Susan Sontag is Dead

A few years ago, back when the show “Politically Incorrect” was still on TV during its only watchable phase — when it was on Comedy Central — Susan Sontag helped me win a contest. Kind of.

I frequently contributed to an online stand-up comedy newsgroup, and one time the moderator held an informal contest: name your “Politically Incorrect” Dream Panel. I won the contest with this offering:

Rain Man

Sling Blade

Little Richard

Susan Sontag

Compelling television, I thought at the time.

Susan Sontag died yesterday. She was probably the last of what’s got to be a (pardon the pun) dying breed — the “public intellectual,” someone willing to hold forth on the topics and ideas of the day. That she was intellectually fearless is something widely documented; only a few short years ago she was suggesting publicly that the 9-11 attackers were many things, but “not cowards,” a statement that outraged many people still reeling from the effects of those attacks as well as some right wing critics. But she attacked the left, too; her own intellectual honesty wouldn’t allow her to continue to defend Communism long after it had become indefensible. Henry Allen’s love letter to her in today’s Wash Post quotes her famous speech in which she broke with many on the left:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

They were. Of course, my favorite Sontag quote is her witty and pithy description of Communism as “Fascism with a human face.” Indeed.

I had been meaning to write about this for some time, but I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention Craig Seligman’s fantastic book on both Sontag and Pauline Kael, entitled (appropriately enough) Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me. Reading this prompted me to immediately go revisit Sontag’s Notes on Camp and Illness as Metaphor, stuff I hadn’t looked at since grad school, as well as seek out the now tragically out-of-print collection of Kael’s stuff, For Keeps (BTW: why didn’t the publisher of the collection rush out a new version when it became apparent that Sontag and Kael was doing well? The success of Seligman’s book virtually guaranteed renewed interest in Kael’s stuff, and sales could have piggy-backed off it; don’t capitalists run publishing companies any more?). I’ve written about my own critical influences on this board — see the entry on Paul Fussell below — and it’s nice to see another critic who understands that to be a good critic means taking critics and criticism seriously and understanding that without it the medium dies. No art survives without criticism. Taking Seligman’s cue, my contrasting of opposites would be called Fussell and Eliot: Opposites Attract Me.

Got a number of posts in the well that I’ll try to get through. Hope your holidays were more enjoyable than mine.

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