For Interpretation: Susan Sontag

By Stan Persky | February 11, 2015

Daniel Schreiber, Susan Sontag: A Biography (2007; tr. by David Dollenmayer, Northwestern University Press, 2014).

Sontag revisited.

Sontag revisited.

The great American intellectual event of 1963, just over a half-century ago, was the birth in New York of a new literary journal, The New York Review of Books. Its proximate cause was a printers’ strike that shut down the New York Times and its NYT Book Review, along with a half dozen other city papers, in the winter of 1962-63.

But well before that, Elizabeth Hardwick, writing in Harper’s, had published an essay on “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” which suggested deeper motives for the new publication. Hardwick chastised American reviews of the day (meaning especially those in the New York Times Book Review) for being “light, little articles” that parcelled out “lobotimized” passionless praise and were “blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally.” (See Elizabeth Hardwick, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” Harper’s, Oct. 1959; Wikipedia, New York Review of Books.)

Further, it was a transitional moment in politics, popular culture, and even in the limited circles that published magazines of critical commentary. The U.S. was entering “The Sixties,” an era that would soon include political upheaval not experienced since the 1930s Depression, the assassination of the country’s young president, John F. Kennedy, and an imperialist war quagmire in Vietnam. Culturally, everyone from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to the Beat Generation was sensing new questions as well as answers “blowin’ in the wind.” Among the post-war political left, publications like the Partisan Review were coming to a natural end, and in need of replacement by a still progressive publication, but one with broader appeal than its predecessors. In sum, the Zeitgeist was ripe for The New York Review of Books (NYR).

In the early winter of 1963, Hardwick and her husband, poet Robert Lowell, along with Robert Silvers (Hardwick’s editor at Harper’s) and Barbara Epstein, an editor married to Random House vice-president Jason Epstein, and a few others met and quickly agreed that the time was right. Hardwick sought reviews that she called “the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting.

New York Review of Books, Issue No. 1, Feb. 1, 1963.

New York Review of Books, Issue No. 1, Feb. 1, 1963.

Silvers and Barbara Epstein became co-editors, and sent books to “the writers we knew and admired most. … We asked for three thousand words in three weeks in order to show what a book review should be, and practically everyone came through. No one mentioned money.” New York publishers, seeking ad outlets for their spring books, lined up to buy advertising. The inaugural issue of the The New York Review, Feb. 1, 1963, sold out its printing of 100,000 copies, and inspired a thousand readers to write letters urging it to continue. By fall 1963 it had become a biweekly. More than a half-century later, it still exists, with more than a hundred thousand subscribers, and amazingly, Robert Silvers is still its editor (Barbara Epstein, who was co-editor for more than four decades, died in 2006).

It was one of the most remarkable first issues of a literary review published in America. Its writers comprised an all-star roster of the best critical and creative minds in the country, including Mary McCarthy, Paul Goodman, W.H. Auden, Norman Mailer, William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Irving Howe (appropriately enough for a changing-of-the-guard moment, he reviewed an anthology of the Partisan Review). McCarthy considered William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch; there was a discussion of James Baldwin’s essays about American blacks and civil rights; Philip Rahv wrote about the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; there was a review of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Lionel Abel’s reflections on Jean Genet’s latest play. John Updike’s new novel, The Centaur, was noticed; Mailer wrote about Morley Callaghan’s memoir about Hemingway and Fitzgerald, That Summer in Paris; Lowell and John Berryman contributed poems.

Susan Sontag.

Susan Sontag.

And amid that Who’s Who of American minds, there was a piece about a mystical French Catholic thinker of the 1940s, Simone Weil, written by a photogenic but not very well-known 29-year-old California-raised novelist and essayist named Susan Sontag, who had recently settled in New York and was beginning to make a name for herself. Sontag (1933-2004) had a gift for being in the right place at the right time, as Daniel Schreiber recurrently makes clear in his useful, compact biography of the American essayist, public intellectual, political activist, novelist, filmmaker, theatre director and lesbian (more or less in that order). The recent tenth anniversary of her death has been marked by a documentary film, a retrospective conference at Berlin’s Institute for Cultural Inquiry, and the English translation of Schreiber’s book, the first biography of Sontag’s life and times since her passing (originally published in German several years ago).

