[lit-ideas] Susan Sontag

  • From: Robert.Paul@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (Robert Paul)
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: 28 Dec 2004 11:44:22 PST

Author Susan Sontag dies at 71

Leading thinker wrote 'On Photography,' 'Notes on Camp'

NEW YORK (AP) -- Susan Sontag, the author, activist and self-defined "zealot of
seriousness" whose voracious mind and provocative prose made her a leading
intellectual of the past half century, died Tuesday. She was 71.

Sontag died at 7:10 a.m. Tuesday, said Esther Carver, a spokeswoman for Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

The hospital declined to release a cause of death. Sontag had been treated for
breast cancer in the 1970s.

Sontag called herself a "besotted aesthete," an "obsessed moralist" and a
"zealot of seriousness." Tall and commanding, her very presence suggested grand,
passionate drama: eyes the richest brown; thick, black hair accented by a bolt
of white; the voice deep and assured; her expression a severe stare or a wry
smile, as if amused by a joke only she could tell.

She wrote a best-selling historical novel, "The Volcano Lover," and in 2000 won
the National Book Award for the historical novel "In America." But her greatest
literary impact was as an essayist.

The 1964 piece "Notes on Camp," which established her as a major new writer,
popularized the "so bad it's good" attitude toward popular culture, applicable
to everything from "Swan Lake" to feather boas. In "Against Interpretation,"
this most analytical of writers worried that critical analysis interfered with
art's "incantatory, magical" power.

She also wrote such influential works as "Illness as Metaphor," in which she
examined how disease had been alternately romanticized and demonized, and "On
Photography," in which she argued pictures sometimes distance viewers from the
subject matter. "On Photography" received a National Book Critics Circle award
in 1978. "Regarding the Pain of Others," a partial refutation of "On
Photography," was an NBCC finalist in 2004.

She read authors from all over the world and is credited with introducing such
European intellectuals as Roland Barthes and Elias Canetti to American readers.

"I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded with a capacity to link,
to connect, to relate," Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, once said. "She is

Unlike many American writers, she was deeply involved in politics, even after
the 1960s. From 1987-89, Sontag served as president of American chapter of the
writers organization PEN. When the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for Salman
Rushdie's death because of the alleged blasphemy of "The Satanic Verses," she
helped lead protests in the literary community.

Sontag campaigned relentlessly for human rights and throughout the 1990s
traveled to the region of Yugoslavia, calling for international action against
the growing civil war. In 1993, she visited Sarajevo and staged a production of
"Waiting for Godot."

Reading and writing

The daughter of a fur trader, she was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933,
and also spent her early years in Tucson, Arizona, and Los Angeles. Her mother
was an alcoholic; her father died when she was 5. Her mother later married an
Army officer, Capt. Nathan Sontag.

Susan Sontag remembered her childhood as "one long prison sentence." She skipped
three grades and graduated from high school at 15; the principal told her she
was wasting her time there. Her mother, meanwhile, warned if she did not stop
reading she would never marry.

Her mother was wrong. At the University of Chicago, she attended a lecture by
Philip Rieff, a social psychologist and historian. They were married 10 days
later. She was 17, he 28. "He was passionate, he was bookish, he was pure," she
later said of him.

By the mid-1960s, she and Rieff were divorced (they had a son, David, born in
1952), and Sontag had emerged in New York's literary society. She was known for
her essays, but also wrote fiction, although not so successfully at first.
"Death Kit" and "The Benefactor" were experimental novels few found worth
getting through.

"Unfortunately, Miss Sontag's intelligence is still greater than her talent,"
Gore Vidal wrote in a 1967 review of "Death Kit."

"Yet ... once she has freed herself of literature, she will have the power to
make it, and there are not many American writers one can say that of."

Her fiction became more accessible. She wrote an acclaimed short story about
AIDS, "The Way We Live Now," and a best-selling novel, "The Volcano Lover,"
about Lord Nelson and his mistress Lady Hamilton.

In 2000, her novel "In America," about the 19th-century Polish actress Helena
Modjeska, was a commercial disappointment and was criticized for the uncredited
use of material from fiction and nonfiction sources. Nonetheless, Sontag won the
National Book Award.


Sontag's work also included making the films "Duet For Cannibals" and "Brother
Carl" and writing the play "Alice in Bed," based on the life of Alice James, the
ailing sister of Henry and William James. Sontag appeared as herself in Woody
Allen's mock documentary, "Zelig."

In 1999 she wrote an essay for "Women," a compilation of portraits by her
longtime companion, photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Sontag did not practice the art of restrained discourse. Writing in the 1960s
about the Vietnam War she declared "the white race is the cancer of human
history." Days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she criticized
U.S. foreign policy and offered backhanded praise for the hijackers.

"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 wrote in The New Yorker.

"In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of
the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."

Even among sympathetic souls, she found reason to contend. At a 1998 dinner, she
was one of three given a Writers For Writers Award for contributions to others
in the field. Sontag spoke after fellow guest of honor E.L. Doctorow, who urged
writers to treat each other as "colleagues" and worried about the isolation of
what he called "print culture."

"I agree with Mr. Doctorow that we are all colleagues, but there are perhaps too
many of us," Sontag stated.

"Nobody has to be a writer. Print culture may be under siege, but there has been
an enormous inflation in the number of books printed, and very few of these
could be considered part of literature. ... Unlike what has been said here
before, for me the primary obligation is human solidarity."
Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not
be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

[Forwarded in the interest of scholarly research by Robert Paul
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