Susan Sontag

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

When her essays first began appearing on the American critical scene in the early 1960s, Susan Sontag was heralded by many as the voice–and the face–of the Zeitgeist. Advocating a “new sensibility” that was “defiantly pluralistic,” as she announced in her groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, Sontag became simultaneously an intellectual of consequence and a popular icon, publishing everywhere from Partisan Review to Playboy, and appearing on the covers of Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine.

She rejected the traditional project of art interpretation as reactionary and stifling, and called instead for a new, more sensual experience of the aesthetic world: “an act of comprehension accompanied by voluptuousness.” Challenging what she saw as “established distinctions within the world of culture itself–that between form and content, the frivolous and the serious, and… ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture,” Sontag stood as a champion of the avant-garde. Contemporary literature, she proclaimed, was too burdened by the weight of edification. Rather, the visual arts were “the model arts of our time.”

Perceptions of Sontag

As the only woman among the 1960s world of New York Jewish intellectuals, Sontag was both venerated and villainized, depicted as either a counter-cultural hero or a posturing pop celebrity. In a 1968 essay in Commentary, Irving Howe saw her as the “publicist” for a young generation of critics that was making its presence felt “like a spreading blot of anti-intellectualism.”

Focusing on the woman rather than the work, other critics dubbed her “Miss Camp” and “The Dark Lady of American Letters.” Indeed, in his book Making It, Norman Podhoretz snidely attributed her popularity to her gender and to the fact that she was “clever, learned, good-looking, capable of writing family-type criticism as well as fiction with a strong taste of naughtiness.” While Sontag’s public image shifted from that of sixties radical to nineties neo-conservative, neither representation accounts for either the complexity of her views or the significance of her contribution to contemporary cultural debates.

Sontag was the subject of intense media scrutiny throughout her career, despite her own consistent rejection of the biographical as a means of understanding a work. “I don’t want to return to my origins,” she told Jonathan Cott in an interview. “I think of myself as self-created–that’s my working illusion.” Her distrust of the potentially reductive nature of personal criticism was magnified by her insistence that she herself did not “have anything to go back to.”

Early Life

Susan Sontag was born on January 16, 1933, in New York City, the older of Jack and Mildred (Jacobson) Rosenblatt’s two daughters. Her early years were spent with her grandparents in New York while her parents ran a fur export business in China.

When she was five, her father died of tuberculosis and her mother returned from China. A year later, mother and daughters moved to Tucson, Arizona, in an effort to relieve Susan’s developing asthma.

In 1945, Mildred Rosenblatt married Army Air Corps captain Nathan Sontag, the daughters assumed their stepfather’s last name, and the family left Arizona for a suburb of Los Angeles. Although her parents were Jewish, Sontag did not have a religious upbringing, and she claims not to have entered a synagogue until her mid-twenties.

Sontag’s one autobiographical essay, “Pilgrimage,” depicts her long-standing sense of rootlessness and fragmentation as “the resident alien” in a “facsimile of family life.” It also expresses her feeling of intellectual isolation and her fear of “drowning in drivel” in suburban America. “Literature-intoxicated” from a very young age, she read the European modernists to escape “that long prison sentence, my childhood” and to achieve “the triumphs of being not myself.”

Many of these issues–the fierce individualism of the intellect, the pleasure and nourishment to be derived from knowledge, and the question of what it means to be modern–became central themes in Sontag’s fiction and essays.

At age 15, Sontag discovered literary magazines at a nearby newsstand, and she describes her excitement in an interview with Roger Copeland by explaining that “from then on my dream was to grow up, move to New York, and write for Partisan Review.” She achieved this dream in 1961, after twelve years in the academic world.


Having graduated from high school at age fifteen, Sontag spent one semester at the University of California at Berkeley before transferring to the University of Chicago for the remainder of her college study. There she met Philip Rieff, a sociology lecturer, while auditing a graduate class on Freud. They married ten days later, when Sontag was seventeen and Rieff twenty-eight. Their only son, David, who would later for some time be her editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was born in 1952.

That same year, Sontag entered Harvard as a graduate student in English and philosophy. After receiving master’s degrees in both fields (1954 and 1955, respectively), Sontag spent two years studying at Oxford and the Sorbonne, although she did not complete a dissertation.

