. “Susan Sontag.” The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Reprinted in Poague, 35-48.

Brown, Merle E. Kenneth Burke. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.

Burke, Kenneth. Towards a Better Life: Being a Series of Epistles, or Declamations. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932.

Cott, Jonathan. “Susan Sontag: The Rolling Stone Interview.” Rolling Stone, October 4, 1979, 46-53. Reprinted in Poague, 106-136.

Frakes, James R. “Where Dreaming Is Believing.” New York Herald Tribune Book Week, September 22, 1963, 10.

Hirsch, Edward. “The Art of Fiction: Susan Sontag.” Paris Review 137 (Winter 1995): 175-208.

Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: Elegiac Modernist. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Stern, Daniel. “Life Becomes a Dream.” New York Times Book Review, September 8, 1963, 5.

Toback, James. “Whatever You'd Like Susan Sontag to Think, She Doesn't.” Esquire, July 1968, 59-61, 114.

Wain, John. “Song of Myself.” New Republic, September 21, 1963, 26-27, 30.

Carl Rollyson (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4554

SOURCE: Rollyson, Carl. “AIDS.” In Reading Susan Sontag: A Critical Introduction to Her Work, pp. 143-55. Chicago, Ill.: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

[In the following essay, Rollyson examines Sontag's short story “The Way We Live Now” and her book-length essay AIDS and Its Metaphors, comparing and contrasting the two, their respective critical appraisals, and includes some commentary on each by Sontag herself.]

Stirred by the deaths of friends who had succumbed to a new, terrifying, and bewildering disease, Susan Sontag responded by writing two very different treatments of how AIDS attacked the health of individuals and society. Her story “The Way We Live Now” (1986) and book-length essay AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) epitomize the way she has tried to bridge the gap between the dramatic and expository modes of her imagination. The story became an instant classic, reprinted at the beginning of The Best American Short Stories, 1987, dramatized in performances across the country, and widely discussed in books and articles surveying the literary treatments of AIDS. Why the story much more than her essay has won critical acclaim will be explored in the critical commentary section of this chapter.



The word “AIDS” is never used in the story, which is, like so much of Sontag's fiction, generic and allegorical, a moving away from the specifics of culture to the platonic universals or first principles she has pursued so persistently. What makes “The Way We Live Now” compelling, however, is her grounding in the human voice, in the twenty-six narrators (one for each letter of the alphabet) who comprise the society that reacts to the AIDS phenomenon. The story's title is taken from Anthony Trollope's monumental novel, a classic study of mid-Victorian society, especially of its social manners and political life.

The plight of Max, who has AIDS, is told entirely through the voices of his friends. They observe his first reactions to his illness—denying that he has it and delaying a trip to the doctor for the blood test that will establish his condition definitively. Each friend has a different reaction to Max's dilemma. Some sympathize with his state of denial; others worry that he is not seeking medical attention early enough. Aileen thinks of herself. Is she at risk? She doubts it, but her friend Frank reminds her that this is an unprecedented illness; no one can be sure he or she is not vulnerable. Stephen hopes that Max realizes he has options; he should not consider himself helpless at the onset of the disease.

The next stage is Max's hospitalization. Ursula says that Max has received the AIDS diagnosis almost as a relief after his months of anxiety. Friends wonder how to treat him. They decide to indulge him with the things he likes—chocolate, for example. They visit him frequently, and his mood seems to lighten.

But does Max really want to see so many people? Are they doing the right thing by visiting him so frequently? Aileen asks. Sure they are, Ursula answers, who is certain Max values the company and is not judging people's motives. Friends such as Stephen question Max's doctor, trying to assess the gravity of this stage of Max's illness. The doctor is willing to treat him with experimental drugs, but she disconcerts Stephen by saying the chocolate might bolster Max's spirit and do as much good as anything else. Stephen, who has followed all the recent efforts to treat the disease, is dismayed by this old-fashioned advice.

Kate shudders when she realizes that Max's friends have started talking about him in the past tense, as if he has already died. Several friends suspect their visits have begun to pall on him. Other friends argue that he has come to expect their daily presence. There is a brief respite from anxiety as Max's friends welcome him home and observe him put on weight. Xavier thinks they should stop worrying about how their visits affect Max; they are getting as much out of trying to help him as he is. They realize that they are dreading the possibility that they might also get the disease, that it is just a matter of time before they or their friends succumb to it. Betsy says “everybody is worried about everybody now … that seems to be the way we live, the way we live now.”

Max's friends think about how he has managed his life. He practiced unsafe sex, saying it was so important to him that he would risk getting the disease. But Betsy thinks he must feel foolish now—like someone who kept on smoking cigarettes until he contracted a fatal disease. When it happens to you, Betsy believes, you no longer feel fatalistic; you feel instead that you have been reckless with your life. Lewis angrily rejects her thinking, pointing out that AIDS infected people long before they took any precautions. Max might have been more prudent and still have caught AIDS. Unlike cigarettes, all that is needed is one exposure to the disease.

Friends report the various phases of Max's reaction to the disease. He is afraid to sleep because it is too much like dying. Some days he feels so good that he thinks he can beat it. Other days he looks upon the disease as giving him a remarkable experience. He likes all the attention he is getting. It gives him a sort of distinction and a following. Some friends find his temperament softened and sweetened; others reject this attitudinizing about Max as sentimental. Each friend clings stubbornly to a vision of Max, the story ending with Stephen's insistent statement that “He's still alive.”

As the narrators speculate about what Max is going through, it is as though they are suffering from the disease themselves, trying to keep him alive in their thoughts and wishes. How they react to his disease depends very much on the kind of people they are. They argue with each other and sometimes support each other, desperately seeking ways to cope with the imminence of death. Max's approaching fate forces them to confront their own mortality, though they rarely acknowledge that they are indeed thinking of themselves as much as they are of him.

Death has many faces, many manifestations, Sontag seems to be implying. For some, it is to be evaded. Some of Max's friends visit him rarely—one supposing that they have never been close friends anyway. Other friends—such as Stephen—almost seem to want to take over the fight against death, quizzing the doctors, boning up on the latest medical research, and conducting a kind of campaign against any capitulation to the disease. Very few friends are fatalistic; almost all of them hope for a medical breakthrough that will rescue Max.

They live in fear. One friend finds out that his seventy-five-year-old mother has contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion she received five years ago. No one is immune to the disease; even if everyone does not get it, someone close to them probably will. It is the extraordinary vulnerability of these people that makes them argue with or reassure each other, to question what is the best behavior. Everyone encounters an ethical dilemma about how to lead his or her life and how to respond to those who are afflicted with the disease.

The blending and clash of voices reveals a society in argument with itself, testing ways of responding to AIDS, advancing, then rejecting, certain attitudes. Voices overlap each other, as they do in real conversation:

He seemed optimistic, Kate thought, his appetite was good, and what he said, Orson reported, was that he agreed when Stephen advised him that the main thing was to keep in shape, he was a fighter, right, he wouldn't be who he was if he weren't, and was he ready for the big fight, Stephen asked rhetorically (as Max told it to Donny), and he said you bet. …

A complex layering of speeches within speeches, and of social and psychological observation, are emphasized by long sentences that continually switch speakers, so that a community of friends and points of view get expressed sentence by sentence. The story is like compressing the one hundred chapters of Trollope's novel into one hundred sentences.

It is the rhythm of these voices, of the ups and downs in their moods, of the phases people go through in responding to the disease, that is one of the most impressive accomplishments of Sontag's techniques. She presents the tragedy of one man, yet from the first to the last sentence the story is also a society's tragedy as well. It is the society that is ill. The speakers retain their individuality, yet they also become a chorus—almost like one in a Greek tragedy. They do not speak the same thoughts at once, but the syntax of the sentences make them seem bound to one another—as enclosed by their community of feeling as are the clauses in Sontag's sentences enclosed by commas. The speaker's thought at the beginning of a sentence is carried on, refuted, modified, or added to by speakers in later parts of the sentence. The sentence as a grammatical unit links speakers to each other. Whatever their attitudes toward the disease, they cannot escape the thought of it. Thinking of it is, as one of them says, the way they live now.


