Susan Sontag, who died Tuesday of cancer at 71, probably was America’s best example of the French intellectual engagé. That’s someone who not only writes theoretical books but also fiction and who is actively engaged in putting theory into practice.
She always was on the political left, in the 1960s supporting the communist dictatorships in Cuba and North Vietnam. But she caused a stir in the 1980s when, as China was going capitalist and the Soviet bloc was fracturing, she came out strongly against communism. Better very late than never.
Like her French exemplars, Sontag seems not to have been too much bothered by self-contradictions. Although long an anti-war activist, in 1999 she supported President Clinton’s bombing of Serbia to end the oppression of the Albanian majority in Kosovo. “Stop the genocide. Return all refugees to their homes,” she said of the war aims. It turned out that the war’s main result was to put in power the Kosovo Liberation Army, which quickly set about killing and exiling Kosovo’s Jewish, Gypsy, Serb, Bosnian and other minorities.
Immediately in the wake of the 9/11 attack, Sontag caused a firestorm when she wrote in the New Yorker, “The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”
Switching positions on war, this time she opposed the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even when we agreed with Sontag, for example in opposing the Soviet Union, we never were in tune with her overarching theoretical leftism.
On the positive side of the ledger, she was a welcome throwback to the high-level intellectual debates that were more common in earlier decades before shouting slogans became the method of discourse on TV and talk radio.
And she always was interesting.