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Critic-Author Susan Sontag Dies of Cancer

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Noted intellectual critic and writer Susan Sontag, considered one of America’s most lucid thinkers as well as a strong social activist in the cause of human rights, died of leukemia at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reports. She was 71.

A self-proclaimed “obsessed moralist,” Sontag graduated from the University of Chicago and Harvard and did postgraduate work at Oxford before starting out as a teacher in New York City. In 1964, she gained international fame with her essay for the Partisan Review, “Notes on Camp.” She also directed her own film, 1969’s Duet for Cannibals, made in Sweden.

Ultimately, Sontag would publish 17 books that were translated into 32 languages. One of her best known was her 1976 critical analysis, On Photography, which was followed two years later by her Illness as Metaphor.

By that time, Sontag, 45, was a two-year survivor of cancer of the breast, lymphatic system and leg. Doctors told her she had a one-in-four chance to make it another five years, prompting her to write: “The first thing is not to feel sorry for yourself. … But it’s not altogether a bad experience to know you’re going to die.”

While still at the University of Chicago, in 1950, she met and married 10 days later Philip Rieff, a 28-year-old instructor in social theory. Their son, David, now a prominent writer (1991’s Los Angeles, Capital of the Third World), was born in 1952.

The Rieffs divorced in 1959 and Sontag never remarried, though in 2001, Time magazine reported that her companion, photographer Annie Leibovitz, had given birth to a daughter, Sarah Cameron Leibovitz. Neither Leibovitz nor Sontag offered word on the child’s paternity.

As the L.A. Times noted, Sontag never strayed from her belief that art has the ability to delight, inform and transform.

“We live in a culture,” she said, “in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.”