Sontag told interviewer Kenny Fries that she wrote her story after receiving a phone call from a friend who told her he had AIDS. Later that night, crying and unable to sleep, she took a bath and the story began to take shape: “It was given to me, ready to be born. I got out of the bathtub and starting writing standing up,” she told Fries. “I wrote the story very quickly, in two days, drawing on experiences of my own cancer and a friend's stroke. Radical experiences are similar.” The urgency of creation and the frankness of fiction appealed to her: “Fiction is closer to my private life, more immediate, direct, less constrained—more reckless. Essays involve more effort in layering and condensation, more revisions.” Fries noted that Sontag was “very proud” of her story.

In a radio interview, Sontag called the story a “stunt” but also one of her best pieces of writing, because it captured both the “velocity” and the “static quality” of enduring a mortal illness. She thought the story explored the human issues of illness more deeply than an essay could, for the former reveals deep emotions and feelings whereas the latter has a tendency to encourage “superficial” moral judgments.


Novelist David Leavitt thought the story therapeutic, making him feel “less alone in my dread, and therefore brave enough to read more.” The story “transcended horror and grief, and … was therefore redemptive, if not of AIDS itself, then at least of the processes by which people cope with it. … It offered a possibility of catharsis, and at that point catharsis was something we all badly needed.” Leavitt is referring to a time when contracting AIDS seemed an immediate death sentence, when artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, suspecting they had AIDS, refused to be tested for the disease. Sontag saw that the stigma attached to AIDS made patients feel isolated and fearful, much as cancer had earlier made society shun the ill and the ill shun society. (Mapplethorpe was finally diagnosed with AIDS in the fall of 1986, about two months before Sontag published her story.)

But as Sontag would say about AIDS and Its Metaphors, “The Way We Live Now” is not just about AIDS, it is about extreme changes in society. Like the overarching theme of Trollope's great novel, Sontag's story is about “a loss of community and ethical value,” to quote Elaine Showalter. Joseph Cady calls “The Way We Live Now” a “counterimmersive” story, one of several that do not involve readers directly with scenes of suffering and physical descriptions of AIDS but rather avoid specific mention of the disease, concentrating instead on the stages of denial among the ill and society at large. Such counterimmersive stories he calls “deferential,” since they protect readers from “too jarring a confrontation with the subject through a variety of distancing devices.” In “The Way We Live Now,” the relay race of narrators provides the distancing, which is perhaps why Sylvie Drake called a dramatization of the story “bloodless.” Cady finds it troubling that the disease is not named in counterimmersive stories, thereby playing to society's sense of delicacy and phobia about the illness: “Sontag offers no forceful alternative to the characters' perspective in her text, and denying readers could still finish the story with their defenses largely intact.”

On the other hand, critic Emmanuel S. Nelson argues that in Sontag's story “there is no reassuring voice the reader can comfortably connect with; her insistence that AIDS puts all of us at risk disrupts the complacency of those readers who consider themselves quite safe from the epidemic.” True, the story does not name the disease, but Nelson notes this sentence: “And it was encouraging he was willing to say the name of the disease, pronounce it often and easily, as if it were just another word, like a boy or gallery … because … to utter the name is a sign of health.”

Annie Dawid, who taught the story to students born after 1972, reports they found its fast pace and multiple narrators confusing and upsetting. It was hard to root for Max because they never got to know him. Of all the AIDS stories Dawid taught, “The Way We Live Now” was the “harshest … the least gentle by way of assuring the readers that they can all return to their lives, business as usual.”

To some extent, these differences in critical opinion mirror Sontag's own swaying arguments about the import of literature, about art as form and art as content, art that makes a statement and art that is all style and refuses to be pinned to a point. There is a kind of decorum observed in the story, a “none dare speak its name” resonance, a reticence about “coming out” that certain gay and lesbian critics in the late 1980s and early 1990s would scorn. For them, the story's reluctance to be more specific drains it of potential power. For the proponents of reticence (see Rochelle Gurstein's provocative The Repeal of Reticence), on the contrary, “The Way We Live Now” is powerful precisely because it is not explicit; it does not strip the person with AIDS of his most intimate moments; it does not provide the gory details; it is not, in short, pornographic in its handling of the disease. “The Way We Live Now” might almost be taken as an illustration of Gurstein's brief for a reticence our society no longer respects, a reticence that once preserved the “inherent fragility of intimate life, the tone of public conversation, standards of taste and morality, and reverence owed to mysteries.”



Sontag begins by examining the compulsion to use metaphor, by which she means Aristotle's definition: “giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” Metaphors are inescapable, Sontag concedes, but that does not mean that some of them should not be “retired” or that, in some instances, it is not correct to be “against interpretation.” For inevitably metaphors distort as much as they describe phenomena. Based on her own experience with cancer, Sontag doubts that military metaphors do anything more than victimize the sufferer—and it does not matter whether the victim of the “war” against disease is regarded as innocent or guilty. Either way the ill feel attacked, invaded, and vulnerable.

AIDS shares with earlier illnesses this overwrought use of metaphor. To contract AIDS is tantamount to receiving a death sentence. AIDS stigmatizes individuals. Like cancer, the reputation of the disease isolates the patient. During her own cancer treatment Sontag saw how patients became disgusted with themselves. The metaphorical atmosphere around such diseases simply increases suffering and is unnecessary, Sontag asserts. By stringently abstaining from the use of metaphors, her aim is to deprive illness of its accreted meanings. Illness, in other words, has been interpreted too much. Sontag feels her approach has been vindicated in the new attitude evinced by doctors, who now treat illnesses such as cancer more frankly and without the secrecy or mystery that once surrounded sickness.

As a sexually transmitted disease, AIDS has been subject to the vehement use of metaphors. It is an invasive virus that must be combated. It is an alien that victims harbor in their bodies, and it is a contaminant—in other words, a spreading evil. In the first phase of awareness of the disease, AIDS patients were thought of as guilty parties punished for their sexual deviancy—especially since the first cases were discovered in homosexuals. Unlike such diseases as tuberculosis or cancer, however, AIDS speaks to a more primitive sense of disease, for the AIDS sufferer is thought to be morally blameworthy. In other words, his illness is not merely a function of his psychology; rather the disease is a condemnation of character. Thus AIDS is a throwback to medieval notions of a plague—in this case a “gay plague.”

Conservatives find in AIDS a convenient metaphor for the ravages of a permissive society, in which permitting all abominations leads to certain death. AIDS is a calamity that society has brought upon itself, according to this line of reasoning. AIDS and permissiveness become, through the agency of metaphor, one and the same thing: contagious. Sontag rejects this argument, pointing out that AIDS, which has only recently been identified, cannot be regarded as always leading to death. (In the decade since her book was published, this aspect of her argument has been vindicated.)

Concentrating on AIDS as an inevitable death warrant obscures the fact that early deaths from the disease were at least in part the result of ignorance and ineffective therapies. It is the disease that has to treated without the emotional overlay of metaphors—especially since so much about the etiology of the disease has yet to be studied.

Yet Sontag acknowledges that AIDS must also be viewed in terms of a society that has become more sexually permissive and ever more consumer oriented. “How could sexuality not come to be, for some, a consumer option: an exercise of liberty, of increased mobility, of the pushing back of limits.” This broad change in cultural mores is “hardly an invention of the male homosexual subculture,” she points out. And the response to AIDS has been to adopt “programs of self-management and self-discipline (diet, exercise). Watch your appetites. Take care of yourself. Don't let yourself go”—these are the watchwords, Sontag suggests. These calls to “stricter limits in the conduct of personal life” earn her approval—as do a return to the conventions of society that help to regulate individual behavior.

Sontag understands but wants to resist the sense of apocalypse associated with diseases like AIDS. The world is not coming to an end, but each new campaign or “war” on disease makes it seem as though it is. “Apocalypse is now a long-running serial: not ‘Apocalypse Now’ but ‘Apocalypse from Now On,’” she quips. Such constant evocations of catastrophe are, in the end, exhausting and counterproductive. The worst outcome, she concludes, is to treat AIDS or any other disease as a “total” anything. She argues that illness should be regarded as “ordinary” and treatable.


