Forever Susan

Susan Sontag has been a life long beacon for me. Brilliant, articulate, quixotic, complicated, relentless, tenacious, long-suffering, wise—her work and her life have informed so many of my views.

In a New York Times review of Sontag’s son David Rieff’s book, Swimming in a Sea of Death, Katie Roiphe captured a quicksilver and bittersweet vision of Sontag in her last days:

Of course, Sontag’s belief in her exceptionality had a history. In her first bout with breast cancer in her early 40s, she survived. In early interviews after her recovery, she seemed intoxicated by her brush with death. She claimed she had acquired a “fierce intensity” that she would bring to her work; and she incorporated the idea of radical illness into the drama of her intellect, the dark glamour of her writer’s pose. Sontag had written in her diary during her treatment that she needed to learn “how to turn it into a liberation.” And it was that determination, that stubbornness, that constant act of self-transcendence that she thought she could reproduce at 71, when cancer was diagnosed for a third time. But this time it didn’t work. “She had the death that somewhere she must have come to believe that other people had from cancer,” Rieff writes, “the death where knowledge meant nothing, the will to fight meant nothing, the skill of the doctors meant nothing.”

4 Replies to “Forever Susan”

  1. Diana Johnson says:

    Anyone who has walked the final path with a loved one of a prolonged painful death that cancer metes relentlessly has probably gone through the bewilderment of when to give and cling to hope and when to embrace the death beyond that final threshold. This is a book I will read.

  2. I read Rieff’s book while my brother, two years older than I, was dying of cancer. I was moved deeply by some passages, the excerpt you quote being one. My brother didn’t give up hope exactly but he accepted the news that nothing more could be done and then stopped further treatment, without ever once looking back. The peace he reached in the last several months of his life – that I wondered if Sontag had when her realization came – reminded me of what Basho wrote, that “our everlasting self. . . is poetry”. If one can believe those words, then death on this earth is, it would seem, be acceptable.

  3. Diana and Maureen, Thanks for such thoughtful additions to this.

  4. […] posting the quote from the Roiphe review of David Reiff’s memoir of his mother Susan Sontag, Swimming […]

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