Susan Sontag: Critic and Crusader
By Steve WassermanJuly 1, 2015
The following is a feature article from the most recent edition of the LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2015. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $15 monthly level or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com, or b&n.com.
Lecture delivered at SUSAN SONTAG REVISITED symposium at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Berlin, 29 January 2015.
I FIRST MET Susan Sontag in the spring of 1974 at a dinner in Berkeley given by Robert Scheer, author of one of the first pamphlets against the Vietnam War and former editor of Ramparts, the radical magazine for which Susan had written in the late 1960s. I especially remember a 15,000-word “Letter from Sweden,” which began with a sentence I never forgot: “The experience of any new country unfolds as a battle of clichés.” I was then a senior at the University of California and was moonlighting as Scheer’s researcher on a book he was writing on multinational corporations and a growing phenomenon that years later would be called “globalism,” but which at the time was more familiarly known to those on the left as “imperialism.” I was to graduate in June, and Scheer and I planned to go to New York to finish our work on the book. Scheer was to bunk with his old pal Jules Feiffer, the gifted cartoonist for The Village Voice, and I would repair, at her invitation, to Sontag’s penthouse, Jasper Johns’s former studio, located on the Upper West Side at 340 Riverside Drive.
I remember the apartment well. Flooded with sunlight, surrounded by a generous terrace overlooking the Hudson River, it was spartan: hardwood floors, white walls, high ceilings; in the living room a single Eames chair, an original Andy Warhol of Chairman Mao; in the dining room a long monk’s table made of oak with a brace of long benches on either side; in the kitchen’s cupboards a stack of plates, a few glasses, and row after row of back issues of Partisan Review; leaning against one wall of Susan’s bedroom a curious stained-glass window from Italy of a spooky Death’s Head, a kind of memento mori, and, perhaps most impressive, by her bedside atop a low nightstand a 24-hour clock featuring time zones spanning the globe. Most important, of course, were the walls that bore the weight of her 8,000 books, a library that Susan would later call her “personal retrieval system.” (By the time of her death, 30 years later, the library had grown to 25,000 volumes.)
I spent the summer nearly getting a crick in my neck from perusing the books, and I remember thinking that — though I had just finished four years of college — my real education had just begun. I discovered scores of writers I’d never heard of as well as writers I distantly knew but had never read. For reasons wholly mysterious, I found myself drawn to four blue-backed volumes: The Journals of André Gide. These, like others in Susan’s library, were filled with her lightly penciled underlinings and marginal notes.
For my 22nd birthday in early August, Susan took me to see Waylon Jennings at the Bottom Line, the hot new club that had opened to great success six months earlier. (Five years later, I would return the favor by taking her to see Graham Parker & The Rumour at the Roxy in Los Angeles.) Her son, David Rieff, my age exactly, had long been besotted with country music and boasted a dazzling collection of bespoke cowboy boots, and we spent many humid evenings walking his dog, Nu-nu, an Alaskan husky with Paul Newman eyes, through the streets of the neighborhood, while talking politics and literature and the higher gossip over endless cups of espresso and smoking Picayunes, the strong unfiltered cigarettes he then favored but would later give up. Thus was a lifelong friendship forged.
Six days later, President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. Scheer’s book had to be retitled: now it was to be called America After Nixon: The Age of the Multinationals. Those were the days before computers, of course, and it fell to me to comb through the page proofs, meticulously changing all the present tenses to past, as in “Nixon was.” Nothing so tedious was ever so pleasurable.
Susan and I kept up our friendship, and during the near-decade that I edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review she was a cherished contributor. She was something of an Auntie Mame figure for me. We spent years haunting secondhand bookstores in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and New York, talking for hours over ever more bizarre dishes of Chinese Hakka cuisine in a hole-in-the-wall eatery at Stockton and Broadway in San Francisco, watching Kenneth Anger flicks and the surrealistic stop-motion puppet masterpieces of Ladislas Starevich, which Tom Luddy would screen for us at the Pacific Film Archive, over and over again until our eyeballs nearly fell out.