From her first words in the NYR, Sontag — as Elizabeth Hardwick said when the editors were putting together a list of potential contributors — “simply belonged.” As Sontag’s friend, arts critic Joan Acocella later noted about the Weil article, “Her openers were always thrown down with a great flourish.” The brio and confidence of Sontag’s voice, even at the beginning, are unmistakable enough to bear substantial quotation:

“The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force—not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self—these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live,” she declared.

“All that is necessary is that we not be hypocritical, that we recognize why we read and admire writers like Simone Weil. I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas. Nor is it necessary—necessary to share Simone Weil’s anguished and unconsummated love affair with the Catholic Church, or accept her gnostic theology of divine absence, or espouse her ideals of body denial, or concur in her violently unfair hatred of Roman civilization and the Jews…” Nonetheless, “We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and—only piecemeal—for their ‘views.'”

Sontag added, “Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence. It is, roughly, the difference between the hero and the saint (if one may use the latter term in an aesthetic, rather than a religious sense). Such a life, absurd in its exaggerations and degree of self-mutilation—like Kleist’s, like Kierkegaard’s—was Simone Weil’s… In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies.”

In those rather breathtaking terms, Sontag, not altogether unlike the “difficult” Weil, announced her presence in an intellectual milieu where she would “bear witness” to “fearful polite” — and not-so-polite — times for five decades.


The story of how Susan Rosenblatt, born in New York in 1933, turned into the intellectual celebrity Susan Sontag is one of those American sagas of pure self-invention. Her more or less absent parents, Americans of Polish-Jewish descent, lived in distant Tianjin, China where her father ran a fur trading company. Her mother Mildred, who had flown to New York to give birth, soon returned to China, parking Susan with her immigrant paternal grandparents and a nanny. The child saw her parents sporadically, only a few months a year, until her father died of tuberculosis in 1938 when Susan was four. At which point, Mildred returned to the U.S., bundled up her half-orphaned kids (asthmatic Susan and a younger sister) to Tucson, Arizona, where at the end of World War II she met and married an Army Air Corps pilot and war veteran, Nathan Sontag. The kids adopted the stepfather’s name, presumably to appear “less Jewish,” as the phrase went in an era of casual anti-semitism. In 1946, the family moved to Los Angeles.

Precocious, bookish, lonely, trapped in what one of her European publishers, Michael Kruger of Luchterhand Press, described as an “American provincial hell,” Sontag, along with a small circle of like-minded teenagers, became an autodidact who put up with boring highschool as a mere necessity as she directed her self-education. While her agemates may have been heading down to the California beach, as portrayed in the “Gidget” movies of the period, Sontag was not only reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, but she and a friend managed to wangle an invitation to tea with the great, exiled German novelist, who was living in nearby Pacific Palisades. (The tale, complete with excruciating teen self-consciousness, is told by Sontag in a charming memoir-article; see Susan Sontag, “Pilgrimage” The New Yorker, Dec. 21, 1987.)

As soon as possible, Sontag was out of there, heading off, first, to the University of California, Berkeley for a semester, and then, in 1949, only just past her mid-teens, on to the University of Chicago for its Great Books curriculum. It was at Chicago that she met Philip Rieff, a young sociology instructor, at a lecture he was giving on Freud. He took the 17-year-old student out to dinner that night, and after a whirlwind 10-day courtship, married Sontag. (I’ll skip the remarks about “inappropriate” teacher-student relationships that characterized the period.)

Soon after, Rieff got a job in the Boston area at Brandeis University, and Sontag studied philosophy at nearby Harvard. The couple had a son, David. What Sontag hadn’t quite realized, understandably enough, was that Professor Rieff was expecting a conventional academic marriage, with a dutiful helpmate and faculty cocktail parties. Sontag spent an academic year on her own in the late 1950s in Oxford and Paris, where she was able to more clearly focus on her own intellectual goals and her sexual preferences, which were mainly lesbian. When she returned to America, Sontag and Rieff ended their eight year marriage (complete with the predictable child custody battle, which went in the mother’s favour).

In 1959, Sontag, her young son in tow, moved to New York City to seek her intellectual fortune: it was an era when it was hardly easy to be a woman, a single mother, a lesbian, or even a female Jewish cultural critic, much less all of the above. But the times, they were a-changin’, to echo another Bob Dylan anthem of the day, and one of the reasons for being interested in Sontag today is that she was both a part of and emblematic of some of the crucial changes.

