12.31.2004

Ay — Susan Sonntag 1933-2004 — Steve Wasserman

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the LA times.
SUSAN SONTAG / 1933-2004
Ardent Author, Activist, Critic Dies at 71
Intensely curious and intellectual, she long challenged conventional
thinking in her writing.
By Steve Wasserman, Times Staff Writer
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 Tuesday of leukemia at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New
York City, according to her son, David Rieff. 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.
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, as well as crafting portraits of such
writers and intellectuals as Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, Roland
Barthes and Elias Canetti.
Sontag was a fervent believer in the capacity of art to delight, to inform,
to transform.
“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.”
In a Rolling Stone article in 1979, Jonathan Cott called Sontag a writer
who was “continually examining and testing out her notion that supposed
oppositions like thinking and feeling, consciousness and sensuousness,
morality and aesthetics can in fact simply be looked at as aspects of each
other ˜ much like the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one’s touch,
provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of
perceiving.”
A self-described “besotted aesthete” and “obsessed moralist,” Sontag sought
to challenge conventional thinking.
“From the moment I met Susan Sontag in 1962, I felt myself to be in the
presence of a woman of astonishing intelligence and the most exemplary
literary passions,” novelist Carlos Fuentes told The Times on Tuesday. “I
admired her work and her life without reservation.”
She was born Jan. 16, 1933, in New York City and raised in Tucson and Los
Angeles, the daughter of a schoolteacher mother and a fur trader father who
died in China of tuberculosis during the Japanese invasion when Sontag was
5.
She was a graduate of North Hollywood High School and attended UC 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
divorced in 1959 and never remarried.
Sontag was reading by 3. In her teens, her passions were Gerard Manley
Hopkins and Djuna Barnes. The first book that thrilled her was “Madame
Curie,” which she read when she was 6.
She was stirred by the adventure-travel books of Richard Halliburton and
the Classic Comics rendition of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The first novel
that affected her was Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.”
“I sobbed and wailed and thought [books] were the greatest things,” she
recalled. “I discovered a lot of writers in the Modern Library editions,
which were sold in a Hallmark card store, and I used up my allowance and
would buy them all.”
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. “I got through my childhood,” she told the Paris Review, “in a
delirium of literary exaltations.”
At 14, Sontag read Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, “The Magic Mountain.”
“I read it through almost at a run,” she said. “After finishing the last
page, I was so reluctant to be separated from the book that I started back
at the beginning and, to hold myself to the pace the book merited, reread
it aloud, a chapter each night.”
Not long after, she and a friend visited Mann at his home in Pacific
Palisades. Many decades later, she recalled the visit vividly, in a memoir
published by the New Yorker, as an encounter between “an embarrassed,
fervid, literature-intoxicated child and a god in exile.”
Over cookies and tea, while smoking one cigarette after another, Mann spoke
of Wagner and Hitler, of Goethe and “Doctor Faustus,” his newest book.
“He seemed to find it perfectly normal that two local high school students
should know who Nietzsche and Schoenberg were,” she wrote. He went on to
talk about “the value of literature” and “the necessity of protecting
civilization against the forces of barbarity.”
But what struck Sontag most were the “books, books, books in the
floor-to-ceiling shelves that covered two of the walls” of his study.
She began to frequent the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard, where
she went “every few days after school to read on my feet through some more
of world literature ˜ buying when I could, stealing when I dared.”
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.
She was fond of recounting how, at 15, she had bought a copy of Partisan
Review and found it impenetrable. Nevertheless, “I had the sense that
within its pages ? momentous issues were at stake. I wanted desperately to
crack the code.”
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 Sontag’s provocative essays on Albert Camus, Simone Weil, Jean-Luc
Godard, Kenneth Anger, Jasper Johns and even the Supremes began to spice
Partisan Review’s pages.
Sontag recoiled at what she regarded as the artificial boundaries
separating one subject, or one art form, from another.
She devoted herself to demolishing “the distinction between thought and
feeling ? which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the
heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment?. Thinking
is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.”
Her quest was admired by such writers as Elizabeth Hardwick, a founder of
the New York Review of Books, whose editors quickly embraced 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 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.”
Greil Marcus called her “a cold writer” whose style was “an uneasy
combination of academic and hip ? pedantic, effete, unfriendly.”
Walter Kendrick found her fiction “dull and derivative.”
In 1976, at 43, 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 said.
She set about to learn as much as possible about the disease.
She later wrote “Illness as Metaphor,” an influential essay condemning the
use of 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, 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.”
In her rage and gloom and growing despair, she concluded that “the truth is
that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary
government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant,
Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular
civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of
human history; it is the white race and it alone ˜ its ideologies and
inventions ˜ which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads,
which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens
the very existence of life itself.”
Considering herself neither a journalist nor an activist, 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 explain 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 Sontag a
“political pilgrim,” bent on denigrating Western liberal pluralism in favor
of venerating foreign revolutions.
That same year, Sontag also visited Cuba, after which she wrote an essay
for Ramparts magazine calling for a sympathetic understanding of the Cuban
revolution.
Two years later, however, she joined Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa
and other writers in publicly protesting the regime’s harsh treatment of
Heberto Padilla, one of the country’s leading poets. She also denounced
Fidel Castro’s punitive policies toward homosexuals.
Ever the iconoclast, 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 movement 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, 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
anti-Americanism.
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).
Accepting the prize from Jerusalem’s mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag said of
Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians: “I believe the doctrine of
collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishments never
justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean, of course, the
disproportionate use of firepower against civilians?.”
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.
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, 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 was the cartographer of her own literary explorations. Henry James once
remarked, “Nothing is my last word on anything.” For Sontag, as for James,
there was always more to be said, more to be felt.
In addition to her son, she is survived by a sister, Judith Cohen.
Her papers ˜ manuscripts, diaries, journals and correspondence ˜ as well as
her 25,000-volume personal library were acquired by the UCLA Library in
2002 and will be housed in the Charles E. Young Research Library Department
of Special Collections