But for Sontag, no word went unqualified, no word was left without its own definition to her, not “Camp,” not “illness,” not even “I,” and certainly not “writer.”
But for Sontag, no word went unqualified, no word was left without its own definition to her, not “Camp,” not “illness,” not even “I,” and certainly not “writer.”

The Ghost of Susan Sontag

“The Self as a Project.” That’s what Sontag told Charlie Rose she was working on when she wasn’t writing. The grand irony is that she took that noble aspiration of the liberal arts colleges she swore off and made it hers: teaching people how to think.
By Sazi T. Bongwe


…You taught only through your twenties, and have refused countless invitations to return to university teaching. Is this because you came to feel that being an academic and being a creative writer are incompatible?


Yes. Worse than incompatible. I’ve seen academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.”

- Susan Sontag, the Art of Fiction No. 143, “The Paris Review,” Winter 1995

Consider a girl, suppose her name is Susan. She inherits from her father two home movies –– one filmed on a Parisian Ship, another in Beijing — what was by all accounts a perfectly photographic memory, and a love for reading at age three. Out of that recipe, the entirety of her life. Her father dies when she is five, and where her largely absent mother isn’t, the literatures of the world are. Her “imitations” of “Les Misérables” and Shakespeare adorn the pages of the monthly newspaper she self-publishes and sells to neighbors for five cents a piece — a killing when you are nine years old.

At 15, she’s reading Rilke, Faulkner — the list of books she tells herself she “has to read” goes on for five pages of her diary. Later that year, Dostoevsky. They lead her where she has always been going: “I want to write,” she declares. At 16, she’s off to the University of California, Berkeley. Soon after, the University of Chicago. The big questions: philosophy, religion, the self, “how should one live?”. Still 16, she sees it for herself: “the important thing is that there seems to be no profession better suited to my needs than university teaching.” And the prophecy is fulfilled: she becomes, aged 20, “the youngest college instructor in the United States.” Hers is a story told and told again. There is only one place where it ends.

When Sontag was admitted to Harvard for a master’s in English in 1954, she had already been married for four years to Philip Rieff, a sociologist 11 years her senior, whom she had met at 17 and married 10 days later. In 1952, she gave birth to her son, David. In 1955, she switched to a master’s in Philosophy, graduating three years later. Sontag was 24, and her devotions were to a life both academic and domestic. Both marriages would die a cold death in the Cambridge winter.

Sontag foresaw this. It takes a certain person to re-read their diaries, another type to edit them. Sontag went back to that sentence about teaching and inscribed over it, “Jesus!” She was 16 when she first wrote it. Academia had appeared to be her calling; within a few months of graduating from Harvard, she came to see it as what would one day become her undoing:

“Most particularly I become frightened to realize how close I came to letting myself slide into the academic life. It would have been effortless … just keep on making good grades…stayed for a master’s and a teaching assistantship, wrote a couple of papers on obscure subjects that nobody cares about, and, at the age of sixty, be ugly and respected and a full professor. Why, I was looking through the English Dept. publications in the library today — long (hundreds of pages) monographs on such subjects as: The Use of ‘Tu’ and ‘Vous’ in Voltaire; The Social Criticism of Fenimore Cooper; A Bibliography of the Writings of Bret Harte in the Magazines + Newspapers of California (1859–1891) …

Jesus Christ! What did I almost submit to?!?”

Her premonitions be damned, she came to Harvard and got her answer.

For Sontag, two years in Cambridge brought dizzying clarity: “the sense of not being free has never left me these six years,” she wrote with regard to her husband, the father of her child. Benjamin Moser’s sprawling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of her presents Sontag, not Rieff, as the true mind of “The Mind of the Moralist,” Rieff’s great book that he published under his name alone.

Despite all these hours spent on Freud, Sontag still had other callings: literature, metaphysics, her son. She reflects in 1957 on “[her] son, aged four, first reading Homer.” An entry from a year earlier simply states,“We’ve been discussing the soul.”

If there was a semblance of a family in her Chauncy Street house — two blocks away from the Radcliffe Quadrangle — all it did was to bring her to consider “A Project—Notes on Marriage,” an emblem of her larger idée fixe: philosophy among the ruins. On the steps of Widener Library, she took this question to Hegel and Marx, to gnosticism. Elsewhere, the themes were the same. “Philip is an emotional totalitarian,” she concluded “Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor.”

Though she hadn’t lost sight of philosophy and the questions she had for it, Sontag had it confirmed, both feeling and theorizing it: She could not separate the ivy-lined academy from the kind of life it seemed to be sucking her into any more than she could separate herself from her shadow. Contemplating the English monasteries and the synagogues of America, she wrote in her diaries that “The world is cluttered with dead institutions.” At Harvard, she felt she was in one, a colosseum of many others.

For months Sontag had been planning her escape, and one September 1957 afternoon she executed it —– in a rare moment of unoriginality, like her one-day biographer, she left America for Europe. She shook off the shackles of academia and the traditional family only to be brought back to those she’d always known: her wish to be a writer. (At 16 she wrote in her diaries, “2:00–5:00 every day I shall set aside for writing and study outside in the sun, and whatever time in the evenings I can manage—I shall be quiet, courteous, and disinvolved!”)

