At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches, by Susan Sontag
By David Gates
March 12, 2007 issue - Before she died in 2004, Susan Sontag mapped out what would be her last book of essays. (Not her last book—as always, she just wanted to get back to fiction.) Some planned pieces never got written, and she didn't have a title. But her editors have put together something close to that collection: 16 essays and speeches written in Sontag's last years. "At the Same Time" is an ideal title: these pieces glide from literature into politics into photography into esthetics—sometimes in the same piece. These are her old preoccupations, which she kept making new. Her 1976 "On Photography" connects directly to "Photography: A Little Summa," a pithy set of observations from 2003. But it also connects to "Regarding the Torture of Others," a 2004 essay about Abu Ghraib and its digital-camera images—which in turn connects to her 2003 book "Regarding the Pain of Others," about visual images of pain and atrocity from lynchings through 9/11. Sontag's thought was all of a piece, driven by both her moral and esthetic sense and her instinct for dialectics: while X is true, isn't there a case to be made for Y?
This propensity for seeing both sides got Sontag in trouble after her first, short 9/11 essay in The New Yorker 13 days after. This was the piece which stated that the attacks were "undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions." But in later pieces Sontag acknowledged that such grievances were merely excuses, and that to blame the United States is "morally obscene."
The best pieces in "At the Same Time" are on topics closer to Sontag's own experience and expertise: writers and their work, language and rhetoric, esthetic insights and controversies. "An Argument About Beauty"—not, significantly, "A Conclusion About Beauty"—takes off from Pope John Paul II's comment on the church's child-molestation scandals: "A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains." The comparison, she writes, is "inane"—sexual abuse isn't like scratches on an old photo. But it's her door into a discussion of "the beautiful"—and how the modernist sensibility has devalued it in favor of "the interesting." Though Sontag is one of modernism's great champions, she sees that the interesting is losing its "transgressive bite." Beauty, she concludes, is "a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one's energies, affinities and admirations."
The several critical essays on novels in translation—they were originally book introductions—show that political righteousness was never enough for Sontag. She defends "the saving indifference, the saving larger view, that is the novelist's or the poet's—which does not obviate the truth of political understanding, but tells us that there is something more than politics, more, even, than history." And the title essay picks up this theme: "Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature—the matchless storyteller." She distinguishes story from information: stories seek "completeness, closure," while information is "always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary ... Literature tells stories. Television gives information."
But wait. Doesn't Sontag's beloved modernism prefer the fragmentary—e.g., "The Waste Land"—over the conventional form of beginning, middle and end? When you work to extend boundaries, as modernists do, doesn't that imply a "limitless number of unstopped stories"? If only Sontag were here to write an essay showing why this little "gotcha" point is poorly argued and profoundly uninformed.
Pay attention to the world
In a previously unpublished essay, written just before her death in 2004, Susan Sontag makes a passionate case for the moral superiority of the novel in a mass-media age
Saturday March 17, 2007
Long ago - it was the 18th century - a great and eccentric defender of literature and the English language - it was Doctor Johnson - wrote, in the preface to his Dictionary: "The chief glory of every people arises from its authors." An unconventional proposition, I suspect, even then. And far more unconventional now, though I think it's still true. Even at the beginning of the 21st century. Of course, I am speaking of the glory that is permanent, not transitory.
I'm often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: "Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world."
Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer's virtue.
For instance: "Be serious." By which I meant: never be cynical. And which doesn't preclude being funny.
And ... if you'll allow me one more: "Take care to be born at a time when it was likely that you would be definitively exalted and influenced by Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Chekhov."
A great writer of fiction both creates - through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms - a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.
But of course, the primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days ... ) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge - albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.
Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate - and, therefore, improve - our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.
When I say the fiction writer narrates, I mean that the story has a shape: a beginning, a middle (properly called a development), and an end or resolution. Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can't tell all the stories - certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective. The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence ... in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story). "There are so many stories to tell," muses the alter ego voice in the monologue that opens my last novel, In America. "There are so many stories to tell, it's hard to say why it's one rather than another, it must be because with this story you feel you can tell many stories, that there will be a necessity in it; I see I am explaining badly ... It has to be something like falling in love. Whatever explains why you chose this story hasn't explained much. A story, I mean a long story, a novel, is like an around-the-world-in-eightydays: you can barely recall the beginning when it comes to an end."
A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.
There is an old riff I've always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy (as I was once myself), late one night, who had been struggling through Kant's abstruse account in his Critique of Pure Reason of the barely comprehensible categories of time and space, and decided that all of this could be put much more simply.
