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The Death of Ideas 
On the Passing of Susan Sontag

by Am Johal
January 6, 2005

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They are few, those writers that take you places with the deftness, beauty and lucidity of their words, that you can no longer be an innocent bystander. They have the power to provoke, to challenge and force you to look at the world through a different prism.  For me, Susan Sontag was the kind of writer I could fall in love with just for the way she wrote.

It was like listening to great music, watching a film that matters or that feeling of being moved by a work of art.

Sontag was born in New York City in 1933, grew up in Arizona and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her BA from the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne's College, Oxford.

Sontag won many awards including the 2003 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the 2003 Prince of Asturias Prize, the 2001 Jerusalem Prize, the National Book Award for In America, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography. In 1992, she received the Malaparte Prize in Italy, and in 1999 she was named a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and was a MacArthur Fellow.

Whether she was writing essays about the films of Godard and Bergman or for her writings on photography, her classics like “Illness as Metaphor,” her fiction, films and plays including, Alice in Bed, she had a gift for timing in relaying a perspective on the human condition that was always relevant.  When you were in the literary presence of Susan Sontag, you knew you were being nourished by a learned mind.  She was America's rock star intellectual, queen of the NPR crowd, and she moved effortlessly between high culture and the masses.

What Sontag did by living in Vietnam in the late ‘60s, denouncing martial law in Poland, defending Salman Rushdie against the fatwa that had been put on his head while she served as the President of PEN, and putting on a production of Waiting for Godot in war torn Sarajevo was to enlighten the public sphere in ways few people could do. As Western mainstream culture became more banal and superficial, there were few like Sontag who brought a cultivated mind to bear on the great questions of her time.

Through the body of her work including four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, and In America; a collection of short stories, I, etcetera; several plays including Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea and her brilliant works of non-fiction including Against Interpretation, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor and Where the Stress Falls, Sontag enriched the public sphere with a literary depth which was more accessible than the kind of academic jargon that was passing for high public discourse during her life.

She had long running battles with health including tumors and sarcomas, but continued to offer perspectives on illness that were in many ways groundbreaking.  It should come as no surprise that a street will be named after her in Sarajevo where she was involved in resistance activities. 

Sontag also had a high profile relationship with the photographer Annie Liebowitz.

Even in the years that preceded her death, Sontag continued to enrage the conservative voices of America and the Bush Administration and its aggressive foreign policy. Sontag was one of the first to publicly criticize US foreign policy after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.  One of her last essays was about the Abu Ghraib prison.

We are all diminished with the passing of Susan Sontag.

Am Johal is a Canadian freelance writer living in Israel. Email:

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