To Kenny Fries, Sontag characterized her book as a “literary performance. It is an essay, a literary form with a tradition and speculative purpose.” Her reiteration of the obvious was in response to a barrage of reviews that took issue with both her facts and her arguments. She was not trying to take a position on AIDS in the way an activist might but rather exploring the mind-set about AIDS and other diseases. “My ideas of AIDS alone, stripped of the associations, are the same as any civilized, compassionate, liberal's.” In a similar vein, she pointed out to Margaria Fichtner: “This book … isn't really about AIDS. It's what AIDS makes you think about. It's about things that AIDS reveals or points to.”

Sontag also acknowledged that her rational view of disease and her resistance to psychologizing it with metaphors was a position she arrived at only during the sixth draft of her book. Until then, she too had succumbed to calling AIDS a plague. Her book was an effort to reject both “hysteria and facile pessimism.”


AIDS and Its Metaphors appeared in a cultural climate far different from the one that acclaimed Illness as Metaphor. Charles Perrow, in the Chicago Tribune, spoke for many reviewers when he regretted that Sontag's emphasis on metaphors obscured practical matters—what could be done immediately in terms of education, social conditions, and politics to combat the disease. Simone Watney, in the Guardian Weekly, chastised her for writing in a vacuum; she failed to take account of the mounting literature on AIDS. Jan Grover, in the Women's Review of Books, criticized Sontag for her apparent ignorance that AIDS was being psychologized in the gay community. Similarly Gregory Kolovakos, in the Nation, rejected her praise of monogamy as “shallow revisionism.” Her insensitivity to the mood and mores of the gay community was an underlying theme of many responses to the book.

There were many positive responses to Sontag's approach as well, including Patricia W. Dideriksen and John A. Bartlett in the New England Journal of Medicine who called the book “noble.” Deborah Stone, in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, found the book “brilliant,” and Francine Prose, in Savvy Woman, admired Sontag's compassion and intensity. While Randy Shilts, one of the country's foremost authorities on AIDS, was severely critical of Sontag, he admired the way she integrated AIDS into her discussion of other diseases. Perhaps the highest compliment paid to AIDS and Its Metaphors came from Anatole Broyard in the New York Times Book Review who asserted that Sontag's book was to “illness what William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity is to literature”—that is, she had written a classic text certain to become part of the canon of modern literature.

Surely one of the reasons Sontag's book sparked critical animosity was because of its rather lofty tone. She deliberately divorced herself from the crisis atmosphere that surrounded her subject. Whereas she saw herself as advocating a quieter but just as determined an attitude toward treating the disease as those who were militantly calling for a national campaign or war against AIDS, her critics saw an aloof and even conservative figure apparently out of touch with people's feelings and needs.

Unlike cancer, which for all its threatening associations had become (in part thanks to Sontag) more like an ordinary disease afflicting people, AIDS was put into a special category because it still seemed in 1989 like a plague that modern medicine had not learned how to control, let alone eradicate. Sontag's reflective temper collided with the very hysteria she was attempting to alleviate. Instead of being received as therapeutic, the book was rejected as abrasive.

Sontag herself realized that another kind of book was wanted from her. But it was a book she was not prepared to write, a book that did not appeal to her sensibility, a book that would have looked too much like the other books written about AIDS. Sontag's own notion of herself as a writer destined her to write a book that many readers could not accept. As she pointed out to Kenny Fries, “I have the kind of mind that, whenever I think of something, it makes me think of something else. With this book I do what I do best. This book has more to do with Emerson than with Randy Shilts.” Like Emerson, Sontag was using AIDS as another instance of how people use metaphor and how they think about illness. To those readers exercised more about the devastating spread of AIDS and more concerned with the disease itself than with its cultural or historical context, Sontag's approach seemed almost callous. She had not focused specifically enough on the anguish of the dying and on their caretakers. And she seemed to show almost no sympathy at all for gays—the first major community to be affected by the disease.

Perhaps the only way Sontag might have remained true to her sensibility and at the same time satisfied her critics would have been to reveal more of the process by which she came to reject the emotional metaphors used to describe and treat the disease. For example, what happened to her on that sixth draft when she rejected the plague metaphor? Throughout her career, Sontag has tended to use the interview form as a substitute for autobiography, evidently equating autobiography with a more informal, inexact mode of expression that conflicts with the formal elements of her essays—the decorum and rationality she has cultivated as a nonfiction writer. That sense of propriety has contributed significantly to her authority as an essayist, but it has also put off many readers who cannot connect a human voice with the ideas she explores in her essays.

Works Cited in the Text

Note. For the biographical details of this study I draw on Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. Where I have used traditional print (hard-copy) sources, I have cited page numbers. For articles retrieved from websites, I have supplied the website address.

Broyard, Anatole. “Good Books About Being Sick.” New York Times Book Review, April 1, 1990, 1, 28-29.

Cady, Joseph. “Immersive and Counterimmersive Writing About AIDS: The Archives of Paul Monette's Love Alone,” in Writing AIDS: Gay Literature, Language, and Analysis, ed. Timothy F. Murphy and Suzanne Poirier (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 244-264.

Dawid, Annie. “The Way We Teach Now: Three Approaches to AIDS Literature,” in AIDS: The Literary Response, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Dideriksen, Patricia W., and John A. Bartlett. [Review of AIDS and Its Metaphors.] New England Journal of Medicine, February 8, 1990, 415.

Drake, Sylvie. “Bearing the Pain of AIDS in ‘The Way We Live Now.’” Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1989, Section 6, p. 8.

Fichtner, Margaria. “Susan Sontag's Train of Thought Rolls into Town.” Miami Herald, February 19, 1989, 1G.

Fries, Kenny. “AIDS and Its Metaphors: A Conversation with Susan Sontag.” Coming Up (March 1989): 49-50. Reprinted in Poague, 255-260.

Grover, Jan. “AIDS: Metaphors and Real Life.” Christianity and Crisis, September 11, 1989, 268-270.

Gurstein, Rochelle. The Repeal of Reticence: A History of American Cultural and Legal Struggles Over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

Kolovakos, Gregory. “AIDS Words.” The Nation, May 1, 1989, 598-602.

Leavitt, David. “The Way I Live Now.” New York Times Magazine, July 9, 1989, 28-32, 80, 82-83. Reprinted in Ann Charters, ed., The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction (Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1991).

Nelson, Emmanuel, S., ed. AIDS: The Literary Response. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Perrow, Charles. “Healing Words.” Tribune Books (Chicago Tribune), January 22, 1989, 6.

Prose, Francine. “Words That Wound.” Savvy Woman, January 1989, 100-101.

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Viking, 1990.

Stone, Deborah. [Review of AIDS and Its Metaphors.] Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 14 (1989): 850-852.

Watney, Simon. “Sense and Less Than Sense About AIDS.” Guardian Weekly, March 26, 1989, 28.

Frances Spalding (review date 21 January 2002)

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SOURCE: Spalding, Frances. “Writer in a Critical Condition.” New Statesman 131, no. 4571 (21 January 2002): 49-50.

[In the following review, Spalding finds that Sontag's essays in Where the Stress Falls appear pessimistic concerning the state of current arts and society, and deems that Sontag is at her best when indignantly taking an unpopular stance on issues.]

Susan Sontag is America's most successful woman of letters, but she is also, right now, in a curious position, unable to please either the right or the left. Ten days after 11 September, the New Yorker carried an article by her in which she fired off at the “sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days”. To her, it seemed “unworthy of a mature democracy”. There followed howls of rage. Although much of what she said echoed opinions being voiced in British newspapers, she was labelled an intellectual crank and a detractor from American solidarity.

