[Paleopsych] Susan Sontag Package No. 2
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Susan Sontag Package No. 2
Deliver us from faraway evil
by Alex Beam, Globe Columnist, 5.1.4
'Susan Sontag died," my mother murmured, not raising her head from the
two-day-old Financial Times I had bought her in the hangarlike
room of Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose, Costa
Just the day before, she heard a fellow tourist refer to the ''late"
actor Jerry Orbach. ''He isn't dead, is he?" she asked me, and I had
no idea. That evening, I snuck into the VIP enclave (''Servicio
of our hotel and snitched a day-old Miami Herald. Frazier Moore's
Associated Press obituary confirmed that the gravel-voiced Orbach,
famous as detective Lennie Briscoe from ''Law & Order" reruns, had
died at age 69.
At 25, Orbach, an up-and-coming song-and-dance man who would later
a Tony award for his role in the musical ''Promises, Promises,"
starred in the original ''Fantasticks." Who knew?
Oh, and 137,000 people died that same week in a tsunami in Southeast
''A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."
because the famous aphorism is attributed to Joseph Stalin doesn't
mean it isn't true. It is a commonplace of the pulpit and the
editorial page that we are all joined in one great brotherhood of
and woman, that ''each man's joy is joy to me, each man's grief is
own," to cite a popular hymn. But for many years I have wondered if
that is true. I think compassion is like a radar signal that loses
force the further it radiates from our hearts.
I can easily understand why someone is more affected by the loss of
favorite actor, of a well-regarded talk-show host -- the circulating
e-mail tributes to the late David Brudnoy are wonderfully articulate
and emotional -- or by the death of an author one has enjoyed, than
the passing of tens of thousands of faraway strangers. In 1994, I
remember seeing a picture of dozens of bodies washing over a
during the Rwandan genocide, and reacting with shock and
Those events seemed to be taking place in a galaxy far, far away.
Human apathy toward mass deprivation is legendary. Aid organizations
know this. For decades, the relief organization Save the Children
urged first-world donors to underwrite the well-being of a specific
child somewhere in the Third World. Why? Because no one cares about
saving children in the abstract. But people do care about saving
Marzina, an 8-year-old from Bangladesh, who is currently seeking a
The media likewise know that gargantuan disaster stories have to be
correctly packaged to capture readers' attention. There is an old,
politically incorrect saying in newsrooms: How do you change a
front-page story about massive flood devastation into a 50-word news
brief buried inside the paper? Just add two words: ''In India."
I was in a remote hotel last week and tripped across a news report
from Deutsche Welle, Germany's government-supported international
network. With tens of thousands of Asians already confirmed dead, DW
headlined the disappearance of four Germans in the tsunami. My
immediate reaction was: Who cares about four Germans? Answer: The
Germans care about the Germans. The Americans care about the
Americans. And so on.
Europeans and others sometimes dismiss America's ''overreaction" to
the Sept. 11 attacks. Statistically speaking, the losses on 9/11
equaled those during a few hours of one of the European continent's
epic land battles. But the impact was felt all over the Eastern
seaboard, and all over the country.
A man who lived a few houses down from me died on one of the
airliners. Waiting in line to move my son's belongings into his
college dorm in New York City a year later, I met several families
from New Jersey for whom the memory of the year-old attacks remained
painful and dramatic. They hadn't experienced an event, they had
through a tragedy.
When my family returned home from our vacation on Saturday, we were
greeted by a handwritten note from a friend, saying she may have
cancer. One of my sons burst out crying. Her biopsy was yesterday;
of this writing we don't know the results. For us, that's a tragedy.
The rest is news.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam at globe.com.
ARMAVIRUMQUE: THE NEW CRITERION'S WEBLOG
Susan Sontag: a Prediction
[Posted 6:17 PM by Roger Kimball]
When a friend called me this morning with the news that Susan
Sontag had died at the age 71, just about the first thing I
thought was, "well, we'll have a huge, hagiographical,
obituary tomorrow in The New York Times." Check to see if I am
correct. In the meantime, as you prepare yourself for the
litany about 1) what a penetrating critical intelligence Sontag
wielded and 2) what a "courageous" and challenging "dissident"
voice she provided (those quotation marks are proleptic: let's
if the Times uses those words), here is another "courageous,"
"penetratingly intelligent" dissident voice, that of Salman
Rushdie, who provided this bouquet in his capacity as President
the PEN American Center:
Susan Sontag was a great literary artist, a fearless and original
thinker, ever valiant for truth, and an indefatigable ally in many
struggles. She set a standard of intellectual rigor to which I and
her many other admirers continue to aspire, insisting that with
literary talent came an obligation to speak out on the great
of the day, and above all to defend the sovereignty of the
mind and imagination against every kind of tyranny.
Those with strong stomachs can read all of Mr. Rusdie's encomium
There can be no doubt that Susan Sontag, the doyenne of (to use
Tom Wolfe's apposite coinage) radical chic, commanded rare
celebrity throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Accordingly, her
influence in those decades and beyond was great. The question
was it a beneficent or a baneful influence? Sontag has been
celebrated as a towering intellectual. In fact, though, what she
offered were not so much arguments or insights as the simulacra
arguments and the mood or emotion of insights. I wrote at length
about Sontag in my book The Long March: How the Cultural
Revoution of the 1960s Changed America. I draw upon that book
some other writings about her in what follows.
