(1933 - 2004)

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December 28, 2004

Susan Sontag, Social Critic With Verve, Dies at 71


Susan Sontag, the novelist, essayist and critic whose impassioned advocacy of the avant-garde and equally impassioned political pronouncements made her one of the most lionized presences - and one of the most polarizing - in 20th-century letters, died yesterday morning in Manhattan. She was 71 and lived in Manhattan.

The cause was complications of acute myelogenous leukemia, her son, David Rieff, said. Ms. Sontag, who died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, had been ill with cancer intermittently for the last 30 years, a struggle that informed one of her most famous books, the critical study "Illness as Metaphor" (1978).

A highly visible public figure since the mid-1960's, Ms. Sontag wrote four novels, dozens of essays and a volume of short stories and was also an occasional filmmaker, playwright and theater director. For four decades her work was part of the contemporary canon, discussed everywhere from graduate seminars to the pages of popular magazines to the Hollywood movie "Bull Durham."


Photograph by Annie Leibovitz


Ms. Sontag's work made a radical break with traditional postwar criticism in America, gleefully blurring the boundaries between high and popular culture. She advocated an aesthetic approach to the study of culture, championing style over content. She was concerned, in short, with sensation, in both meanings of the term.

"The theme that runs through Susan's writing is this lifelong struggle to arrive at the proper balance between the moral and the aesthetic," Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and an old friend of Ms. Sontag's, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "There was something unusually vivid about her writing. That's why even if one disagrees with it - as I did frequently - it was unusually stimulating. She showed you things you hadn't seen before; she had a way of reopening questions."

Through four decades, public response to Ms. Sontag remained irreconcilably divided. She was described, variously, as explosive, anticlimactic, original, derivative, naïve, sophisticated, approachable, aloof, condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic, sincere, posturing, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing, profound, superficial, ardent, bloodless, dogmatic, ambivalent, lucid, inscrutable, visceral, reasoned, chilly, effusive, relevant, passé, ambivalent, tenacious, ecstatic, melancholic, humorous, humorless, deadpan, rhapsodic, cantankerous and clever. No one ever called her dull.

Ms. Sontag's best-known books, all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, include the novels "Death Kit" (1967), "The Volcano Lover" (1992) and "In America" (2000); the essay collections "Against Interpretation" (1966), "Styles of Radical Will" (1969) and "Under the Sign of Saturn" (1980); the critical studies "On Photography" (1977) and "AIDS and Its Metaphors" (1989); and the short-story collection "I, Etcetera" (1978). One of her most famous works, however, was not a book, but an essay, "Notes on Camp," published in 1964 and still widely read.

Her most recent book, published last year, was "Regarding the Pain of Others," a long essay on the imagery of war and disaster. One of her last published essays, "Regarding the Torture of Others," written in response to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib, appeared in the May 23, 2004, issue of The New York Times Magazine.

An Intellectual With Style

Unlike most serious intellectuals, Ms. Sontag was also a celebrity, partly because of her telegenic appearance, partly because of her outspoken statements. She was undoubtedly the only writer of her generation to win major literary prizes (among them a National Book Critics Circle Award, a National Book Award and a MacArthur Foundation genius grant) and to appear in films by Woody Allen and Andy Warhol; to be the subject of rapturous profiles in Rolling Stone and People magazines; and to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz for an Absolut Vodka ad. Through the decades her image - strong features, wide mouth, intense gaze and dark mane crowned in her middle years by a sweeping streak of white - became an instantly recognizable artifact of 20th-century popular culture.

Ms. Sontag was a master synthesist who tackled broad, difficult and elusive subjects: the nature of art, the nature of consciousness and, above all, the nature of the modern condition. Where many American critics before her had mined the past, Ms. Sontag became an evangelist of the new, training her eye on the culture unfolding around her.

For Ms. Sontag, culture encompassed a vast landscape. She wrote serious studies of popular art forms, like cinema and science fiction, that earlier critics disdained. She produced impassioned essays on the European writers and filmmakers she admired, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin and Jean-Luc Godard. She wrote experimental novels on dreams and the nature of consciousness. She published painstaking critical dissections of photography and dance; illness, politics and pornography; and, most famously, camp. Her work, with its emphasis on the outré, the jagged and the here and now, helped make the study of popular culture a respectable academic pursuit.

What united Ms. Sontag's output was a propulsive desire to define the forces that shape the modernist sensibility. And in so doing, she sought to explain what it meant to be human in the waning years of the 20th century.

To many critics, her work was bold and thrilling. Interviewed in The Times Magazine in 1992, the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes compared Ms. Sontag to the Renaissance humanist Erasmus. "Erasmus traveled with 32 volumes, which contained all the knowledge worth knowing," he said. "Susan Sontag carries it in her brain! I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded, with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate."

A Bevy of Detractors

Others were less enthralled. Some branded Ms. Sontag an unoriginal thinker, a popularizer with a gift for aphorism who could boil down difficult writers for mass consumption. (Irving Howe called her "a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from grandmother's patches.") Some regarded her tendency to revisit her earlier, often controversial positions as ambivalent. Some saw her scholarly approach to popular art forms as pretentious. (Ms. Sontag once remarked that she could appreciate Patti Smith because she had read Nietzsche.)

In person Ms. Sontag could be astringent, particularly if she felt she had been misunderstood. She grew irritated when reporters asked how many books she had in her apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan (15,000; no television set). But she could also be warm and girlish, speaking confidingly in her rich, low voice, her feet propped casually on the nearest coffee table. She laughed readily, and when she discussed something that engaged her passionately (and there were many things), her dark eyes often filled with tears.

