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Susan Sontag Tells All

The newly published second volume of the great critic’s journals reveals her transformation from hedonistic revolutionary to elitist enforcer

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Susan Sontag in the atrium of Mills Hotel for a Symposium on Sex, New York City, Dec. 2, 1962. (Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)
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More, Sontag detects a subterranean connection between fascism, with its celebration of irrationality and community, and the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, which valued the same things. Thus “a fair number of young people now prostrating themselves before gurus and submitting to the most grotesquely autocratic discipline are former anti-authoritarians and anti-elitists of the 1960s.” By the end of “Fascinating Fascism,” Sontag concludes that when it comes to culture, quod licit Jovi non licit bovi:

Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. The hard truth is that what is acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established.

Indeed, it’s possible to see this dilemma—the balancing of the claims of ethics with those of aesthetics—surfacing even earlier in Sontag’s career. Her second collection of essays, Styles of Radical Will, appeared in 1969, at the height of the sixties’ turmoil, and probably the best-known piece in it is “What’s Happening in America” (1966). This originally took the form of a response to a Partisan Review symposium, which served Sontag as a chance to issue a wholehearted attack on America, using a kind of irresponsible rhetoric that would become standard-issue on the left in that polarized decade.

Most famously, she declared that “the white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.” Sontag praised the lifestyle experiments she would go on to condemn in “Fascinating Fascism,” sympathizing with “the gifted, visionary minority among the young” and “the complex desires of the best of them: to engage and to ‘drop out’: to be beautiful to look at and touch as well as to be good; to be loving and quiet as well as militant and effective—these desires make sense in our present situation.”

Yet even in Styles of Radical Will, Sontag is clearly wrestling with her own scruples about the limits of the “new sensibility.” This is especially clear in one of the book’s best essays, “The Pornographic Imagination.” In keeping with the program of Against Interpretation, Sontag sets out to argue that pornography should not be too quickly written off as a vulgar or utilitarian genre. The Marquis de Sade and The Story of O, she writes, have their own wisdom; they are experiments in spiritual extremity and have something in common with the ordeals of religion. “The exemplary modern artist,” she writes with aphoristic flair, “is a broker in madness.”

Yet by the end of the essay, she cannot avoid the question of whether the authenticity and spiritual integrity of pornography make it proper reading, or viewing, for the average sensual man, who is not inclined to put it to such elevated or intellectual purposes. Sontag remains evasive, not yet ready to state forthrightly what she will say in “Fascinating Fascism,” but already she recognizes what is at issue: “The question is not whether consciousness or whether knowledge, but the quality of the consciousness and of the knowledge. And that invites consideration of the quality or fineness of the human subject—the most problematic standard of all.”

Sontag writes so exigently and intelligently about pornography that it is easy to miss the basic comedy of “The Pornographic Imagination,” which is the basic paradox of all her most radical and groundbreaking work. After all, this is a writer who praises the liberating power of porn by turning it into a spiritual and intellectual experiment—that is, by draining it of any sensuality, any genuine transgressiveness. “However fierce may be the outrages the artist perpetrates upon his audience, his credentials and spiritual authority ultimately depend on the audience’s sense … of the outrages he commits upon himself,” Sontag writes, thus shifting the grounds of discussion from pleasure to “spiritual authority” and—an even less erotically charged term—“credentials.”

Credentials, in fact, are an important category of Sontag’s thought. The ones that matter to her are not university degrees or professorships—after starting out in academia, she spent her whole career defiantly outside the academic system—but something more profound, if still capable of misuse: seriousness. Indeed, you could learn a lot about Sontag just by following the career of the word “serious” in her work. In “The Aesthetics of Silence,” she notes that a writer who stops writing, such as Rimbaud, thereby earns “a certificate of unchallengeable seriousness”; silence is what happens “whenever thought reaches a certain high, excruciating order of complexity and spiritual seriousness.” In her essay on Elias Canetti, “Mind as Passion,” she praises the way “his work eloquently defends tension, exertion, moral and amoral seriousness.” In the introduction to Reborn, the first volume of Sontag’s diaries, her son David Rieff recounts the story of how her Oxford tutor, the philosopher Stuart Hampshire, once sighed to Sontag: “Oh, you Americans! You’re so serious … just like the Germans.” “He did not mean it as a compliment,” Rieff observes, “but my mother wore it as a badge of honor.”

