Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Susan Sontag

"Because this country's so anti-intellectual, I want to be perverse and say proudly 'I'm an intellectual'. There are these words that everyone professes to be superior to. One word is 'intellectual' and the other is 'feminist'. Because these words are not fashionable, I want to say 'Yes, I'm an intellectual. I'm a feminist.' I don't want to be superior to those categories."

As you probably already know, Susan Sontag, one of the most significant intellectual figures of the last fifty years, died this week. Tributes are appearing in many places, such as Christopher Hitchen's in Slate and this 2001 interview in Salon. The New York Times has a special section, including links to many reviews, interviews and articles they've published over the years, though there's no guarantee as to how long it will be available. Of special interest, if you haven't read them before, are her misunderstood essay on cinephilia, "", and a brilliant look at last spring's torture stories, "Regarding the Torture of Others".

I was fortunate enough to interview Sontag about twenty years ago when she came to town for a reading as the guest of a local literary group. The publicist went out of her way to make arrangements for me - even calling one of the local daily papers and getting them to accept my story when Sontag told her that she would only do interviews for the area's major publications. (I was writing for a small, unknown weekly at the time.) There was always the threat of cancellation, and when I arrived at the hotel I overheard some of the staff talking about how irritable Sontag had been when she arrived. An earlier interview with a reporter who was clearly unfamiliar with Sontag's work had evidently went badly. But when I got to her room, she proved to be gracious, friendly and generous with her time and her opinions. In fact, the final interview is still one of my favorites from my not-so-spectacular career as a free-lance semi-journalist.

(The quote at the top of this entry is from that afternoon. The paper that originally printed it has been out of business for over fifteen years, so I could probably reprint it if I wanted. Perhaps I'll add some more excerpts later.)