Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Susan Sontag -- Aquarian

Susan Sontag was a writer, political activist, and intellectual; she died only a few years ago in 2004, and wrote most of her effective work from the middle of the 1960s to the beginning of this century.

She studied at Berkley, but transferred to University of Chicago during its heyday. She did her graduate work at Harvard, Oxford, and finally Paris, where she found a home among the artists and thinkers there.

Her writing included fiction as well as artistic criticism and political essays. Her essays like "Notes on Camp" and "On Photography" changed how Americans thought about such things, leading to or opening doors for the digital age. She is also a playwright, best known for her play about Alice James titled Alice in Bed.

Sontag was often criticized for living outside US borders or for her poltical stances. She seemed to be a person interested in political and intellectual causes from that point of view, not as a personal or emotional situation, but always using an objectvity. I very much like both Alice in Bed and her last novel In America (about the famous actress Helene Modjeska) but both have a kind of detachment in the narrative that does set a kind of distance between the spectator/reader and the work of art itself. She is uninterested in moving one, but in arguing a particular stance and in engaging the spectator/reader as a fellow debator, who may or may not be convinced by her arguments. Even in a work of art.

Her prose is very clear-eyed and Aristotelian in style, and I can certainly see how it would distance some readers, whether of the novel or the essay.

And yet her contribution to American intellectualism and especially to the ways in which we culturally think about representation ("seeing" as a cultural practice, or "reality" as depicted in photographs, or disease) is huge, whether one has read Sontag or not. I love that she was probably in a relationship (she stated she was bisexual) with Maria Irene Fornes, one of my favorite modern playwrights. Imagining those conversations.

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