It was one of those horrible, awkward moments when the question comes off as a subtle kind of jab and the answer comes back lightly, softly - like a tiny bottle of nitroglycerin frozen at the apex of its lob.

To wit. Says Patrick Buchanan, former Nixon speechwriter, to Susan Sontag, author and critic, coiner of camp and standard bearer of the New York intelligentsia.

"You once said that the white race is the cancer of human society. Do you still feel that way?"

"Well, I got cancer two years ago and now I'm very sorry that I ever used that kind of disease metaphor."

Suddenly the camera shuts back to Pat. And now host Pat Mitchell holds up a copy of Susan Sontag's latest book, "On Photography," and it's a thank you very much and pow, we are right into the commercial for instant tarnish remover and Susan Sontag has disappeared for good from the "Panorama" screen after that little display.

"Our culture," Sontag says later, "does not really want to hear about death. It does nothing to prepare us for death. For me it's become just a big question mark. I mean, I didn't know until last Thursday whether I would be able to come to Washington on Friday or if I would have to be in the hospital for my sixth operation in two years."

Sontag does not avoid the topic. After she first found out that she had cancer, she began researching and wrote a three-part essay for the New York Review of Books on "Illness as Metaphor." It will be published as a 96-page book later this year.

"I've always just dived into topice," she says. "I'm a great organizer of facts. (Philosophy degree from the University of Chicago, then graduate work at Harvard.) I started reading about disease, and it has such an intense metaphorical component in literature: 'His character was cancerous.' I don't believe your character gives you a disease. I do think that we're constantly in the process of dying, and I know that it's hard to really understand your own life until you can say to yoursself, I'm going to die.' And I think it's important to talk about it. A lot more important than the little nothings that most people talk about."

Sontag has never been a master of small talk. Rather, it's always been the intellectual big bang in magazines like the Partisan Review and The Nation, and the NYRB. In the '60s she analyzed camp and wrote a seminal essay, "Against Interpretation," that beat so many intellectuals - critics in particular - at their own game, slighting her own crowd, going against the old boys' style, questioning the brains, the very thought processes of the Elaine's crowd.

"Interpretation is not merely the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius," she wrote. "It is indeed the modern way of understanding something and is applied to works of every quality. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content, and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art.Interpretaton makes art manageable, comfortable."

Three films, two novels and two books of critism later, Sontag has brought forth what is easily her most controversial writing yet: "On photograhpy," a collection of essays that has sent most photographers scurrying to defend their art.

"What is being urged is an aggressive relation to all subjects," she writes. "Armed with their machines, photographers are to make an assault on reality - which is perceived as recalcitrant, as only deceptively available, as unreal." And later: "Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross."

"Attacking photography is like attacking the weather," Sontag says. "The question is not whether photography is art; the question is how photography has transformed our idea of art.

"It's amazed me how many photographers have taken the book as an attack. I do think that it says what people already know. It just organizes it. Every statement is a partial statement. The book is really about the modern world using photography as a medium of how people think. You can't attack the modern world. You're part of it. At the same time, you can't gain anything without losing something."

Sontag says she won't be writing any more essays for a while: too heavy, She's putting together a book of stories and talks of many things: real estate prices in Georgetown - this is her ninth visit to Washington, seven for demonstrations - chemotherapy; how her intellectual and journalist friends have given up on Jimmy Carter - but she hasn't; she'd love to make another movie; she hates California - it's exact opposite of belief in the mind, she says; she dreads moving her collection of 8,000 books into her new apartment in New York next month.

"You know any good bookstores?" she asks with a bookaholic glint. And five minutes later she is rummaging though the stacks at Booked Up, even as co-owner Marsha Carter is saying, 'Oh, photography books. I hate them. Ansel Adams. A book published last year for $60 and now it's $200. These people who like photography drive you crazy."

But Sontag doesn't even hear this. She's browsing through a few light items by Immanuel Kant and into the travel section and she's saying she loves to travel, and Italy is her favorite country in the world.

And someone utters agreement, and says that parts of Scotland are much like part of Northern Italy. And the woman who wrote "to collect photographs is to collect the world" says she's not really sure about that.

"Oh, you've been to Scotland."

"No, but I've seen pictures of it in a book."