In the obituary, a life is compacted into a few sentences on a page.
This is a common form, containing an individual’s childhood, schooling, career, publications, and the cause and manner of death, alongside the survivors.
Notable figures, such as Edward Said, the Palestinian partisan, and Arthur Miller, the playwright, are granted a flattering retrospective.
Any shortcomings and conflicts are overshadowed by the respectful presentation of the person’s intellectual achievements. This is the literary afterlife which is the preface to the obituary.
When Susan Sontag passed away in December 2004, the reaction to her legacy in the news was anything from ambivalent to downright hostile.
Her obituaries reflected the same attitude she had been met with throughout her life; admiration, criticism, and even personal grudges were all represented.
However, no real sense of reverence accompanied her death, as if many were content to simply forget their grievances and move on.
The following is a collection of the most commonly used descriptions of Sontag published by the New York Times:
For forty years, public opinion on Ms. Sontag was sharply divided. Many people used words such as “explosive,” “original,” “naive,” “sophisticated,” “aloof,” “populist,” “puritanical,” “sybaritic,” “sincere,” “posturing,” “ascetic,” “voluptuary,” “right-wing,” “left-wing,” “profound,” “superficial,” “ardent,” “bloodless,” “dogmatic,” “ambivalent,” “tenacious,” “ecstatic,” “melancholic,” “humorous,” “humorless,” “deadpan,” “rhapsodic,” “cantankerous,” and “clever” to describe her. However, one thing was certain: no one ever described her as dull.
Her career is one that still awaits assessment; her obituaries often feature paradoxical descriptions, with this being the most intricate example.
Could this be an attempt to use her own words to deconstruct her own reputation, as John Simon accused her of using such high-sounding phrases without understanding them?
Could it be an effort to categorize someone who was neither left- nor right-wing, neither puritanical nor sybaritic, neither profound nor superficial?
She was unafraid to change her views, even if her previous opinion had been expressed strongly, and she was willing to make herself the subject of discussion, though she kept her private life strictly that.
After her death, the New York Times and others used the opportunity to discuss her legacy, something she could no longer respond to.
Many of the obituary writers seemed to emphasize Sontag’s penchant for fame, as if that alone explained her willingness to court controversy.
However, fame was not her primary purpose. It was not avoided, but it was secondary. Accusing Sontag of merely seeking fame was a way of disregarding her great impact and her true quality. No one ever criticized an ambitious man for his ambition for fame.
Edward Said was never denounced for using his academic celebrity to bring attention to the Palestinian cause.
The “irreconcilable division” noted by the Times was not a sign of someone only out for fame, but rather of a thinker for whom fame was just a natural result of her thinking. Knowing her name was essential for people to learn her ideas.
Dissemination was vital to Sontag; if people found out about her from a Vogue profile with a picture by Irving Penn, that was beyond her control. It was just a matter of how far the news spread.
The obituaries all felt obligated to mention her appearance: the Times said “as time went on, her visage–stark features, wide mouth, intense gaze and dark mane, crowned in her later years by a streak of white–became a recognizable representation of twentieth-century popular culture.”
British cultural commentator Angela McRobbie began her 1991 essay “The Modernist Style of Susan Sontag” with a review of Sontag’s photographs, much like Sontag’s opening of her essay on Walter Benjamin, “Under the Sign of Saturn.”
Benjamin was the classic melancholic, with “the downward look through his glasses–the soft, daydreamer’s gaze of the myopic,” whereas Sontag is the embodiment of cerebral sensuality–as one male writer put it, “the ideal of the bohemian graduate-student lover that every bookish man feels he should have.”
Sontag admitted to feeling anxious and defenseless when photographed–and she was photographed by some of the best, like Robert Mapplethorpe, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Annie Leibovitz–but her charisma gave her clout, and she kept posing for the camera, possibly because she understood its power more than anyone.
In her book On Photography (1977) she wrote: “To take a picture is to take part in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, and impermanence.”
Sontag wanted the audience to take part in her works.
This was an uncommon occurrence when it came to critics such as Lionel Trilling, Derrida, and her favorite Roland Barthes.
