Susan Sontag

Writer and critic who was New York's 'zealot of seriousness'
Click to follow

Susan Rosenblatt (Susan Sontag), writer, critic and film-maker: born New York 16 January 1933; married 1950 Philip Rieff (one son; marriage dissolved 1958); died New York 27 December 2004.

Susan Sontag belonged to that breed of strong, intellectual women, including Rebecca West, Germaine Greer and her immediate American precursor Mary McCarthy, who put a stamp on their time and whose name is known and admired by a general public, few of whom have read their books, but who think of them as icons of fashionable opinion. Their views on current affairs and cultural subjects are sought by the press, radio and television, they are much in demand at conferences, their names are used frequently, they are familiar guests on panels and they enjoy a spotlight of fame that is often ill-defined.

When Susan Sontag went to Sarajevo in 1993 to stage a completely unauthorised production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot that went against every specific stage direction demanded by the author, she received international publicity for her courage in placing her life in danger, her wisdom in choosing one of the most discussed and poignant plays of the 20th century to perform in the middle of a crisis situation, and for her gesture in raising the morale of a beleaguered and frightened Muslim city.

No one asked questions about the cost of the official and governmental assistance she must have received to make her visit possible, and only a few queried the artistic quality of the resulting production that changed the text and used casts of both sexes (there are no women in Godot and the author was adamant that women were not to play the male roles), or asked how many people ever saw the play. But Sontag wrote a long description of her adventure that appeared in leading newspapers and magazines around the world and brought her a tidy sum, as well as much publicity. But many questioned her motives and looked again at the career of a very confusing personality.

Susan Sontag described herself at different times as a "besotted aesthete", "obsessed moralist" and "zealot of seriousness", which make her stand out in a society that strives after none of these things, but professes to admire them, and her background was unlike any other. Her parents, Jack and Mildred Rosenblatt, were Americans trading in animal skins in pre-war China, and her mother returned to the US in 1933 only to deliver Susan and leave her with grandparents.

Her sister Judith was born two years later on another return trip of her mother's and the father she had never seen died of tuberculosis in 1938 when she was five; she never found out where he is buried. The grandparents who dominated her early years were uninformative about their or her background. She only knew that they were secular Jews from somewhere in Europe.

At school Susan was always ahead of her age group, able to read at three and always leading a much older class. She wrote a short story at the age of five based on what she knew of her distant mother, which showed much bitterness, and she was already thinking of her childhood as a prison from which only time could release her. When her mother returned in 1938, she took her two girls to Tucson, Arizona, and soon remarried Captain Nathan Sontag, an army officer, who moved the whole family to Los Angeles, where Susan went to high school in North Hollywood and, after graduation, to university at Berkeley for a year.

She then switched to the University of Chicago. Here, at the age of 17, she met and married a sociology lecturer, Philip Rieff, 11 years older than herself, only 10 days after attending his lecture on Freud on an impulse. She was at that time radiantly beautiful and entirely self-confident, with a burning literary ambition. Her husband's own career was advancing rapidly (he was to become eminent in his field) and they had a son, David, who would later become an editor at the publishers Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York, editing some of his mother's books.

She took her BA degree in Chicago and an MA at Harvard, where she enrolled for a PhD course, but at the same time began to teach at a small New England university. From there she went to St Anne's College, Oxford, then to the University of Paris for a year in 1958, where she involved herself in French culture, at the time a maelstrom of conflicting philosophies, new literary movements and political unrest, the latter mainly concerned with the Algerian war and the return to power of General Charles de Gaulle.

When she went back to New York, her son having been with her through all her time abroad, her head was brimming with ideas and the current French names, but she had not yet achieved publication, although she had been writing some fiction. She divorced Rieff, with whom she had always been compatible, because she wanted her freedom. It had been a good marriage, but they had been much apart, and she wanted no constraints on her life or movements.

Susan Sontag then took a job at Commentary magazine and found an opportunity to lecture at the smaller New York colleges. American academics were dominating the literary scene at the time with a PhD culture, dry and inbred, which reflected the bunker mentality of New York publishers after the fear-laden McCarthy years, and, unlike Europe, there was little appearing that showed a sense of experiment, excitement or adventure except the new "beat" writing, which was only beginning to make some headway on the West Coast.

Sontag decided to breach the gap between popular culture and academe as many French writers were then doing, and she began to take note of the new rock music, of popular films and of topics that interested the general public in essays written for magazines, at the same time finishing her first novel, The Benefactor, which appeared in 1963.

This and her subsequent fiction showed a conscious imitation of some European writers, much use of dream and some experiment with language. She achieved a homogenous quality in her writing that was sometimes slightly stilted and reviewers must have found it extremely difficult to evaluate her work, as the models, hard to identify, were unfamiliar to them. Death Kit followed in 1967, but thereafter her best work went into the essay and non-fiction, where she developed an intellectual approach to popular culture that attracted much attention by its novelty and led to many invitations to write for the fashionable magazines at high fees. In addition she was writing film reviews and eventually film scenarios.

During her thirties, Sontag became the epitome of the new woman, sexually provocative, totally self-confident, treating men either as equals that she could dominate or as inferiors unworthy of her attention and, without being an overt feminist, she embodied all the things that feminists wanted to be, her attitude to other women differing little from her attitude to men. Her good looks put her on the cover of many magazines and her articles were read and discussed.

