What Susan Sontag Saw


Arts & Culture

Susan Sontag. Photo: © Lynn Gilbert (CC BY-SA 4.0 (

In January 1919, in a dry riverbed north of Los Angeles, a cast of thousands gathered to re-create a contemporary horror. Based on a book published a year before by a teenage survivor of the Armenian massacres, Auction of Souls, alternatively known as Ravished Armenia, was one of the earliest Hollywood spectaculars, a new genre that married special effects and extravagant expense to overwhelm its audience. This one would be all the more immediate, all the more powerful, because it incorporated another new genre, the newsreel, popularized in the Great War that had ended only two months before. This film was, as they say, “based on a true story.” The Armenian massacres, begun in 1915, were still going on.

The dry sand bed of the San Fernando River near Newhall, California, turned out to be the “ideal” location, one trade paper said, to film “the ferocious Turks and Kurds” driving “the ragged army of Armenians with their bundles, and some of them dragging small children, over the stony roads and byways of the desert.” Thousands of Armenians participated in the filming, including survivors who had reached the United States.

For some of these extras, the filming, which included depictions of mob rapes, mass drownings, people forced to dig their own graves, and a sweeping panorama of women being crucified, proved too much. “Several women whose relatives had perished under the sword of the Turk,” the chronicler continued, “were overcome by the mimic spectacles of torture and infamy.”

The producer, he went on to note, “furnished a picnic luncheon.”


One image from that day shows a young woman in flowery garb with a large carpetbag on her arm. Amid makeshift refugee tents, and with an afflicted expression on her face, she stands comforting a girl. Neither dares look at the sinister shadows approaching, invisible men with upraised arms, aiming something at them. Perhaps the women are about to be shot. Perhaps, given the panoply of available tortures, death by gunshot is the least painful option.

Gazing at this devastated corner of Anatolia, we are relieved to recall that it is, in fact, a film location in Southern California, and that the long shadows belong not to marauding Turks but two photographers. Despite press releases to the contrary, the Armenians being filmed were not all Armenians: this pair, for example, turns out to be a Jewish woman named Sarah Leah Jacobson and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Mildred.

If knowing that the picture is staged makes it less poignant, another fact, which neither subjects nor photographers could have known, does not. Though they returned home to downtown Los Angeles after playing their part in the “mimic spectacles of torture and infamy,” Sarah Leah would be dead a little more than a year later, at age thirty-three. This picture of bereavement would be the last surviving image of her with her daughter.

Mildred would never forgive her mother for abandoning her. But abandonment was not Sarah Leah’s only legacy. In her short life, she traveled from Białystok, in eastern Poland, where she was born, to Hollywood, where she died. Mildred, too, would be adventurous. She married a man born in New York who reached China by nineteen, where he traveled into the Gobi Desert and bought furs from Mongolian nomads. Like Sarah Leah’s, his precocious start was cut short; he, too, died at thirty-three.

Their daughter, named Susan Lee in an Americanized echo of Sarah Leah, was five when her father died. She only knew him, she later wrote, as “a set of photographs.”


“Photographs,” Mildred’s daughter Susan wrote, “state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction.” That most people standing before the lens are not thinking about their impending destruction makes pictures more, rather than less, affecting: Sarah Leah and Mildred, acting out a tragedy, did not see that their own was so swiftly approaching.

Neither could they have known how much Auction of Souls, meant to commemorate the past, looked to the future. It is spookily appropriate that the last photograph of Susan Sontag’s mother and grandmother should be connected to an artistic reenactment of genocide. Troubled all her life by questions of cruelty and war, Sontag would redefine the ways people look at images of suffering and ask what, if anything, they do with the images they see.

The problem, for her, was not a philosophical abstraction. As Mildred’s life was shattered by the death of Sarah Leah, Susan’s, by her own account, was also split in two. The breach occurred in a Santa Monica bookstore, where she first glimpsed photographs of the Holocaust. “Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously,” she wrote.

