Susan Sontag, one of America's most influential intellectuals, internationally renowned for the passionate engagement and breadth of her critical intelligence and her ardent activism...
Susan Sontag, one of America’s most influential intellectuals, internationally renowned for the passionate engagement and breadth of her critical intelligence and her ardent activism in the cause of human rights, died yesterday of leukemia at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She was 71.
The author of 17 books translated into 32 languages, she vaulted to public attention and critical acclaim with the 1964 publication of “Notes on Camp,” written for Partisan Review and included in “Against Interpretation,” her first collection of essays, published two years later.
Ms. Sontag wrote about subjects as diverse as pornography and photography, the aesthetics of silence and the aesthetics of fascism, Bunraku puppet theater and the choreography of Balanchine. She was a fervent believer in the capacity of art to delight, to inform, to transform. Best-known as an essayist, she won the 2000 National Book Award for her historical novel, “In America.”
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“We live in a culture,” she said, “in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.”
A self-described “besotted aesthete” and “obsessed moralist,” Ms. Sontag sought to challenge conventional thinking.
She was born Jan. 16, 1933, in New York City and raised in Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles, the daughter of an alcoholic schoolteacher mother and a fur-trader father who died in China of tuberculosis during the Japanese invasion when Ms. Sontag was 5. Ms. Sontag, who skipped three grades, was a graduate of North Hollywood High School and attended the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago — which she entered when she was 16 — and Harvard and Oxford.
In 1950, while at the University of Chicago, she met and 10 days later married Philip Rieff, a 28-year-old instructor in social theory. Two years later, at age 19, she had a son, David, now a prominent writer. She was divorced in 1959 and never remarried.
Ms. Sontag was reading by 3. The first book that thrilled her was “Madame Curie,” which she read when she was 6. The first novel that affected her was Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”
“I sobbed and wailed and thought [books] were the greatest things,” she recalled.
She remembered as a girl of 8 or 9 lying in bed looking at her bookcase against the wall. “It was like looking at my 50 friends. A book was like stepping through a mirror. I could go somewhere else. Each one was a door to a whole kingdom.” Edgar Allan Poe’s stories enthralled her with their “mixture of speculativeness, fantasy and gloominess.” Upon reading Jack London’s “Martin Eden,” she determined she would become a writer.
Ms. Sontag began to frequent the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard. She also became a “militant browser” of the international periodical and newspaper stand near the “enchanted crossroads” of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, where she discovered the world of literary magazines.
At 26, she moved to New York City where, for a time, she taught the philosophy of religion at Columbia University. At a cocktail party, she encountered William Phillips, one of Partisan Review’s legendary founding editors, and asked him how one might write for the journal. He replied, “All you have to do is ask.” “I’m asking,” she said.
Soon Ms. Sontag’s provocative essays on Albert Camus, Simone Weil, Jean-Luc Godard, Kenneth Anger, Jasper Johns and the Supremes began to spice Partisan Review’s pages. Ms. Sontag recoiled at what she regarded as the artificial boundaries separating one subject, or one art form, from another. For her, culture was a vast smorgasbord, a movable feast. The point, she often said, quoting Goethe, was “to know everything.” “So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche. … The main reason I read is that I enjoy it.”
Her quest was admired by such writers as Elizabeth Hardwick, a founder of the New York Review of Books, whose editors quickly embraced Ms. Sontag. In her introduction to “A Susan Sontag Reader” Hardwick called her “an extraordinarily beautiful, expansive and unique talent.”
Others were less impressed. John Simon accused Ms. Sontag of “a tendency to sprinkle complication into her writing” and of tossing off “high-sounding paradoxes without thinking through what, if anything, they mean.”
In 1976, at 43, Ms. Sontag discovered she had advanced cancer in her breast, lymphatic system and leg. She was told she had a one-in-four chance to live five years. After undergoing a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy, she was pronounced free of the disease. “My first reaction was terror and grief. But it’s not altogether a bad experience to know you’re going to die. The first thing is not to feel sorry for yourself.”
She learned as much as possible about the disease and later wrote “Illness as Metaphor,” an influential essay condemning the abuse of both tuberculosis and cancer as metaphors that transfer responsibility for sickness to the victims, who are made to believe they have brought suffering on themselves. Illness, she insisted, is fact, not fate. Years later, she would extend the argument in the book-length essay “AIDS and Its Metaphors.”
An early and passionate opponent of the Vietnam War, Ms. Sontag was both admired and reviled for her political convictions. In a 1967 Partisan Review symposium, she wrote that “America was founded on a genocide, on the unquestioned assumption of the right of white Europeans to exterminate a resident, technologically backward, colored population in order to take over the continent.”
Considering herself neither a journalist nor an activist, Ms. Sontag felt an obligation as “a citizen of the American empire” to accept an invitation to visit Hanoi at the height of the American bombing campaign in May 1968. A two-week visit resulted in a fervent essay seeking to understand Vietnamese resistance to American power.
Critics excoriated her for what they regarded as a naive sentimentalization of Vietnamese communism. Author Paul Hollander, for one, called Ms. Sontag a “political pilgrim,” bent on denigrating Western liberal pluralism in favor of venerating foreign revolutions.
Ever the iconoclast, Ms. Sontag had a knack for annoying both the right and the left. In 1982, in a meeting in Town Hall in New York to protest the suppression of the Solidarity union in Poland, she declared that communism was fascism with a human face. She was unsparing in her criticism of much of the left’s refusal to take seriously the exiles and dissidents and murdered victims of Stalin’s terror and the tyranny communism imposed wherever it had triumphed.
Ten years later, almost alone among American intellectuals, she called for vigorous Western — and American — intervention in the Balkans to halt the siege of Sarajevo and to stop Serbian aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo. Her solidarity with the citizens of Sarajevo prompted her to make more than a dozen trips to the besieged city.
Then in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ms. Sontag offered a bold and singular perspective in The New Yorker: “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” She added, “In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.”
She was pilloried by bloggers and pundits, who accused her of an anti-Americanism.
Ms. Sontag had never been so public as she became over the next three years, publishing steadily, speaking constantly and receiving numerous international awards, including Israel’s Jerusalem Prize, Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts and Germany’s Friedenspreis (Peace Prize).
In late March 2004, she was found to have a condition that, if left untreated, would be fatal: a pre-acute leukemia that doctors concluded was a consequence of chemotherapy she had undertaken to rid herself of a uterine sarcoma discovered five years before. Ms. Sontag cancelled an April appearance with Seattle Arts & Lectures for medical reasons. A little more than four months after the diagnosis, she received a partial bone marrow transplant.
In an interview for The Paris Review, in 1995, Ms. Sontag was asked what she thought was the purpose of literature.
“A novel worth reading,” she replied, “is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.”
She is survived by her son, David, and a sister, Judith Cohen.
Steve Wasserman is the editor of the Los Angeles Times book review section. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.