Sontag was quick to learn the ropes of what we now call networking. A distinguished former professor of hers, Jacob Taubes, helped her get a junior post teaching philosophy of religion at Columbia University. She acquired publisher Roger Straus (of Farrer, Straus, Giroux — FSG) as a patron and lifelong friend, and at the swanky parties he hosted, she met many of the New York intellectual set, including one of the Partisan Review editors, William Phillips. She asked him how one got to be a PR contributor; Phillips explained the magazine’s book reviewing protocols; and Sontag was off.

By 1964, Straus, who had published Sontag’s first novel The Benefactor the year before (to those dreaded “mixed reviews”), asked her to draw up a list of published pieces and ideas-in-progress for a potential book of essays. That fall, in Partisan Review, Sontag published “Notes on Camp,” her “big breakthrough and… still considered her most famous essay,” as biographer Schreiber says.

“At the time,” Schreiber explains, “‘camp’ was mostly a code word in the gay subcultures of New York and London. It designated an ironic attitude that derived sophisticated, knowing amusement from such things as kitschy films, novels, and mass-produced decorative objects… The idea of camp was a notion of dissident taste, a sensibility that acknowledges high culture while undermining it at the same time.” Sontag described “Camp” as “the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience.” Adds Schreiber, “As strange as it seems today that one critical essay could catapult a 31-year-old into intellectual stardom, it was possible on the east coast of America in 1964.” Within months, Time magazine, “the most important magazine of its time for the American middle class,” was reporting on Sontag’s ideas on camp and heralding her as “one of Manhattan’s most talented young intellectuals.”

Sontag's first book of essays.

Sontag’s first book of essays.

If her early essays caught people’s passing attention, when she gathered them together for Straus under the provocative title, Against Interpretation (1966), the book secured her place among thinkers and critics of the decade. Straus’s shrewd marketing of Sontag to not only her familiar haunts but also to the Vogue/Vanity Fair/Madamoiselle audience, complete with alluring pics, turned her into a brainy celebrity.

In addition to her debut NYR essay on Simone Weil, the collection featured two manifesto-like pieces, the title declaration and a companion piece, “On Style.” There were essays on a host of unfamiliar European writers and books, such as Cesare Pavese, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, Albert Camus’ Notebooks, George Lukacs, Sartre’s long analysis of Jean Genet in Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, and a probing piece on Nathalie Sarraute and the French “New Novel.” A section on film explicated the work of Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and even Jack Smith’s underground camp movie, Flaming Creatures; a similar theatre section discussed the plays of Ionesco, Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy, Antonin Artaud, and perhaps the great theatrical work of the era, Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade. A concluding section explored art “happenings,” reviewed Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, argued for crossing the boundaries between “high” and “mass” culture, and presented the now well-known “Notes on ‘Camp’.” The essays, as Phillip Lopate remarked in his Notes on Sontag (2009), were “divided between hot polemics and sober appreciations… She used manifestos to be outrageous, portraits to be judicious.” Altogether, it added up to a sustained body of work for the thirty-something essayist.

Of course, Sontag wasn’t really “against interpretation.” Instead, the title, Lopate points out, “is a time-honored strategy for marshalling polemical energy,” as well as providing the “added frisson of throwing down the gauntlet to convention and common sense itself. To pretend to be against something which it is impossible truly to be against… is to conjure up a utopia.” As Sontag wrote later, “Of course, all thinking is interpretation. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes correct to be against interpretation.” What Sontag was after, Lopate argues, were those “historical moments… when certain types of interpretation could be liberating, as was the case with Marx and Freud. But our own era suffered, in her opinion, from a surfeit of interpretation, which stifled us and got in the way of our ability to experience” the art-work as such. I’m doubtful that her discussion of the relations between content and form in art is all that helpful, but the famous last line of her eponymous essay in which she asserted that “in place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” was for readers both sexy and liberating.

