Until this past Sunday, all I knew about Susan Sontag was that she was one of the intellectuals interviewed in Woody Allen’s mockumentary “Zelig”, and that the Manic Street Preachers cited her as an influence (one check in the plus column, one in the minus…). This changed yesterday when Tim Keller quoted from the NY Times review of a new book by her son David Rieff, an account of her final illness called “Swimming In A Sea Of Death”:

“Sontag’s confrontation with her own ordinariness is the most intriguing element of Rieff’s story. For a woman who had always believed in her own exceptionality, who had defined herself by her will to be different, to rise above, the terrifying democracy of illness is one of its most painful aspects. Throughout her final illness, she tells Rieff, ‘This time, for the first time in my life, I don’t feel special.’

In the most profound and affecting passages of the book, Rieff questions whether, on some level, his mother thought that she was too special to die. He investigates the line between hubris and bravery, grandiosity and vitality. Do we ever truly accept that we will die? Is there a part of the mind, especially for someone as ambitious, as avid, as Sontag, that refuses to believe in its own extinction?

Rieff enumerates the qualities that enabled her to transcend her unhappy girlhood in Arizona and her early unhappy marriage to become one of the country’s most formidable intellectuals. ‘Her sense that whatever she could will in life she could probably accomplish … had served her so well for so long that, empirically, it would have been madness on her part not to have made it her organizing principle, her true north,‘ he writes. That same belief in the power of her own desire, that spectacular ambition, that intellectual bravado, made it impossible to accept that fatal illness was not another circumstance she could master.”