Sontag grew up in Tucson, Arizona and, later, in Los Angeles, where she graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15. She began her undergraduate studies at Berkeley but transferred to the University of Chicago, where she undertook studies in philosophy, romanism and literature (Leo Strauss and Kenneth Burke among her lecturers) and graduated with a B.A. She did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard, St Anne's College, Oxford and the Sorbonne.
At 17, while at Chicago, Sontag married Philip Rieff after a ten-day courtship. Sontag and Rieff were married for eight years and divorced in 1958. The couple had a son, David Rieff, who later became his mother's editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He has also become a writer.
The publication of Against Interpretation (1966), accompanied by a striking dust-jacket photo by Harry Hess, 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. (See below.)
In her prime, Sontag avoided all pigeonholes. Like Jane Fonda, she went to Hanoi, 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 China, as well as Eastern European communism, which she later famously rebuked as "fascism with a human face."
Sontag died in New York City on December 28, 2004, aged 71, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome. It had evolved into acute myelogenous leukemia. The MDS was likely a result of the chemotherapy and radiation treatment she received three decades earlier for advanced breast cancer and, later, a rare form of uterine cancer. Sontag is buried in Montparnasse cemetery, in Paris. Her final illness has been chronicled by her son, David Rieff.
It was as an essayist, however, that Sontag gained early fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art. Her celebrated and widely-read 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'" was epoch-defining, examining an alternative sensibility to seriousness and comedy. It gestured to 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, Penguin, London p 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” (Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography, Penguin, London p 3) This is what Sontag calls a change in “viewing ethics” (Susan Sontag (1977) On Photography, Penguin, London p 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”(Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography, Penguin, London p 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” (Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography, Penguin, London p 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 (Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography, Penguin, London p 20).
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 (in this instance a 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 Sarajevo. Early in that conflict, Sontag referred to the Serbian invasion and massacre in Bosnia 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 Sarajevo for many months of the Sarajevo siege.
Paglia proceeds to detail a series of 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". She told 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.
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.
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.
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."
Annie Leibovitz's recent exhibit of work in Washington, D.C. at the Corcoran Gallery of Art included numerous personal photos, in addition to the celebrity portraits for which the artist is best known. These personal photos chronicled Leibovitz's long relationship with Sontag. They featured many pictures of the author, including some showing her battle with cancer, her treatment, and ultimately her death and burial.