Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

Remembering the voice of moral responsibility—and unembarrassed hedonism

There's no way to summarize her restless cultural itinerary and her immense services to "the republic of letters" in the space of an obituary. What I can speak of, here, again, is the indelible example she set as a moral being, citizen, and writer. She sedulously distinguished between the merely personal and the insights personal experience generated. "I" appears less frequently in her writings than in those of any other significant American writer I can think of. If Sontag was less averse, in recent times, to saying "I," it could be that she at last realized she'd earned the authority for "I" to mean more, coming from her, than it does coming from most people. (In America, "I" isn't simply a pronoun, but a way of life.)

It's my guess that growing up in Arizona and Southern California, among people who placed no special value on intelligence and none at all on its cultivation, Sontag's first line of defense against being hurt by other people was the same thing (aside from physical beauty) that distinguished her from ordinary people—that awesome intellect. She could be ferociously assertive, and at times even hurtful, without at all realizing the tremendous effect she had on people. In some ways, like any American intellectual, she often felt slighted or underappreciated, even when people were actually paying keen attention to her.

Her personal magnetism was legendary. Even in later times, she had the glamour of a film star. She almost never wore makeup (though she did, finally, find a shade of lipstick she could stand), and usually wore black slacks, black sweaters, and sometimes a black leather jacket, though occasionally the jacket would be brown. She had the body language of a young person: She once explained to me that people get old when they started acting like old people.

I never heard her say a dumb word, even in moments of evident distress. She did, from time to time, do things that seemed quite odd, but then, who doesn't? Her will to keep experiencing, learning, and feeling "the old emotions"—and, sometimes, to make herself empty, restock her interiority, break with old ideas—came with a project of self-transcendence that Sontag shouldered, like Sisyphus's stone, cheerfully, "with fervor."

She once told Dick Cavett, after the first of her struggles with cancer, that she didn't find her own illness interesting. She stipulated that it was moving to her, but not interesting. To be interesting, experience has to yield a harvest of ideas, which her illness certainly did—but she communicated them in a form useful to others in ways a conventional memoir couldn't be. (To be useful, one has to reach others on the level of thought, not only feeling—though the two are inseparable.)

In light of her own illness, she set about removing the stigma then attached to cancer, dismantling the punitive myths this fearsome illness generated at the time. We don't look at illness in the same way we did before Illness as Metaphor and the widespread examination of our relationship to medicine that it triggered.

Her detachment in this regard was a powerful asset. Many years ago, I went with her one morning to her radiologist. The radiologist had gotten back some complicated X-rays and wanted to discuss them. On the way uptown, Susan was incredibly composed, long resigned to hyper-vigilance as the price of staying alive.

At the clinic, she disappeared into the doctor's office for a worryingly long time. When she came out, finally, she was laughing.

"She put the X-rays up," Susan told me, "and said, 'This really doesn't look good.' So I looked them over, and thought about it. Then I said, 'You're right. These don't look good. But you know something, these aren't my X-rays.' "

They weren't her X-rays. Her most recent procedure had left a temporary, subcutaneous line of staple sutures running from her throat to her abdomen. The tiny metal clamps she knew were there would have glowed on an X-ray.

For some reason this was the first memory that flashed to mind when the sad news came that she was gone.

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