Susan Sontag was that unimaginable thing, a celebrity literary critic. Most readers of The New York Review probably would have been able to recognize her on the street, as they would not, say, George Steiner. An icon of braininess, she even developed, like Einstein, a trademark hairdo: an imperious white stripe, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi, as though she were declaring a cultural Emergency. Most readers probably know a few bits about her life, as they do not of any other critic: the girl Susan Rosenblatt—Sontag was her stepfather—in her junior high class in Arizona, with Kant, not a comic book, hidden behind her textbook. Her teenaged marriage to Philip Rieff that was her entry into highbrow society. (“My greatest dream was to grow up and come to New York and write for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people.”) Her trip to Hanoi in 1968. The mini-skirted babe in the frumpy Upper West Side crowd and her years as the only woman on the panel. The front-page news in 1982 when, after years of supporting various Marxist revolutions, she declared that communism was “fascism with a human face.” Her months in Sarajevo in 1993, as the bombs fell, bravely or foolishly attempting to put on a production of Waiting for Godot. Her struggle with cancer. Her long relationship with the glamour photographer Annie Leibovitz. We even know—from Leibovitz’s grotesque “A Photographer’s Life” exhibition and book—what Sontag looked like in the last days of her life and after her death.

At thirty, she had indeed become a regular contributor to Partisan Review, as well as The New York Review. At thirty-three, she collected her essays into Against Interpretation (1966), surely the best-known book of cultural criticism of its time, a dizzying, intimidating, simultaneous celebration of asceticism (Simone Weil) and absurdism (Eugène Ionesco), suicidal suffering (Cesare Pavese), physical self-loathing (Michel Leiris) and physical delight (Norman O. Brown), the criminal (Jean Genet) and the transgendered (Jack Smith), the minimal (Nathalie Sarraute) and the maximal (happenings, Marat/Sade), the films New York intellectuals were talking about (Godard, Resnais, Bresson) and the films French intellectuals were talking about (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond). The book ended with a declaration of a “new sensibility,” first proclaimed in the pages of Mademoiselle magazine, most of which sounded like the manifestos of a half-century before:

Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility. And the means for practicing art have been radically extended…. Painters no longer feel themselves confined to canvas and paint, but employ hair, photographs, wax, sand, bicycle tires, their own toothbrushes and socks. Musicians have reached beyond the sounds of the traditional instruments to use tampered instruments and (usually on tape) synthetic sounds and industrial noises.

The new sensibility is rooted in “new sensations such as speed,” the new crowds of people, and the proliferation of material things. It blurs the distinction between high and low art, refuses to be sentimental, views the artwork as an object and not an “individual personal expression,” and does not believe it should be a vehicle for meaning or moral judgment. “The new sensibility understands art as the extension of life.”

Against Interpretation was a bombshell partially because, cloaked in a familiar and unthreatening critical discourse, it finally brought the tenets of Dadaism and Futurism and Surrealism to Riverside Drive, where the modern had been Joycean and Eliotic, a territory patrolled by New Critical, Freudian, and Marxist exegetes. What was missing in the book was any sense that Sontag was raising the revolutionary banner in a very tiny kingdom. When, in a famous sentence—the entire last section of her title essay—she declared, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” the first-person plural reflected how isolated that kingdom was. It was already forty years after the first Surrealist manifesto or, closer to home, seven or eight years after “Howl” or On the Road. “We” could have taken the subway downtown.

Against Interpretation also contained, of course, “Notes on ‘Camp’,” which remained Sontag’s best-known shorter essay, and the one cited in nearly all the obituaries. It has dated badly, especially as the word “camp” (let alone “to camp”) has long since reverted to its summer leisure connotations, and its subtleties, so meticulously detailed by Sontag, have been reduced to the “Cult” section of the video store. Yet “Notes on ‘Camp'” inadvertently became Sontag’s most influential essay. Its fifty-three-point structuralist analytic overkill on a minor pop phenomenon—an ironic fad among certain witty gay men—was something new in the US, though the French had been doing it for years. From that seed, to her dismay, grew the vine that would eventually overrun the English Department, producing a thousand deconstructionist dissertations on Batman. But it was also—in a climate where the literary establishment passed over homosexuality in polite silence and the left was largely hostile—one of the earliest attempts, and surely the most important, to illuminate (and even praise!) a gay sensibility.


