Susan Sontag’s label “the Dark Lady of American Letters” refers to more than her physical features. From her persistent championing of European writers and thinkers to her refusal to ally herself with any particular school of thought, Sontag is usually considered an outsider by American academia—respected for her sharp intelligence but treated warily. In part this may be because she has been so critical of the approach that modern academics take to art. Sontag demands nothing less than a revamping of the way we perceive art; to some this may be too demanding and threatening a shift in perspective.
In Sontag’s first collection, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), the title essay (first pub. 1964) and “On Style” (1965) together serve as a position statement from which Sontag has never deviated. In them she discusses the way we look at art and the distorting nature of modern interpretation, in which we no longer see works of art as simply existing, but look for their underlying meanings. This act of interpretation ignores the true nature of art. As Sontag explains in “On Style,” “A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.” Rejecting interpretation, she advocates what she calls in the title essay “transparence,” which means “experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.”
Crucial to approaching art experientially is the abandonment of the distinction between content and form, a distinction which usually privileges content over form and further encourages the search for meaning. Sontag contends that style and content are so intricately interwoven that they cannot be disentangled without damaging the integrity of the artwork. Separating art into different levels implies a hierarchy, whereas a transparent surface reveals everything at once; there are no hidden depths or meanings. In other words, style is a part of content, and content a part of style; the “meaning” of art lies in the experiencing of both together without analysis.
The other essays in Against Interpretation either extend Sontag’s initial argument into specific areas of culture, such as in her famous essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), or provide examples of how that argument might be applied, for instance in essays on theater, film, and European authors and thinkers like Nathalie Sarraute, Georg Lukács, and Simone Weil.
Sontag’s second collection, Styles of Radical Will (1969), confirmed her reputation as a major, but controversial, intellectual force in the U.S. In it she writes again on theater and film, on European thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and E.M.Cioran, and on pornography. Also included is “The Aesthetics of Silence” (1967), a restatement of Sontag’s thesis against interpretation, this time focusing on what the spectator should bring to the contemplation of art: silence. In the ideal meeting between art and viewer,
Sontag explains, “The spectator would approach art as he does a landscape. A landscape doesn’t demand from the spectator his ‘understanding,’ his imputations of significance, his anxieties and sympathies; it demands, rather, his absence, it asks that he not add anything to it. Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject.”
The act of perception is given book-length treatment in one of Sontag’s best-known works, On Photography (1977). Sontag finds in photography the ideal art form for her pursuit of transparency. Because photography has a leveling effect on its subject matter (i.e. anything can be photographed and so nothing is privileged) and is so prolific in society that it destroys the boundaries and definitions of art, the viewer can approach a photograph freely with no expectation of discovering what it means; its transparency is anticipated.
Given Sontag’s suspicion of levels of meaning, it is not surprising that her own writing style is clear, unfussy, and free of metaphors. She is also careful to remove herself from the text, even from a work like the extended essay Illness as Metaphor (1978), which considers the symbolic meanings attached to tuberculosis in the 19th century and cancer in the zoth. Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor after she herself had cancer, but avoided the easy temptation of mentioning her own experience, only referring to it briefly in the later Aids and Its Metaphors (1989), which extends her argument to include Aids.
Throughout her essays, most of Sontag’s references are to Europeans, to the point where she can appear scathing and condescending about her fellow countrymen.
Certainly in “What’s Happening in America” (1967), she is very negative about the state of her country. Her sensitivity and alliance to the European intellectual tradition display the generalist nature of her work and her position as a universal intellectual. Monika Beyer has called her “a free-floating commentator on the general culture, unaffiliated to specific interest groups or institutions” (Liam Kennedy quoting Beyer, 1995).
However, as Liam Kennedy points out, despite acting as a free agent, Sontag has long been associated with the “New York intellectuals” of the 1960s, particularly through her connection with the Partisan Review, which she idolized as a youth and began contributing to in 1961. The New York intellectuals advocated cultural criticism and intellectual generalism, and used the essay form as the most appropriate genre in which to explore ideas. Kennedy feels that “It is no accident Sontag should find herself most at home with the essay form, selfconsciously manipulating its provisional and performative features, using it to ‘try out’ ideas. She favours disjunctive forms of argument: aphoristic and epigrammatic modes of critical expression are widely applied in her writings.”
In 1992, Sontag published her third novel, The Volcano Lover, and since then has declared that she will concentrate on writing fiction rather than essays. Perhaps she feels she has made her point; it is now up to her readers and admirers to apply to her fiction the approach to art she has advocated since “Against Interpretation” and has herself so successfully applied throughout her oeuvre.
Born 16 January 1933 in New York City. Studied at the University of California, Berkeley, 1948–49; University of Chicago, 1949–51, B.A., 1951; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1954–57, M.A., 1955; St. Anne’s College, Oxford, 1957.
Married Philip Rieff, 1950 (divorced, 1958): one son. Taught English, philosophy, or religion at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1953–54, Harvard University, 1955–57, City College of New York and Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1959– 60, and Columbia University, New York, 1960–64. Editor, Commentary, New York, 1959; also contributor to various other periodicals, including Partisan Review, New York Review of Books, Atlantic Monthly, Nation, and Harper’s. Also directed several plays and films.
Awards: several fellowships; American Academy Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, 1976; National Book Critics Circle Award, 1977; Academy of Sciences and Literature Award (Germany), 1979. Member, American Academy, 1979; Officer, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1984.
Essays and Related Prose
Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 1966
Styles of Radical Will, 1969
On Photography, 1977
Illness as Metaphor, 1978
Under the Sign of Saturn, 1980
A Susan Sontag Reader, 1982
Aids and Its Metaphors, 1989
Other writings: three novels (The Benefactor, 1963; Death Kit, 1967; The Volcano Lover, 1992,), short stories, the play Alice in Bed (1993), and screenplays.
Hardwick, Elizabeth, Introduction to A Susan Sontag Reader, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983
Jeffords, Susan, “Susan Sontag,” in Modern American Critics Since 1955, edited by Gregory S.Jay, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 67, Detroit: Gale Research, 1988
Kennedy, Liam, Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion, Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1995
Poague, Leland, Conversations with Susan Sontag, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995
Sayres, Sohnya, Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist, New York: Routledge Chapman and Hall, 1989; London: Routledge, 1990
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