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Sontag, Susan (1933-2004)  

Although she treated her own lesbianism as a strictly private matter, Susan Sontag wrote perceptively on gay male figures and issues.

Best known as a cultural critic, Sontag was long preoccupied with European modernist aesthetics and thought--a set of influences strongly marking her fiction and filmmaking as well as her essays.

Her landmark study "Notes on 'Camp'" (1964) was the first detailed account of this variety of gay sensibility. In a number of other essays--on Jack Smith's film Flaming Creatures, William Burroughs, Paul Goodman, Roland Barthes, Robert Mapplethorpe, and George Balanchine--she focused on gay figures, though without much attention to their sexual identity as such.

Sontag rarely wrote in an autobiographical mode; she treated her own lesbian sexuality as a strictly private matter. But a complex engagement with gay male culture runs throughout Sontag's work, often intersecting with her concern for twentieth-century literary and artistic avant gardes.

Trained academically in philosophy and comparative literature, Sontag began her literary career with two novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967); critics have noticed in them echoes of André Gide and Nathalie Saurraute, respectively.

In essays published throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Sontag introduced Anglophone readers to the work of such figures as Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Luc Godard, Walter Benjamin, and E. M. Cioran.

Two rather Bergmanesque films, Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971), were written and directed by Sontag in Sweden; her documentary, Promised Lands (1974), concerned the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Both her criticism--gathered in Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980)--and the short fiction collected in I, Etcetra (1978) display aphoristic and densely allusive qualities, more reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche or Jorge Luis Borges than of any contemporary writer in English.

Just this combination of historical consciousness and philosophical reflection distinguishes "Notes on 'Camp,'" a central text in her oeuvre. Sontag's awareness of the paradox involved in bringing high seriousness to bear on the humorous and marginal discourse of camp makes this an exceptionally complex essay. She interprets camp as "a victory of 'style' over 'content,' . . . of irony over tragedy," reading it as a variant of Wildean dandyism "in the age of mass culture."

Sontag returned to the question of moralistic versus aestheticist responses to "the age of mass culture" in a controversial essay on German director Leni Riefenstahl and in On Photography (1977). But what made the essay on camp particularly important when published in the mid-1960s was its prescient critical attention to a gay subculture. "Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense," she argued. "Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness."

In remission from a cancer initially diagnosed as fatal, Sontag penned Illness as Metaphor (1978) as a critique of the cultural mythologies surrounding tuberculosis, syphilis, and cancer. "Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning--that meaning invariably being a moralistic one," she wrote. "Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance."

With AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), she extended the historical and cultural analysis of the earlier volume. A short story "The Way We Live Now" (1986) depicts the impact on a group of friends of the news that one in their circle has AIDS. Her third novel, The Volcano Lover: A Historical Romance (1992), returned to many of the questions of taste and sensibility first sketched in "Notes on 'Camp.'"

Sontag died on December 28, 2004, apparently of leukemia, a disease from which she suffered for several years.

Scott McLemee


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   Related Entries
literature >> Overview:  Camp

Combining elements of incongruity, theatricality, and exaggeration, camp is a form of humor that helps homosexuals cope with a hostile environment.

arts >> Overview:  Pop Art

An early 1960s school of painting and sculpture that utilized the subjects, techniques, or stylistic conventions of popular culture, Pop Art expressed a camp sensibility.

literature >> Barthes, Roland

French semiotician Roland Barthes argued that the reintroduction of the sentimentality of love into sexuality would be the ultimate transgression.

literature >> Burroughs, William S.

Both in his life and his novels, American writer William S. Burroughs was an outlaw and a provocateur, focusing on sexual repression as the fundamental element of social control and writing in a surrealistic and bitterly satirical mode.

literature >> Gide, André

André Gide, one of the premier French writers of the twentieth century, reflected his homosexuality in many of his numerous works.

literature >> Goodman, Paul

The candor with which the bisexual Paul Goodman wrote about the homosexual libido in his poetry and fiction made him an important and highly visible advocate of gay liberation.

arts >> Leibovitz, Annie

Perhaps the most famous of contemporary American photographers, Annie Leibovitz has evolved a personal style characterized by imaginative poses, bright colors, and intense lighting.

arts >> Mapplethorpe, Robert

American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial images typically combine rigorously formal composition and design with extreme subject matter.

literature >> Paglia, Camille

The frequently outrageous cultural commentary and caustic criticism of Camille Paglia have made her both famous and controversial.


Frank, Marcie. "The Critic as Performance Artist: Susan Sontag's Writing and Gay Cultures." Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality. David Bergman, ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993. 173-184.

Kennedy, Liam. "Precocious Archaeology: Susan Sontag and the Criticism of Culture." Journal of American Studies 24.1 (1990): 23-39.

McLemee, Scott. "On Demythologizing AIDS: Susan Sontag's AIDS and Its Metaphors." New Politics, new series 7 (1989): 170-176.

Nelson, Cary. "Soliciting Self-Knowledge: The Rhetoric of Susan Sontag's Criticism." Critical Inquiry 6.4 (1980): 707-726.

Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: The Elegaic Modernist. New York: Routledge, 1990.


    Citation Information
    Author: McLemee, Scott  
    Entry Title: Sontag, Susan  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 28, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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