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Why You Should Read Susan Sontag

"In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art."

Susan Sontag (Source: New York Times)

In 2019, when Met Gala announced its theme, Camp: Notes on Fashion, many people couldn’t understand the absurdity of the red-carpet outfits. What do excessive feathers, an act of Egyptian goddess and ridiculously extravagant dresses mean anyway? To explain the idea of Camp, Susan Sontag wrote a remarkable essay in 1964, Notes on “Camp”. It said, “In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naïve.” With her essay, Sontag not only defined the aesthetic of camp, she hoisted the exaggerated style to an “aesthetic theory”.

Born on January 16, 1933 Susan Sontag had been a teacher and a filmmaker but most prominently she read intemperately for hours every day and though she did a decent job at writing fiction, it was really her unflinching and transcendental work of nonfiction that drew attention. She wrote extensively on subjects like photography, illness, AIDS, culture and media, human rights and leftist ideology.

Since Notes on Camp, Sontag became one of the quintessential members of the American intellectual circles during the 60s. But for her, it was start of discharging the cargo of ideas about art and culture and the proper business of consciousness which, she believed distracted her from writing fiction.

You have to be obsessed… [Being a writer] is not like something you want to be — it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed. Otherwise, of course, it’s perfectly okay to write, in the way that it’s perfectly okay to paint or play a musical instrument — and why shouldn’t people do that? I deplore the fact that only writers can write, as it were? Why can’t people have that as an art activity? … But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master. It’s a very driven thing.

She defined the job of a writer:

"A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer. To be a writer, also — and this is the contradiction — demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness — not going out — staying home all the time — not going out with everybody else going to play…" "In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now." "Now, most people are not “writers” in that sense… 40,000 books a year are published in this country, and many of them are useful and are entertaining to some people. They have some constituency — they’re not part of literature. Literature is actually just this little tiny percentage of what is produced in book form. But, of course, that’s what I’m talking about — I would go as far as to say that no book is worth reading if it isn’t worth reading five times, or more… That’s what I mean by “literature” — a book that you would want, repeatedly, to read, to be inside you, to be part of your bloodstream."

Growing up, she was surrounded by philistines. ‘Elitism’ is absurd and it is a mask for ‘anti-intellectualism’. She yearned for intellectual erudition. She built herself and her stance on art, culture and sexuality.

The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naïve or (a new banner for the philistines) “elitist.”

From the intersection of high and low art, role of photography, critiques she assembled the essentials for understanding cultural context we know of now. She was serious. For herself and for everything. During the Vietnam War, she travelled to Hanoi all the while writing recklessly about war and torture. “I go to war” she said,” I think it’s my duty to be in as much contact with reality as I can be, and war is a tremendous reality in our world.”

New York Times said about Sontag “thoroughly American figure standing at the centre of Against Interpretation. The dress is new, true enough, and the images strange. The haunting image is that of a lady of intelligence and apparent beauty hastening along city streets at the violet hour, nervous, knowing, strained, excruciated (as she says) by self-consciousness, bound for the incomprehensible cinema, or for the concert hall where non-music is non-played, or for the loft where cherry bombs explode in her face and flour sacks are flapped close to her, where her ears are filled with mumbling, senseless sound and she is teased, abused, enveloped, deliberately frustrated until – until we, her audience, make out suddenly that this scene is, simply, hell, and that the figure in it (but naturally) is old-shoe-American: a pilgrim come again, a flagellant, one more self-lacerating Puritan.”


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