Ms. Sontag had a knack - or perhaps a penchant - for getting into trouble. She could be provocative to the point of being inflammatory, as when she championed the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in a 1965 essay; she would revise her position some years later. She celebrated the communist societies of Cuba and North Vietnam; just as provocatively, she later denounced communism as a form of fascism. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she wrote in The New Yorker, "Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards." And in 2000, the publication of Ms. Sontag's final novel, "In America," raised accusations of plagiarism, charges she vehemently denied.

Ms. Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in Manhattan on Jan. 16, 1933, the daughter of Jack and Mildred Rosenblatt. Her father was a fur trader in China, and her mother joined him there for long periods, leaving Susan and her younger sister in the care of relatives. When Susan was 5, her father died in China of tuberculosis. Seeking relief for Susan's asthma, her mother moved the family to Tucson, spending the next several years there. In Arizona, Susan's mother met Capt. Nathan Sontag, a World War II veteran sent there to recuperate. The couple were married - Susan took her stepfather's name - and the family moved to Los Angeles.

For Susan, who graduated from high school before her 16th birthday, the philistinism of American culture was a torment she vowed early to escape. "My greatest dream," she later wrote, "was to grow up and come to New York and write for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people."

She would get her wish - Ms. Sontag burst onto the scene with "Notes on Camp," which was published in Partisan Review - but not before she earned a bachelor's and two master's degrees from prestigious American universities; studied at Oxford on a fellowship; and married, became a mother and divorced eight years later, all by the time she turned 26.

After graduating from high school, Ms. Sontag spent a semester at the University of California, Berkeley, before transferring to the University of Chicago, from which she received a bachelor's degree in 1951. At Chicago she wandered into a class taught by the sociologist Philip Rieff, then a 28-year-old instructor, who would write the celebrated study "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist" (Viking, 1959). He was, she would say, the first person with whom she could really talk; they were married 10 days later. Ms. Sontag was 17 and looked even younger, clad habitually in blue jeans, her black hair spilling down her back. Word swept around campus that Dr. Rieff had married a 14-year-old American Indian.

Moving with her husband to Boston, Ms. Sontag earned her master's degrees from Harvard, the first in English, in 1954, the second in philosophy the next year. She began work on a Ph.D., but did not complete her dissertation. In 1952 she and Dr. Rieff became the parents of a son. Ms. Sontag is survived by her son, David Rieff, who lives in Manhattan and was for many years her editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. (A journalist, he wrote "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West," published by Simon & Schuster in 1995.) Also surviving is her younger sister, Judith Cohen of Maui.

After further study at Oxford and in Paris, Ms. Sontag was divorced from Dr. Rieff in 1958. In early 1959 she arrived in New York with, as she later described it, "$70, two suitcases and a 7 year old." She worked as an editor at Commentary and juggled teaching jobs at City College, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia. She published her first essays, critical celebrations of modernists she admired, as well as her first novel, "The Benefactor" (1963), an exploration of consciousness and dreams.

Shaking Up the Establishment

With "Notes on Camp" Ms. Sontag fired a shot across the bow of the New York critical establishment, which included eminences like Lionel and Diana Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe. Interlaced with epigrams from Oscar Wilde, that essay illuminated a particular modern sensibility - one that had been largely the province of gay culture - which centered deliciously on artifice, exaggeration and the veneration of style.

"The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly on refinement," Ms. Sontag wrote. "The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion."

If that essay has today lost its capacity to shock, it is a reflection of how thoroughly Ms. Sontag did her job, serving as a guide to an underground aesthetic that was not then widely known.

"She found in camp an aesthetic that was very different from what the straight world had acknowledged up to that point, and she managed to make camp 'straight' in a way," Arthur C. Danto, the Johnsonian professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia and the art critic for The Nation, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "I think she prepared the ground for the pop revolution, which was in many ways essentially a gay revolution, through Warhol and others. She didn't make that art, but she brought it to consciousness. She gave people a vocabulary for talking about it and thinking about it."

The article made Ms. Sontag an international celebrity, showered with lavish, if unintentionally ridiculous, titles ("a literary pinup," "the dark lady of American letters," "the Natalie Wood of the U.S. avant-garde").

Championing Style Over Content

In 1966 Ms. Sontag published her first essay collection, "Against Interpretation." That book's title essay, in which she argued that art should be experienced viscerally rather than cerebrally, helped cement her reputation as a champion of style over content.

It was a position she could take to extremes. In the essay "On Style," published in the same volume, Ms. Sontag offended many readers by upholding the films of Leni Riefenstahl as masterworks of aesthetic form, with little regard for their content. Ms. Sontag would eventually reconsider her position in the 1974 essay "Fascinating Fascism."

Though she thought of herself as a novelist, it was through her essays that Ms. Sontag became known. As a result she was fated to write little else for the next quarter-century. She found the form an agony: a long essay took from nine months to a year to complete, often requiring 20 or more drafts.

"I've had thousands of pages for a 30-page essay," she said in a 1992 interview. " 'On Photography,' which is six essays, took five years. And I mean working every single day."

That book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1978, explored the role of the photographic image, and the act of picture-taking in contemporary culture. The crush of photographs, Ms. Sontag argued, has shaped our perceptions of the world, numbing us to depictions of suffering. She would soften that position when she revisited the issue in "Regarding the Pain of Others."

The Washington Post Book World called "On Photography" "a brilliant analysis," adding that it " merely describes a phenomenon we take as much for granted as water from the tap, and how that phenomenon has changed us - a remarkable enough achievement, when you think about it."

