If anyone knows what kind of leukemia Sontag had, please comment. Perhaps it is selective pattern recognition – but first Jean-François Lyotard, then Edward Said, now Sontag – all intellectuals dead of leukemia.
This is from a speech Sontag made in April upon receipt of a literary award. It talks about literature in a way that signifies to me the very best of her motivations and drive.
“A major novelist is one who understands a great deal about complexity: the complexity of society and the complexity of the private life—of family bonds, family affections, the powers of Eros, the many levels on which we feel and struggle.
Almost everything in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom. There is a great deal of wisdom in the precious inheritance of literature which can continue to nourish us, which makes an indispensable contribution to our humanity by articulating a complex view of the human heart and the contradictions inherent in living in literature and in history.
Literature is a form of responsibility—to literature itself and to society. By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense too, which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness which we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.” …
“Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.”
Why do we need fiction? Sontag says “to stretch our world.” Could her recognition of our refusal to pay attention, our inability to tolerate complication and ambiguity, or the reminder of our duty as moral agents have come at a better time? Sontag was reviled in the US after a long career as an intellectual, activist, and writer – simply for stating the obvious – that 9/11 happened because of our foreign policy. That is not to say that she condoned it – but really, her comments were fairly mild and self-evident.
A friend of mine here in Atlanta has pointed out that Sontag seemed to be extra-energized only when “brown boys were being hurt.” There may be some truth to that – Sontag wasn’t the best example of a feminist. I also had some problems with her call for a language stripped of metaphor – an impossible language in my view. She had her faults – and her fiction was perhaps overrated. Still – she was really a hero to me. That silver streak in her hair was delightful to me. She was the coolest (and really the only) visible female intellectual that I knew of while growing up. Her work on Illness/AIDs and metaphor was an important springboard for my own work on viruses in fiction. I think of her – perhaps it is only a fantasy – dressed all in black, smoking a cigarette, while some poet sputters to the accompaniment of cool existential jazz. “That’s so Kitch” – I hear someone mutter. Dancers rehearse backstage. Sontag moves through the crowd – at turns serious and beaming.
My hubby John once gave her a ride to the airport when he was a graduate student at Columbia.
But now I will never meet her.