Most of the qualities of Sontag’s work as a critic were in place in that first book of essays. Her prose style barely changed over the next forty years. As much of literary criticism sank into an imported technojargon, she was notable for the clarity of her heavily worked phrases that seemed to have been written under Walter Benjamin’s dictum that every sentence should contain a thought. (She had a fondness for the unnecessarily italicized word and, like Edward Said, a tendency to string together three nouns, verbs, or adjectives—a tic perhaps picked up from Robert Lowell’s poems.) One always knew exactly what Sontag was saying, even if one didn’t think it was true. And each essay was extensively researched and elegantly argued with her University of Chicago training in philosophy, full of precisely apt quotations that apparently came from a photographic memory. Describing Roland Barthes, she described herself:

[His work] has some of the specific traits associated with the style of a late moment in culture—one that presumes an endless discourse anterior to itself, that presumes intellectual sophistication: it is a work that, strenuously unwilling to be boring or obvious, favors compact assertion, writing that rapidly covers a great deal of ground.

The essays are ruminative, utterly humorless—her favorite word was “serious”—and unlike the work of many of the writers she most admired, in that she never attempted to do anything new or different, formally, with her critical prose. She did not, or could not, follow another Benjamin dictum she cited: “All great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one.” She was a celebrant of transgression, but there was nothing transgressive about her writing. Brilliant syntheses of what were often Continental ideas unfamiliar to American audiences, her best literary essays were unmatched models in the art of the introduction.

Fashioning herself after the European (especially Eastern European), Russian, and Latin American literary writers who had become intellectual consciences in their societies, Sontag began her role as an often-inflammatory political commentator the year after Against Interpretation, in the Winter 1967 issue of Partisan Review. An artifact of its age, it was dedicated to a symposium on “What’s Happening to America.” (“There is a good deal of anxiety about the direction of American life. In fact, there is reason to fear that America may be entering a moral and political crisis.”) Participants were asked to answer seven questions on Lyndon Johnson, inflation, foreign policy, the role of the intellectual, the “activities of young people today,” and so on. Although one of the questions was “Is white America committed to granting equality to the American Negro?” it did not occur to anyone to ask any actual American Negroes. Only two women were invited: Sontag and Diana Trilling, then sixty-two.

Sontag’s response was a full-scale bombardment of H.L. Mencken’s Yahooland, not excluding “John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House,” the genocide of the American Indian, and “box architecture.” Amazingly, in 1967, she was (with Jack Newfield, in passing) the only participant to mention sex, drugs, and rock and roll. She even admitted to taking drugs herself, though her cultural references reveal her as somewhat less than groovy: her primary example of the sounds of the counterculture was the hopelessly showbiz—the word then was “plastic”—Supremes. Her response also contained the lines that set off a long apoplectic reply from Sidney Hook in the next issue, and were among her most notorious at the time:

The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history…. [her italics]

She came to regret that last phrase, and wrote a whole book against the use of illness as metaphor, and yet this sentiment never led to any public curiosity about those who are not cancerously white. In her collected critical writings there are only a few pages—some program notes for a Japanese Bunraku puppet performance and a passage on photography in China—that deal with the cultural products of the majority of the world. Her one published entry into the third world—the 1968 “Trip to Hanoi”—shows her trying to put on a brave face but utterly at sea, and her early short story “Project for a Trip to China” is an embarrassing bit of Chinoiserie, however dismantled and self-consciously postmodern. Like the old joke about the Oxford don, she knew everything, and nothing about everything else. It’s too bad. One would have thought, to take only one example, that Yukio Mishima would have been a perfect subject for her—a counterpart to her essay on Leni Riefenstahl—with his conjunction of authoritarianism, militarism, the cult of the body, and self-destructive narcissism.


