Susan Sontag, Writer and Witness

By Giles, Patrick | National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2005 | Go to article overview

Susan Sontag, Writer and Witness


Giles, Patrick, National Catholic Reporter


For Susan Sontag, who died of leukemia Dec. 27 at 71, writing was the very heart of her life. It's a measure of how large and generous her heart was that so much of her criticism, journalism and fiction not only investigated how art and language work but also bore witness to the events she experienced and spoke up about. War, freedom, the burden of history and the responsibility of truth--these were her great themes, analyzed, polemicized, dramatized in 17 books published over 40 years in more than 30 languages.

"I don't want to express alienation," she once insisted in an interview. "It isn't what I feel." This was a remarkable admission from a member of the generation that led the fight for civil rights, paid a bloody price for America's ambitions in Vietnam and in recent years saw its dreams of personal and political freedom disparaged. The burnout that afflicted so many was not something she ever allowed herself. Rather, "I'm interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says, be serious, be passionate, wake up."

A lonely childhood in California pushed Sontag to find her own world in books; she finished college while still in her teens, and by her mid-20s (already married, divorced and a mother) was an author to be reckoned with. Her 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp,' " with its exhilarating endorsement of what had been an underground, largely gay taste, provoked and changed American culture. The essay collection it appeared in, Against Interpretation, remains in print, its influence considerable. In further work, the author examined the nature of identity, the deceptive persuasiveness of photographs, the dangerous allure of fascism, and the movies, writers and performances that moved her to comment or argument.

But Sontag's eloquence reached its highest pitch when her conscience examined the sorest issues of her time. In 1968 she visited Hanoi, and the resulting essay (reprinted in Styles of Radical Will) captures the indignation, idealism and ambivalence swirling through many Americans during those years. In the 1970s, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer but saved herself by investigating (and undergoing) new treatments and examining how the power of illness can be exaggerated to the detriment of those suffering it. Illness she found "a deeper experience," and her Illness as Metaphor not only turned an elegant eye on attitudes toward tuberculosis and cancer: It empowered readers to take greater responsibility for their illnesses and demand more information and accountability from doctors. "Why should [sick] people feel guilty? …

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