Sontag burst upon the scene in the early 1960s with a handful of
precious essays: "Notes on `Camp'" (1964) and "On Style" (1965)
Partisan Review, "Against Interpretation" (1964) in Evergreen
Review; "One Culture and the New Sensibility" (1965), an
version of which first appeared in Mademoiselle; and several
essays and reviews in the newly launched New York Review of
Almost overnight these essays electrified intellectual debate
catapulted their author to celebrity.
Not that Sontag's efforts were unanimously praised. The critic
John Simon, to take just one example, wondered in a sharp letter
to Partisan Review whether Sontag's "Notes on `Camp'" was itself
"only a piece of `camp.'" No, the important things were the
attentiveness, speed, and intensity of the response. Pro or con,
Sontag's essays galvanized debate: indeed, they contributed
mightily to changing the very climate of intellectual debate.
demand, at the end of "Against Interpretation," that "in place
a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art"; her praise of camp,
"whole point" of which "is to dethrone the serious"; her
to the "new sensibility" of the Sixties, whose acolytes, she
observed, "have broken, whether they know it or not, with the
Matthew Arnold notion of culture, finding it historically and
humanly obsolescent": in these and other such pronouncements
Sontag offered not arguments but a mood, a tone, an atmosphere.
Never mind that a lot of it was literally nonsense: it was
nevertheless irresistible nonsense. It somehow didn't matter,
example, that the whole notion of "an erotics of art" was
ridiculous. Everyone likes sex, and talking about "erotics"
so much sexier than talking about "sex"; and of course everyone
likes art: How was it that no one had thought of putting them
together in this clever way before? Who would bother with
something so boring as mere "interpretation"--which, Sontag had
suggested, was these days "reactionary, impertinent, cowardly,
stifling," "the revenge of the intellect upon art"--when we
have (or pretend to have) an erotics instead?
In "Susie Creamcheese Makes Love Not War," a devastating--and
devastatingly funny--review of the Sontag oeuvre as of 1982, the
critic Marvin Mudrick noted that Sontag was
a critic whose every half-baked idea is a reject or thrift-shop
markdown from the pastry cooks of post-World War II French
intellectualism. . . . [W]hat matters [to her] isn't truth or
sincerity or consistency or reality; what matters is "style" or
getting away with it.
Mudrick is especially good on Sontag's use of the word
"exemplary": "Barthes's ideas have an exemplary coherence";
lives are exemplary, others not"; Rimbaud and Duchamp made
"exemplary renunciations" in giving up art for, respectively,
gun-running and chess; "Silence exists as a decision--in the
exemplary suicide of the artist . . ."; etc. Dilating on
effusions about silence--"the silence of eternity prepares for a
thought beyond thought, which must appear from the perspective
traditional thinking . . . as no thought at all"--Mudrick
points out the similarity between Sontag and that other sage of
silence, Kahlil Gibran: "Has silence or talk about it," Mudrick
asks, "ever anywhere else been so very . . . exemplary?"
Norman Podhoretz has suggested that the "rapidity" of Sontag's
rise was due partly to her filling the role of "Dark Lady of
American Letters," vacated when Mary McCarthy was "promoted to
more dignified status of Grande Dame as a reward for her years
brilliant service. The next Dark Lady would have to be, like
clever, learned, good-looking, capable of writing [New
York-intellectual] family-type criticism as well as fiction with
strong trace of naughtiness." The "ante on naughtiness,"
notes, had gone up since McCarthy's day: "in an era of what
Abel has called the `fishnet bluestocking,' hints of perversion
and orgies had to be there."
In this context, it is worth noting that one of Sontag's
characteristic productions was "The Pornographic Imagination"
(1967), which appears in Styles of Radical Will (1969), her
collection of essays. In essence, it is a defense of
pornography--though not, of course, as something merely
Sontag doesn't champion pornography the way its usual clients
for its content, for the lubricious stimulation it supplies.
Instead, she champions pornography for its "formal" resources as
means of "transcendence." (The dancer and connoisseur of sodomy
Toni Bentley clearly has taken a page from Sontag on the
issue of sex and transcendence.)
It is hardly news that sexual ecstasy has often poached on
religious rhetoric and vice versa; nor is it news that
often employs religious metaphors. That is part of its
perversity--indeed its blasphemy. But Sontag decides to take
pornography seriously as a solution to the spiritual desolations
of modern secular culture.
One of Sontag's great gifts has been her ability to enlist her
politics in the service of her aestheticism. For her, it is the
work of a moment to move from admiring pornography--or at least
"the pornographic imagination"--to castigating American
capitalism. Accordingly, toward the end of her essay she speaks
the traumatic failure of capitalist society to provide authentic
outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature
visionary obsession, to satisfy the appetite for exalted
self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness. The need
of human beings to transcend "the person" is no less profound than
the need to be a person, an individual.