The overall impact of Sontag’s first book of essays, though initially confined to the limited milieu of New York intellectuals and their readers, soon resonated more broadly. As Joan Acocella, in her 2000 profile of Sontag, recalled, Against Interpretation was “a brilliant book, a landmark in the history of American criticism. Not only did it serve what should be an essential function of criticism, that of introducing readers to new work, weird work, things they wouldn’t ordinarily encounter—a duty no major critic had undertaken consistently since Edmund Wilson quit regular reviewing in the late forties—but, like Wilson’s writings, it did so in a notably un-weird manner. Thoroughly trained in literature and philosophy, Sontag applied the standards of the past—truth, beauty, transcendence, spirituality—to the new art of the sixties, with its alienation, extremity, perversity…

“And the book was ambitious. Sontag asked what art was, what its use was, why we cared about it. She used the new art as a platform on which, it seemed, she invited us to live a bigger life, with new emotions, new thoughts, a new candor. (She talked very straight: “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.”) And the writing was marvellous—high-toned, Brahmin, but full of zest and the pleasure of performing.” (Joan Acocella, “The Hunger Artist,” The New Yorker, Mar. 6, 2000:)

That initial work, more a demonstration of interpretation than an attack on it, is among the more auspicious debuts of any American writer of the second half of the 20th century.


The only serious question about Susan Sontag is, What was on her mind, and does it still matter today? But since the matter of personality almost inevitably arises in nearly every discussion of Sontag, even a decade after her death, let’s get the monstre sacre issue out of the way.

Even many of the people who knew and admired Susan Sontag are quick to concede that she was definitely a handful. Her biographer, Daniel Schreiber, says, “Sontag’s character made it impossible for me to adopt the tone of unbridled admiration” that biographers often fall into. While Sontag “could be warm-hearted, crazy in a good way, and the best of confidantes… she also had a tendency toward self-aggrandizement, and could be egomaniacal and at times downright cruel.”

Phillip Lopate, who saw Sontag frequently over the years — in the classroom where she briefly taught, as a mutual avid film festival-goer, as a fellow political demonstrator in the ’60s, and who later even hosted her as an all-star guest lecturer at the university where he taught writing — was always left with the uneasy feeling that he could never get her to actually notice him. (Oddly enough, Sontag makes a similar complaint about Paul Goodman in an elegaic essay that opens her 1980 book, Under the Sign of Saturn.) In his engaging Notes on Sontag, Lopate says that he sees his book, among other things, as an opportunity to explore his “mixed feelings” about her and her work, an occasion to “‘stage’ my ambivalence,” both personal and professional. He adds, “Those who are looking for a hatchet-job here will be as disappointed as those seeking hagiography.” Fortunately, much the same can be said of Schreiber’s fair-minded appraisal.

Craig Seligman, author of Sontag & Kael (2004), a knowledgeable account about two of the leading contemporary American film critics of a half-century ago, confesses that while he “reveres” Sontag, he truly “loves” Pauline Kael (1919-2001), who pronounced on movies from the pages of The New Yorker magazine for the best part of a quarter-century. Yes, Sontag often gets shown more reverence than love, even from fans. Or take poor Maureen Freeley, a novelist, academic and the translator of Orhan Pamuk, who recounts a cringe-making occasion in the 1990s of Sontag up-close, “when I was deputised to drive her and her son David around Miami”:

“My first mistake was to apologise for the age and sorry state of my car,” Freeley recalls. “This made her snort in disgust. ‘Oh my God, what a stupid thing to say. Do you think someone like me cares about cars?’ My next mistake was to obey her when she commanded me to park in a space that was a little too tight. When she saw I was having trouble, she began to shriek, ‘Don’t tell me I am going to have to teach you to parallel park, too!’ And then she tried, her shriek getting worse with my every mistake. It was, ‘Go right! Go left! No, I said right! I mean, left!’ Finally it was, ‘This is just awful. Get out of the car! I’m going to have to have my son do this.'” (Maureen Freeley, “The Unquiet American — Susan Sontag,” The Observer, Mar. 5, 2000; a somewhat similar account of Sontag’s unpleasant idiosyncrasies can be found in Terry Castle, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” London Review of Books, Mar. 17, 2005.)

