Susan Sontag, one of America’s most influential intellectuals – renowned for the breadth of her critical intelligence and activism in the cause of human rights – died Tuesday of leukemia at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She was 71.
The author of 17 books translated into 32 languages, she vaulted to public attention and critical acclaim with the 1964 publication of “Notes on Camp,” written for Partisan Review and included in “Against Interpretation,” her first collection of essays.
Sontag wrote about subjects as diverse as pornography and photography, silence and fascism, and such writers and intellectuals as Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Elias Canetti.
She was a fervent believer in the capacity of art to delight, to inform, to transform: “We live in a culture,” she said, “in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.”
She was born Jan. 16, 1933, in New York City and raised in Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles, the daughter of an alcoholic schoolteacher mother and fur-trader father who died in China of tuberculosis during the Japanese invasion when Sontag was 5.
She was divorced in 1959 and never remarried.
Sontag’s essays on Albert Camus, Simone Weil, Jean-Luc Godard, Kenneth Anger, Jasper Johns and the Supremes spiced up Partisan Review’s pages. She recoiled at what she regarded as artificial boundaries separating one subject, or one art form, from another.
In 1976, at 43, Sontag discovered she had advanced cancer in her breast, lymphatic system and leg. After undergoing a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy, she was pronounced free of the disease. She learned as much as possible about the disease and wrote “Illness as Metaphor,” an essay condemning the abuse of tuberculosis and cancer as metaphors that transfer responsibility for sickness to the victims, who are made to believe they have brought suffering on themselves.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sontag offered a bold 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?”
In 1995, Sontag spoke about the aim of literature:
“A novel worth reading,” she said, “is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.”
She is survived by her son, David, and a sister, Judith Cohen.