When she fell sick in the spring of 2004, I feared it would prove to be her final illness, despite having successfully survived two previous cancers. I last saw her in April 2004. She was in Los Angeles to receive a lifetime achievement award from the city’s Library Foundation. We met at her hotel. She looked, as ever, full of life, ardent as always. She drew me aside and confided the grim diagnosis she’d just received from her doctors. She said: “Three strikes and you’re out.”
Months before she died in December, I began to draft her obituary, which, in the event, would be front-page news. Twenty-five years before, I had clipped from the pages of Rolling Stone what I thought was the best interview she’d ever given: a passionate and far-ranging conversation with Jonathan Cott, an original and longtime contributor to the magazine. I quoted generously from it in my obituary.
Years went by and it came to pass that Cott discovered in his apparently bottomless closet the tapes he’d used to record his interview. It turned out that Rolling Stone had only used a third of their 12 hours of talk. And since Susan spoke in complete sentences and paragraphs, we decided last year to publish at Yale University Press, where I was now an editor, the entire conversation.
Aside from the personal loss for those lucky enough to count Susan a comrade and friend and ally, why should her death matter? What did her work stand for? And, 10 years on, does it hold up?
She was, of course, one of America’s most influential intellectuals, internationally renowned for the passionate engagement and breadth of her critical intelligence and her ceaseless efforts to promote the cause of human rights. She was, as a writer and as a citizen of the world, a critic and a crusader.
The author of 17 books, translated into more than 30 languages, she vaulted to public attention and critical acclaim with the publication a half-century ago, in 1964, of “Notes on ‘Camp’,” written for Partisan Review and included in Against Interpretation, her first collection of essays, published two years later, in 1966.
Susan wrote about subjects as diverse as pornography and photography, the aesthetics of silence and the aesthetics of fascism, Bunraku puppet theater and the choreography of Balanchine, the uses and abuses of language and illness, as well as admiring portraits of such writers and filmmakers as Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Elias Canetti, Kenneth Anger, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, and Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Walser, Marina Tsvetaeva, Alice James. She was always hungry for more. All her life she aspired to live up to Goethe’s injunction that “you must know everything.” She wanted, as Wayne Koestenbaum has astutely observed, to devour the world. There were never enough hours in the day or the night. She stole from sleep the hours she spent reading and rereading, reading and rereading. She was an insomniac omnivore, insatiable, driven, endlessly curious, obsessed collector of enthusiasms and passions.
She was a fervent believer in the capacity of art to delight, to inform, to transform. She was hungry for aesthetic pleasures but haunted by the burden of a moral tradition for which purely aesthetic delights were a guilty pastime. She strained mightily to rid herself of its suffocations, even going so far as to turn a personal predicament into a general condition, famously urging, in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”
She was a paladin of seriousness. She thought it the obligation of cultural criticism to bear down on what matters. She did not believe that one’s first thoughts were one’s best thoughts. She knew that the fundamental idea at stake in the criticism of culture generally is the self-image of society: how it reasons with itself, describes itself, imagines itself. And she knew that nothing in the excitements made possible by the digital revolution banishes the need for the rigor such self-reckoning requires. Time is required to think through difficult questions. Patience is a condition of genuine intellection. The thinking mind should not be rushed.
She was distressed by the way her earlier championing of popular culture had been used as a cudgel by her critics to beat down the very idea of high culture, accusing it of snobbery and elitism, calling into question the necessity of artistic or literary or cultural discrimination. She didn’t believe, as she would later write, that her praise of contemporary work somehow reduced or detracted from the glories of the high culture she admired far more. Or as she put it:
Enjoying the impertinent energy and wit of a species of performance called Happenings did not make me care less about Aristotle and Shakespeare. I was — I am — for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture. No hierarchy, then? Certainly there’s a hierarchy. If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?
In no sense, as she insisted, did she ever mean when she called for an “erotics of art” to repudiate high culture and its complexities. When she denounced, as she put it, “certain kinds of facile moralism, it was in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness.” She was appalled by the perverse populism that increasingly deforms our culture, elevating box office appeal and click meters to authoritative arbiters. She was alarmed by how, in the name of democracy, the tyranny of mass appeal had tightened its grip on the culture. She was repelled by the cultural hegemony imposed by the rise of the entertainment-industrial complex. Indeed, she feared, toward the end of her life, that a terrible sea change had occurred in the whole culture, and that at the dawn of the 21st century we had entered — to use Nietzsche’s term — the age of nihilism, as she wrote in the afterword she appended to a reissue of Against Interpretation 30 years after it was first published.