And if that’s what her admirers say, beware the detractors. For instance, the Wall Street Journal’s snotty review of Schreiber’s biography begins with one of those “there are two kinds of people in the world” conceits. In this case, it goes, “When it comes to Susan Sontag, there are those who dislike both the woman and the work and those who just dislike the woman.” The reviewer, a heretofore obscure professor of English at the heretofore obscure Houston Baptist University, claims that Berlin-based biographer and journalist Schreiber “reluctantly puts himself in the latter group,” those who merely dislike the woman. The reviewer, as quickly becomes apparent, is in the first category, those who more than dislike both the person and her writing. (See, or even better, don’t see, Micah Mattix, “Book Review: ‘Susan Sontag: A Biography’ by Daniel Schreiber,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 13, 2014.) If nothing else, the fact that Sontag can inspire this sort of vitriol a decade after her death is a measure of the unusual position she held in American intellectual life and letters for several decades.

Although I don’t want to be faulted for ignoring the issue of the “difficulty” of Sontag, I have to admit that I’m not much interested in it (although I’m as happy as the next person to gossip about her). Much of the downside of Sontag in person can probably be traced to a childhood and parental relations that she frequently and bitterly lamented to friends as an adult. In the end, the foibles tend to fade with mortality, the writing remains. As the Romans had it, Verba volant, scripta manent.

The WSJ review is the sort of criticism that Sontag, were she around, would squish like a grape, which briefly raises another issue, about the extent that Schreiber’s bio has or hasn’t been noticed. I only mention this review because the biography, the first since Sontag’s death, has been curiously under-attended since its publication in fall 2014. The WSJ’s dismissive notice is one of the few reviews to have appeared in a mainstream media paper. The only other substantial review I’ve been able to find is the far saner and more knowledgeable one by Allen Barra, “Still Desperately Seeking Susan Sontag” (The Daily Beast, Sept. 26, 2014), but even Barra ends up wondering if “perhaps more enduring than her writings will be her role as the last public intellectual.” By the way, in a 1997 essay, Sontag sneered, “How many times has one heard in the last decades that intellectuals are obsolete, or that so-and-so is ‘the last intellectual’?” (“Answers to a Questionnaire,” in Sontag, Where The Stress Falls, 2001.)

I suppose Schreiber’s biography has been largely ignored because it originally appeared several years ago (and is only lately translated), and because lots of books are ignored in this era of reduced book reviewing. That’s a shame, because Schreiber’s book about Sontag is a well-judged introduction to the life, times and work of a significant cultural critic, and leads readers directly to reading Sontag herself, one of the main purposes of helpful biographies (which is what I’ve been doing ever since reading Schreiber). Perhaps baggier, more official or authorized versions of Sontag’s life will have better luck, but this one is more than adequate, and it’s not tendentious.

A more pertinent issue about Sontag personally, rather than all those scenes of Susan-behaving-badly, is her troubled relation to her own fame. She wanted to be famous, she felt it was deserved, and it likely provided some of the attention and consolation she felt she had been deprived of in childhood. At the same time, once achieved, she found it constricting. I recently ran into a short video interview with Sontag (it’s available on YouTube) that consists entirely of Sontag frustratedly explaining to the interviewer this his banal questions, casting her into a stereotype called “Susan Sontag,” were impossible to intelligibly answer. At one point, she accuses him of posing queries that call for sound-bite answers, and tells him, I’m not a sound-bite person. Her reputation was a comfort and satisfaction, and provided entree to places she wanted to go, but it also seemed to demand that she remain fixed in the image in which fame had cast her, when what she wanted was the freedom to continuously change as her interests altered and developed.


After the landmark Against Interpretation, Sontag produced, over a hardworking four-decade career, a steady and variegated body of work that included novels and short stories; three more volumes of selected essays (Styles of Radical Will, 1969; Under the Sign of Saturn, 1980; Where the Stress Falls, 2001); a period (in the 1970s) when she made dramatic films and a documentary about the Middle East; and several book-length essays, the best known of which are On Photography (1977) and Illness as Metaphor (1978), the latter arising from her experience of advanced stage breast cancer (which she successfully survived for a quarter-century). Two late historical novels, The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (1999), which won the National Book Award for fiction in 2000, were commercially successful and confirmed her own view of herself as principally a novelist.