In the mid-1970's Ms. Sontag learned she had breast cancer. Doctors gave her a 10 percent chance of surviving for two years. She scoured the literature for a treatment that might save her, underwent a mastectomy and persuaded her doctors to give her a two-and-a-half-year course of radiation.

Out of her experience came "Illness as Metaphor," which examined the cultural mythologizing of disease (tuberculosis as the illness of 19th-century romantics, cancer a modern-day scourge). Although it did not discuss her illness explicitly, it condemned the often militaristic language around illness ("battling" disease, the "war" on cancer) that Ms. Sontag felt simultaneously marginalized the sick and held them responsible for their condition..

In "AIDS and Its Metaphors" Ms. Sontag discussed the social implications of the disease, which she viewed as a "cultural plague" that had replaced cancer as the modern bearer of stigma. She would return to the subject of AIDS in her acclaimed short story "The Way We Live Now," originally published in The New Yorker and included in "The Best American Short Stories of the Century" (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

Although Ms. Sontag was strongly identified with the American left during the Vietnam era, in later years her politics were harder to classify. In the essay "Trip to Hanoi," which appears in "Styles of Radical Will," she wrote glowingly of a visit to North Vietnam. But in 1982 she delivered a stinging blow to progressives in a speech at Town Hall in Manhattan. There, at a rally in support of the Solidarity movement in Poland, she denounced European communism as "fascism with a human face."

In 1992, weary of essays, Ms. Sontag published "The Volcano Lover," her first novel in 25 years. Though very much a novel of ideas - it explored, among other things, notions of aesthetics and the psychology of obsessive collecting - the book was also a big, old-fashioned historical romance. It told the story of Sir William Hamilton, the 18th-century British envoy to the court of Naples; his wife, Emma ("that Hamilton woman"); and her lover, Lord Nelson, the naval hero. The book spent two months on The New York Times best-seller list.

Reviewing the novel in The Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote: "One thing that makes 'The Volcano Lover' such a delight to read is the way it throws off ideas and intellectual sparks, like a Roman candle or Catherine wheel blazing in the night. Miniature versions of 'Don Giovanni' and 'Tosca' lie embedded, like jewels, in the main narrative; and we are given as well some charmingly acute cameos of such historical figures as Goethe and the King and Queen of Naples."

Ms. Sontag's final novel, "In America," was loosely based on the life of the 19th-century Polish actress Helena Modjeska, who immigrated to California to start a utopian community. Though "In America" received a National Book Award, critical reception was mixed. Then accusations of plagiarism surfaced. As The Times reported in May 2000, a reader identified at least a dozen passages as being similar to those in four other books about the real Modjeska, including Modjeska's memoirs. Except for a brief preface expressing a general debt to "books and articles by and on Modjeska," Ms. Sontag did not specifically acknowledge her sources.

Interviewed for The Times article, Ms. Sontag defended her method. "All of us who deal with real characters in history transcribe and adopt original sources in the original domain," she said. "I've used these sources and I've completely transformed them. I have these books. I've looked at these books. There's a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions."

Ms. Sontag's other work includes the play "Alice in Bed" (1993); "A Susan Sontag Reader" (1982), with an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick; and four films, including "Duet for Cannibals" (1969) and "Brother Carl" (1971). She also edited works by Barthes, Antonin Artaud, Danilo Kis and other writers.

Ms. Sontag was the subject of an unauthorized biography by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, "Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon" (Norton, 2000), and of several critical studies, including "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," by Craig Seligman (Counterpoint/Perseus, 2004). She was the president of the PEN American Center from 1987 to 1989.

In a 1992 interview with The Times Magazine, Ms. Sontag described the creative force that animated "The Volcano Lover," putting her finger on the sensibility that would inform all her work: "I don't want to express alienation. It isn't what I feel. I'm interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says, be serious, be passionate, wake up."


December 29, 2004


A Rigorous Intellectual Dressed in Glamour


Susan Sontag, who died yesterday at 71, was one of the few intellectuals with whom Americans have ever been on a first-name basis. It wasn't intimacy that gave her this status; it was that like Marilyn and like Judy, she was so much a star that she didn't need a surname. In certain circles, at least, she was just Susan, even to people who had never met her but who would nevertheless talk knowledgeably and intimately about her latest piece in The New York Review of Books, her position on Sarajevo, her verdict on the new W. G. Sebald book. She brought to the world of ideas not just an Olympian rigor but a glamour and sexiness it had seldom seen before.

Part of the appeal was her own glamour - the black outfits, the sultry voice, the trademark white stripe parting her long dark hair. The other part was the dazzle of her intelligence and the range of her knowledge; she had read everyone, especially all those forbidding Europeans - Artaud, Benjamin, Canetti, Barthes, Baudrillard, Gombrowicz, Walser and the rest - who loomed off on what was for many of us the far and unapproachable horizon.

Nor was she shy about letting you know how much she had read (and, by implication, how much you hadn't), or about decreeing the correct opinion to be held on each of the many subjects she turned her mind to. That was part of the appeal, too: her seriousness and her conviction, even if it was sometimes a little crazy-making. Consistency was not something Ms. Sontag worried about overly much because she believed that the proper life of the mind was one of re-examination and re-invention.

Ms. Sontag could be a divisive figure, and she was far from infallible, as when she embraced revolutionary communism after traveling to Hanoi in 1968 and later declared the United States to be a "doomed country ... founded on a genocide." But what her opponents sometimes failed to credit was her willingness to change her mind; by the 80's she was denouncing communism for its human-rights abuses, and by the 90's she had extended her critique to include the left in general, for its failure to encourage intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda. She had found herself "moved to support things which I did not think would be necessary to support at all in the past," she said in a rueful interview, adding, "Like seriousness, for instance."

Not that she was ever unserious for very long. There was about most of her work a European sobriety and high-mindedness and an emphasis on the moral, rather than sensual, pleasures of art and the imagination. Her reputation rests on her nonfiction - especially the essays in "Against Interpretation" and "Styles of Radical Will" and the critical studies "On Photography" and "Illness as Metaphor" - while the 1967 novel "Death Kit," written to a highbrow formula of dissociation, now seems all but unreadable.

For a while Ms. Sontag took the French position that in the right hands criticism was an even higher art form than imaginative literature, but in the 80's she announced that she was devoting herself to fiction. She wrote the indelible short story "The Way We Live Now," one of the most affecting fictional evocations of the AIDS era, and in 1992 she published a novel, "The Volcano Lover," that had all the earmarks of the kind of novel she had once made fun of. It was historical and it was a romance, about the love affair of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton. Being a Sontag production, it was of course brainy and stuffed with fact-laden research, but as many critics pointed out, there was also a lightness and even - who would have guessed? - an old-fashioned wish to entertain. Much the same was true of her last novel, "In America," which came out in 2000, about a Polish actress who comes to the United States at the end of the 19th century.

Ms. Sontag was too much a critic and essayist to stick to her resolve; her last book, "Regarding the Pain of Others" (2003), was nonfiction, an outspoken tract on how we picture suffering. Last May she expanded on those ideas for an article in The New York Times Magazine about the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. This piece was classic, provocative Sontag. But those late novels, playful and theatrical, are a reminder that behind that formidable, opinionated and immensely learned persona there was another Sontag, warmer and more vulnerable, whom we got to see only in glimpses.



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Thinking Woman

Susan Sontag Was An Irresistible Force Among Intellectuals

By Henry Allen

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page C01

I first saw Susan Sontag in a New York bodega near the corner of 103rd Street and Broadway. This was in 1969. My God, I thought, that's Susan Sontag, the most public of our public intellectuals -- though perhaps not the most intellectual of them, if you listened to her critics.

And there she was, studying the ice cream case with a calm, judgmental ferocity -- a tall woman with long, thick hair. She looked strong, for an intellectual, strong and big-chinned to the point of a slight mannishness that I did not hold against her -- androgyny being a sort of psychological beauty spot that can heighten the allure of the woman possessing it. I believe she wore a very long scarf that signaled her citizenship in bohemia. She was almost, but not quite, what I was shopping for in a woman.

I thought of speaking to her, of saying something like: "What are you doing in this grungy neighborhood when you're supposed to be down in the Village sipping wine beneath someone's groaning bookshelves; with Cream on the turntable, and blended scents of cat pee, pipe smoke and marijuana in the air; and you talking about the gay-driven fashion of facetiousness you described in the essay that made you famous: "Notes on Camp"? She extracted a few pints of Haagen-Dazs, I think it was, from the cooler. Good taste in ice cream.

I wanted to ask her if it was true she didn't own a television. I wanted to ask her about her writing, but I'd read so little of it. I wanted to ask her if she was as stoned as I was. I didn't ask her anything. She paid for her ice cream (Oh if I could only remember the flavors! Rum raisin? She seemed like a secondary-flavor type who would eschew the primary chocolate, strawberry and vanilla -- with a slight chance that she would eat only vanilla, for its minimalist authenticity.) I watched her out the door and sighed to myself: "There it is: my Susan Sontag moment."

Why did I care so much? Would I have gotten as worked up if I'd shared a bodega with Hannah Arendt or Alfred Kazin?

Sontag, who died Tuesday at the age of 71, had the gift of fame, which is to say she possessed charisma, which may be why she ended up being called overrated, the fate of charismatic people. I had read more about her than by her.

An Internet biography site quotes the cranky Hilton Kramer in the Atlantic Monthly: "She was admired not only for what she said but for the pain, shock, and disarray she caused in saying it. Sontag thus succeeded in doing something that is given to very few critics to achieve. She made criticism a medium of intellectual scandal, and this won her instant celebrity in the world where ideas are absorbed into fashions and fashions combine to create a new cultural atmosphere."

Also quoted is Commentary essayist Alicia Ostriker, saying that Sontag was "distinguished less by a decided or passionate point of view -- than by an eagerness to explore anything new." She concluded: "Sensitive people are a dime a dozen. The rarer gift Miss Sontag has to offer is brains."

Sontag wrote essays about Sartre and novels about the nature of consciousness. She had a taste for the crepuscular haunts of the psyche. After a struggle with breast cancer she wrote one of her most talked-about books, "Illness as Metaphor," about how we make far-fetched meaning out of illness and blame people for their diseases. Another was "On Photography," the most morbid of our art forms. Critic Robert Hughes is quoted as saying: "It is hard to imagine any photographer agreeing point for point with Sontag's polemic. But it is a brilliant, irritating performance, and it opens window after window on one of the great faits accomplis of our culture. Not many photographers are worth a thousand of her words."

Denis Donoghue said in the New York Times Book Review: "Her mind is powerful rather than subtle; it is impatient with nuances that ask to be heard, with minute discriminations that, if entertained, would impede the march of her argument."

She won prizes, wandered into moviemaking and playwriting, and wrote about science fiction and pornography. Also, she was profiled in Rolling Stone and People magazines, she posed for an ad for Absolut vodka and she appeared in films by Andy Warhol and Woody Allen. I kept reading about her changes of mind, changes made with a blitheness concealed by her conspicuous gravitas: changes on communism (good, bad), Hitler's staff photographer, Leni Riefenstahl (good, bad).