She was, as ever, drawn to art that upends assumptions, challenges prejudices — turns them inside out and forces us to see the world through new eyes. She was not afraid of deep thinking or the delights to be had from its rigors. She had many heroes of the mind, not least Theodor Adorno, whose love of the aphoristic paradox, eclectic curiosities, and commitment to critical thinking were a model for Sontag’s own aspirations.
Consider, for example, Adorno’s response to his good friend Gershom Scholem upon receiving Scholem’s translation of the Zohar, the masterpiece of Kabbalah, as mysterious as it is magnificent. In 1939, Adorno, living in exile in New York after fleeing Nazi Germany, wrote Scholem, who had long since settled in Jerusalem:
I’m not just being rhetorical when I say that the Zohar translation you sent me gave me more joy than any gift I have received in a long time. Don’t read into this remark anything pretentious, because I am far from claiming to have fully grasped the text. But it’s the kind of thing whose indecipherability is itself an element of the joy I felt in reading it. I think I can say that your introduction has at least given me a topological notion of the Zohar. A bit like someone who goes high into the mountains to spot chamois bucks but fails to see them, because he’s a nearsighted city dweller. After an experienced guide points out the precise spot where the bucks congregate, he becomes so thoroughly acquainted with their territory that he thinks he must be able to discover these rare creatures immediately. The summer tourist cannot expect to glean anything more than this from the landscape, which is truly revealed only at the price of a lifetime’s commitment — nothing less.
Today, this ideal of serious enjoyment of what isn’t instantly understood is under constant attack. Sontag didn’t think that the pleasures of critical thinking ought to belong only to a cultural elite. Such pleasures are the birthright of every citizen. Yet she knew, as she said, that “we live in a culture 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.” She was a champion of the Eros of difficulty.
Unfortunately, Sontag’s actual writings and ideas interest her critics rather less than what they imagine to have been her private life. Her critics are transfixed by the halo of celebrity that seemed to hover above Sontag during her life and which, even after her death, continues to glow. A good example is the recently released film Regarding Susan Sontag, which had its premiere on HBO in the United States last year and is now making the rounds of international film festivals. It is strikingly coarse and prurient, mocking and condescending, even as it pretends to an unearned seriousness of purpose, accompanied by an overheated musical score designed to tell viewers what to think and feel.
A number of the talking heads in the film — Wayne Koestenbaum, Terry Castle, among others — accuse Sontag of being a coward about her sexuality, a narcissistic diva, a person whose efforts to transform herself are derided as comic. Suppose they are right. What does this have to do with the work — her writings — which is, after all, why we ought to care, if we care at all, about Susan Sontag. If people think the work is no good, or at least that it’s wildly overrated, fine, then they should say so.
But if the work has any true and lasting merit, then this rather voyeuristic emphasis on celebrity and careerism is, to say the least, misplaced, not to mention that it seeks to have it both ways, and exploits the very fame it so condescends to. But then condescending to Sontag while fixating on her, even when she was alive, is something so commonplace as to be tediously familiar. Paying any attention to Sontag, especially now, a decade after her demise, matters only if her work matters. Everything else amounts to gossip about a person who was famous in her lifetime, or is grist for the most trivial sort of social and cultural history. Sontag’s critics seem to believe that what matters most about Sontag was her effect on her contemporaries, not her work. This view is a disservice to and a caricature of the woman and writer I knew.
Jonathan Cott has aptly characterized Sontag as a writer who was
continually examining and testing out her notion that supposed oppositions like thinking and feeling, consciousness and sensuousness, morality and aesthetics can in fact simply be looked at as aspects of each other — much like the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one’s touch, provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving.
Here, nicely put by Cott, is the key that unlocks the whole of her work, including a hint of why, over time, the form of the essay exhausted itself, and why, increasingly, she was drawn to fiction.
