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Susan Sontag: an Obit (December 28, 2004)

Susan Sontag

written to a 30-minute deadline:

12/28/2004 2:29:20 PM Eastern Standard Time        

Susan Sontag, who died of cancer today, was the very epitome of a public intellectual ‑‑ someone whose pronouncements have the power to set trends and form opinions. Born Susan Rosenblatt on January 16, 1933, she was a longtime literary star and cultural icon. Few intellectuals (and even fewer who are women) made as auspicious a debut as Sontag did when her first essays appeared in such journals as "Partisan Review" in the early 1960s. She was barely thirty when "Against Interpretation" and "Notes on `Camp'" alerted the academic world to a major paradigm shift in its corridors. Sontag rebelled against limiting criticism to acts of interpretation and urged a redefinition of what criticism could entail; she was out in front of a major academic trend. It was also Sontag who acquainted the intellectual community with "camp" as a term and with the significance of homosexual aestheticism as a force.

Enlarging the Sphere of What Criticism Could Treat

Sontag's sponsorship of foreign writers and intellectuals was lifelong and helped prepare an American readership for important voices from abroad. As a critic she enlarged the sphere of what criticism could treat: not just novels or movies could be subjected to critical scrutiny but public discourse in general. A survivor of cancer, she wrote "Illness as Metaphor" (1978) and "AIDS and Its Metaphors" (1989) analyzing attitudes toward disease and exposing the deep meanings of the way we talk about sickness and health. A critic of the use of disease metaphors, she had once called the white race a cancer on humanity, but she alway reserved to herself the right to change her position.

Sontag was effortlessly controversial and was sometimes lampooned as self‑righteous, arrogant, and pompous. In the late 1970s she told a packed (and scandalized) Town Hall audience that she had come around to the view that in understanding Soviet Communism "Reader's Digest" may have been nearer the mark than the whole highbrow community. In the weeks after September 11, 2001, her comments in "The New Yorker," in which she disputed that the attackers were "cowards," and ridiculed public officials who used the term, may have been technically correct but were a major blunder, incensing the many who interpreted her remarks not as pedantic but as exculpatory. 

An International Presence

The world was Sontag's intellectual playground. She had a particular interst in war. When her Paris Review interviewer referred to her "frequent trips to Sarajevo," Sontag pointed out that she also "made two trips to North Vietnam under American bombardment, the first of which I recounted in 'Trip to Hanoi,' and when the Yom Kippur War started in 1973 I went to Israel to shoot a film, Promised Lands, on the front lines. Bosnia is actually my third war." 

Far too versatile, energetic, and ambitious to be limited to conventional genres, Sontag wrote novels and stories, directed plays and movies, and was a familiar presence at international literary conferences. She will be best remembered for her essays on diverse subjects and her generous sponsorship of writyers from abroad. The "dark lady of American letters," as some thought  her, was unquestionably brilliant. Having graduated from high school at the age of fifteen, Sontag was educated at Berkeley, Chicago, Harvard, and Oxford. She lived in New York City. 

-- David Lehman

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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