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.”