"The Pornographic Imagination," like most of Sontag's essays, is
full of powerful phrases, seductive insights, and extraordinary
balderdash. Sontag dilates on pornography's "peculiar access to
some truth." What she doesn't say is that The Story of O (for
example) presents not an instance of mystical fulfillment but a
graphic depiction of human degradation. Only someone who had
allowed "form" to triumph over "content" could have ignored
In a way, "The Pornographic Imagination" is itself the perfect
camp gesture: for if camp aims to "dethrone the serious" it is
also, as Sontag points out, "deadly serious" about the demotic
the trivial. Sontag is a master at both ploys. Having immersed
herself in the rhetoric of traditional humanistic learning, she
expert at using it against itself. This of course is a large
of what has made her writing so successful among would-be
"avant-garde" intellectuals: playing with the empty forms of
traditional moral and aesthetic thought, she is able to appear
simultaneously unsettling and edifying, daringly "beyond good
evil" and yet passionately engagé. In the long march through the
institutions, Sontag has been an emissary of trivialization,
deploying the tools of humanism to sabotage the humanistic
"The Pornographic Imagination" also exhibits the seductive
hauteur in full flower. After telling us that pornography can be
an exciting version of personal transcendence, she immediately
remarks that "not everyone is in the same condition as knowers
potential knowers. Perhaps most people don't need `a wider scale
of experience.' It may be that, without subtle and extensive
psychic preparation, any widening of experience and
is destructive for most people." Not for you and me, Dear
we are among the elect. We deserve that "wider scale of
experience"; but as for the rest, as for "most people," well . .
As a writer, Sontag is essentially a coiner of epigrams. At
best they are witty, well phrased, provocative. A few are even
true: "Nietzsche was a histrionic thinker but not a lover of the
histrionic." But Sontag's striving for effect (unlike Nietzsche,
she is a lover of the histrionic) regularly leads her into
What, for example, can it mean to say that "the AIDS epidemic
serves as an ideal projection for First World political
or that "risk-free sexuality is an inevitable reinvention of the
culture of capitalism"? Nothing, really, although such
do communicate an unperturbable aura of left-wing contempt for
In "One Culture and the New Sensibility" Sontag enthusiastically
reasons that "if art is understood as a form of discipline of
feelings and a programming of sensations, then the feeling (or
sensation) given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like
of a song by the Supremes." But of course the idea that art is a
"programming of the sensations" (a phrase, alas, of which Sontag
is particularly fond) is wrong, incoherent, or both, as is the
idea that feelings or sensations might be "given off" by any
or painting, even one by Rauschenberg (odors, yes; sensations,
no). As often happens, her passion for synesthesia and effacing
boundaries leads her into nonsense.
And then there were Sontag's own political activities. Cuba and
North Vietnam in 1968, China in 1973, Sarajevo in 1993 (where
went to direct a production of Waiting for Godot--surely one of
the consummate radical chic gestures of all time). Few people
managed to combine naïve idealization of foreign tyranny with
violent hatred of their own country to such deplorable effect.
has always talked like a political radical but lived like an
aesthete. At the annual PEN writers' conference in 1986, Sontag
declared that "the task of the writer is to promote dissidence."
But it it turns out that, for her, only dissidence conducted
against American interests counts. Consider the notorious essay
she wrote about "the right way" for Americans to "love the Cuban
revolution." Sontag begins with some ritualistic denunciations
American culture as "inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian."
Item: "America is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of
productivity that inundates the country with increasingly
unnecessary commodities, services, gadgets, images,
One of the few spots of light, she tells us, is Eldridge
Soul on Ice, which teaches that "America's psychic survival
entails her transformation through a political revolution." (It
also teaches that, for blacks, rape can be a noble
"insurrectionary act," a "defying and trampling on the white
laws," but Sontag doesn't bother with that detail.)
According to her, "the power structure derives its credibility,
its legitimacy, its energies from the dehumanization of the
individuals who operate it. The people staffing IBM and General
Motors, and the Pentagon, and United Fruit are the living dead."
Since the counterculture is not strong enough to overthrow IBM,
the Pentagon, etc., it must opt for subversion. "Rock, grass,
better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature--really
grooving on anything--unfits, maladapts a person for the
way of life." And here is where the Cubans come in: they enjoy
this desirable "new sensibility" naturally, possessing as they
a "southern spontaneity which we feel our own too white,
death-ridden culture denies us. . . . The Cubans know a lot
spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality and freaking out. They are not
linear, desiccated creatures of print culture."
Indeed not: supine, desiccated creatures of a Communist tyranny
would be more like it, though patronizing honky talk about
"southern spontaneity" doubtless made things seem much better
this was written. In the great contest for writing the most
fatuous line of political drivel, Sontag is always a contender.
This essay contains at least two gems: after ten years, she
writes, "the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of
and bureaucratization"; even better perhaps, is this passing
remark delivered in parentheses: "No Cuban writer has been or is
in jail, or is failing to get his work published." Readers
to make a reality check should consult Paul Hollander's classic
study Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the
Good Society, which cites Sontag's claim and then lists, in two
three pages, some of the many writers and artists who have been
jailed, tortured, or executed by Castro's spontaneous gaiety.
Sontag concocted a similar fairy tale when she went to Vietnam
1968 courtesy of the North Vietnamese government. Her long essay
"Trip to Hanoi" (1968) is another classic in the literature of
political mendacity. Connoisseurs of the genre will especially
savor Sontag's observation that the real problem for the North
Vietnamese is that they "aren't good enough haters." Their
fondness for Americans, she explains, keeps getting in the way
the war effort.
They genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured
American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese
population gets, "because they're bigger than we are," as a
Vietnamese army officer told me, "and they're used to more meat
than we are." People in North Vietnam really do believe in the
goodness of man . . . and in the perennial possibility of
rehabilitating the morally fallen.
It would be interesting to know what Senator John McCain, a
prisoner of war who was brutally tortured by the North
had to say about this little fantasia.
Sontag acknowledges that her account tended somewhat to idealize
North Vietnam; but that was only because she "found, through
direct experience, North Vietnam to to be a place which, in many
respects, deserves to be idealized." Unlike any country in
Europe, you understand, and above all unlike the United States.
"The Vietnamese are `whole' human beings, not `split' as we
In 1967, shortly before her trip to Hanoi, Sontag had this to
about the United States:
A small nation of handsome people . . . is being brutally and
self-righteously slaughtered . . . by the richest and most
grotesquely overarmed, most powerful country in the world. America
has become a criminal, sinister country--swollen with
numbed by affluence, bemused by the monstrous conceit that it has
the mandate to dispose of the destiny of the world.
In "What's Happening in America (1966)," Sontag tells readers
what America "deserves" is to have its wealth "taken away" by
Third World. In one particularly notorious passage, she writes
that "the truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra,
Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton,
the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets
don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon
the world. The white race is the cancer of human history."
What can one say? Sontag excoriates American capitalism for its
"runaway rate of productivity." But she has had no scruples
enjoying the fruits of that productivity: a Rockefeller
grant in 1964, a Merrill Foundation grant in 1965, a Guggenheim
Foundation Fellowship in 1966, etc., etc., culminating in 1990
with a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. Sontag preserved her
radical chic credentials to the end. In the 1960s in was Vietnam
and Cuba; in the 1990s it was Sarajevo. The one constant was
unremitting animus against the United States: its culture, its
politics, its economy, its very being. Following the terrorist
attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, Sontag
to the pages of The New Yorker to explain that the assault of
September 11 was "not a `cowardly' attack on `civilization' or
`liberty' or `humanity' or `the free world' [note the scare
quotes] but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower,
undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and
actions. . . . [W]hatever may be said of the perpetrators of
[September 11's] slaughter, they were not cowards." Does she
then, that they were murderous fanatics? Hardly. Sontag is at
too ambivalent and too admiring for that: too ambivalent about
"world's self-proclaimed superpower" and too admiring of the
murderous Muslim fanatics.
Sontag enjoyed an extraordinary career. But, pace Salman
her celebrity was not the gratifying product of intellectual
distinction but the tawdry coefficient of a lifelong devotion to
the mendacious and disfiguring imperatives of radical chic.
Susan Sontag - Remembering an intellectual heroine. By Christopher
Posted Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2004, at 8:37 AM PT
Between the word "public" and the word "intellectual" there falls,
ought to fall, a shadow. The life of the cultivated mind should be
private, reticent, discreet: Most of its celebrations will occur
no audience, because there can be no applause for that moment when
solitary reader gets up and paces round the room, having just
the hidden image in the sonnet, or the profane joke in the
text, or the secret message in the prison diaries. Individual
of this kind is only rivaled when the same reader turns into a
and after a long wrestle until daybreak hits on his or her own
of the mot juste, or the unmasking of pretension, or the apt, latent
literary connection, or the satire upon tyranny.
The 20^th century was perhaps unusual in the ways in which it forced
such people to quit their desks and their bookshelves and to enter
agora. Looking over our shoulders, we do not find that we have much
respect or admiration for those who simply survived, or who kept the
private life alive. We may owe such people more than we know, but it
is difficult to view them as exemplary. Our heroes and heroines are
those who managed, from Orwell through Camus and Solzhenitsyn, to be
both intellectual and engaged. (This combination of qualities would
also be true of a good number of our fools and villains, from Celine
to Shaw, with Sartre perhaps occupying the middle position.)
Susan Sontag passed an extraordinary amount of her life in the
of private happiness through reading and through the attempt to
this delight with others. For her, the act of literary consumption
the generous parent of the act of literary production. She was so
impressed by the marvelous people she had read--beginning with Jack
London and Thomas Mann in her girlhood, and eventually comprising
almost Borgesian library that was her one prized possession--that
was almost shy about offering her own prose to the reader. Look at
output and you will see that she was not at all prolific.
If it doesn't seem like that--if it seems as if she was always
somewhere in print--it is because she timed her interventions very
deftly. By the middle 1960s, someone was surely going to say
worth noticing about the energy and vitality of American popular
culture. And it probably wasn't going to be any of the graying manes
of the old Partisan Review gang. Sontag's sprightly, sympathetic
essays on the diminishing returns of "high culture" were written by
someone who nonetheless had a sense of tradition and who took that
high culture seriously (and who was smart enough to be published in
Partisan Review). Her acute appreciation of the importance of
photography is something that now seems uncontroversial (the sure
of the authentic pioneer), and her "Notes on 'Camp' " were dedicated
to the memory of Oscar Wilde, whose fusion of the serious and the
subversive was always an inspiration to her, as it is, I can't
adding, to too few female writers.