Meanwhile, her relations with left-wing academics continue to deteriorate. Writing as she does for the common reader and from an untheoretical position, she is regarded as a magisterial exponent of a literary mode that is amateur and outmoded. She, in turn, has scant respect for today's academy, which she lambasts in this new book [Where the Stress Falls] for using ideas “devoid of common sense or respect for the practice of writing”. Her recent transformation into a successful novelist (The Volcano Lover has been translated into 20 languages) may have aggravated the situation. Academics, always so conscious of positioning, are suspicious of anyone with Sontag's range, and tend also to prefer the safety of tenure to the dangers and discomforts of Sarajevo under siege.

However, few would deny the influence that her first collection of essays, Against Interpretation (1966), had on radical thinking about modern culture, or, in what followed, how stimulating she could be, on Aids and illness, the pornographic imagination, drugs, authors and literary theorists, photography, dance, film and theatre; even when the reader disagreed with her arguments or conclusions. Her insights also made her influential among those involved with the creative and performing arts. As she herself once said of her chosen art form, an essay can be as much an event, a transforming event, as a novel or a poem. But this new collection, written over the past 20 years, strikes a somewhat doleful note. At times, it seems that what is on offer is less a transforming experience than a jeremiad.

Nevertheless, many will find this book hard to resist. It is wrapped seductively in a painting by Howard Hodgkin (who is the subject of one of these essays), and it offers a fresh opportunity to enter Sontag's mind and share her curiosity, enthusiasms and pleasures. The now familiar manner, which Elizabeth Hardwick once described as the “liberality of her floating, restless expositions”, at first disguises the tenacity of Sontag's thought. Because, although she finds much to praise, the underlying burden of these essays is a protest at the degradation of culture in the capitalist world of today.

Evidence of this can be found both on screen and in books. In the essay “A Century of Cinema”, Sontag, who once said her life could be divided into two—before and after her discovery of Jean-Luc Godard—recounts the love affair with films which made her an incorrigible cinephile. But whereas cinema once seemed to her quintessentially modern, accessible, poetic, mysterious, erotic and moral, it is now a decadent art form, engaged in an “ignominious, irreversible decline”. Literature fares no better. Alongside the “implacable devolution” of literary ambition, she notes “the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects”. The question asked by the Polish writer Adam Zagajewski at a Danish university in 1998—“Is literary greatness still possible?”—must have reverberated in her mind, for it became the opening sentence of her lead article on W G Sebald in the Times Literary Supplement, which is reprinted here. It is also one of the main themes of this book.

Her recurrent emphasis on “greatness” and “seriousness” is out of step with contemporary issues, and will irritate cultural relativists. It also casts Sontag in the role of cultural priestess. All of this will invite dispraise, inevitably. She insists, however, that critics cannot ally her with George Steiner and other professional mourners of the death of high art; the breadth of her interests supports this claim. Her thought chimes best with present-day concerns in her constant brooding on the significance of memory. “All writing is a species of remembering,” she argues, in her essay on Sebald, whom she admires for the “passionate bleakness” of his voice, his lament and mental restlessness. She continues: “The recovery of memory, of course, is an ethical obligation: the obligation to persist in the effort to apprehend the truth.” Elsewhere, her understanding of the role of memory in Hodgkin's art makes her his most percipient commentator. She is also the first to link his paintings and his passion for collecting and travelling with the artist's gratitude for that which is not himself, “the world that resists and survives the ego and its discontents”.

What saves her in places from a higher form of grumbling is her radicalism and eloquence. Take, for instance, her description of “the tide of indecipherable signatures of mutinous adolescents which has washed over and bitten into the façades of monuments and the surfaces of public vehicles in the city where I live—graffiti as an assertion of disrespect, but most of all simply an assertion: the powerless saying, I'm here, too”. Elsewhere, she detects a political conservatism behind the new cultural populism.

At times, it feels necessary to resist her recurrent sense of mourning and loss. It informs “The Idea of Europe (One More Elegy)”, which builds on how Europhilia has been a significant ingredient in her work since the 1960s. What gave an interesting slant to her appreciation of European culture was the American consciousness she brought to it. But her Europe cannot be elided with the economic issues and challenges that have surrounded the adoption of the euro, nor with Euro-festivals, Euro-exhibitions. Euro-journalism and Euro-television, all of which Sontag dismisses as kitsch, mere parodies of art and literature. Europe, for her, is a collection of standards—a legacy derived from the “diversity, seriousness, fastidiousness, density” of its culture. This, she claims, provides her with a reference point, a mental ground from which to explore the world.

Sontag does not ignore the ways in which this ideal has at times been hideously perverted, used to promote an idea of Europe that augments power and suppresses or erases cultural differences. There is nevertheless a lack of balance in her threnody for a shrinking Europe, a Europe of “high art and ethical seriousness, of the values of privacy and inwardness and an unamplified, non-machine-made discourse”. She cites the films of Krzysztof Zanussi, the prose of Thomas Bernhard, the poetry of Seamus Heaney and the music of Arvo Pärt. “That Europe still exists,” she concludes, “will continue to exist for some time. But it will occupy less territory. And increasing numbers of its citizens and adherents will understand themselves as émigrés, exiles and foreigners.”

Is this conclusion the product of “seriousness”? Or the outcome of a romantic idealism that has petrified into received opinion? It left me wanting to protest the ingenuity of rap, the versatility of much present-day animation, the notion of pilgrimage in relation to football matches, and the gains assimilated from the American language. (“Why look how sappy it is, full of juice isn't it, real live growing stuff,” as Stevie Smith wrote in the 1940s.) But Sontag is always a step ahead of her readers and, with a sudden twist at the end of her essay on the idea of a fading Europe, consoles us with a story about Gertrude Stein. When asked if, after 40 years residing in France, she was worried about losing her American roots, Stein replied: “But what good are roots if you can't take them with you?”

Ultimately, so Sontag concludes her essay on American fiction, “it's where the stress falls”. With this new collection, neither the stress nor the place where it falls will find universal favour. But the tug and flow of Sontag's ideas is irresistible, and nowhere more so than in the essay that follows her account of war-torn Sarajevo, where she directed a performance of Waiting for Godot. Titled “‘There’ and ‘Here’”, it reveals her at her angriest and best, her activism to the fore as she indicts intellectuals for making so little response to the Bosnian war.

Maggie McDonald (review date 1 March 2003)

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SOURCE: McDonald, Maggie. “Show Me.” New Scientist 177, no. 2384 (1 March 2003): 49.

[In the following review, McDonald comments on Sontag's study Regarding the Pain of Others, noting the various potential effects that photographs can produce in modern viewers constantly inundated with images from news sources, advertising, and entertainment.]

“When Capa's falling soldier appeared in Life opposite a Vitalis ad, there was a huge, unbridgeable difference in look between the two kinds of photographs, ‘editorial’ and ‘advertising’. Now there is not,” says Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others.

Sontag is examining the way in which we see images, how the lack of context in art, reportage and advertising impoverish our understanding of the world. This smearing of boundaries between those categories means that we cannot be certain about the authenticity of the photograph itself. For an advertisement, a scene is staged. Until the widespread use of the SLR camera in the Vietnam War, says Sontag, we could not be certain that war scenes—including that of Capa's falling soldier—were not staged or restaged for the photographer. The length of time it then took to capture an image made it more likely that this was done than not.

But photographs are sometimes the only way we can understand what happens in a war. Sontag mentions the British air force bombing in Iraq during the 1920s. Photographs of a destroyed village, Kushan-Al-Ajaza, are part of the evidence a young squadron leader offers to show that in under an hour a few planes can practically wipe out a place, killing a third of its inhabitants.

But we are less likely to see that kind of evidence these days. Censorship too plays a part: Sontag describes the careful editing of access by photographers to war theatres, from the Crimea to the Falklands, and points out we are increasingly denied that access.

What can be seen is often disturbing, and Sontag explores the fascination that the shocking has. Sometimes the distancing of atrocity is a palliative for viewers: from the people dying from starvation in Ethiopia to a wounded Taliban soldier begging for his life, these pictures are from a Western point of view exotic, even colonised, thus safer to see.

