Volume 74, Number 35 | January 05 - 11, 2005

Susan Sontag, 71, critic who was fiercely independent

By Chris Schmidt

Susan Sontag died of leukemia on Tues., Dec. 28, at the age of 71.

With her dies the era of the glamorous public intellectual — and perhaps even the idea of New York as the center of modern literary intelligence.

Such was this writer’s influence and icon status. The writer’s many, often conflicting positions — last week anti-American, this week anti-communist — have proven so controversial, her legacy will no doubt be debated for years. This is particularly true for gay men and lesbians, who have both taken her up as a kind of diva of letters and reproved her for not speaking openly about her bisexuality.

What is not in dispute is Sontag’s brilliance or breadth as a writer. She wrote essays, novels, short fiction, plays and films that bristle with social critique and sparkle with an imperious and polished prose.

Precocious by almost any standard, an always bookish Sontag graduated from high school at 15; then attended the University of Chicago and Harvard and Oxford Universities; married; divorced; and gave birth to her son, David Rieff, all before the age of 30. Establishing herself first as a cultural critic in the 1960s, writing for publications like the New York Review of Books and the now-defunct Partisan Review, Sontag became the era’s representative female intellectual.

Despite her more recent successes in fiction writing — her novel “In America” won the National Book Award — and her controversial political positions, it’s likely as a critic that she’ll be most remembered. “Against Interpretation,” “On Photography,” “Illness as Metaphor” — the titles of these books are as coolly stylish as the prose contained within them.

Sontag owed at least some of her celebrity to her remarkable beauty and style. That glamorous black mane with its shock of white hair became an iconic image, particularly after Sontag appeared in the Woody Allen movie “Zelig.” In part because her writing advocated an erasure of the boundaries between high and low art, she herself became a pervasive presence in pop culture. Early in her career she was a regular guest on television talk shows; more recently, Sontag appeared in an Absolut vodka advertisement shot by Annie Leibovitz. If such gestures seem incongruous with Sontag’s sterner side, it is partly because the world has changed since she admitted, in 1978, “Rock and roll really changed my life.” Sontag became more serious — more committed to literature and high art — as the culture became more frivolous.

In 1996, she recanted her earlier flippancy: “What I didn’t understand … was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large… Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete.”

So Sontag became something of a mainstream icon even as she abandoned her interest in pop culture. Was Sontag a gay icon? Provisionally, yes. Her first succès de scandale, the 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” took the gay sensibility as its subject, even as it disdained identifying with it: “I am strongly drawn to [camp], and almost as strongly offended by it,” she wrote.

Indeed, as a defining statement on the topic, “Notes on Camp” is oddly sober, almost clinical, in tone. Sontag’s attraction to camp, and the simultaneous need to distance herself from it, came to characterize much of her relationship with gay culture, both in print and in life.

On one hand, Sontag wrote about gay artists such as Jack Smith and Paul Goodman as gay artists long before it was fashionable to do so. Her critical equipoise helped advance the discourse on homosexuality, making it something that could, and should, be considered seriously.

Yet Sontag’s refusal to come out — stories about her complicated living arrangements with lover Annie Leibovitz abound as dinner party gossip — complicates her relationship to gay and lesbian readers.

“I don’t talk about my erotic life any more than I talk about my spiritual life,” she once told a journalist. Her sexuality, she felt, was “too complex and it always ends up sounding so banal.” Yet Sontag’s political stridency on so many other issues, as well as her reluctance to write about her sexuality, open her to accusations of timidity. And the very least, her silence on the subject reveals her to be icy, unsensual and contradictory — qualities that have calcified into The Sontag Persona, an entity that has long threatened to eclipse the writing.

And on the subject of gay men’s sexuality, Sontag wrote with such circumspection and high-handedness that critics went so far as to call her homophobic, if unconsciously so. Her short story “The Way We Live Now” is widely heralded as one of the smartest literary treatments of AIDS to come out of the plague years. But Sontag’s other efforts in that direction have been less well received. She wrote her 1988 book, “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” with the intention of dismantling the prejudices — and indeed, homophobia — surrounding the illness. The following year, D.A. Miller, then a professor at Harvard, wrote an excoriating and influential critique of the book in the literary journal October. Miller claimed that Sontag propagated the same damaging stereotypes about gay men with AIDS — that they are de facto promiscuous, and that they courted the plague as a kind of hedonistic suicide — that she ostensibly set out to debunk.

Questionable passages aside, queer readers have emerged as some of her most ardent torchbearers. Craig Seligman, a gay critic and editor, this year published a valentine to the writer entitled, “Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me,” in which he defends Sontag against Miller and other critics. Yet, Seligman was somewhat lame in his defense: “For Christ’s sake, Sontag is gay,” he declares, as if that alone were enough to end discussion on the topic. But couldn’t Sontag’s unwillingness to identify as gay be precisely what led to her unexamined prejudices?

It remains to be seen what permanent legacy Sontag’s writing will have in arts and letters. But as a contemporary literary icon — someone who thought as a writer, wrote as a thinker and did both fearlessly — she has inspired countless others and is irreplaceable.

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