Sontag in our times

Internationally renowned author, intellectual and activist Susan Sontag left a strong impression on the modern world

INTELLECT AT LARGE Susan Sontag will be remembered as a fearless thinker whose pronouncements on everything from sex to photography to language had a formative impact on not one, but four, generations.

INTELLECT AT LARGE Susan Sontag will be remembered as a fearless thinker whose pronouncements on everything from sex to photography to language had a formative impact on not one, but four, generations.

In many ways Susan Sontag embodied our own time, our language and our concerns.

Her ideas sparked heavy admiration and equally heavy disagreement—she was a marker in our lives, and now, suddenly at the age of 71, she is gone, leaving a whistling empty space. Her myriad accomplishments have a kaleidoscopic quality—there are too many prisms, too many endeavors to fit into one brief piece; the real appraisal of her 17 books, her films and role as human-rights activist will come later.

But right now there is a numbed shocked sense of loss in New York. It was clear when she wasn’t able to come to the memorial for her old friend and publisher Roger Strauss that she was losing her long battle with cancer. Still, she seemed too strong to die—she had faced down cancer so many times, she would pull through again. After all, she had accomplished the unimaginable—she had become a national and international celebrity, a feat not thought possible in the United States for a public intellectual, and definitely not for a woman.

Norman Mailer’s meteoric fame started in a more traditional Hemingway manner: He had written the great American war novel and then kept on going. Saul Bellow and more recently Philip Roth made their reputation as literary novelists—both of them have preferred staying out of the public eye. Sontag was something else.

She hit the New York literary scene in the best of times, the dazzling early 1960s. The vibrant New York literary culture then was in a perfect place to receive this dramatic tall American girl with a mane of black hair and shiny prune-colored eyes back from Paris with a small son, David Rieff, never enough money, lots of pluck and a French aesthetic braided to University of Chicago graduate philosophy courses. She seemed to be a sort of combination of Hannah Arendt (her hero) and Jean-Luc Godard.

She met William Phillips, the editor of the Partisan Review, at a party and point-blank asked him how she could get an article published in PR. Phillips said, “Send it to me.” She did, and soon her 1964 “Notes on Camp” was causing a sensation and breathing new life into the publication.

At the same time she gave the readers of the predictably left-wing and also musty The Nation a sudden shock with her daring, for the times, outing of the underground film Scorpio Rising. The film announced straight-out its homosexual aesthetic, with none of the coded literary concealment that had been de rigueur during the 1950s, when the plays of Tennessee Williams encoded homosexuality in a presumed hetero context.

Despite the strong New York and California (in California it was the Beats) literary culture of the early ‘60s, what was happening almost unnoticed was that, while the country was teetering on a cultural revolution and things were changing fast, the language of the “hot literary center” was old-fashioned and stale, the avant-garde had become the rear garde—it wasn’t ushering in the new.

The literary early ‘60s is now remembered as a golden publishing time. And so it was. But the social critics that published in PR, Commentary, The Nation and Dissent were still behind a decade; they didn’t sense the cultural tidal wave that was coming in this country and were also provincial about Europe. Sontag was to steer PR away from its Trotsky-versus-Stalin mania left over from the ‘30s; she gave a French touch to the newly founded New York Review of Books, which had a tendency to be too academic British, and became one of the writers who by contrast at least made The New Yorker somewhat aware that it had gotten too mired in jokes and short fiction about the suburbs.

Her newness consisted of her insistence on examining the aesthetics of the aesthetic; she gave us a new vocabulary. In the beginning her prose was a bit lumpy, sort of in the style of her Germanic role model Hannah Arendt; in time her writing style lightened up, accommodating with greater grace her galloping intellect.

And Sontag’s ideas sparkled. One could no longer discuss photography, illness and aesthetics without using her work as a referent. On Photography was one of the first books to suggest that photographs detached the viewer from the horrors the photographer was presumably trying to communicate. Illness As Metaphor, written during and after her first battle with cancer, and her best essay collection, Against Interpretation, contain similar penetrating observations. Although she wrote four novels and one of them, The Volcano Lover, won the 2000 National Book Award and became a national best seller, her best writing was her essays.

Though in Europe it’s possible for public intellectuals to become national stars, in the United States this almost never happens. Sontag amazed the New York literati by rapidly going from her star role in the New York intellectual scene to coast-to-coast fame, first on university campuses (they gobbled up Sontag and political theorist Herbert Marcuse) and then on to automatic national name recognition.

Woody Allen cast Sontag as herself in one of his movies. In the 1988 baseball film Bull Durham, Susan Sarandon plays a sexy small-town Southern woman who sleeps with ball players and, to improve her mind, reads Susan Sontag. And by the 1980s the script writers didn’t need to explain to movie audiences who Susan Sontag was—everyone knew.

Despite Sontag’s formidable intellectual achievements and celebrity status, the adjective most of my writer friends used to describe her after we heard about her death was courage. Author Clancy Sigal, telephoning me from Los Angeles, recalled Sontag’s commitment to Sarajevo. “I was with a group that was involved with Sarajevo. I had expected Sontag to be a diva, but in regard to Sarajevo she was the real thing. She was totally and passionately committed to doing what needed to be done.”

Lennie Kriegel here in New York (he had been partly paralyzed by childhood polio) also used the word courage to describe her. “I didn’t agree with everything in Illness As Metaphor, but the book was enormously important to me. I have to think about it when I write about illness.”

The last time I saw Susan Sontag was in fall 2003; we were on the same Madrid flight. We knew each other only casually, but suddenly Sontag looked vulnerable, tired. “It’s no fun anymore to travel,” she said.

I remembered an autobiographical essay she had written about managing to interview Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Thomas Mann in Los Angeles while still in high school there. Her mother had been an alcoholic; her father, a fur trader, died in China of tuberculosis when Susan was 5. Some people seek safety by clinging to the past. Susan seemed to find it running toward the future, armed and insulated with the potent force of ideas.

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