Generally, those who analyze and critique are perceived as lurking around the edges, scrutinizing other people’s work. Sontag was aware of her physical beauty and used it to her advantage.
As someone who was gifted with both looks and an outstanding mind, she had the attention of the world. Her presence was not only seen as attractive but also trustworthy. The Guardian stated that she was the embodiment of radical chic, being both serious and beautiful.
While the term “adornment” could be seen as undermining, “serious” and “gorgeous” can be considered indisputable.
Sontag’s primary question was whether the world could take her seriously despite her good looks.
At the time of her death, the public’s reception of Susan Sontag was ambivalent, and Sontag herself was anxious about celebrity.
Her apprehensions were not unfounded; her looks combined with her fame could have easily resulted in her being seen as an intellectual mascot or worse, mere adornment.
In an article for New York magazine, Franklin Foer published a posthumous profile of Sontag in which she expressed her attitude toward fame in a letter to her publisher, Roger Straus.
As she prepared to return to New York from Paris in 1972, she wrote, “I’m back in the race to become The Most Important Writer of My Generation and all that shit.”
Her brief stay in France had not removed her from this “race” and, what she termed as her “pop celebrity fame” in more polite terms.
Sontag was well aware of the trappings of fame, having visited Andy Warhol’s Factory and been the subject of one of his screen tests.
She had also encouraged readers to embrace popular culture and its pleasures.
Ironically, her pursuit of the title of “Most Important Writer of My Generation” rendered her unimportant in the eyes of some, which she greatly feared as seriousness was of the utmost importance to her.
In her essay “The Aesthetics of Silence,” she discussed how seriousness is always a risk for artists as it can easily lead to alienation from the public.
However, she did not want to remain silent and abandon her art, as she wanted to express and write with seriousness, even if it meant risking being misunderstood.
Stephen Koch, a longtime friend and critic of the late Susan Sontag, discussed her “posthumous fame snipes” in an article published in the New York Observer, claiming that she was a “natural celebrity.”
He argued that American intellectuals are not supposed to crave the attention of the masses, even if they are as beautiful as movie stars.
However, obituaries from the Independent and other British publications were quick to condemn her, suggesting that her need for fame led her to make errors that caused her admirers to “think again.”
Koch contended that she was not trying to emulate Mary McCarthy, but rather the works of Gide and Henry James, emphasizing the importance of “seriousness” to Sontag.
Craig Seligman, author of Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, noted the lack of humor in her writing, suggesting that this “arm’s length” distance may have contributed to the grudges held against her.
This is, after all, the definition of arrogance–separating oneself from the crowd, which makes people label them as “conceited.”
Sontag’s haughtiness was rooted in her early career success. It was the 1960s, and the New York intellectual scene was alive with debate, drinks, and the occasional aging relic of the previous decade.
She arrived in 1959 with her seven-year-old son, seventy dollars, and two suitcases, after living in various places such as Arizona, California, Chicago, Oxford, Paris, and Boston.
She had met her husband, the Freudian scholar Phillip Rieff, at the University of Chicago when she was just seventeen, and they married after a brief courtship. Sontag helped Rieff write the book Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, and she pursued her PhD at Harvard.
After coming back from a year abroad, she decided to start a new life in the sophisticated and intellectual Upper West Side rather than living with her husband.
It was there that she began to attend cocktail parties, where it is said that she once asked William Phillips, the editor of the Partisan Review, how she could write for them.
He answered in response to the query.
She questioned, “What am I inquiring about?”
The “New York Intellectuals” is the milieu of Susan Sontag, according to critic Irving Howe in his Commentary piece, in which he labeled Sontag with a sexist remark as “a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from grandmother’s patches”.
Howe was critical of Sontag’s generation, a typical tale of the younger generation being in contrast to the older.
Nevertheless, her readers did not agree with Howe’s assessment. Sontag’s ambition to write for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people was fulfilled with the help of Phillips, and Roger Straus from Farrar, Straus and Giroux increased her presence in the public eye.
Subsequently, she was described in her obituaries as having “a gift for cultivating men of influence and intellectual power”, which she used wisely, as there were no other women of influence to cultivate, save for Barbara Epstein from New York Review of Books.