Why are we fascinated by the shocking anyway? Sontag's passionate exploration of what it is we see and how the destruction of context impoverishes our world view is compelling. She offers uncomfortable answers. To pursue this further, try Nigel Spivey's brilliant cultural history, Enduring Creation, in which he explores the representation of pain in Western art. He examines our response to, for example, a tortured crucifixion, asking why and if we can find pain beautiful. The viscera of a Benetton advertisement and pictures of mass graves in Kosovo both catch our eyes. Understanding why and how is vital.

Tzvetan Todorov (essay date 21-28 April 2003)

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SOURCE: Todorov, Tzvetan. “Exposures.” New Republic 228, nos. 4605-06 (21-28 April 2003): 28-31.

[In the following essay, Todorov analyzes human preoccupation with suffering, and categorizes Regarding the Pain of Others as a valuable study in this phenomenon.]

One of the great platitudes of our epoch is that images, in particular photographic or filmed images, transmit messages that are much clearer and stronger than words, which disguise the truth more than they reveal it. But in truth nothing could be less certain: a photograph can stun us, but taken out of context it may not convey any significant meaning. You see a mutilated corpse, you are moved and overcome by shock or pity; but you do not yet know who this corpse is, nor why this person has been killed, nor by whom; nor whether this is a case that warrants an appeal to vengeance, or on the contrary an appeal for peace, or whether it is only an incitement to meditate on the fragility of human existence. Sentences have a subject and a predicate, a part that delimits what is being discussed and another part that says something about it. But images are subjects without predicates: they evoke the world intensely, but they do not tell us, of themselves, what we should think about it.

Susan Sontag's small and rather digressive book [Regarding the Pain of Others] suggests this idea, among many others; but in a way the book resembles its subject, the photographic image, in that it contains more evocations than judgments. Sontag summons facts, and summarizes the different interpretations to which they lend themselves, but she does not hasten to formulate arguments. Often her analyses end with a question for which we must ourselves find the answer; or indeed by refuting all the possible answers that come to mind.

The essay's structure is not scholarly. Its principal theme is articulated by its title: why do we take pleasure in seeing the suffering of others? And, supposing that we do, does this not entail certain political and moral perplexities? Around this vast subject Sontag hangs observations and musings on a variety of themes. One sometimes has the impression of a long fireside conversation from which we have only the contributions of one participant. Sontag knows her subject well, and she expresses herself elegantly. She is at ease in the history of photography and in the history of painting, in the analysis of history and in the analysis of the media, and she never slides into pedantry. Nor does she seek to force her ideas upon us, but rather to make us reflect, with some melancholy, upon a range of troublesome topics.

Even if it does not directly pertain to the book's central subject, for example, there is the fact, well known by twentieth-century historians, that military action was long considered perfectly legitimate as long as its victims were colonized populations, far away and exotic. When they took place in Europe, however, such actions risked being seen as war crimes. Thus General Franco commanded the extermination of “enemies” in Morocco in the 1920s without provoking a single raised eyebrow; but transposed to his native country in the 1930s, these same methods aroused widespread indignation. Arthur Harris, a young commander in the Royal Air Force, could boast in 1924 of the systematic destruction that he wreaked upon the “rebel” villages of Iraq, when “within forty-five minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed by four or five machines which offer them no real target.” He could do the same again when, on February 13, 1945, he ordered the incineration of “more than a hundred thousand civilians, three-fourths of them women,” during the RAF firebombing of Dresden. But sixty years later many people question the legitimacy of this latter massacre. We continue to discriminate between “us” and “them” in the infinitely less murderous domain that is the circulation of photographic images: “we” appear in images as individuals, if not with proper names; “they” illustrate always and only a situation, an attitude, an emotion.

Then, too, there are the multiple uses that we make of memory—a human capacity that is much more ambiguous than the new cultural popularity of commemoration would have us believe. For one thing, the constant reminders of the past keep wounds open, and thereby lead to violence. “Too much remembering (of ancient grievances: Serbs, Irish) embitters,” Sontag remarks. “To make peace is to forget.” Moreover, memory usually serves simply as a reinforcement of the self—a pardonable but not particularly laudable activity. One likes to recall one's past as a hero or a victim, rather than the situations in which one's group played a less glorious role. In this regard Sontag writes that “to have a museum chronicling the great crime that was African slavery in the United States of America would be to acknowledge that the evil was here. Americans prefer to picture the evil that was there, and from which the United States is exempt.”

The simple evocation of a painful past awakens emotion, but this of itself is an insufficient response: it is always better to analyze and to think. The compassion felt in the face of disaster must not become a substitute for the need for action. And a lucid analysis, in its turn, demands that we discard our egocentric preconceptions. Sontag recounts, in this regard, a very telling anecdote about the inhabitants of Sarajevo, who protested against an exhibition that mixed the images of their sufferings with those of similar atrocities committed in Somalia: “It's intolerable to have one's own sufferings twinned with anybody else's.” Intolerable, yes; but it is also indispensable to anyone who wishes to think, rather than simply to be outraged.

Finally, too—though the list of possible subjects is far from being exhausted—there is the singular status of images, and in particular of photographic images. Wherein does their specificity lie? Is it that, unlike words, but also unlike painted pictures, they present us with an authentic piece of reality and lead us, by this shortcut, directly to the truth? Clearly not. It is hardly necessary to mention the many cases in which photographs have been retouched, or, more numerous still, in which the photographed objects have been arranged to create a better effect. (This was the case with some of the most celebrated war photographs by Roger Fenton and Matthew Brady, by Robert Capa and Yevgeny Khaldei.) What is decisive is the choice to photograph this and not that. “It is always the image that someone chose,” Sontag observes; “to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.” For this reason, photography is as subjective as drawing or narrative—even if it has a less determined meaning than the latter. The specificity of the photographic image lies elsewhere: not in the greatest fidelity to the exterior world, but in the physical continuity between the object represented and the subject taking the picture. That is why we experience a certain discomfort when the scene photographed is particularly violent: looking at images of lynchings and executions, one wonders whether the photographer, rather than seeking a better angle for his photograph, ought not to have thrown himself upon the torturers in an effort to disarm them.

Sontag's main theme is hardly new. Since time immemorial we have been aware of the fascination provoked by the misery of others. She cites a famous passage from Plato's Republic, to which one might add Lucretius: “Tis sweet, when the sea is high and winds are driving, / To watch from shore another's anguished striving.” Or Montaigne: “In the midst of compassion we feel within us I know not what bittersweet pricking of malicious pleasure in seeing others suffer.” Or La Rochefoucauld: “We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others.” Or Burke, or Hazlitt, or Balzac. Or the French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille, who admitted that he gazed at least once a day at an especially atrocious photograph from China in which one sees a man skinned alive. But why? What is gained from the contemplation of such sadistic images? Why does a great proportion of Western painting represent the Massacre of the Innocents, and the flaying of Marsyas, and the agony of Laocoön—when it is not depicting the slow and agonizing death of a man named Jesus?

It is not enough to say that suffering sells better than happiness; this only begs the question. The moralists of the past provided a first reply to the question, which one could summarize thus: watching the suffering of others brings us a certain pleasure because we recognize at the same time that we ourselves are exempt from this distress. No man is an island; whether we wish it or not, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, and to see them unhappy throws into relief our own happiness, just as the sight of their triumphs can plunge us into melancholy. Why do they enjoy such good fortune, and we do not?

But this explanation seems limited when one tries to comprehend the spell that has been cast upon the faithful, for centuries, by the bloodied body of the crucified messiah. And the same is true, in its way, of Bataille's tortured Chinese prisoner. The answer here would be, rather, that the image of Christ's suffering has this effect because it embodies, for believing Christians, an essential aspect of the human condition. Christ sacrificed himself to save mankind; owing to his sacrifice, salvation is possible. He suffered greatly, to be sure, but he thereby fulfilled the divine plan, and we owe him gratitude. In a similar but secular way, when we look—without pleasure, perhaps, but with an undeniable fascination—at the bodies of lynched African Americans, or at Japanese carbonized by atomic explosions, or at Vietnamese transformed into purulent sores by napalm, we, too, discover an essential truth—about human nature or, more modestly, about human politics. Such images remind us of the evil of which we and those like us are capable, and so they are very welcome, in all their disturbing ugliness, because they shake us out of our complacence about ourselves. We generally prefer to anesthetize ourselves with notions that are more flattering to us, to see ourselves as rational beings toiling ceaselessly for the universal good.