It goes as follows:
"Time exists in order that everything doesn't happen all at once ... and space exists so that it doesn't all happen to you."
By this standard, the novel is an ideal vehicle both of space and of time. The novel shows us time: that is, everything doesn't happen at once. (It is a sequence, it is a line.) It shows us space: that is, what happens doesn't happen to one person only.
In other words, a novel is the creation not simply of a voice but of a world. It mimics the essential structures by which we experience ourselves as living in time, and inhabiting a world, and attempting to make sense of our experience. But it does what lives (the lives that are lived) cannot offer, except after they are over. It confers - and withdraws - meaning or sense upon a life. This is possible because narration is possible, because there are norms of narration that are as constitutive of thinking and feeling and experiencing as are, in the Kantian account, the mental categories of space and time.
In other words - and once again - the novel tells a story. I don't mean only that the story is the content of the novel, which is then deployed or organized into a literary narrative according to various ideas of form. I am arguing that having a story to tell is the chief formal property of a novel; and that the novelist, whatever the complexity of his or her means, is bound by - liberated by - the fundamental logic of storytelling.
The essential scheme of storytelling is linear (even when it is antichronological). It proceeds from a "before" (or: "at first") to a "during" to a "finally" or "after". But this is much more than mere causal sequence, just as lived time - which distends with feeling and contracts with the deadening of feeling - is not uniform, clock time. The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.
The dimension of time is essential for prose fiction, but not, if I may invoke the old idea of the two-party system in literature, for poetry (that is, lyric poetry). Poetry is situated in the present. Poems, even when they tell stories, are not like stories.
One difference lies in the role of metaphor, which, I would argue, is necessary in poetry. Indeed, in my view, it is the task - one of the tasks - of the poet to invent metaphors. One of the fundamental resources of human understanding is what could be called the "pictural" sense, which is secured by comparing one thing with another. Here are some venerable examples, familiar (and plausible) to everyone:
time as river flowing
life as dream
death as sleep
love as illness
life as play/stage
wisdom as light
eyes as stars
book as world
human being as tree
music as food
A great poet is one who refines and elaborates the great historical store of metaphors and adds to our stock of metaphors. Metaphors offer a profound form of understanding, and many - but hardly all - novelists have recourse to metaphor. The grasp of experience through metaphor is not the distinctive understanding that is offered by the great novelists. Virginia Woolf is not a greater novelist than Thomas Bernhard because she uses metaphors and he does not.
The understanding of the novelist is temporal, rather than spatial or pictural. Its medium is a rendered sense of time - time experienced as an arena of struggle or conflict or choice. All stories are about battles, struggles of one kind or another, that terminate in victory and in defeat. Everything moves toward the end, when the outcome will be known.
"The modern" is an idea, a very radical idea, that continues to evolve. We are now in a second phase of the ideology of the modern (which has been given the presumptuous name of "the postmodern"). This beginning of "the modern" in literature took place in the 1850s. A century and a half is a long time. Many of the attitudes and scruples and refusals associated with "the modern" in literature - as well as in the other arts - have begun to seem conventional or even sterile. And, to some extent, this judgment is justified. Every notion of literature, even the most exacting and liberating, can become a form of spiritual complacency or self-congratulation.
Most notions about literature are reactive - in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive. But what is happening in the repudiations advanced in the current debate about the novel goes far beyond the usual process whereby new talents need to repudiate older ideas of literary excellence.
In North America and in Europe, we are living now, I think it fair to say, in a period of reaction. In the arts, it takes the form of a bullying reaction against the high modernist achievement, which is thought to be too difficult, too demanding of audiences, not accessible (or "user-friendly") enough. And in politics, it takes the form of a dismissal of all attempts to measure public life by what are disparaged as mere ideals.
In the modern era, the call for a return to realism in the arts often goes hand in hand with the strengthening of cynical realism in political discourse.
The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naive or (a new banner for the philistines) "elitist".
Proclamations about the death of the novel - or in its newer form, the end of books - have, of course, been a staple of the debate about literature for almost a century. But they have recently attained a new virulence and theoretical persuasiveness.
Ever since word-processing programs became common place tools for most writers - including me - there have been those who assert that there is now a brave new future for fiction.
The argument goes as follows.
The novel, as we know it, has come to its end. However, there is no cause for lament. Something better (and more democratic) is going to replace it: the hypernovel, which will be written in the nonlinear or nonsequential space made possible by the computer.
This new model for fiction proposes to liberate the reader from the two mainstays of the traditional novel: linear narrative and the author. The reader, cruelly forced to read one word after another to reach the end of a sentence, one paragraph after another to reach the end of a scene, will rejoice to learn that, according to one account, "true freedom" for the reader is now possible, thanks to the advent of the computer: "freedom from the tyranny of the line ". A hypernovel "has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one ". Instead of following a linear story dictated by the author, the reader can now navigate at will through an "endless expansion of words ".
I think most readers - surely, virtually all readers - will be surprised to learn that structured storytelling, from the most basic beginning-middle- end scheme of traditional tales to more elaborately constructed, nonchronological and multi-voiced narratives, is actually a form of oppression rather than a source of delight.
In fact, what interests most readers about fiction is precisely the story - whether in fairy tales, in murder mysteries, or in the complex narratives of Cervantes and Dostoyevsky and Jane Austen and Proust and Italo Calvino. Story - the idea that events happen in a specific causal order - is both the way we see the world and what interests us most about it. People who read for nothing else will read for plot.
Yet hyperfiction's advocates maintain that we find plot "confining" and chafe against its limitations. That we resent and long to be liberated from the age-old tyranny of the author, who dictates how the story will turn out, and wish to be truly active readers, who at any moment in reading the text can choose between various alternative continuations or outcomes of the story by rearranging its blocks of text. Hyper fiction is sometimes said to mimic real life, with its myriad opportunities and surprising outcomes, so I suppose it is being touted as a kind of ultimate realism.
To this, I would answer that, while it is true that we expect to organize and make sense of our lives, we do not expect to write other people's novels for them. And one of the resources we have for helping us to make sense of our lives, and make choices, and propose and accept standards for ourselves, is our experience of singular authoritative voices, not our own, which make up that great body of work that educates the heart and the feelings and teaches us to be in the world, that embodies and defends the glories of language (that is, expands the basic instrument of consciousness): namely, literature.
These proclamations that the book and the novel in particular are ending can't simply be ascribed to the mischief wreaked by the ideology that has come to dominate departments of literature in many major universities in the United States, Britain and western Europe. The real force behind the argument against literature, against the book, comes, I think, from the hegemony of the narrative model proposed by television.
A novel is not a set of proposals, or a list, or a collection of agendas, or an (open-ended, revisable) itinerary. It is the journey itself - made, experienced and completed.
Completion does not mean that everything has been told. Henry James, as he was coming to the end of writing one of his greatest novels, The Portrait of a Lady, confided to himself in his notebook his worry that his readers would think that the novel was not really finished, that he had "not seen the heroine to the end of her situation". (As you will remember, James leaves his heroine, the brilliant and idealistic Isabel Archer, resolved not to leave her husband, whom she has discovered to be a mercenary scoundrel, though there is a former suitor, the aptly named Caspar Goodwood, who, still in love with her, hopes she will change her mind.) But, James argued to himself, his novel would be rightly finished on this note. As he wrote: "The whole of anything is never told; you can only take what groups together. What I have done has that unity - it groups together. It is complete in itself."
We, James's readers, may wish that Isabel Archer would leave her dreadful husband for happiness with loving, faithful, honorable Caspar Goodwood: I certainly wish she would. But James is telling us she will not.
Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story's unfolding.
The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story's end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.
There is an essential - as I see it - distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.
This parallels the contrasting narrative models proposed by literature and by television.
Literature tells stories. Television gives information.
Literature involves. It is the recreation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances - immures us in our own indifference.
The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding. (This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or "interesting"), that all stories are endless - or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story.
By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate - the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading - offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.
In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always - as I have argued - an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution - which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our mediadisseminated glut of unending stories.
Television gives us, in an extremely debased and un-truthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. ("Time exists in order that it doesn't happen all at once ... space exists so that it doesn't all happen to you.")
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention - a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched. But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one's head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding - which is also the understanding of the novelist - to take this in.
Perhaps this is an awareness that comes more easily to poets, who don't fully believe in storytelling. The supremely great early-20th-century Portuguese poet and prose writer, Fernando Pessoa, wrote in his prose summum, The Book of Disquiet:
I've discovered that I'm always attentive to, and always thinking about two things at the same time. I suppose everyone is a bit like that ... In my case the two realities that hold my attention are equally vivid. This is what constitutes my originality. This, perhaps, is what constitutes my tragedy, and what makes it comic.
Yes, everyone is a bit like that ... but the awareness of the doubleness of thinking is an uncomfortable position, very uncomfortable if held for long. It seems normal for people to reduce the complexity of what they are feeling and thinking, and to close down the awareness of what lies outside their immediate experience.
