Susan Sontag

Overview

  • Famous American writer and leftist icon
  • Hater of America and Israel
  • Deemed the 9/11 attacks a “consequence of specific American alliances and actions”
  • Died in December 2004 at age 71

Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933. She graduated from high school at age 15 and then attended UC Berkeley before transferring to the University of Chicago, where she met lecturer Philip Rieff and married him just ten days after their first meeting. The marriage would last eight years and produce one son.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago when she was 18, Sontag obtained a master’s degree in that same discipline at Harvard University. She taught freshman English at the University of Connecticut for the 1952–53 academic year, and then did additional postgraduate work at Oxford University and the Sorbonne. When she returned to the U.S. in the late 1950s, she settled in New York City and started to establish a reputation as a writer.

The Hegelian Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse lived with Sontag and her husband for about a year while Marcuse worked on his 1955 book, Eros and Civilization. During that period, Sontag and Marcuse had many discussions about Hegel and his ideas.

While working on her stories in the early 1960s, Sontag taught philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and the City University of New York. She also taught in the Religion Department at Columbia University from 1960-64. Her debut novel, The Benefactor, was published in 1963. Sontag held a writing fellowship at Rutgers University in 1964-65 before leaving academia in favor of a full-time freelance writing career. She eventually became famous as a critical essayist, cultural analyst, novelist, and filmmaker.

Sontag first came to national attention in 1964 with an essay titled “Notes on ‘Camp,’” an exploration of tastes and preferences in the gay community. “The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” wrote Sontag. “And Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.”

In 1967 Sontag published “The Pornographic Imagination,” an influential essay that defended pornography—not for its content, but for its “formal” value as a means of psychological “transcendence.” Veering also into the realm of economics, the essay lamented “the traumatic failure of capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsession, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness.”

That same year, Sontag wrote in the Partisan Review a scathing denunciation of America as a nation irremediably infected with racism, greed, malevolence, stupidity, and all manner of evil. Titled “What’s Happening in America,” the essay contained the following noteworthy passages:

  • “Everything that one feels about this country is, or ought to be, conditioned by the awareness of American power: of America as the arch-imperium of the planet, holding man’s biological and well as his historical future in its King Kong paws…. American power is indecent in its scale. But also the quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth; and the pollution of American space, with gadgetry and cars and TV and box architecture, brutalizes the senses, making gray neurotics of most of us, and perverse spiritual athletes and strident self-transcenders of the best of us.”
  • “Gertrude Stein said that America is the oldest country in the world. Certainly its most conservative. It has the most to lose by change (sixty percent of the world’s wealth owned by a country containing six percent of the world’s population). Americans know their backs are against the wall: ‘they’ want to take all that away from ‘us.’  And, I think, America deserves to have it taken away.”
  • “America was founded on a genocide, on the unquestioned assumption of the right of White Europeans to exterminate a resident, technologically backward, colored population in order to take over the continent.”
  • “America had not not only the most brutal system of slavery in modern times but a unique juridical system (compared with other slaveries, say in Latin America and the British colonies) which did not, in a single respect, recognize slaves as persons.”
  • “As a country – as distinct from a colony – America was created mainly by the surplus poor of Europe … These people arrived in a country where the indigenous culture was simply the enemy and was in the process of being ruthlessly annihilated, and where nature, too, was the enemy, a pristine force, unmodified by civilization, that is, by human wants, which had to be defeated.”
  • “American ‘energy’ … has mainly been sublimated into crude materialism and acquisitiveness. Into hectic philanthropy. Into benighted moral crusades, the most spectacular of which was Prohibition. Into an awesome talent for uglifying countryside and cities.”
  • “Needless to say, America is not the only violent, ugly, and unhappy country on this earth. Again, it is a matter of scale.”
  • “American policy is still powered by the fantasy of Manifest Destiny, though the limits were once set by the borders of the continent, whereas today America’s destiny embraces the world. There are still more hordes of redskins to be mowed down before virtue triumphs; as the classic Western movies explain, the only good Red is a dead Red.”
  • “I do not think white America is committed to granting equality to the American Negro. So committed are only a minority of white Americans, mostly educated and affluent, few of whom have had any prolonged social contact with Negroes. This is a passionately racist country; it will continue to be so in the foreseeable future.”
  • “If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization…. The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx and Balanchine ballets don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. 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 of life itself. What the Mongol hordes threaten is far less frightening than the damage that Western ‘Faustian’ man, with his idealism, his magnificent art, his sense of intellectual adventure, his world-devouring energies for conquest, has already done, and further threatens to do.”

America’s only hope, said Sontag in the same essay, rested with young people who were able to recognize just how worthless their society had always been, and to understand that the only way to fix America was to destroy it: “This is a doomed country, it seems to me; I only pray that, when America founders, it doesn’t drag the rest of the planet down, too. But one should notice that, during its long elephantine agony, America is also producing its subtlest minority generation of a decent and sensitive, young people who are alienated as Americans. They are not drawn to the stale truths of their sad elders (though these are truths). More of their elders should be listening to them.”

Also in “What’s Happening in America,” Sontag advocated “the depolarizing of the sexes” as “the natural, and desirable, next stage of the sexual revolution.” “[I]t’s the whole character structure of modern American man, and his imitators, that needs re-hauling,” said Sontag. “… That re-hauling includes Western ‘masculinity,’ too.”

In 1967 as well, Sontag lamented that the people of Vietnam were “being brutally and self-righteously slaughtered … by the richest and most grotesquely overarmed, most powerful country in the world.” The United States, she claimed, had “become a criminal, sinister country—swollen with priggishness, numbed by affluence, bemused by the monstrous conceit that it has the mandate to dispose of the destiny of the world.”

