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Issue Date:  January 7, 2005

Susan Sontag, writer and witness


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?” Sontag demanded. “Why should they be made to feel carriers of evil?” A decade later, she questioned and extended her views in response to the AIDS epidemic.

It was in a longstanding wrestle with another kind of writing -- fiction -- that Sontag’s acute sensitivity found perhaps its greatest expression. Earlier novels had been earnestly crafted but rather cold. A collection of stories from the middle of her career, I, Etcetera, showed increasing skill and more fluent emotion. But it was only recently that the author finally broke through to her potential as a novelist, publishing The Volcano Lover in 1992 and In America eight years later.

It was curious that when I finally came to know Sontag she reminded me not of other distinguished authors I’d met but of Catholic activists -- some well known like the Berrigans, others not known at all. She seemed a secular cousin to those protesters and healers. Like them, Sontag could address the pains around her unflinchingly; writing was not only her vocation, it was her means of witness. By the time we met -- in 2000, the night she won the National Book Award for In America -- she had been to Sarajevo numerous times while the city was under siege. (“Oh, I’ve seen a lot of time under fire,” she said dryly.) Even on this night of personal triumph, she talked about the people she knew in Sarajevo (to whom she dedicated In America), and how close her war experiences remained to her. The second time we met was in a Chinese restaurant several blocks from Ground Zero not long after Sept. 11. On a quiet street, she took my arm as we walked, asking “What happened to you on that day?” In the dark, her engagement and sympathy were almost palpable. Then she asked, “Now aren’t you Catholic? I want to hear about that.” I steeled myself for another of those How-can-you-be-intelligent-and-Catholic harangues writers and activists aim at me. But she listened carefully and respectfully, asking questions about Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, Ignatius of Loyola and other Catholic thinkers. She’d read them all -- I later learned that early in her life she’d taught religion -- and she wanted to be sure I had. Then, satisfied, she sighed as we turned onto a brighter Chinatown street and said, “Whatever you do, don’t misuse what you believe so that it gets in the way of the truth. That’s so easy to do, especially when so much around us encourages us to.” She spoke that night as if seeing clearly and acting responsibly, whatever one’s context of belief, was for her the great act of faith.

Patrick Giles is a writer and editor in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2005

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