Is this refusal of an extended awareness, which takes in more than is happening right now, right here, not at the heart of our ever-confused awareness of human evil, and of the immense capacity of human beings to commit evil? Because there are, incontestably, zones of experience that are not distressing, that give joy, it becomes, perennially, a puzzle that there is so much misery and wickedness. A great deal of narrative, and the speculation that tries to free itself from narrative and become purely abstract, inquires: why does evil exist? Why do people betray and kill each other? Why do the innocent suffer?
But perhaps the problem ought to be rephrased: why is evil not everywhere? More precisely, why is it somewhere - but not everywhere? And what are we to do when it doesn't befall us? When the pain that is endured is the pain of others?
Hearing the shattering news of the great earthquake that leveled Lisbon on November 1, 1755, and (if historians are to be believed) took with it a whole society's optimism (but obviously, I don't believe that any society has only one basic attitude), the great Voltaire was struck by the inability to take in what happened elsewhere. "Lisbon lies in ruins," Voltaire wrote, "and here in Paris we dance."
One might suppose that in the 20th century, in the age of genocide, people would not find it either paradoxical or surprising that one can be so indifferent to what is happening simultaneously, elsewhere. Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that "now" refers to both "here" and "there"? And yet, I venture to assert, we are just as capable of being surprised - and frustrated by the inadequacy of our response - by the simultaneity of wildly contrasting human fates as was Voltaire two and a half centuries ago. Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events - by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That here we are here, now prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening ... while elsewhere in the world, right now ... in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio ...
To be a traveler - and novelists are often travelers - is to be constantly reminded of the simultaneity of what is going on in the world, your world and the very diff erent world you have visited and from which you have returned "home".
It is a beginning of a response to this painful awareness to say: it's a question of sympathy ... of the limits of the imagination. You can also say that it's not "natural" to keep remembering that the world is so ... extended. That while this is happening, that is also happening.
But that, I would respond, is why we need fiction: to stretch our world.
Novelists, then, perform their necessary ethical task based on their right to a stipulated shrinking of the world as it really is - both in space and in time.
Characters in a novel act within a time that is already complete, where everything worth saving has been preserved - "washed free ", as Henry James puts it in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton, "of awkward accretion" and aimless succession. All real stories are stories of someone's fate. Characters in a novel have intensely legible fates.
The fate of literature itself is something else. Literature as a story is full of awkward accretions, irrelevant demands, unpurposeful activities, uneconomical attention.
Habent sua fata fabulae, as the Latin phrase goes. Tales, stories, have their own fate. Because they are disseminated, transcribed, misremembered, translated.
Of course, one would not wish it otherwise. The writing of fiction, an activity that is necessarily solitary, has a destination that is necessarily public, communal.
Traditionally, all cultures are local. Culture implies barriers (for example, linguistic), distance, nontranslatability. Whereas what "the modern" means is, above all, the abolition of barriers, of distance; instant access; the leveling of culture - and, by its own inexorable logic the abolition, or revocation, of culture.
What serves "the modern" is standardization, homogenization. (Indeed, "the modern" is homogenization, standardization. The quintessential site of the modern is an airport; and all airports are alike, as all new modern cities, from Seoul to São Paulo, tend to look alike.) This pull toward homogenization cannot fail to affect the project of literature. The novel, which is marked by singularity, can only enter this system of maximum diff usion through the agency of translation, which, however necessary, entails a built-in distortion of what the novel is at the deepest level - which is not the communication of information, or even the telling of engaging stories, but the perpetuation of the project of literature itself, with its invitation to develop the kind of inwardness that resists the modern satieties.
To translate is to pass something across borders. But more and more the lesson of this society, a society that is "modern", is that there are no borders - which means, of course, no more or less than: no borders for the privileged sectors of society, which are more mobile geographically than ever before in human history. And the lesson of the hegemony of the mass media - television, MTV, the internet - is that there is only one culture, that what lies beyond borders everywhere is - or one day will be - just more of the same, with everyone on the planet feeding at the same trough of standardized entertainments and fantasies of eros and violence manufactured in the United States, Japan, wherever; with everyone enlightened by the same open-ended flow of bits of unfiltered (if, in fact, often censored) information and opinion.
That some pleasure, and some enlightenment, may be derived from these media is not to be denied. But I would argue that the mindset they foster and the appetites they feed are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature.
Every novelist hopes to reach the widest possible audience, to pass as many borders as possible. But it is the novelist's job to keep in mind the spurious cultural geography that is being installed at the beginning of the 21st century.
On the one hand, we have, through translation and through recycling in the media, the possibility of a greater and greater diffusion of our work. On the other hand, the ideology behind these unprecedented opportunities for diffusion, for translation - the ideology now dominant in what passes for culture in modern societies - is designed to render obsolete the novelist's prophetic and critical, even subversive, task, and that is to deepen and sometimes, as needed, to oppose the common understandings of our fate.
