Monday, January 29, 2007

An unslakable kind of curiosity.

[[I nice thing to have said of you in the end. From Writer’s Almanac a few weeks ago. I like this word unslakable—it’s one of those ones you see so rarely that even spelt correctly it looks wrong. Where does one go to see a “neo Nazi punk synthesizer band” these days?]]

It’s the birthday of essayist and cultural critic Susan Sontag, born in New York City (1933). She was an intellectual even as a child, buying the Partisan Review and reading Trilling, Rosenberg, and Arendt. She graduated from high school at age 15 and became a serial academic. She took classes at Berkeley, then earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago after only two years of classes. She earned two master’s degrees from Harvard, studied at Oxford and the University of Paris, and then, in 1959, moved with her son to New York City. During the course of her studies she had married, had a child with, and divorced Philip Rieff, who had been one of her professors at the University of Chicago.

Susan Sontag said that she preferred to think of herself as a novelist. Her first novel, The Benefactor, was published in 1963. Her most popular, The Volcano Lover, came out in 2002. But it is her essays that made her famous.

In her early essays, Sontag wrote criticism of art and culture. Other critical essays of the early ’60s were dry and academic—hers were not. Her essay “Notes on Camp” was first published in the Partisan Review in 1964. The essay had a huge impact on the New York intellectual world, and Susan Sontag became a sort of spokesperson for the American avant-garde.

Susan Sontag’s son, David Rieff, said his mother had “an unslakable kind of curiosity, of interest in the world. She is someone who can go to an opera, meet someone at two 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.”