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Susan Sontag sparked controversy for four decades.
Susan Sontag sparked controversy for four decades. (AFP Photo)

Susan Sontag, essayist, social activist, dead at 71

Susan Sontag -- one of America's preeminent intellectuals, whose essays, novels, and political pronouncements made her both revered and reviled for four decades -- died of leukemia yesterday in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She was 71.

Ms. Sontag was a unique figure in world culture, uncategorizable and larger than life. For the most part, she avoided academe and any institutional affiliation, going her own severe way. She refused to be pigeonholed. Along with the essays that won her fame, she wrote novels, short stories, and plays; made four films; and directed theater.

Ms. Sontag took all of culture as her preserve. Although she professed to be proudest of her novels, which include the National Book Award-winning ''In America" (2000), she was best known for her essays. She wrote extensively on literature and film, but her two most widely read books are ''On Photography" (1976) and ''Illness as Metaphor" (1978). The latter, a study of the slippery cultural uses that diseases such as cancer and tuberculosis have been put to, grew out of her own experience with breast cancer in the mid-1970s.

A formidable, intimidating personage, Ms. Sontag was alternately acclaimed as a priestess of high culture and scorned, in the words of the novelist John Updike, as ''our glamorous camp follower of the French avant-garde."

Even Ms. Sontag's harshest detractors had to concede her towering erudition. The novelist Carlos Fuentes once likened her to the great Renaissance thinker Erasmus. ''Erasmus traveled with 32 volumes, which contained all the knowledge worth knowing," Fuentes wrote. ''Susan Sontag carries it in her brain! I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate."

That capacity to link and connect helped give Ms. Sontag's work its distinctly cosmopolitan cast. She divided her time between New York and Europe, and the world of Anglo-American letters held little interest for her. The figures she most admired tended to be European -- Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Elias Canetti, Jean-Luc Godard -- and, like her, tended to be more comfortable with thought than feeling.

Indeed, Ms. Sontag's erudition lent a slightly inhuman aspect to her work. Her bookishness flirted with airlessness, and not a few readers detected solemnity and self-aggrandizement in her lofty intellectual tone.

An innate intellectual austerity informed everything she wrote. ''Somebody says: 'The road is straight,' " she said in a 1978 interview. ''OK, then: 'The road is straight as a string.' There's such a profound part of me that feels that 'the road is straight' is all you need to say and all you should say."

Ms. Sontag professed to disdain the machinery of publicity, yet this seemed only to add to her fame. She had an undeniable mystique, one that drew as much on her striking appearance as on her intellectual firepower. ''Very intense, very pretty, and very interested in absolutely everything" was how her publisher, Roger Straus, once described her. At various times dubbed ''the Natalie Wood of the US avant-garde" and ''the Dark Lady of American Letters," Ms. Sontag was that rarest of creatures: a celebrity intellectual.

Irving Penn photographed her for Vogue. Kevin Costner's character in the movie ''Bull Durham" hails Ms. Sontag as ''brilliant," even as he dismisses her fiction as ''self-indulgent, overrated crap." A song in the Broadway musical ''Rent" cites her. She appeared as herself in Woody Allen's movie ''Zelig." Her habit of dying her hair so as to preserve a lightning-bolt-like white streak inspired a New Yorker cartoon.

Ms. Sontag's celebrity sprang in part from her sense of political engagement. During the late 1980s, she served a term as president of the American branch of PEN, the international literary organization, and she was one of the first writers to denounce the death sentence imposed on the novelist Salman Rushdie. To draw attention to the plight of Sarajevo during the early '90s, she visited the besieged city 11 times and directed a production of ''Waiting for Godot" there.

''She was a true friend in need," Rushdie said in a statement yesterday. ''Susan Sontag was a great literary artist, a fearless and original thinker, ever valiant for truth, and an indefatigable ally in many struggles."

Ms. Sontag's political commitment earned her attacks as well as plaudits. She notoriously wrote that ''the white race is the cancer of human history" (a statement she later lamented, as much rhetorically as politically, in ''Illness as Metaphor"). She rhapsodized over North Vietnam in her 1968 ''Trip to Hanoi." Conversely, she drew the ire of radicals when she spoke at a pro-Solidarity rally in 1982 and said Reader's Digest had more accurately described the reality of Soviet Communism than The Nation had.

Even so, nothing could have prepared Ms. Sontag for the firestorm that followed her writing in The New Yorker shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, ''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?"

Although Ms. Sontag tempered her radicalism over the years, she remained very much on the left. Her political views mirrored her aesthetic views. She championed the avant-garde and esoteric. Critics accused her of being an over-eager promoter of the new in such early essay collections as ''Against Interpretation" (1966) and ''Styles of Radical Will" (1969). She famously argued that ''in place of a hermeneutics [interpretation] we need an erotics of art."

Yet in many ways Ms. Sontag was a deeply conservative figure. There is an Old Testament righteousness to her cultural pronouncements, and a high moral seriousness informs everything she wrote. Prime instances would be ''AIDS and Its Metaphors" (1988) and ''Regarding the Pain of Others" (2003), which analyzes images of atrocity. It's no small irony that Ms. Sontag's most famous essay should be called ''Notes on Camp." Nonetheless, it was entirely characteristic of her to take so seriously something so inherently frivolous.

Susan Lee Rosenblatt was born on Jan 16, 1933, in Manhattan, the daughter of Jack Rosenblatt and Mildren (Jacobsen) Rosenblatt. The Rosenblatts ran a fur-trading business in China. Ms. Sontag and her sister, Judith, were reared in New York by a nanny.

After Ms. Sontag's father died, in 1938, the family moved to Miami, then Tucson, because of her asthma. Ms. Sontag's mother met an Air Force captain, Nathan Sontag, and the couple married in 1945. The family moved to California a year later. When Ms. Sontag graduated from North Hollywood High School at 15, the principal announced there was nothing more the school could teach her.

Ms. Sontag briefly attended the University of California at Berkeley and then went to the University of Chicago. At 17, she married Philip Rieff, a lecturer at the university. The couple, who divorced in 1958, had a son. Years later, David Rieff would become an editor at Farrar, Straus, & Giroux and edit his mother's books.

Taking only two years to graduate from Chicago, Ms. Sontag earned master's degrees in English and philosophy at Harvard. She also did graduate work at Oxford and the Sorbonne. Moving with her son to New York after her divorce, she briefly worked for Commentary magazine and held a series of short-term teaching posts at the City College of New York, Sarah Lawrence, and Columbia University.

Ms. Sontag's first book was a novel, ''The Benefactor" (1963). Her other novels include ''Death Kit" (1967) and ''The Volcano Lover" (1992). She also published one collection of short fiction, ''I, etcetera" (1978), and the essay collections ''Under the Sign of Saturn" (1980) and ''Where the Stress Falls" (2002).

''I guess I think I'm writing for people who are smarter than I am," Ms. Sontag told The Guardian newspaper in 2002, ''because then I'll be doing something that's worth their time."

In addition to her son, she leaves a sister, Judith Cohen.

Her funeral will be private. A public memorial service will be held at a later date. 

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