Susan Sontag may well have been the most overrated writer and thinker of her generation. Her sole gift in her philosophical musings was her ability to state the obvious in such a way as to seem original. Many of her readers had a “Eureka!” moment simply because they had always thought the same thing. (“See Mabel, it’s like I always said!”) But she could cloak her commonplace observations in New York intellectualese. After being raised in Tucson and Los Angeles, she learned to speak the shibboleth during an excellent Eastern education and a stint at Oxford. And we were all impressed. Her “On Photography” had not one original thought. Yet she must be given credit for putting her observations into words, getting them published, and, most importantly, convincing an entire generation that she needed to be read.
Her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” was her breakthrough, giving undeserved recognition and cachet to that movement. A foray into film-making found her writing and directing four films, with a brief role as herself in Woody Allen’s Zelig. Her historical novel, The Volcano Lovers, was well received. (See John Banville’s lengthy review in the New York Times of August 9, 1992, “By Lava Possessed”.)
She published more experimental work, and was eventually accused of plagiarism by Ellen Lee after a careful reading of Sontag’s “In America”. Even Camille Paglia became disillusioned with her. Sontag was definitely a product of her era; future generations will find her increasingly less relevant. She will perhaps be misunderstood by anyone who does not read her in the context of other sixties counter-culture writings. The banality of her ideas will not be so apparent.
Yet she is being read today. Her diaries are being published. They contain such edicts as her ten rules for raising children. Number nine is “Make him aware that there is a grown-up world that is none of his business.” What? This confuses me as much as one of her observations on art: “Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty.’ As if art were ‘about’ beauty—as science is ‘about’ truth!”
I would love to know her definitions of “beauty” and “truth”. I suspect her personal conception of beauty is far too narrow. As for her view of the aims of science – I remain baffled. For more of her insights, click on the links and read the other interesting articles by Maria Popova on Sontag found at Brain Pickings.
She had an ability to outrage. One of her last public proclamations was her criticism of America following September 11, 2001. In an editorial in The New Yorker, she attacked ” the unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days [which] seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.”
Yet of all the overrated writers of the 1960s and 1970s, she is the one I miss the most. She did, after all, have the chutzpah to keep soldiering on through breast cancer and then the leukemia that eventually claimed her.
Annie Leibovitz at her San Francisco exhibition. By Robert Scoble from Half Moon Bay, USA
But nothing was sadder to me than those who gushed over the talent and “bravery” of her lover, photographer Annie Leibovitz, as she took photo after photo of Sontag’s dead body. I was shocked beyond words. It was a desecration and a challenge to common decency that overstepped every boundary. Apparently I wasn’t the only one shocked: on September 29, 2006, Bag News
published a review of a laudatory Newsweek
article on Leibovitz, entitling it “With Deep Apologies to Susan Sontag” and reluctantly (one hopes) including a link to one of the photos of Sontag’s corpse. They dubbed it “necro porn”.
Leibovitz continues to be lionized today and is undeniably talented. She may end up being more famous for her Rolling Stone cover of a nude John Lennon curled around Yoko Ono. Or perhaps as the woman who told Queen Elizabeth II to remove her crown, which Her Majesty did – after recovering from the audacity of the request. Her stomach-churning photos of Sontag may one day be overshadowed by these and by her innovative fashion photography.
Perhaps Sontag’s legacy is simply one of tragedy. I can learn no lesson from her life nor from her prose; find no uplift or hope anywhere in her sad story. Perhaps if I had known her or gotten an idea of her true inner world from her work – but I was, perhaps, too removed from her milieu to have any insight at all.
If there is a moral in Sontag’s life or works, it might be to have confidence in yourself and whatever talent you have – or believe you have, and to keep going through pain and adversity. Perhaps that is, after all, her most genuine legacy.
To sample Sontag’s prose, fiction, and films, you may be interested in the following :
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. New York: Octagon, c1966. Print.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1978. Print.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1977. Print.
Sontag, Susan. The Volcano Lover: a Romance. New York, Anchor Books, c1993. Print.
Duett För Kannibaler [Duet for Cannibals]. By Susan Sontag. Perf. Adriana Asti and Gösta Ekman. SAndrews, 1969. Duett För Kannibaler AKA Duet for Cannibals (1969). Tomás Olano, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 16 May 2015.
Greenspun, Roger. “MOVIE REVIEW Duet For Cannibals (1969) The Screen:Susan Sontag’s ‘Duet for Cannibals’ at Festival.”
Rev. of Duet for Cannibals [film]
. The New York Times
25 Sept. 1969: n. pag. Nytimes.com.
The New York Times, 25 Sept. 1969. Web. 16 May 2015.
Text ©Jill Teresa Farmer 2015.