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Susan Sontag: 1933-2004

Cultural Author, Activist Was a Fearless Thinker

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page A01

Susan Sontag, 71, the American intellectual who engaged and enraged equally with her insights into high and low culture, died yesterday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She had leukemia.

Philosophy, photography, pornography -- Sontag explored them all with a defiant gusto, informed by an impressive, if lofty, ability to transcend cultural barriers with a barrage of literary and cultural references.


Susan Sontag characterized her motivations simply: to "know everything," starting with literature.

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She was not averse to self-promotion and indicated that she was one of the few writers able to survive as an essayist. Her books seldom went out of print and were translated into more than 25 languages. She spoke five.

Reading by age 3, having tea and cookies with author and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann at 14 and graduating from college at 18, she went on to a long career as a provocateur through dozens of novels and nonfiction works. Cumulatively, they placed her among the foremost thinkers about the meaning of art, politics, war, silence and humanity.

She wrote movingly but unsentimentally about her own experiences with cancer -- of the breast at age 43 and the uterus decades later -- and how disease is portrayed in popular culture. Her essay "Illness as Metaphor" (1978) is considered her classic exploration of the subject.

Tall, raven-haired with a streak of white, with bold dark eyes and a wry smile, Sontag was a recognizable figure in the mainstream media firmament through lectures and televised debates. She shoved herself to the forefront of contemporaneous debate with her activism against the Vietnam War -- including a trip to Hanoi -- and later denunciations of Communism as stifling the work of intellectuals. Along the way, she raised her voice against authoritarian -- and sometimes democratic -- leaders around the world.

In the early 1990s, she staged Samuel Beckett's existential masterpiece "Waiting for Godot" in Sarajevo amid bombing and sniper fire.

Sontag won the National Book Award for fiction in 2000 for "In America," about a 19th-century Polish actress who moves to California to start a new life. The author also received a MacArthur "genius" grant, among other honors.

Much of her early distinction arose in the 1960s with her advocacy of European artists and thinkers, including philosophers Simone Weil and Walter Benjamin and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Occasionally, she caused palpitations among the fervently patriotic for her less-nuanced commentary, to the effect that "America is founded on genocide" and "the quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth."

More recently, she wrote in the New Yorker about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, denouncing the use of the word "cowardly" to describe the attackers.

"In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of the . . . slaughter, they were not cowards," she wrote.

Those declarations were easy fodder for those ready to scorn her as anti-American or a liberal scourge.

Time magazine made her a pop celebrity in 1964 when it noted her Partisan Review essay, "Notes On 'Camp,' " in which she plunged into the world of urban and mostly homosexual style. Mentioning the ballet "Swan Lake" along with the fashion accouterment of feather boas, she wrote that camp style is "serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. . . . The ultimate camp statement: it's good because it's awful."

But her work appeared largely in literary journals, including the New York Review of Books. She was elevated to near-sainthood by her admirers, who considered her an unstoppable literary force and crystalline thinker.


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