I met Susan Sontag once at Colosseum Books just off Columbus Circle at 57th Street. Now, sadly, both are gone. I recognized her voice first as we both stood surveying the new trade paperbacks at the front of the store. She was talking to someone else next to her when I glanced up and saw the full face with its trademark white plume sweeping over her forehead headed, along with her otherwise coal-black hair, for her shoulder. We exchanged only a few words, something about a book on the rack. She was very pleasant as I remember. Neither of us acknowledged her celebrity--which is how most New Yorkers do it.
It was a New York moment of the sort only residents can appreciate. Walking, or dining, or standing in line for a movie New Yorkers frequently rub shoulders with celebrities. The thrill never goes away, if my twenty-odd years experience there counts. But neither does one forget. Dustin Hoffman, Rex Harrison, William Hurt, Peter Jennings, Bette Midler, Richard Nixon, ...my list of celebrities could go on and on.
Susan Sontag, for me, was most outstanding for her journalism. I've only read On Photography and Illness as Metaphor, it was long ago and I can only remember being favorably impressed at the time. We also shared interest in filmmaking, especially French films.
I admired her politics too, especially her willingness to stand up for ideas that were decidedly unpopular. Here's what she had to say about the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
To have the American effort in Iraq summed up by these images must seem, to those who saw some justification in a war that did overthrow one of the monster tyrants of modern times, ''unfair.'' A war, an occupation, is inevitably a huge tapestry of actions. What makes some actions representative and others not? The issue is not whether the torture was done by individuals (i.e., ''not by everybody'') -- but whether it was systematic. Authorized. Condoned. All acts are done by individuals. The issue is not whether a majority or a minority of Americans performs such acts but whether the nature of the policies prosecuted by this administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such acts likely. ...
...So, then, is the real issue not the photographs themselves but what the photographs reveal to have happened to ''suspects'' in American custody? No: the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken -- with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives. German soldiers in the Second World War took photographs of the atrocities they were committing in Poland and Russia, but snapshots in which the executioners placed themselves among their victims are exceedingly rare, as may be seen in a book just published, ''Photographing the Holocaust,'' by Janina Struk. If there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880's and 1930's, which show Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib.