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Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004) was an Americanmarker author, literary theorist, and political activist.


Sontag, born Susan Rosenblatt, was born in New York Citymarker to Jack Rosenblatt and Mildred Jacobsen, both Jewish Americans. Her father ran a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis when Susan was five years old. Seven years later, her mother married Nathan Sontag. Susan and her sister, Judith, were given their stepfather's surname, although he never formally adopted them.

Sontag grew up in Tucsonmarker, Arizonamarker, and, later, in Los Angelesmarker, where she graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15. She began her undergraduate studies at Berkeleymarker but transferred to the University of Chicagomarker in admiration of its famed core curriculum. At Chicago, she undertook studies in philosophy and literature alongside her other requirements (Leo Strauss, Richard McKeon and Kenneth Burke were among her lecturers) and graduated with a B.A. She did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvardmarker with Paul Tillich, Jacob Taubes and Morton White et al. After completing her Master of Arts in philosophy and beginning doctoral work at Harvardmarker, Sontag was awarded a University Women's Association scholarship for the 1957-1958 academic year to St Anne's College, Oxfordmarker, where she had classes with Iris Murdoch, J. L. Austin, Alfred Jules Ayer, Stuart Hampshire and others. Oxfordmarker did not appeal to her, however, and she transferred after Michaelmas term of 1957 to the University of Parismarker. It was in Parismarker that Sontag socialised with expatriate artists and academics including Allan Bloom, Jean Wahl, Alfred Chester, Harriet Sohmers and Maria Irene Fornes. Sontag remarked that her time in Parismarker was, perhaps, the most important period of her life. It certainly provided the grounding for her long intellectual and artistic association with the culture of France.

At 17, while at Chicago, Sontag married Philip Rieff after a ten-day courtship. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse lived with Sontag and Rieff for a year while working on his book Eros and Civilization. Sontag and Rieff were married for eight years throughout which they worked jointly on the study Freud: The Mind of the Moralist that would be attributed solely to Philip Rieff as a stipulation of the couple's divorce in 1958. The couple had a son, David Rieff, who later became his mother's editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as well as a writer in his own right.

The publication of Against Interpretation (1966), accompanied by a striking dust-jacket photo by Peter Hujar, helped establish Sontag's reputation as "the Dark Lady of American Letters." Movie stars like Woody Allen, philosophers like Arthur Danto, and politicians like Mayor John Lindsay vied to know her. In the movie Bull Durham, her work was used as a touchstone of sexual savoir-faire.

Grave of Susan Sontag
In her prime, Sontag avoided all pigeonholes. Like Jane Fonda, she went to Hanoimarker, and wrote of the North Vietnamese society with much sympathy and appreciation (see "Trip to Hanoi" in Styles of Radical Will). She maintained a clear distinction, however, between North Vietnam and Maoist Chinamarker, as well as East-European communism, which she later famously rebuked as "fascism with a human face."

Sontag died in New York City on 28 December 2004, aged 71, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome which had evolved into acute myelogenous leukemia. Sontag is buried in Montparnasse Cemeterymarker, in Parismarker. Her final illness has been chronicled by her son, David Rieff.


Sontag's literary career began and ended with works of fiction. After teaching philosophy and theology at Sarah Lawrence Collegemarker, City University of New York and Columbia University under Jacob Taubes from 1960 to 1964, Sontag left academia and devoted herself to full-time writing. At age 30, she published an experimental novel called The Benefactor (1963), following it four years later with Death Kit (1967).Despite a relatively small output, Sontag thought of herself principally as a novelist and writer of fiction. Her short story "The Way We Live Now" was published to great acclaim on 26 November, 1986 in The New Yorker. Written in an experimental narrative style, it remains a key text on the AIDS epidemic. She achieved late popular success as a best-selling novelist with The Volcano Lover (1992). At age 67, Sontag published her final novel In America (2000). The last two novels were set in the past, which Sontag said gave her greater freedom to write in the polyphonic voice.

It was as an essayist, however, that Sontag gained early fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art and the form/content dichotomy across the arts. Her celebrated and widely-read 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'" was epoch-defining, examining an alternative sensibility to that which would see the best art in terms of its seriousness. It gestured towards and expounded the "so bad it's good" concept in popular culture for the first time. In 1977, Sontag wrote the essay On Photography, which gave media students and scholars an entirely different perspective of the camera in the modern world. The essay is an exploration of photographs as a collection of the world, mainly by travelers or tourists, and the way we therefore experience it. She outlines the concept of her theory of taking pictures as you travel:

The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.

