In her autobiography, Gwendolyn Brooks recalls meeting Susan Sontag during a tour of the Soviet Union in 1982*, and Sontag’s outrage at being passed over by international reporters as an expert on race in America:
Susan is screaming. My outrageous fancy that I know more about Being Black than she knows has pushed her to a wild-eyed frenzy…. Finally, she utters an unforgettable sentence–which I can report exactly, because I wrote it down immediately: ‘I TURN MY BACK UPON YOU.’ And she does. She carries out this awesome threat. She turns her Back upon me, with a gr-r-eat shake of her bottom to appall me. I am ass-uredly impressed.
In the 37 years since that piqued volte-face, in the 15 years since her death, after the posthumous publication of her journals, and now on the occasion of the arrival of Benjamin Moser’s 800-page biography, Sontag: Her Life—what is Sontag’s interest to us, now? More to the point, 60 years after the Civil Rights movement, how do we assess Sontag’s theories about the arts and her racial politics?
Sontag’s criticism was marked by a formalist aversion to content. Sontag spelled out this critical program in her 1964 essay, “Against Interpretation,” which now appears in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism in its most recent third edition—the sure sign of her domestication by American humanities. Interpretation often “amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone” and is “largely reactionary, stifling.” Instead, Sontag argues that works of art should be “experienced” in the ineffable intensity of their formal features, calling for “an erotics of art” in place of a hermeneutics.
As exciting as that sounds, in fact, Sontag’s criticism was stodgy and conventional, even for its time. As Simon During has noted, her critical program consists largely of T.S. Eliot’s theorizing circa 1919. Irving Howe called Sontag “a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from grandmother’s patches.” Sontag herself cited the influence of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. At the University of Chicago, Sontag seems to have internalized Leo Strauss’s observation that ruling elites pretend to believe in values that they know are hollow, for the benefit of their social inferiors. Sontag did not follow Eliot’s or Strauss’s rightward drift but wedded their critical stance with leftist politics and social criticism, up to a point.
For someone who figures so centrally in 20th-century American intellectual history, there is an odd scarcity of discussion of race or minority literature or culture in her work. This isn’t simply an effect of her dedication to the European avant-garde. Rather, even when directly commenting on American politics and culture, blackness and black people are eerily absent. Not a single black person or artwork appears in her famous essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” in 1964—a year that would see the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the March on Washington, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Martin Luther King, Jr. Considering how central race has been to American melodrama and the persistence of minstrelsy in America until alarmingly recently, Sontag’s inattention during her most productive and publicly engaged years of activity should raise eyebrows.
To be sure, for all her self-stylization, Sontag was typical of her segment of the American intellectual class, in treating issues of race briefly, in passing, and a little awkwardly. It’s worth focusing on Sontag’s handling of race—and in turn, class.
Sontag’s short essay, “What’s Happening in America?” (1966), written in response to a questionnaire from Partisan Review about current affairs and longer-term social and political trends in American life, demonstrates the limits of her politics. It has remained in print in Sontag’s second major collection of essays, Styles of Radical Will.
With a very few tweaks, Sontag’s essay could be a set-piece of left-liberal blustering pessimism during the Reagan, W. Bush or Trump Administrations: denunciations of America’s “barbarism” under the leadership of “yahoos”; mediations on the aesthetic repulsiveness of the American-built environment and the distracting, mind-numbing cacophony of media-saturated life; a certain suspicion that most Americans are satisfied, or at best, complicit with, our national sins; a call for “rehauling Western ‘masculinity’”; and unfavorable contrasts to Europe. But most of all: an account of race that posits racial violence as ontologically built into American life and therefore inescapable.
Sontag begins with “three facts about this country”: first, that “America was founded on genocide” by white Europeans, and second, that America had “the most brutal system of slavery in modern times [with] a judicial system . . . which did not, in a single respect, recognize slaves as persons.”
