Susan Sontag Sontag, Susan (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Susan Sontag 1933–

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

Sontag is among the most influential contemporary American critics. Her numerous essays concentrate on utilizing a new sensibility in evaluating a work of art. Early in her career, Sontag proposed an end to standard methods of critical analysis that rely on content and various levels of meaning. She asserted that the function of criticism is to show "how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means." Sontag is credited with making the works of such writers as Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin more accessible to American audiences, and she has also earned the reputation among critics as an advocate of popular culture.

Sontag established her precepts for evaluating art in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966). In the title essay she contends that critical interpretation "depletes and impoverishes" creative works, arguing that art should be received with the senses—evoking pleasure and excitement—and not the intellect. Included in this volume is the famous essay "Notes on 'Camp,'" in which Sontag defends "camp" as a legitimate art form that is "serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious." She also proposed that style is the essence of "camp," asserting that "there exists a good taste of bad taste." Although most critics dubbed her the "Queen of Camp," some acknowledge the essay's importance in introducing avant-garde works into the cultural mainstream. "Trip to Hanoi" (1968) is a journalistic essay that recounts Sontag's visit to North Vietnam. Several critics commended her for not resorting to political rhetoric. Sontag instead concentrates on the personal growth and enlightenment realized through her interaction with the North Vietnamese. Styles of Radical Will (1969) contains the essays "The Pornographic Imagination," in which Sontag argues that pornography is a valid literary genre, and "The Aesthetics of Silence," an analysis of the intentionally noncommunicative qualities in works by John Cage, Samuel Beckett, and others. Also included are several pieces on the cinema.

Illness As Metaphor (1978), written after Sontag's own fight with cancer, discusses the ways in which society conceptualizes illness. She draws a parallel between the nineteenth-century tendency to equate tuberculosis with romanticism and the twentieth-century perception of cancer as an isolating, passionless disease. In both cases she contends that such attitudes have hindered scientific research into the causes of the two diseases. Illness As Metaphor is regarded as an attempt to remove these obstacles and advance the research and cure of cancer. The essays in Under the Sign of Saturn (1981) focus on European art and philosophy. Critics generally agree that the essays on German filmmakers Leni Riefenstahl and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg are the best in this volume.

While Sontag is best known as a critic, she has published two novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967), and a collection of short stories, I, etcetera (1978). She has also directed and written the screenplays for the films Duet for Can-nibals (1968), Brother Carl (1972), and Promised Lands (1974), a documentary on the Yom Kippur War of 1973. These works have not received the same serious recognition as Sontag's expository writings, yet the experimental nature of her fiction follows Sontag's conception of art as an immediate and sensuous experience. A Susan Sontag Reader (1982) is a selection of previously published works, including excerpts from the two novels.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 10, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)

Alicia Ostriker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The chief commodity of Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation, according to its author and her reviewers, is a modern sensibility. Stress the modernity here, since she is distinguished less by a decided or passionate point of view … than by an eagerness to explore anything new. At times this eagerness lapses deliberately into inarticulateness, as in her celebrated essay on Camp, which will probably be unintelligible in ten years. At its best—for example in the essay on Happenings—it reports immediate emotions unpretentiously and sensitively. But sensitive people are a dime a dozen. The rarer gift Miss Sontag has to offer is brains. The theoretical portions of her book are delightful to read because she can argue so well. Even when she fudges her argument with standby ploys like name-calling, the shifted definition, the straw man, or the historical distortion, she does it with the skill of an expert. Her literary and philosophical references are broad and applied with originality. Her ideas are consistently stimulating, particularly when they do not get in the way of her major theoretical premise—as in the little essay "Piety Without Content," where she uses the analogy of political fellow-traveling to destroy, beautifully, the rosy idea of common-denominator religiousness.

For all that, however, her major premise is that brains are bankrupt. This is explicit in the snide comments about "philistinism" and about the bad effects on culture of "people with minds," in the vague asides about "magic" in art, in the preferences for non-verbal over verbal art, in the insistence that we need more feeling and less thought. It is implicit everywhere in her refusal to carry any line of reasoning through to the end. Finally, it cripples her attempt to develop "case studies for an aesthetic" (her own description of her intention) because an aesthetic is an intellectual thing.

What Miss Sontag wants to encourage, in art and criticism, is respect for sensuous surfaces, for feeling, for form, for style. What she apparently wants to encourage in real life is respect for the unconventional, the amoral, the extreme sensation, be it sensuous gratification or madness. So far so good. Anybody who does Freudian criticism or looks for morals in art, or whose vision is directed only toward what is happy, healthy and prudent, needs this book. But it is not enough to offer a corrective to such people.

Miss Sontag, seems to think it is enough, perhaps because she has despaired of the possibility that artists, critics, or the public can use their minds to create new syntheses of matter and manner, good...