In a somewhat parochial time, furthermore, she was an
internationalist. I once heard her rather sourly described as
culture's "official greeter," for her role in presenting and
introducing the writers of other scenes and societies. There was no
shame in that charge: She--and Philip Roth--did a very great deal to
familiarize Americans with the work of Czeslaw Milosz and Danilo
Milan Kundera and György Konrád. In Against Interpretation,
in 1966, she saw more clearly than most that the future defeat of
official Communism was inscribed in its negation of literature. When
Arpad Goncz, the novelist who eventually became a post-Communist
president of Hungary, was invited to the White House, he requested
that Susan be placed on his guest list. It's hard to think of any
other American author or intellectual who would be as sincerely
mourned as Susan will be this week, from Berlin to Prague to
(Updated, Dec. 31: On Thursday, Mayor Muhidin Hamamdzic of Sarajevo
announced that the city will name a street after her, and the city's
Youth Theater said that it would mount a plaque for her on its
Mention of that last place name impels me to say another thing: this
time about moral and physical courage. It took a certain amount of
nerve for her to stand up on stage, in early 1982 in New York, and
denounce martial law in Poland as "fascism with a human face."
Intended as ironic, this remark empurpled the anti-anti-Communists
predominated on the intellectual left. But when Slobodan Milosevic
adopted full-out national socialism after 1989, it took real guts to
go and live under the bombardment in Sarajevo and to help organize
Bosnian civic resistance. She did not do this as a "tourist," as
sneering conservative bystanders like Hilton Kramer claimed. She
real time there and endured genuine danger. I know, because I saw
in Bosnia and had felt faint-hearted long before she did.
Her fortitude was demonstrated to all who knew her, and it was often
the cause of fortitude in others. She had a long running battle with
successive tumors and sarcomas and was always in the front line for
any daring new treatment. Her books on illness and fatalism, and her
stout refusal to accept defeat, were an inspiration. So were the
anonymous hours and days she spent in encouraging and advising
sufferers. But best of all, I felt, was the moment when, as
of American PEN, she had to confront the Rushdie affair in 1989.
It's easy enough to see, now, that the offer of murder for cash,
by a depraved theocratic despot and directed at a novelist, was a
warning of the Islamist intoxication that was to come. But at the
time, many of the usual "signers" of petitions were distinctly shaky
and nervous, as were the publishers and booksellers who felt
themselves under threat and sought to back away. Susan Sontag
mobilized a tremendous campaign of solidarity that dispelled all
masochism and capitulation. I remember her saying hotly of our
persecuted and hidden friend: "You know, I think about Salman every
second. It's as if he was a lover." I would have done anything for
at that moment, not that she asked or noticed.
With that signature black-on-white swoosh in her hair, and her
charismatic and hard-traveling style, she achieved something else
worthy of note--the status of celebrity without any of the attendant
tedium and squalor. She resolutely declined to say anything about
private life or to indulge those who wanted to speculate. The
to an indiscretion she ever came was an allusion to Middlemarch in
opening of her 1999 novel In America, where she seems to say that
one and only marriage was a mistake because she swiftly realized
only that I was Dorothea but that, a few months earlier, I had
A man is not on his oath, said Samuel Johnson, when he gives a
oration. One ought to try and contest the underlying assumption
which condescendingly excuses those who write nil nisi bonum of the
dead. Could Susan Sontag be irritating, or hectoring, or righteous?
She most certainly could. She said and did her own share of foolish
things during the 1960s, later retracting her notorious remark about
the white "race" being a "cancer" by saying that it slandered cancer
patients. In what I thought was an astonishing lapse, she attempted
diagnose the assault of Sept. 11, 2001, as the one thing it most
obviously was not: "a consequence of specific [sic] American
and actions." Even the word "general" would have been worse in that
sentence, but she had to know better. She said that she didn't read
reviews of her work, when she obviously did. It could sometimes be
very difficult to tell her anything or to have her admit that there
was something she didn't know or hadn't read.
But even this insecurity had its affirmative side. If she was
sometimes a little permissive, launching a trial balloon only to
deflate it later (as with her change of heart on the filmic
of Leni Riefenstahl) this promiscuity was founded in curiosity and
liveliness. About 20 years ago, I watched her having an on-stage
discussion with Umberto Eco in downtown New York. Eco was a bit
galumphing--he declared that his favorite novel was Lolita because
could picture himself in the part of Umberto Umberto. Susan, pressed
to define the word "polymath," was both sweet and solemn. "To be a
polymath," she declared, "is to be interested in everything--and in
nothing else." She was always trying to do too much and square the
circle: to stay up late debating and discussing and have the last
word, then get a really early night, then stay up reading, and then
make an early start. She adored trying new restaurants and new
She couldn't stand affectless or bored or cynical people, of any
She only ventured into full-length fiction when she was almost 60,
then discovered that she had a whole new life. And she resisted the
last malady with terrific force and resource, so that to describe
as life-affirming now seems to me suddenly weak. Anyway--death be
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular
contributor to Slate. His most recent book is Love, Poverty and
War. He is also the author of A Long Short War: The Postponed
Liberation of Iraq and of Blood, Class and Empire.