Politically, she was of the non- doctrinaire left, often out of step with the more strident radical mainstream; her views were probably modelled largely on those of the French intellectuals of the day: Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Sarraute and Duras. She returned often to France and eventually acquired an apartment there. In the late Sixties, she was spending half the year in Paris, saying that American foreign policy and the Nixon administration made it impossible for her to feel comfortable at home.

Against Interpretation (1966), a corrective to the heavy academic tendency of American writing, was probably partially influenced by the objections of Samuel Beckett, whom she much admired, to the determined attempts of academics to attach symbols and references to his work, and it helped to cement her reputation. Trip to Hanoi (1968) resulted from her investigative assignment there for Ramparts, a radical political journal, and she also visited Cuba and Sweden for the same publication, spending seven months in Sweden working on Duet for Cannibals (1969), her first film.

For the next four years, making and discussing films became her main preoccupation, as critic, screenwriter, director and theorist. The Swedes gave her her first opening and, when Duet for Cannibals was finished, they immediately commissioned a second film. Her reputation as critic led to her becoming a member of both the Cannes and New York film festivals. In Europe, not Hollywood, she found the opportunity to make films and Italy financed the last. She directed four of her five scenarios, the fifth being only published, not filmed.

On Photography (1977) enabled her to bring much current European theory into her consideration of a process that is not quite an art form but competes with art, and which has become so ubiquitous that everyone takes it for granted. Some critics found her book, which abounds with names from Plato to Artaud to Barthes, and brings in avant-garde film-makers, to be extremely pretentious, but her argument that photography had become the final bastion of and a victory for Surrealism was convincing. The subject gave her a perfect chance to exercise her talent for marrying pop and high culture.

While she was finishing the book in 1975, breast cancer was diagnosed, with her chances of surviving slim. She underwent five operations, including mastectomy, and was in chemotherapy for the next few years, but survived. Her conversation during that time was obsessively concerned with her illness, which she did nothing to hide, and spawned her next book, Illness as Metaphor (1978): the shadow hanging over her life was apparent in both her demeanour and her writing.

Under the Sign of Saturn, which appeared in 1980, is a collection of essays written between 1972 and the year of publication which is largely devoted to writers she admired and their ideas and influence on her own work. The volume spanned the discovery of cancer: there is a marked difference of tone in a book that is in many ways a series of obituaries, ranging from a lament at the death of Paul Goodman, the radical philosopher-guru and in many ways the conscience of Sixties America, who largely defined the culture and changing awareness of that remarkable decade, to her regret at Barthes' early death at the age of 64. Her analysis of Nazi art in that book is one of her best essays, examining the heart-over-head nature of Fascist society in a way that compares it to baroque art, all splendour and no intellect, and she underlines the close link between sexuality in such a society and death.

Sontag continued to produce new books up to the end. Her last novel, In America, was published in 2000, showing her distress at changing attitudes in the United States, but her previous work of fiction, Volcano Lover (1992), based on Emma Hamilton's love affair with Lord Nelson, was marred by trying to do too many things, mixing cultural references far from the subject with diatribes on the sexual nature of women and their new militancy. Other books were more directly political and always referred to her health anxieties. Women was co-authored with the photographer Annie Leibowitz in 1999, and her last two books were Where the Stress Falls (2001) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003).

Susan Sontag was prominent as a speaker on cultural and political events and in 1987 she succeeded Norman Mailer as president of the writers' organisation Pen. Mailer had been an early friend whose work she had liked, but they drew ideologically apart as he became more chaotic in his views, pronouncements and public behaviour. Her publisher, Roger Straus, was putty in her hands, taking on any project she suggested to him, such as her 1976 Antonin Artaud anthology, which consisted of extracts from the large body of writing of the French poet and theatrical theorist. Straus also gave her the accolade of A Susan Sontag Reader (1982).

Susan Sontag was without question a brilliant woman, pleased with her success and reputation and anxious to retain it. The need to stay in the limelight led her into a number of errors, which made many of her admirers think again. The Sarajevo Godot production, which brought her much publicity and large financial reward, was the worst, an exercise in bad taste and artistic failure that did nothing to help the city of Sarajevo. There is evidence that her knowledge of writers like Beckett, Canetti and the French semantic philosophers never ran very deep, but gave her an opportunity to use their names to justify stances and theories that attracted attention, but often led to nothing very significant.

Although she claimed to read and speak many languages, she could make fundamental errors in pronunciation and understanding of words that Americans might not notice, but others did. Her instant judgements, on a Wagner performance for instance, could betray a superficial and untrained ear. It was easy to get away with these things in New York, but her determination to impress and appear to know everything ultimately did her harm: there are always those who can see through a bluff and who would therefore be over-critical of her when she stood on firmer ground and showed insight and originality.

When Susan Sontag was with intellectuals who were also friends she would drop the veneer of all-knowingness to which she subjected casual acquaintances and be human, charming and interesting. Her natural gifts had enabled her to overcome her bizarre early life and to create a personality that she presented to the world and then inhabited.

John Calder