Susan Sontag, author and activist, dies at 71

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new york | Not one to shy away from controversy, when she was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 2001, Susan Sontag used the occasion to criticize Israel’s handling of the intifada.

“I believe the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishments [is] never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean of course the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians,” she said at the award ceremony in Jerusalem.

Sontag, a leading intellectual and activist of the past half century who influenced the way people thought about art, illness and photography, died Dec. 28 in Manhattan at 71.

Her son, David Rieff, said the cause was complications from acute myelogenous leukemia, one of the deadliest forms of leukemia.

Sontag had suffered on and off from cancer since the 1970s.

The daughter of a fur trader, Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933. She spent her early years in Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles. Her mother, Mildred Rosenblatt, was an alcoholic; her father, Jack, died when she was 5. Her mother later married an Army officer, Capt. Nathan Sontag.

Susan Sontag skipped three grades and graduated from high school at 15. She met her husband, Philip Rieff, a social psychologist and historian, at the University of Chicago. Their son, David, was born in 1952; they divorced by the mid-1960s, and Sontag rose to prominence in New York’s literary society.

She wrote a best-selling novel, “The Volcano Lover,” and in 2000 won the National Book Award for the historical novel “In America.” But her greatest literary impact was as an essayist.

Her 1964 piece, “Notes on Camp,” which established her as a major new writer, popularized the “so bad it’s good” attitude toward popular culture, applicable to everything from “Swan Lake” to feather boas. In “Against Interpretation,” this most analytical of writers worried that critical analysis interfered with art’s “incantatory, magical” power.

She also wrote such influential works as “Illness as Metaphor,” in which she examined how disease had been alternatively romanticized and demonized, and “On Photography,” in which she argued pictures sometimes distance viewers from the subject matter.