In a speech at Town Hall in 1982, delivered to an audience of New York intellectuals, she had the deftness to insert the knife between their panting, left-leaning ribs and then twist it with: "Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader's Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?"

Oh, the broadsides against her! And the counter-broadsides!

In my mind, at least, she metamorphosed from intellectual flavor-of-the-month to anti-Vietnam war provocateur to a template for the life of the mind. (I read somewhere recently that she had acquired a television but never watched it.) Gradually, she calcified into an icon, a sort of walking statue who didn't so much go to parties as appear at them. As for me, I gradually had gotten into the criticism game, and in 1998, I found myself at the 35th anniversary party of the New York Review of Books, in the atrium of the Frick mansion in Manhattan.

I hoped -- I knew -- she'd be there.

She was -- with a magnificent stripe of white through her still-long hair. (I read that she later switched to a Gertrude Stein crew cut.) She swanned through the crowd of intellectual superstars, projecting what only Queen Elizabeth II had conveyed before to me: "Do not speak to me unless I speak to you first." I obeyed. Everybody seemed to obey. I'm not sure I saw her talk with anyone, though she must have. In any case, I saw that no one has ever or will ever do a better job of being Susan Sontag. Maybe she didn't deserve all the laurels that came with that high station, but she was, in fact, Susan Sontag, an epitome of her age, what cultural historians call a "modal personality," a woman who thought hard and wrote even harder.

I wanted to ask her, "You probably don't remember, but in 1969 you were buying ice cream in a bodega at 103rd and Broadw. . . " I forbore. There was nothing that I wanted to talk to her about, and there hadn't been two decades before. I just wanted her to be Susan Sontag. Maybe I wanted her to want to talk to me, but I realized with a wistful realism that there was no reason she would. There we were, ships that once passed in the fluorescent night of a bodega.

Maybe if I'd just handed her a pint of Haagen-Dazs rum raisin, and walked away. Maybe vanilla.



Cultural Author, Activist Was a Fearless Thinker

By Adam Bernstein

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page A01

Susan Sontag, 71, the American intellectual who engaged and enraged equally with her insights into high and low culture, died yesterday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She had leukemia.

Philosophy, photography, pornography -- Sontag explored them all with a defiant gusto, informed by an impressive, if lofty, ability to transcend cultural barriers with a barrage of literary and cultural references.

She was not averse to self-promotion and indicated that she was one of the few writers able to survive as an essayist. Her books seldom went out of print and were translated into more than 25 languages. She spoke five.

Reading by age 3, having tea and cookies with author and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann at 14 and graduating from college at 18, she went on to a long career as a provocateur through dozens of novels and nonfiction works. Cumulatively, they placed her among the foremost thinkers about the meaning of art, politics, war, silence and humanity.

She wrote movingly but unsentimentally about her own experiences with cancer -- of the breast at age 43 and the uterus decades later -- and how disease is portrayed in popular culture. Her essay "Illness as Metaphor" (1978) is considered her classic exploration of the subject.

Tall, raven-haired with a streak of white, with bold dark eyes and a wry smile, Sontag was a recognizable figure in the mainstream media firmament through lectures and televised debates. She shoved herself to the forefront of contemporaneous debate with her activism against the Vietnam War -- including a trip to Hanoi -- and later denunciations of Communism as stifling the work of intellectuals. Along the way, she raised her voice against authoritarian -- and sometimes democratic -- leaders around the world.

In the early 1990s, she staged Samuel Beckett's existential masterpiece "Waiting for Godot" in Sarajevo amid bombing and sniper fire.

Sontag won the National Book Award for fiction in 2000 for "In America," about a 19th-century Polish actress who moves to California to start a new life. The author also received a MacArthur "genius" grant, among other honors.

Much of her early distinction arose in the 1960s with her advocacy of European artists and thinkers, including philosophers Simone Weil and Walter Benjamin and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Occasionally, she caused palpitations among the fervently patriotic for her less-nuanced commentary, to the effect that "America is founded on genocide" and "the quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth."

More recently, she wrote in the New Yorker about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, denouncing the use of the word "cowardly" to describe the attackers.

"In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of the . . . slaughter, they were not cowards," she wrote.

Those declarations were easy fodder for those ready to scorn her as anti-American or a liberal scourge.

Time magazine made her a pop celebrity in 1964 when it noted her Partisan Review essay, "Notes On 'Camp,' " in which she plunged into the world of urban and mostly homosexual style. Mentioning the ballet "Swan Lake" along with the fashion accouterment of feather boas, she wrote that camp style is "serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. . . . The ultimate camp statement: it's good because it's awful."

But her work appeared largely in literary journals, including the New York Review of Books. She was elevated to near-sainthood by her admirers, who considered her an unstoppable literary force and crystalline thinker.

Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Susan Walker described Sontag's career as "marked by a seriousness of pursuit and a relentless intelligence that analyzes modern culture on almost every possible level: artistic, philosophical, literary, political, and moral."

But she also was lampooned for the headiness of her writing. In a backhanded tribute to her influence in popular culture, the baseball catcher played by Kevin Costner in the 1988 film "Bull Durham" calls her handful of novels "self-indulgent, overrated crap."

Sontag's own motivations were simple, she said: to "know everything." She had a lusty devotion to reading that she likened to the pleasure others get from watching television. "So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I've read Nietzsche," she told Rolling Stone magazine. "The main reason I read is that I enjoy it."