The Partisan Review and other journals collected her essays and FSG published them in Against Interpretation in 1966, which became a great success.
Some speculated she had used her looks to advance her career, but as Seligman states, “The charge that Sontag used her beauty to further her career is drivel; the essays collected in Against Interpretation would have made a warthog famous.”
The book is still impressive; it is confident without being too much, diverse without exceeding its limits, and is a great blend of critical voice and subject.
Sontag’s introduction expresses that the act of writing criticism is an act of intellectual disburdenment as well as intellectual self-expression.
Her ability to “use up problems” makes the book so successful, and her bold statement that she has arrived at a “theory of my own sensibility” caused the world to take notice.
In her essay “Against Interpretation,” Sontag proposed a new direction for criticism that would allow art to express itself.
She argued that the traditional approach to interpreting art was respectful but obscured the meaning of the artwork.
Sontag advocated a method of commentary that would enhance the artwork rather than expose it. This viewpoint was echoed in her other works, such as “On Style,” which examined the films of Robert Bresson, certain plays, and science fiction movies.
This type of examination of pop culture was not something she often went back to later in her career.
The essay “Notes on Camp” in Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation has been widely misconstrued as a downplaying of the distinction between high and low culture.
In reality, it is a complex and nuanced work that explores the contrast between the two in considerable detail, with androgyny and kitsch as cornerstones of a style later popularized by drag queens.
Sontag’s assertion that “the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s own sex” was an innovative addition to the discourse of taste.
This idea, and the analysis of camp style that accompanied it, made her an internationally renowned celebrity, causing the Hollywood Reporter to write in her obituary that the essay had “established her as a major new writer” and “popularized the ‘so bad it’s good’ attitude toward popular culture”.
The New York Times referred to the essay as a “shot across the bow of the New York critical establishment”, while the Times U.K. hailed it as the work which “established her almost instantly as a cultural commentator of stature”.
Arthur C. Danto, an art critic for Artforum magazine, had a great appreciation for Susan Sontag in his March 2005 article, “Passion Play.”
He compared Sontag, who labeled herself a “besotted aesthete” and “obsessed moralist,” to the “fundamental aesthete,” Oscar Wilde.
Sontag was deeply devoted to aesthetics and wrote a review in 1963 for the New York Review of Books in which she divided writers into two groups: “husbands” and “lovers.” Danto put Sontag in the latter group, suggesting she “addressed dangerous topics” and practiced criticism in an “erotic” manner.
Sontag was known for her controversial essays like “Camp” and “Against Interpretation,” where she called for an “erotics of art.”
Her willingness to challenge the status quo set her apart from other aesthetes. Danto believes Sontag transformed the dreary field of academic philosophy into something much more passionate.
This leads to the inquiry of how an aesthete should live, according to Sontag.
Some people criticized her for living an enthusiastic life and taking advantage of her fame and beauty, yet she used her celebrity to draw attention to social causes.
Critics are not necessarily passionate about their subject. There is a phrase for this tendency to remain “critical distance” from their material.
Sontag had a different inclination: “critical intimacy.” She states in the preface to Against Interpretation that she only writes about what interests her deeply.
What she essentially did was critique the things she loved, which made her life and work incredibly intense.
Craig Seligman, in his tribute to her, observed that she was “magnificently coldblooded” when it came to aesthetic issues, but “hotblooded and hot headed” when it came to politics.
Sontag was passionate about her topics, though her essays were composed with careful, measured, and composed prose.
In the Washington Post obituary, Sontag’s work was noted for its even-handedness, and her ability to both engage and enrage with her observations on high and low culture.
Her essays, particularly those included in her 1980 collection Under the Sign of Saturn, were recognized for their admiration and respect for the writers they honored.
Additionally, her works on photography (On Photography) and the language of pain and suffering (Illness as Metaphor, 1978; expanded upon in AIDS and Its Metaphors, 1988; Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003) were praised for their creative and captivating qualities.
Her last essay, which discussed the photos from Abu Ghraib prison and the issue of torture, was published in 2004, at a time when Sontag was suffering from “a particularly virulent blood cancer.”
