Recalling SUSAN SONTAG (1933-2004) as “a leading public intellectual” — a category she did not invent, but perhaps perfected — is no substitute for rereading the early, electrifying essays collected in Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will. Open but never credulous, her approach to high- and low-cultural innovations marked a sea change from the middle-minded dismissiveness of the mid-1960s critical scene. A comment on Bergman’s Persona could serve as her credo: “What is commonly patronized as an overexquisite self-consciousness in contemporary art… can be seen — less pejoratively — as the liberation of new energies of thought and sensibility.” 1988’s timely AIDS and Its Metaphors aside, Sontag often retreated from “What’s Going on In America” (as a 1966 essay had it) in later decades, preferring to tend a favored stable of elegiac modernists (Canetti, Walser). Yet one of her last interventions was her most trenchant: in a post-9/11 New Yorker commentary, published hardly a week after the attacks, Sontag called out against media attempts to “infantilize the public,” and advised, “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.” The piece was, of course, roundly condemned by those who failed to notice its pitiless consistency with everything she had ever written.
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