Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Susan Sontag, rest in peace

Almost thirty years ago at a PEN conference, I heard a talk by Susan Sontag. Perhaps I even talked to her. A college student barely introduced to the world of ideas, but pedaling as fast as I could, by myself I had flown to Houston to hear what I could hear. There were Sontag, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Max Apple, Shelby Hearon, and others talking about poetry and prose as if they involved things that mattered.

The following is the entry on Sontag that I wrote for the Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). She had much to say in the decade that followed, especially after September 11. Her searing, searching voice will be missed.

Sontag, Susan (b. 1933), essayist, fiction writer, filmmaker, screenwriter, philosopher of culture. Sontag belongs to what Russell Jacoby defines in The Last Intellectuals (1987) as a rare class: the public intellectual. At North Hollywood High she shunned Reader's Digest assignments for the headier world of ideas in the Partisan Review. At twenty-six, she became a contributing editor of Commentary, entering the New York liberal intelligentsia that had already captured her imagination. Fascination with the ethics and aesthetics of modernism, especially its European forms, has inspired Sontag's prolific, often controversial, career.

Against Interpretation (1966), she departed from the older New York liberalism, particularly its resistance to popular culture; "Notes on 'Camp'" drew criticism for its trendiness. To the contrary, this essay illustrates Sontag's ability to sense the intellectual roots of social movements. Constructing the essay in numbered sections, she connects "camp" with the European postmodernist trend toward fragmentation--a trend more familiar to her in 1966 than to her American critics. Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes she considers kindred spirits.

On Phography (1977; National Book Critics' Circle Award) continues Sontag's exploration of the modernist aesthetic as modified and eventually molded by photographic imagery. Its power is insidious, she complains: "The camera doesn't rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate--all activities that . . . can be conducted from a distance." Sontag's assertion that "[t]here is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera" anticipates feminist film critics' reactions against the aggressive masculine "gaze" of the camera eye.

Illness as Metaphor (1978), written after Sontag's breast cancer, breaks out of the abstraction marking her earlier essays. Yet it revisits a critical issue: the need to distrust totalizing schemes offered to explain complex realities (a need that modernism, for Sontag, promises and repeatedly fails to answer). She critiques the treatment of cancer as metaphor for moral fault. Shrouding the disease in mystery and theorizing "cancer personalities" is more than cruel, she asserts; it impedes recovery. Sontag's antidote, here as elsewhere, is demystification. The same theme informs AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989).

Sontag's politics defy labeling; she writes, she has said, out of grief. This impulse, she observes, is both radical, in wanting to right fundamental wrongs, and conservative, "because we know that . . . so much is being destroyed" ("Nadine Gordimer and Susan Sontag: In Conversation,"
Listener, 23 May 1985, 16-17). Her restless, surprising career exemplifies the paradoxes of modernism itself.