A self-described “besotted aesthete” and “obsessed moralist,” Sontag declared in “Notes on ‘Camp’” that “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.” If we agree that such categories as “Jewish moral seriousness” and “homosexual aestheticism and irony” actually exist, you could reasonably assert that the two traditions were the antipodes that framed an argument Sontag had with herself all her life. The oscillation between the two marks almost all of her work. She saw herself as a loyal inheritor and servant of a tradition of high seriousness that ennobles and confers dignity upon works that are redolent of truth, beauty, and moral gravitas. Sontag gave us her list: The Iliad, Aristophanes’ plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, the cathedral at Chartres, the poetry of Donne, Dante, Beethoven’s quartets — in short, the whole pantheon of high culture. Sontag offered up a taxonomy of creative sensibilities. She proposed a trinity: the first was high culture; the second was a sensibility whose sign was “anguish, cruelty, derangement,” exemplified by such artists as Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Kafka, geniuses who understood that, at least in the world we now inhabit, the only honest art was art that was broken, composed of shards, hostage to the insight that at the deep center of human existence lay a Gordian knot of unresolvable issues that no surface coherence could plausibly or honestly treat or reflect or make pretty. The third great creative sensibility was Camp, a sensibility, as she wrote, “of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience.”
In Note 37, she wrote: “The first sensibility, that of high culture, is basically moralistic. The second sensibility, that of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary ‘avant-garde’ art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion. The third, Camp, is wholly aesthetic.” Seen through this lens, there would always be a conflict between “style” and “content,” “aesthetics” and “morality,” “irony” and “tragedy.”
Perhaps the most striking example of Sontag thinking one way on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and another on Tuesdays and Thursdays is her view of Leni Riefenstahl. Her critics noted the stunning gulf between her 1965 essay “On Style,” which hailed Riefenstahl’s films as masterpieces “because they project the complex movements of intelligence and grace and sensuousness” and “transcend the categories of propaganda or even reportage,” objects of palpable “beauty, formal composition, and technical achievement,” and her eviscerating takedown 10 years later in her withering critique, titled “Fascinating Fascism,” published in The New York Review of Books. There she seemed to revise, even to reverse, her earlier opinion, condemning Riefenstahl as a genius propagandist in the service of an evil ideology.
There was, of course, no real contradiction. Both views were true: the films were beautiful and terrible, ravishing and appalling. They were, in every way, exemplary. They reflected and embodied the aesthetic appeal of National Socialism. That appeal was part of fascism’s intoxicating seduction. Not to see it and not to acknowledge it, not to see how it was possible for people — even for people who ought to have known better — to succumb to it, is to miss a very large part of its mesmerizing power. Not to understand this salient factor is to fail to grasp the important observation made so piercingly by Walter Benjamin when he wrote that “the logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” Further, “All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.”
Sontag was always torn between the moralist and the aesthete. It was a precocious contest, begun at the very dawn of her consciousness.
She was reading by three. In her teens, her passions were Gerard Manley Hopkins and Djuna Barnes. The first book that thrilled her was Madame Curie, which she read when she was six. She was stirred by the travel books of Richard Halliburton and the Classic Comics rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The first novel that affected her was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
“I sobbed and wailed and thought [books] were the greatest things,” she once recalled. “I discovered a lot of writers in the Modern Library editions, which were sold in a Hallmark-card store, and I used to save up my allowance and would buy them all.” Edgar Allan Poe’s stories enthralled her with their “mixture of speculativeness, fantasy and gloominess.” Upon reading Jack London’s Martin Eden, she determined she would become a writer. “I got through my childhood,” she told The Paris Review, “in a delirium of literary exaltations.”
At 14, Sontag read Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, The Magic Mountain. “I read it through almost at a run. After finishing the last page, I was so reluctant to be separated from the book that I started back at the beginning and, to hold myself to the pace the book merited, reread it along, a chapter each night.” She began to frequent the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard, where she went “every few days after school to read on my feet through some more of world literature — buying when I could, stealing when I dared.”
