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Thinking Woman

Susan Sontag Was An Irresistible Force Among Intellectuals

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page C01

I first saw Susan Sontag in a New York bodega near the corner of 103rd Street and Broadway. This was in 1969. My God, I thought, that's Susan Sontag, the most public of our public intellectuals -- though perhaps not the most intellectual of them, if you listened to her critics.

And there she was, studying the ice cream case with a calm, judgmental ferocity -- a tall woman with long, thick hair. She looked strong, for an intellectual, strong and big-chinned to the point of a slight mannishness that I did not hold against her -- androgyny being a sort of psychological beauty spot that can heighten the allure of the woman possessing it. I believe she wore a very long scarf that signaled her citizenship in bohemia. She was almost, but not quite, what I was shopping for in a woman.

Susan Sontag's criticism made her an influential cultural icon. She died in a New York cancer hospital Tuesday. (2003 Photo Cristiano Laruffa -- La Presse Via Zuma Press)

I thought of speaking to her, of saying something like: "What are you doing in this grungy neighborhood when you're supposed to be down in the Village sipping wine beneath someone's groaning bookshelves; with Cream on the turntable, and blended scents of cat pee, pipe smoke and marijuana in the air; and you talking about the gay-driven fashion of facetiousness you described in the essay that made you famous: "Notes on Camp"? She extracted a few pints of Haagen-Dazs, I think it was, from the cooler. Good taste in ice cream.

I wanted to ask her if it was true she didn't own a television. I wanted to ask her about her writing, but I'd read so little of it. I wanted to ask her if she was as stoned as I was. I didn't ask her anything. She paid for her ice cream (Oh if I could only remember the flavors! Rum raisin? She seemed like a secondary-flavor type who would eschew the primary chocolate, strawberry and vanilla -- with a slight chance that she would eat only vanilla, for its minimalist authenticity.) I watched her out the door and sighed to myself: "There it is: my Susan Sontag moment."

Why did I care so much? Would I have gotten as worked up if I'd shared a bodega with Hannah Arendt or Alfred Kazin?

Sontag, who died Tuesday at the age of 71, had the gift of fame, which is to say she possessed charisma, which may be why she ended up being called overrated, the fate of charismatic people. I had read more about her than by her.

An Internet biography site quotes the cranky Hilton Kramer in the Atlantic Monthly: "She was admired not only for what she said but for the pain, shock, and disarray she caused in saying it. Sontag thus succeeded in doing something that is given to very few critics to achieve. She made criticism a medium of intellectual scandal, and this won her instant celebrity in the world where ideas are absorbed into fashions and fashions combine to create a new cultural atmosphere."

Also quoted is Commentary essayist Alicia Ostriker, saying that Sontag was "distinguished less by a decided or passionate point of view -- than by an eagerness to explore anything new." She concluded: "Sensitive people are a dime a dozen. The rarer gift Miss Sontag has to offer is brains."

Sontag wrote essays about Sartre and novels about the nature of consciousness. She had a taste for the crepuscular haunts of the psyche. After a struggle with breast cancer she wrote one of her most talked-about books, "Illness as Metaphor," about how we make far-fetched meaning out of illness and blame people for their diseases. Another was "On Photography," the most morbid of our art forms. Critic Robert Hughes is quoted as saying: "It is hard to imagine any photographer agreeing point for point with Sontag's polemic. But it is a brilliant, irritating performance, and it opens window after window on one of the great faits accomplis of our culture. Not many photographers are worth a thousand of her words."

Denis Donoghue said in the New York Times Book Review: "Her mind is powerful rather than subtle; it is impatient with nuances that ask to be heard, with minute discriminations that, if entertained, would impede the march of her argument."

She won prizes, wandered into moviemaking and playwriting, and wrote about science fiction and pornography. Also, she was profiled in Rolling Stone and People magazines, she posed for an ad for Absolut vodka and she appeared in films by Andy Warhol and Woody Allen. I kept reading about her changes of mind, changes made with a blitheness concealed by her conspicuous gravitas: changes on communism (good, bad), Hitler's staff photographer, Leni Riefenstahl (good, bad).

In a speech at Town Hall in 1982, delivered to an audience of New York intellectuals, she had the deftness to insert the knife between their panting, left-leaning ribs and then twist it with: "Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader's Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?"

Oh, the broadsides against her! And the counter-broadsides!

In my mind, at least, she metamorphosed from intellectual flavor-of-the-month to anti-Vietnam war provocateur to a template for the life of the mind. (I read somewhere recently that she had acquired a television but never watched it.) Gradually, she calcified into an icon, a sort of walking statue who didn't so much go to parties as appear at them. As for me, I gradually had gotten into the criticism game, and in 1998, I found myself at the 35th anniversary party of the New York Review of Books, in the atrium of the Frick mansion in Manhattan.

I hoped -- I knew -- she'd be there.

She was -- with a magnificent stripe of white through her still-long hair. (I read that she later switched to a Gertrude Stein crew cut.) She swanned through the crowd of intellectual superstars, projecting what only Queen Elizabeth II had conveyed before to me: "Do not speak to me unless I speak to you first." I obeyed. Everybody seemed to obey. I'm not sure I saw her talk with anyone, though she must have. In any case, I saw that no one has ever or will ever do a better job of being Susan Sontag. Maybe she didn't deserve all the laurels that came with that high station, but she was, in fact, Susan Sontag, an epitome of her age, what cultural historians call a "modal personality," a woman who thought hard and wrote even harder.

I wanted to ask her, "You probably don't remember, but in 1969 you were buying ice cream in a bodega at 103rd and Broadw. . . " I forbore. There was nothing that I wanted to talk to her about, and there hadn't been two decades before. I just wanted her to be Susan Sontag. Maybe I wanted her to want to talk to me, but I realized with a wistful realism that there was no reason she would. There we were, ships that once passed in the fluorescent night of a bodega.

Maybe if I'd just handed her a pint of Haagen-Dazs rum raisin, and walked away. Maybe vanilla.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company