Sontag suggested photographic "evidence" be used as a presumption that "something exists, or did exist", regardless of distortion. For her, the art of photography is "as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are", for cameras are produced rapidly as a "mass art form" and are available to all of those with the means to attain them. Focusing also on the effect of the camera and photograph on the wedding and modern family life, Sontag reflects that these are a "rite of family life" in industrialized areas such as Europe and America.

To Sontag "picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights - to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on". She considers the camera a phallus, comparable to ray guns and cars, which are "fantasy-machines whose use is addictive". For Sontag the camera can be linked to murder and a promotion of nostalgia while evoking "the sense of the unattainable" in the industrialized world. The photograph familiarizes the wealthy with "the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, and the massacred" but removes the shock of these images because they are available widely and have ceased to be novel. Sontag saw the photograph as valued because it gives information but acknowledges that it is incapable of giving a moral standpoint although it can reinforce an existing one.

Sontag championed European writers such as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Antonin Artaud, E. M. Cioran, and W. G. Sebald, along with some Americans such as María Irene Fornés. Over several decades she would turn her attention to novels, film, and photography. In more than one book, Sontag wrote about cultural attitudes toward illness. Her final nonfiction work, Regarding the Pain of Others, re-examined art and photography from a moral standpoint. It spoke of how the media affects culture's views of conflict.

A New Visual Code

In her Essay On Photography Sontag says that the evolution of modern technology has changed the viewer in three key ways. She calls this the emergence of a new visual code.Firstly, Sontag suggests that modern photography, with its convenience and ease, has created an overabundance of visual material. As photographing is now a practice of the masses, due to a drastic decrease in camera size and increase of ease in developing photographs, we are left in a position where “just about everything has been photographed”(Sontag, Susan, (1977), On Photography 3). We now have so many images available to us of: things, places, events and people from all over the world, and of not immediate relevance to our own existence, that our expectations of what we have the right to view, want to view or should view has been drastically affected. Arguably, gone are the days that we felt entitled of view only those things in our immediate presence or that affected our micro world; we now seem to feel entitled to gain access to any existing images. “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notion of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe” (3). This is what Sontag calls a change in “viewing ethics” (3).

Secondly, Sontag comments on the effect of modern photography on our education, claiming that photographs “now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present”(4). Without photography only those few people who had been there would know what the Egyptian pyramids or the Parthenon look like, yet most of us have a good idea of the appearance of these places. Photography teaches us about those parts of the world that are beyond our touch in ways that literature can not.

Sontag also talks about the way in which photography desensitizes its audience. Sontag introduces this discussion by telling her own story of the first time she saw images of horrific human experience. At twelve years old, Sontag stumbled upon images of holocaust camps and was so distressed by them she says “When I looked at those photographs something broke... something went dead, something is still crying” (20).Sontag argues that there was no good to come from her seeing these images as a young girl, before she fully understood what the holocaust was. For Sontag the viewing of these images has left her a degree more numb to any following horrific image she viewed, as she had been desensitized. According to this argument, “Images anesthetize” and the open accessibility to them is a negative result of photography (20).

Sontag examines the relationship between photography and reality. Photographs are depicted as a representation of realism. Sontag claimed that “such images are indeed able to usurp reality because first of all a photograph is not only an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real (Sontag, Susan (1982), The Image World 350). It is a resemblance of the real as the photograph becomes an extension of the subject. However, the role of the photograph has changed, as copies destroy the idea of an experience. The image has altered to convey information and become an act of classification. Sontag highlights the notion that photographs are a way of imprisoning reality- making the memory stand still. Ultimately images are surveillance of events that trigger the memory. In modern society, photographs are a form of recycling the real. When a moment is captured it is assigned a new meaning as people interpret the image in their own manner. Sontag depicts the idea that images desensitize the real thing, as people's perceptions are distorted by the construction of the photograph. However this has not stopped people from consuming images; there is still a demand for more photographs. Therefore, Sontag has impacted the audience's understanding of reality, as photographs have adapted to a form of surveillance.

Susan Sontag brought out some uses of the photography, “Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation” (Sontag,1977 10), such as memorizing and providing evidence. She also states that “to collect photography is to collect the world.” (Sontag,1997 3)

Sontag believes that photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. She states that photography has ‘become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation’. She refers to photographs as memento mori, where to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability and mutability. The progression from the written word to capturing an image shifts the weight of the interpretation from the author to the receiver. Sontag believes however that ‘photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire’. It is a slice in time and in effect, is more memorable than moving images for example, videos. It fills the gaps in our mind of the past and present.Even though photography has such effect, there are limits to photographic knowledge of the world. The limitations are that it can never be interpreted ethical or political knowledge. It will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist.Our modern day society can be described as a society feeding on aesthetic consumerism. There is an addiction and a need to constantly have reality confirmed and experiences enhanced by photographs.


