Susan Sontag pays attention to the world
Noted writer, critic, teacher, and political activist, Susan Sontag strode on the stage of the world so large in life that she left a legacy as a literary icon that helped shape American twentieth-century thought.
This is because she wrote as fierce as she lived her life, writing in a manifesto before she turned 20 years old: “Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention.”
This made Sontag a target, with another critic Camille Paglia writing an essay, “Sontag, Bloody Sontag,” describing her as “synonymous with a shallow kind of hip posturing.”
Moreover, Sontag loved fiercely as well involved with both men and women. Correcting herself on the times she fell in love, she said: “Actually, it’s nine. Five women, four men.”
The early life of Susan Sontag
Born in New York City on January 16, 1933, Sontag grew up in Tucson, Arizona but went to high school in Los Angeles.
Her original name was Susan Rosenblatt, courtesy of her father, Jack Rosenblatt, who later died of tuberculosis in 1939 when she was five.
When her mother, Mildred, married US Army Captain Nathan Sontag, she and her sister Judith took their stepfather’s name even though they weren’t adopted formally.
She graduated with a B.A. degree from the College of the University of Chicago and then did graduate work in at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford on philosophy, literature, and theology.
She married at the young age of 17 to writer Philip Rieff, a sociology instructor at the University of Chicago. Though their courtship lasted only 10 days, their marriage lasted eight years and they had one son, David.
Susan Sontag’s range of works
Described as “an intellectual in revolt,” Sontag wrote novels, short stories, several plays, and nonfiction works– the latter that cemented her reputation.
Her work has appeared in major broadsheets and literary magazines all over the world, and has been translated in 32 languages. She also wrote and directed a handful of feature-length films and plays.
But Sontag made her name as a critic, once describing white civilization as “a cancer.” She later regretted using illness as a metaphor and thought it slandered cancer patients.
She was also brave enough to take a stand against current thought and against those of the same beliefs as herself.
For example, she wrote an essay in the aftermath of the September 2011 attacks that the latter was “a monstrous dose of reality” for the US and its actions as a world superpower.
She also once said during a Solidarity rally in 1982 in New York that people like herself “believed in, or at least applied, a double standard to the angelic language of Communism,” which drew jeers at the same rally.
The heart of Susan Sontag
Aside from her marriage to Rieff, Sontag had a number of relationships throughout her life: model-writer Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, whom she met at Berkeley; and the Cuban-American playwright and director María Irene Fornés.
There was also: the Italian aristocrat, Carlotta Del Pezzo; the German academic Eva Kollisch; Rothschild banking heiress-movie actress Nicole Stéphane, and post-modern dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs.
However, the one relationship that lasted for Sontag was with prominent photographer Annie Leibowitz, from the late 1980s to her death in New York City on December 28, 2004.
While many of her colleagues knew of Sontag’s lesbianism, her partnership with Leibowitz surprised a lot of her readers.
Though Sontag admitted that she hadn’t written much about her sexuality, she said: “Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, but it’s never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody’s in drastic need.”
“I’d rather give pleasure, or shake things up,” she declared.