I have been fascinated over these last few days to read obituaries and other articles in memory of the recentely departed Susan Sontag.There was even an item on the Chinese television news the other night, which I watched in my hotel room in the desolate little town of Dengfeng, the home of Shaolin. The fascination has been to learn or relearn details of her remarkable life, and to savor insights into her work and anecdotes from people who knew her. It has been fascinating in a much more personal way for me, as well, recalling my discovery of her through readings like ‘Against Interpretation’ and ‘On Photography,’ in West Africa. I got a good laugh remembering how both were picked up somewhat naively, but avidly, by a young man who was working an interpreter, and thought he could perhaps glean something of relevance to the “craft,” and as an amateur photographer, in a similar spirit. I had heard of her writings in Harpers and elsewhere, and knew they were nothing like technical manuals, but didn’t suspect the worlds they would open (Baudrillard, Barthes and on and on).
These are a few of my favorite comments seen in the various and varied coverage of Sontag’s death:
“With that signature black-on-white swoosh in her hair, and her charismatic and hard-traveling style, she achieved something else worthy of note—the status of celebrity without any of the attendant tedium and squalor. She resolutely declined to say anything about her private life or to indulge those who wanted to speculate… For her, the act of literary consumption was the generous parent of the act of literary production. She was so much impressed by the marvelous people she had read—beginning with Jack London and Thomas Mann in her girlhood, and eventually comprising the almost Borgesian library that was her one prized possession—that she was almost shy about offering her own prose to the reader. Look at her output and you will see that she was not at all prolific…Susan, pressed to define the word “polymath,” was both sweet and solemn. “To be a polymath,” she declared, “is to be interested in everything—and in nothing else.” She was always trying to do too much and square the circle: to stay up late debating and discussing and have the last word, then get a really early night, then stay up reading, and then make an early start. She adored trying new restaurants and new dishes. She couldn’t stand affectless or bored or cynical people, of any age. She only ventured into full-length fiction when she was almost 60, and then discovered that she had a whole new life. And she resisted the last malady with terrific force and resource, so that to describe her as life-affirming now seems to me suddenly weak. Anyway—death be not proud.”
Christopher Hitchens — from Slate
“Susan Sontag was a Manhattan chauvinist. To her, the rest of the US was, as she put it, “drive-through country”. Like many, if not most, Manhattan chauvinists, she grew up in drive-through country herself before heading for the bright lights. But New York was her spiritual home. Not that she was a New York provincial, for whom the world beyond the Hudson River was of no significance. Quite the contrary. She loved New York because it was the best place to mix with the rest of the world.
Sontag was also a europhile who studied at Oxford, lived in Paris, spent much time in Berlin, worked in Stockholm and felt equally at home in London or Rome. Her kind of europhilia was a natural component of her Manhattan chauvinism, for she understood something about her city that sometimes escapes the attention of more casual or superficial observers: Manhattan is where you can still hear the last echoes of a particular kind of European civilisation that was uprooted and almost totally wiped out at its source, a civilisation that flourished once in Vienna, Prague, Krakow and Berlin, before it was swept away by a foul brown tide. Susan Sontag was high-minded in the way that Franz Kafka was, or Robert Musil – or Walter Benjamin, one of her many cultural heroes. She belonged to a humanist tradition that was shaped by the Enlightenment.
Knowledge, aesthetics, political commitment and philosophy, to her, were the stuff of life. Reading the best books, seeing the most important films, hearing the greatest music or contemplating the finest art was not a matter of snobbery, or fashion, or keeping up with trends, but something far more serious.
Art and literature, to Sontag, were not created just to amuse. High civilisation was something you worked for or wrestled with; it took knowledge and study and reflection. The meretricious and superficial were abhorrent to her. In this, too, she was an intellectual, as it were, of the ancien regime. She must have been one of the only people in Manhattan who did not own a television set. She loved works that were long and difficult and took pride in sitting through a German film that lasted for seven hours, not just once, but many times, until she felt she understood, was enlightened. Friendship, to her, was to share her enthusiasm with others. This she did with extraordinary dedication and generosity. Criticism, in her hands, was rarely destructive. She explained why something was good, a much harder task.
Sharing knowledge and enthusiasms is of course an essential part of the European humanist tradition. The exploration of other civilisations, the discovery of the hitherto unknown translation – these are among the Enlightenment’s greatest legacies.
Sontag was a fine novelist, but it is as a translator, a transmitter of art and ideas, not just of Europe but of China, Japan and elsewhere, that she left her deepest mark. Without her, fewer people in the English-speaking world would have understood what Roland Barthes was about, or Jean-Luc Godard, or W. G. Sebald. Without her, Summer in Baden Baden, the brilliant Russian novel by Leonid Tsypkin, would never even have been published. She introduced New Yorkers to the masterpieces of Japanese cinema. She was a Manhattan chauvinist because the city was like a treasure trove of culture, a bazaar of intellectual and aesthetic joys. Again, in the tradition of Benjamin, Baudelaire, and Barthes she was a flaneur, always on the look-out for new cultural experiences and pick-ups.
Browsing in a Manhattan record shop or bookstore late at night, usually after a Japanese meal, was one of the pleasures of knowing Sontag, for these were voyages of discovery. She would want you to read this brilliant Polish essay, or that extraordinary Chilean novel. But her delight was not only as a guide. Her eyes would light up, like those of an enchanted child, if you managed to surprise her with a book or a piece of music she did not know. That did not happen often.”
Ian Buruma – from the Financial Times, Jan 4, 2004
And this kicker from Margalit Fox’s obit in The New York Times:
“In a 1992 interview with The Times Magazine, Ms. Sontag described the creative force that animated “The Volcano Lover,” putting her finger on the sensibility that would inform all her work: “I don’t want to express alienation. It isn’t what I feel. I’m interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says, be serious, be passionate, wake up.” ”

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