Literary star in the age of radical chic; essayist, novelist, critic, activist. Sontag was the thinking girls’ crush of the 60s and 70s. A great talker too; candid, informal, learned, ardent, Sontag wrote about politics and illness and mass media, and as the author of 17 books (translated into 32 languages) she did it properly. Susan Superstar…
“The most meaningful relationship I had as a child was in my head. I adored my fragile, withholding mother, who was not very maternal. I had a sister who I was not close to, whom I belatedly befriended at my mother’s death- bed. There was no support or encouragement. I experienced childhood as though it were a prison sentence. I never wanted to look back because there was nothing I wanted to take with me.”
Susan Sontag was born on January 16, 1933 to Mildred and Jack Rosenblatt. Her father was a fur trader and her parents lived overseas for his business while Sontag (and her younger sister, Judith) lived with her grandparents in New York. After her father died, Susan was just 5, the family moved to California. In 1945, Mildred married Air Corps captain Nathan Sontag, and Susan took his surname.
She said her childhood was deeply solitary with little gaiety. Sontag found solace in books and learning. She graduated high school at the age of 15 and attended the University of California at Berkeley before transferring to the University of Chicago. Upon earning her bachelor’s in philosophy, Sontag went on to earn her master’s in English and philosophy at Harvard and did additional postgraduate work abroad at Oxford and the Sorbonne.
“I must change my life so that I can live, not wait for it”
Susan certainly didn’t wait for life – she took it on with full force. At the age of 9 she started a four-page monthly newspaper, sold for five cents to the neighbors. The paper was filled with imitations of things I was reading; stories, poems and plays. “And accounts of battles—Midway, Stalingrad, and so on; remember, this was 1942, 1943, 1944—dutifully condensed from articles in real newspapers.”
At 17 she married. She met sociologist Philip Rieff at the University of Chicago, after attending his class on Kafka, late. He asked for her name when the class ended. Just 10 days later they were married. Their son David was born in 1952, Susan was 19.
“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.”
Voraciously curious and quick to learn, Susan loved books. She remembered as a girl of 8 or 9 lying in bed looking at her bookcase against the wall. “It was like looking at my 50 friends. A book was like stepping through a mirror. I could go somewhere else. Each one was a door to a whole kingdom.”
She always found time to read; she said that the memory of her drunken mother sleeping away her life provoked her to make do with four hours’ sleep a night.
Reading remained a huge part of her life; everything from art and architecture, theatre and dance, philosophy and psychiatry, to the history of medicine, and religion, photography, and opera. She was well read in European literature too, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, as well as hundreds of books of Japanese literature and books on Japan. Over her lifetime she built up a library of 15,000 books.
At 24 Sontag moved to Paris, and so began a long intellectual and artistic association with French culture and the development of her certain style (she spent many months a year there until the 1970s). She hung out with Allan Bloom, Jean Wahl, Alfred Chester, Harriet Sohmers and María Irene Fornés, later remarking that this was perhaps the most important period of her life.
From the 60s on Susan was a rock-star academic – the thinking person’s pinup. Friendly and formidible her personal magnetism and striking looks were very much part of this fame. She knew how to look, she knew how to be photographed. Posed, most often with cigarette, darkly beautiful with a head of stylish hair – her face was most probably more well known than her work. Later she took to wearing her black hair with a white streak in it, like Diaghilev, in what looks like a deliberate honing of her appearance. A contradiction to the questioning of attitudes to women’s beauty she once wrote in an article for Vogue – A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source? in 1975;
“There should be a way of saving beauty from women – and for them”… “To preen, for a woman, can never be just a pleasure,”… “Nobody encourages a man to dissect his appearance,” with “women are taught to see their bodies in parts and to evaluate each part separately” … “Nothing less than perfection will do.”
“All my work says be serious, be passionate; wake up,” she said. “You have to be a member of a capitalist society in the late 20th century to understand that seriousness itself could be in question.”
Sontag started and ended her career writing fiction – The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967) The Volcano Lover,(1992) and In America (2002) but it was as a critical essayist that she found great applause.
She applied her breadth of knowledge in literature and philosophy to contrast the standards of the past—truth, beauty, transcendence, spirituality—to thealienation, extremity, and perversity of the sixties, with. Against Interpretation, (which included Notes on Camp) in 1964 was followed her best-known works; On Photography (1977), Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will, The Way We Live Now, Illness as Metaphor (1978), Regarding the Pain of Others, Where The Stress Falls (2002).