Shortly after her return to the United States in 1959, she divorced Rieff and moved to New York City, with “seventy dollars, two suitcases and a seven-year-old [her son].” As she explained in the interview with Jonathan Cott: “I did have the idea that I’d like to have several lives, and it’s very hard to have several lives and then have a husband…[S]omewhere along the line, one has to choose between the Life and the Project.”

In New York, Sontag began establishing herself as an independent writer while teaching philosophy in temporary positions at Sarah Lawrence, City College, and Columbia University, and working briefly as an editor at Commentary.

Writings and Accomplishments

She published twenty-six essays between 1962 and 1965, as well as an experimental novel, The Benefactor, in 1963. Although best known for her nonfiction, Sontag has worked in many creative genres. The 1960s and 1970s saw the production of a second novel, Death Kit (1967), a collection of short stories, I, Etcetera (1978), and the script and direction of three experimental films: Duet for Cannibals (1969), Brother Carl (1971), and Promised Lands (1974). Promised Lands, a documentary on the Yom Kippur War, was the only one of Sontag’s works that dealt explicitly with Jewish issues.

Sontag’s career-long series of essays–or ‘case studies,’ as she called them in Against Interpretation–revealed an expansive and democratic definition of art, encompassing such diverse subjects as photography, illness, fascist aesthetics, pornography, and Vietnam. A self-described intellectual generalist, Sontag explained in an interview with Roger Copeland that her overarching project was to “delineate the modern sensibility from as many angles as possible.”

Her essays ranged freely from high modernism to mass culture, from European to American artistic figures, from the aesthetics of silence to the contemporary media proliferation of images and noise. Her career as a writer was characterized by the tension between such oppositions: “Everything I’ve written–and done,” she explained, “has had to be wrested from the sense of complexity. This, yes. But also that. It’s not really disagreement, it’s more like turning a prism–to see something from another point of view.”

In both her fiction and her critical essays, Sontag told Copeland, she used such disjunctive forms of writing as “collage, assemblage, and inventory” to demonstrate her thesis that “form is a kind of content and content an aspect of form.” Insisting that interpretation is “the revenge of the intellect against the world,” Against Interpretation (1966), her first collection of essays, sought to subvert both the style and the subject matter of traditional critical inquiry.

The function of criticism should be to help us experience art more fully, she explained, “to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” Against Interpretation introduced an American audience to lesser-known European figures such as Georg Lukács, Simone Weil, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. It also explored the irreverent playfulness and self-conscious artificiality of an underground camp aesthetic.

Styles of Radical Will (1969) advanced Sontag’s aesthetic argument by looking closely at pornography, theater, and film, and by examining the impact of self-consciousness on the modern art and philosophy of E. M. Cioran, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard. But the collection suggested a political as well as an aesthetic mode of transforming consciousness.

The essay “Trip to Hanoi,” originally published in 1968 as a separate book, was Sontag’s candid response to her trip to North Vietnam as she grappled with the limits of her own culturally formed perceptions. Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), which comprised seven essays of the 1970s and combined personal reflections on Paul Goodman and Roland Barthes with sustained analyses of Walter Benjamin, Antonin Artaud, and Elias Canetti. It also contained the well-known piece “Fascinating Fascism,” in which Sontag used Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films to discuss the ways in which history becomes theater.

Sontag’s award-winning volume On Photography (1977) analyzed how photographic images have changed our ways of looking at the world. Resistant to the acquisitive nature of photography and its consequent leveling of meaning, Sontag here displayed a growing suspicion of the “sublime neutrality” of art that she had so heralded in Against Interpretation. Although hopeful about the value of photography when it awakens the conscience of the audience, she was also concerned about its potentially predatory nature, explaining that “[t]o photograph people is to violate them.”

Like On Photography, Illness as Metaphor (1978) broke new critical ground by examining the significance of a common cultural phenomenon: in this case, the discursive representation of disease. Growing out of Sontag’s own diagnosis of breast cancer in 1975, the book sought to expose the fantasies and fears that are masked by the vocabulary of illness. In 1989, she elaborated on this theme in AIDS and Its Metaphors, which was received with some controversy. Many in the gay community criticized her efforts to disentangle the cultural metaphors of AIDS from its politics.