Long live the novelist's task.
Watch out - she's already losing her voice
Susan Sontag's posthumously published essays are best when on the attack, writes Rowland Manthorpe
Sunday March 25, 2007
At the Same Time:
Essays and Speeches
Susan Sontag, edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump
Hamish Hamilton £18.99, pp256
Complex and contradictory, Susan Sontag, who died in 2004, was one of America's greatest public intellectuals. Writing up to the end, she never lost the strength and clarity of her moral vision. Yet in this posthumous collection of criticism, we see her still struggling to reconcile herself to the fate of the public intellectual: that her work will diminish as the events it depicts recede.
The book opens and closes with two sections of literary criticism, but its heart is the series of essays written in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Included here are two essays that provoked a great deal of controversy in the US: '9.11.01', written a few days after the attacks, and 'Regarding the Torture of Others', a reflection on the obscene photographs that issued from Abu Ghraib prison showing American soldiers torturing their captives.
Sontag excoriates the 'dangerous, lobotomising notion of endless war', surreptitiously introduced by Bush as the 'war on terror'. This war, she says, is at best a metaphor, 'a phantom'. Yet it is a phantom with consequences, for 'it inevitably leads to the demonising and dehumanising of anyone declared by the Bush administration to be a possible terrorist'. It is this doctrine that made possible the bestial behaviour of the Americans in Abu Ghraib. The cipher of the endless war becomes filled with 'the savage autonomy of detail'.
For such a fervent advocate of peace, Sontag is at her best on the attack. Away from the harsh light of moral interrogation, her voice falters. If the dominant theme of this book is the writer's engagement with politics, then Sontag's attempt to resurrect the idea of literature as protest comes across as a desperate last attempt at self-justification.
For all its brilliance, At the Same Time confirms the suspicion that these are the traces of a mind which, for all its power, was often more strong than subtle. Read it now - it may not last 10 years.
Mar. 29, 2007
Woman of valor
GLENN C. ALTSCHULER, THE JERUSALEM POST
the Same Time: Essays and Speeches
By Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
235 pages, $23
In her speech accepting the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society in May 2000, Susan Sontag deconstructed the "polemically named" award. Previous winners, she noted, had not necessarily championed freedom of the individual. She decried the "unceasing propaganda" for the cultivation of the self in post-industrial societies, which she said now meant little more than "the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete."
Acknowledging that writers are "emblems of the persistence of individual vision," she proclaimed that literature at its best extended "sympathies to other selves, other domains, other dreams, other words, other territories of concern."
Speaking truth to power came naturally to Sontag, a major figure on the independent, anti-communist Left in the US for more than 40 years. When she accepted the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt in 2003, a year before she died, Sontag blasted American ambassador Daniel Coats for his "deliberate absence" from the ceremony. Coats had a duty to represent his country, she announced, "all of it," and be there when an American citizen was honored, even one who had denounced the occupation of Iraq.
According to her son, David Rieff, Sontag could never "wall herself off" from political involvements - she was "interested in everything." She wrote dozens of short stories, four novels, and eight works of cultural criticism, including Against Interpretation, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor and Regarding the Pain of Others.
A collection of recent essays and public addresses, At the Same Time has an ample supply of Sontag's political pronouncements - on 9/11, the war on terrorism and the torture photographs at Abu Ghraib. But the book sparkles and crackles when she spreads the good news about great literature, which helped her, as a youngster in Arizona, "escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck."
Sontag admired writers who create new worlds through language, plot and character while illuminating the world in which they live, a world that is "unknown or mis-known" by readers invited by "our debauched culture... to simplify reality, to despise wisdom."
She embraced the literature of "nuance and contradiction," responding, when asked what writers ought to do: "Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world."
Sontag had an affinity for "rediscovering" works of world literature. At the Same Time includes essays of admiration for Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin, Artemisia by Anna Banti, The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge and Under the Glacier by Halldor Laxness.
These great modern novels, Sontag observed, clarify "the truth of political understanding" and a truth beyond politics that "allows for the arbitrary, the mysterious, the under-motivated."
Serge, for example, made Kostia "the nearly involuntary assassin" of Tulayev. Having been given a gun by a friend "disgusted by his own cowardice" in failing to shoot Stalin, Kostia accidentally encounters Tulayev, a member of the Soviet Central Committee responsible for mass deportations and university purges. As if in a trance, Kostia takes the gun from his pocket and fires.