To pause here, Sontag’s position is quite remarkable for 1966. She declares: “The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.” In answer to the question, “Is white America committed to granting equality to the American Negro?”, Sontag gives scant credit to “only a minority of white Americans, mostly educated and affluent, few of whom have had any prolonged social contact with Negroes. This is a passionately racist country; it will continue to be so in the foreseeable future.” Yet Sontag speaks unapologetically from the community she indicts. It’s inverted snobbery, or pessimism with a perk: America is racist and cosmopolitan liberal whites are ineffectual, but at least they’re (read: we’re) the best of a bad lot.
Sontag shows this condescension even when—or especially when—reviewing art about race. It is hard not to cringe reading Sontag’s 1964 review of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman (in the Partisan Review issue prior to the one featuring “Notes on ‘Camp’”). Sontag is typically indifferent to political questions of experience or equality:
Once a grotesque, a figure of folly—childlike, lawless, lascivious—“the Negro” is fast becoming the American theatre’s leading mask of virtue….for sheer pain and victimage, the Negro is far ahead of any other contender in America. In just a few short years, the old liberalism, whose archetypal figure was the Jew, has been challenged by the new militancy, whose hero is the Negro. But while the temper which gives rise to the new militancy—and to “the Negro” as hero—may indeed scorn the ideas of liberalism, one feature of the liberal sensibility hangs one. We still tend to choose our images of virtue from among our victims.
Who is this “we”? Deeming both plays hysterical fantasies about sex, Sontag glosses over the racism that Baraka and Baldwin are writing about and against, arguing that “the racial situation has become a kind of code, or metaphor for sexual conflict.” Sontag suggests that writers like Baldwin and Baraka use racial dilemmas as occasions for exercising libidinal desires and resentments.
Which brings us to Sontag’s third “fact” about America: that it was “created mainly by the surplus poor of Europe” with a resentful view of “culture” and an expedient understanding of “nature.” America “was filled up by new generations of the poor and built up according to the tawdry fantasy of the good life that culturally deprived, uprooted people might have at the beginning of the industrial era. And the country looks it.” Such an unapologetically patrician, condescending, uncomprehending grasp of the class character of American immigration (let alone ignoring of the slave trade) is hard to find on the American Left, even in 1966. One must stop and make sure Partisan Review isn’t, in a moment of levity, printing a parody of Ivy League WASPishness, lamenting just how much America seems to be designed to please the poor. (Poor people might be surprised to learn this.)
Boston University hosts the archive of Partisan Review, which is available online. To readers curious about the strangeness of Sontag’s vision, other responses to PR’s questionnaire suggest that hers is not the one most worth keeping in print today. Consider Michael Harrington’s take on race in the late 1960s:
White America is certainly not going to “grant” equality to the Negroes. Civil rights is now an issue which challenges the economic and social premises of the nation in areas like employment, housing, and education; it is not longer a confrontation with the sectional prejudices of the Old Confederacy… Thus, a frontlash unity will be created when the black and white poor and the organized and unorganized workers realize that their immediate self-interest can only be guaranteed through a somewhat idealistic coalition (as, for instance, the hostile national and religious blocs within the industrial working class learned out of necessity to join together in the CIO during the thirties).
Harrington’s vision is hopeful, but grounded in material reality. By contrast, Sontag’s is both pessimistic and abstruse at the same time. Furthermore, several of Sontag’s fellow New York intellectuals directly engaged with civil rights: Hannah Arendt weighed on the topic of school desegregation, fumblingly if importantly, with “Reflections on Little Rock,” in 1959. In 1963 and 1964, Irving Howe debated Ralph Ellison in the pages of literary magazines on the subject of race, art, and protest. There were plenty of models for engagement.
But for Sontag, class, wealth, and poverty are not aspects of American political order. Rather, just as racial conflict is a form of sexual shadow-boxing, poverty is the perpetrator of American tackiness. America is not a place where social groups contend for dominance and prestige. American power is not the institutionalization of particular Americans’ interests. Indeed, for Sontag in her most ardent mode, America is not even a place with people in it, but a persona itself.
