Tuesday, December 28, 2004

"be serious, be passionate, wake up!"

Susan Sontag - novelist, critic, public intellectual and watchdog for the oppressed - passed this morning, after a long, second bout with cancer.

In the summer of 2000, I had an opportunity to meet and spend some time in the orbit of Sontag, as I was cataloguing for the company performing an appraisal of her personal archive and library, (which was eventually purchased by UCLA). For nearly six weeks, I spent my days in Sontag's office or home, quietly cataloguing, while around me her life whirled. Alfred Brendel would like to have dinner; Chinese writer Gao Xingjian was arriving from Boston on the Chinatown bus; new books piled up by the dozens (many were immediately donated to her assistants or others); Nadine Gordimer was on the phone... And all this time she was sick with cancer. She was a gracious host, inviting me to join her for lunch which she often shared with them in the kitchen. She was also disarmingly human for someone I had come to think of as an intellectual superhero (especially given that most of the other superheros seemed to be missing). My life at the time was not an easy one. I was entering the divorce process at the time, and I remember Susan giving me a grandmotherly hug the day she found out why I was uncharacteristically sullen.

My time spent with her archive and library, which documented her intellectual pursuits from a very young age, and the living example she lived in front of me was enough for me to recommit to the life of the mind, even as a simple bookseller.

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