"I love to read the way people love to watch television," she told Rolling Stone. For her, culture was a vast smorgasbord, a movable feast. The point, she often said, quoting Goethe, was "to know everything."People have not always wanted to hear what she has to say, not only for its overt intellectual construction, but also because of her unwavering dedication to principle (and not always to principles embraced by either the left or the right).
An early and passionate opponent of the Vietnam War, Sontag was both admired and reviled for her political convictions. In a 1967 Partisan Review symposium, she wrote that "America was founded on a genocide, on the unquestioned assumption of the right of white Europeans to exterminate a resident, technologically backward, colored population in order to take over the continent."I appreciated her voice in print and radio commentaries, but perhaps never more so than when she was the first to get beyond shock and self-pity in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and to call America to account for decades of policies that replaced our image as the light of democracy with one of craven capitalism and imperialist hubris that attracted hatred and resentment around the world.
Sontag offered a bold and singular perspective in the New Yorker. "Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?" She added, "In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards."This was not a popular viewpoint (although 3 years later it has become acceptable to ask, if not to pursue), but it needed to be said, we needed to be snapped out of our national fetal position and made to think again. We needed more than to "be strong," and she called us to give that some serious thought.
While the "cowards" line above brought her all the grief, it buried this paragraph, which continues to have relevance today:
Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be.Indeed it isn't. And I'm sorry that we won't continue to have her input to poke us where we most need poking as we continue to stumble our way toward determining who we are in this new era and where to go from here.
Some other links:
- SusanSontag.com (by her publisher?)
- A biography with selected bibliography
- The New Yorker's full section of editorials after 9/11.
- Sizing Up Sontag by Richard Blow
- An article by Sontag about Abu Ghraib, both for itself and as a window into our understanding of reality and the shaping of our ideas of it by photographs.
- Update: The NYTimes official obituary (via Medley).
- Update 2: NPR has a short tribute, which includes an interview clip.
- Update 3: Salon has reposted an interview with Sontag from 2001, shortly after her controversial column -- If you only read one of them, this is the one that lets her speak for herself.