Later Works

Unguided Tour, the film version of an earlier short story, appeared in 1983, and in 1985, she directed the premier production of Milan Kundera’s play Jacques and His Master. Her own play, Alice in Bed, premiered in Bonn, Germany, in 1991 and was published in 1993, the same year that she directed Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in war-besieged Sarajevo.

Twenty-five years after the publication of her last novel, Sontag’s critically acclaimed The Volcano Lover (1992) appeared, bringing together concerns that long animated her writing: the relationship between style and form, the moral pleasure–and service–of art, and the psychology of collecting. A historical novel with a self-consciously modern narrator, The Volcano Lover was a revisionary retelling of the eighteenth-century love affair between Lady Emma Hamilton and Lord Horatio Nelson that moved away from the abstraction of Sontag’s earlier fiction while still remaining a novel of ideas.

Sontag’s final novel In America (2000), which won the National Book Award for Fiction, was also set in the past; based on the life of a nineteenth-century Polish performer who immigrates to America with the dream of establishing a utopian community, the novel relied on the language of theater and acting in order to consider the thematic possibilities of re-inventing both the individual and the nation.

Sontag returned to the focus of On Photography, first with an essay written to accompany a series of women’s portraits by Annie Leibovitz (published as Women in 1999; the photographs then went on national tour), and then with Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), which discussed the ramifications of the near ubiquity of images of war.

Accomplishments and Critiques

Over the course of her career, Sontag remained committed to the idea of cultural criticism, explaining that it is “what being an intellectual–as opposed to being a writer–is.” Her contributions were recognized through numerous awards and grants, which included two Rockefeller Foundation Grants (1964, 1974), two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships (1966, 1975), the Arts and Letters Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1976), the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1990), the Writers for Writers award (1998) and the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society (2001).

In 1999 she was named a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, after having been named an Officier in the same order in 1984. She received two additional European tributes in 2003–the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. She served as a member of the selection jury for the Venice Film Festival and the New York Film Festival and was a founding member of the New York Institute for the Humanities.

Sontag also served as president of the PEN American Center from 1987 to 1989. When the Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie to death for his “blasphemous” book The Satanic Verses (1988), Sontag spearheaded protests on his behalf within the literary community. “Her resolute support,” Rushie said after Sontag’s death, “helped to turn the tide against what she called ‘an act of terrorism against the life of the mind.'”

However, despite the fact that she was perhaps one of the most widely read intellectuals of her generation, Sontag was largely ignored by academics, feminists and, until a few years ago, Jews. Her cultural criticism took many forms. In the 1960s, it aligned her with the avant-garde; in later years, she was frequently criticized for aesthetic and political conservatism.

While her consistent advocacy of critical autonomy did not mark a turn to the political right, her insistence on being considered a universalist, and her refusal to be identified by gender, religion, or sexual orientation, did leave her outside of crucial debates that fuel contemporary critical discourse. “I don’t like party lines,” she explained in an interview published in Salmagundi. “They make for intellectual monotony and bad prose.”

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).

Sontag became on outspoken critic of President Bush’s response to the attacks, especially the U.S. war in Iraq; her final published work was Regarding the Torture of Others (May 23, 2004), an essay in the New York Times about American abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Sontag, who had suffered from cancer intermittently for thirty years (she had been told after her original diagnosis in 1975 that she had a ten percent chance of surviving for two years), died of complications of acute myelogenous leukemia on December 28, 2004, two weeks shy of her seventy-second birthday.

Of the woman who once described a writer as one who should be “interested in everything,” the New York Times wrote: “What united Sontag’s output was a propulsive desire to define the forces–aesthetic, moral, political–that shape the modernist sensibility. And in so doing, she hoped to understand what it meant to be human in the waning years of the twentieth century.”

Reprinted from the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Discover More

Cynthia Ozick

Ozick's version of Jewish literature is more than Yiddish words and slapstick.

Grace Aguilar

This 19th Century British scholar was a novelist and writer on Jewish history and religion.

Grace Paley, 1922-2007

Jewish socialism influenced Grace Paley's life and literature.