Susan Sontag: 1933-2004
As an 18-year-old freshman at Mills College writing for the student paper, one of my first interviews was with Susan Sontag. The article is probably filed away in my mother’s basement somewhere, and my strongest recollection of the event was getting whiplash when we were rear-ended on a San Francisco hill. I remember being completely in awe of her intellect, struggling (vainly) to come to grips with books like Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will in time to ask anything close to a coherent question.
I’m certain the interview was far less memorable or meaningful to her than it was to me. But it firmly implanted in my mind a model for how someone who lived a life of ideas could be so exciting, so provocative and so relevant. I think that my encounter with her really changed my notions of what it meant to be an adult woman in the world.
She blazed a trail in blurring the distinctions between high and low culture. She believed in applying her critical skills and her training in philosophy to the difficult issues that confront humanity; her most recent work, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” on the subject of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, appeared in the New York Times in May of this year, and she did not shy away from condemning a culture that bred such barbarism:
Soldiers now pose, thumbs up, before the atrocities they commit, and send off the pictures to their buddies. Secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal, you now clamor to be invited on a television show to reveal. What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality.
She became a punching bag for conservatives who did no like the way she spoke in moral absolutes, especially when she expressed her sentiments in such pithy, quotable aphorisms. Most of these people weren’t intellectually fit to shine her shoes (I already bagged on Andrew Sullivan once in the past couple of weeks, so I’ll refrain.) Anyway, if you’ve never read any of her work, you can check it out here.
Jack Kerouac said:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the star…
Susan Sontag burned.