Susan Sontag (1933-2004): Remembering the voice of moral
by Gary Indiana
Like Maria Callas's voice, Susan Sontag's mind, to borrow a phrase
from the great filmmaker Werner Schroeter (one of countless
underappreciated artists Sontag championed), was "a comet passing
in a hundred years." In a dauntingly, often viciously
anti-intellectual society, Sontag made being an intellectual
She was the indispensible voice of moral responsibility, perceptual
clarity, passionate (and passionately reasonable) advocacy: for
aesthetic pleasure, for social justice, for unembarrassed hedonism,
for life against death. Sontag took it as a given that our duty as
sentient beings is to rescue the world. She knew that empathy can
She set the bar of skepticism as high as it would go. Allergic to
received ideas and their hypnotic blandishments, she was often
startled to discover how devalued the ethical sense, and the courage
to exercise it, had become in American consumer culture.
Sontag had impeccable instincts for saying and doing what needed to
said and done while too many others scrambled for the safety of
consensus. Hence the uproar when she declared, at the height of
Solidarity's epochal crisis in 1982, that "communism . . . is
with a human face." Hence also the depressingly rote indignation
mobilized against her response to a New Yorker survey about the 9-11
attacks, published on September 24, 2001a survey that most
used to promote themselves, their latest books, the depth of their
Of course it was, and still is, easier for many Americans to pretend
the events of 9-11 were inexplicable eruptions of violence against
American virtuousness, perpetrated by people who "hate us for our
freedoms." Indeed, the habitual assertion of the American way of
life's superiority is probably what persuades supposedly serious
writers to weigh in on a civil catastrophe by promoting their own
narrow interests, dropping in news of their current travel
itineraries, their marriages, their kidsoh, and how shaken they were
by the tragic events.
It takes unusual bravery to cite, in a large media venue, cause and
effect as operant elements in a man-made emergencyespecially when
programmed pieties and entrenched denial mechanisms of society run
the opposite direction.
Sontag drew her own better-than-well-informed conclusions about what
happened on 9-11. The habit of independent thought has so little
currency in 21st-century America that dissent is the last thing most
Americans consider worth protecting.
What Jean Genet referred to as "the far Right and its imbecilic
mythology" have already been activated in several "obituary" pieces,
including one fulminating, hateful dismissal of Sontag's entire
lifework. It's lowering to realize how terminally bitter the
right really is: Even in its current triumphal micro-epoch, it needs
to demonize somebody.
Sontag's political "lapses," cited even in sympathetic articles, are
in fact the public moments one should most admire her for. She was
usually right, and when she hadn't been, she said so. It's customary
these days to damn people for "inconsistency," as if it's somehow
virtuous to persist forever in being wrong. Sontag interrogated her
own ideas with merciless rigor, and when she discovered they no
applied, or were defectively inadequate or just plain bad, she never
hesitated to change her mind in public.
Certainly she felt the same revulsion and horror at the atrocity of
9-11 that any New Yorker, any citizen of the world, did. But she
had the moral scruple to connect the attacks to generally
lethal American actions abroad, to the indiscriminate carnage that
typified both state policy and terrorist violence in the new
Where, exactly, does the difference lie?
Unlike our government's loudest warmongers and their media
cheerleaders, Sontag put her own life on the line, many times, in
defense of her principlesin Israel during the Six Day War, in Hanoi
during the American bombardment, in Sarajevo throughout much of the
conflict there. Like Genet, she was willing to go anywhere, at a
moment's notice, out of solidarity with people on the receiving end
The range of her talents and interests was no less impressive than
moral instincts. She once told me that "every good book is worth
reading at least once" (in her case, it was usually at least twice).
Her appetite for cultural provenderopera, avant-garde theater, film,
dance, travel, historical inquiry, cuisine of any kind,
the history of ideaswas inexhaustible. If you told her about
she didn't know, she soon knew more about it than you did. She
routinely went directly from a museum to a screening, then to a
concert; and if there was a kung fu movie playing somewhere after
that, off she went, whether you were still ambulatory or not.
I know I'm in a minority, but I remain a fan of Sontag's early
The Benefactor and Death KitSontag herself cared little for them in
later years. Not enough people have seen the films she directed:
for Cannibals and Brother Carl in Sweden, Promised Lands in Israel,
Unguided Tour in Venice. These early and middle works could be
considered noble experiments, operating on a high level of fluency
None of these works are as sumptuously realized as her best essays,
her later novels The Volcano Lover and In America. At times, her
reverence for the European modernists who influenced her eclipses
own seldom mentioned, American gift for absurdist black humor.
Kit has anything but a reputation for hilarity, but it's one of the
most darkly funny narratives written in America during the Vietnam
War.) Many of Sontag's essays, for that matter, have threads of
Firbankian whimsy and manic satire running through themand no, I'm
referring to "Notes on Camp."
There's no way to summarize her restless cultural itinerary and her
immense services to "the republic of letters" in the space of an
obituary. What I can speak of, here, again, is the indelible example
she set as a moral being, citizen, and writer. She sedulously
distinguished between the merely personal and the insights personal
experience generated. "I" appears less frequently in her writings
in those of any other significant American writer I can think of. If
Sontag was less averse, in recent times, to saying "I," it could be
that she at last realized she'd earned the authority for "I" to mean
more, coming from her, than it does coming from most people. (In
America, "I" isn't simply a pronoun, but a way of life.)
