Susan Sontag was terrified of cremation. For the American writer and theorist, being reduced to particles of ash was the ultimate confirmation of extinction. Being whole was closer to being alive – and she had no desire to be anything but alive. Sontag went so far as to stray from the relentless honesty of her life's analytical writing in order to deny the realities of her fearful battle against blood cancer.
"There are those who can reconcile themselves to death and those who can't," Sontag's son David Rieff wrote in the New York Times Magazine. "Increasingly, I've come to think that it is one of the most important ways the world divides up." Rieff recently published Swimming in a Sea of Death, a book reflecting on his mother's willful self-delusion and the power and limitations of medicine.
Meanwhile, Sontag's on-and-off partner of 15 years, renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz, compiled a body of work shot over the years they were together and titled it "A Photographer's Life." In the exhibition, Leibovitz's trademark fashion photos are interspersed with images of her family and intimate snapshots of Sontag, traveling, then sick, then dying and finally laid out for her funeral.
The photographs are difficult and personal. Indeed Rieff attacks them in his book as "carnival images of celebrity death." The punctilious thinker whose every phrase was turned with perfection appears naked, clutching a pillow, riddled with tubes, covered in sores, bruised and raw. She is losing control before our eyes.
During Sontag's two-year illness, only doctors could provide comfort. She didn't believe in God but her faith in miraculous medical cures was unshakable. Her hope was not entirely unfounded – she had, after all, beat two horrendous bouts of cancer. Still, her chances of surviving leukemia at age 71 were close to zero and she could have been spared a great deal of pain had she not suffered through an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant. In the end, even after medicine failed her, Sontag died clutching the hand of her physician. Her time had come and she still could not accept it.
Interestingly, Sontag in death – as shown in Leibovitz's final photographs – appears peaceful, laid out in the unnatural green light of a wood paneled room. When the life Sontag loved fell away and the death she feared took over, relaxation set into her body for the first time, a smile appeared on her lips and her brow unfurled.
Photo: George Rose / Getty