Remembering Susan Sontag

Photo by Annie Leibovitz

I was quite pained to learn just now of the death of Susan Sontag. I first encountered Susan on the page when I was a teenager, through her groundbreaking essays in the Partisan Review — where she helped introduce Americans to European intellectuals of the first rank, like Roland Barthes, among many. We finally met in the late ’70s, when Dick Sennett asked me to be a fellow at the Institute for the Humanities at New York University — a sort of glorified chat shop for intellectuals which we used to refer to jokingly as "the Humane Society" — where Susan was a regular at the seminars. We became friends, and I passed many agreeable hours in her company in the years before I left for France. On several occasions we shared a joint together — although I felt rather guilty about giving one to her, as she had already had lung problems and bouts of cancer. Most of the obituaries will undoubtedly speak of Susan’s brilliance. But I also remember her humor and wit, her love of gossip, her openness to the new, her capacity for lucid self-analysis, her ravishing smile and her distinctive laugh. We often talked about sexuality — she was quite amusing in recounting her own amorous adventures with women. I confess I never cared as much for her fiction, although it was always interesting, as I did for her inimitable essays on culture, literature and politics. Against Interpretation was masterful; Regarding the Pain of Others, which almost won the National Book Award last year, should be in everyone’s library. Hers was a truly original mind.

Susan was the epitome of the intellectuelle engagée. She never shirked the responsibility of living in her time, and brought her acute analysis, and empathy with victims of state oppression wherever it was felt, onto the page with memorable effect. She was also a tireless activist in the service of other writers and writers’ liberties. The last time she made headlines was when, during the second U.S. war in Iraq, Susan was pilloried by the Philistines — and in the most vile terms — after a Nightline appearance in which she compared Congress’ repeated standing applause for George Bush’s war speech to the knee-jerk ovations of the party congresses in the Soviet Union. She got it exactly right, of course.

Susan is not replaceable. She will be missed.

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at

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