After visiting North Vietnam in 1968 courtesy of that country’s Communist government, Sontag wrote a long essay titled “Trip to Hanoi,” wherein she claimed that the North Vietnamese “aren’t good enough haters.” That is: “They genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots … People in North Vietnam really do believe in the goodness of man … and in the perennial possibility of rehabilitating the morally fallen.” Characterizing North Vietnam as “a place which, in many respects, deserves to be idealized,” Sontag marveled that “the Vietnamese are ‘whole’ human beings, not ‘split’ as we [Americans] are.”

In an April 1969 essay titled “Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for us) to Love the Cuban Revolution,” appeared in Ramparts magazine, Sontag denounced American culture as “inorganic, dead, coercive, [and] authoritarian.” She added: “America is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of productivity that inundates the country with increasingly unnecessary commodities, services, gadgets, images, information.” Sontag further claimed that one of the few truly worthwhile literary works to have emerged from Western culture was Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 book, Soul on Ice, which, as Sontag put it, taught that “America’s psychic survival entails her transformation through a political revolution.”

Also according to Sontag’s 1969 essay, America’s “power structure derives its credibility, its legitimacy, its energies from the dehumanization of the individuals who operate it” — i.e., “the people staffing IBM and General Motors, and the Pentagon, and United Fruit.” These were “the living dead,” said Sontag, noting that simple pleasures such as “rock [music], grass, better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature—really grooving on anything—unfits, maladapts a person for the American way of life.” By contrast, Sontag explained, the people of Communist Cuba had an innate capacity to enjoy this “new sensibility” because they were equipped with a “southern spontaneity which we feel our own too white, death-ridden culture denies us.” “The Cubans know a lot about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality and freaking out,” Sontag wrote. “They are not linear, desiccated creatures of print culture.” In the same essay, Sontag wrote not only that “the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression and bureaucratization,” but also that “no Cuban writer has been or is in jail, or is failing to get his work published.”

Circa 1969 as well, Sontag was listed as a sponsor of the GI Civil Liberties Defense Committee, a Socialist Workers Party front group.

In a February 1982 speech, Sontag, to the chagrin of many of her fellow leftists, correctly noted the many similarities between Communism with Fascism:

“What the recent Polish events illustrate is something more than that Fascist rule is possible within the framework of a Communist society, whereas democratic government and worker self-rule are clearly intolerable and will not be tolerated. I would contend that what they illustrate is a truth that we should have understood a very long time ago: that Communism is Fascism — successful Fascism, if you will. What we have called Fascism is, rather, the form of tyranny that can be overthrown — that has, largely, failed. ‘Facism With a Human Face’

“I repeat: not only is Fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies — especially when their populations are moved to revolt — but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of Fascism. Fascism with a human face….

“Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”

“At the annual PEN writers’ conference in 1986,” writes social commentator/publisher Roger Kimball, “Sontag declared that ‘the task of the writer is to promote dissidence.’ But it turns out that, for her, only dissidence conducted against American interests counts.”

The veracity of Kimball’s assessment again became evident in the wake of 9/11, when Sontag wrote that the terrorist attacks of that day were largely a response to American depredations committed abroad:

“The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions 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? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word ‘cowardly’ is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said  of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards. […] Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.”

Sontag’s contempt for America was mirrored by her low regard for Israel. In May 2001, for instance, she condemned the Jewish state for imposing on the Palestinians a form of “collective punishment” that “is never justified, militarily or ethically.” “And I mean of course,” Sontag elaborated, “the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes, the destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and access to employment, to schooling, to medical services, or as a punishment for hostile military activities in the vicinity of those civilians.” There will never be peace in the Middle East, Sontag emphasized, until Israel agrees to demolish its settlements in the West Bank.

In 2003 Sontag articulated her support for Israeli draft resisters and for Rachel Corrie, the International Solidarity Movement activist who was accidentally run over and killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza while she obstructed an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer that was clearing terrorist mines and tunnels near the Israel/Egypt border. According to Sontag, Corrie was an “emblematic figure of sacrifice” who had been “killed by the forces of violence and oppression” — meaning Israel.

In May 2004, Sontag published a polemical essay titled “Regarding the Torture of Others” in The New York Times Magazine. Her piece condemned the American military’s highly publicized mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, likening it to brutalities that were carried out by some of the most barbaric regimes in recorded history: “Rape and pain inflicted on the genitals are among the most common forms of torture. Not just in Nazi concentration camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein. Americans, too, have done and do them when they are told, or made to feel, that those over whom they have absolute power deserve to be humiliated, tormented.” What happened at Abu Ghraib, Sontag concluded, was “systematic,” “authorized,” and “condoned” by the highest levels of government.

Sontag died of leukemia on December 28, 2004.

Additional Information

  • Sontag had lesbian relationships with Eva Kollisch and photographer Annie Leibovitz, with whom she collaborated on the 1999 book, Women.
  • In 1990, Sontag was awarded a “genius grants” by the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
  • In 2000, Sontag won National Book Award for her novel, In America.
  • Sontag once wrote that “the AIDS epidemic serves as an ideal projection for First World political paranoia.”
  • On another occasion, Sontag wrote that “risk-free sexuality is an inevitable reinvention of the culture of capitalism.”
  • In 1999 Sontag joined such luminaries as Norman MailerArthur MillerTim RobbinsSusan Sarandon, and Rob Reiner in signing a letter criticizing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s effort to suspend funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art, after the museum had exhibited the artist Chris Ofili’s depiction of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung and surrounded by pornographic images.

 


Additional Resources

Susan Sontag: A Prediction
By Roger Kimball
December 28, 2004

The New Sensibility
By Roger Kimball
February 1998

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