Susan Sontag : Question of Knowledge

· Film, Literature, Political

Very few of us have heard of Susan Sontag. I was introduced to her by Father Gaston Roberge in the class on Film Appreciation at St. Xavier’s College. Roberge introduced us to her Essay On Photography (1977). Sontag professed  that the evolution of modern technology has changed the viewer. She calls this the emergence of a new visual code.

Susan Sontag lived in a sparsely furnished five-room apartment on the top floor of a building in Chelsea on the west side of Manhattan. Books—as many as fifteen thousand—and papers everywhere. A lifetime could be spent browsing through the books on art and architecture, theater and dance, philosophy and psychiatry, the history of medicine, and the history of religion, photography, and opera—and so on. The various European literatures—French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, etcetera, as well as hundreds of books of Japanese literature and books on Japan—are arranged by language in a loosely chronological way. So is American literature as well as English literature, which runs from Beowulf to, say, James Fenton. Sontag was an inveterate clipper, and the books are filled with scraps of paper (“Each book is marked and filleted,” as you fillet a fish….with hundreds of hand written tags), the bookcases festooned with notes scrawled with the names of additional things to read.From the filleted notes alone you can author more than hundred books. On subjects ranging from Literature to Litany . From Film to Folk Art.

Sontag usually wrote by hand on a low marble table in the living room. Small theme notebooks are filled with notes for her novel in progress, “In America.” An old book on Chopin sits atop a history of table manners. The room is lit by a lovely Fortuny lamp, or a replica of one. Piranesi prints decorate the wall (architectural prints were one of her passions).

Everything in Sontag’s apartment testified to the range of her interests, but it is the work itself, like her conversation, that demonstrates the passionate nature of her commitments. She is eager to follow a subject wherever it leads, as far as it will go—and beyond. What she has said about Roland Barthes is true about her as well: “It was not a question of knowledge . . . but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention.”

Sontag, born Susan Rosenblatt, was born in New York City to Jack Rosenblatt and Mildred Jacobsen, both Jewish. Her father managed a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis when Susan was five years old. Seven years later, her mother married 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. She claimed not to have entered a synagogue until her mid-twenties.

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 in admiration of its famed core curriculum. At Chicago, she undertook studies in philosophy, ancient history and literature alongside her other requirements (Leo Strauss, Richard McKeon, Peter von Blanckenhagen and Kenneth Burke were among her lecturers) and graduated with an A.B. She did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard with Paul Tillich, Jacob Taubes and Morton White et al.

After completing her Master of Arts in philosophy and beginning doctoral research into metaphysics, ethics, Greek philosophy and Continental philosophy and theology at Harvard, 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 had classes with Iris Murdoch, J. L. Austin, Alfred Jules Ayer, Stuart Hampshire and others. Oxford did not appeal to her, however, and she transferred after Michaelmas term of 1957 to the University of Paris. It was in Paris that Sontag socialised with expatriate artists and academics including Allan Bloom, Jean Wahl, Alfred Chester, Harriet Sohmers and Maria Irene Fornes.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.

At 17, while at Chicago, Sontag married Philip Rieff after a ten-day courtship. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse lived with Sontag and Rieff for a year while working on his book Eros and Civilization. Sontag and Rieff were married for eight years throughout which they worked jointly on the study Freud: The Mind of the Moralist that would be attributed solely to Philip Rieff as a stipulation of the couple’s 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 in his own right.

Sontag died in New York City on 28 December 2004, aged 71.

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