Susan Sontag, author and activist, dies at 71

Tuesday, December 28th 2004, 12:21 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Susan Sontag, the author, activist and self-defined ``zealot of seriousness'' whose voracious mind and provocative prose made her a leading intellectual of the past half century, died Tuesday. She was 71.

Sontag died Tuesday morning, officials at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center said. She had been treated for breast cancer in the 1970s.

Sontag called herself a ``besotted aesthete,'' an ``obsessed moralist'' and a ``zealot of seriousness.''

She wrote a best-selling historical novel, ``The Volcano Lover,'' and in 2000 won the National Book Award for the historical novel ``In America.'' But her greatest literary impact was as an essayist.

The 1964 piece ``Notes on Camp,'' which established her as a major new writer, popularized the ``so bad it's good'' attitude toward popular culture, applicable to everything from ``Swan Lake'' to feather boas. In ``Against Interpretation,'' this most analytical of writers worried that critical analysis interfered with art's ``incantatory, magical'' power.

She also wrote such influential works as ``Illness as Metaphor,'' in which she examined how disease had been alternately romanticized and demonized, and ``On Photography,'' in which she argued pictures sometimes distance viewers from the subject matter. ``On Photography'' received a National Book Critics Circle award in 1978. ``Regarding the Pain of Others,'' a partial refutation of ``On Photography,'' was an NBCC finalist in 2004.

She read authors from all over the world and is credited with introducing such European intellectuals as Roland Barthes and Elias Canetti to American readers.

``I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate,'' Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, once said. ``She is unique.''

Unlike many American writers, she was deeply involved in politics, even after the 1960s. From 1987-89, Sontag served as president of American chapter of the writers organization PEN. When the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie's death because of the alleged blasphemy of ``The Satanic Verses,'' she helped lead protests in the literary community.

Sontag campaigned relentlessly for human rights and throughout the 1990s traveled to the region of Yugoslavia, calling for international action against the growing civil war. In 1993, she visited Sarajevo and staged a production of ``Waiting for Godot.''