A lot of people are afraid of Susan Sontag. Getting to meet her is a bit like trying to meet Joan of Arc on her day off, "Oh, I don't know when we’ll fit you in,' say her publishers, whom Sontag has trained to be her guards. "She's going to Germany and Ireland this month" or "Oh, she'll never let you into her apartment." So when you dial her phone number and she actually answers, you feel tricked.
“I don’t know what they think my life is like,” Sontag says irritably in her deep, flat voice. “All I do is sit in my hot apartment all day and write.” And she lets you into her apartment, which is actually cooled by a breeze from the elegant open patio, and not only greets you with a smile but makes you a cup of tea.
“Some people are awkward with me,” she acknowledges, standing in her kitchen. “When they come up to me and say, ‘I admire your work, but you intimidate me,’ I feel as if I’ve been slapped in the face. It’s such an act of hostility.”
People are awed by Sontag because she is one of the few humans in American who are famous for their intellects. Although she hates labels and distrust the term intellectual, it fits her. Best known for her essays and pronouncements, she is a freelance intellectual and interpreter of culture-her essays have covered art, filmmakers, writers, photography, illness and now AIDS-and as such, she has become recognized, even revered, throughout the world.
People also are intimidated by Sontag's public persona. She is poised and comfortable in the spotlight and seems to relish debating issues, presiding at cultural events and taking part in international conferences. She's a member of such august societies as the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the New York Institute for the Humanities (a kind of lunch club for thinkers) and last year raised her profile even higher by becoming president of PEN, the writers' organization.
Yet it is ironic that Sontag is just now taking on the most public role of her life, for in all other ways she is moving toward the personal. The emotional aftermath of her breast cancer 12 years ago, the number of her friends now dying of AIDS and her view of life from middle age seem to be pushing the formerly aloof Sontag to a new openness and intimacy, both in her style and work.
Her forthcoming book, "AIDS and Its Metaphors" (to be published in January by Farrar Straus & Giroux), is virtually a call to arms against AIDS; her most recent short stories are autobiographical; and now she is working on a novel and a memoir.
"I don't want to do much more essay writing,” she says with a touch of wistfulness. "I feel I can make better use of my talents by writing in a freer, more emotionally direct way. There must be some Puritanism in me that has lashed me to the essay for so long; I find essays extremely difficult to write."
Sontag first became a celebrity at age 31 when she wrote "Notes on 'Camp,'" an essay defining and celebrating camp taste. Published in Partisan Review in 1964, the essay was immediately noticed and hailed; almost overnight, it seemed, the image of this tall young woman draped in a curtain of black hair and gazing seriously out of intense, dark eyes, became familiar.
Sontag was the essence of the beat intellectual, posing for photographs in dark clothes and without makeup and, in some pictures, not even wearing shoes. Ever since, the literati have been puzzling over how she became so hot so fast.
One theory is that her ideas were ripe for the times. She brought French postmodernist thinking to America in the '60s, when the intellectual world here was ready to break tradition, mock academia, experiment with language and form-to play games. She played those games well, and she played them young. In 1969, Current Biography touted her as "the darling-and, to some, the demon-of the New York intellectual establishment." in due course the press was throwing around all sorts of peculiar (and sexist), epithets about her. "Mary McCarthy's successor as the 'Dark Lady of American Letters,' " even the Natalie Wood of the U.S. Avant-Garde."
Sontag dislikes thinking of herself as famous and says that when she thinks of her position, all she really sees is a "typewriter with a log of paper beside it."
Nevertheless, she is not above using her fame to take controversial stands, as when she attacked liberal dogma in 1982 with the statement that communism is "fascism with a human face."
"I do have a taste for the adversarial role," she admits. "I am a public figure insofar as I have participated in public debate over things like the ERA and Vietnam and now PEN. I do so because I am civic-minded and I care about the fate of literacy and cultural life in my country."
Sharon DeLano, a friend for more than 10 years, puts it another way. "Susan," she says, "is fierce."
At the age of 55 Sontag hasn't changed much since her early days of fame. She is thicker around the hips and likes to make jokes about avoiding the refrigerator, but she still has the grace of a tall, strong woman imbued with self-confidence. Her face tends to look pale and tired, but when she smiles-a big, rather goofy smile that contrasts strikingly with her normally somber expression-she suddenly loses 20 years and looks again the lively, handsome woman whom the critic Herbert Mitgang once called a literary Pin-up.
Sontag's new book reflects the concern with illness that she developed when she found she had breast cancer, The book is a sequel to "Illness as Metaphor," the essay that Sontag thought up while in the hospital Both books describe how patients with stigmatized diseases such as cancer, and now AIDS, are blamed for their sickness through the language used to discuss illness and by the attitudes of doctors and governments. Sontag asserts that this blame makes us believe that illness is a deserved punishment and so we become too passive and accepting to fight for better research or treatment.
"I thought that if you could make people more aware of these self-punishing stereotypes, you would actually free people to seek better treatment," she says. "I felt, I was coming to the aid of people who are punished by vindictive and irrational attitudes."
"Illness as Metaphor" came as a surprise to Sontag's readers. Her earlier writing had been mostly impersonal. Both in essays and in fiction she had kept herself in the background-something that in a man would pass without comment but that probably added to her cold image. Even in interviews she maintained a distance; today in conversation she still uses the words "you" or "one" more than "I." But in "Illness" she was quite different. Suddenly the distant Ms. Cool was not only personal but emotional and angry-so angry that she was telling people what they couldn't say. Now she's about to do it again in her AIDS book.