Susan Rosenblatt was born Jan. 16, 1933, in New York, the older daughter of a traveling fur trader and an alcoholic teacher. She was raised in Tucson and Los Angeles and was largely left alone as a young girl, she later told an interviewer. Raised by a nanny in her parents' absences, she was 5 when her mother came back from China alone. Her father had died of tuberculosis, and her mother revealed the truth months later only after the girl pressed for details about his return. She took the surname Sontag from her stepfather.

Sontag described a girlhood bereft of playmates. Instead, she devoured Djuna Barnes, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Jack London. "I got through my childhood," she told the Paris Review, "in a delirium of literary exaltations."

She met Thomas Mann after reading the German author's 1924 novel "The Magic Mountain," set in a European sanitarium. On a second read, she spoke the words aloud and was so enthused about the book that she conspired with a friend to meet the author, then living in Los Angeles in exile during the Nazi era.

"He seemed to find it perfectly normal that two local high school students should know who Nietzsche and [composer Arnold] Schoenberg were," she wrote in a New Yorker account of the visit.

Her stepfather warned her that being so interested in books would make her uninteresting to men. "I just couldn't stop laughing," she once said. "I thought, 'Oh gosh, this guy's a perfect jerk.' "

Before graduating from the University of Chicago in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, she married Philip Rieff, a sociologist 10 years her senior whom she would divorce in 1959. They had a son, David Rieff of New York, who survives, along with Sontag's sister.

After Chicago, Sontag received master's degrees in English and philosophy from Harvard University and did all but her dissertation for a doctorate in philosophy.

Her first book, "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist" (1959), was completed in collaboration with her husband. They agreed, however, to put only his name on the title page.

Still, she described this time as liberating. She was 26, divorced and ready to experience what she described as a delayed adolescence filled with dance lessons, discussions with politically motivated young people and a desire to make a literary mark.

She taught religion at Columbia University before completing her first novel, "The Benefactors" (1963), the study of a dreamy rogue named Hippolyte who soon cannot tell reality from his own imagination. It impressed reviewers, and she began cornering magazine editors, sometimes at cocktail parties, about publishing her work.

Her analysis, for the Nation magazine, of Jack Smith's erotically flamboyant film "Flaming Creatures" (1963) brought her attention as an enthusiastic filmwatcher but caustic observer of American morality, which she saw as preventing a full-blown appreciation of the film's "aesthetic vision."

Her early essays, including "Notes on 'Camp,' " were collected in "Against Interpretation" (1966), her first major nonfiction book. She argued against critics who hunted for heady significance in a work of art at the expense of its sensual impact.

"In most modern instances," she wrote, "interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art."

As a radical and incisive thinker, she protested and wrote against the Vietnam War, visiting Hanoi to understand the motivations of the Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. military.

She began examining the presentation of disease in popular culture after her diagnosis of cancer in her breast, lymphatic system and leg and was given a 20 percent chance of survival. She underwent a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy that cured her of the cancer.

In "Illness as Metaphor" and her book "AIDS and Its Metaphors" (1989), as well as countless interviewers, she condemned the idea of illness as a curse or plague, somehow a metaphor for social, cultural or moral decay. Illness is simply fact, she said.

Despite other health conditions, she remained productive, producing a best-selling novel, "The Volcano Lover" (1992), about Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton.

She spent much of her life in transit, living in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere while maintaining a home in what she considered the only livable spot in the United States -- New York. "And what I like about Manhattan is that it's full of foreigners," she said.

A restless voyager into the 1990s, she staged "Waiting for Godot" in Sarajevo. Even those who best understood her questioned her sanity to thrust herself into a war zone for the sake of art. "I didn't think I was invulnerable, because I had a couple of very close calls, and I don't think I'm a thrill-seeker," she said. "I just thought it's okay to take risks, and if ever I get to the point when I don't, then take me to the glue factory."


March 11, 2007


September Song





Essays and Speeches.

By Susan Sontag. Edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump.

235 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.


Writing to Hannah Arendt in December 1967, Mary McCarthy reported Susan Sontag’s arrest in an antiwar demonstration, and then abruptly asked: “And what about her? When I last watched her with you at the Lowells, it was clear that she was going to seek to conquer you. Or that she had fallen in love with you — the same thing. Anyway, did she?”

Arendt’s response is not known. But it is not hard to see why the young Sontag chose the German-Jewish philosopher as one of her “models of the serious.” As a precocious reader in Arizona and California, Sontag grew up on the high idea of European literature and thought upheld by The Partisan Review, the primary magazine of New York liberal intellectuals in the 1940s and ’50s. After moving to New York in the early 1960s, Sontag decided that the liberal imagination needed to loosen up a bit. Joining in the emerging counterculture, she called for an “erotics of art” and celebrated the “defiantly pluralistic” new sensibility “dedicated both to an excruciating seriousness and to fun and wit and nostalgia.” She argued for an understanding of the “revolutionary implications of sexuality in contemporary society.”

In later years she would come to refine and even abandon some of these views. “Recreational, risk-free sexuality,” she declared sternly in “AIDS and Its Metaphors” (1989), “is an inevitable reinvention of the culture of capitalism.” In a 1995 afterword to “Against Interpretation,” her first collection of essays, she lamented that the “triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote — indeed, impose — the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating.”

However, Sontag never ceased to seek her cultural heroes in Europe. Hannah Arendt, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany and analyst of totalitarianism, clearly embodied the virtues “of the European suffering, of European intellectual courage, of European vigor, of European overcomplexity” as glamorously as those European writers — Camus, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, E. M. Cioran, Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald — whom Sontag wrote about in tones of elegiac piety.

