Wingnuts are shedding few tears over the death of one of our great thinkers and writers. Michelle Maglalang (Malkin’s real last name)and Charles Johnson spewed forth their predictable populist poison, remembering Sontag only for her unfortunate remarks after the September 11 attacks, when she said American actions had much to do with the calamity. They can scarcely conceal their glee (no, I won’t link to them) as they live up to the Sean Hannity standard of journalism, where you find an incendiary thing someone once said or did and brand them permanently with it so it becomes their whole identity. (Think Willie Horton and Kerry’s “I voted for it before voting against it.”) It’s a Karl Rove tactic that is supremely effective and nearly impossible to counteract; the power of the meme is near-invincible.
Anyway, there is is some hope of balance with Christopher Hitchens’ superb obituary of Sontag, which puts her dumb remarks into perspective and gives her lavish praise as one of the great thinkers of our age.
In what I thought was an astonishing lapse, she attempted to diagnose the assault of Sept. 11, 2001, as the one thing it most obviously was not: “a consequence of specific [sic] American alliances and actions.” Even the word “general” would have been worse in that sentence, but she had to know better. She said that she didn’t read reviews of her work, when she obviously did. It could sometimes be very difficult to tell her anything or to have her admit that there was something she didn’t know or hadn’t read.
But even this insecurity had its affirmative side. If she was sometimes a little permissive, launching a trial balloon only to deflate it later (as with her change of heart on the filmic aesthetic of Leni Riefenstahl) this promiscuity was founded in curiosity and liveliness…She was always trying to do too much and square the circle: to stay up late debating and discussing and have the last word, then get a really early night, then stay up reading, and then make an early start. She adored trying new restaurants and new dishes. She couldn’t stand affectless or bored or cynical people, of any age. She only ventured into full-length fiction when she was almost 60, and then discovered that she had a whole new life. And she resisted the last malady with terrific force and resource, so that to describe her as life-affirming now seems to me suddenly weak. Anyway—death be not proud.
I met Sontag many years ago and she signed my copy of her book On Photography with a very warm, personal note. I loved the way she wrote, I loved the way she bravely faced her lifelong battle with cancer, I loved her ability to cut through the crap and to present time-worn topics with a wholly original and often brilliant perspective. She was sometimes too critical of the US, a bit far to the left, but that’s a very tiny speck, a crumb of what she stood for. But of course, Johnson and Maglalang and their wingnut friends see only treachery and evil. It’s their loss.
Update: For a good example of wingnut loathing of Sontag, go here.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.