In addition to all this, Sontag more than dabbled in playwriting and theatre directing, and provided countless introductions to volumes that she often also edited, of selected works of writers she deemed important. The best of these books is her introduction to and selection of writings by Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, 1982. Her cultural range was exceptionally broad; she was something of a one-woman Cultural Studies program slightly avant la lettre; about the only topics that she was either ignorant of or declined to address were contemporary poetry (particularly the oppositional “New American Poetry” that emerged in the 1960s) and, oddly, both lesbianism and feminism, though she had intimate knowledge of both.

Most of the readers who like her writing agree that Sontag’s essays are her best work and most natural metier, that the novels and films are indifferent in quality (and that her estimate of their importance was a self-delusion), and that her role as a “public intellectual” was significant. As one of those readers, I fall in line with the now-conventional view that Sontag is primarily an essayist. But beyond that, I simply like her writing, her sentences. The writing is engaging, she doesn’t obfuscate, she almost always has something interesting on her mind.

Take this passage from On Photography (1977), almost randomly chosen, just to give a sense of Sontag at her workaday trade:

“Through photographs each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself — a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness. It hardly matters what activities are photographed so long as photographs get taken and are cherished. Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperilled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family — and, often, is all that remains of it.”

It’s not a flashy paragraph, just one with competent, clear sentences, animated by intelligence, that makes a neat elegiac point about the disappearance of extended families. As writing about photography, it’s in the same league as Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, or John Berger’s astute observations about “ways of seeing.” It leaves me wishing that Sontag were still around to provide some reflections on our present Age of Selfies.

One aspect of Sontag’s life, her role as a “public intellectual,” deserves specific comment. The very term invites quotation marks to signal its contested status these days. Sontag’s fulfillment of her sense of the responsibility of an intellectual is itself contentious. At one end of the spectrum, you have critics like Joseph Epstein sneering at Sontag’s “record of nearly perfect political foolishness.” He notes that she once said that intelligence is a kind of taste in ideas, and then is quick to deride “the quality of so many of her ideas, most of which cannot be too soon forgot.” Epstein quotes Orwell’s famous remark that “some ideas are so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them,” then adds, “and Susan Sontag seems, at one time or another, to have believed them all.” If that’s the nasty end of the spectrum, at the far side of the rainbow and through most of the middle, are the rest of us, who regard Sontag as perceptive, courageous and whose mind evolved in response to a changing world. (Joseph Epstein, “A Very Public Intellectual,” Wall Street Journal, Apr. 2, 2011; the WSJ seems to make a speciality of locating venom-fanged contributors to indulge in Sontag-bashing.)

Sontag was among the early activists opposing the Vietnam War, travelling to North Vietnam (as did Mary McCarthy, and later, actress Jane Fonda) and writing a lengthy essay, “Trip to Hanoi,” in which she wrestled with the pieties expected of leftist visitors. Interestingly, and as an example of her evolving mind, in 1984, some 15 years later, Sontag penned “Questions of Travel” (echoing the title of Elizabeth Bishop’s celebrated poem), a critique of the shallowness of the sort of managed political touring in which she had once participated. Throughout the ’60s, among the dissident American dignitaries — from poet Allen Ginsberg to Paul Goodman, Norman Mailer, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Noam Chomsky, Robert Lowell, and the others — at the demos, marches, and protests, Sontag could be found in their ranks and on the rostrum.

In each subsequent decade Sontag was at the front, expressing views that were neither rote nor predictable. In the early 1980s, Sontag was in close contact with political dissidents in Poland, where the independent trade union movement, Solidarnosc, had challenged the Polish Communist government and the country’s leaders had imposed martial law, generating international outrage. Sontag spoke at a public solidarity rally in New York on Feb. 6, 1982. The other speakers, including Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut, and Gore Vidal, simply declared their support for Solidarity, while also taking a few jabs at the recently-elected conservative American president, Ronald Reagan.

As Schreiber describes it, “Sontag, however, gave a speech in which she sharply attacked that easygoing New Left position. She began with the thesis that since the fifties, both she herself and her colleagues had misjudged the Communist regimes… Leftist intellectuals had not been sufficiently critical of the repression under Eastern European regimes, Sontag said, comparing them to the military dictatorships” in Latin America. “We had identified the enemy as Fascism,” Sontag declared. “We believed in, or at least applied, a double standard to the language of Communism.” Sontag’s punchline, “Communism is Fascism — successful Fascism, if you will… ‘Fascism with a Human Face’,” was over the top, and wrong, however the rest of it was not only gutsy, but true. Sontag’s “provocative speech was greeted with loud boos,” Schreiber reports, “and she was barely able to read it to the end.” The scandal she kicked off echoed for weeks among the liberal left.