She also became a “militant browser” of the international periodical and newspaper stand — now, alas, like so many bookstores and record stores, gone — near the “enchanted crossroads” of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, where she discovered the world of literary magazines. She was fond of recounting how, at 15, she had bought a copy of Partisan Review and found it impenetrable. Nevertheless, as she confessed to me and to others, “I had the sense that within its pages momentous issues were at stake. I wanted desperately to crack the code.”
At 26, Sontag moved to New York City, where, for a time, she taught the philosophy of religion at Columbia University. At a cocktail party, she encountered William Phillips, one of Partisan Review’s legendary founding editors, and asked him how one might write for the journal. He replied, “All you have to do is ask.” “I’m asking,” she said.
Soon her provocative essays on Albert Camus, Simone Weil, Jean-Luc Godard, Kenneth Anger, Jasper Johns, and the Supremes began to spice up Partisan Review’s pages. Sontag recoiled then — as she would ever after — at what she regarded as the artificial boundaries separating one subject, or one art form, from another.
“I love to read the way people love to watch television,” she told Rolling Stone. For her, culture was a vast smorgasbord, a movable feast. For her, the choice to be made was never either/or but both/and.
So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche. […] [T]he main reason I read is that I enjoy it. There’s no incompatibility between observing the world and being tuned into an electronic, multimedia, multitracked, McLuhanite world and enjoying what can be enjoyed about rock ’n’ roll.
Despite her fascination with the internet — in her later years her IBM Selectric typewriter was replaced by an Apple computer — she understood that the vast canvas it afforded did little to encourage thoughtful criticism. Mostly it provided a vast Democracy Wall on which any crackpot could post his or her manifesto. Information was abundant, wisdom scarce. Writing is not typed talking, as Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of The New Republic, has said. The increasing velocity of everyday life subverts genuine reflection and banishes the solitude necessary for actual thought.
Sontag’s greatest project was her devotion to demolishing, as she put it, “the distinction between thought and feeling, which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment. […] Thinking is a form of feeling; […] feeling is a form of thinking.”
This quest can be seen in all her essays and, especially, in her fiction. Her writing, observed the late Elizabeth Hardwick, her admiring friend and perspicacious literary critic, “has a profound authority, a rather anxious and tender authority — the reward of passion. […] The tone of her writing is speculative, studious and yet undogmatic; even in the end it is still inquiring.”
Others were less impressed, accusing Sontag of “a tendency to sprinkle complication into her writing” and of tossing off “high-sounding paradoxes without thinking through what, if anything, they mean.” Greil Marcus found her “a cold writer” whose style was “an uneasy combination of academic and hip, […] pedantic, effete, unfriendly.” Her fiction, despite her last novel, In America, which won the 2000 National Book Award, was mostly dismissed by reviewers, largely because the only character whose sensibility Sontag seemed genuinely interested in exploring was her own. Her critics weren’t entirely wrong, but neither were they entirely right.
Sontag’s style is her subject. For it is the way she thinks, how she goes about it, how she offers her readers the chance, as it were, to eavesdrop on a mind thinking as hard and as nimbly as it can that is most compelling about her work. Or, to put it another way, it is not so much her opinions that matter — though of course they do — but rather how she goes about arriving at them, how she renders them, the very warp and woof of her sentences. Wayne Koestenbaum, in his appreciation written soon after her death, understood this well, observing that she “is usually cited for her content rather than her form or style, and yet her paragraphs and sentences bear close and admiring scrutiny as exemplars of […] prose forms that would permit maximum drift and detour.” He marveled at what he called “her prose’s Mercurochrome aesthetic, her stern, self-conscious, tense sentences.” He saw that “her essays behave like fictions (disguised, arch, upholstered with attitudes), while her fictions behave like essays (pontificating, pedagogic, discursive).” Koestenbaum writes that “the ends of her novels are the best parts.” Often the same is true of her essays. He offers a number of examples:
The last three sentences of The Volcano Lover: “They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.” The last two sentences of Death Kit: “Diddy has made his final chart; drawn up his last map. Diddy has perceived the inventory of the world.” The last sentence of The Benefactor: “You may imagine me in a bare room, my feet near the stove, bundled up in many sweaters, my black hair turned grey, enjoying the waning tribulations of subjectivity and the repose of a privacy that is genuine.”