In this tendency, Sontag hewed to the example set a generation earlier by literary critic Lionel Trilling, maintaining devotion to high culture, synthesizing both modernist irony and a yearning for sincerity. Both seemed oblivious to the salient facts of American social life, while claiming to pronounce on the American cultural scene. (One can read Trilling’s 1950 The Liberal Imagination and not know that there once was slavery in America, let alone that racial segregation was still the law of the land.) Sontag cared about the page more than the street; she embodied the sort of left bohemian Howe defined as “sedate, subversive, and transcendental all at once.” Even when pronouncing on social reality, what matters is the figurative, not the real.
A 1969 essay appearing in Ramparts but unfortunately not anthologized, “Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for us) to Love the Cuban Revolution,” typifies this “style” of Sontag’s “radical will.” Sontag assumes an explicitly pedagogical stance, explaining Cuban society and politics to American leftists, but the essay is just as much about the American Left (the “us”). Her account of the Cuban Revolution is generous, even indulgent, but more striking is her analytical method, both here and in “What’s Happening”: charting the blockages, discharges, and vicissitudes of a nation’s “energy”—a primordial force at work in everything from military conquests to dance fads. In this glib, unreflective vitalism—borrowed in debased form from the psychological theories of the New Left culture from which she claims to take a critical distance—ideas are presumed to matter less than impulses. The formal experience of political commitment (whatever its scale) precedes any particular interpretation of this or that group’s political interests.
In examining Sontag’s work from this period, it’s hard not to fault her in part for the cartoonish, patronizing tropes of “The Sixties” which persist in our culture today. Sontag is too smart to use the word “hippie,” but her account of youth culture and politics is often just as much of a caricature. So, too, do her attempts at political mapping often devolve into farce: in this corner, the Old Left, made of stodgy Marxists whose greatest desires are for state bureaucracies; and in this corner (exclusively a college campus), the New Left, whose fixation on experience and personality preclude any attempt at institutional justice.
What is missing in this typology? The civil rights and anti-war movements themselves, made up of people of all ages, many of them total squares, with a variety of motivations and strategies for synthesizing the personal and the political. By over-investing in the Old/New Left typology and exalting its most particular aspects into their essences, Sontag erases political movements themselves, which often have a messy, ambivalent relationship to the work of intellectuals.
In short, Sontag’s commitment to a formalist view of American life leads her to 1) an account of race which is easy because it’s so world-weary and austere and therefore feels so devastating, and 2) a stunning obtuseness about class. Unfortunately, this is a leftist posture which has grown familiar in a certain kind of affluent, culturally sophisticated wokeness, so eager to signal its tortured conscience and aesthetic sensitivity—the very “minority of white Americans” she pointed to in 1966. At other times, she seems simply careless, such as in “Aesthetics of Silence” (1967), where in noting Rimbaud’s turn from poetry to the slave trade she is concerned only with the loss for poetry.
Her later political writings were more conventionally liberal, and may well age better, in part because events conspired to place her in a less powerful position. In “Illness as Metaphor” (1978), written when she was undergoing breast cancer treatments, and in “AIDS as Metaphor” (1989), she critiqued the impulse to metaphorize illness and showed how it tends to ignore the humanity of those who live, suffer, and die—especially those on the margins of society. In journalism and interviews, and in travel requiring real bravery and resourcefulness, Sontag did her part and more to raise the alarm about the genocide in former Yugoslavia. With her international commentary after 9/11, Sontag told uncomfortable truths. In a brief New Yorker statement two weeks after, she passed over the opportunity to express sympathy for the victims and survivors, and instead opted for swift, uncompromising scrutiny of the attack’s historical context and political exploitation. Her stance seemed callous to many at the time, even if her criticism arguably seems more prescient in hindsight. In any case, her essay on the photos of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” is an object lesson in how a sophisticated grasp of a medium can help explain its moral significance.
In these interventions, Sontag was not unique, nor especially erudite, or even that radical. Rather, what these later concerns share is a broadly humanist outrage against injustice—an outrage which has become, thankfully, more mainstream in our culture since Sontag’s death in 2004.
What, then, to make of Sontag now? There is no ignoring her intensity and flashes of insight. But these flashes came out of an erudition less adept at understanding how people really live and what they want. One can’t help but feel less than ass-uredly impressed.
* Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of Sontag’s trip as 1994. We regret the error.