Susan Sontag

individual

Overview

  • Well-known American writer and leftist icon
  • Anti-war and human rights activist
  • Traveled to Hanoi during the Vietnam War and praised the Communist dictatorship
  • Supports the cause of deceased anti-Israeli, pro-terrorist activist Rachel Corrie
  • 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. After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago when she was 18, she obtained a master’s degree in that same discipline at Harvard University and then did additional postgraduate work at Oxford University and the Sorbonne. In the early 1960s Sontag taught philosophy and religion at a few different colleges and universities 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.

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.

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.”

In 1967 as well, Sontag wrote in the Partisan Review: “If America is the culmination of Western white civilization,… 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, 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; 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.”

Also in 1967, 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.” America, 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 April 1969, Sontag’s essay, “Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for us) to Love the Cuban Revolution,” appeared in Ramparts magazine. Denouncing American culture as “inorganic, dead, coercive, [and] authoritarian,” the author wrote: “America is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of productivity that inundates the country with increasingly unnecessary commodities, services, gadgets, images, information.” She further claimed that one of the few truly worthwhile productions 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 “Some Thoughts,” 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, Cubans 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.

“At the annual PEN writers’ conference in 1986,” says 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 events of that day were “not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ [note the scare quotes], but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions…. [W]hatever may be said of the perpetrators of [September 11’s] slaughter, they were not cowards.”

Sontag’s contempt for America was mirrored by her low regard for Israel. In May 2001, 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 IDF 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.

For additional information on Susan Sontag, click here.

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