The nostalgia for a European nobility of mind that suffused Sontag’s aesthetic and intellectual quests was accompanied by an often scornful suspicion of what she called in one of her last speeches “the strenuous mercantilist biases of American culture.” “At the Same Time,” a posthumous collection of her speeches and essays, shows how her feeling for a vanished Europe deepened even as she grew more distrustful of an America she saw in the grip of a “dangerous, lobotomizing notion of endless war.” Mostly written during the Bush administration, they reveal a darkening vision of America as well as the rest of the contemporary world. Writing about Victor Serge — one of the European writers praised here along with Halldor Laxness, Leonid Tsypkin and Anna Banti — Sontag speaks fondly of “an era that seems very remote today in its introspective energies and passionate intellectual quests and code of self-sacrifice and immense hope.” Reading the private correspondence of Rilke, Pasternak and Tsvetayeva, she confesses that “their ardors and their tenacities feel like raft, beacon, beach.”

Feeling herself marooned by “American conformism, self-righteousness, and moralism,” Sontag responded with startling vehemence to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in a short, much-reviled piece in The New Yorker (reprinted in “At the Same Time”). Sontag, who died in December 2004, did not witness the true scale of the political and intellectual failure that led to the disaster in Iraq — what today makes her denunciation of the “sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric” of government officials and the media seem cautionary rather than callous. Nevertheless, there was enough in the post-9/11 political climate to disturb and alarm her, and to provoke her into redefining and restating her views on literature.

While praising Victor Serge, Nadine Gordimer and Fernando Pessoa in her speeches, she resurrected an old-fashioned idea of literature as protest. “A great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.”

This quasi-Marxist view of the writer’s responsibility could not seem further from Sontag’s youthful enthusiasm for the pleasure principle over moral and political interpretation. But then her vision of “reality redeemed, recovered, transcended by consciousness; a vision of the life of the mind as a life of desire, of full intelligence and pleasure,” a vision that Sontag once defined as particularly French, always coexisted in her with the traditions that she claimed were “so different”: “the traditions of high moral seriousness of German and Russian literature.”

Sontag asserted a uniquely American privilege by embracing multiple European traditions; and she used a word prone to much abuse — “spiritual” — often and remarkably precisely to make a higher consciousness appear imperative for political as well as artistic engagements with the world. Indeed, no secular intellectual in our time rescued “spirituality” more effectively from its usual vendors, the pious, the hypocritical and the deluded.

Defining culture as a “dialectic” and great artists as “repositories of the dialectic of their times,” Lionel Trilling once claimed that the notable writers of 19th-century America could balance “both the yes and no of the culture, and by that token they were prophetic of the future.” Sontag’s ardent inconsistencies and contradictions over the years now make her seem a part of this venerable American tradition. Living through the countercultural ’60s, and the subsequent ascendancy of conservative and neoconservative politics, she felt compelled to respond, even at the risk of self-contradiction, to what she saw as particular aesthetic and political imperatives within her society.

Acutely aware of the ideologically motivated crimes Europeans had committed upon themselves and others in the 20th century, Sontag feared “another century of extremes, of horrors.” Economic and cultural globalization, generally proposed as an antidote to violence and terrorism, did not impress her much. “I live,” she wrote after a trip to Vietnam in 1968, “in an unethical society that coarsens the sensibilities and thwarts the capacities for goodness of most people.” In her last speeches Sontag offered a similarly bleak view of the American-style consumer society that spreads itself across the globe, destroying the past, and enclosing all horizons within a selfish materialism. “We live in a culture committed to unifying greeds,” with “everyone on the planet feeding at the same trough of standardized entertainment and fantasies of eros and violence.” She grew nostalgic for the iconoclastic spirit of the 1960s: “How one wishes that some of its boldness, its optimism, its disdain for commerce had survived.” In her later years she warned repeatedly of the dangers that the global culture of individual gratification posed to thinkers and artists. “There is no culture ... without a standard of altruism, of regard for others.”

The amplified note of despair and loss in “At the Same Time” makes Sontag resemble one of the European “last” intellectuals she often wrote about, “that Saturnine hero of modern culture” standing alone in the ruins of history. This anguish may seem exaggerated, part of her frequently noted self-regard. But, in her later weariness with modern civilization, Sontag fulfilled a particularly American destiny. Gertrude Stein once claimed that America was the oldest country in the world, since it was the “mother of the 20th-century civilization.” Sontag, who had a tragic sense of history rarely found among her peers, never failed to absorb the lessons of her country’s old age and accumulated experience of modernity. It is why the melancholy and occasional bitter wisdom of her last writings appear to be of a mature and passionately engaged American rather than of a marginal and jaded European sensibility — one that has not only learned from the past but, by grappling vigorously with the present, can also divine, if gloomily, the future.


Reed other reviews, here                  


29 de Dezembro de 2004



“Não tinha amarras, tinha talento puro”

“Susan Sontag é uma das pessoas que marcaram a cultura nos últimos 50 anos. Escreveu sempre no seu tempo. Foi alguém que pensou o mundo e fez uma ponte entre a arte e a cultura. Era muito indisciplinada, não tinha amarras, tinha talento puro. O livro que escreveu sobre a fotografia é uma das referências da minha vida. É um livro sobre o que é que as fotos são no papel”.

