Great Throughts Treasury

This site is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alan William Smolowe who gave birth to the creation of this database.

Susan Sontag

American Author, Essayist, Literary Theorist and Political Activist

"If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment."

"The moral pleasure in art, as well as the moral service that art performs, consists in the intelligent gratification of consciousness."

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

"The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance may not be a lie."

"Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art... To interpret is to impoverish... The only interesting answers are those which destroy the questions."

"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."

"For the modern consciousness, the artist (replacing the saint) is the exemplary sufferer. And among artists, the writer, the man of words, is the person to whom we look to be able best to express his suffering."

"The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballet et al., don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history, it is the white race, and it alone - its ideologies and inventions - which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself."

"Taste has no system and no proofs."

"The basic unit for contemporary art is not the idea, but the analysis of and extension of sensations."

"AIDS obliges people to thin of sex as having, possibly, the direst consequences: suicide. Or murder."

"The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own."

"A family's photograph album is generally about the extended family—and, often, is all that remains of it."

"A fiction about soft or easy deaths ... is part of the mythology of most diseases that are not considered shameful or demeaning."

""Old" and "new" are the perennial poles of all feeling and sense of orientation in the world. We cannot do without the old, because in what is old is invested all our past, our wisdom, our memories, our sadness, our sense of realism. We cannot do without faith in the new, because in what is new is invested all our energy, our capacity for optimism, our blind biological yearning, our ability to forget — the healing ability that makes reconciliation possible."

"A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask."

"All... forms of consensus about "great" books and "perennial" problems, once stabilized, tend to deteriorate eventually into something philistine. The real life of the mind is always at the frontiers of "what is already known." Those great books don't only need custodians and transmitters. To stay alive, they also need adversaries. The most interesting ideas are heresies."

"A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted — made cynical, superficial — by this understanding."

"A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs."

"All modern wars, even when their aims are the traditional ones, such as territorial aggrandizement or the acquisition of scarce resources, are cast as clashes of civilizations — culture wars — with each side claiming the high ground, and characterizing the other as barbaric. The enemy is invariably a threat to "our way of life," an infidel, a desecrator, a polluter, a defiler of higher or better values. The current war against the very real threat posed by militant Islamic fundamentalism is a particularly clear example."

"AIDS occupies such a large part in our awareness because of what it has been taken to represent. It seems the very model of all the catastrophes privileged populations feel await them."

"Ambition if it feeds at all; does so on the ambition of others."

"Although none of the rules for becoming more alive is valid, it is healthy to keep on formulating them."

"Americans have got used to thinking of the world in terms of enemies."

"Americans are constantly extolling "traditions"; litanies to family values are at the center of every politician's discourse. And yet the culture of America is extremely corrosive of family life, indeed of all traditions except those redefined as "identities" that can be accepted as part of larger patterns of distinctiveness, cooperation, and openness to innovation."

"Americans have it right. Europeans are not in an evangelical — or a bellicose — mood. Indeed, sometimes I have to pinch myself to be sure I am not dreaming: that what many people in my own country now hold against Germany, which wreaked such horrors on the world for nearly a century — the new "German problem," as it were — is that Germans are repelled by war; that much of German public opinion is now virtually ... pacifist!"

"American "energy"... is the energy of violence, of free- floating resentment and anxiety unleashed by chronic cultural dislocations which must be, for the most part, ferociously sublimated. This energy has mainly been sublimated into crude materialism and acquisitiveness. Into hectic philanthropy. Into benighted moral crusades, the most spectacular of which was Prohibition. Into an awesome talent for uglifying countryside and cities. Into the loquacity and torment of a minority of gadflies: artists, prophets, muckrakers, cranks, and nuts. And into self- punishing neuroses. But the naked violence keeps breaking through, throwing everything into question."

"Anthropology has always struggled with an intense, fascinated repulsion towards its subject.... [The anthropologist] submits himself to the exotic to confirm his own inner alienation as an urban intellectual."

"An erotic life is, for more and more people, that which can be captured on digital photographs and on video. And perhaps the torture is more attractive, as something to record, when it has a sexual component."

"Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance."

"Anything in history or nature that can be described as changing steadily can be seen as heading toward catastrophe."

"Any critic is entitled to wrong judgments, of course. But certain lapses of judgment indicate the radical failure of an entire sensibility."

"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."

"As a secular person, and as a woman, I've always been appalled by the Taliban regime and would dearly like to see them toppled. I was a public critic of the regime long before the war started. But I've been told that the Northern Alliance is absolutely no better when it comes to the issue of women. The crimes against women in Afghanistan are just unthinkable; there's never been anything like it in the history of the world. So of course I would love to see that government overthrown and something less appalling put in its place."

"As Cioran correctly points out, a principal danger of being over-civilized is that one all to easily relapses, out of sheer exhausting and the unsatisfied need to be “stimulated,” into a vulgar and passive barbarism. Thus, “the man who unmasks his fictions” through an indiscriminate pursuit of the lucidity that is promoted by modern liberal culture “renounces his own resources and, in a sense, himself. Consequently, he will accept other fictions which will deny him, since they will not have cropped up fro his own depth.” There, he concludes, “no man concerned with his own equilibrium may exceed a certain degree of lucidity and analysis.”"

"As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure."

"Between two fantasy alternatives, that Holbein the Younger had lived long enough to have painted Shakespeare or that a prototype of the camera had been invented early enough to have photographed him, most Bardolators would choose the photograph. This is not just because it would presumably show what Shakespeare really looked like, for even if the photograph were faded, barely legible, a brownish shadow, we would probably still prefer it to another glorious Holbein. Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross."

"Authoritarian political ideologies have a vested interest in promoting fear, a sense of the imminence of takeover by aliens—and real diseases are useful material."

"Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the "off," of things-being-what-they-are-not."

"Books are funny little portable pieces of thought."

"Boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other."

"But just because I am a critic of Israeli policy — and in particular the occupation, simply because it is untenable, it creates a border that cannot be defended — that does not mean I believe the U.S. has brought this terrorism on itself because it supports Israel. I believe bin Laden and his supporters are using this as a pretext. If we were to change our support for Israel overnight, we would not stop these attacks."

"Cancer patients are lied to, not just because the disease is (or is thought to be) a death sentence, but because it is felt to be obscene—in the original meaning of that word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the senses."

"Camp taste doesn't propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn't sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures."

"Childhood was a terrible waste of time."

"Cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms"

"Cogito ergo boom."

"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."

"Contemporary art, no matter how much it has defined itself by a taste for negation, can still be analyzed as a set of assertions of a formal kind."

"Consider the difference between looking and staring. A look is voluntary; it is also mobile, rising and falling in intensity as its foci of interest are taken up and then exhausted. A stare has, essentially, the character of a compulsion; it is steady, unmodulated, "fixed.""