It's my guess that growing up in Arizona and Southern California,
among people who placed no special value on intelligence and none at
all on its cultivation, Sontag's first line of defense against being
hurt by other people was the same thing (aside from physical beauty)
that distinguished her from ordinary peoplethat awesome intellect.
could be ferociously assertive, and at times even hurtful, without
all realizing the tremendous effect she had on people. In some ways,
like any American intellectual, she often felt slighted or
underappreciated, even when people were actually paying keen
Her personal magnetism was legendary. Even in later times, she had
glamour of a film star. She almost never wore makeup (though she
finally, find a shade of lipstick she could stand), and usually wore
black slacks, black sweaters, and sometimes a black leather jacket,
though occasionally the jacket would be brown. She had the body
language of a young person: She once explained to me that people get
old when they started acting like old people.
I never heard her say a dumb word, even in moments of evident
distress. She did, from time to time, do things that seemed quite
but then, who doesn't? Her will to keep experiencing, learning, and
feeling "the old emotions"and, sometimes, to make herself empty,
restock her interiority, break with old ideascame with a project of
self-transcendence that Sontag shouldered, like Sisyphus's stone,
cheerfully, "with fervor."
She once told Dick Cavett, after the first of her struggles with
cancer, that she didn't find her own illness interesting. She
stipulated that it was moving to her, but not interesting. To be
interesting, experience has to yield a harvest of ideas, which her
illness certainly didbut she communicated them in a form useful to
others in ways a conventional memoir couldn't be. (To be useful, one
has to reach others on the level of thought, not only feelingthough
the two are inseparable.)
In light of her own illness, she set about removing the stigma then
attached to cancer, dismantling the punitive myths this fearsome
illness generated at the time. We don't look at illness in the same
way we did before Illness as Metaphor and the widespread examination
of our relationship to medicine that it triggered.
Her detachment in this regard was a powerful asset. Many years ago,
went with her one morning to her radiologist. The radiologist had
gotten back some complicated X-rays and wanted to discuss them. On
way uptown, Susan was incredibly composed, long resigned to
hyper-vigilance as the price of staying alive.
At the clinic, she disappeared into the doctor's office for a
worryingly long time. When she came out, finally, she was laughing.
"She put the X-rays up," Susan told me, "and said, 'This really
doesn't look good.' So I looked them over, and thought about it.
I said, 'You're right. These don't look good. But you know
these aren't my X-rays.' "
They weren't her X-rays. Her most recent procedure had left a
temporary, subcutaneous line of staple sutures running from her
to her abdomen. The tiny metal clamps she knew were there would have
glowed on an X-ray.
For some reason this was the first memory that flashed to mind when
the sad news came that she was gone.
Notes on Camp Sontag
by Sheelah Kolhatkar
"I can remember going to some very, very high-powered and glamorous
parties, with her or because of her, at, say, Roger Straus,"
the writer Stephen Koch, who became friends with Susan Sontag in
when she was in her early 30s. "And you would walk in, and it was
wall-to-wall Nobel Prize winners and Mikhail Baryshnikov and George
Balanchine and Richard Avedon it was like walking into a Hirschfeld
cartoon. And she flourished there. She was Susan Sontag, and it was
just part of that. There was a certain high-gloss celebrity thing
would occasionally do."
Indeed, there were many other things that Sontag did in addition to
being a glamorous intellectual superstara role she played well until
her death last week of leukemia at age 71. She wrote books, both
provocative essays and novels; read some of the 15,000 volumes of
fiction and philosophy she said were stashed in her Chelsea
traveled to war-torn countries; attended the ballet; and obsessively
watched films. She created ideological enemies as swiftly as she did
allies. But perhaps its the 1975 black-and-white photograph, taken
her friend, Peter Hujarof her reclining on a bed, staring off into
middle distance, perhaps contemplating Artaudthat most captures how
like to remember her: young, sultry, brilliant, precocious. It was
1960s that, in many ways, Susan Sontag represented besta time in
America when it was fun to be an intellectual, when the worlds of
and low culture were converging and it was cool to be provocatively
outspoken, intimidatingly well-read, the smartest one at the party.
Perhaps she made it so.
After all, as her friend, Mr. Koch, and countless others since her
death have observed, Sontag was more than a witty, attractive brain.
She was a starsomething that has much to do with the intellectual
climate of the 60s, but mostly to do with Sontag herself.
"For one, she was glamorous-looking. One ought not to ignore that,
if it had nothing to do with Susans celebrity," said Robert Boyers,
professor at Skidmore College and the editor of the literary journal
Salmagundi, who got to know Sontag in the late 1960s and became
friends with her in the 70s. "Susan knew that she was very beautiful
and very photogenic, and she always liked to have her photograph
by first-rate photographers.
"I remember the first time in the 70s," he continued, "when I went
a poster shop in Paris, and I saw all these racks of postcards of
movie stars, and was astonished to see the numbers of postcard
of Susan Sontag on those racks. There was Grace Kelly, and Susan
"Somehow in the 60s, she had become an icon, like Twiggy or
something," said Jim Miller, the chair of the liberal-studies
at the New School, who occasionally crossed paths with Sontag and
looked up to her as a student in the 60s. "Thats what made it
You know, in France, intellectuals are celebrities all the time. In
America, its quite unusual but not unheard of. You know, you get a
chick at a party full of frumpy professors and people go, Whoa!"
