Sontag's life is a testament to democratic meritocracy.
By TIM RUTTEN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
LOS ANGELES -- Shortly after Susan Sontag died Dec. 28 in New York, an obituary on the BBC's World Service described her as "the high priestess of the American avant-garde."
So she was, in part.
But to take that topic sentence and its implications as the sum of her 71 years is to discount the example of an inspiring -- and uniquely American -- life.
Much that will be written about her in the weeks ahead will focus on her aesthetic and political legacy and, as the British Broadcasting Corporation's description suggests, on her status as an icon of what some would describe as the international intellectual elite. It also is worth considering, however, that she willed and worked herself into all that she achieved.
She was not born to the life of the mind but to a consumptive fur trader, who died when she was 5, and his alcoholic wife, who once told her that if she didn't stop reading, she'd never find a husband. She received her secondary education at North Hollywood High School, from which she graduated at 15 before going on to Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Oxford. The life Susan Sontag lived, in other words, was not one of an elitist icon, but of an ideal of democratic meritocracy.
Friend and houseguest
In the interest of full disclosure, Susan was for many years a friend and, on occasion, a houseguest of this writer and his wife. Her only child, writer and commentator David Rieff, is a close friend and one of our son's godfathers.
During a conversation not long after we met, we discovered that we both had been inspired at an early age by reading Jack London's "Martin Eden," the story of a rough seaman who sets out to win the affection of a middle-class girl through relentless self-education and, in the process, finds and tragically rejects success as a writer. It is a great, if sentimental, American story.
Susan's similarly ruthless pursuit of what she believed was truest and best inevitably conveyed a kind of elitism. Yet no matter how rarefied the company, it was open to anybody willing to do the work to join. Her own drive for self-improvement -- and the conviction that knowledge and critical thinking were the tools to accomplish it -- never ceased.
Susan did not drive, and on many visits to Los Angeles this writer happily served as her chauffeur. The destinations always included any notable local museum exhibition and the restaurant Matsuhisa, where the meal inevitably began with two orders of one of the restaurant's signature dishes, toro tartare topped with beluga caviar.
Filled time at bookstores
But Susan's preferred method of filling time was bookstores. The personal library, meticulously cataloged by subject and language, that filled her Manhattan loft was something of a legend in literary circles and, in fact, has been acquired by the University of California, Los Angeles. Still, every visit to local bookshops would end with the purchase of another substantial box or two of books to be shipped home.
Wandering the stacks with her was a rare treat, because she paused not only over the new, but also the familiar and beloved.
"Do you know this?" she would ask, pulling a volume from the shelf.
If the answer was yes, a discussion of the book's merits and shortcomings had to ensue.
If you replied no, Susan's eyes would brighten and her voice climb half an octave: "Oh, but you must have this book. You must read it. It's fantassssstic. I'm going to buy it for you." And so she did. In the bookcase around the corner from this desk are Stevie Smith's collected poems and W.S. Merwin's luminous translations of Chamfort's aphorisms, mementos of two such excursions and testimony to the capaciousness of her taste and enthusiasm.
Both qualities could make her a magnificently stimulating and utterly exhausting companion. No one this writer ever has known had taken so deeply to heart Albertus Magnus' famous admonition that "the greatest of all human pleasures is to seek the truth in conversation."
What she was like
On one occasion we talked until after 2 a.m., then reluctantly went off to bed. A habitually early riser, her host rose before dawn and was surprised to find the light on in his study. There was Susan, sitting at the library table desk in a pool of lamp light, surrounded by books taken from the nearby shelves and scribbling into a notebook. "Where did you find these translations from the Philokalia (a collection of religious texts in Greek)?" she demanded. "I don't have them, and they're very interesting."
Over the years, Susan's single-minded confidence enabled her to revisit and reassess some of her own political and aesthetic positions, a process for which she received far too little credit. Sometimes, though, that single-mindedness made other lives and other choices somewhat opaque to her.
Leaving Los Angeles, for example, was so critical to her own embrace of the wider world that she regarded others' conscious decision to remain here as somewhat suspicious.
Once, after a long afternoon of work -- she over a set of galleys, and her host over a newspaper column -- there was conversation about life in Los Angeles and a walk around the yard and into the walled, gravel-pathed vegetable garden at the rear of the lot.
She got it
As her host bent over, as gardeners will, and absent-mindedly began to weed a bed of baby lettuces, Susan said, "Oh, now I get it. You live like a poet."
And that was that.
To the generations of Martin Edens to come, to all those Americans who believe that you can be born in Bakersfield or Boise and still aspire to live fully the life of the mind, Susan Sontag left an example -- and this advice:
"Be serious, be passionate, wake up!"