Susan Sontag (1933–2004)

Except in unusually desolating circumstances, human beings do not want to die. Medicines, hospitals, and so on are called upon to do what they can, and, that failing, there is not much to do except to surrender. It was otherwise with Susan Sontag, who fought death, challenged it. Her death in December is a great sadness for those who loved her personally and for those who treasured her luminous career as a writer. In the previous decades she had known serious assaults on her life. An illness sent her to Paris, where in her scholarly fashion she had decided the most hopeful treatment might be found. This past year, she spent months in Seattle being treated for a return of cancer. That failing, she was sent back home to New York, where she underwent further treatment, and then died. A mournful defeat of her will to live.

She was born in New York City, but spent her youth in California. It seems right that she went to Hollywood High, and also to the University of Chicago during its period of intellectually radical experiment. Most useful of all was her time in Paris, since the European literary landscape established, one might say, her eminence as an American essayist. Simone Weil, Camus, Sartre, Nathalie Sarraute, and others were the subjects of her early essays in Partisan Review and in these pages. Indeed, Sontag did not write about Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Faulkner, the heroes of our culture. America for her was the movies and even in that art her subjects were Bresson, Godard, and Resnais. When asked about this, she once said her idea in her essays was to be “useful.” That she accomplished with dazzling brio.

Many of Sontag’s essays are appreciations of the neglected, such as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, “the poetic cinema of shock.” And some are expressions of moral outrage. Under the title “Fascinating Fascism,” the films of Leni Riefenstahl are examined, also in these pages, with a prosecutorial vehemence. After the glories of Triumph of the Will, with its glamorous footage of Hitler’s marching soldiers, Riefenstahl, following World War II, turned to the peaceful Nuba, an African tribe with its ceremonial wrestling matches displaying a primitive ideal of male beauty and strength without a wish to destroy or to humiliate the loser. Sontag’s interpretation of the Nuba photographs finds them yet another celebration of brute strength, of fighting as man’s spiritual mission, in some way Nazi ideals transported to Africa. Riefenstahl’s journey of artistic reclamation does not come out here as she had designed it.

Notes on Camp” is probably the most widely read literary essay of the last decades. Camp is an elusive idea or mode of behavior, acting or “acting out.” Sontag reads it as an historical phenomenon like the notions or costuming of the Pre-Raphaelites. The gestures, fooling around of young men on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village are not new; instead they are a thrift-shop version of attitudes …

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