In 1989 Sontag was the President of PEN American Center, the main U.S. branch of the International PEN writers' organization. This was the year when Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa death sentence against writer Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. Khomeini and some other Islamic fundamentalists claimed the novel was blasphemous. Sontag's uncompromising support of Rushdie was critical in rallying American writers to his cause.

A few years later, Sontag gained attention for directing Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot during the nearly four-year Siege of Sarajevomarker. Early in that conflict, Sontag referred to the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina as the "Spanish Civil War of our time". She sparked controversy among U.S. leftists for advocating U.S. and European military intervention. Sontag lived in Sarajevomarker for many months of the Sarajevo siege.

Sontag continued to theorize about the role of photography in real life in her essay "Looking at War: Photography's View of Devastation and Death" which appeared in the December 9th, 2002 issue of The New Yorker. In it she acknowledges that the problem of our reliance on images and especially photographic images is not that "people remember through photographs but that they remember only the photographs, .... that the photographic image eclipses other forms of understanding--and remembering. .... To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture" (94). She re-examines the arguments she posed in On Photography.


Sontag drew fire for writing that "Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, 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." (Partisan Review, Winter 1967, p. 57.) Sontag refused to apologize for the remark. She later issued a partial apology for her statement, saying it was insensitive to cancer victims.

In "Sontag, Bloody Sontag," an essay in her book Vamps and Tramps, Camille Paglia describes her initial admiration for Sontag and her subsequent disillusionment with the author. Paglia writes,

Sontag's cool exile was a disaster for the American women's movement. Only a woman of her prestige could have performed the necessary critique and debunking of the first instant-canon feminist screeds, such as those of Kate Millett or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose middlebrow mediocrity crippled women's studies from the start. No patriarchal villains held Sontag back; her failures are her own.

Paglia mentions several criticisms of Sontag, including Harold Bloom's comment on Paglia's doctoral dissertation, of "Mere Sontagisme!" This "had become synonymous with a shallow kind of hip posturing." Paglia also describes Sontag as a "sanctimonious moralist of the old-guard literary world", and tells of a visit by Sontag to Bennington, in which she arrived hours late, ignored the agreed upon topic of the event, and made an incessant series of ridiculous demands.

In 1968 Sontag was criticized for visiting Hanoimarker, the capital of North Vietnam, during the Vietnam War.

Ellen Lee accused Sontag of plagiarism when Lee discovered at least twelve passages in In America that were similar to passages in four other books about Helena Modjeska. Those books included a novel by Willa Cather. (Cather wrote: "When Oswald asked her to propose a toast, she put out her long arm, lifted her glass, and looking into the blur of the candlelight with a grave face, said: 'To my coun-n-try!'" Sontag wrote, "When asked to propose a toast, she put out her long arm, lifted her glass, and looking into the blur of the candlelight, crooned, 'To my new country!' " "Country," muttered Miss Collingridge. "Not 'coun-n-try.'") The quotations were presented without credit or attribution.

Sontag said about using the passages, "All of us who deal with real characters in history transcribe and adopt original sources in the original domain. I've used these sources and I've completely transformed them. I have these books. I've looked at these books. There's a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions."

Sontag sparked controversy for her remarks in The New Yorker (September 24, 2001) about the immediate aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Sontag wrote:

"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."

Private life

Sontag became aware of her attraction to women in her early teens and wrote in her diary aged 15, "so now I feel I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this)." Aged 16, she had her first sexual encounter with a woman: "Perhaps I was drunk, after all, because it was so beautiful when H began making love to me .... It had been 4:00 before we had gotten to bed ... I became fully conscious that I desired her, she knew it, too...."

In the early 1970s, Sontag was romantically involved with Nicole Stéphane (1923-2007), a Rothschild banking heiress turned movie actress. Sontag later engaged in a committed relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz, with whom she was close during her last years; choreographer Lucinda Childs, writer Maria Irene Fornes, and other women.