Unlike Camus's stranger, Sontag writes, Kostia is full of feeling; his "gratuitous act" is at once sincere and irrational. "His awareness of the iniquity of the Soviet system acts through him."
The novels also stimulate Sontag to make aesthetic and ethical judgments. Banti, she notes, made the awakening of Artemisia Gentilischi, the 17th-century artist who demanded a trial after she was raped by a colleague of her father, her "own awakening." And yet Banti later wrote that feminism was "a word she hated."
Feminism acquired a "sulfurous reputation" among independent women, Sontag emphasizes, because the word has meant "many things; many unnecessary things." It can advance a view "about justice and dignity and liberty." Or evoke a war against men, a pride in being a woman and even the superiority of women - "all attitudes that felt alien" to anyone who took ownership of her accomplishments and accepted the compromises they entailed.
In her political essays, Sontag often cut through simplistic, polarizing rhetoric. After September 11, she warned that the Bush administration was manipulating public opinion through confidence-building and grief-management. She also labeled as "morally obscene" statements that the US brought the attack on itself. A narrowly focused military intervention, she believed, was justified.
Perhaps inevitably, however, these essays are not as nuanced as her aesthetic and literary criticism. Referring to pre-9/11 UN sanctions against Iraq and US enforcement of the "no-fly zone," Sontag insists that the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified. But she offers no alternative. After 9/11 she wrote, angrily, that "if the word 'cowardly' is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others."
"The dramaturgy of 'acting on principle,'" Sontag shrewdly suggested, tells dissidents - like Ishai Menuchin, the soldier who refused to serve beyond the 1967 borders of Israel - that their actions are good even if they are not expedient. Realizing that this behavior is still political, undertaken to salve consciences and achieve a practical goal, Sontag nonetheless appears to endorse it as an example of solidarity that will inspire "communities of the principled and disobedient: here, elsewhere, in the present, in the future."
What does she mean, then, when she concludes, without elaborating, that all programs of political resistance "must be concrete"?
Skeptical and self-doubting, Sontag the writer distrusted Sontag the human rights activist. But in both roles, At the Same Time reminds us, Sontag defined and demanded higher standards of justice and truthfulness in the necessarily and unnecessarily imperfect societies in which we live.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Susan Sontag's 'At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches'
By Russell Cobb
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Before Susan Sontag became a brand name for High Culture, there was Susan Sontag the provocateur. In "Notes on Camp" — a path-breaking essay from 1964 that now reads like accepted wisdom — Sontag embraced popular culture that was "so bad it was good." The essay was anti-elitist, intellectual and fun.
If "On Camp" helped usher in our age of hip, ironic posturing, Sontag's first posthumous work, "At the Same Time," tries to bring that age to a close.
In this collection of essays and speeches, Sontag, who died in 2004, admonishes future writers and critics to, above all, "be serious." Seriousness does not mean a lack of humor —although Sontag rarely evinces a sense of it — but it does entail a belief in the writer as a "moral agent," "someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better and worse, what is repulsive and admirable."
The distance Sontag's thinking has traveled from the cheeky spirit of "On Camp" is nowhere more apparent than in the book's opening piece, "An Argument about Beauty," in which she attempts to salvage a concept that went out of fashion at least a century ago. "Gertrude Stein said that to call a work of art beautiful was to call it dead," Sontag writes. "There is no more vapid or philistine compliment." Because the concept of beauty often relies heavily on the intensely subjective notion of "taste," modern critics tend to avoid the word altogether. Part of the blame can be assigned to political correctness. "Obviously, you can't say something is beautiful if you're not willing to say something is ugly. But there are more and more taboos about calling something, anything, ugly," Sontag writes.
So, in place of beauty and ugliness, we have the acceptable category of the "interesting," which, for Sontag, is the height of banality. "Imagine saying, 'that sunset is interesting,' " she writes at the end of the essay. This is Sontag at her best, shaming our conventional wisdom, calling us out on our safe judgments.
"At the Same Time" consists of, roughly speaking, two parts: essays about literature and essays about politics. In the essays about literature, Sontag's primary goal is that of an evangelist: She promotes authors whose work remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world. Here, we find her summing up the works and lives of Leonid Tsypkin, Victor Serge, Anna Banti and others. Although they are each unique writers, Sontag stresses similar themes in their works. Above all, she seems interested in each writer's relationship to his or her changing political climate. What is the responsibility of the writer to the crises of the day? Are aesthetics and justice irreconcilable categories? When to speak up? When to step aside?
