Deep Thinking: 45 Quotes by Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag pastel portrait by Juan Bastos

From the time of her classic essay, “Notes on Camp” (1963), Susan Sontag was launched into the position of one of America’s premier public intellectuals. Nearly every line she wrote or spoke was quotable, so it’s a great challenge to choose a selection of quotes by Susan Sontag for a post that’s reasonable in length; here, we’ve attempted such a feat.

Achieving fame (and sometimes notoriety) in multiple forms of media — essays, fiction, film, and more — Sontag seemed to embrace her role as provocateur. Susan Sontag pastel portrait at right by Juan Bastos.

In her biography of Susan Sontag on this site, Nancy Snyder writes that she “achieved what was believed to be impossible for any American writer: she could easily pontificate on structuralist philosophy and on the history of interpretation — subjects not widely embraced in American culture — yet Sontag easily made the crossover from the inaccessible intellectual into the realm of established literary star.”

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Susan Sontag 1979 by Lynn Gilbert

Learn more about Susan Sontag

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Notes on Camp (1964)

“What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”

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“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.”

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“Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste.”

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“The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.”

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“Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp. For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.”

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“The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious’. One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”

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On Photography (1977)

“The course of modern history having already sapped the traditions and shattered the living wholes in which precious objects once found their place, the collector may now in good conscience go about excavating the choicer, more emblematic fragments.”

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“The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past.”

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“The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”

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“So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful.”

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“Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing.”

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“The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past.”

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“Whitman thought he was not abolishing beauty but generalizing it. So, for generations, did the most gifted American photographers, in their polemical pursuit of the trivial and the vulgar. But among American photographers who have matured since World War II, the Whitmanesque mandate to record in its entirety the extravagant candors of actual American experience has gone sour.”

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“Nobody demands that photography be literate. Nobody can imagine how it could be authoritative. Nobody understands how anything, least of all a photograph, could be transcendent.”

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“So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful.”

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“The destiny of photography has taken it far beyond the role to which it was originally thought to be limited: to give more accurate reports on reality (including works of art). Photography is the reality; the real object is often experienced as a letdown.”

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Illness as Metaphor (1978)

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

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“There is a peculiarly modern predilection for psychological explanations of disease, as of everything else. Psychologizing seems to provide control over the experiences and events (like grave illnesses) over which people have in fact little or no control. Psychological understanding undermines the ‘reality’ of a disease. That reality has to be explained.

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For those who live neither with religious consolations about death nor with a sense of death (or of anything else) as natural, death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied.

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“A large part of the popularity and persuasiveness of psychology comes from its being a sublimated spiritualism: a secular, ostensibly scientific way of affirming the primacy of ‘spirit’ over matter.”

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AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989)

“The AIDS crisis is evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide.”

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“It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades.”

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“Etymologically, patient means sufferer. It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades. That illness can be not an epic of suffering but the occasion of some kind of self-transcendence is affirmed by sentimental literature and, more convincingly, by case histories offered by doctor-writers. Some illnesses seem more apt than others for this kind of meditation.”

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“Epidemic diseases usually elicit a call to ban the entry of foreigners, immigrants. And xenophobic propaganda has always depicted immigrants as bearers of disease (in the late nineteenth century: cholera, yellow fever, typhoid fever, tuberculosis). … Such is the extraordinary potency and efficacy of the plague metaphor: it allows a disease to be regarded both as something incurred by vulnerable ‘others’ and as (potentially) everyone’s disease.”

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Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966)

“From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.”

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“The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating.”

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“None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practices.”

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“What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.”

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“Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded.”

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Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.”

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“The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.”

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“Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.”

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“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art … To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’”

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“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.”

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“Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.”

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Miscellaneous writings and essays

“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People don’t become inured to what they are shown — if that’s the right way to describe what happens — because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.”  (Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003)

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“Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.”

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“Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering — rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.”   (from a review of Selected Essays by Simone Weil, The New York Review of Books, February 1, 1963)

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“The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.”   (from a review of Selected Essays by Simone Weil, The New York Review of Books, February 1, 1963)

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“The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything. There would only be what is.”   (The Benefactor, 1963)

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“The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean Algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.”   (Partisan Review, Winter 1967)

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“I don’t want to express alienation. It isn’t what I feel. I’m interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says be serious, be passionate, wake up.”  (“Susan Sontag Finds Romance,” interview with by Leslie Garis, The New York Times, August 2, 1992)

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“To me, literature is a calling, even a kind of salvation. It connects me with an enterprise that is over 2,000 years old. What do we have from the past? Art and thought. That’s what lasts. That’s what continues to feed people and give them an idea of something better. A better state of one’s feelings or simply the idea of a silence in one’s self that allows one to think or to feel. Which to me is the same.” (“Susan Sontag Finds Romance,” interview with by Leslie Garis, The New York Times, August 2, 1992)

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“One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling … which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment. We have more or less the same bodies, but very different kinds of thoughts. I believe that we think much more with the instruments provided by our culture than we do with our bodies, and hence the much greater diversity of thought in the world. Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.” (from “Susan Sontag: The Rolling Stone Interview” with Jonathan Cott, October 1979)

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“The tide of undecipherable signatures of mutinous adolescents which has washed over and bitten into the facades of monuments and the surface of public vehicles in the city where I live: graffiti as an assertion of disrespect, yes, but most of all simply an assertion … the powerless saying: I’m here, too.”  (“The Pleasure of the Image,” from Writers on Artists, ed. by Daniel Halpern, 1988)

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“I guess I think I’m writing for people who are smarter than I am, because then I’ll be doing something that’s worth their time. I’d be very afraid to write from a position where I consciously thought I was smarter than most of my readers.”   (From “The Risk Taker,” profile by Gary Younge, The Guardian, January 19, 2002)

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Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility. And the means for practicing art have been radically extended. … Painters no longer feel themselves confined to canvas and paint, but employ hair, photographs, wax, sand, bicycle tires, their own toothbrushes and socks. Musicians have reached beyond the sounds of the traditional instruments to use tampered instruments and (usually on tape) synthetic sounds and industrial noises.  (“One Culture and the New Sensibility,” Styles of Radical Will, 1966)

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On photography by Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag page on Amazon*
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