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Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

by Charlotte Rigby

Susan Sontag, a philosopher, novelist and human rights activist, died from leukemia on December 28 2004, at the age of 71. She had been battling against cancer for more than 30 years.

As a philosopher, she is best known for her essays on modern culture and aesthetics. In Notes on Camp (1964), she identified, for the first time, the experience of something so bad it’s good, as being Camp. She distinguished Camp from camping, the former being achieved when a work of art fails at being serious, but is created with complete naivete by the artist. Camping, on the other hand, is a deliberate attempt to be Camp and is, therefore, not genuinely Camp. Camp must be really extravagant in its ambition; its intention is to be taken seriously, but it is far too over the top to succeed.

Sontag’s other influential works on aesthetics include Against Interpretation (1966), in which she developed the idea of ‘transparence’. In attempting to reveal the hidden meaning of a work of art, the interpreter inadvertently alters it. The fact that critics feel the need to interpret the content of a work of art suggests, she believed, that they are dissatisfied with the work as it is. The meaning lies in the experience of the thing in itself or its transparence, rather than the analysis of its content. This desire to appreciate a work of art transparently echoes the aesthetics of Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, A, in Either/Or. ‘A’ strives to experience life as “pure, unreflective immediacy”. For him, the aesthetic life is one of immediate enjoyment of the moment. Any attempt to reflect and analyse the experience will ruin it.

On Photography (1976), a collection of essays, which strangely contains no photographs, explored the powerful effect of photographic images. According to Sontag, the photograph distorts reality and distances the viewer from it. This theme is continued in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), which this time, deals with the imagery of war, and argues that our culture of spectatorship has desensitised us to such imagery. Illness as Metaphor (1978) was a study of different cultural attitudes to illness, drawing on her own experience of cancer.

Sontag was born in New York, grew up in Tuscon, Arizona, and entered the University of California at Berkeley at the age of 15. She transferred to the University of Chicago where she met sociologist Philip Rieff, whom she married at 17 and divorced eight years later. She studied philosophy at Harvard, Saint Anne’s College, Oxford and Paris, and lectured in philosophy at City College of New York and Sarah Lawrence.

Sontag also wrote four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, and In America; several films and plays; and a collection of short stories, I Etcetera. She gained many honours for her work, including, the National Book Award for Fiction for In America.

In 1993, she directed Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in besieged Sarajevo, where she lived for several years, and helped organise the Bosnian civic resistance. She said of her activism, in an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth, “I believe in altruism. I think that once in a while you should do something for other people [...] that’s part of a good human life”.

She is survived by her son, David, a writer.

© Charlotte Rigby 2005

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