Writer was never shy about speaking her mind

Sontag, intellectual and fast friend, dies at 71


December 29, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Susan Sontag was perhaps the most prominent example of an increasingly endangered species in modern American life - the public intellectual.

The outspoken philosopher, novelist, playwright, film director and essayist - winner of the 2000 National Book Award - died yesterday of leukemia at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She was 71.

"What a privilege it was to be alive when she was writing," said Craig Seligman, the New York-based author of Sontag and Kael. "Susan Sontag could make her readers madder than just about any other writer except for [the late film critic] Pauline Kael. But that anger always forced her readers to figure out what they really thought. She was incredibly brilliant, and there was no greater example of intellectual probity in the world that I know of."

The author of 17 books translated into 32 languages, Sontag never was one to avoid controversy, whether she was protesting the Vietnam War or decrying the rhetoric stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Days after the assaults, while the nation still was reeling, Sontag wrote 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? ... Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."

That little essay caused a huge uproar, and it wasn't the first or last time.

Barbara Epstein, co-editor of The New York Review of Books, was in the audience in 2001 when Sontag received the prestigious Jerusalem Prize.

"In her acceptance speech, she very courageously commented on the occupation and suffering of the Palestinians," Epstein said, and then added dryly: "It was not received with delight."

This past May, while battling the disease that would kill her, Sontag took on the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, tracing their origins to both pornography and video games.

It is difficult, however, to imagine Sontag, who was austere even as a child, even once picking up a joystick.

Born Jan. 16, 1933, in New York City, Sontag was the daughter of an alcoholic mother and a fur trader father who spent much of his life in China.

She was raised in Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles, where the climate was thought to be beneficial for an asthmatic young girl. At age 14, Sontag and a classmate snagged an invitation to tea with Thomas Mann after the other schoolgirl found the German literary giant's name listed in the phone book. Sontag recalled in an essay published decades later that Mann seemed not at all surprised that the gawky adolescents were conversant with his intimidating masterpiece, The Magic Mountain.

"I read it through almost at a run," Sontag later wrote. "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."

Though she could not have known it at the time, the themes of The Magic Mountain - illness, death and, in particular, Mann's refusal to sentimentalize either - would be eerily prescient in Sontag's life and work.

In 1950, while she was a 17-year-old student at the University of Chicago, Sontag met sociology instructor Philip Rieff (then 28) and married him 10 days later. The marriage produced a son, David, and lasted until 1958, when the couple divorced. Sontag never remarried.

In 1964, when Sontag was 33, the publication of Notes on Camp, which expounded the delights of kitsch, declared that a major new American thinker was on the scene. Some of her most influential works were On Photography, in which she argued that pictures can distance viewers from the subjects of the photos, and Illness as Metaphor, in which she explored the prejudice undergone by tuberculosis and cancer sufferers. She later expanded the latter book to include AIDS.

Sontag knew whereof she spoke, for in 1976, at age 43, she discovered that she had breast cancer, and was given one chance in four of living for five years.

"During the time that she was fighting for her life, she had some of her most spectacular writing achievements," Epstein said. "She kept working, she kept giving speeches, and she went to Hanoi after the Vietnam War. She was incredibly gallant."

And she continued to fight for causes that she believed in.

Sontag was president of PEN American Center, a writers' fellowship and activism organization, from 1987 through 1989.

"Susan Sontag was a great literary artist, a fearless and original thinker, ever valiant for truth, and an indefatigable ally in many struggles," the group's current president, Salman Rushdie, wrote in a statement posted on the group's Web site.

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