She may well have been the last unashamed Eurocentrist. Even the Americas barely appear in her taste for writers. There are three essays on American writers of any stripe: a review of Norman O. Brown (1961), an obituary for Paul Goodman, “quite simply the most important American writer” of the last twenty years (1972), and an appreciation of Glenway Wescott (2001). Latin America is confined to Machado de Assis (1990), three pages on Juan Rulfo (1994), and a very slight “Letter to Borges” in 1996. Unexpectedly, though she is taken to be an urfeminist, she rarely wrote on women writers: Weil and Sarraute in Against Interpretation, Pauline Réage (the author of The Story of O) as part of a long essay on pornography in 1967, an introduction to Marina Tsvetayeva in 1983 (that says little about Tsvetayeva and much about Joseph Brodsky), a few pages on Elizabeth Hardwick in her essay on Wescott, and Anna Banti in 2003. In the early years, this was perhaps to avoid ghettoization as a woman writer on women writers, a need to be taken as one of the guys in what was essentially a guy-world, but this was not the case later on, when her fame allowed her to write on anything she chose. Her lack of generosity to other women writers was most baldly apparent in the uncollected and unpleasant speech she gave in 2003 accepting the Prince of Asturias Prize, which she was obliged to share with the Moroccan writer Fatema Mernissi, whom she indirectly belittles as a mere ethnic token.1

She had no apparent interest in poetry, other than Rilke, Auden, and a few friends. And though she was considered the trendiest critic, the one who was up on everything happening right now, she largely stopped writing about the living—particularly living writers—after the 1960s. There was an essay on Elias Canetti, then seventy-five, in 1980; one on W.G. Sebald twenty years later; and one on Adam Zagajewski in 2001.

The critic of the current always faces the problem that in the next generation, taste will have moved on and the subject is no longer of great interest (Resnais, Bergman), or the subject will be seen as entirely of its moment and now quaint (“camp,” happenings), or the critic’s initial perceptions will have become so absorbed into received thought that they are no longer vital (Godard). But the risk in writing exclusively on the past, even the recent past, is that the critic will be seen at best as nostalgic, at worst as sour. Sontag had been one of the first American highbrow literary critics to write on the movies (“the art of the twentieth century”—her italics) and her example had paved the way for the strange idea and practice of the incorporation of Film Studies into the English Department. But by 1995, marking “A Century of Cinema” in Where the Stress Falls, she was lamenting the passing of a golden age of cinephilia in the 1960s and early 1970s—which was of course her period of intense moviegoing—and its “profusion of masterpieces.” She complained that “one hardly finds anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies” (which seems completely untrue) and concluded: “If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead.” In 1979, writing on Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, she claimed, somewhat ridiculously, that “lately, the appetite for the truly great work has become less robust.” Twenty-one years later, her essay on Sebald began: “Is literary greatness still possible?” And in her 2004 essay on Victor Serge (reprinted in At the Same Time), she writes:

To read Serge’s memoirs is to be brought back to an era that seems very remote today in its introspective energies and passionate intellectual quests and code of self-sacrifice and immense hope: an era in which the twelve-year-olds of cultivated parents might normally ask themselves [as Serge did]: “What is life?”

Throughout Sontag’s writings, the literary figures she admires from earlier in the twentieth century are described as “heroes,” “giants,” even “gods.” We, implicitly, are midgets, and may produce no great art again. Even our children—though it is unlikely Sontag talked to many—no longer wonder.

Much of her best writing was done in the 1970s. On Photography (1977), her contentious love-hate letter to the “quintessential art of affluent, wasteful, restless societies,” remains the best introduction to the subject, not only a fairly comprehensive brief history but Sontag’s finest display of her synthetic skills, managing to incorporate nearly everything that has been thought or said on photography into a free-flowing argument that would become one of her perennial themes: how photographs—and by extension films and television—those “clouds of fantasy and pellets of information” have become a “pseudo-presence” more real than the real itself in a world dependent on their production and consumption. (In 2003, she returned to the subject of the “modern experience” of “being a spectator of calamities” in Regarding the Pain of Others, an elaboration, partial repetition and partial refutation of the earlier book. One reads it again now almost as a creepy prophecy, knowing that Sontag’s own suffering would be turned, via Leibovitz, into a media mix of photographic images to be displayed next to images of half-clothed movie stars.)