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Carl says:

She is the classic example of someone who the New York intellectual elite decided was important so she was let into their echo chamber. I read a couple of her books and I have to admit that I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. She had nothing interesting to say.

What a wonderful exploration of a “serious artist.” Susan Sontag’s voice and image captivated me in the small bits that I saw her. She was a model to me of a gorgeous, sexy woman, though I really only read a smattering of her work. Kirsch beautifully captures the contradictions that fired her – the mix of seriousness with a passionate erotic yearning (almost unrequited love for love), and which gave to Sontag a soaring brightness that made her live as much as icon as – well, serious writer. Sontag probably was maddening as a friend (or lover) precisely because she was so torn and with an intelligence that was deep and wide as the Atlantic, over which she traversed back and forth in search of… greatness? truth? love? Thanks for capturing this woman better than I’ve ever seen, and someone has has stayed in my imagination since first seeing her picture on the back of a paperbook sometime in my teens.

James Winchell says:

I agree with Jonathan Field (above), wholeheartedly. I would add to his comment, that Sontag’s high-tension intelligence, as “deep and wide as the Atlantic over which she traversed…” so regularly, primarily drew its power through her profound and “serious” francophilia: the line about the white race being a “cancer,”–is that not taken directly from Lévi-Strauss? And her sense of semiotics and hermeneutics–is it not a series of elaborations upon her beloved Roland Barthes? This is by no means to denigrate her; she was, and is, a perfervid pollinator. Thank you, Adam Kirsch.

George Balanchine says:

Yes, but what exactly is this article trying to say about Sontag?
Is it me, or are more and more articles of this type, a certain kind of “cultural journalism”, extremely vague and unclear, no matter how many words there are?
I have an opinion about Sontag’s work and importance, both not very kind. But at the end, I suppose the important thing is is what is this writer trying to say about her? My reply: I haven’t the slightest idea.

“to other people she evidently seemed more like Dr. Johnson”


Dr. Johnson had a sense of humor.

Jim Spivack says:

I don’t know if I have it right but Gore Vidal once wrote in an NYRB article that ‘Susan Sontag operated in that rarified American reality of having no irony whatsoever.’

I can see your reviewer is a man of a few (thousand) words!

Robyn Delfin says:

With the parsing, hermenutics, semiotics, fusion, I am rendered confused and take away little.

Susan Sontag was smart, energetic, ambitious, sexy, lesbian, and Jewish, all of which helped her become famous. (Her hair ranked in the 99th percentile among lesbians for sexiness.)

Unfortunately, she didn’t have much to say of interest, as Mr. Kirsch’s many thousands of words of explication inadvertently demonstrate. She’ll be remembered for saying “the white race is the cancer of human history,” but that’s about it.

Bizenghast says:

In a way, I understand Susan Sontag. She seems like an impenetrable figure, one that others cower at ever trying to figure out. I saw the clip where Camille Paglia lambasted Sontag for her “superior” and “elitist” attitude. Yes those criticisms were warranted in some respects, but it mostly boils down a difference in personality and thus a difference in approach. Sontag wasn’t aware of the portentous air that she gave off ; she would write about kitsch topics with the utmost formality. Seriousness is a trap, those who assume it have a hard time ever tunneling out of that stereotype.

“Against Interpretation,” “Notes on Camp,” and “The Pornographic Imagination,” did not seek to overthrow the intellectual in favor of the sensual, but sought (in part) to return art’s sensuality, its eroticism, to proper consideration as one of its modes of action. Lovers of film (of which Sontag was one) can never escape the sensuality of that medium, but for whatever reason, sensuality is often dismissed by theorizers of literature, especially academicized ones.

But it’s obvious (to me, anyway) that those three essays only consider sensuality as a means toward the higher aspirations of art. Sontag doesn’t seek to ennoble pornography or vulgarism, nor to topple a tradition of intellectual rigor, but to elevate art (in its “spiritual” role) above both. The position isn’t incoherent or inconsistent or hypocritical, but early Sontag’s particular blind spot, her ingenuousness, even, was failing to anticipate that to reject a false dichotomy could easily result in enlistment by committed partisans on both sides (e.g., Ozick and Paglia). She underestimates the sophistication of her readers.

