One of the most celebrated intellectuals of the twentieth century, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004) has left indelible marks on contemporary culture spanning film criticism, literary theory, political activism, theater, and education. From her prolific and penetrative essays to her novels to her production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in a candlelit theatre during the Siege of Sarajevo, Sontag’s extraordinary work ethic and uncompromising cultural stance earned her numerous literary prizes and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship.
In On Photography (1977), Sontag constructed a seminal critique of the role of visual culture in capitalist society; in Illness as Metaphor (1978), she confronted the “blame-the-victim” sensibility and its long history of shaming those suffering from disease by projecting onto them psychological failings in addition to their already debilitating physical pain; Against Interpretation (1966) endures as one of the most critically acclaimed essay anthologies in history.
Despite her daunting powers of reason, Sontag was also a woman of immense emotional capacity. Per her self-professed account, she had been in love nine times in her life — four with men, one of whom, the writer Philip Rieff, fathered her only child, David, and five with women, including legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, with whom Sontag spent the last decade of her life.
From her poignant meditations on art, love, and writing to her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices, Sontag’s recently published journals reveal an intimate glimpse of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable minds, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought, oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible as she settles into her own skin not only as a dimensional writer but also as a dimensional human being.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere.”
~Robert Frost from The Robert Frost Reader: Poetry and Prose
Photo by Stan Wiechers / Flickr, cc by-sa 2.0
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