Her next book, Illness as Metaphor (1978), probably more than anything else she wrote or said, made a genuine difference in the world. Its thesis, bolstered by Sontag’s usual extraordinary range of historical facts and citations, was simple: cancer is not a metaphor for anything. Cancer is not the result of repressed emotions or of personality disorders, as was widely believed at the time. Cancer should not be a dirty secret. Cancer is “just a disease—a very serious one, but just a disease. Not a curse, not a punishment, not an embarrassment.” Her apt comparison throughout the book was with tuberculosis, once a similarly metaphorical affliction and now merely physiological. This was a revelation—and, like most revelations, perfectly obvious after the fact. That we now live in an era where presidential candidates and their wives openly discuss their cancer, complete with medical diagrams in the newspapers, is the result of a shift in thinking that clearly began with Sontag’s book.2

This period ended with Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), surely the best collection of her shorter essays, the ones that many people remember first when thinking of Sontag: the portraits of Artaud and Canetti, the memoir of Barthes, the celebration of Syberberg’s Hitler (an enthusiasm few shared), the great studies of Benjamin and melancholy, and of Riefenstahl and the sexual allure of fascism.

After that, she concentrated on novels, of which—like many critics who write fiction—she was the greatest champion. A famous writer with numerous friends and varied interests, she became, as is often the case, bogged down in ephemera and favors: speeches, statements, responses; program notes for performances of dance, theater, and opera; short texts for art catalogs; something on grottoes for House and Garden; something on Don Quixote for the Spanish Tourist Board. Where the Stress Falls (2001), her first collection in more than twenty years, contained only a few essays in the book’s 350 pages that seemed like major efforts, most notably her second, and much longer, appreciation of Barthes.

At the Same Time is a similar miscellany, drawn from the last four years of her life: introductions, political responses, short essays, keynote addresses, prize acceptance speeches. The book opens with “An Argument About Beauty,” which is an argument against the word “interesting” as a replacement for “beautiful”:

One calls something interesting precisely so as not to have to commit to a judgment of beauty (or of goodness). The interesting is now mainly a consumerist concept, bent on enlarging its domain: the more things become interesting, the more the marketplace grows.

Sontag had a tendency to blame everything on consumerism, though surely one could also say: “the more things become beautiful, the more the marketplace grows.” And she herself was frequently not immune to the use of “interesting” as a catch-all, as in (on Barthes) “everything he wrote was interesting.”

There is a section of mainly slight political pieces, beginning with her notorious contribution to the post– September 11 issue of The New Yorker, which appeared like a blast in the surrounding well-mannered prose:

The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deception being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?3

She was widely assailed in the prevailing jingoism of the moment, particularly for lines such as “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together,” and her comment that the attack was a “consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” A few weeks later, in an interview for an Italian newspaper, she is already backtracking from her initial response:

But the view I detect among some American intellectuals like Vidal and many bien-pensant intellectuals in Europe—that America has brought this horror upon itself, that America itself is, in part, to blame for the deaths of these thousands upon its own territory—is not, I repeat, not, a view I share.

She declares that she is “guardedly optimistic,” and seems uncharacteristically delusional—not only in hindsight: it would have seemed like a fantasy at the time—as she imagines “strenuous debates in the highest government-military circles”:

Clearly, our masters of war have realized that we face an exceedingly complex “enemy” who cannot be defeated by the old means….

One can only hope that something intelligent is being planned …that the Bush administration, Tony Blair, et al. have really understood that it would be useless or, as they say, counterproductive—as well as wicked—to bomb the oppressed people of Afghanistan and Iraq….