Similarly, Kirsch characterizes Sontag’s reference to Riefenstahl in “On Style” as an elevation of the “aesthetic over the ethical,” when in fact the crux of the essay is precisely a denunciation of what she calls the “pseudo-problem” of art versus morality, and, having demolished this opposition, she even returns to synthesize how art with morally objectionable “content” may have a role in forming a moral will.

There is no recantation, then, in “Fascinating Fascism,” only a rueful awareness that—and let me provide the full quote—”[b]acking up the solemn choosy formalist appreciations [of Fascist aesthetics] lies a larger reserve of appreciation, the sensibility of camp, which is unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness.” The problem is not the camp per se, but the lack of seriousness. (I also don’t understand why Kirsch omits the last sentence of the paragraph he blockquotes: “Taste is context, and the context has changed.” Historical contingence is something Sontag freely granted in “On Style.”)

The quoted 1960 journal entry about will and mind, in its larger context, is a miniature exemplar of the approach: Sontag characterizes Philip Rieff as subjugating his mind to his will, i.e., his “moral responses” and his prejudices, because he has “no love of the truth.” He comes up with conclusions and then thinks in order to justify them, she says. (The danger faced by any thinker.) Sontag sees her own will in this situation, inasmuch as it can be “hypostasized,” not so much to be a good wife and mother, but to “support [the one she loves] even in his lies.” Thus is Sontag’s own mind subjugated to her will. (Lies aren’t very categorical-imperativey, I note.)

But for one who loves truth, that hypostasization amounts to an excuse, and must be defeated, unifying, perhaps in a not-so-paradoxical Kantian way, the mind and will. It would be a synthesis similar to what she discusses in “On Style,” and quite interesting when considering that “will” is the very word she uses for the “organic” synthesis she advocates there. Alas, the journal entry concludes with a resolution to “destroy the will”; one wonders whether her “commitment to truth” allowed her to ever accomplish such a synthesis in her personal psychology.

Anyway, Sontag appears to have been well aware that her seriousness sometimes made her a crashing bore at parties or intolerable to be around, but I don’t think Kirsch has explained why it impaired her criticism, or how seriousness in a critic can be a vice.

licet, not licit

Ron Coleman says:

Pretty ironic lack of irony in this essay.  Was Sontag the pseudo-intellectual precursor to Seinfeld’s “show about nothign”?

Richard Samuelson says:

Perhaps I’m dim, but I’m not sure I see the relationship between the bits about Ozick and Paglia at the start and the conclusion.

Happycrow says:

 @Carl: (coming into discussion late)
no, she didn’t.  Neither is there anything mysterious about this supposed “change” in her perspectives — it had nothing to do with artistic integrity or intellectual “seriousness,” only in appealing to Group X while distancing herself from (and preferably above) Group Y.  That’s all there is to Sontag’s work, and no amount of desperate projection will infuse meaning into what is ultimately turgid  bloviation. 

holdmewhileimnaked says:

reading all of the above- or belownoted comments [depending on yr sort] complaining that the commenters do not understand what susan sontag was saying only furthers my ability to understand what she was saying even more. sadly, too. very sadly. cos in the end she was right & it has only gotten worse.

AllenLowe says:

I’m somewhat shocked that no one seems to have really read or considered what is quoted above,  from Against Interpretation: “interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings…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.”    Brilliantly perceptive; she was not really saying tha you cannot interpret but rather objecting to a whole school of middle-class magazine criticism; at the same time she was skewering academics  bogged down in increasingly narcissistic forms of “contextualization”. Note too that the same ideas, almost verbatim, were expressed by Beckett and Robbe Grillet

I like the part about “Art is not only about something; it is something.”  But unless she toured the Hebrides, I’m not reading her journals. 


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Susan Sontag Tells All

The newly published second volume of the great critic’s journals reveals her transformation from hedonistic revolutionary to elitist enforcer