Susan Sontag: Overcoming Representation

Susan Sontag’s work, as much as Susan Sontag herself, was meant to dazzle.
Stephen Chan, Fair Observer, Susan Sontag essays, Susan Sontag biography, Susan Sontag fiction, Susan Sontag Annie Leibovitz, Susan Sontag Sarajevo, Susan Sontag cancer, Susan Sontag Paris, Susan Sontag writing

Susan Sontag’s grave, Cemetery of Montparnasse, Paris, France, 4/26/2016 © HUANG Zheng / Shutterstock

June 13, 2020 01:01 EDT

Susan Sontag died 16 years ago. Nothing about her has lost its salience. If there was one intellect that marked postwar America, it was hers. She had huge ambition, indeed vanity, and hoped to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. If she had, it would not have been for her novels — which are now largely forgotten, far too enigmatic and complex for even an intellectual readership — but for her coruscating and brilliant essays.

But even these could be intimidating to anyone not exceptionally well read. I remember as a young student in New Zealand buying her collection of essays, “Against Interpretation,” in 1968. It had only just been published in Great Britain the year before, although it had been available in the United States for half a dozen years, and I bought the only copy in the university bookshop. It would not have been available at any of the very few city bookshops. I knew nothing about her. I confess I bought it almost entirely for her cover photograph, looking sideways out of the book in a quizzical, almost patient way, all raven-haired and assessing whether the reader could understand her.

The Effect Is the Purpose

I couldn’t. For years I kept trying and bought all her other non-fiction before realizing she wasn’t striving for effect — she had mastered effect, and effect was the purpose of the essays. I wasn’t meant to understand them. I was meant to be dazzled by them. Most of all I was meant to be dazzled by her. I was. And by her beauty.

When her hair turned white because of cancer, her hairdresser dyed it black, leaving one skunk-like streak of white as a signature, I very much hoped that my hair would in due course turn white like that. I am happy to say it did, but that never made her essays easier to understand. But I think I learned to appreciate them, for, as time passed, the effect was not just about herself, but to startle the reader into accepting the difficulty of themes to do with slaughter, illness, death and their representations.

The representation of her death, by a final bout of cancer that had intermittently afflicted her throughout adult life, was by her lover, Annie Leibovitz. Laid out on a hospital gurney, broken, her hair white again and chewed down, all the legendary beauty had gone. Leibovitz had made her name as a photographer of the rich and famous, whom she made to look even more glamorous than their legends had already painted them. But her photographs of the late Sontag were reportage that bordered on indecency to the dignity of the dead. In a way, it was a real tribute to one of the key themes of Sontag’s writing.

Embed from Getty Images

That theme was that reality existed largely by its representation. Particularly in a world of rapidly increasing real-time communication and visuality, the picture in fact represents a visage of safety. Pictures of war do not allow the war to touch us. We are not exploded at our desks in our living rooms. We can scroll or click on something else. We are not directly assaulted, and we can escape. The picture allows us a form of knowledge of reality and a means of circumventing its true meaning.

It now takes especial horror to move us. One day, even that will no longer move us. “Regarding the Pain of Others,” one of her final works, an extended essay masquerading as a book, expresses this elegantly. But her elegance again provided us with a means of escape. “Doesn’t she write well?” becomes an excuse for not saying, “but wasn’t this slaughter terrible?” The Leibovitz photos don’t represent death. They are simply a statement of death.

Overcoming Representation

Where Sontag overcame mere representation, late in her life in the first half of the 1990s, was in Sarajevo. At the height of the Serb siege of what had been the multicultural and multi-confessional city, set in a valley between mountains — mountains perfect for Serb artillery and snipers — the citizens were being left to their own devices by a Western world. The West did not care to understand how ancient enmities and chauvinisms, especially on the part of the Serbs, had erupted out of a now fragmented Yugoslavia. The Balkan country had never, in any case, been understood as the world’s most successful, if erratic and increasingly corrupt, blend of socialism and capitalism — a crossroads of the world at the end of Europe.

The UN sent peacekeeping troops — without the mandate to assault the Serb forces. Photographs reached us, again of a seemingly distant fiction of reality, of Nigerian peacekeepers in blue helmets shivering in the snow of Sarajevo. “Oh yes, snow. Didn’t they hold the Winter Olympics there once?” European intellectuals flew in on UN chartered flights to “bear witness.” I was invited on one such flight, but then the Serb forces began shelling the airport and my trip was cancelled. Perhaps as well.

The French intellectual, Bernard-Henri Levy, made several such trips. Unfairly, because he did stay longer, he was nicknamed by the Sarajevans “DHL,” a play on his fame in France as BHL, but meaning “Deux Heures” Levy — two hours in Sarajevo. Sontag came several times and stayed for weeks, enduring the same privations as citizens, living on Sniper’s Alley and taking the same risks of being killed.

The square outside the national theater is now named after her. For it is there that she directed Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” The tramps wait and wait, and Godot never comes. In Sarajevo, Western rescue never came. It seemed only Sontag came. From this experience, she coined her rigorous dictum to other intellectuals. If you have never been there, never just seen but shared the horror, you may not speak. It was an excoriating condemnation of armchair activism. She became the closest the West even came to another Andre Malraux, the engaged and committed intellectual who went, if not to wage war, then to suffer war because others suffered war.

Nothing redeemed Sontag more from her self-displays of brilliance and essential vanity. And, as her friends knew, from her petulance, exhibitions of cruel thoughtlessness and acerbic putdowns if they knew less than her while not being allowed to know more than her. A lot of this is brilliantly caught in the huge biography by Benjamin Moser, an 800-page obituary of love and exasperation. Sometimes total exasperation as Sontag’s vanity navigated, and sometimes blindly wandered, the pathways and chasms of self-regard and self-pity. She lived off Leibovitz’s fortune, but treated her shabbily. In many ways, she was, in personal terms, a monster.


But her works, some of the first sympathetic commentaries on Cuba and North Vietnam, on gay and camp culture, on the representations of violence, and, as she herself became sick, on illness — never mind all her volumes of work on brilliant authors and artists, among whom she numbered herself — remain landmark achievements.

She was a frequent visitor to Paris. She liked to be in the city of great thinkers. And she is buried there among them in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are buried there. Samuel Beckett is buried there. Now Sontag, under a flat shining black slab, is buried there. It is impossible not to visit her grave on the same day as one visits those of Sartre, Beauvoir and Beckett. The fame she sought is hers. And on the cover of Moser’s book is her portrait by Richard Avedon — not the broken corpse captured by Leibovitz, but the young, intellectual beauty who defied in her writing what she considered to be a vulgarity in the United States of her time.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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