The Death Of
Ideas: On The Passing
Of Susan Sontag
By Am Johal
10 January, 2005
are few, those writers that take you places with with the deftness,
beauty and lucidity of their words, that you can no longer be an innocent
bystander. They have the power to provoke, to challenge and force you
to look at the world through a different prism. For me, Susan Sontag
was the kind of writer I could fall in love with just for the way she
It was like listening
to great music, watching a film that matters or that feeling of being
moved by a work of art.
Sontag was born
in New York City in 1933, grew up in Arizona and attended high school
in LA. She received her BA from the University of Chicago and did graduate
work in philosophy, literature and theology at Harvard University and
Saint Anne's College, Oxford.
Sontag won awards
including the 2003 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the 2003 Prince
of Asturias Prize, the 2001 Jerusalem Prize, the National Book Award
for In America, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography.
in 1992, she received the Malaparte Prize in Italy, and in 1999 she
was named a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French
government and was a MacArthur Fellow.
Whether she was
writing essays about the films of Godard and Bergman or for her writings
on photography, her classics like "Illness as Metaphor", her
fiction, films and plays including, 'Alice in Bed,' she had a gift for
timing in relaying a perspective on the human condition that was always
relevant. When you were in the literary presence of Susan Sontag, you
knew your were mind was being nourished by a learned mind. She was America's
rock star intellectual, queen of the NPR
crowd, and moved effortlessly between high culture and the masses.
What Sontag did
by living in Vietnam in the late 60's, denouncing martial law in Poland,
defending Salman Rushdie against the fatwa that had been put on his
head while she served as the President of PEN and putting on a production
of "Waiting for Godot" in war torn Sarajevo was to enlighten
the public sphere in a way few people could do. As Western mainstream
culture became more banal and superficial, there were few like Sontag
who brought a cultivated mind to bear on the great questions of her
Through the body
of her work including four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, the Volcano
Lover, and In America; a collection of short stories, I, etcetera; several
plays including Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea and her brilliant
works of non-fiction including Against Interpretation, On Photography,
Illness as Metaphor and Where the Stress Falls, Sontag enriched the
public sphere with a literary depth which was more accessible than the
kind of academic jargon that was passing for high public discourse during
She had a long running
battles with health including tumors and sarcomas, but continued to
offer perspectives on illness that were in many ways ground breaking.
It should come as no surprise that a street will be named after her
in Sarajevo where she was involved in resistance activities.
Sontag also had
a high profile relationship with the photographer Annie Liebowitz.
Even in the years
which preceded her death, Sontag continued to enrage the conservative
voices of America and the Bush Administration and its aggressive foreign
policy. Sontag was one of the first to publicly criticize US foreign
policy after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. One
of her last essays was about the Abu Ghraib prison.
We are all diminished
with the passing of Susan Sontag.