A year later, she was writing in The New York Times of the War on Terror as a “pseudo-war,” a metaphor more than a war, and decrying the patriotic blather attending the first anniversary of September 11. In May 2004, in what is evidently the last piece she wrote, she returned to themes in On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others to consider the pornography of the torture photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison, and both the official and media responses to them. Although she is adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq, it is startling that she now refers, without elaboration, to the invasion of Afghanistan as “quite justified.”

Five formal speeches are included, which will be of interest mainly to Sontag completists. “The Conscience of Words” (the title, uncredited, taken from Canetti) was written for her controversial acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize in 2000 from then Mayor Ehud Olmert. It is alternately bland and testy (“To accept an honor is to believe, for a moment, that one has deserved it…. To refuse an honor offered seems boorish, unconvivial, pretentious”), platitudinous until near the end, when, in two perfunctory paragraphs, she criticizes Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and calls for the dismantlement of the settlements. This is somewhat expanded, along with some words against the war in Iraq, in “On Courage and Resistance,” the Rothko Chapel Oscar Romero Award keynote address, honoring the Israeli soldiers who have refused to serve in the occupied territories.

“The World as India,” the St. Jerome Lecture on Literary Translation, invokes St. Jerome, gathers the usual suspects whenever translation is discussed (Goethe, Schleiermacher, Benjamin, the Tower of Babel) and oddly ends up in a Bangalore call center. This is the world as India: the few thousand who answer 1-800 numbers with trained American accents, and not the billion other people on the subcontinent. In “Literature Is Freedom,” accepting the Freedom Prize of the German Book Trade, she invokes her love of German literature, responds to Donald Rumsfeld’s recent characterization of “old Europe,” and runs through some familiar notions on the differences and similarities between Europe and the United States, the old and the new.

In the cranky “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” the Nadine Gordimer Lecture, she invokes Nadine Gordimer, and then defends the novel by launching into an attack on the global world of mass media and the Internet. Even translation gets its lumps, for it “entails a built-in distortion of what the novel is at the deepest level,” which is “the perpetuation of the project of literature itself.” (Why translation distorts the perpetuation of literature—one would think the opposite is true—she doesn’t say.) There are predictable statements against television:

Literature tells stories. Television gives information…. The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding …a lesson in amorality that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.

And so on, based on the assumption that fiction is Dostoyevsky and television is Baywatch, when of course most fiction is Danielle Steele and some television—to take one of Sontag’s favorites—is Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. She laments at length the impending triumph of hypertext—strangely making this, the penultimate piece she wrote, among the most dated. And along the way, she makes some false pronouncements on poetry: time is not “essential” for poetry (rather like saying time is not essential for music). “Poetry is situated in the present.” The metaphor is “necessary” (her italics) for poetry, and “a great poet is one who refines and elaborates the great historical store of metaphors.” Obviously a great poet is more than a metaphor machine, and some employ no metaphors at all.

The best and worst essays in the book are a section of five introductions. An unusually weak one on the letters of Rilke, Pasternak, and Tsvetayeva: “a god and two worshippers, who are also worshippers of each other (and who we, the readers of their letters, know to be future gods).”

Today, when “all is drowning in Pharaism”—the phrase is Pasternak’s—their ardors and their tenacities feel like raft, beacon, beach.

An unconvincing one on Anna Banti’s Artemisia, where Sontag seems more interested in the figure of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi herself, and the fact that Banti had to write the manuscript twice, the first version having been lost when Banti’s house in Florence was blown up by the retreating German army in 1944. With Halldór Laxness’s Under the Glacier, she seems far off her turf, contextualizing as best she can with everything from Steppenwolf to Buster Keaton. (And disbelief does not get willingly suspended when she declares, twice, that this book is “like nothing else Laxness ever wrote,” considering that he produced some sixty novels, most of them as yet untranslated from the Icelandic.)

