Title: Obituary: Elegy for the Essayist - Susan Sontag Credit: Craig Young Features Friday 31st December 2004 - 12:00pm1104447600 Article: 557 Rights
Susan Sontag (1933-2004) I will miss Susan Sontag, Her work spanned over forty years, and there's currently some question about whether she was a lesbian, according to The Advocate. Sontag was a cutting-edge cultural analyst, although opinion is divided on the merits of her work. For many gay men, she's probably most familiar as author of Notes on Camp (1964). In this work, she argued that gay men tended toward an arch and ironic style that subtly subverted cultural tastes, and celebrated overblown, lush and baroque work. For example, she viewed the work of Visconti (a gay Italian film director) as indicative of this aesthetic tendency. Oddly enough though, she didn't make reference to Visconti's Senso, often remarked upon as one of the inspirations for Peter Wells' early nineties masterpiece, Desperate Remedies. Some gay critics objected to her depiction of gay men as less than serious about life amidst the existence of oppression, police harassment and arrest and psychiatric incarceration and forced electroshock or antipsychotic drug treatment. Paul Varnell takes this perspective in his counterpoint essay Sour Notes on Camp. (However, Varnell has his target wrong. I have my own difficulties with Fascinating Fascism, which dealt with the upsurge of fascist aesthetics in the late seventies and early eighties. I found her comments about the leather community somewhat distasteful, especially given the fact that erotophobia cost leathermen their lives due to an absence of appropriately targeted health promotion materials, as Gayle Rubin noted in her doctoral thesis on the San Fransisco leather community of the late seventies and early eighties. That said, I also found that it caught Brian Tamaki's questionable sense of aesthetic taste excellently.) However, People Living With AIDS have another view of the essayist in question. As with the late African-American cancer survivor and lesbian-feminist, Audre Lorde, Sontag battled cancer and wrote about her experiences in the early eighties, in a classic essay entitled "Illness as A Metaphor" (1982). By a tragic synchronicity, the HIV/AIDS epidemic began to ravage the US gay male communities of that period.Nine years later, Sontag wrote AIDS As A Metaphor (1991). In both works, she calls on her country (and others) to stop depicting tuberculosis, cancer, syphilis and HIV/AIDS as metaphors for social decay and bodily destruction. She argues that these depictions stigmatise people who live with and through the illnesses in question, for whom survival is most decidedly not 'metaphorical,' but a feat of courage and endurance. As a cancer survivor, Sontag knew this in her own life. Other gay men appear in her essays from time to time. Roland Barthes, the French gay pioneer of semiotics, was one of them, and his work merited an entire posthumous reader of his achievements. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz merited another. Sontag was a premier figure of arts and letters in the last third of the twentieth century. While her heritage is ambivalent, she has left us with a body of brilliant and incisive essays about European and American culture as a legacy. Vale, Ms. Sontag. Recommended Reading: Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation: New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux: 1967 [Includes Notes on Camp.] Susan Sontag: Styles of Radical Will: New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux: 1978. [Includes Fascinating Fascism.] Susan Sontag: Illness as A Metaphor: New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux: 1982. Susan Sontag: AIDS and Its Metaphors: New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux: 1991. Critique: Paul Varnell "Sour Notes on Camp" See also: Gayle Rubin: "Temple of the Butthole" in Mark Thompson (ed) Leatherfolk: Boston: Alyson: 1993. Craig Young - 31st December 2004    
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