Susan Sontag, 1933–2004
Yesterday was the ten-year anniversary of Susan Sontag’s death. She’s a woman of my year, of course, and a woman of Kiva’s year, and hopefully a woman of your year/decade/century/life.
I’ve always felt that Sontag was a writer who forced me to slow down; I pride myself on my speed-reading, but she commands a certain amount of time and attention. Here are a few works by Sontag and about Sontag I’ll be reading and re-reading today, and I’d highly recommend you do the same. Take your time.
My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or metaphor. My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness — and the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking. Yet it is hardly possible to take up one’s residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped. It is toward an elucidation of those metaphors, and a liberation from them, that I dedicate this inquiry.
Uniforms suggest fantasies of community, order, identity (through ranks, badges, medals which “say” who the wearer is and what he has done: his worth is recognized), competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence. But uniforms are not the same thing as photographs of uniforms. Photographs of uniforms are erotic material, and particularly photographs of SS uniforms. Why the SS? Because the SS seems to be the most perfect incarnation of fascism in its overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior. It was in the SS that this assertion seemed most complete, because they acted it out in a singularly brutal and efficient manner; and because they dramatized it by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards. The SS was designed as an elite military community that would be not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful.
There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering — rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.
Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.
Susan Sontag: groundbreaking American essayist, imposing intellect, and a Sephora beauty-junkie, just like us.
She sent emails with subject lines like “Whassup?”
At the age of 25, Nunez, a recent Columbia grad, came to work alongside Sontag as her secretary. Within weeks she had started dating Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and within months she had joined the two in their apartment on the Upper West Side. A very unconventional arrangement — but as Sontag told Nunez, “Who says we have to live like everyone else?”
I read the biography of Madame Curie by her daughter, Eve Curie, when I was about six, so at first I thought I was going to be a chemist. Then for a long time, most of my childhood, I wanted to be a physician. But literature swamped me. What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive.
Image: New York Times Co./Archive Photos/Getty/Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films