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Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The following excerpt is taken from an essay originally published in The New Republic, May 3, 1969.]

That Susan Sontag is philosophically oriented and has something of a metaphysical impulse to her thinking … is among the reasons why I think her one of the most interesting and valuable critics we possess, a writer from whom it's continually possible to learn, even when you're most dissatisfied with what she's saying, or perhaps especially at those times. For the past several years she has been the chief voice in America of one main tradition of French criticism, which is one of the reasons, I'm convinced, why she is disliked, where she's disliked, with such ferocity and xenophobic scorn. (p. 30)

When she said in the preface to her first book of essays and reviews [Against Interpretation] that "what I have been writing is not criticism at all, strictly speaking, but case studies for an aesthetic, a theory of my own sensibility," the remark was thrown out as an afterthought, a footnote, whereas it ought to be front and center, the motto for everything she has done. And that would include the journal of her recent visit to North Vietnam, reprinted in this new collection, Styles of Radical Will.

The point isn't that there is criticism, neat, familiar, unquestionable as a procedure, and then there is what Miss Sontag does, odd, peripheral although maybe useful; but that what she has been doing, or attempting, is more interesting and more relevant to what is going on than is most traditional criticism. (At least, on a pragmatic test, I don't know of any critic more interesting or more relevant.)

Her sensibility departs from that of the traditional literary critic in that she is very little interested in, or at least in writing about, fiction (except as it enters extreme modes, as in pornography) and seems to care nothing at all about poetry…. But she differs, too, from the traditional critic of general culture in that she is deeply involved in aesthetic awareness. We might call her a critic of ideas, except that she has always wished to treat ideas sensuously, aesthetically; or decide that she is a philosopher of cultural forms, except that philosophy for her has always been a drama rather than a method. (pp. 30-1)

The alarm that many people feel at the approach of Susan Sontag, the distaste, resentment and even fury she causes, has, it seems to me, two bases…. The cruder one is moral and "humanistic." She has been accused of being inhuman or antihuman for ignoring moral and spiritual elements in art, or rather for sanctioning and encouraging the immoral, pornography or camp, for example, violence or extravagance. To this the only answer is that no material or data or subject or, for that matter, mood in the aesthetic realm has anything to do with being sanctioned or deplored, needs validation or, in short, lies in the moral universe at all…. The moral charge against Miss Sontag, which is mainly a charge against the kinds of art she has been interested in, issues from the same morale such charges always do: apprehension in the face of new consciousness.

Beyond this Miss Sontag has marched, aggressively and with her great bristling apparatus of learning …, pointing every which way but most dangerously at certain processes of literary erudition itself, into some sacred realms, to the consternation of their guardians. At the least newcomers are expected to observe the rules. And one of the chief rules is that criticism is a province of the dispassionate (and fact-finding) intellect, which it is designed to serve and, so to speak, to fill out.

But Miss Sontag, it seems, would like to fill out the body or at any rate the whole man, to return the intellectual side—especially the hermeneutic side—of aesthetic experience to a subordinate place. When she wrote, as the coda to one of her most famous essays ["Against Interpretation"], that "in place of hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art," she drove many persons nearly wild with misapprehension that what she meant amounted to a new barbarism, a new species of self-indulgence, a relinquishment of the hard-won rationality through which we have steadily mastered art and myth in order to put them into the service of civilized being, of "culture." What she meant, of course, was a new appreciation, a new agreement on mystery, a new delight.

She hasn't always meant it convincingly, it's true, or, to speak more plainly, she hasn't always demonstrated that mystery and delight are what she herself experiences. It is surely a notable fact about Miss Sontag's sensibility—her "subject" and the principle of her shift in critical method—that it so often strikes you cold, even icy. This is the irony, detected by many, of her demand for an erotics of art. But to be caught in an irony of this kind has nothing to do with being inhuman; writers, more than most humans, are situated between what they are and what they hope it's possible to be. Nor is it a matter of any classical inability to "feel," and attempts to discredit her on this ground … are obtuse and unjust.

For the problem of her sensibility is also the generating power of its interest and importance for us as she exemplifies and tests and expounds and shapes it into form in her writing. It is precisely classical ability to feel, which, as it works itself out in our shibboleths and humanistic myths, means to feel the way others have, to feel certain emotions (in certain ways) that have been sanctified as properly human and necessary, that has come into question. (pp. 33-5)

Susan Sontag has been engaged in trying to plot the course of her new feelings, which is to say her responses as a representative advanced consciousness…. In doing this she has indicated all the debilities and irresolutions and compensatory aggressions and contradictions that are inevitable in consciousness in transition. The chief content of that transition now is the challenge to Western literary culture, or rather to the supremacy of literature as culture; the growing breakdown of the erstwhile separation between art and audience, or more strictly between art as object for contemplation and as material for...