She was twelve. The shock was so great that for the rest of her life she would ask, in one book after the next, how pain could be portrayed, and how it could be endured. Books, and the vision of a better world they offered, saved her from an unhappy childhood, and whenever she was faced with sadness and depression, her first instinct was to hide in a book, head to the movies or the opera. Art might not have made up for life’s disappointments, but it was an indispensable palliative; and toward the end of her life, during another “genocide”—the word invented to describe the Armenian calamity—Susan Sontag knew exactly what the Bosnians needed. She went to Sarajevo, and she put on a play.


Susan Sontag was America’s last great literary star, a flashback to a time when writers could be—more than simply respected or well regarded—famous. But never before had a writer who bemoaned the shortcomings in Georg Lukács’s literary criticism and Nathalie Sarraute’s theory of the nouveau roman become as prominent, as quickly, as Sontag did. Her success was literally spectacular: played out in full public view.

Tall, olive-skinned, “with strongly traced Picasso eyelids and serene lips less curled than Mona Lisa’s,” Sontag attracted the cameras of the greatest photographers of her age. She was Athena, not Aphrodite: a warrior, a “dark prince.” With the mind of a European philosopher and the looks of a musketeer, she combined qualities that had been combined in men. What was new was that they were combined in a woman—and for generations of artistic and intellectual women, that combination provided a model more potent than any they knew.

Her fame fascinated them in part because it was so unprecedented. At the beginning of her career, she was incongruous: a beautiful young woman who was intimidatingly learned; a writer from the hieratic fastness of the New York intellectual world who engaged with the contemporary “low” culture the older generation claimed to abhor. She had no real lineage. And though many would fashion themselves in her image, her role would never be convincingly filled again. She created the mold, and then she broke it.

Sontag was only thirty-two when she was spotted at a table of six at a posh Manhattan restaurant: “Miss Librarian”—her name for her bookish private self—holding her own alongside Leonard Bernstein, Richard Avedon, William Styron, Sybil Burton, and Jacqueline Kennedy. It was the White House and Fifth Avenue, Hollywood and Vogue, the New York Philharmonic and the Pulitzer Prize: as glitzy a circle as existed in the United States, and indeed the world. It was one Sontag would inhabit for the rest of her life.

Yet the camera-ready version of Susan Sontag would always remain at odds with Miss Librarian. Never, perhaps, had a great beauty worked less hard at being beautiful. She often expressed her astonishment at encountering the glamorous woman in the photographs. At the end of her life, seeing a picture of her younger self, she gasped. “I was so good-looking!” she said. “And I had no idea.”


In a lifetime that coincided with a revolution in how fame was acquired and perceived, Susan Sontag, alone among American writers, followed all its permutations. She chronicled them, too. In the nineteenth century, she wrote, a celebrity was “someone who gets photographed.” In the age of Warhol—not coincidentally, one of the first to recognize Sontag’s star power—getting photographed was no longer enough. In a time when everyone got photographed, fame meant an “image,” a doppelgänger, a collection of received ideas, often but not exclusively visual, standing in for whoever it was—eventually it no longer mattered who it was—crouching behind them.

Raised in the shadow of Hollywood, Sontag sought recognition and cultivated her image. But she was acidly disappointed by the price her double—“The Dark Lady of American Letters,” “The Sibyl of Manhattan”—exacted. She confessed that she’d hoped “being famous would be more fun,” and constantly denounced the dangers of subsuming the individual into the representation of the individual, of preferring the image to the person it showed, and warned of everything that images distort and omit. She saw the difference between the person, on the one hand, and the person’s appearance, on the other: the self-as-image, as photograph, as metaphor.

In On Photography, she noted how easy it was, given “the choice between the photograph and a life, to choose the photograph.” In “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” the essay that made her notorious, the word “camp” stood for the same phenomenon: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ ” What better illustration of camp than the gap between Susan Sontag and “Susan Sontag”?

Her personal experience of the camera made Sontag keenly aware of the difference between voluntarily posing and exposing oneself, without consent, to the eye of the voyeur. “There is aggression implicit in every use of the camera,” she wrote. (The resemblance to Turkish vigilantes or the men pointing their cameras at Sarah Leah and Mildred is not accidental.) “A camera is sold as a predatory weapon.”

