Susan Sontag, 1933-2004

By Chalifour, Bruno | Afterimage, March-April 2005 | Go to article overview

Susan Sontag, 1933-2004


Chalifour, Bruno, Afterimage


Susan Sontag died in New York City on December 28, 2004 from cancer, a disease she had been battling for years. Born in New York City on January 16, 1933, Sontag spent her childhood in Arizona and her adolescent years in Los Angeles. At age 15, she entered the University of California at Berkeley, transferring to the University of Chicago a year later. She studied literature, philosophy and theology at the universities of Chicago, Harvard, Paris and Oxford (England). By the late 1960s she had acquired a strong reputation as an essayist and a novelist. In the following years she would extend it to being a playwright and a film and theater director as well as a social, cultural and political critic. She served as the president of the international writers' organization PEN from 1987 to 1989. She was also a long-time human rights activist. Her voice in American cultural and intellectual life asserted itself through her contributions to various periodicals such as The Partisan Review, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, Harpers'. The New Yorker, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. It was for this last publication that she started what was intended to be a two-part essay on photography and ultimately expanded into a collection of six essays that were published in 1977 as the book On Photography.

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A multi-talented writer and brilliant essayist, Sontag expressed herself on a variety of topics: literature, the visual arts, politics, human rights, ethics, AIDS, popular culture, war, pain, memory, disease--the human condition at large. Upon accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 2001, she stated:

The writer's first job is not to have opinions but to tell the
truth ... and refuse to be an accomplice of lies or misinformation.
Literature is the expression of nuance and contrariness against the
voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to
believe the mental despoilers. The job of the writer is to help make us
see the world as it is, which is to say, full of many different claims
and parts and experiences. [...] I believe that the doctrine of
collective responsibility, as a rationale for collective punishment, is
never justified, militarily or ethically. (1)

Faithful to the philosophy of famous essayists such as George Orwell, Edward Said, Albert Camus, as well as Walter Benjamin and Jean-Paul Sartre (on both of whom she wrote), Sontag believed that there should not be a gap between intellectual activity, society and life at large. She applied her intellect to everything she encountered and for which she cared. All issues had to be analyzed and assessed in the light of ethics and politics. She denounced any disconnection between the two.

On Photography brought Sontag instant recognition in the visual art world as an astute, witty, insightful, critical, abrasive and even confrontational essayist. People in the field either loved the essays and book, or hated them. She left almost no stone unturned and carefully scrutinized and criticized every one that she picked up. Oscillating between revelations and caricatures, Sontag's text drew a multitude of comments and rapidly became a bestseller in the visual arts. Sontag noted, analyzed and commented on the vast impact of photography on our culture--from the years following its invention until very recently--and the way we view and interpret the world. "In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. …

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