Her son and editor, David Rieff, explains Sontag's earnestness in his preface by saying that she always worked "with one eye cocked toward posterity." This might explain why Sontag does plenty of self-correcting here. "An Argument on Beauty" can be read as a correction to "On Camp," and Sontag also engages in some political backtracking. In an early essay on Sept. 11, 2001, for the New Yorker — reprinted in this book — she blames the attacks on "specific American alliances and actions." She never retracted the statement publicly, but in a later interview, here titled "A Few Weeks After," she condemned Europeans who argued that "America has brought this horror upon itself."
The drive to say something deadly serious, to say something that matters, often backfires, as Sontag herself noted in "On Camp." Her belief that literature should be "responsible" leads her to make wild simplifications about popular culture, which she views as ephemeral and unsophisticated. In a never-before published speech given in 2004, "At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning," Sontag argues that our modern world has essentially two models for understanding, "literature" and "television." "Literature tells stories. Television gives information. Literature involves. It is the re-creation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances — immures us in our own indifference."
Wholesale condemnations of mass culture are a staple of "At the Same Time," even though Sontag admits that she never owned a television while living in America. From a tenured professor in a classics department, these sorts of statements would be understandable, however ill-informed. But, at the time of her death, Sontag was probably the most — if not the only — recognizable "public intellectual" in the United States, someone who benefited greatly from the cult of celebrity she so derided. (She was even referenced in two episodes of "The Simpsons" and the movie "Bull Durham.") This is not to accuse Sontag of hypocrisy or even opportunism but to recognize that she stood to benefit from her contrarian stances, even when they were unpopular among certain segments of the literati. It may be a cliché, but it's also true that there's no such thing as bad publicity for a writer: Just ask Jonathan Franzen.
Rieff says that if he had only one word to describe Sontag, it would be "avidity." It is hardly an unambiguously positive way to describe a writer — not to mention one's mother. But it hits the mark for this provocative, erudite and contradictory book.
Real Word columnist Russell Cobb is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of Texas.
Passionate to the end: Susan Sontag's last writings
By Craig Seligman
At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches
by Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 235 pp., $23
"The photographs are us," the late Susan Sontag wrote in 2004, in her last major essay, about the obscene images from Abu Ghraib. Those words, which have already become famous, appear in "Regarding the Torture of Others," one of 16 essays in "At the Same Time," a posthumous collection of criticism that, it's gratifying to report, numbers among her finest books.
Sontag died in 2004, the embodiment of the public intellectual. She had taken defiant stands against the wars in Vietnam, Bosnia (traveling to Sarajevo when the city was under siege) and Iraq; she had written enduring essays on camp, pornography and photography; she had published four novels and eight epochal books of criticism.
Her incendiary first collection, "Against Interpretation" (1966), buzzed with the excitement of a brilliant young critic firing off idea after idea, profligately, almost wildly, and often (as was her wont) shooting from the hip.
"At the Same Time" has the stateliness of age. The ideas in it have been measured over a lifetime; they're substantial, articulated with precision and — to call on a word Sontag once shunned and later embraced — profoundly humanist. The adjective that comes to mind, throughout, is "magisterial."
The book opens with a brief investigation into the significance of beauty ("a gladness to the senses"), followed by five superb prefaces to literature in translation, a lifelong passion.
Then comes the short, much-attacked Sept. 11 essay from the New Yorker. Sontag might have written less belligerently if she'd been in New York for the attack and more privy to the national emotion of shock and horror.
Instead she was in Berlin, glued to the TV — a novel experience for her, since (as she enjoyed pointing out) she didn't own one. Like many people who don't watch TV and then tune in even on an ordinary day, she was appalled by the "self-righteous drivel" of the talking heads (in the original version that appears here she singles out two exceptions, Rudolph Giuliani and Peter Jennings), and that revulsion is what shaped her tone.
Two more level-headed pieces follow. Sontag wasn't a pacifist, and in "A Few Weeks After ... " she wrote, "An armed response ... is necessary. And justified" — not that she expected anything from the Bush administration other than the debacle it has provided.
In "One Year After," on the anniversary of the attack, she took up the theme of her original essay ("Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together") and wrote: "It is a day of mourning. It is an affirmation of national solidarity. But of one thing we can be sure. It is not a day of national reflection."
Burrowing deeper, she returned to the theme that had obsessed her in "Illness as Metaphor" (1978): the power of language to distort experience. Taking her stand against "the dangerous, lobotomizing notion of endless war," she decried "the pseudo-declaration of pseudo-war. These necessary" — note the adjective — "actions should not be called" — note the verb — "a 'war.' There are no endless wars. But there are declarations of the extension of power by a state that believes it cannot be challenged."
Then come a short piece on photography and the Abu Ghraib essay, which is about that and much more. The collection ends with five speeches from her final years, all of them political, most of them also literary, in import.