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Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In that ideal Republic which is invoked by anyone who writes a criticism of life, Susan Sontag would have no status, since her mind is nourished solely on products of decomposition. Her opportunity depends absolutely on there being a condition of latent anarchy to sanction the impudence with which she defines the condition as admirable…. Miss Sontag has many of the secondary attributes of a professional revolutionary: an irreparable want of humor, a sweeping disregard of the nuances of history, a hatred of elites over which she does not personally preside, a faculty for translating all data into propaganda—and underneath it all, barely concealed, a private thirst to be devoured by something bigger, more forceful...

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William Phillips

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

More than any other writer today, Susan Sontag has suffered from bad criticism and good publicity. If she could be rescued from all her culture-hungry interpreters, it might be possible to find the writer who has been made into a symbol. This is no longer easy because a popular conception of her has been rigged before a natural one could develop—like a premature legend…. The standard picture now in circulation is that of the up-to-date radical, a stand-in for everything advanced, extreme and outrageous, for artistic revolt, political disaffection, perversity and that peculiar combination of moral responsibility and moral irresponsibility associated with revolutionary movements—a fusion of Che and Genet....

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Walter Kendrick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Under the Sign of Saturn] contains seven examples of the form in which Sontag first made her popular reputation and in which she still does her best work—the supple, graceful genre that used to be called the occasional essay. The pieces reprinted here were published at odd intervals between 1972 and 1980; two are brief personal memoirs (of Paul Goodman and Roland Barthes), two are mainly concerned with film (Leni Riefenstahl and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg), and the remaining three (on Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, and Elias Canetti) belong to a venerable subgenre that the 19th century excelled in but the 20th has neglected, the "literary portrait."

For much of the past decade, Sontag worked...

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Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Susan Sontag is a good deal more than a mere explainer. Her strong, idiosyncratic sense of the contours of her own culture makes her sensitive to the cultural difference of the alien sage. She may think veneration an appropriate response to some subjects, but not, usually, at the expense of her own judgment. It is therefore not surprising that in this collection of essays [Under the Sign of Saturn], nearly all of which are about alien sages, there are some that one could confidently propose as models of what such introductory studies ought to be, though there are others in which the cult corrupts the exposition, and we are asked to wonder at the Hercules under discussion rather than to understand his labors....

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Leo Braudy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Under the Sign of Saturn Sontag is at work again reshaping the canon of modern European literature. Her particular polemic—a strong element in the general thrust of postwar New York literary criticism—is to celebrate the leopards in the temple of literature, not those cool and calm consciousnesses (like the Sophocles and Shakespeare of Matthew Arnold) who abided all questions and saw life whole, but those whose own derangement allowed them to explode the lies of order so that better forms might be discovered. In her criticism she labors to turn even the most self-isolating, uncompromising, and personally outrageous of such figures (I think here especially of Artaud) into humane teachers, whose flame, all...

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Elizabeth Hardwick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Susan Sontag: the name is a resonance of qualities, of quality itself. The drama of the idea, the composition, a recognition from the past that tells us what the present may bestow when we see her name. The term "essay" itself is somewhat flat as a definition of the liberality of her floating, restless expositions. A Susan Sontag Reader, a choice from her criticism and fiction, is in no way scant, but it interested me to note that one could regret the omission of almost any piece of her writing, any square of the mosaic that is in the end an extraordinarily beautiful, expansive, and unique talent.

Her writings are hers, intimately and obsessively one might say. They bear, each one, the...

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Walter Kendrick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A fully established American figure, Sontag is ready for the archive; and so, appropriately, we have A Susan Sontag Reader. It's not the Reader—maybe there will be a sequel—but it offers a heavy sampling of her work, from her first novel, The Benefactor (1963), through her obituary essay on Roland Barthes (1981), all selected by Sontag herself. Ordinarily, writers are dead or incapacitated before Readers are bestowed on them. Sontag is neither—though you'd never know it from Elizabeth Hardwick's elegiac introduction [see excerpt above], which croons of "unique talent" and "profound authority" till you can fairly smell the formaldehyde.

There's too much of Sontag's fiction...

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Jay Parini

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sontag has done an able job of editing [A Barthes Reader], and her introduction is thoughtful, an elegiac retrospective, what in the eighteenth century would have been called an éloge—a commemoration of the illustrious dead. This introduction to Barthes forms the concluding essay in her own selection, A Susan Sontag Reader…. It is quite instructive to read the Barthes and Sontag Readers in tandem; the real thing looks even more real beside the imitation.

Sontag's ability to stay one step ahead of Continental Thinking has earned her high marks in the world of intellectual journalism. She is always a half-step ahead of the fashion, with a knack for saying the outrageous...

(The entire section is 894 words.)