Beyond the personal consequences of being looked at too often, Sontag insistently posed the question of what a picture says about the object it purports to show. “A suitable photograph of the subject is available,” her secret FBI file noted. But what is “a suitable photograph of the subject,” and for whom? What can we really learn—about a celebrity, about a dead parent—from “a set of photographs”? Early in her career, Sontag asked these questions with a skepticism that often sounded dismissive. An image perverts the truth, she insisted, offering a fake intimacy. What, after all, do we know about Susan Sontag when we see the camp icon “Susan Sontag”?

The gulf between a thing and a thing perceived was accentuated in Sontag’s time. But that such a gulf existed had been remarked as early as Plato. The search for an image that would describe without altering, for a language that would define without distorting, absorbed the lives of philosophers: the medieval Jews, for example, believed that the dissociation of subject from object, of language from meaning, caused all the ills of the world. Balzac regarded cameras superstitiously almost as soon as they were invented, believing that they stripped their subjects down, Sontag wrote, “used up layers of the body.” His vehemence suggests that the interest of this problem was not primarily intellectual.

Like Balzac’s, Sontag’s reactions to photographs, to metaphors, would be highly emotional. To read her examinations of these themes is to wonder why questions about metaphor—the relationship between a thing and its symbol—were so viscerally important to her, to wonder why metaphor bothered her so much. How had the apparently abstract relation of epistemology to ontology eventually become, for her, a matter of life and death?


Je rêve donc je suis.”

This paraphrase of Descartes (“I dream therefore I am”) is the first line of Sontag’s first novel. As the opening sentence, and the only one in a foreign language, it stands out, a strange opening to a strange book. The Benefactor’s protagonist, Hippolyte, has renounced every normal ambition—family and friendship, sex and love, money and career—in order to devote himself to his dreams. His dreams alone are real, but his dreams are not interesting for the usual reasons, “in order to understand myself better, in order to know my true feelings,” he insists. “I am interested in my dreams as—acts.”

Thus defined—all style, no substance—Hippolyte’s dreams are the essence of camp. And Sontag’s rejection of “mere psychology” is a refusal of the questions of the connection of substance to style, and, by analogy, of the connection of body to mind—thing to image—reality to dream—that she would later so profitably explore. Instead, at the very beginning of her career, she claims that the dream itself is the only reality. We are, as she says in her very first sentence, our dreams: our imaginings, our minds, our metaphors.

The definition is almost perversely calculated to thwart the aims of the traditional novel. If there is nothing to be learned about these people from excursions into their subconscious, why embark on these excursions at all? Hippolyte acknowledges the problem, but assures us that there is another attraction. His mistress, whom he sells into slavery, “must have been aware of my lack of romantic interest in her,” he writes. “But I wished she had been aware of how deeply, though impersonally, I felt her as the embodiment of my passionate relationship to my dreams.” Sontag’s protagonist is interested in another person, in other words, to the complete exclusion of reality, and only to the extent that she embodies a figment of his imagination. It is a way of seeing that remits to Sontag’s own definition of camp: “seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.”

But the world is not an aesthetic phenomenon. There is a reality beyond the dream. At the beginning of her career Sontag described her own ambiguous feelings about Hippolyte’s worldview. “I am strongly drawn to Camp,” she said, “and almost as strongly offended by it.” Much of her later life was devoted to insisting that there is a real object beyond the word that describes it, a real body beyond the dreaming mind, a real person beyond the photograph. As she would write decades after, one use of literature is to make us aware “that other people, people different from us, really do exist.”


Other people really do exist.

It is an astonishing conclusion to reach, an astonishing conclusion to need to reach. For Sontag, reality—the actual thing shorn of metaphor—was never quite acceptable. From the time she was very young, she knew that reality was disappointing, cruel, something to be avoided. As a child, she hoped her mother would stir from her alcoholic stupor; she hoped to dwell, instead of in a humdrum suburban street, upon a mythic Parnassus. With all the power of her mind, she wished away pain, including the most painful reality of all, death: first her father’s, when she was five—and then, with hideous consequences, her own.