Sontag always said that what she cared most about was art and that she wrote about politics solely out of a moral obligation. And in this belief she was, of course, deluded and wrong. As with all great writers, she was led by an invisible hand away from what she thought was her calling and toward her true vocation. Sontag wrote as a partisan — there's no other way for a real critic to write — and her partisanship led her deeper and deeper into her genius.
Politics and art
She was a culture critic, which meant that she wrote at the intersection of politics and art. When she was younger, and modernist art was in its last great throes, she wrote more persuasively about art. Her political writing of those years wasn't on the same level; it was hotheaded and nearly unhinged by rage.
By the end of her life, the cultural wasteland that T.S. Eliot had once envisioned had become a depressing reality. In this country, at least, the high culture from which Sontag drew her deepest nourishment lay in ruins, and the real struggle, the real battle — where the action was, and thus where a critic had to be — was in the arena of politics.
The rage in these last speeches is controlled rage, frosty and sublime — a snow-capped peak of rage that towers over the landscape that is the political and critical discourse of today.
Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News.
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 26/04/2007
Daniel Swift reviews At the Same Time by Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag died on December 28, 2004, but she hasn't quite stopped yet. In September 2006, the New York Times magazine published lengthy extracts from her gossipy and revelatory diaries. That same autumn, the Brooklyn Museum showed an exhibition of photographs by Sontag's long-term partner Annie Leibovitz, including many intimate holiday snaps: Susan in bed, Susan in a car.
At the Same Time is a collection of her essays and speeches, but even this is not really her final work: the foreword, written by her son David Rieff, mentions more volumes of "diaries, letters, uncollected essays" that are to be published in the coming years. Rieff expresses doubts about this project. "I wish it had not been the last major piece of work she undertook," he notes. "I wish she had written a short story."
Known best for her essays and the books that emerged from those essays - "Notes on 'Camp' " is possibly her most famous, and her most famous book, On Photography (1977), started life as an essay - Sontag was also a well-regarded novelist and short-story writer.
She was, as this new collection makes clear, working constantly in different genres: writing forewords for unjustly neglected novels, giving interviews and speeches, receiving prizes. At the Same Time reads like a greatest-hits album - a little politics, something on photography, some lit crit - of the range of her commitments and passions.
Everything Sontag writes sounds like it should be in capital letters. Her subject is what she calls here "the Big Words: freedom, individual, society", and she gives speeches on abstract themes - "On Courage and Resistance", on translation - and offers bold judgments.
"We need fiction," she declares, "to stretch our world." She celebrates novels that are also memoirs, such as Leonid Tsypkin's Summer in Baden-Baden, and novelists who imagine historical figures, including Anna Banti's Artemisia. Her highest notes of praise are reserved for what she calls "the truth of the novelist" which "allows for the arbitrary, the mysterious, the undermotivated".
She is also more directly political here. Included is her short piece written for the New Yorker immediately after September 11, 2001, and its infamous claim that "whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards". She twice returns to the subject, not really the attacks themselves, but rather "the discourse surrounding the event", "the simplistic cowboy rhetoric of Bush".
The most powerful piece here, perhaps because it is the only one that was intended to be encountered in this form - rather than heard as a speech or read as the foreword to a novel - is on the Abu Ghraib photographs. Here, she is passionate and precise. "The photographs are us," she declares.
But the time of these pieces has passed: the conversation has moved on. Perhaps because Sontag's ideas have been so influential, they appear self-evident. Everybody sounds like Sontag now when they are discussing photography. These essays are too often elliptical and unsatisfying. The opening piece, "An Argument About Beauty", is full of potentially exciting points, as in her claim that "the ascription of beauty is never unmixed with moral values", but also a certain amount of cardboard stuffing as it circles round its subject.
A piece celebrating the letters between the poets Rilke, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva does not once quote them. In one essay, she declares: "As Strindberg put it in the preface to his forgotten masterpiece, A Dream Play, 'Time and space do not exist'." This is too obscure, too abstract, too judgmental: it sounds like a Woody Allen parody of Susan Sontag.
Sontag is most exciting for her concision, as in the claim from her first book, Against Interpretation (1966), that "the antipathy to 'style' is always an antipathy to a given style". But that wicked aphoristic slice, which was always her trademark, is here lost under vague abstractions. "There is a problem for writers who exercise another, more strenuous profession full-time," she notes in an essay on the anarchist, polemicist and novelist Victor Serge.
Reading these essays, it is hard to escape the feeling that being Susan Sontag - public, spirited, passionate - was her full-time job, and that the writing got pushed to the side.