Susan Sontag, R.I.P.


The popular and often controversial thinker and novelist is dead of leukemia at age 71. Since she was Against Interpretation I'll avoid trying to give this passing any context. Newsday helpfully reprints a recent address Sontag gave, which fans may enjoy:

Literature is a form of responsibility—to literature itself and to society. By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense too, which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness which we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.

Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. In my view, a fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation. This doesn't entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense.

Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.

NEXT: Mission Not Accomplished

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  1. Here’s my favorite quote from the Communist worshipping Sontag:

    “the truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone – its ideologies and inventions – which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”

    “Marx” as a positive aspect of Western Civilization! And yet, not even MARXISM was worth wiping out the non-white cultures…

  2. Oh, and the “white race is the cancer of human history” remark, which was always extremely offensive to cancer victims, now comes back to haunt her in the form of leukemia? Ironic.

  3. Well, I believe in the soul;
    * the cock;
    * the pussy;
    * the small of a woman’s back;
    * the hanging curveball;
    * high fiber;
    * good scotch;
    * I believe that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap;
    * I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone;
    * I believe there ought to be a Constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter;
    * I believe in the sweet spot;
    * softcore pornography;
    * opening your presents on Christmas morning rather than on Christmas Eve;
    * and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three nights;

    Good night

    Couldn’t have said it better

  4. National Book Award jumped the shark when they gave her one for lifetime acheivement.

    That said, she did, yes, adore The She-Devils, by M. Lewys.

    I know which title to add this week.

  5. dammit warren. you beat me to it.

  6. Well, since we’re piling on, here’s Tom Wolfe:

    “The white race is the cancer of human history? Who was this woman? Who and what? An anthropological epidemiologist? A renowned authority on the history of cultures throughout the world, a synthesizer of the magnitude of a Max Weber, a Joachim Wach, a Sir James Frazer, an Arnold Toynbee? Actually, she was just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering to the podium encumbered by her prose style, which had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review. Perhaps she was exceptionally hell-bent on illustrating McLuhan’s line about indignation endowing the idiot with dignity, but otherwise she was just a typical American intellectual of the post-World War II period.”

  7. Totally OT, but that never stopped me before.

    I forget who started this amusement, but somewhere on the Web I once found a site where someone took a movie script and replace one character’s lines with actual quotes from a blog somewhere.

    For fun, I then found an online copy of the script for the scene from Bull Durham that Warren referenced above. Then I went to, found one of the recurring debates there between the traditionalist vs. libertarian wings of the site, and gave some of the anti-libertarian lines to Susan Sarandon. The Kevin Costner character, Crash, then emerges as a passionate (if not completely consistent) defender of libertarianism.

    The results follow for your amusement. (Note: My version of the script differs from Warren’s quote and may not have been the actual, final filmed version.)


    THE SHRINE OF BASEBALL GLOWS — Annie lights the candles.

    EBBY AND CRASH SIT ON OPPOSITE ENDS OF HER COUCH — Both men look around the room with wonder. Ebby is clearly more nervous than Crash, who’s been in some strange rooms in his minor league career.

    No, thank you. Libertarianism isn’t for us. We’re conservative/conservative Pure breds. No half liberal, half conservative crap around here.
    Let’s face it, these lunatic anarchists will always be part of the 1% crowd of losers, with their open borders, kiddy sex, and porn galore morals.
    This makes the Libertine party a ragtag cabal of sociopaths who do not recognize morality and who rebels against any form of authority – and we are supposed to trust these animals not to attack us only because they say “we don’t believe in initiating force or fraud against another person.”
    Except the Libertarian Party actually feels that it can live under a Constitutional government without morality. That is the fatal flaw that everyone but the typical Libertarian can see. That is why we laugh at you. Our Country’s forefathers and many commentators have voiced the validated opinion that only a moral people can live under this Constitution. The Libertarian is the antithesis of morality, that is worse than giving liquor and car keys to teenage boys.
    Of course, you as Johnny Libertine would never see this.

    Why do you get to choose? Why don’t I get to choose?

    So, if an 11-year-old wants to set herself up in the porn business, that’s fine with the Libertarians.

    Is somebody gonna go to bed with somebody or what?

    Read the many other posts on this. I will not repeat myself for a latecomer like you. And, what part of the word ALL don’t you understand in your sex plank?

    (Crash rises to leave, and heads for the door.)

    After 12 years in the minor leagues, I don’t tryout. Besides — I don’t believe in Quantum Physics when it comes to matters of the heart…or loins.

    (challenging him)
    They skipped the part about the Libertarians supporting child pornography. That is why I will never vote Libertarian. Also, I have never heard what a Libertarian is FOR. All I have ever heard from Libertarians are what they are against. I don’t think you can attract many people with that philosophy.

    (Crash at the door. Annie’s question is slightly taunting. He stops, and speaks with both aloofness and passion:)

    I believe in the soul, the c*ck, the p*ssy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, long foreplay, show tunes, and that the novels of Thomas Pynchon [?] are self-indulgent, overrated crap.
    I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, I believe that there oughtta be a constitutional amendment outlawing astro-turf and the esignated hitter, I believe in the “sweet spot”, voting every election [Oops! — Stevo], soft core pornography, chocolate chip cookies, opening your presents on Christmas morning rather than Christmas eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last for 7 days.

    Welcome to Hell. What kind of body count will you need to see before you realize the horror you propose?
    An even better idea would be for the party to stop running kooks and nutcases for office. The Libertarian Party is doomed to abject failure until they begin to appear as something other than the Nutcase Party. That’s the real bottom line.


    (Crash heads out into the night. Annie hurries to the-door while Ebby sits on the couch, bewildered.)

  8. Stevo, you may want to think about changing your name back to ‘Threadkiller’

  9. Perhaps …

  10. I happen to know that George Peppard considered her a “fun broad.” Or was is it some other Susan. I’ll get back to you on this.

  11. At any rate, we should all memorialize Ms. Sontag by viewing an old Banachek episode or ten.

  12. I didn’t know very much about Susan Sontag, but I read Christopher Hitchens’ notes on her passing in today’s Slate. I realized something: You’re all pricks, especially you, Mark. The “communist worshipping” Sontag coined the phrase “fascism with a human face” to describe Polish communism, in 1982, earning her the scorn of various lefties. She was often cited as being an inspiration to the 89ers, and was requested on the White House guest list by on post-communist eastern European president. She went to Yugoslavia to help organize the resistance to Milosovic. When other writers were backing away from Salman Rushdie out of fear, she backed him in a very public manner, which encouraged others to do so. In the mid 60s – the mid-60s – she had an article in Partisan Review noting the collapse of High Culture. This was a decent, brave, intelligent, innovative person, and all you assholes can do is dump on her because she didn’t hate your devil, Karl Marx. Pshaw.

  13. I didn’t actually express an opinion on Sontag one way or another, but …

    Don’t forget the “The white race is the cancer of human history…” comment. That’s a racist statement, and as we now know, racism trumps all virtues.

  14. Sixties activists should be judged by their actions in the Sixties, not by their senescence.

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