Susan Sontag, 1933-2004

StoryDecember 29, 2004
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Writer and cultural critic Susan Sontag died on Tuesday in New York after a long battle with cancer. She was 71 years old. Sontag was one of the country’s leading literary figures as well as a longtime advocate for human rights. [includes rush transcript]

We now turn to the life of Susan Sontag. She died on Tuesday in New York at the age of 71. She was one of the country’s most celebrated writers and cultural critics. She was also a passionate defender of human rights.

Sontag was born in 1933 and first gained fame 40 years ago with the publication of her essay “Notes on Camp.” She would go on to write 17 books and win major awards including the National Book Award.

Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once compared Sontag to the Renaissance humanist Erasmus. Fuentes said QUOTE “Erasmus traveled with 32 volumes, which contained all the knowledge worth knowing. Susan Sontag carries it in her brain! I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded, with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate. She is unique.”

Sontag was also well known for her political activism. During the Vietnam War she visited Hanoi.

Shortly after Sept. 11, Sontag became one of the first prominent Americans to publicly state the attack was carried out in response to U.S. foreign policy.

She wrote in The New Yorker “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world,” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”

One of her last published essays, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” was written in response to the torture of Iraqi prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib. It appeared in the New York Times Magazine in May.

In March of this year Sontag spoke at the New School in New York.

  • Susan Sontag

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In March of this year, Susan Sontag spoke at the New School University in New York. During the event she was asked by the moderator about U.S. writers taking on political issues.

MODERATOR: Why is it that in the United States the writers, the poets, novelists, playwrights do not speak out on socio-political issue as they arise, and why are the writers in the United States in this extraordinary time of crisis so silent?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, at the risk of sounding like Michael Moore, I do ask myself every day what happened to my country? I think there has been some incredible takeover that precedes the Bush administration the current really radical takeover of our government. These are really a bunch of radicals. This is not old-style republicanism, such as it was. I think there’s been a kind of demoralization of the culture, a dumbing-down of the culture, and an extraordinary ascendancy of materialistic and anti-idealistic values. The conversation among writers that takes place in the last 20 years is for the most part just like the conversation of any other professional people on the make. They could just as well be advertising executives or businesspeople, or anything else. They talk about income and they talk about the comforts or lack of comforts of their personal lives, and — but that’s a kind of — if I think back on my own life, the single most amazing phenomenon is the discrediting of idealism. And that was a gradual process. You can call it the triumph of consumerism. You can call it a lot of things, but I think now very few people in comparison — that’s not just a question of writers; it’s a question of people. Very few people have the nerve to stand up for moral principles or have a sense of the right of criticism that’s part of our national culture. What I don’t like about the European question, and of course, I’m asked it all the time, too, is why don’t you writers change things? You know, and — with all due respect to the text that you wrote, you know, we have all felt, I think, for a long time, that we were in a one-party system, which one branch of this single party calls itself something else, the democrats. While there is real debate in the country, it’s not represented at the level of the political class. You know, there’s a recent debate about putting “under God into, or taking it out, rather, because it was put in rather late, into the Pledge of Allegiance, and in this debate — I read in The New York Times, you probably remember the reference better than I do —- the person who was testifying was asked, after all, this was passed unanimously by the congress in whatever it was, 1920 or 1930. I don’t know when it was. And then he said, does that means that obviously it represents everybody. No. No atheist, no professed atheist, can get elected to public office. No person, even a dog catcher in a small town, could get elected any more who says I’m against capital punishment, not that a dog catcher in a small town has anything to say about capital punishment, but there’s certain positions now which are widely held by large numbers of people in this country, maybe not a majority, but maybe 30-40%, which are totally unrepresented by people who are elected, whether it’s gay marriage, whether it’s capital punishment, whether it’s atheism and sorts. The political class displays unanimity of discourse, which doesn’t represent the country. But little by little, everybody is falling into line and people are demoralized. So, it’s oddballs like the people here -—

MODERATOR: There’s a roomful of oddballs.

SUSAN SONTAG: Two of whom are foreigners, who have — you know, just — thankfully come to stay here for a while. A Vietnamese writer and Algerian writer, but sure, I don’t think it’s just a problem of writers. I think it’s a problem of people in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Sontag, speaking at the New School. Susan Sontag died Tuesday at the age of 71 of cancer.

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