A few years later, Sontag became president of U.S. PEN, an international writers’ organization that supports free expression. In February 1989, she experienced her most memorable moment in that position. That was when the Islamic head of state of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared a fatwa against the British novelist Salman Rushdie, sentencing him to death for his allegedly blasphemous novel, The Satanic Verses.

In the crisis that ensued, there were outbursts of violence against people connected to the book and widespread demonstrations and book burnings against Rushdie in various Islamic capitals and communities, from Britain to Pakistan — not unlike the shootings in Paris a quarter century later, in January 2015, when Islamic terrorists killed cartoonists and others at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo because they regarded the publication’s cartoons of the Islamic prophet as blasphemous. During the Rushdie Affair, as it became known, there was a good deal of fudging, vacillation, and murmurings in the name of reason about possible limits to offending others, even among writers, publishers and others who should have known better. In contrast, Sontag didn’t hestitate for a minute, calling an emergency meeting of PEN and issuing a statement in complete solidarity with the endangered Rushdie and his right to express himself freely. As Schreiber reports, PEN’s executive director, Karen Kennerley later said that the statement would never have come about without Sontag. “Almost everyone else hesitated,” Kennerley recalled, “but Susan was never afraid of anything.”

Sontag in Sarajevo.

Sontag in Sarajevo.

Finally, in recalling Sontag on various “front lines” throughout her life, in 1993, she was on the literal front line of the Yugoslavian war during the siege of Sarajevo. As multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-orthographic Yugoslavia broke up after the fall of Soviet Communism, Serbian nationalists (as well as others) launched an assault on the heretofore peaceful multi-cultural capital of Bosnia that turned into the unremitting siege of Sarajevo. Alerted by her journalist son, David Rieff, who was covering the conflict (and later wrote Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, 1995), Sontag visited the beleaguered city.

She was enraged by the failure of Europe to intervene and attempt to stop a European war, as the former Yugoslavians pointed out, and by the reluctance of international intellectuals to become engaged in the issue. Rather than the standard 24-hour junket and subsequent press conference that a few supportive thinkers performed, Sontag contacted local Sarajevan cultural leaders to figure out if there was something she could usefully do. Eventually, she ended up directing a theatre production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a modernist masterpiece that people in Sarajevo thought relevant to their situation, as they waited vainly for the world to come to its aid while the bodies piled up. The project entailed multiple trips to the city and several weeks of experiencing its conditions.

In the nasty tradition of “no good deed goes unpunished,” Sontag was subjected to a lot of figurative sniping after her experience with the real thing. She was accused of grandstanding, self-aggrandizement and acts of cultural imperialism. In response she wrote one of her finest later essays, “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” (New York Review, Oct. 21, 1993), explaining, “No longer can a writer consider that the imperative task is to bring the news to the outside world. The news is out. Many excellent foreign journalists have been reporting the lies and the slaughter since the beginning of the seige, while the decision of the western European powers and the United States not to intervene remains firm, thereby giving the victory to Serb fascism.”

Sontag says, “I couldn’t again just be a witness: that is, meet and visit, tremble with fear, feel brave, feel depressed, have heartbreaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight. If I went back, it would be to pitch in and do something… I was not under the illusion that going to Sarajevo to direct a play would make me useful in the way I could be if I were a doctor or a water systems engineer. It would be a small contribution. But it was the only one of the three things I do — write, make films, and direct in the theatre — which yields something that would exist only in Sarajevo, that would be made and consumed there.” Not the boasting of a swell-head, is it? The bulk of the essay is an account of putting on the play and of the conditions endured by the inhabitants of Sarajevo, written with a fine edge and controlled anger.