But for Sontag, no word went unqualified, no word was left without its own definition to her, not “Camp,” not “illness,” not even “I,” and certainly not “writer.” “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world,” Sontag believed. She thought of writing as a heroic vocation, and by her own definition she thought herself good at it: “Maybe I have an Attention Surplus Disorder,” she later said in the same interview. (Geoff Dyer would come to coin the adjective “Sontagishly,” to means high-brow literature’s synonym for “with the utmost hubris”).

Her vocation was writing; her provocation was living. Between essays and novels, Sontag courted fame, she courted lovers, including photographer Annie Leibovitz; she traveled over land and sea as Radcliffe and Harvard made every attempt to win her back, a feat not even the allure of the Norton Lectureship could achieve. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1993; she received it with the most youthful of smiles, for not even Sontag was immune to the charms Harvard works on one’s sense of self. She paid attention to painting, to architecture, to sex (Moser’s biography references a list in which Sontag names 36 people — men and women — she had slept with before she was 17); she paid attention to literature, to theater, to the wars of the world and of her mind. Academia couldn’t hold all of that. “What I really wanted was every kind of life,” she said, “and the writer’s life seemed most inclusive.”

But paying attention to some things meant not paying attention to others. Not least of these was David. In 1982, he was by all means on the brink: addicted, unemployed, newly-single, critically anxious. He needed his mother and she was floating on Italian canals with her newest lover, the dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs. David found solace in the home of renowned writer and Harvard professor, Jamaica Kincaid. She and her husband took him in for half a year. “We couldn’t really believe she was getting on the plane,” Kincaid told Moser, regarding Sontag’s choice to go to Italy, though she added, “Yes, she was cruel and so on, but she was also very kind. She was just a great person.”

This did not mean Kincaid envied Sontag: “I don’t think I ever wanted to be a great person after I met Susan.”

“The Sensational Susan Sontag,” “The Leading Lady of the Mind,” “American Iconoclast,” anything in the realm of the superlative feels as fitting as the leather jacket she’s pictured in on Moser’s cover. The alumni file of hers held in Schlesinger Library is less of a record than it is her shrine. Among the paradoxes of the “loveable-not-likable” Susan Sontag is this: her singularity, in every sense, imparts onto every word of hers a necessity to read it and at the same time to dismiss it, to revere that otherworldly mind and at the same time to exile it to that other world. For is it that Sontag proclaimed a great truth — would-be writers, stay away from academia! Go live! — or is it a fool’s errand to bring the plural or the abstract to Susan Sontag, to take any tenet of that whirlwind of a life and draw anything universal from it?

“The Self as a Project.” That’s what Sontag told Charlie Rose she was working on when she wasn’t writing. The grand irony is that she took that noble aspiration of the liberal arts colleges she swore off and made it hers: teaching people how to think.

I write that and wince. To write about Sontag — to have Sontag as my subject — is to have no choice but to write in her spirit.

My first encounter with Sontag came in 2021, when I read the "Regarding the Pain of Others." It was a total revelation for me. It would take some time before I came back to her. Intellectually deadened by a first semester at Harvard that hardly stimulated or inspired me, I enrolled in Introduction to Still Photography at the beginning of my second semester and picked up, at least in a serious way, a camera for the first time. The far more important event was that I went into Widener Library and picked up a copy of Susan Sontag’s “On Photography.” I cursed my younger self for turning away at the sight of gold. Here was a mind at work, a mind really thinking. For the rest of the semester I plunged into as much of her writing and her life as I could; my search brought me back here.

She is a specter over this piece — to begin by quoting her, inhabiting her words, is to have her say to me at the outset: “Here is your model. Here is your standard.” To leave cliché in an essay on Sontag — for hasn’t she taught everybody how to think – feels like betraying the enormous debt I owe to her, feels, and there is no other word, sacrilegious. Because yes, I confess: for a long time, I have worshiped her, true as I have worshiped Zadie Smith, or Julio Cortázar, or Marquez.

Sontag had her gods once, too — for one, Thomas Mann, who she met with so much wonder and perplexment that she had to take it to the page. But the 54-year-old Sontag who wrote that story was not the 15-year-old who bowed down to Mann. Five years after that piece was published, Chris Lydon asked her to name the writers that inspired her most. Sontag told him unless he had hours to spend listening to her answer, the question was ridiculous.

He replied, “Well, who do you light candles to?”

Almost instantly, Sontag retorted “I don’t light candles to anyone. I re-read the writers I admire.”

I am one of those people she taught to think. She taught me to think about photography, about war, about suffering, and, until I stumbled upon that interview, about everything under the sun but for one subject: her life. She had the writers she once worshiped, but she traded that for something truer, something that holds up, something she could use: deep attention. She grew up, she shed her skin. I am trying to shed mine.

Correction: October 13, 2023

A previous version of this article misspelled Chris Lydon’s name.

— Magazine writer Sazi T. Bongwe can be reached at sazi.bongwe@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @sazibongwe_.

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