It is a good thing, therefore, that these horrific images exist. “It seems a good in itself,” Sontag suggests, “to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one's sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others.” But many other questions are born of this answer. Doesn't the multiplicity—and therefore the familiarity—of these images destroy the disabused feeling about the world that they are charged with eliciting? By seeing so many massacres, do we not become numbed to the blood? Sontag does not think so. Anyway, there is a practical consideration: it is hard to imagine a way of supervising all the world's televisions so that they do not exceed some daily quota of brutality. Another facet of the same problem concerns the blurring of fiction and reality, of virtual images and real wars: having seen so many disaster films, so many acted murders, will we still be able to be moved by a catastrophe in our own town? Sontag thinks this danger is exaggerated, that most people are morally and cognitively sound enough to see the difference between entertainment and reality. “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism,” she properly asserts. “It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world. … It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. … There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.”

Images of distress and suffering are threatened also from another side: they risk being beautiful. We experience a certain malaise when we come away with this perversely pleasing impression. It is a reproach frequently leveled at Sebastião Salgado, and in particular at his series Migrations. The offense here is aestheticism: to avoid making a moral judgment by making an aesthetic one, to limit one's reaction to “it's beautiful” or “it's not beautiful,” even in the face of revolting events to which one expects the reaction “this is evil.” Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and Ukrainian scientists stood on a balcony to admire the fireworks produced by the explosion of the central reactor at Chernobyl.

There are several sides to this problem. One is linked to the presence of the photographer: he must not give us the impression that he could have prevented the disaster but refrained from doing so in order to come away with a fine photograph or to experience an intense sensation. What can shock in some of Salgado's images is not their beauty but their generality—all the exoduses of the earth are confused and run together, severed from their concrete political contexts—and the anonymity of his photographic subjects, stripped of their individuality and transformed into symbols of distress. “It is significant,” Sontag notes, “that the powerless are not named in the captions.”

Moreover, the discomfort evoked by certain images of catastrophe—the ones that we say are “too beautiful to be true”—proceeds from an aesthetic judgment rather than an ethical one. They lack internal coherence. If their purpose is to make us more sensitive to disaster, then the very beauty of the image becomes a distraction and a discomfort. And if they are designed to make us admire beauty, why focus only upon the children in rags, or upon the emaciated man? What we call the truth of an image—which is not reducible to the fact that the object photographed exists somewhere in the world—is at the same time its beauty; and if the truth and the beauty are separated, both suffer.

That we choose to look at the suffering of others should not make us feel guilty, but neither should it be a source of pride. For the word is as necessary as the image: the latter strikes the imagination (which is always too weak), the former helps us to understand. Moreover, representation, even with the best will in the world, cannot replace experience. No filmed bombardment can reproduce the effect of actual falling bombs, of the bodies of loved ones dug from the ruins. This is doubtless one of the reasons why wars, the most abundantly represented events in the history of mankind, still continue. We never seem to know them well enough.

Alexander Nehamas (review date September 2003)

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SOURCE: Nehamas, Alexander. “The Other Eye of the Beholder.” American Prospect 14, no. 8 (September 2003): 62-3.

[In the following review, Nehamas praises Sontag's opinions in Regarding the Pain of Others, contending that she makes honest assertions about the effects that pictures depicting brutality and suffering can have on the public.]

“Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death”: Thirty years after the first of the essays eventually collected in On Photography, which was published in 1977, Susan Sontag is still troubled by the aesthetic, moral and political ambiguities of the medium. Regarding the Pain of Others is her erudite, subtle and provocative—though also tentative and sometimes inconclusive—meditation on the tensions inherent in photographs of war, death and devastation. Such pictures seem to multiply with every passing day. Does that make their horrors more palpable or less? Many are technically proficient; some are even beautiful. Does beauty celebrate violence and ferocity or does it simply entice a larger audience to confront them? They seem to establish a bond between viewer and victim. Does compassion incite us to fight injustice or does it permit us to feel innocent of it and impotent against it?

Photography is not the only visual medium to go hand in hand with death. Death has been the constant companion of all visual representation since its very beginnings. In the oldest historic work of art, a bronze palette from 3150 B.C., Menes, king of Upper Egypt, is about to crush an enemy's head with his mace and add the body to the mound of corpses lying at his feet. Unlike the painter's hand or the sculptor's arm, however, the camera is a machine. It registers physical traces of things. A photograph seems to be more than just a representation because, somehow, the representation allows us to look through it and see its subject directly, as if it were literally before our eyes. A photograph is “a record of the real.”

That is one reason pictures of pain and suffering are so unsettling: A photograph of starving mothers and their children in Biafra makes us feel, willy-nilly, that we are standing before them, at best unable and at worst unwilling to intervene. That is not to say that all pictures of horror have similar effects; ambiguity is inescapable. An image of dead civilians in the Middle East may draw me to the victims on humanitarian grounds or confirm your abhorrence of war, though to Israelis or Palestinians it may simply be proof of the other side's brutality. Sontag shows that context is critical to determining whom a photograph will outrage and whom it will delight. The same pictures of dead children, with different captions, served to denounce both Serb and Croat atrocities in the early 1990s. Still, photographs that appall present their own special problems.

Why, for example, is it so difficult to tear oneself away from them? In 1968, Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed a Vietcong suspect on a Saigon street. In a terrifying photograph—much more disturbing than the tape of the whole sequence—Eddie Adams captured the moment of the shooting. Contorted by pain, fear and the sheer force of the bullet that has just struck him, the prisoner's face also expresses a kind of sad resignation. It is the face of a man who knows that he has already died. Whenever I see it again (and I have seen it many times already), I find myself gazing at it intently, with a curiosity that is almost morbid. Although I am, to be sure, horrified, I also suspect that, as I study the man's face for a hint of what that moment feels like, part of me is glad that it is he who is dead and not I. (Plato showed that speaking of oneself as a collection of fragments is inevitable here.)

What does it say about me that I may find pleasure in another's death? And what does it say about us that I am not alone? Sontag, too, is disturbed by the photograph. “As for the viewer, this viewer,” she confesses in the hesitating manner characteristic of this book, “even many years after the picture was taken … well, one can gaze at these faces for a long time and not come to the end of the mystery, and the indecency, of such co-spectatorship.” Averting our gaze is not the solution, she writes, as, “The gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards, unable to look.”

Photographs of contemporary atrocities, at least, may provoke effective action. The purpose of looking at photographs of the past—such as the lynching souvenirs in James Allen's collection Without Sanctuary, published in 2000—is much more disputable. Old or new, however, no picture can speak for itself; neither the photographer's intention nor its visual content determines its meaning, purpose or effect. Adams' photograph (to his dismay) galvanized the anti-war movement, but only because the movement was already in place, ready to circulate its own interpretation. But where opponents of the war saw callous indifference in Gen. Loan's impassive profile, supporters of U.S. policy could discern stoic devotion to duty.

Despite being mute, pictures can still be manipulative. Some of the most famous war photographs, for example, turn out to have been staged. The Light Brigade never rode into the plain that Roger Fenton, the first war photographer, chose to depict in “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” (1855) and over which he carefully arranged the cannonballs that litter the landscape. Alexander Gardner's “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg” (1863) is of an imaginary scene, created specially for the occasion. Some suspect that even Robert Capa's “Falling Soldier” (1936)—the model of “spontaneous” photography—may have been posed for the camera. Sontag doesn't find that surprising; what strikes her as odd is that “we are surprised to learn that they were staged, and always disappointed.”

