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Friday, December 31, 2004  

Writing: Sontag was provocative, prescient

In America, public intellectuals do not often attract much interest or adulation. The names of quarterbacks for winning professional football teams are better known than those of winners of the MacArthur Prize. Peruse the list of names most searched on the Internet this year and you will discover a bevy of female publicity seekers mainly notable for their so-so singing and dancing skills and showing skin. The list is led by Paris Hilton. So, it is notable that the passage of an American intellectual is the talk of some towns this week. Susan Sontag has finally left the building, but her friends and enemies have made sure her exit was not a quiet one. Sontag, who had battled various forms of cancer since her 30s, succumbed to leukemia this week. She was 71.

Among the many tributes to her impact on thinking people in this country, and internationally, is Charles McGrath's, published by the New York Times.

Part of the appeal was her own glamour - the black outfits, the sultry voice, the trademark white stripe parting her long dark hair. The other part was the dazzle of her intelligence and the range of her knowledge; she had read everyone, especially all those forbidding Europeans - Artaud,Benjamin,Canetti, Barthes, Baudrillard, Gombrowicz, Walser and the rest - who loomed off on what was for many of us the far and unapproachable horizon.

Nor was she shy about letting you know how much she had read (and, by implication, how much you hadn't), or about decreeing the correct opinion to be held on each of the many subjects she turned her mind to. That was part of the appeal, too: her seriousness and her conviction, even if it was sometimes a little crazy-making. Consistency was not something Ms. Sontag worried about overly much because she believed that the proper life of the mind was one of re-examination and re-invention.

Ms. Sontag could be a divisive figure, and she was far from infallible, as when she embraced revolutionary communism after traveling to Hanoi in 1968 and later declared the United States to be a "doomed country. . .founded on a genocide." But what her opponents sometimes failed to credit was her willingness to change her mind; by the 80's she was denouncing communism for its human-rights abuses, and by the 90's she had extended her critique to include the left in general, for its failure to encourage intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda. She had found herself "moved to support things which I did not think would be necessary to support at all in the past," she said in a rueful interview, adding, "Like seriousness, for instance."

. . .For a while Ms. Sontag took the French position that in the right hands criticism was an even higher art form than imaginative literature, but in the 80's she announced that she was devoting herself to fiction. She wrote the indelible short story "The Way We Live Now," one of the most affecting fictional evocations of the AIDS era, and in 1992 she published a novel, The Volcano Lover, that had all the earmarks of the kind of novel she had once made fun of. It was historical and it was a romance, about the love affair of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton. Being a Sontag production, it was of course brainy and stuffed with fact-laden research, but as many critics pointed out, there was also a lightness and even - who would have guessed? - an old-fashioned wish to entertain. Much the same was true of her last novel, In America, which came out in 2000, about a Polish actress who comes to the United States at the end of the 19th century.

Sontag continually reminded of us that life is whole. One cannot be a seriously examine it without considering both the ordinary and the extraordinary. She also was willing to use whatever genre -- essay, reportage, fiction or non-fiction -- she thought best communicated the ideas and information she was trying to convey. (And, because of her incredible talent, her efforts in different genres were superb.) Of equal importance, Sontag valiantly fought against being boxed in. She would criticize the failings of the Left just as determinedly as she would those of the Right. She was as concerned about liberals continuing racism allowing them to give the genocide of Rwandans short shrift as she was about the violations of human rights in Iraq under the current conservative leadership. That willingness to mercilessly critique groups one is part of is a rare attribute among Leftists in America.

Again and again, Sontag returned to the need for seriousness in considering the human condition and what we can do about it. She did not mean that our lives should be ascetic, denying the need for enjoyment that is hardwired into the human brain. She meant that frivolity should not become the main component of our thinking. Sontag would not have been surprised by an annual Internet most searched list that ranked Paris Hilton first and Janet Jackson second. I believe she would have seen it for the escapism it represents. But, despite its message -- this is what most people really care about -- she would have continued her efforts to make issues that matter food for thought, and, grounds for action.

Reasonably related

Susan Sontag has enemies. Among them is second-rate science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, a 'scientific' racist. He faults Sontag for her criticism of Western culture, and, for her belief that human beings are created equal. Read about it at Silver Rights.

8:15 AM