This Day In Literary History
On January 16th, 1933, the famous American writer, filmmaker, and activist Susan Sontag was born. She was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City. Her childhood was unhappy; her father, a wealthy fur trader, died of tuberculosis when she was five. Her mother, cold and distant, was "always away."
When Susan was twelve, her mother married an Army captain, Nathan Sontag. Susan and her sister were given his surname, though he never officially adopted them. He moved the family around the country, finally settling in Los Angeles.
After graduating Hollywood High School at the age of 15, the intellectually gifted Susan Sontag enrolled at Berkeley University. She later transferred to the University of Chicago. There, after engaging in a brief but passionate courtship, she got married at seventeen.
Her new husband, Philip Rieff, was a writer and sociology professor at the university. They would remain together for eight years and have one child, a son named David. Susan continued her education and earned a Master's degree in philosophy.
In 1957, she was awarded a fellowship at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and traveled to England alone to take classes. She didn't care for Oxford and transferred to the University of Paris.
She considered her time in Paris the most important time in her life, both intellectually and artistically, as she struck up friendships with expatriate academics and artists, one of which, Cuban-American avant garde playwright María Irene Fornés, became her lover.
Susan and María moved to New York City and lived together for seven years. During that time, Susan had regained custody of her son and begun working on her first novel, The Benefactor (1963).
It was a novel in the form of a memoir. The protagonist, a Candide-esque bohemian named Hippolyte, takes the reader along for the ride as his dream world gradually becomes indistinguishable from reality.
Susan's second novel, Death Kit (1967), is a dark Kafka like tale that takes place on a train. One of the passengers, a thirtysomething year old businessman with the ironic nickname Diddy, becomes convinced that he might be a murderer.
Diddy, who recently attempted suicide, fears that he may have beaten a railroad worker to death while the train was stopped in a dark tunnel. Hester, the lovely yet apathetic blind girl sitting next to him, tells him that he never left his seat. Diddy examines his memories and dreams, trying to answer the question: did he do it?
Susan Sontag would publish two more novels, a short story collection, and nonfiction books. She was also known as an essayist and published six essay collections. Her second and most famous collection, Styles of Radical Will (1969), contained her most controversial essay.
Trip to Hanoi was the culmination of Susan's activism against the Vietnam War. She had first signed the Writers and Editors War Tax pledge, refusing to pay taxes to support the war. Like actress Jane Fonda, she went to Hanoi to tell the North Vietnamese side of the story.
Susan sympathized with the North Vietnamese, writing in her essay that the Vietcong could not be compared to the Soviets or the Maoist Chinese, whose communism she would later describe as "fascism with a human face." The Vietcong were fighting for their independence.
No stranger to controversy, Susan had previously published an essay in the Partisan Review where she said:
Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.
Susan would later retract that statement, but only because she believed that it was insulting to cancer patients.
She continued her activist work; in 1986, she vigorously defended the legendary Indian writer Salman Rushdie when his classic novel The Satanic Verses resulted in the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa calling for his death.
A few years later, during the Bosnian War, Susan boldly declared that the Serbian Orthodox Christian forces were the real war criminals in that conflict, not the Bosnian / Albanian Muslim resistance. She went to Sarajevo and directed a production of Samuel Beckett's classic play, Waiting For Godot.
When the AIDS epidemic began to spread in the 1980s, Susan brought it to attention with her play The Way We Live Now and her non-fiction book, AIDS and Its Metaphors, where she harshly criticized the idea that AIDS was a "gay disease" and a divine judgement against homosexuals.
Susan was also a filmmaker. Between 1969 and 1983, she wrote and directed four feature films. Three were produced in Sweden, one in Italy. Her first film, Duet for Cannibals (1969), was a Swedish production.
It told the story of a professor who hires a young man to organize his papers for publication. The young man discovers that the professor's wife, tired of being abused and degraded by him, is planning to murder him. The wife and the young man become lovers. Meanwhile, the professor pursues the young man's girlfriend.
Susan followed Duet for Cannibals with Brother Carl (1971), Promised Lands (1974), and Unguided Tour (1983). Unfortunately, all of her movies are hard to find.
Never afraid to voice her often controversial opinions, on September 24th, 2001 - thirteen days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks - in the New Yorker magazine, Susan asked:
Where is the acknowledgment that this was... an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?
That year, she won the Jerusalem Prize, which is awarded biannually at the Jerusalem International Book Fair to writers whose works have dealt with the subject of human freedom in society.
Susan Sontag died of leukemia in 2004 at the age of 71.
Quote Of The Day
"The writer is either a practicing recluse or a delinquent, guilt-ridden one - or both. Usually both." - Susan Sontag
Today's video features Susan Sontag speaking at the San Francisco Public Library in 2001. Enjoy!