Between the word “public” and the word “intellectual” there falls, or ought to fall, a shadow. The life of the cultivated mind should be private, reticent, discreet: Most of its celebrations will occur with no audience, because there can be no applause for that moment when the solitary reader gets up and paces round the room, having just noticed the hidden image in the sonnet, or the profane joke in the devotional text, or the secret message in the prison diaries. Individual pleasure of this kind is only rivaled when the same reader turns into a writer, and after a long wrestle until daybreak hits on his or her own version of the mot juste, or the unmasking of pretension, or the apt, latent literary connection, or the satire upon tyranny.
The 20th century was perhaps unusual in the ways in which it forced such people to quit their desks and their bookshelves and to enter the agora. Looking over our shoulders, we do not find that we have much respect or admiration for those who simply survived, or who kept the private life alive. We may owe such people more than we know, but it is difficult to view them as exemplary. Our heroes and heroines are those who managed, from Orwell through Camus and Solzhenitsyn, to be both intellectual and engaged. (This combination of qualities would also be true of a good number of our fools and villains, from Celine to Shaw, with Sartre perhaps occupying the middle position.)
Susan Sontag passed an extraordinary amount of her life in the pursuit of private happiness through reading and through the attempt to share this delight with others. For her, the act of literary consumption was the generous parent of the act of literary production. She was so much impressed by the marvelous people she had read—beginning with Jack London and Thomas Mann in her girlhood, and eventually comprising the almost Borgesian library that was her one prized possession—that she was almost shy about offering her own prose to the reader. Look at her output and you will see that she was not at all prolific.
If it doesn’t seem like that—if it seems as if she was always somewhere in print—it is because she timed her interventions very deftly. By the middle 1960s, someone was surely going to say something worth noticing about the energy and vitality of American popular culture. And it probably wasn’t going to be any of the graying manes of the old Partisan Review gang. Sontag’s sprightly, sympathetic essays on the diminishing returns of “high culture” were written by someone who nonetheless had a sense of tradition and who took that high culture seriously (and who was smart enough to be published in Partisan Review). Her acute appreciation of the importance of photography is something that now seems uncontroversial (the sure sign of the authentic pioneer), and her “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” were dedicated to the memory of Oscar Wilde, whose fusion of the serious and the subversive was always an inspiration to her, as it is, I can’t resist adding, to too few female writers.
In a somewhat parochial time, furthermore, she was an internationalist. I once heard her rather sourly described as American culture’s “official greeter,” for her role in presenting and introducing the writers of other scenes and societies. There was no shame in that charge: She—and Philip Roth—did a very great deal to familiarize Americans with the work of Czeslaw Milosz and Danilo Kis, Milan Kundera and György Konrád. In Against Interpretation, published in 1966, she saw more clearly than most that the future defeat of official Communism was inscribed in its negation of literature. When Arpad Goncz, the novelist who eventually became a post-Communist president of Hungary, was invited to the White House, he requested that Susan be placed on his guest list. It’s hard to think of any other American author or intellectual who would be as sincerely mourned as Susan will be this week, from Berlin to Prague to Sarajevo. (Updated, Dec. 31: On Thursday, Mayor Muhidin Hamamdzic of Sarajevo announced that the city will name a street after her, and the city’s Youth Theater said that it would mount a plaque for her on its wall.)
Mention of that last place name impels me to say another thing: this time about moral and physical courage. It took a certain amount of nerve for her to stand up on stage, in early 1982 in New York, and to denounce martial law in Poland as “fascism with a human face.” Intended as ironic, this remark empurpled the anti-anti-Communists who predominated on the intellectual left. But when Slobodan Milosevic adopted full-out national socialism after 1989, it took real guts to go and live under the bombardment in Sarajevo and to help organize the Bosnian civic resistance. She did not do this as a “tourist,” as sneering conservative bystanders like Hilton Kramer claimed. She spent real time there and endured genuine danger. I know, because I saw her in Bosnia and had felt faint-hearted long before she did.
Her fortitude was demonstrated to all who knew her, and it was often the cause of fortitude in others. She had a long running battle with successive tumors and sarcomas and was always in the front line for any daring new treatment. Her books on illness and fatalism, and her stout refusal to accept defeat, were an inspiration. So were the many anonymous hours and days she spent in encouraging and advising fellow sufferers. But best of all, I felt, was the moment when, as president of American PEN, she had to confront the Rushdie affair in 1989.
It’s easy enough to see, now, that the offer of murder for cash, made by a depraved theocratic despot and directed at a novelist, was a warning of the Islamist intoxication that was to come. But at the time, many of the usual “signers” of petitions were distinctly shaky and nervous, as were the publishers and booksellers who felt themselves under threat and sought to back away. Susan Sontag mobilized a tremendous campaign of solidarity that dispelled all this masochism and capitulation. I remember her saying hotly of our persecuted and hidden friend: “You know, I think about Salman every second. It’s as if he was a lover.” I would have done anything for her at that moment, not that she asked or noticed.
With that signature black-on-white swoosh in her hair, and her charismatic and hard-traveling style, she achieved something else worthy of note—the status of celebrity without any of the attendant tedium and squalor. She resolutely declined to say anything about her private life or to indulge those who wanted to speculate. The nearest to an indiscretion she ever came was an allusion to Middlemarch in the opening of her 1999 novel In America, where she seems to say that her one and only marriage was a mistake because she swiftly realized “not only that I was Dorothea but that, a few months earlier, I had married Mr. Casaubon.”)
A man is not on his oath, said Samuel Johnson, when he gives a funeral oration. One ought to try and contest the underlying assumption here, which condescendingly excuses those who write nil nisi bonum of the dead. Could Susan Sontag be irritating, or hectoring, or righteous? She most certainly could. She said and did her own share of foolish things during the 1960s, later retracting her notorious remark about the white “race” being a “cancer” by saying that it slandered cancer patients. In what I thought was an astonishing lapse, she attempted to diagnose the assault of Sept. 11, 2001, as the one thing it most obviously was not: “a consequence of specific [sic] American alliances and actions.” Even the word “general” would have been worse in that sentence, but she had to know better. She said that she didn’t read reviews of her work, when she obviously did. It could sometimes be very difficult to tell her anything or to have her admit that there was something she didn’t know or hadn’t read.
But even this insecurity had its affirmative side. If she was sometimes a little permissive, launching a trial balloon only to deflate it later (as with her change of heart on the filmic aesthetic of Leni Riefenstahl) this promiscuity was founded in curiosity and liveliness. About 20 years ago, I watched her having an on-stage discussion with Umberto Eco in downtown New York. Eco was a bit galumphing—he declared that his favorite novel was Lolita because he could picture himself in the part of Umberto Umberto. Susan, pressed to define the word “polymath,” was both sweet and solemn. “To be a polymath,” she declared, “is to be interested in everything—and in nothing else.” She was always trying to do too much and square the circle: to stay up late debating and discussing and have the last word, then get a really early night, then stay up reading, and then make an early start. She adored trying new restaurants and new dishes. She couldn’t stand affectless or bored or cynical people, of any age. She only ventured into full-length fiction when she was almost 60, and then discovered that she had a whole new life. And she resisted the last malady with terrific force and resource, so that to describe her as life-affirming now seems to me suddenly weak. Anyway—death be not proud.