Susan Sontag

This poet, author, and modernist emphasizes the role of interpretation in understanding art.

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This suspicion of particularist affiliations placed Sontag at some distance from contemporary art and culture; however, it also stood as an unresolved tension within her own work. For example, despite her disavowal of feminism as "an empty word," The Volcano Lover ends with the admission of a female character that "all women, including the author of this book, lie to [themselves] about how complicated it is to be a woman." Moreover, although she did not write explicitly about Jewish issues, Jews are frequently the point of reference from which Sontag draws analogies to other groups.

Jewish Identity and Involvement

Sontag's relationship to the Jewish community received much attention in light of her selection as the Jerusalem prize laureate for 2001, particularly as Shimon Peres's claim that "[F]irst she's Jewish, then she's a writer, then she's American" ran counter to her own self-definition. Furthermore, Sontag's willingness to accept an award that is "given to writers whose works reflect the freedom of the individual in society" from Israel--a country frequently criticized for violating those same individual rights--raised significant political protest, most notably from left-wing Jewish women's organizations who saw her acceptance of the prize as "a tacit legitimization of the occupation."

Lashing out at this suggestion, Sontag used the occasion of the award ceremony to criticize Israel's actions in the territories, accepting the prize "in homage to all the writers and readers in Israel and Palestine struggling to create literature made of singular voices and the multiplicity of truth." This response, in turn, raised the ire of the right, who attacked her criticism of Israel as the words of a "perfect example of a self-hating Jew."

Thus, while the "particular" was clearly a matter of concern, Sontag refused to limit herself to any single critical perspective. "If literature has engaged me as a project," she once explained, "it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other dreams, other territories of concern." What she wrote of Roland Barthes applied well to her own project: "The point is not to teach us something in particular. The point is to make us bold, agile, subtle, intelligent, detached. And to give pleasure." That same year, Sontag again proved herself to be beyond easy categorization when she wrote of the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001:

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 (The New Yorker, September 24, 2001).

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Tresa Grauer is a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her recent publications include "Identity Matters: Contemporary Jewish American Writing," in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, eds. Michael Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher, and "'The Changing Same': Narratives of Contemporary Jewish American Identity," in Mapping Jewish Identities, ed. Larry Silberstein.