Thu, Dec 30, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Writer, critic and provocateur Susan Sontag dies at 71


Susan Sontag -- the renowned American intellectual, novelist, critic and essayist, both hailed and derided for her provocative opinions and political engagement -- died on Monday at a New York hospital after a three-decade fight against cancer. She was 71.

Her son, David Rieff, told the New York Times that she died of complications of leukemia.

She wrote four novels, scores of essays and short stories besides writing and directing a handful of films and plays and becoming a human-rights advocate. Her work became the subject of university courses and won a MacArthur genius grant and numerous literary prizes, including the National Book Award and the National Book Critics' Circle Award.

Not only was she lauded as one of the world's leading, original minds of her age, but she also made the rare crossover from intelligentsia to pop culture. Her image was widely recognized.

The intensity of her gaze and her dark hair with its striking streak of white became her trademarks.

But most of all, the woman who rose to prominence in the mid-1960s was renowned for her passion, outspokenness and opinions that provoked outrage, from her declaration during the Vietnam War that "the white race is the cancer of human history" to her criticism of US foreign policy days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and her pronouncement that "Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."

New York City-born and a resident of Manhattan, Sontag became known for her critical essays on avant garde culture, in which she made the word camp, meaning over-the-top and exaggerated behavior and performance, a part of everyday discourse. Most of those essays were published in the 1966 book Against Interpretation.

A collection of her essays on radical politics, Styles of Radical Will, followed in 1969.

Some of her most famous essays came in the next decade with "On Photography" and "Illness as Metaphor," in which she examined how disease has been demonized and which was written after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She returned to the same subject in "AIDS and Its Metaphors" in 1989.

One of her last essays was this year's "Regarding the Torture of Others" on the abuse of Iraqi detainees at the hands of US soldiers.

She had a tendency, often criticized, for revisiting her controversial opinions, including hailing communist Cuba and North Vietnam, only to later brand communism a form of fascism.

She did the same on photography, from "On Photography," in which she argued that photographs of suffering sometimes numb and distance viewers from their subjects, then to this year's "Regarding the Pain of Others," in which she reassessed those opinions.

Born in 1933, the daughter of a fur trader in China, Sontag finished high school three years early at the age of 15, then went on to study philosophy at the University of Chicago and Harvard and Oxford universities.

Mexican writer Carlos Fuen-tes hailed her, telling the New York Times Magazine in 1992: "I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate."

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