Actually, when photographs of contemporary events, which we might still affect, are at issue, we are more likely to be angry than disappointed—a staged picture is a kind of false advertising. It is when we discover that older photographs were staged that we are disappointed, especially if they are well known. Perhaps, then, we might begin to find an explanation in the relationship between photography and memory. Images, often provided in the first instance by photographs, are essential to memory. For example, the war in Bosnia is inseparable in my mind from an image of a Serb militiaman about to kick a Muslim woman lying on the ground—inseparable, that is, from Ron Haviv's 1992 photograph. If it turned out that Bosnian propaganda had staged the scene, I would be very angry (these are still recent events), but I would also have to ask: Would my feelings today be the same had the picture, and the turmoil it caused me, not been a factor in my life? My stand on the new Balkan wars? My political views? How can we help being disappointed with ourselves when we are made to see how easily we might have been somebody else?

Turning from viewer to victim, Sontag criticizes Sebastião Salgado's photographs—not, like most others, for being beautiful but for always leaving the powerless they represent nameless and so reducing them to their generic features, just as under the single heading “Migration” Salgado groups together different kinds of misery produced by different causes in different countries. His vast and abstract scale makes suffering seem almost natural and certainly too uniform and widespread to be affected by any specific political action. “All politics,” however, “like all of history, is concrete.” That's why, I think, Serajevans, as Sontag reports, would yell at photographers as the bombs fell around them, “Are you waiting for a shell to go off so you can photograph some corpses?” Some corpses. In anticipation, it seems as if it doesn't matter whose as long as there is something to shoot; naming, if it comes at all, can only come later and is no consolation to the victim.

Sontag now rightly rejects the view, central to On Photography, that as images of violence and devastation proliferate, their horrors turn into mere spectacle and their viewers become inured to them. Her reasons are not clear, but she is convinced that exposure to these images does not dull their impact. They serve as reminders that “this is what human beings are capable of doing—may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don't forget.” But Sontag, I think, is overlooking the fact that this is something pictures can do only if someone of her intelligence and sensibility lends them her voice. In the book's closing sections, the ambiguities of photography recede further and further into the background as looking is gradually transformed into “elective attention,” “thinking” and, finally, “the function of the mind itself.” At that point its guilty pleasures have also disappeared. Sontag writes, “There's nothing wrong with standing back and thinking, … ‘Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.’”

Perhaps. But nobody can hurt and think at the same time, either. The only pain we can ever regard is necessarily the pain of others—most often remote and exotic others but sometimes also those whose only difference from us is in the pain they feel. In the distance that separates observer and observed there is always room for the thought, “At least it is not happening to me,” and, with it, for photography's questionable pleasures. To those who have felt them, these pleasures intimate that we can never be sure whose role we would play if we were to find ourselves in a world of real violence. Or, as Sontag writes about the ordinary people posing for snapshots with the charred bodies of their lynched victims in Without Sanctuary: “Maybe they were barbarians. Maybe this is what most barbarians look like. (They look like everybody else.)”

Although Regarding the Pain of Others is brimming with questions, its answers are few and seldom more definite than this tentative statement, which is typical of the book as a whole and fitting to its equivocal subject. That has irritated some of the book's reviewers; to me it is one of its strengths. Looking at photographs of human horrors is, in many ways, inescapably ambiguous, and to pretend otherwise is either arrogant or complacent. Readers of Susan Sontag's record of honest perplexity will be a little more self-conscious as they read the morning newspaper or watch the evening news—not a mean feat if we agree with her, as we should, that all politics is concrete.

Arthur M. Kleinman (review date fall 2003)

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SOURCE: Kleinman, Arthur M. Review of Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag. Literature and Medicine 22, no. 4 (fall 2003): 257-61.

[In the following review, Kleinman praises Regarding the Pain of Others for not only displaying human fascination with images of death and pain, but for urging readers to view such images with sympathy and compassion.]

Susan Sontag has been, since the 1970s, one of the leading public literary figures in the United States. In addition to six novels, two film scripts, and a play, she has written eight books of essays. Two of the latter are widely cited meditations on medically relevant topics. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, books that are taught to medical students in courses in the medical humanities and social sciences, illustrate the power of meaning to shape experiences of pain and suffering, often in ways that create problems for patients and practitioners.

Sontag also wrote one of the earliest and most penetrating and influential interpretations of photography in modern society, On Photography. In the early 1990s, during the horrific civil war in Bosnia, Sontag traveled to Sarajevo, from where she penned powerful pieces on the brutal effects of the fighting and the social forces that fueled its explosions of inhuman political violence, pieces that also burned with passionate criticism of the seeming incapacity of Europe, the United States, and international agencies to intervene effectively to stop the bloodshed, psychological trauma, and societal destruction.

All of these themes come together in a powerful and disturbing way in her brilliant new book, Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag focuses on photographs of pain and suffering that are caused by “hellish events,” especially war (p. 26). Photographs, she avers, unite opposites: objectivity and a special point of view. Sontag insists “to photograph is to frame, to frame is to exclude … it has always been possible for a photograph to misrepresent” (p. 46). Yet, in commonsense realism, “A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show. That is why photographs, unlike handmade images, can count as evidence” (p. 47).

Sontag reminds us of Ernst Friedrich's Krieg dem Krieg! (War Against War!), a book of photographs from the First World War that was deemed unpublishable by German censors while the war was being fought because of the horror the photos portray, including close-ups of soldiers with difficult-to-look-at gaping facial wounds. The purpose of this picture book was to shock readers with graphic evidence of the immense destructiveness of the Great War, a war in which 1.7 million Germans died. Here photography not only acknowledges social suffering but also offers a protest. That this protesting image and the many others used by antiwar activists offered no serious resistance to the gathering storm of fascism and Nazism that only a generation later would create a second world war, with at least fifty million deaths, reminds us soberingly of the limits of images to prevent the very real dangers in human experience. To be sure, Sontag also reminds us that images of horror and gore can feed a prurient voyeurism that many of us are capable of experiencing.

Sontag joins earlier critics of the famous war photographer Robert Capa's iconic photograph of the Spanish Civil War depicting a Republican soldier at the very instant he is killed by enemy fire. Other evidence suggests that this universally recognized photo was almost certainly staged and may have recorded a training exercise. Many of the most memorable pictures from the Second World War were indeed staged, including that quintessential picture of American military bravery that conjures patriotic sentiments each Veteran's Day, the photo of American servicemen raising the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima in the winter of 1945. Live television broadcasts, such as those by “embedded” reporters in the Iraq War, may prevent staging; still, the ability to frame and interpret make point of view as crucial to photography now as in the past, as anyone comparing images from Iraq on American and Arab television can attest.

One widely cited picture of human suffering that Sontag does not discuss, but that makes many of her points, is a picture that won the South African photojournalist, Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer Prize.1 It frames an isolated toddler bent over in a stubble field in southern Sudan during a famine. Near the dying child is a large black vulture poised, it seems, to move in for the kill. The message is stark and terrible: look at what a basket case Africa is. Africans can't even protect their own children from natural disaster. Leading international nongovernmental organizations featured the picture in their campaigns for funds to relieve the dire plight of famine victims. Almost everything the picture depicts is seriously misleading. It took Carter days of tramping through the brush to find a child separated from its family. The so-called natural disaster is in fact a political strategy in Sudan's decades-long civil war by which the government, dominated by northern Muslims, seeks to subdue the Christian Nilotic tribes of the south. The evil symbolized by the menacing vulture is actually situated in the political offices and military barracks in Khartoum. Although Leonardo da Vinci ordered artists who depict war to be “pitiless” and to appall, critics of Kevin Carter (who, shortly after receiving his prize, committed suicide) wanted to know how he could take such a picture while the vulture acutely threatened the child. How long did he wait before he intervened? Was he inhuman and unethical? Sontag's powerful essay includes at least one troubling ethical issue in every chapter.

It used to be thought, when the candid images were not common, that showing something that needed to be seen, bringing a painful reality closer, was bound to goad viewers to feel more. In a world in which photography is brilliantly at the service of consumerist manipulations, no effect of a photograph of a doleful scene can be taken for granted. As a consequence, morally alert photographers and ideologues of photography have become increasingly concerned with the issues of exploitation of sentiment (pity, compassion, indignation) in war photography and of rote ways of provoking feeling.

