For the love of thought

Before I met her, I — like many people, I suspect — was in awe of Susan Sontag, that laser mind that had performed intellectual microsurgery on so many of the big cultural issues of our age: homosexuality, the language of illness, the power of imagery of all kinds, from photography to cinema. She was just too damned clever. And so outspokenly fearless with it. She could eat people like me for breakfast and spit me out without noticing.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve spent my life interviewing smart, famous people, but interviewing Susan was something else again. We were doing Night Waves for Radio 3, there was a problem with the studio, I remember, and we had to wait outside. She arrived, sat down next to me and started talking. I don’t know how it happened, but within minutes the fear had dribbled away. Somehow we (she?) got on to the study of consciousness and how far, by understanding the human brain, we might understand the need for the idea of God. I was just so busy thinking, and having so much fun doing it, that there was no time to be in awe. Her whole being vibrated with the pleasure of thought. She was so infectiously “interested” that you couldn’t help but join in.

When the microphone went on, exactly the same person spoke into it: no artifice, no attempt to take on the mantle of “the writer”, but a huge mind eager to communicate. She had written a novel about a 19th-century Russian actress. It really wasn’t that good, which may sound hard after her death, but she would absolutely want one to be honest. It was a bit like an early prototype plane, burdened by too many ideas to ever quite get off the ground. But when she talked about it, those same ideas flew.

When I told her during the interview that it didn’t work for me (it would have been an insult to pretend otherwise) she shook her head and said that she was sorry, but that fiction was what she wanted to do now. And when the interview ended she took a piece of paper and wrote her address and phone number on it. “I really enjoyed talking to you,” she said, pushing it across the table. “If you’re ever in New York ...”

As it happened, she went on to write a great many pieces that weren’t fiction. I dare say she just got so interested in whatever came her way that she had to pursue it. And when the world became a darker place after September 11, someone had to tell America a few of the more unpalatable truths about itself.

Looking back, I think Sontag taught me and a whole generation of women like me the real meaning of what being an intellectual involves: not just somebody who is whip-smart and good at ideas, but somebody who loves them, truly loves them, and for whom they are vital and vibrant, the stuff of life and the means to live it better.

The last time I saw her was in London, more than a year ago, giving a lecture on translation. She was tired, a little slower, I thought, but once she started talking, that same boundless curiosity and energy shone out of her again. Don’t just listen to me, it said, think along with me. Because it is all just so interesting and together we can make sense of it, even if we end up saying things that some people don’t want to hear. In a world of ever faster spin who, alas, will do that for us — and especially for America — now?

Peter Brooks professor at the University of Virginia and writer on law and literature

My first recollection of meeting Susan Sontag was after I had written a review of her book Against Interpretation, in Partisan Review. It was in the mid-60s, I was young and therefore fairly critical, although I liked the book. I met her at a party in New York, and she walked up and said, “Read your review, let’s talk.”

I was a little bit terrified. I had been, in my young way, a bit harsh, and she responded so generously and warmly. She sensed that there were grounds for genuine discussion, and she took me seriously, which was lovely. She was always intellectually extremely generous. Over the years, I would send her something I was working on and, even when she was busy, she would always respond.

She was an unusual figure for the US, more of a French intellectual, interested in ideas, exploring the avant garde. She wrote about Godard and was one of the first to review Roland Barthes in the US.

Her sensibility was extraordinary for New York at that time. After the Abu Ghraib photographs came out, because of the work she had done on photography, I wrote to her and said, “Susan, you are the person to respond to this.” The photographs had galvanised a reaction in a way that nothing else could. I thought the photographs and her reaction to them would change minds in this country ... but it was not to be.

Susan had this presence; partly it was a physical presence, a commanding presence. She commanded respect. She occasionally took positions that were polarising and led middle-of-the-road minds to oppose her. One of her important roles was to bring the avant garde to a wider public. She was truly a public figure.

Melissa Benn

writer and feminist