“I had so many admirations: there was so much to admire.”
A decade now, back in the early 90’s, disenchanted with the various dull syllabi representative of my undergraduate degree and intuiting that there were far more exciting things to learn about if I simply stepped away from the cramped quarters of prescribed curriculum and took a look, I dropped out of college and quietly lit out for the territories. What I may have lacked in discipline (there was a gleefully haphazard quality to my intellectual pursuits during this time) I more than made up for in curiosity and appetite. If anything, my time away from school was a kind of self-inflicted therapy- a way to recharge my batteries and remind myself that learning was, in and of itself, noble and luxuriant with a sense of fun and play. Learning made life necessary.
Having the space to pursue whatever impulse or whimsy my curiosity mandated led me to many teachers. One of my favorites was Susan Sontag. Sontag died yesterday at the age of 71 after a long battle with cancer. My copy of Against Interpretation and Other Essays (which includes the immortal Notes on “Camp” and is, as Sontag warily admitted, one of the quintessential texts of the Sixties) is never far from reach and just this Christmas my sister-in-law gave me On Photography. Which is to say that Sontag has long held a very cherished place in my own, albeit far lesser, intellectual development and that, if only out of greed, I had hoped she would be around a while longer.
Back in those heady cloistered days of the early 90’s I first read many of Sontag’s earliest essays, written in the early Sixties when she was living in New York. Reflecting on these formative essays in 1996, Sontag wrote, “I was filled with evangelical zeal.” Having the opportunity to wallow in Sontag’s insights, to delight in their urgency and sense of possibility- to experience that sublime moment when her words and the ideas they gave flight to suddenly soared upwards and bumped against something consummate of my own fervency and interests gave me perhaps all the reason I needed whenever I questioned my decision to pause my undergraduate career.
And it wasn’t just Sontag’s intelligence and the succinct eloquence with which she espoused her ideas- it was the incredible, humbling range of her erudition that was stunning. She was a true renaissance mind- interested in everything and fearlessly advocating her positions in essays that I still am unable to read without being sidetracked by the sheer avalanche of new ideas they generate. In fact, reading a Sontag essay is one of the best cures for aesthetic/intellectual laziness I can think of. To read her is to be reunited to the architecture of our ideas and how we might be more alive to their cultivation.