Previous to this, she had written On Photography and Illness as Metaphor while tackling cancer before, and had overcome it in her mid-sixties.
As she was preparing for the adult-stem-cell transplant to treat the cancer, she wrote the piece on Iraq.
David wrote in a posthumous article about the illness and its effects, stating that “to him, torture is not too strong or hyperbolic a word” in reference to her experience.
In her examination of the torture photos of Iraqi prisoners, Sontag attempts to analyze a “public-relations disaster.”
She notes the administration’s avoidance of using the term “torture” and points out the “perpetrators, posing, gloating, over their helpless captives.”
She goes on to discuss how the camera has infiltrated the lives of people, not only in war-time atrocities, but also in documentaries like Capturing the Friedmans, which deals with a family of accused pedophiles.
Sontag then states with horror that “The photographs are us” as a way of pointing out the logical conclusion of the Warholian line: webcams recording the most mundane aspects of existence, all these images creating a “culture of shamelessness” where people yearn to be invited on television shows to reveal their secrets.
Despite this, Sontag herself guarded her own private life just as carefully as the photos of her that she staged.
The Washington Post’s obituary for Susan Sontag delved into her political stances, such as her criticism of American imperialism on a trip to Vietnam, her advocacy for the Bosnian people, and her staunch defense of Salman Rushdie when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him for The Satanic Verses.
This caused some to become “palpitations among the fervently patriotic,” and her enemies spanned both the left and right.
Christopher Hitchens’s piece on Slate.com also discussed her political involvements, commending her for her “dexterity” in the Rushdie case.
Hitchens recalled her saying that she thought about Rushdie “as if he was a lover,” but also noted her obliviousness to people around her, something that seemed to be a common theme among her admirers.
Hitchens, ever the provocateur, starts his tribute by saying that there should be a separation between the words “public” and “intellectual”.
He believes that the life of a cultivated mind should be kept private, being reserved and discreet.
This is because the most enjoyment one can get from reading is in private; when the reader notices the intricate details like a joke in a religious text or a secret message in a diary, they can take pleasure in this without the need for an audience.
The same emotion can be experienced when a reader turns into a writer and is successful in finding the perfect word or a way to expose hypocrisy.
Sontag was an example of such a public intellectual. Her appreciation for reading, photography, and old-fashioned international high culture was admired by the British.
The Guardian named her the “Dark Lady” of American intellectual life and goes on to say that she was aloof and posed, making it difficult for people to become close to her.
The Times U.K. commented that her expertise and vocal cultural comments made her similar to the French concept of a public intellectual.
The Daily Telegraph referred to her as a paragon of radical intelligence and austere beauty, suggesting that the New York Review of Books would have had to invent her had she not existed.
The Telegraph’s obituary noted Susan Sontag’s long-delayed return to fiction, having published two experimental novels in the 1960s.
This was followed by The Volcano Lover in 1992, a novel based on a love triangle between Sir William Hamilton, his wife, Emma, and her lover, Lord Nelson.
This novel was born from a “fear that giving readers pleasure might seem trivial” that Sontag discovered in conversation with her psychiatrist.
However, her last novel, In America, did not receive the same favorable reception, with accusations of Sontag relying on uncredited sources. Terry Castle, a literary critic, even asked whether any “other major literary figure [had] written such an excruciatingly turgid book?”
Sontag was aware of the criticism that her fiction was receiving, but she felt that the resentment was part of the disparagement of her work since Against Interpretation.
In her tribute to Paul Goodman, she noted that “there is a terrible, mean American resentment towards a writer who tries to do many things.”
Sontag was an esteemed admirer of Goodman, praising his voice in particular: “It was that voice of his that seduced me–that direct, cranky, egotistical, generous American voice.”
She penned an essay in tribute to him after reading his obituary, describing him as a writer who was unlike her in terms of his style and his courage in being honest about his homosexuality.
As for Sontag, her own sexual orientation was never directly addressed in her work, although she did provide a comment to address this in interviews – “I don’t talk about my erotic life any more than I do my spiritual life. It is too complex and always ends up sounding banal.”
Her obituaries noted that she was never dull.
