Susan Sontag died on December 28th, 2004. She will be remembered as one of the most intelligent of contemporary intellectuals and especially for her courage to state sometimes unpalatable truths.
She was born in New York City in 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford.
Her books, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, include four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, and In America; a collection of short stories, I, etcetera; several plays, including Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea; and eight works of nonfiction, starting with Against Interpretation and including On Photography, Illness as Metaphor , Where the Stress Falls, and recently Regarding the Pain of Others.
She wrote stories (e.g. The Way We Live Now) and essays, she wrote and directed four feature-length films: Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971), both in Sweden (whose screenplays were published by FSG); Promised Lands (1974), made in Israel during the war of October 1973; and Unguided Tour (1983), from her short story of the same name, made in Italy. Her play Alice in Bed has had many productions in the United States, Mexico, Germany, and Holland. A more recent play, Lady from the Sea, has been produced in Italy, France, Switzerland, and Korea.
Susan Sontag has also directed plays in the United States and Europe; maybe her most famous theatre work was a staging of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the summer of 1993 in besieged Sarajevo, where she spent much of the time between early 1993 and 1996 and was made an honorary citizen of the city.
She was a human rights activist for more than two decades and served from 1987 to 1989 as president of the American Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization dedicated to freedom of expression and the advancement of literature, from which platform she led a number of campaigns on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers.
Many admired her, but for many (Americans) her criticism was sometimes too much to take. The Economist expressed this sentiment in their obituary published on January, 6th, 2005:
It is hard to be an intellectual in the United States. In France, a wizened man or woman in a black beret, smoking unfiltered Gitanes and with a copy of Sartre’s “La nausée” in his pocket, is considered a national treasure. Reverent circles form around him in cafés. When he wishes to muse about the existentialist paradigm, he is given a double-page spread in Le Monde. His brief but seminal work, “Fifi et le nouvel hermeneutique”, wins the Prix Goncourt and is seen being read on the Métro.
In America, by contrast, intellectuals are mocked as “pointy-heads” and “nattering nabobs”. They are a tiny, struggling species, whose habitat is confined to a few uptown apartments in New York and the faculties of certain universities. There they swap thin, sad monographs on self-image and the role of gender in criticism, or vice versa, while Oprah Winfrey is hailed on national TV as the arbiter of literary taste.
Susan Sontag therefore achieved the near-impossible: she was a European-style intellectual in America, and many Americans had both heard of her, and read her books. Moreover, she wrote clearly and well, in short words and short sentences that were blessedly free of the tech-tosh that passes for English in most haunts of intellectualism. Educated Americans were delighted to find someone who had not only read Roland Barthes and Elias Canetti, as somehow they felt they ought to every time they opened the New York Review of Books, but who could tell them what those guys were talking about, and whether they were any good.
For many Americans her remarks after 9/11 (“In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.”) were unforgivable. Europeans, although shocked, could understand the motives of islamic fighters (“terrorists”), but for most Americans this was an unexpected and severe blow. I remember an interview with Richard Rorty, one of America’s finest philosophers, by the German daily Die Welt. I was amazed to read very patriotic and rather belligerent statements.
Charles McGrath in his Obituary in the New York Times could not refrain from mentioning this episode.
We need thinkers like her. But thinking alone is not enough, it is also necessary to speak out. But for that one needs a lot of courage. And surely Susan Sontag was courageous, like a modern Virginia Woolf. Susan Sontag will be remembered, certainly on this side of the ocean.
More Susan Sontag.