In a notebook from the seventies, she maps the “obsessive theme of fake death” in her novels, films, and stories. “I suppose it all stems from my reaction to Daddy’s death,” she notes. “It seemed so unreal, I had no proof he was dead, for years I dreamed he turned up one day at the front door.” Then, having noted this, she exhorts herself, condescendingly: “Let’s get away from this theme.” But childhood habits, no matter how accurately diagnosed, are hard to break.

As a child, facing an awful reality, she fled into the safety of her mind. Forever after, she tried to creep back out. The friction between body and mind, common enough in many lives, became for her a seismic conflict. “Head separate from body,” a schema from her diaries announces. She noted that, if her body were unable to dance or make love, she could at least perform the mental function of talking; and divided her self-presentation between “I’m no good” and “I’m great”—with nothing in between. On the one hand “helpless (Who the hell am I … ) (help me … ) (be patient with me … feeling of being a fake.” On the other, “cocky (intellectual contempt for others—impatience).”

With characteristic industry, she strove to overcome this division. There is something Olympian about her sex life, for example, her effort to emerge from her head into her body. How many American women of her generation had lovers, male and female, as numerous, beautiful, and prominent? But reading her diaries, speaking to her lovers, one leaves with the impression that her sexuality was fraught, overdetermined, the body either unreal or a locus of pain. “I have always liked to pretend my body isn’t there,” she wrote in her journals, “and that I do all these things (riding, sex, etc.) without it.”

Pretending that her body wasn’t there also allowed Sontag to deny another inescapable reality: the sexuality of which she was ashamed. Despite occasional male lovers, Sontag’s eroticism centered almost exclusively on women, and her lifelong frustration with her inability to think her way out of that unwanted reality led to an inability to be honest about it—either in public, long after homosexuality ceased to be a matter of scandal, or in private, with many of those closest to her. It is not a coincidence that the preeminent theme in her writing about love and sex—as well as in her own personal relationships—was sadomasochism.

To deny the reality of the body is also to deny death with a doggedness that made Sontag’s own end unnecessarily ghastly. She believed—literally believed—that an applied mind could, eventually, triumph over death. She lamented, her son wrote, “that chemical immortality” that “we were both, though probably just barely, going to miss.” As she got older and managed, time and again, to beat the odds, she started to hope that, in her case, the body’s rules could be waived.

To “pretend my body isn’t there” betrays a shadowy sense of self, and to remind oneself that “Other people really do exist” is to reveal a more paralyzing fear: that she herself did not, that her self was a tenuous possession that could be misplaced, snatched away, at any moment. “It is,” she wrote in despair, “as if no mirror which I looked into returned the image of my body.”


“The aim of all commentary on art now,” Sontag insisted in an essay contemporaneous with The Benefactor, “should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us.”

That famous essay, “Against Interpretation,” denounced the accretions of metaphor that interfered with our experience of art. Weary of the mind (“interpretation”), Sontag had grown equally skeptical of the body—“content”—that the mind’s hyperaction blurs. “It’s very tiny—very tiny, content,” the essay begins, quoting Willem de Kooning; and by the end of the essay, the notion of content comes to seem preposterous. As in Hippolyte’s dreams, one is left with no there there: the nihilism that, in Sontag’s definition, is the essence of camp.

“Against Interpretation” betrays Sontag’s fear that art, “and, by analogy, our own experience,” is not quite real; or that art, like our selves, requires some outside assistance in order to become real. “What is important now,” she insists, “is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” Assuming a numbed body desperate for stimulation, Sontag suspects that art might be the means of providing it; but what, without “content,” is art? What should it make us see, hear, or feel? Perhaps, she says, nothing more than its form—though she adds, a bit disconsolately, that the distinction between form and content is “ultimately, an illusion.”

Sontag devoted so much of her life to “interpretation” that it is hard to know how much of this she believed. Is all the world a stage, and life but a dream? Is there no distinction between form and content, body and mind, a person and a photograph of a person, illness and its metaphors?

