35 Susan Sontag Quotes on Art, Writing, and Life

There’s a preview screening of the new HBO documentary Regarding Susan Sontag at MoMA today, before it airs on television on December 8. Sontag’s prose style captivated readers and her assertive critical stance never failed to invite controversy. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the author’s passing. We revisited her journals and books for some of her most thought-provoking quotes on everything from relationships and art to war and pop culture.

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On love, sex, and relationships

“It hurts to love. It’s like giving yourself to be flayed and knowing that at any moment the other person may just walk off with your skin.”

“Being in love means being willing to ruin yourself for the other person.”

“Self-respect. It would make me lovable. And it’s the secret to good sex.”

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

“Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.”

“Being in love (l’amour fou) a pathological variant of loving. Being in love = addiction, obsession, exclusion of others, insatiable demand for presence, paralysis of other interests and activities. A disease of love, a fever (therefore exalting). One ‘falls’ in love. But this is one disease which, if one must have it, is better to have often rather than infrequently. It’s less mad to fall in love often (less inaccurate for there are many wonderful people in the world) than only two or three times in one’s life. Or maybe it’s better always to be in love with several people at any given time.”

“Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies.”

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On literature and writing

“Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.”

“My library is an archive of longings.”

“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.”

“To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom. Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.”

“My idea of a writer: someone interested in everything.”

“The writer is either a practicing recluse or a delinquent, guilt-ridden one; or both. Usually both.”

“Books are funny little portable pieces of thought.”

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On art

“All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation.”

“Pop art: only possible in an affluent society, where one can be free to enjoy ironic consumption.”

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder — a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

“All aesthetic judgment is really cultural evaluation.”

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

“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art.”

“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.”

“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.'”

“The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”

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On politics

“I’m sickened by the way that the delivery of so-called humanitarian aid is once again being used as a justification — or cover — for war.”

“People do these things to other people. Not just in Nazi concentration camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein. Americans, too, do them when they have permission. When they are told or made to feel that those over whom they have absolute power deserve to be mistreated, humiliated, tormented. They do them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing belong to an inferior, despicable race or religion.”

“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.”

“Guns have metamorphosed into cameras in this earnest comedy, the ecology safari, because nature has ceased to be what it always had been, what people needed protection from. Now nature tamed, endangered, mortal, needs to be protected from people.”

“Left-wing movements have tended to be unisex, and asexual in their imagery. Right-wing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface. Certainly Nazism is ‘sexier’ than communism.”

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On life

“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

“The really important thing is not to reject anything.”

“The fear of becoming old is born of the recognition that one is not living now the life that one wishes. It is equivalent to a sense of abusing the present.”

“I want to be able to be alone, to find it nourishing — not just a waiting.”

“One criticizes in others what one recognizes and despises in oneself. For example, an artist who is revolted by another’s ambitiousness.”

“The only interesting ideas are heresies.”

“I believe that courage is morally neutral. I can well imagine wicked people being brave and good people being timid or afraid. I don’t consider it a moral virtue.”