JOÃO MÁRIO GRILO, Professor Universitário e realizador de cinema


“Uma mulher extremamente cerebral”

“Susan Sontag era uma mulher extremamente cerebral, que publicou um livro de ensaios de importância fundamental, intitulado “Contra a interpretação”, que era uma tentativa de evitar o excesso de teorias, as quais ela conhecia admiravelmente. Conheci-a em Estrasburgo e pareceu-me ser uma mulher muito inteligente e muito rigorosa no modo como concebia a sua intervenção intelectual.”



“Abordou a filosofia como algo que deve ser vivido e pensado”

“Ela tirou a filosofia da academia e divulgou o pensamento para todos. Pensou as várias vertentes da arte e abordou muito as questões sociais, tendo estudado também a doença como algo que nos faz pensar na nossa condição existencial. É uma mulher que tira a filosofia de um certo altar, de um patamar elitista, e aborda-a como algo que deve ser vivido e pensado”.

HELENA VASCONCELOS, Crítica Literária e Directora da Revista “Storm”


“Referência absoluta do pensamento contemporâneo”

“Susan Sontag é uma referência absoluta do pensamento contemporâneo, não do ponto de vista apenas intelectual mas do ponto de vista do compromisso moral e estético, que para ela era inseparável do seu trabalho. Tem ensaios memoráveis sobre fotografia, literatura e sida. É uma excelente ficcionista, embora, quanto a mim, os seus romances e novelas não o sejam tão indispensáveis quanto os seus ensaios. “

TEREZA COELHO, Crítica Literária


29 de Dezembro de 2004



Uma enganadora promessa de eternidade

A morte de Susan Sontag traz-me de golpe a cor intensa da vibração da sua muita vida que vi cintilar a meu lado durante um mês, quando percorremos o vermelho pó das estradas do México, nas semanas que se seguiram ao congresso feminista para o qual éramos convidadas. Pelo meio do riso, da discussão alegre que ela enchia com inteligência acutilante, da turbulência que logo aconteceu entre as duas, fomos desdobrando cidades e desfolhando o ar repleto de odores. Subimos as pirâmides do Sol e da Lua, entrámos no caos em que sempre se torna a árida descoberta das ruínas, percorremos a pacificação de museus e igrejas barrocas. Calámo-nos perante a beleza e foram muitos os silêncios e as palavras que somámos esgarçando-as, na descoberta de uma teia/trama de ideias e de amizade. Fez o destino com que nos fôssemos encontrando ao longo dos anos com a mesma alegria e envolvimento; retomando-a ainda através da leitura dos seus livros, dores e entrevistas, numa enganadora promessa de eternidade. Por isso me sinto cair tão irremediavelmente através da sua morte.

Maria Teresa Horta



A má consciência liberal dos EUA de George W. Bush

Susan Sontag. A polémica intelectual e activista norte-americana morreu, na manhã de ontem, aos 71 anos, num hospital de Nova Iorque. A escritora sofria de leucemia e encontrava-se internada já há algum tempo num instituto de oncologia

elisabete frança

Intelectual liberal típica, com verniz europeu e abertura cosmopolita, polémica, desassombrada, corajosa, Susan Sontag, a mais europeia das escritoras dos EUA, dis- tinguida com grandes prémios, do National Book Award (para o romance Na América) ao espanhol Príncipe das Astúrias (2003, pelo conjunto da obra), morreu ontem de manhã em Nova Iorque, no Memorial Sloan Kettering, uma unidade oncológica. A causa seria leucemia. A ensaísta de A Doença como Metáfora (1978), livro centrado no cancro e na tuberculose e seguido por A Sida e as Suas Metáforas (1988), foi derrotada pelo cancro que combateu nas últimas três décadas e já a atacara por duas vezes.

causas de luta. Lutadora por várias causas, aquela foi, decerto, a que mereceu mais íntimo e prolongado investimento à cidadã que um dia confessou a sua frustração por não ter sido médica, como desejara ser, quando «fosse grande», a menina nascida em Nova Iorque a 28 de Janeiro de 1933, órfã aos cinco anos de pai levado pela tuberculose e cuja mãe se casaria com o capitão Nathan Sontag, que a perfilhou. Após infância e adolescência no Arizona e na Califórnia, Susan Sontag frequentou as universidades de Berkeley e de Chicago até 1951, e a de Harvard, onde estudou filosofia (1955-57), tal como na Universidade de Paris (1957-58), na mesma década em que se casou com o sociólogo Philip Rieff e dele se divorciou.

Em 1964, o livro Notes on Camp, um estudo da estética homossexual, que introduziu o conceito do «tão mau que é bom» aplicado à cultura popular, teve um enorme impacto e impôs Sontag no meio literário e intelectual americano.

Amadora de homens e de mulheres, defendeu a liberdade de escolha sexual com o desassombro que pôs na defesa de outras causas, mormente a da paz. A romancista e ensaísta, que se dedicou também ao cinema (rodou quatro filmes) e ao teatro, montou, nomeadamente, uma peça no teatro de operações de Sarajevo, há uma década, durante a Guerra da Bósnia, onde participou durante anos como voluntária na retaguarda e fez amizades.

Da Guerra do Vietname à do Iraque, esteve na primeira linha de oposição às intervenções dos EUA, o que lhe valeu críticas de meio país. O mesmo se verificaria face à sua tomada de posição na sequência da tragédia do 11 de Setembro de 2001 ainda o mês não acabara nem a maioria recuperara do susto provocado pelos atentados terroristas, já Sontag, na revista The New Yorker, afirmava que o Governo dos EUA, de certa forma, seria responsável pelos ataques, enquanto autoproclamada superpotência do mundo. E denunciou uma campanha para infantilizar o público, concluindo «Vamos sofrer juntos, mas não fiquemos juntos a deixar-nos idiotizar.»


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