A weakness for rhetorical pizzazz led Sontag to make statements whose phrasing could trivialize profound questions about “the unreality and remoteness of the real.” But the tension between these purported opposites gave her the great subject of her life. “Camp, which blocks out content,” was an idea she could only ever half endorse. “I am strongly drawn to Camp,” she wrote, “and just as strongly offended by it.” For four decades after the publication of The Benefactor and “Against Interpretation,” she vacillated between the extremes of an always-divided vision, journeying from the dreamworld toward whatever it was—her opinions varied wildly—that she could call reality.


One of Susan Sontag’s strengths was that anything that could be said about her by others was said, first and best, by Susan Sontag. Her journals betray an uncanny understanding of her character, a self-awareness—though it slipped as she aged—that anchored a chaotic life. Her “head and body don’t seem connected,” a friend observed in the sixties. Sontag answered: “That’s the story of my life.” She set about to improve herself: “I’m only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation.”

Though she found the effort exhausting, she vigorously set to work to escape the dreamworld. She would banish anything that fogged her perception of reality. If metaphors and language interfered, then she, like Plato expelling poets from his utopia, would cast them out. In book after book, from On Photography to Illness as Metaphor to AIDS and Its Metaphors to Regarding the Pain of Others, she moved away from her earlier “camp” writings. Instead of insisting that the dream was all that was real, she asked how to look at even the grimmest realities, those of sickness, war, and death.

Her thirst for reality led to dangerous extremes. When, in the nineties, the need to “see more, to hear more, to feel more” brought her to besieged Sarajevo, she was bewildered that more writers were not volunteering for a trip she described as “a bit like what it must have been to visit the Warsaw Ghetto in late 1942.” The trapped Bosnians were grateful, but wondered why anyone would want to participate in their suffering. “What was her reason?” an actor wondered, two decades later, amid another horror. “How would I, now, go to Syria? What do you have to have inside of you to go to Syria now and share their pain?”

But Sontag was no longer forcing herself to look reality in the face. She was not simply denouncing the racism that had horrified her since she saw the pictures of the Nazi camps. She came to Sarajevo to prove her lifelong conviction that culture was worth dying for. This belief propelled her through a miserable childhood, when books, movies, and music offered her an idea of a richer existence, and brought her through a difficult life. And because she had committed her life to that idea, she became famous as a one-woman dam, standing fast against relentless tides of aesthetic and moral pollution.

Like all metaphors, this one was imperfect. Many who encountered the actual woman were disappointed to discover a reality far short of the glorious myth. Disappointment with her, indeed, is a prominent theme in memoirs of Sontag, not to mention in her own private writings. But the myth, perhaps Sontag’s most enduring creation, inspired people on every continent who felt that the principles she insisted upon so passionately were precisely those that elevated life above its dullest or most bitter realities. “Je rêve donc je suis” was not, by the time she got to Sarajevo, a decadent catchphrase. It was an acknowledgment that the truth of images and symbols—the truth of dreams—is the truth of art. That art is not separate from life but its highest form; that metaphor, like the dramatization of the Armenian genocide in which her mother participated, could make reality visible to those who could not see it for themselves.

And so, in her final years, Sontag brought metaphors to Sarajevo. She brought the character of Susan Sontag, symbol of art and civilization. And she brought the characters of Samuel Beckett, waiting, like the Bosnians, for a salvation that never quite came. If the people of Sarajevo needed food, heating, and a friendly air force, they also needed what Susan Sontag gave them. Many foreigners opined that it was frivolous to direct a play in a war zone. To that, a Bosnian friend, one of the many who loved her, answers that she is remembered exactly because her contribution was so oblique. “There was nothing direct about people’s emotions. We needed it,” she said of Sontag’s production of Waiting for Godot. “It was full of metaphors.”


Benjamin Moser was born in Houston. He is the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book. For his work bringing Clarice Lispector to international prominence, he received Brazil’s first State Prize for Cultural Diplomacy. He has published translations from French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. A former books columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the New York Times Book Review, he has also written for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, and The New York Review of Books.

From the book Sontag, by Benjamin Moser. Copyright © 2019 by Benjamin Moser. To be published on September 17, 2019, by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.