[And, of course, the famous end of her essay on Riefenstahl and Nazi aesthetics: “The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.”]
And here are the concluding lines of her 2001 essay “Where the Stress Falls”: “Nothing new except language, the ever found. Cauterizing the torment of personal relations with hot lexical choices, jumpy punctuation, mercurial sentence rhythms. Devising more subtle, more engorged ways of knowing, of sympathizing, of keeping at bay. It’s a matter of adjectives. It’s where the stress falls.”
Sontag kept rules and torments at bay, as Koestenbaum points out, “by generating stressed prose — magnifying, through emphasis and engorgement, the opportunities for attentiveness.”
Sontag was an eloquent and stalwart advocate for freedom. She considered herself neither a journalist nor an activist, but rather “a citizen of the American empire.” As such, she felt an obligation to accept an invitation to visit Hanoi at the height of the American bombing campaign in May 1968. She had, like so many of us during those turbulent, over-oxygenated years, participated in many protests against the war. A two-week visit resulted in a fervent essay seeking to understand Vietnamese resistance to American power.
Critics excoriated her for what they regarded as a naive sentimentalization of Vietnamese communism. Paul Hollander, for one, branded Sontag a “political pilgrim,” bent on denigrating Western liberal pluralism in favor of venerating foreign revolutions.
That same year, she also visited Cuba, after which she wrote an essay for Ramparts magazine calling for a sympathetic understanding of the Cuban Revolution. Two years later, however, she joined Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and other writers in publicly protesting the regime’s harsh treatment of Heberto Padilla, one of the country’s leading poets. She also denounced Castro’s punitive policies toward homosexuals.
Ever the iconoclast, Sontag had a knack for annoying both the right and the left. In 1982, in a meeting in Town Hall in New York to protest the suppression of Solidarity in Poland, she declared that communism was fascism with a human face. She was unsparing in her criticism of much of the left’s refusal to take seriously the exiles and dissidents and murdered victims of Stalin’s terror and the tyranny communism imposed wherever it had triumphed.
Ten years later, almost alone among American writers and intellectuals, she would call for vigorous Western — and American — intervention in the Balkans to halt the siege of Sarajevo and to stop Serbian aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo. Her solidarity with the citizens of Sarajevo prompted her to make more than a dozen trips to the besieged city.
Then, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Sontag, while she was in Berlin on that infamous date, offered a characteristically bold and singular perspective in The New Yorker magazine. “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” She added, “In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.” She was immediately pilloried by bloggers and pundits, who accused her of anti-Americanism.
In the wake of September 11, rage was the order of the day. The historical and contextual frame that might have offered genuine insight was largely missing. Media personalities offered sound-bite pronunciamentos, shedding little light; the politics of hysteria banished sobriety. Wisdom was scarce. The specter of war loomed. Questions abounded: Why was such slaughter visited upon us, by whom, and to what purpose? How did we come to this place? And where was it going to lead?
What was certain, as Sontag well knew, was that the end of the Cold War had unleashed a host of furies: renewed nationalisms, messianic cults, the need for scapegoats, deeper divisions between rich and poor. The old geopolitical world was gone, supplanted by a still-inchoate new order that bore little resemblance to the familiar world of the last half of the 20th century in which Sontag had come of age.
Writers, Sontag believed, if they are any good at all, are obliged to try to understand the forces that shape us. They seek to give us a more truthful sense of things, a more nuanced sense of the world we inhabit. They oppose simplification and mystification. They are interested in complex readings informed by history. They write to help us understand what, for many, eludes understanding.
Sontag, in all her political essays and public statements and interviews and deeds, tried valiantly to marshal her exceptional combination of erudition, intelligence, and empathy yoked to an abiding commitment to democratic values in order to illuminate the present in a time of dizzying transformations, cynical manipulations, and malleable geopolitical realities. She wanted to apprehend the forces that have given rise to murderous anger and to excavate the specific policies and alliances that have gone awry. She tried to articulate a coruscating and lucid analysis of the underlying conflict of our time: religious and tribal fundamentalism versus secular consumerist capitalism, or, in Benjamin Barber’s succinct formulation, Jihad versus McWorld. That conflict has birthed a world that is simultaneously coming together and falling apart. On the one hand, warp-speed capitalism is steadily weaving the globe into a single international market, challenging traditional notions of national sovereignty. On the other hand, the world is increasingly riven by fratricide, civil war, identity politics, and the breakup of nations. What capitalism and fundamentalism have in common is a distaste for democracy.
