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Susan Sontag was a controversial, larger-than-life figure: beautiful, compassionate, maddening, insightful, sometimes arrogant, and always utterly dedicated to her work. As her friend Gary Indiana wrote in a remembrance in The Village Voice, “she was the indispensable voice of moral responsibility, perceptual clarity, passionate advocacy…social justice. Sontag took it as a given that our duty as sentient beings is to rescue the world.”
Susan Sontag was born in New York City in 1933, and raised in Arizona and Los Angeles. She was a second-generation Jewish American whose grandparents left Europe for the Lower East Side. Sontag’s parents were separated for long periods of time while her father, Jack Rosenblatt, ran a fur trading business in China. He died overseas of tuberculosis when Susan was only five. When her mother remarried seven years later, she took her stepfather’s name and became Susan Sontag. A precocious, bookish child, she graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15, going on to Berkeley for a semester, and then to the University of Chicago. She received a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard, also studying at Oxford and the Sorbonne. After teaching at Columbia and elsewhere, she eventually left academia to focus on her writing and creative projects.
For more than 40 years, Sontag wrote with tremendous insight about the cultural and political forces shaping this country. In the 60s and 70s, her essays were efforts to expand what could be taken seriously in the arts. By being serious about subjects and art forms that had not been given their intellectual due, Sontag’s writings were a shock to the American system. That was never more true than in the aftermath of 9/11, when her brief comments in The New Yorker about the underlying causes of the tragedy unleashed a firestorm of anger. For her willingness to criticize American foreign policy, Sontag was labeled a traitor. At the very end of her life, she wrote Regarding the Pain of Others, a book examining our responses to images of war and torture. Even while she was dying of leukemia, Sontag continued to provide a moral compass through which to understand the issues of the day. “I’m interested in various kinds of passionate engagement,” she said. “All my work says ‘be serious, be passionate, wake up!’”
Why should we care about Sontag, or watch a film about her? She was an enormously influential writer who sold millions of copies of her books, and yet the public knows very little about her. Sontag was often brilliant, frequently infuriating, and occasionally maddeningly obtuse, but she was invariably fascinating. Before her death, she hesitatingly admitted to being bisexual; her diaries are much more explicit. “My desire to write is connected to my homosexuality,” she confided in a 1959 journal entry. “I need the identity as a weapon to match the weapon that society has against me. I am just becoming aware of how guilty I feel being queer.”
Sontag did not shrink from political controversy, confounding her literary colleagues with political stands that changed radically over time. Reviewers such as Hilton Kramer and Walter Kendrick publicly called her inconsistent and elitist, while others made fun of her behind her back, nicknaming her “Old Skunk Head” in reference to the famous white streak in her hair. Yet even her enemies acknowledged her bravery. Sontag vehemently opposed the Vietnam War, notoriously claiming “the white race is the cancer of human history.” Demonstrating her beliefs through action, she famously visited Hanoi in 1968, in the midst of heavy American bombing, to show solidarity with the North Vietnamese. Sontag continued bearing witness to war after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when she went to Israel to make Promised Lands, a film about the Palestinian situation in Israel. She supported writer Salman Rushdie when he was under the threat of death from a fundamentalist Islamic fatwah. In the 1990s, she made numerous trips to Sarajevo during the war there, eventually mounting a production of Waiting for Godot in the midst of siege. Sontag also survived a terminal breast cancer diagnosis and a mastectomy at the age of 40. She lived with other forms of cancer for the next 30 years, becoming a role model for all women who struggle with the disease.
Sontag died on December 28, 2004 of acute mylogenous leukemia, after an intense struggle with the disease, her third form of cancer. While her eloquent voice has been silenced, she lives on in her books, essays, letters, and in the dramatic interviews and footage she left behind.