"I am a crusader about the ill," she says. "Once you've experienced being mortally ill and you've come back, you have learned something that's worth knowing." She shifts on the couch, frowns at her hands and settles into a thought. "When you find out that you are ill," she continues, "your priorities are shattered. One moment you are in a boat, and the next moment you are in the water. But if you can take in the idea that you're going to die, there is a euphoria in it as well as great terror. Nothing else is real except the most intense experiences, intimacy. It can be exalting, even as you are reduced to this damaged body that is being cut up and made ugly and made to hurt and feel vulnerable. But it's passionate and turbulent and intense."
She pause, takes off her clear plastic watch and buckles it into a ring.
"I have friends dying right now of AIDS," she adds quietly. "I'm visiting two of them. And I feel competence to be with them, to touch them, hold them, sit and talk about what they are going through and speak of death." She looks up, dark eyes flashing. "Of course, they're dying and I m not, never-theless, I have been where they are, and I'm not frightened."
Sontag discovered her own illness in the course of a routine checkup when she was 42. She subsequently went through five operations, stringent doses of chemotherapy and a mastectomy, and she was told that she would die.
"She got extremely angry at the way doctors talked to her about the cancer," says her 36-year-old son, David Rieff. "She knew that she had to fight." She read everything she could find about the disease, he adds, and met with foreign doctors to have them explain all the latest theories. Finally she took herself off to France for the treatment she could get nowhere else. "And the fact of the matter is that what [the treatment] she got 12 years ago people are getting normally here now, so she was right"
The successful, all-out fight that Sontag waged against cancer revealed the "avidity" that, Rieff says, characterizes all of her life. "She has a kind of steely optimism. I don't mean anything naive, but she has an almost unslakable kind of curiosity, of interest in the world. She is someone who can go to an opera, meet someone at 2 in the morning to go to the Ritz and listen to some neo-Nazi punk synthesizer band and then get up the next morning to see two Crimean dissidents. I think a lot of her strength as an intellectual has to do with that kind of insistence, curiosity and appetite."
Rieff speaks of his mother as one would of a mentor or perhaps a big brother, and except for their physical resemblance-he is also tall and dark, with the same loose-limbed, clumsy grace-it is hard to imagine him as her son. There is a good reason for this, as he explains, Sontag gave birth to him when she was only 19, having married his father, sociologist Philip Rieff, at 17, and their closeness in age eventually made them close in friendship. That closeness increased when-at 26- she left her husband, took David to New York and brought him up alone.
These days Sontag is surprisingly frank about herself and her life. She not only glows with pride about her son but speaks warmly of her newfound closeness with her sister, calls herself an addict of intimacy and bemoans the perpetual lack of money that has forced her to write "short" instead of devoting two or three years to one long book as she would like.
"Shorter forms-stories and essays-get published in magazines and I get paid, which makes it possible to pay the rent," she says. "It's as simple as that."
Money has long been a problem for Sontag, and she bristles quickly at any assumption that she is rich. She only rents her downtown duplex, she emphasizes, and most of her travels are paid for by the various conferences she attends. At the time of her illness she didn’t even have insurance so Robert Silver, an old friend and the coeditor of The New York Review of Books, had to rally friends to pay for her treatment. She lacks money, she says, because she is not the kind of writer whose books make much, and because she won't teach or write journalism. "It makes it very hard for me to concentrate, to hear my own voice. I need to stay home all day and just let it all swim around in my head."
At home Sontag keeps her daily routine simple: rising early, making her "stupid coffee," avoiding the phone and the refrigerator, and writing. She tries not to go out to lunch and saves all her chores for Fridays, to interrupt as little of the week as possible.
"Work is like a child," she says. "It will take as much time as you give it. Because of that there have been periods in my life when I have accepted solitude. I don't think I've chosen it; I've only accepted it. But I persist in that one should be able to mate and have children and intimate friendships and, if you're lucky, loving relationships with your family and still be able to work.
In the evenings Sontag sees a friend for dinner, movie, ballet or a concert-such friends as Elizabeth Hardwick; poets Joseph Brodsky and Richard Howard; her publisher, Roger Straus; and many, others in and out of the arts.
"My favorite situation is sitting and talking with one other person," she says. "I dislike literary parties and openings; because every time I'm in a on conversation, somebody interrupts us. I'm too hungry for that one-on-one situation.'
Sontag traces this hunger for intimacy back to an isolated childhood-her parents were often abroad, her father died when she was 5, and her mother was emotionally remote. But that need and the move toward the personal in Sontag's work may have a lot to do with her brush with death.
"When I got sick, I wanted to be closer to people, to accept consolation and talk about life and death," she says. "For the sake of my self-respect I continued to work, but if I were a less conscious, driven person, I would have simply been with people. I didn’t want to write-I wanted to hold hands!'
"Of course, I am a writer," She adds, “I can't imagine not being a writer anymore than I can imagine not being a woman. But being a writer isn't the most important thing to me. The most important thing is how to say it?" She frowns, searching, thinking. "The most important thing one's connection with other people."
Helen Benedict is a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. This article was first published in the November issue of New York Woman.