There are two superb introductions: One on Summer in Baden-Baden, “a crash course on all the great themes of Russian literature,” the single, posthumously published novel by Leonid Tsypkin, a Russian doctor who died in 1961. Sontag—as with so many books—was responsible for bringing the novel back into print, which itself belies the claim in her opening sentence that it “seems unlikely that there are still masterpieces” to be discovered from the second half of the twentieth century, written in major languages.

Then, the finest essay in the book, an introduction to Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev, also a Sontag rediscovery. Serge (1890–1947), a Russian who wrote in French, a militant who spent some ten years in jail, is another one of Sontag’s heroes, transparently a person she would have liked to have been: a novelist and a revolutionary, reviled by both the left and right, who in his anticommunism still had “not given up on the idea of radical social change,” someone in the middle of the major struggles of the first half of the century, someone who knew everyone:

There was nothing, ever, triumphant about his life…unless one excepts the triumph of being immensely gifted and industrious as a writer; the triumph of being principled and also astute and therefore incapable of keeping company with the faithful and the cravenly gullible and the merely hopeful; the triumph of being incorruptible as well as brave and therefore on a different, lonely path from the liars and toadies and careerists; the triumph of being, after the early 1920s, right.

Because he was right, he has been punished as a writer of fiction. The truth of history crowds out the truth of fiction….

It is equally transparent that Sontag, who frequently referred to herself as primarily a fiction writer, a “storyteller,” is talking about herself. On the previous page she had written:

Finally, he was a lifelong practicing intellectual, which seemed to trump his achievement as a novelist, and he was a passionate political activist, which did not enhance his credentials as a novelist either.

There are too many examples of intellectual novelists and activist novelists to make this statement true, and it seems to apply mainly to Sontag’s perception of herself. It is the aspect of Sontag that is most difficult to take: the longing, or the pretense, to be a witness, a melancholic standing in the ruins of history, despite the circumstances of her life. As a critic, she was a Roland Barthes who dreamed of being a Walter Benjamin, and moreover, a Walter Benjamin who dreamed of being a Russian novelist. But she was born too late, and in the wrong place.

She had written on Canetti, “He is preoccupied with being someone he can admire” (her italics), and the same seems true of the girl Susan Rosenblatt from nowhere in Eisenhower America. The quintessential cosmopolitan, there was something provincial in her unabashed idolatry of the great, in her need—though she railed against American consumerism—to consume every book, play, opera, ballet and dance performance, or art exhibit she thought worth reading or seeing. A sign of boundless energy—the jacket of At the Same Time reproduces a scrap from her notebooks, which reads: “Do something. Do something. Do something.”—but, one also suspects, a sign of a certain insecurity, as though she still needed to prove that she had arrived and that she was the best informed in the room. It was evident in her predilection for pronouncements, in her belief—she is again describing Canetti—that “to think is to insist.” In Sontag there is always the insistence that she is, like Serge, “right,” even when that rightness contradicts—as it did in so many political matters over the years—the right things she had said before.

In the end, there are three Sontag books to read: On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, and a third, invented volume, drawn from the other books, of her selected portraits (Artaud, Benjamin, Barthes, Canetti, Cioran, Godard, Leiris, Lévi-Strauss, Pavese, Riefenstahl, Sebald, Serge, Tsypkin), for, as an idolizer, she wrote her best essays on single figures, rather than larger tropes. Three good books is a lot, more than most writers achieve, though perhaps not what she imagined of herself, or for herself. In 1967, she had written in her journal:

My image of myself since age 3 or 4—the genius-schmuck…. Sartre (cf. “Les Mots”) the only other person I know of who had this “certainty” of genius.4

(By “schmuck” she meant her personality flaws, and her inability, at the time, to form long-lasting relationships.) It is a Hollywood cliché that a beautiful actress needs an element of ugliness to become a great star, and one might say that a genius needs an element of stupidity, or something wrong, to become a great imaginative writer. Sartre certainly had his. But Sontag seems to have had nothing stupid about her at all. Arguably the most important American literary figure or force of the last forty years, she may ultimately belong more to literary history than to literature.

This Issue

August 16, 2007