Susan Sontag – “ Miss Librarian”


What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.” ~ Susan Sontag

Most of the qualities of Sontag’s work as a critic were in place in first book of essays: “Notes on ‘Camp’.” Her prose style barely changed over the next 40 years. It was first published as an essay in 1964, and was her first contribution to the Partisan Review. The essay attracted interest “in Sontag.” It was republished in 1966 in Sontag’s debut collection of essays, “Against Interpretation”.

This book was a collection of previously published book and reviews, outlying on the French writers, artist, and intellectuals. Three of the collection’s essay’s stand out. Two of those – “ On Style” and “Against Interpretation “ – were outlines of method. They argued of impersonality, as well as for notion of culture and art saying they should be treated as experience because in form they cannot be separated from content. Those are terms which art “Enlivens” our sensibility or our consciousness, as Susan Sontag puts it. Her success as a critic depended on her being so intellectually conventional.

However, Susan Sontag has been positioned as generation matured on postwar books in university education as cynical about Cold War ideological battles, it was very cosmopolitan too. As she traveled through the genres and continents, literature compiled with theatre and fine art as well as with movies and photos, genres become transformed by the new audience’s attention, as Susan made clear. She has been first literature critic who wrote about movies.

Consciousness” is one of Susan Sontag keywords, and she uses it in a way that may have an odd ring to 21st-century ears. It’s sometimes invoked now, in a weak sense, as a synonym for the moral awareness of injustice. Its status as a philosophical problem, meanwhile, has been diminished by the rise of cognitive science, which subordinates the mysteries of the human mind to the chemical and physical operations of the brain.

Sontag was also aware of living in emergency conditions, in a world menaced by violence, environmental disaster, political polarization and corruption. But the art she valued most didn’t soothe the anguish of modern life so much as refract and magnify its agonies. She didn’t read — or go to movies, plays, museums or dance performances — to retreat from that world but to bring herself closer to it. What art does, she says again and again, is confront the nature of human consciousness at a time of historical crisis, to unmake and redefine its own terms and procedures. It confers a solemn obligation: “From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.”

One always knew exactly what Sontag said, even if one didn’t think it was true. And each essay was extensively researched and elegantly argued with her University of Chicago training in philosophy, full of precisely apt quotations that apparently came from a photographic memory. Describing Roland Barthes, she described herself: [His work] has some of the specific traits associated with the style of a late moment in culture – one that presumes an endless discourse anterior to itself, that presumes intellectual sophistication: it is a work that, strenuously unwilling to be boring or obvious, favours compact assertion, writing that rapidly covers a great deal of ground.

Sontag’s most famous sentence is : “In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.” (Against Interpretation, 1966) By ‘”hermeneutics” Sontag clearly means the tendency to metaphorically interpret art, the critical practice she’s been railing against throughout the essay. Against Interpretation also contained, of course, “Notes on ‘Camp’,” which remained Sontag’s best-known shorter essay.

Much of Sontag’s best writing was done in the 1970s: “On Phtotography” (1971), Illness as Metaphor (1978), Under the Sign of Saturn (1980). As her thought routinized itself, it seems logical that Susan Sontag gradually lost interest in her critical writing, committing herself to novels. Even though she was more talented for essays.

But she possessed this charisma of celebrity which used her status as celebrity intellectual to make more important political interventions. Between them is her visit to Sarajevo and producing, directing “ Waiting on Godaut’’on years of civil wars, siding against the Serbs. In Sarajevo in 1993, during the Bosnian war, she staged a production of Waiting for Godot (1953): it seemed to Sontag as if it had been written ‘for, and about, Sarajevo’. As she told the American TV journalist Charlie Rose in 1995: ‘Waiting for the American intervention was like waiting for Godot.’ The production drew scathing responses in the US and the UK: it was called ‘mesmerizingly precious and hideously self-indulgent’. It was not, Sontag countered, ‘redundant’ or ‘pretentious’ to stage a play about despair in a place where people were in despair, and where it might offer them a way to feel ‘strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art’. It is almost incredible to look back and see how angry a theatre production could make people when Sontag was at the helm.

Always being, since her visit to Hanoi (1968), on the right side of the history. In the 1960s and early ’70s, Sontag was one of the American radicals who sent back enthusiastic reports of life in Cuba and North Vietnam–and her speech clearly reflected that experience, but without mentioning it explicitly:


The candid interview with the public intellectual  conducted in 1978 Paris and New York. Over the summer and fall of 1978, Susan Sontag engaged in a series of deeply stimulating, provocative and intimate conversations with Jonathan Cott of Rolling Stone magazine. Now for the first time, the entire transcript of Sontag’s remarkable conversation is available in book form,accompanied by Cott’s preface and recollection in Serbia. So this interview with Johanathan Cott provoked my interest to read and reread some on her works again. Sharp minded woman, always in the center of attention as public voice of conscience, she was guide to new avant – garde cultural experience. However she used her status as celebrity intellectual  to make important political interventions. Famous by her writings, critics, and hidden  private life but known by her posh, snobbish life. 

To be continued…..

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