The Jerusalem Prize

2001 - Susan Sontag

Born: 16 January 1933, New York City, New York; USA

Author's quote: "The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own."

Field: Fiction and Nonfiction

Prize share: 1/1


Books Written By Susan Sontag


About Susan Sontag

Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City, the daughter of Mildred (née Jacobson) and Jack Rosenblatt, both Jewish. Her father managed a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis in 1939, when Susan was five years old.

Seven years later, her mother married U.S. Army Captain Nathan Sontag. Susan and her sister, Judith, were given their stepfather's surname, although he never adopted them formally. Sontag did not have a religious upbringing and claimed not to have entered a synagogue until her mid-twenties. Remembering an unhappy childhood, with a cold, distant mother who was "always away," Sontag lived in Long Island, New York, then in Tucson, Arizona, and later in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, where she took refuge in books and graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15. She began her undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley but transferred to the University of Chicago in admiration of its famed core curriculum. At Chicago, she undertook studies in philosophy, ancient history and literature alongside her other requirements. Leo Strauss, Joseph Schwab, Christian Mackauer, Richard McKeon, Peter von Blanckenhagen and Kenneth Burke were among her lecturers. She graduated with an A.B. While at Chicago, she became best friends with fellow student Mike Nichols. At 17, Sontag married writer Philip Rieff, who was a sociology instructor at the University of Chicago, after a ten-day courtship; the marriage lasted for eight years. While studying at Chicago, Sontag attended a summer school taught by the Sociologist Hans Heinrich Gerth who became a friend and subsequently influenced her study of German thinkers. Upon completing her Chicago degree, Sontag taught freshman English at the University of Connecticut for the 1952–53 academic year. She attended Harvard University for graduate school, initially studying literature with Perry Miller and Harry Levin before moving into philosophy and theology under Paul Tillich, Jacob Taubes, Raphael Demos and Morton White. After completing her master of arts in philosophy, she began doctoral research into metaphysics, ethics, Greek philosophy and Continental philosophy and theology at Harvard. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse lived with Sontag and Rieff for a year while working on his 1955 book Eros and Civilization. Sontag researched and contributed to Rieff's 1959 study Freud: The Mind of the Moralist prior to their divorce in 1958. The couple had a son, David Rieff, who later became his mother's editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as well as a writer.

Sontag was awarded an American Association of University Women's fellowship for the 1957–1958 academic year to St Anne's College, Oxford, where she traveled without her husband and son. There, she had classes with Iris Murdoch, Stuart Hampshire, A. J. Ayer and H. L. A. Hart while also attending the B. Phil seminars of J. L. Austin and the lectures of Isaiah Berlin. Oxford did not appeal to her, however, and she transferred after Michaelmas term of 1957 to the University of Paris. In Paris, Sontag socialized with expatriate artists and academics including Allan Bloom, Jean Wahl, Alfred Chester, Harriet Sohmers and María Irene Fornés.] Sontag remarked that her time in Paris was, perhaps, the most important period of her life. It certainly provided the basis of her long intellectual and artistic association with the culture of France. She moved to New York in 1959 to live with Fornés for the next seven years, regaining custody of her son and teaching at universities while her literary reputation grew.

Sontag's literary career began and ended with works of fiction. While working on her fiction, Sontag taught philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and City University of New York and the Philosophy of Religion with Jacob Taubes, Susan Taubes, Theodor Gaster, and Hans Jonas, in the Religion Department at Columbia University from 1960 to 1964. Sontag held a writing fellowship at Rutgers University for 1964 to 1965 before ending her relationship with academia in favor of full-time freelance writing.

At age 30, she published an experimental novel called The Benefactor (1963), following it four years later with Death Kit (1967). Despite a relatively small output, Sontag thought of herself principally as a novelist and writer of fiction. Her short story "The Way We Live Now" was published to great acclaim on November 26, 1986 in The New Yorker. Written in an experimental narrative style, it remains a significant text on the AIDS epidemic. She achieved late popular success as a best-selling novelist with The Volcano Lover (1992). At age 67, Sontag published her final novel In America (2000). The last two novels were set in the past, which Sontag said gave her greater freedom to write in the polyphonic voice.[citation needed] She wrote and directed four films and also wrote several plays, the most successful of which were Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea.[citation needed] Nonfiction It was through her essays that Sontag gained early fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art and expanded the dichotomy concept of form and art in every media. She elevated camp to the status of recognition with her widely read 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'," which accepted art as including common, absurd and burlesque themes. In 1977, Sontag published the series of essays On Photography. These essays are an exploration of photographs as a collection of the world, mainly by travelers or tourists, and the way we experience it. In the essays, she outlined 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. (p. 10) Sontag writes that the convenience of modern photography has created an overabundance of visual material, and "just about everything has been photographed".[19] This has altered our expectations of what we have the right to view, want to view or should view. "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" and has changed our "viewing ethics".[19] Photographs have increased our access to knowledge and experiences of history and faraway places, but the images may replace direct experience and limit reality.[20] She also states that photography desensitizes its audience to horrific human experiences, and children are exposed to experiences before they are ready for them. Sontag continued to theorize about the role of photography in real life in her essay "Looking at War: Photography's View of Devastation and Death", which appeared in the December 9, 2002 issue of The New Yorker. There she concludes that the problem of our reliance on images and especially photographic images is not that "people remember through photographs but that they remember only the photographs ... that the photographic image eclipses other forms of understanding – and remembering. ... To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture" (p. 94).

She became a role-model for many feminists and aspiring female writers during the 1960s and 1970s.


Reviews

On Photography - Susan Sontag

By Brian Leek

I'm in my first year of a photography degree and this is one of the recommended texts. Despite being released in the 70's it's still very relevant. The book is essentially a series of essays by Sontag. It's value is that Sontag knows her subject extremely well and, with reference to the great photographers, has constructed her essays in a way that really make you contemplate what photography is all about. Sontag was not a photographer herself so it's not a book of technique; it's about the interpretation and appreciation of other's work. If you're new to photographic theory as I was/am it may very well make you feel quite ignorant, as if you don't even know what a photograph really is any more. However, that's the point; to make you think. This most ubiquitous medium is now so common its almost unnoticed but the book gets under the skin of what photography is and why photographs are so appealing. It's not the easiest or lightest reading but conversely the essays are not over long. If you're studying photography or art or are simply interested in more philosophical views on the subject I'd highly recommend this to open up new ways of thinking.

 

On Photography - Susan Sontag

By D. Mann

This is an exceptional book and one that is best read by flicking through and reading litery snap shots of Sontags work. If you are about to do a photography course this is the book for you and if you have ever wondered about photography this book will inform you. I read two short quotes from this book to my father in law who has no real connection with photography, he walked away and said 'i thought a photograph was just a photograph" and asked if he could borrow the book... Thats how good it is....