Her writing voice was marked, first and foremost, by a supreme intellectual confidence, a tone evident from the first line of Notes on Camp; “The essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric – something of a private code, a badge of identity, even, among small urban cliques.”
“Today everything exists to end in a photograph”
In On Photography she became concerned with the proliferation and consumption of photographs. One of the first to link modern imagery with de-sensitisation and harm to children. In a gesture of immense self-confidence, her book On Photography (1977) did not contain a single photograph as specimen or illustration.
She was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres but never became rich from her writing. She lived mainly off grants and scholarships. It was not until The Volcano Lover that she acquired an agent; and only in 1990, when she was awarded a handsome MacArthur fellowship, did she buy her apartment in New York.
“I intend to do everything … I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it too for it is everywhere! … everything matters!” (Sontag, aged 16)
Susan was strict in the divide between her public and private life, but she was well aware of her sexual allure. She herself once said, she had Jasper Johns, Bobby Kennedy, and Warren Beatty all at her feet. There’s no doubt she loved many times, and enjoyed relationships with several (artistic) women; including; Harriet Sohmers Zwerling (writer and artist’s model), María Irene Fornés (Cuban-American artist), Eva Kollisch (writer), Nicole Stéphane (French actress), Lucinda Childs (dancer and choreographer) and Annie Leibovitz (renowned photographer) – her lover for the last 15 years of her life. In 1959 her then husband, Philip Rieff, attempted to ‘out’ her in the custody battle for their son, David, claiming that she was an unfit mother due to her lesbian relationships. Sontag and Fornés appeared in the courtroom “stunning” in dresses, heels, and makeup. The judge was so smitten by the glamorous duo that he could not believe they were lesbians and Susan won the case.
After that she rarely talked about her love life – she explained why, “I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the ‘open secret’. I’m used to that, and quite OK with it. Intellectually, I know why I haven’t spoken more about my sexuality, but I do wonder if I haven’t repressed something there to my detriment. Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, but it’s never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody’s in drastic need. I’d rather give pleasure, or shake things up.”
Santag didn’t want to be known as a woman writer but a writer. She took on Norman Mailer for his “lady writer” epithets and won favor with many in the 70s feminist movement – except Camile Paglia. “I have been told that I am a “natural” feminist, someone who was born a feminist. In fact I was quite blind to what the problem was: I couldn’t understand why anyone would hesitate to do what they wanted to do just because they were told that women didn’t do such things. The feminist movement has been important to me because it’s made me feel less odd and also because it has made me understand some of the pressures on women which I was lucky enough to have escaped, perhaps because of my eccentricity or the oddness of my upbringing.”
“For we live under the threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.” (The Imagination of Disaster, 1965)
Through her work, Sontag cultivated a high political profile. She visited Hanoi during the Vietnam war (after which she described the white race as “the cancer of human history”). In 1993 she directed a candlelit production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo under siege. She was also a vociferous critic of the Soviet Union – particularly in its treatment of writers – and was president of PEN in 1987. Days after the attacks of September 11 2001, she criticised American foreign policy, referring to the terrorists’ behaviour as “an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions”. Many Americans never forgave her for this view.
Serious health problems dogged her life but never her spirit. In 1976 she was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She had no medical insurance, but friends had rallied round and after experimental treatment in Paris, the cancer went into remission.
“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
She wrote Illness As Metaphor, (1978) and AIDS And Its Metaphors (1989) challenging the language used around disease and illness – in particular the notions of ‘blame’ (the illness as a result of some other transgression) and ‘battle’ (the need to fight, say, cancer) . “Illness is just illness”, she wrote without a mention of her own cancer.
From this time she became thought more about death – so terrified of it (because she so loved life) she could not bear to speak of it. She was an habitual visitor of cemeteries. And she kept a human skull on the ledge behind her work table, nestled among the photographs of writers she admired (there were no family pictures) and various knick-knacks. ‘Would I think about it differently if I knew whether the skull had been a man or woman?’ she wrote in one of her journals.
In 1998 she was diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer. Then in 2004 came myelodysplastic syndrome, that evolved into acute myelogenous leukaemia. And though she underwent a bone marrow transplant, there would be no remission this time. She died in New York on 28 December 2004, aged 71.
Sontag was buried by her son at Montparnasse cemetery in her spiritual home Paris. She lies near the graves of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir.
‘A writer is someone who pays attention to the world’
Regarding Susan Sontag, documentary by Nancy Kates