In spite of her widespread acclaim as a critic, Sontag desired to be remembered as a fiction writer since this genre was the one she most appreciated.
She explained in an interview after finishing The Volcano Lover in 1992 that she had no interest in conveying estrangement, but rather sought to express “various kinds of passionate engagement”.
Ironically, her fiction works have been the least remarkable of her body of work, lacking subtlety and depth.
Contrarily, Sontag boasted about how effortlessly she could write fiction, often requiring only one or two drafts.
She explained that it was like having “the doors flung open and there’s a view”. On the other hand, writing essays was likened to “making bouillon out of soup”, an arduous process that found her barely eating or sleeping and enduring severe headaches.
Despite the difficulty, she asserted that it was worth it.
In her essays on Paul Goodman and Walter Benjamin, Sontag’s own aspirations are evident. In “Saturn” she proclaimed that the “self is a project, something to be built” and that one is constantly in debt to themselves.
This notion of constructing and altering is prominent in her criticism but lacking in her novels, which she admitted were “turgid” books.
Her adoration for critics outweighed the time spent on her own writing, which resonated with her fans.
Ironically, it appears that her own judgment of her work is one area where her critical eye may have failed.
Terry Castle, a fan, a sometime friend and fellow critic gave the most candid and canny response to Susan Sontag’s death.
A favorite photograph of Sontag, taken by Peter Hujar in the 1970s, depicts her lying down while wearing a gray turtleneck and disheveled hair, which Castle says has a “slightly pedantic quality” to it.
Castle’s essay “Desperately Seeking Susan” gives a truthful insight into Sontag, detailing her vanity, pettiness, and even her less desirable qualities.
Castle humorously references Sontag’s “famous look” as resembling a stage direction in ‘Blithe Spirit’ and recounts stories of Sontag dragging her to a dinner with Lou Reed, reenacting the bombing of Sarajevo, and proclaiming her own library the best in private hands.
Despite all of this, Castle still forgives Sontag, noting that she was the leader of the ‘Smart Woman Team’ and was the one doing the work while others were struggling to catch up.
Castle has written the kind of obituary that people desire, regardless of its divergence from the typical form and content.
Newspaper writers cannot capture the character of a person in the same way that Castle has: “On the one hand, there was her carefully cultivated moral seriousness – ‘strenuousness’ could be a better word – and on the other, a whimsical, Mrs. Jellyby-like absurdity.
Her complex and captivating sexuality was an element of her humorous side.
The lofty-mindedness and superior attitude were intertwined with a love of tales, jest and attractive exhibitions – and, when she was in a good and unthreatened mood, a good amount of ironic self-awareness.”
It is impossible to expect obituary columnists to create such a work of art. That is left to people who knew her, like Castle, Danto and Hitchens, who may have diverse opinions about her.
Sontag’s writing was passionate and intense, allowing readers to feel as if they befriended her subject. In her piece on French philosopher Roland Barthes, “Remembering Barthes,” she described him as able to “generate ideas about anything.”
She praised the quality of his work, noting that it was “interesting, vivacious, rapid, dense, and pointed.”
She also mentioned his love for fame, and his tendency to be “self-absorbed.” Sontag connected her friend’s “boundless capacity for self-referring” to his pursuit of pleasure.
Her tribute was a way of providing her host with the best moments of a dinner party, immortalized through her writing.
Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Perspicuous Consumption” is arguably the most fitting tribute to Susan Sontag yet.
Koestenbaum’s fragmented, provisional style illuminates the reasons for Sontag’s shifts from fiction to essay: an attempt to escape the “punitive confines of the essay” or the “connect-the-dots dreariness of fiction”, as she used essays to behave like fictions, and vice versa.
Koestenbaum’s essay is the closest one can get to understanding Sontag as he expresses what he admired about her and why he will miss her.
His elegy also extends to her idols, Goodman, Benjamin, et al., whom he presents as idealized and human at the same time.
He reflects on his own fantasy of what it would have been like to have a drink with her, to gossip, to hear her private opinions.
Koestenbaum’s piece conveys a sentiment that is the opposite of what newspapers do: a bit of literary compassion and an act of critical intimacy.
I have been, and still am, loyal to Susan.