(Pp. 79-80)

Pictures, actually home photos, taken by whites watching the lynching of black men in the American South “tell us about human wickedness. About inhumanity” (p. 91). Sontag is attracted to the notion that “there exists an innate tropism toward the gruesome” (p. 97). Pain and suffering can be represented to beautify, to uglify, to steel the observer, to numb her, to “acknowledge the incorrigible,” to haunt, and to transform (p. 98). Just as pain transforms the sufferer, pictures of pain can transform the observer, making a bystander into a witness, a member of a lonely crowd into a social activist, a nonengaged observer into a healer.

In the essay's closing pages, and to her great credit, Sontag turns from “regarding the pain of others,” with its primary emphasis on representation and interpretation, to the reality of the suffering itself, the experience of injury and loss. Without explicitly saying so, Sontag is criticizing writers who so readily forget that images of pain are not only images, who may even seek to weaken the authority of the real world. Trauma and dying are lived. Danger is at the very core of the experience of most men and women. Sontag has been in the thick of battle; she knows what violence is about. She knows that to be there demands practical action:

To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment. … It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people's pain, just as it is absurd to generalize about the ability to respond to the sufferings of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.

(P. 110)

So much has been made of the moral duty to remember trauma through pictures that Sontag's admonition to forget, to allow pictures to lapse into amnesia in order to stop the cycles of killing, comes as a shock, as does her argument that there is no difference between watching suffering at a distance and up close. One wants to argue back, and that is a virtue of the great clarity of her writing and the compelling logic it conveys—a forceful position moves the reader to want to argue back.

Interpreting an art photo of dead Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, intended by its creator to haunt the everyday, Sontag concludes,

What would they have to say to us? “We”—this “we” is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through—don't understand. We don't get it. We truly can't imagine what it was like. We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is, and how normal it becomes. Can't understand, can't imagine. That's what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.

(Pp. 125-6)

And this is also the issue for physicians involved in responses to war and other forms of political violence: Can we project to policy makers the actual horrors of war, so that the terrible burden of our experiences can bring the reality of social suffering to weigh on those who are responsible for waging war, to move them to prevent it?


  1. Arthur Kleinman and Joan Kleinman, “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times,” Daedalus 125, no. 1 (Winter 1996): 1-23.

Paul Lester (review date winter 2004)

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SOURCE: Lester, Paul. Review of Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator 58, no. 4 (winter 2004): 392-94.

[In the following review, Lester compares and contrasts Regarding the Pain of Others with Brian Goldfarb's Visual Pedagogy: Media Cultures in and beyond the Classroom.]

All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic.

—Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 95

I do not mean to downplay the radical potential of programs that engage students in the visual, the popular, or the technical means of media production.

—Brian Goldfarb in Visual Pedagogy, p. 7

An interesting and valued feature for this journal would be for AEJMC members to periodically report what books they read for pleasure—ones chosen for no other purpose than to learn about topics unrelated to career paths, and yet, if the authors do it right, ways of incorporating their teaching into ours can be found. I tend to choose nonfiction books to read for fun with one-word main titles: Beauty,Crying,Dust,Salt, and Stiff, for example. Recently, I have made two exceptions: Regarding the Pain of Others and Visual Pedagogy. Guess which one I was asked to review for this journal?

I must confess at the onset that pedagogy, the word, is one of those “fingernails on the blackboard” haughty terms like hegemony and paradigm that I usually avoid when selecting books and articles to read or conference presentations to attend. (Perhaps part of the problem I have with the word is I am never sure if it is pedaGAAgee or pedaGOgee. My wife and writing collaborator says the former, but I prefer the sound of the latter. But I digress.)

As soon as I saw the recent Sontag collection of essays on the shelf of a bookstore at a mall. I snatched it up and devoured the articles in one afternoon, pausing only to underline phrases and write comments here and there. Back in 1977 when Sontag's first collection, On Photography, was published, I was a green, 24-year-old photojournalist living in the French Quarter. Her book taught me, among other things, that I could be intellectually challenged while working as a professional. On Photography was one of the most influential works about the nature of images, image making, and our responses to the artifact and the artist. Just as its predecessor, Regarding the Pain of Others should be more than simply regarded. It is a vital addition to the ever-expanding literature of visual culture that all of us—word and picture people alike—should read (although in truth, how many are reading this review?). In this age of MTV music videos, “Headline News” crowded screens, and even university professors trying to jazz up their lectures for their bored undergraduates, there is a good chance that our media-driven culture dulls and dilutes the message somewhere between the pupil and the hippocampus.

And nowhere are there better examples than with images from war. Think of the pictures of those killed and those grieving over their profound loss—regardless of sides—during the on-going Iraqi conflict and judge whether you were truly moved by such grotesque agony.

Quite simply, visual messages, as necessary as they are to fully tell important stories of the day, cause us to be weary—weary of the war on terrorism, weary of another dead soldier, and weary of Laci Peterson.

Part of the weariness many feel is not connected to 9/11, wars, or real crime subjects closer to home. It is an outgrowth of a trend in photo-journalism that has long-established and honored roots. Photojournalists at conventions receive standing ovations, Pulitzer Prizes, and community and professional accolades for photographing others during their worst moments. Through reading magazines and newspapers, watching television and motion pictures, and using the World Wide Web, we can find all manner of agony: desperate and inexperienced miners in South America, kids doing tricks to buy crack, a beautiful young woman forever altered by a fiery crash caused by a drunk driver, or close-up shots of those shot during battles. These depictions of grief neatly framed and sometimes explained with words is a form of commercialized voyeurism rendering the viewer impotent and useless, and are as objectifying as any pornographic image. That is the message of Sontag's essays. Unfortunately, we may never learn the proper response to her challenge.

But as educators—excuse me—as enlightened pedagogues—we are challenged, it must be said, by two factors in our teaching: our students must be made aware of the pornography of grief that causes us to disregard the pain of others and they must be given the tools—intellectually as well as technically—to affect change. Otherwise, we have not only failed them, but we have failed all.

Knowing this challenge, we are left with always the disquieting question of what to do about it. Despite my initial hesitancy because of its title, Visual Pedagogy offers a possible way out of this cycle of cynical criminality.

Goldfarb teaches media production at the University of California, San Diego. His educational experiences within traditional and alternative classroom settings combined with his position as Curator of Education at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City make him a unique force in the field of teaching students how to engage their audiences with their stories using innovative technologies or traditional methods with innovative ideas.

Imagine a journalism in which readers and viewers become as engaged with the plight of others as our students do during a semester-long project. In two parts, Goldfarb describes how that feat might be possible. The four chapters of part one look at innovative technology and ideas within traditional classroom settings: the advent of television instruction from Washington, D.C., to American Samoa, empowering students as video producers, learning from lessons from sex education, and implementing peer instruction in which students teach students through a variety of technological methods. The final three chapters take us outside the box of the classroom: using the philosophy and history of the museum space as an educational tool, studying African filmmakers and films in which the African viewer “functions finally as the crucial figure of pedagogical authority” (p. 189), and seeing how local television and community politics collide and interact in São Paulo, Brazil.

Engagement is the link between Sontag's concern and Goldfarb's solution. Journalism should engage a reader, viewer, user, and/or consumer with the facts and people involved in a story. Too often, however, it does not. Mass communication and journalism instructors should take the initiative and meet with instructors from other disciplines that in the past have been separated by traditional modes of thinking. Instructors and students from theatre, art, music, computer science, and philosophy should work together to produce trans-media collaborations. Grant applications should be completed to obtain funds for equipment, instructor time, conferences, and new media centers. Engagement can lead to connections among users, the people who are a part of the story, and the producers of the story. But that's not all. Engagement also can lead to what has been described by philosopher Albert Borgmann as “the good life.”


Sontag, Susan (Vol. 13)


Sontag, Susan (Vol. 2)