Later Essays by Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag: Later Essays
Susan Sontag
Library of America

The Library of America’s second volume of Susan Sontag’s brilliant observations and critiques, “Later Essays,” illustrates her extraordinary ability to dig deep into political and social conflict and provoke personal introspection.

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“. . . brilliant observations and critiques . . .”

It’s also a valuable addition to the first volume, “Essays of the 1960s and 70s,” both edited by her son, David Rieff, who describes Sontag as an international person with “avidity,” interested in everything, and “uncompromisingly engaged in great political issues of her time.”

Most revealing, and courageous, were her eleven visits to the Balkans during the 1990s wars. Sontag was so involved and visible that a central square in Sarajevo is named after her. In one essay, “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo,” she details the struggles of the people in Sarajevo, when she staged the play, “Godot,” in Serbo-Croatian through an interpreter. Throughout the ordeal, despite hunger and daily shelling by the Serbs, people maintained their dignity, she writes.

As a film critic, in one of essays, “Fascinating Fascism,” she accuses Leni Reifenstahl, who produced propaganda films for Adolf Hitler, of attempting to reinvent herself as anti-fascist. As in all Sontag’s writings she goes deep, noting that Reifenstahl recognized the appeal for Nazism would be the art of simplicity, and not intellectual. She compares fascism to sadomasochism, a ritual of domination and enslavement.  

At age 42 Sontag underwent a rare treatment for breast cancer and survived, but 20 years later she was diagnosed with uterine sarcoma. But up until her death in 2004, she was still lecturing and writing. In her essay, “AIDs and its Metaphors,” she notes stigmas attached to certain illness, including cancer, and reactions to them. Societies, she says, seem to single out a disease, such as the plague and AIDs, characterize it as evil, and therefore blame the victim.  

In her 2003 writings, “Regarding the Pain of Others,”  she writes about the aftermath of 9.11 and torture at Abu Ghraib.  Peace will be elusive as long as there is a “disproportionate firepower against civilians,” Sontag says. And, in a speech, “The Conscience of Words,” Sontag warns that no peace will come to Israel until settlements in Palestine are halted. In her final set of essays, “9.11.01,” Sontag is remorseful about America’s response, the endless war against terrorism, and the bombing of Iraq.

Fortunately, the world was gifted with a writer like Sontag, who dared to question. As an essayist who actually preferred to write fiction, she lives up to her goal of gaining knowledge and speaking the truth.


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Review by Kate Padilla