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Published: Monday, 1/3/2005

A passion for ideas

Susan Sontag, one of the most provocative intellectuals and social critics of the last half century, merited her full-page obituary in the New York Times the other day. Though she died at 71 from leukemia, Ms. Sontag will live on through a body of work that was as influential as it was controversial.

Ms. Sontag wasn't content to tinker on the margins of academia. She was the author of big ideas about everything from popular culture to political ideologies. She was alternately vilified by the political left and right because of her philosophical orneriness.

She wrote deeply about the metaphoric implications of disease and the primacy of the aesthetic sensibility. She was not one for conventional thinking. As an essayist, Ms. Sontag was as contentious as Norman Mailer.

As a pillar of the New York literary community, she was as thoughtful and tactful as any MacArthur Foundation "genius award" winner could be. She even had a cameo in a Woody Allen film playing herself.

Ms. Sontag was a passionate defender of ideas, even bad ones. Disputation mattered as much to her as the truth or falsehood of the subject under discussion. She told interviewers once that she became aware of what she thought of any issue only while arguing. She needed intellectual engagement the way most people need air. The life of the mind was Susan Sontag's air.

For those who don't read the New York Review of Books or spend much time perusing the shelves of quality bookstores, Ms. Sontag will be remembered (and misunderstood) as the "pointy-headed intellectual" castigated on Fox News and other right-wing media as a hater of America for an essay she wrote about the Sept. 11 attackers in New Yorker magazine.

She condemned the terrorists but refused to join the chorus of invective that insisted that the 19 hijackers were "cowardly." She saw their actions as misguided and evil, but she also tried to understand their motivation. In the end, her argument was too nuanced for a nation in shock and she was heavily criticized, even by ideological fellow travelers.

Still, Ms. Sontag represented the best traditions of the western intellectual. She was fearless, outspoken, tireless, and willing to engage the most sacred of taboos. She will be impossible to replace.

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