In an interview in The Guardian in 2000, Sontag was quite open about her bisexuality:

"Shall I tell you about getting older?", she says, and she is laughing. "When you get older, 45 plus, men stop fancying you. Or put it another way, the men I fancy don't fancy me. I want a young man. I love beauty. So what's new?" She says she has been in love seven times in her life, which seems quite a lot. "No, hang on," she says. "Actually, it's nine. Five women, four men."

Many of Sontag's obituaries failed to mention her significant same-sex relationships, most notably that with Leibovitz. In response to this criticism, The New York Times' Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, defended the newspaper's obituary, stating that at the time of Sontag's death, a reporter could make no independent verification of her romantic relationship with Leibovitz (despite attempts to do so). After Sontag's death, Newsweek published an article about Leibovitz that made clear reference to her decade-plus relationship with Sontag, stating: "The two first met in the late '80s, when Leibovitz photographed her for a book jacket. They never lived together, though they each had an apartment within view of the other's." Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, the executor of Susan's estate, has stated that only sentimental items were bequeathed to Leibovitz.

Sontag was quoted by Editor-in-Chief Brendan Lemon of Out magazine as saying "I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the 'open secret'. I'm used to that, and quite OK with it. Intellectually, I know why I haven't spoken more about my sexuality, but I do wonder if I haven't repressed something there to my detriment. Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, but it's never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody's in drastic need. I'd rather give pleasure, or shake things up."




  • (1991) "A Parsifal" [one-act play, first published in _Antaeus_ 67 (1991): 180-185.]
  • (1993) Alice in Bed Library of Congress catalog card number 93-71280
  • (1999) "Lady from the Sea" [adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play of the same name; first published in _Theater_ 29.1 (1999): 89-91.]


Collections of essays

Sontag also published nonfiction essays in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Granta, Partisan Review and the London Review of Books.




Books and articles on Susan Sontag

  • Sontag and Kael by Craig Seligman ISBN 1-58243-311-9.

  • The Din in the Head. Essays by Cynthia Ozick ISBN 978-0-618-47050-1 See Forward: On Discord and Desire.

  • Conversations with Susan Sontag. Edited by Leland Poague ISBN 0-87805-833-8 Susan Sontag in her own words.

  • Susan Sontag. The Elegiac Modernist by Sohnya Sayres ISBN 0-415-90031-X

  • Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff A memoir about Susan Sontag's death by her son.

  • Notes on Sontag by Phillip Lopate

Awards and honors


  1. See L. Poague ed. Conversations with Susan Sontag, Interview with M. McQuade, 'A Gluttonous Reader', University of Mississippi Press, 1995, pp.271-278.
  2. See Susan Sontag, 'Literature is Freedom' in At the Same Time, ed. P. Dilonardo and A. Jump, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, p.206 and Morton White, A Philosopher's Story, Pennsylvania University Press, 1999, p.148. See also C. Rollyson and L. Paddock Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, W. W. Norton, 2000, pp.39-40.
  3. See Morton White, A Philosopher's Story, Pennsylvania University Press, 1999, p.148, and C. Rollyson and L. Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, W. W. Norton, 2000, pp.43-45.
  4. See E. Field, The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag, Wisconsin, 2005, pp.158-170. Also, C. Rollyson and L. Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, W. W. Norton, 2000, pp.45-50 and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963, ed. D. Rieff, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, pp.188-189.
  5. See C. Rollyson and L. Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, W. W. Norton, 2000, pp.51-52.
  6. See 'An Emigrant of Thought', interview with Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber in Conversations with Susan Sontag, ed. L. Poague, Univ. of Mississippi Press, 1995, pp.143-164
  7. See C. Rollyson and L. Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon', W. W. Norton, 2000, p.38'.
  8. See Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963, ed. D. Rieff, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, p.144.
  9. See C. Rollyson and L. Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, W. W. Norton, 2000, pp.56-57.
  10. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin, page 10
  11. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin, page 3
  12. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin, page 23
  13. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin, page 24
  14. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin, page 24
  15. Christopher Hitchens Retrieved on 2 February 2009
  16. Carvajal, Doreen (May 27, 2002) "So Whose Words Are They? Susan Sontag Creates a Stir." New York Times Book Review.
  17. Susan Sontag: 'It was so beautiful when H began making love to me', Paul Bignell, The Independent on Sunday, 16 November 2008
  18. Reborn: Early Diaries, 1947-1964, published by Penguin, January 2009
  19. Leo Lerman, "The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman", NY: Knopf, 2007, page 413
  20. Cathleen McGuigan, "Through Her Lens", Newsweek, 2 October 2006.
  21. leibovitz&st=cse&scp=6

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