Armed with a pen
was a tall, handsome, fluent and articulate woman. She settled
in New York, where she lived, off and on, after separating
from her husband, the social thinker Philip Rieff, in 1959,
and her career went stellar there. Sontag belonged to the
small number of women writers and intellectuals, led by Mary
McCarthy, Hannah Arendt and Elizabeth Hardwick, who gave New
York life its brilliance, without becoming a "New York
Intellectual". She regarded all provincialisms, of Paris,
Oxford or New York, as uninteresting. Even America failed
to engage her. "I don't like America enough to want to
live anywhere else except Manhattan. And what I like about
Manhattan is that it's full of foreigners. The America I live
in is the America of the cities. The rest is just drive-through."
first collection of essays, Against Interpretation, published
in 1966, was followed in 1969 by Styles of Radical Will. Under
The Sign Of Saturn appeared in 1980, and the long awaited
Where The Stress Falls in 2001. Her passions were for cinema
(preferably European), photography, European writers and philosophers,
and for aesthetic pronunciamentos of a particular pugnacity.
a brimming and tartly phrased political sensibility, she was
fundamentally an aesthete. She offered a reorientation of
American cultural horizons. On Style, the title essay in her
first collection, plus Notes on Camp, set out an economy of
culture that was moral without being moralistic, and began
a radical displacement of heterosexuality.
was a gay sensibility that she interpreted, and that shaped
her response to the visual arts. It was also the central focus
of her emotional life. But she remained essentially private,
and when she wrote about herself, there was always an element
of self-distancing. In a culture expecting easy intimacies
from its great figures, she was aloof, poised, posed: she
was camera-friendly. But you never could claim to know Sontag,
however much New York was alive with gossip about her loves,
her ex-loves, her next book.
moved readily from references to philosophers, poets, literary
theoreticians and film auteurs. Reviewers were, rightly, dazzled.
Though she changed her mind repeatedly, it was always done
with style and conviction. If you wanted to argue with Sontag,
you had to enter her work in terms of the way a stance, a
position, made sense as an intervention.
dismissed Leni Reifenstahl in 1975, after the photographer
had put in decades of work on her rehabilitation -- all of
which were ruined by the cool brilliance of Sontag's analysis
of the allure of fascism. "The colour is black,"
she wrote in Fascinating Fascism, "the material is leather,
the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the
aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death."
astringent attack against interpretation ("the project
of interpretation is largely reactionary") carried an
aesthete's preference for readers, or consumers, to leave
works of art alone, not to seek to replace them with something
else. This was not a view that found favour among Deconstructionists,
but Sontag was indifferent to the corporate earnestness of
Yale or Harvard.
Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933, she was the daughter
of a fur trader. When he died in 1938, her mother Mildred,
and sister Judith (who suffered from asthma) left New York
in search of warmer weather. Settling in Miami, and then Tucson,
Arizona, they arrived in Los Angeles in 1945 when Mildred
married army captain Nathan Sontag. Susan was never formally
adopted, though she took his name.
had a deeply solitary and precocious childhood. Intimacy was
not the Sontag family style, and she grew up without a gift
for small talk, and little gaiety. There was little encouragement
to the life of the mind. At North Hollywood high, she was
remembered for her style and self-confidence.
attended the University of California, Berkeley, for a semester,
before in 1949, at the age of 16, she was admitted to the
University of Chicago, where she formed strong bonds with
teachers including critic Kenneth Burke and political philosopher
Leo Strauss, intellectual father of the current neoconservatives.
Sontag had a gift for cultivating men of influence and intellectual
power. Later, at Harvard, Paul Tillich became her mentor.
it was a younger teacher at the University of Chicago, sociologist
Philip Rieff, whom she married. As a 17-year-old sophomore,
she walked into his class on Kafka, late. He asked for her
name when the class ended. Ten days they were married. Their
son David, a writer, was born in 1952.
moved with Rieff to Boston after graduating in 1951. Their
marriage had intense conversations but little intimacy. Sontag
took a master's degree in philosophy at Harvard, and in 1957
won a fellowship to study for a year at St Anne's College,
Oxford. She hated Oxford's sexism, and by Christmas had relocated
to Paris, falling in with the expatriate American community
around the Paris Review. She met the writer Alfred Chester,
who introduced her to Robert Silvers. He provided Sontag with
an incomparable platform when the New York Review of Books
was launched in 1963.
Paris, Sontag made serious efforts to engage with French film-making,
philosophy and writing. Returning to America in 1958 and met
by Rieff at the airport, she told him before they got into
the car that she wanted a divorce. Reclaiming her son, who
had been living with Rieff's parents, she declined Rieff's
offers of child support or alimony, moved into a small apartment,
took an editorial job on Commentary, and wrote furiously.
A self-conscious first novel, The Benefactor (1963)
in the nouveau roman style, was accepted by Robert Giroux.
Roger Straus, the senior partner of the publishers Farrar,
Straus & Giroux, took her under his wing, kept her novels
in print (The Death Kit appeared in 1967), and acted as literary
impresario. She was invited to the important parties, and
appeared regularly in leading literary journals.
1965, she remarked, in a Partisan Review symposium, that "the
white race is the cancer of human history". The age of
radical chic had arrived, and Sontag-- serious, gorgeous,
striding across New Yorkintellectual life, was its most striking
adornment. In 1968, indignant at the US role in Vietnam, she
visited Hanoi, and published an account of it, Trip to
the early 1970s, Sontag began to write about photography,
in a series of essays in the New York Review of Books. She
was gripped by the problems, principally aesthetic, of interpreting
images. The further she explored, the stronger became her
doubts about whether photographs gave what they seemed to
be delivering a slice of truth, a piece of reality. In a gesture
of immense self-confidence, her book, On Photography
(1977) did not contain a single photograph as specimen or
later returned to many of its themes in Regarding the
Pain Of Others (2003), a thinner book, perhaps more directly
shaped by her life as a public person, giving learned lectures
to large audiences. Many of the most provocative arguments
of On Photography were abandoned in the later book.
studies of languages of illness, Illness As Metaphor,
(1978) and AIDS And Its Metaphors (1989) were writ
ten under the shadow of her diagnosis of metastatic breast
cancer, for which she sought experimental therapy in Paris.
In 1998 she was diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer,
from which she has died.
her studies of language and illness, she sought to remove
the second punishment, of blame, that the metaphors of illness
career as a novelist came full circle in 1992, when she published
Volcano Lover, and <>In America<>, winner
of the National Book award in 2000. Drawing on historical
sources, and written with little of the spirit of her earlier
novels, they brought her to a wider readership, but did not
have much of the provocative rigour of her essays.
She caused outrage after the 9/11 attacks by writing in the
New Yorker: "Where is the acknowledgement that this was
not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilisation' 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?"
Her son survives her.
Sontag, writer, born January 16 1933; died December 28, 2004,
This article was first published in the Guardian Unlimited.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004