Susan Sontag: How Paris Shaped an American Luminary

On January 16 this year, Susan Sontag, the American cultural critic and political activist would have turned 90. Throughout her life, she maintained strong intellectual, emotional, and personal ties to France and to Europe more broadly. Her influential works of cultural criticism, including Against Interpretation (1966), On Photography (1977), and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), as well as her early novels The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967), reflect her profound engagement with French literature, film, and philosophy. She is buried at Montparnasse Cemetery, near Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and several of her other Parisian heroes.
Susan Sontag in Paris, November 1972. © Jean-Régis Rouston/Roger-Viollet/Getty Images

To the contemporary American mind, the name Susan Sontag evokes an entire era and its sensibilities: the social movements of the 1960s, pop art and camp style, second-wave feminism, the AIDS epidemic, the Bosnian War, and the new global order at the turn of the millennium. Through all this, Sontag’s brilliant, often dissenting voice was a constant presence in magazines, journals, and books around the world. Some would say that she was the last true American public intellectual.

But what many don’t know is just how much she owed to France and French culture. It was in Paris that she first honed the ideas that would form the bedrock of her breakthrough collection of essays, Against Interpretation, published in the United States in 1966. And it was the French culture of intellectual and artistic seriousness – embodied by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Weil, Jean Genet, and Jean-Luc Godard – that she thought needed to be emulated in America.

Among the Ratés

When Sontag first set foot in Paris at the age of 25, in 1958, believing that America was in something of a cultural rut, a whole world of ideas and possibilities suddenly opened out to her. This was due in large part to the new circles she moved in: Unlike the cold, stuffy environments of the University of Chicago (where she had gone to college) or of Oxford (where she had briefly pursued postgraduate studies in philosophy), the Paris she found herself in was full of kindred spirits: “the ratés, the failed intellectuals (writers, artists, would-be PhDs).”

The liberation she found in Paris was, in fact, more than intellectual. It was a return to what she had first encountered in 1949, at Berkeley, where she met Harriet Sohmers (or “H” in her diaries). Sohmers would introduce Sontag to the depth and pleasures of her own homosexuality. And though she would go on to marry a man, the American sociologist Philip Rieff, only one year later, Sontag’s sapphic discoveries with Sohmers left an indelible mark on her desires.

Despite wanting to care for her six-year-old son, David, by 1958 Sontag had come to feel so stifled by her husband’s patriarchal attitudes and the repressive sexual politics of the United States that she fled abroad. It was because of Sohmers, in fact, that she hardly stayed at Oxford at all: “H” had traded Berkeley for Paris and was beckoning Susan to join her.

Susan Sontag in front of Notre Dame, 1960s. © René Saint-Paul/Bridgeman Images
Susan Sontag (center) in Paris with Harriet Sohmers and her sister Barbara. Courtesy of Harriet Sohmers Zwerling

Time spent in France with Sohmers led the way to many felicitous encounters. One of Sontag’s first friends and guides to Parisian cultural life was Annette Michelson, an American art critic for The International Herald Tribune, who had developed close ties with many of the city’s luminaries, including Sartre, Beauvoir, and Genet. A few years after meeting Sartre via Michelson, as ever with a touch of irony, Sontag wrote: “I realize how important Sartre has been to me. He is the model – that abundance, that lucidity, that knowingness. And the bad taste.”

As the American critic and historian Alice Kaplan has noted, in her eight months in Paris in 1958, Sontag never once wrote about the ongoing, explosive political turmoil gripping the nation over the possibility of Algerian independence. She was, in some sense, too focused on imbibing the entirety of European culture: She read Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, sat for hours in movie theaters, drank with Allen Ginsberg, and debated the virtues of sadomasochism with Elliott Stein, a new friend with an infamous whip collection. Sontag’s lessons from France were, almost exclusively, intellectual and aesthetic ones — and they would mark her forever.

Two Cultures, One Sensibility

After moving to New York at the dawn of the 1960s, these ideas from across the Atlantic dominated her thoughts. In particular, she was deeply impressed by French New Wave cinema and its auteurs, Godard chief among them. And when it came to French literature, the early 1960s were a period of revelation marked by the novels produced by members of the Nouveau Roman (“New Novel”) movement: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and several others.

When, in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” Sontag wrote that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” she was drawing directly from similar proclamations made by Robbe-Grillet in his essay collection Pour un nouveau roman (1963). She was trying to bring American letters out from under the academic, clinical approach to cultural criticism, and insisted instead that “we must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more” in our encounters with art.

By the time “Against Interpretation,” joined a couple of dozen other essays to form the 1966 collection by the same name, Sontag, advocating for a “new sensibility,” had successfully managed to channel her Francophilia into the American cultural mainstream. Of the 26 essays in the collection, 20 deal directly with French literature, film, philosophy and art, and all but two are engaged with European culture generally.

Over the next decade, Sontag became the prime American champion of Roland Barthes, the French critic and semiotician whose sharp, often elegiac cultural critiques of everything from Proust to wrestling to French wine demonstrated the power of an omnivorous intellect. Sontag’s On Photography (1977) and Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1981) can be read as meditations on the same theme wrought in the distinctive idioms of either side of the Atlantic. When Barthes died, Sontag made plain her debt to him: “Ah, Susan. Toujours fidèle, were the words with which he greeted me, affectionately, when we last saw each other. I was, I am.”

Susan Sontag with German authors Walter Hollerer (left) and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. © Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Susan Sontag in Sarajevo, Bosnia, 1993. © Paul Lowe/Panos Pictures

Sontag’s love for France was so potent that it was not lost on her critics in the United States. Gore Vidal, an equally important voice on the American political and cultural front, frequently criticized her admiration for the Nouveau Roman and Barthes, going so far as to ironically title his negative review of her 1967 novel Death Kit, “Miss Sontag’s New Novel.” She never bristled at such barbs, of course. Until her death, she continued to champion voices and ideas from Europe, whether by staging Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in besieged Sarajevo or by introducing writers like W.G. Sebald and László Krasznahorkai (the “Hungarian master of the apocalypse”) to American readers.

From the 1970s until she died in 2004, Sontag spent several months each year in Paris, often staying in Nicole Stéphane’s luxurious apartment on Rue de la Faisanderie, near the Bois de Boulogne. She was like many of her heroes, however, partial to the Left Bank, where the glory days of the Deux Magots and the Café de Flore still lingered in the public memory. Paris was always, for her, the capital of culture, even as she had become the reigning symbol of culture back in New York.

In her last years, Sontag lived partly in the Hôtel Feydeau de Montholon, which still stands on Rue Séguier, right by the banks of the Seine in the sixth arrondissement. From its windows, she could see Notre Dame in all its splendor. Today, one can stand in front of the 17th-century building and imagine the walks she might have taken around the quartier. And one can stroll, if one so desires, a couple of kilometers south to Montparnasse Cemetery, where she is buried among the many French visionaries she so deeply admired.

Article published in the January 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.