Americans, Sontag long recognized, suffer from a persistent collective historical amnesia. Our politics are hobbled by our refusal to understand the manifold ways in which history, as was once so famously said, weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Americans have cleaved to the conceit that history, insofar as it was deemed important at all, was more hindrance than help in our presumed march to the munificent future. Optimistic, pragmatic, impatient, inventive, generous, Americans refused to be held hostage to history, believing that America had burst its bounds and that it could remake the entire planet in its own image. More: that the peoples of the world yearned to be Americans. The cost, as Sontag knew, of such myopia is large. It enfeebles understanding, promotes nostrums of all kinds, licenses the infantilization of public debate.
For too long, Americans have let our romance with distance and escape and denial define our culture and our politics. Sontag understood this in her gut and in her head. For her, as she often said, California was America’s America, where you went to reinvent yourself. Her voluntary migration to New York was an effort to make her home in the one city she thought least American, if by “American” we mean deliberately provincial, uninterested in the rest of the world, anti-cosmopolitan. Similarly, for Sontag, New York was America’s Europe. And indeed, for many years, she divided her time between America and Europe, traveling incessantly. She both championed the American Dream of self-invention and was herself a successful example of such a project, and, as her critics rightly suspected, its fervent opponent — if by American Dream one means a country devoted, as Michael Wood suggested in his useful book America in the Movies,
[to] a dream of freedom which appears in many places and many forms, which lies somewhere at the back of several varieties of isolationism […]. It is a dream of freedom from others; it is a fear […] of entanglement. It is what we mean when we say, in our familiar phrase, that we don’t want to get involved.
There is, however, as 9/11 made clear and as the grotesque assault on Charlie Hebdo in Paris made plain, no hiatus from history, no reprieve from reality, no retreat from engagement.
Sontag endeavored to live as Bertrand Russell enjoined us: to “remember your humanity and forget the rest.” She sought assiduously to affirm — and to reaffirm — the ideas of secularism, reason, libertarianism, internationalism, and solidarity.
In an interview for The Paris Review, published in 1995, Sontag was asked what she thought was the purpose of literature:
“A novel worth reading,” she replied, “is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” She was the cartographer of her own literary explorations. Henry James once remarked that “nothing is my last word on anything.” For Sontag, as for James, there was always more to be said, more to be felt. Alas, these 10 years since her death, there is only silence from her grave at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, alongside Baudelaire and Beckett and Sartre.
And yet and yet: the sound of Susan’s voice is still in my head. Her lust for life, her avidity, her pursuit of aesthetic bliss, her detestation of philistinism, her love of learning, her opposition to ethical and aesthetic shallowness, her insistence on being a grown-up, her passion for justice and capacity for outrage, and, always, her hatred of suffering and death are everywhere to be found in her sentences, in her essays, and in her stories. Her exemplary effort to swallow the world, as she concludes her revelatory short story “Unguided Tour,” tells the tale:
If I go this fast, I won’t see anything. If I slow down —
Everything. — then I won’t have seen everything before it disappears.
Everywhere. I’ve been everywhere. I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.
Land’s end. But there’s water, O my heart. And salt on my tongue.
The end of the world. This is not the end of the world.
I hear most of all her cri de coeur, given to the narrator of her story “Debriefing” — it could be her epitaph, her final aria, as she ends her story with the defiant throbbing declaration:
Sisyphus, I. I cling to my rock, you don’t have to chain me. Stand back! I roll it up — up, up. And... down we go. I knew that would happen. See, I’m on my feet again. See, I’m starting to roll it up again. Don’t try to talk me out of it. Nothing, nothing could tear me away from this rock.
Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is editor-at-large for Yale University Press.
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