She deals with some of the insinuations about her suspect motives, and also faux-naive questions about why Sarajevans would want to see a depressing theatre piece in the midst of a war. “In fact,” Sontag replies, “the audience for theatre expects to see a play like Waiting for Godot. What my production of Godot signifies to them, apart from the fact that an eccentric American writer and part-time director volunteered to work in the theatre as an expression of solidarity with the city (a fact inflated by the local press and radio as evidence that the rest of the world ‘does care,’ when I knew to my indignation and shame, that I represented nobody but myself), is that this is a great European play and that they are members of European culture… People told me again and again on my earlier visit… We are part of Europe. We are the people in the former Yugoslavia who stand for European values–secularism, religious tolerance, and multi-ethnicity” — against nationalism, fundamentalism, recrudescent tribalism. The whole piece is a measured defense of culture, of solidarity with people under attack, and a reaffirmation of her conception of intellectual responsibility. As she had said elsewhere, “Although intellectuals come in all flavors, including the nationalist and the religious, I confess to being partial to the secular, cosmopolitan, anti-tribal variety.”

There are many other issues and occasions that can be cited in Sontag’s experience as a public intellectual — from cancer patient advocacy, to AIDS, to her remarks (once more, scandalous) about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (she suggested the hardly shocking notion that the attacks might have something to do with U.S. foreign policy; it was enough to get her detractors muttering about “traitors”). But the above episodes ought to be adequate for most people to get the picture.


Susan Sontag.

Susan Sontag.

In the latter part of her life Sontag displayed what Schreiber calls “a certain haughty bitterness at what she considered the decline of seriousness and idealism.” Well, “haughty bitterness” or not, she wasn’t the only one to have that impression of the state of the culture. In a preface to a 1996 Spanish edition of her early Against Interpretation, she says, “When I denounced… certain kinds of facile moralism, it was in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness. What I didn’t understand . . . was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large. . . . Now the very idea of the serious (and of the honorable) seems quaint, ‘unrealistic,’ to most people.” That echoing term, seriousness, was used as early as that piece she wrote about Simone Weil for the inaugural issue of New York Review.

Around the same time, she told Paris Review, in a 1995 interview, that “taste has become so debauched in the thirty years I’ve been writing that now simply to defend the idea of seriousness has become an adversarial act. Just to be serious or to care about things in an ardent, disinterested way is becoming incomprehensible to most people. Perhaps only those who were born in the 1930s—and maybe a few stragglers—are going to understand what it means to talk about art as opposed to art projects. Or artists as opposed to celebrities.” Sensing she may have again gone a bit too far, she adds a whoops: “As you see, I’m chock-full of indignation about the barbarism and relentless vacuity of this culture. How tedious always to be indignant.”

Although there was the success of her historical novels in the last decade of her life — enough success to delude herself about their significance, both in her work and more generally — there was also a sense of disappointment that her grandiose ambitions to be a Great Writer had not been achieved. She was a very good writer, but like others, perhaps only a minor writer. Yet, maybe it ought to be remembereed that you have to be a pretty damn good writer to be even a “minor writer.”

Admittedly, I’ve said more about Sontag than about Schreiber’s biography, which is probably appropriate. One of the virtues of his book is that he provides a good mix of biography and the history of the times. For readers of a certain age (and I’ve certainly reached that “certain age”) who lived during much of the period in which Sontag lived, Schreiber’s book is an occasion for reflecting once more on what it all meant. For others, it will serve not only as an introduction to a fascinating writer, but also as a reminder of philosopher George Santayana’s famous caution that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” although perhaps it is not repetition that threatens us so much these days as the condemnation to ignorance.

Sontag had a tough death. In the long argument between those who accept their mortality and those who would prefer the diametric opposite, she was unambiguously with the eternalists. Having survived both breast and uterine cancers, in early 2004, she was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of leukemia from which she died in December 2004. (The not-at-all pretty details are recounted in her son’s memoir; see David Rieff, Swimming in a Sea of Death, 2008.)

In Sontag’s memorable essay on the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Elias Canetti, in Under the Sign of Saturn, she underscores his resistance to death. “It is almost as if Canetti,” she says, “had to keep his consciousness in a permanent state of avidity to remain unreconciled to death.” She notes that “Canetti offers to strike a bargain with death. ‘A century? A paltry hundred years! Is that too much for an earnest intention!'” Sontag immediately adds, “But why one hundred years? Why not three hundred?” and she recalls that Karel Capek’s play The Makropulos Affair proposed exactly such a conceit, and in considerable detail. Sontag not only could have been writing about herself rather than Canetti… she was.


Berlin, Feb. 11, 2015.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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