ONCE UPON A TIME, AMERICAN intellectual life featured a ritual known as the Partisan Review symposium. It was a solemn event, combining elements of high Mass and a boxing match. Here is how it worked: Every year or so, the tribal elders, gathering in the journal's offices in New York, would prepare a list of questions about some grand topic in contemporary politics or culture. The questionnaires were sent out to a select group of thinkers, and their answers printed, in batches, across two or three issues of the journal.
It was a ceremony of ideological boundary testing, of defining both the core of Cold War liberal thought and its radical margin. In 1952, it was Norman Mailer and C. Wright Mills who made defiant gestures at the outer limits. In 1967, Susan Sontag played that role in her essay "What's Happening in America?" It was the last performance of the ritual of any importance, for the very notion that Cold War liberalism might have a radical margin was already looking anachronistic.
Sontag's contribution embodied the Third Worldist fantasies of the New Left at their most stridently aphoristic, with its comment, subsequently oft-repeated, that "the white race is the cancer of history." In 1978, in Illness as Metaphor, Sontag repudiated that Fanon-driven moment of rhetorical overkill. But not all of her response has aged badly. Reading it again, not long ago, I laughed at her rejoinder to the editors' question about "the meaning of the split between the Administration and the intellectuals" resulting from the Vietnam War. Its meaning, she answered, was simply "that our leaders are genuine yahoos, with all the exhibitionist traits of their kind, and that liberal intellectuals (whose deepest loyalties are to an international fraternity of the reasonable) are not that blind." Deja vu!
IN LATE DECEMBER, WHEN SUSAN Sontag died in New York City at age 71, another …