Although Sontag was schooled in the 1950s, first at the rigorous
mental training ground that was the University of Chicago and later
Harvard, with sojourns to Oxford and the Sorbonne, she produced the
work that would make her known in the 1960s. She moved to New York,
the city of her birth, on Jan. 1, 1959, freshly divorced and with a
young son, and into a tiny apartment on West End Avenue. She taught
the religion department at Columbia University and contributed to
publications like the Partisan Review; the essay "Notes on Camp,"
which sparked her notoriety, was published there in 1964. She was
absorbed into the fold of Farrar, Straus (later "and Giroux"), which
would become her lifelong publishing house, in 1961, when she signed
contract for her first novel, The Benefactor. Her essay collection,
Against Interpretation, was published in 1966.
It was a moment when the division between elite culture and mass
culture was quickly collapsing, and Sontag was a primary figure in
both causing and explaining it; her "Notes on Camp" addressed gay
popular culture through an academic lens, and was permission for the
cultural elite to delve into "lowbrow" fields such as film and rock
"Being an intellectual used to mean, until the mid-1960s, attempting
in ones work and ones posture to uphold that distinction between
and low, and basically to resist the efforts to erode it, whereas in
the 60s it came to seem impossible to do that any longer," said Mr.
Boyers. "The 1960s was a time in which many intellectuals, who had
largely been absorbed in their own work and in finding niches in the
academy, suddenly felt called upon to take positions and put
themselves on the line."
Sontag had a sharp sense of what was about to prove riveting to the
types of people she viewed as her peersputting herself at the front
edge of trends, or at least capitalizing effectively on what was
already happening. (She could explain Jean-Luc Godard movies to
who were going to see them but still hadnt a clue what they were.)
Mr. Koch first came to know Ms. Sontag in 1965, when he was 24 and
about 32, after he reviewed The Benefactor in the Antioch Review and
sent her a copy. The two struck up a friendship over a Chinese
around 114th Street and Broadway.
"I even remember what we ate: smoked fish," recalled Mr. Koch. "She
was wearing a car coat. She was very friendly. I was filled with
of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to publish, and she said,
Oh, dont publish there. Ill show you where to publish." She was a
worthwhile ally to cultivate.
Sontag led Mr. Koch around town, introducing him to Richard Kluger,
then the books editor at the New York Herald Tribune, and to the
literary editor at The Nation. She read his manuscripts and
him to editors, taking him under her wing, as she is known to have
done for many (mostly male) young thinkers throughout her career. He
visited her apartment, then a tiny two-bedroom she shared with her
David, with a living room lined with framed movie stills. "She was
very girlish, smiled a lot, and had a very radiant glow," said Mr.
"She understood about how she was becoming famous. It was extremely
interesting to watch," he continued. "She once said, I was at a
screening of a movie last night, and a lot of people were interested
in the fact that I was there. It bothered her. But on the whole, she
carried herself with her gathering celebrity very well. The talent
being famous, Hemingway had to a world-class degree. Susan had it to
remarkable degree. She had an innate talent for being well-known.
People say, Oh, well, she went after celebrity. She was a natural
celebrityit came to her like breathing in and breathing out."
"She was a very young, beautiful woman," recalled the poet Richard
Howard, a close friend of Sontags who sometimes accompanied her to
literary salons and occasionally baby-sat her sonwhen she wasnt
bringing the youngster along with her to parties and readings. "She
went out a lot and saw a lot of people and stayed up late. She was
interested in everything that people did late at night. She was open
to almost anything. She was a very exciting and open friend, very
frank and direct. She was around; she was everywhere."
Sontag was often compared to Mary McCarthy, the reigning
smart-girl-about-town of her day, which didnt necessarily thrill
"Mary McCarthy once told Susan, I hear youre the new me," said
Dickstein, a professor of literature and film at the CUNY graduate
school, who sat in on some classes with Sontag while an
at Columbia in the 1960s. "Mary McCarthy was then the reigning woman
intellectual. Its absurd to think there had to be only one woman
intellectual, but its clear that Camille Paglia had that same All
About Eve feeling toward Susan Sontag that Susan Sontag had toward
Mary McCarthy. Of course theres room for more than one, but somehow
there was this idea that there had to be only one star with a kind
queen-bee quality. I guess its men who created that feelingthat
has to be this one mesmerizing woman who combines brains and beauty,
intellect and sensuality."
Still, friends maintain that whether or not Sontag sought fame, most
of it, from the glamour to the intellectual prowess, came naturally
her. Mr. Koch described her as an "innate highbrow."
"She was someone looking up to the greats," said Mr. Koch. "She
trying to be like Mary McCarthy. She was trying to be like Gide. She
was trying to be like Henry James. Not in imitating their work, but
moving toward what she would call seriousness."
Ms. Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at the
University of the Arts in Philadelphia, said that despite their
disagreements (and Ms. Paglias repeated dissing of her predecessors
work in print), she looked up to Sontag.
"When I was young, I was looking for role models for a life as a
thinking woman," said Ms. Paglia. "She was a rigorous female thinker
at a time when careers for women were not encouraged at all. Our
self-conception is parallel. This is an American model of a woman
intellectual who is not afraid of pop culture, who is not afraid of
the media. That is what I admire about her in the 1960s."
You may reach Sheelah Kolhatkar via email at:
skolhatkar at observer.com.
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