Susan Sontag dies at 71
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Doug Ireland: Susan Sontag's Death 12/28/04

Paul Varnell: Sour "Notes on Camp" 5/3/00

Susan Sontag dies at 71

Author, activist and leading intellectual
challenged conventional wisdom

by Richard J. Rosendall
Originally published on December 29, 2004 in Bay Windows

Whatever one may think of Susan Sontag, who died Tuesday of leukemia, she was a lioness of American letters. Her appearances as a writer may not have inspired flight, but neither did she inspire neutral reactions.

As to what Doug Ireland calls Sontag's "amorous adventures with women," I can only suggest that those interested ask Mr. Ireland (who reports having many conversations with her) to elaborate. The Associated Press describes photographer Annie Leibovitz as Sontag's "longtime companion," but in 1999 Leibovitz told The Washington Post that it would be inaccurate to describe the two women as anything other than friends. Sontag's silence on the topic of her sexuality brought criticism from the likes of Camille Paglia -- though others, including Larry Kramer, who once said that Sontag was "beyond being a lesbian" -- defended her decision not to talk about her private life.

Sontag was a risk taker, whether writing a book (Illness as Metaphor) inspired in part by her personal struggle with cancer, or taking a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot to the besieged city of Sarajevo. She had a provocateur's penchant for going too far, such as comparing Congress' applause for a George W. Bush speech to the dutiful applause of a Soviet party congress. But in the midst of her iconoclasm her humanitarian concern was authentic.

Sontag's early provocations included praise for Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl as well as for communist Cuba and North Vietnam. To her credit, she later reconsidered these positions, denouncing communism and tweaking her left-leaning audiences by suggesting that perhaps subscribers of Reader's Digest during the 1950s and 1960s were better informed about communism than readers of The Nation.

Her 1978 book, Illness as Metaphor, blasted the superstition and stigma attached to diseases like cancer, and discussed how that social stigma greatly and gratuitously added to the woes of patients. A decade later, in AIDS and Its Metaphors, she used society's response to AIDS to update her argument. Like cancer, she said, AIDS should be seen not as a punishment or a source of shame, but simply as a disease which should be treated accordingly. Anyone who has sat through a "God's punishment" sermon at a friend's funeral, or watched family members walk out of a memorial service because a eulogist did NOT treat AIDS as a shameful secret, could appreciate Sontag's efforts to free patients and their loved ones from the smothering and poisonous shroud of mystique in which certain diseases were cloaked.

In her 1964 essay, "Notes on Camp," Sontag discussed her own mixed feelings about what she described as the Camp sensibility. I admit to having felt a bit of gay pride when I first read her suggestion that homosexual aestheticism and irony made a key contribution to the modern sensibility. But, as gay essayist Paul Varnell has noted, when Sontag wrote, "Camp is the solvent of morality," she was not offering praise. Now the notion that I am part of a Camp sensibility seems as quaint as the shtick of Paul Lynde and Edward Everett Horton: the fact that I can enjoy them does not make them a way of life.

In another 1964 essay, "Against Interpretation," Sontag wrote that interpretation "is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world -- in order to set up a shadow world of 'meanings.'" Like Wilde, she did not think that art should have to defend itself: "It is the defense of art," she wrote, "which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call 'form' is separated off from something we have learned to call 'content,' and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory." Perhaps Sontag was anticipating the degree to which her own work would be subjected to often blistering interpretation.

In her 1977 book On Photography and last year's Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag critiqued how photographs of distant events serve to mediate our understanding and reaction to those events. Her statement, "No 'we' should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain," gives a jolt of rebuke to our tendency to imagine (for example) that we can adequately comprehend or deal with a genocide by viewing pictures from Darfur or seeing the acclaimed new film Hotel Rwanda. She assailed us in our comforts -- no small gift from a writer.

Copyright 2004 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.