Sontag: 1933-2004 / by Edna Bonhomme

Susan Rosenblatt (popularly known as Susan Sontag) was born on 16 January, the year the Nazis came to power. Sontag’s family were Lithuanian and Polish Jews who found solace in New York City, a haven for African Americans escaping the Jim Crow American South and Southern and Eastern Europeans fleeing from famine and pogroms. Her cosmopolitanism fueled her literary acuteness and her willingness to understand the human experience furthered her political crusades.


Sontag’s literary genius was demonstrated in the range of texts she produced. From commentaries on war to meditations on health, she wrote an endless number of texts that dared to be serious and pensive.


In 1968, she went to Hanoi and eventually visited Vietcong. After conducting an investigative trip she reached the conclusion that “The Vietnamese are ‘whole’ human beings, not ‘split’ as we are.” They were whole because they resisted US militarization; Americans were not, because they could not understand the Vietnamese humanity.


On the history of medicine, Sontag showed that pathogens are biological but how we cope with them is political. When we navigate through a cold, cough, or headache, our bodily discomfort and our ability to transcend those feelings comes from the community and healing practices that deem fit. Originally published in 1978, Illness as Metaphor argues that the metaphors of cancer come from warfare not economics which goes to show how society normalizes disease but also uses disease imagery in political rhetoric to create of hierarchy of life and death. Tuberculosis, a nineteenth century disease was romanticized. In contrast, cancer coarsens the body and the soul with each malignant cell being a gateway to self-destruction.  


Staying with the theme of health, Sontag opted for a discussion on collective suffering in AIDS and its metaphors. It was here that the dimensions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic engulfed her community and loved ones. Yet, disease was not merely an allegory but rife with the panoply of death, an ascension of bodies whose talents, dreams, and loves would wither. Her outcry about the disease led to her vilification by religious conservatives in the United States. Their names: Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Norman Podhoretz.


Sontag was regal, verbose, and a modernist and her analysis about war and health offer an intimate portrait on humanity and its demise. At the same time, it showed her capacity to uncover her close encounters with death and her capacity to mourn.

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