15 June, 2007Issue 6.3LiteratureNorth AmericaWriters

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The Mind of the Moralist

Andrew Hay


Susan Sontag
At the Same Time
Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2007
235 pages
ISBN: 978-0241143711



In Gremlins 2, a character attempts to muster her friend’s support with a faux-inspirational speech: “civilization, yes, the Geneva convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag, yes, civilization”. The artistic merit of Gremlins aside, it is perhaps a fitting statement of Sontag’s stature in popular culture as a cerebral icon. In a recent essay, Cynthia Ozick attests to Sontag’s literary reputation, writing that she “dominated any platform” and “founded the culture in which she moved […] wherever she moved the currents flowed with her.”

Sontag’s death, in December, 2004, prompted a wave of obituaries celebrating the force of her personal convictions and the courage she brought to bear on matters both intellectual and worldly. Her memorably alliterative name and the flourishes it attracted (Jonathan Miller once famously called her “the smartest woman in America”) found its way into a wide range of TV shows, movies and novels. Sontag thus came to signify a certain kind of chic urban intellectuality, an image that was, no doubt, bolstered by the packaging and substance of her own books. Titles usually came equipped with her attractive form, featuring dark, brooding cover-portraits taken by photographers as prominent as Peter Hujar and Henri-Cartier Bresson. Behind the covers lay meticulously stylised prose with seemingly limitless range in literature, art and the history of ideas. It was this combination that made Sontag a literary star after her essays were collected in Against Interpretation (1966), a text which came to be paradigmatic of the 1960s and its aesthetic and cultural revolutions.

At the Same Time deals with a similarly impressive range of subjects, but its tone is resolutely sombre, governed by an idea that the writer in the twenty-first century is burdened with grave responsibilities. Sontag’s idea of the writer, “someone who pays attention to the world”, is based on an assumption that the best writing is serious: born of commitment, tenacity and struggle. Her celebrated literary portraits, some of which are collected in Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), frequently examine writers who exemplify struggle – Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Elias Canetti and Emil Cioran, among others. Yet this prescriptive seriousness fails to capture Sontag’s more ambivalent characterisations of herself as a writer. In an interview in 1996 she described her entire writing career as a vacillation between her “besotted aesthete” side and the “barely closeted moralist”.

In At the Same Time, the moralist is out and proud. As a result, the book is rather short of levity, covering subjects such as torture, terrorism, hegemonic mass media and weighty European literature. What connects these subjects is very much an idea of Sontag herself as someone who was, as the book’s foreword informs us, “interested in everything”. Indeed, the book’s subjects have been arranged around an introduction that tries to frame the essays through an account of the forceful personality of their deceased author. Trying to capture that personality for readers who might never have heard of Susan Sontag, the author’s son, David Rieff uses the word “avidity” as the most apt descriptor for his mother’s energy and ferocious desire to understand the world around her. This energy is reflected in the diversity of the topics to which Sontag devoted herself throughout her career, including dance, the novel, painting, cinema, photography, illness and philosophy.

Yet, despite Sontag’s impressive range, two recurring themes pervade much of her thought: the need for the critical awareness of the individual in modern political life and the capacity of art and literature to extend the boundaries of individual consciousness. Ultimately, for Sontag, these areas are coterminous with one another. As she puts it in her acceptance speech for the Friedenspreis des Deutschen award for achievement in literary arts,”Literature can tell us what the world is like. Literature can give standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative. Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.”

Sontag’s unwavering insistence on the capacity of art to illuminate ethical and political life might make her appear unapologetically moralistic. While this characterisation is certainly accurate within the context of At the Same Time, Sontag was not always so morally fervent. A comparison between At the Same Time and Sontag’s early writing reveals that, at one stage, her concern with art and politics were quite separate from one another. In her early period, with her revolutionary essays on camp, hermeneutics and the continental and cultural avant-garde, Sontag became pigeon-holed as an intellectual hedonist, as in her much-quoted imperative from her essay, “Against Interpretation” “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, since Sontag was a thinker who consistently championed a revaluation of received opinion, when her own work began to acquire more and more cultural visibility, she undertook many revisions and repudiations of her earlier positions. In an interview in the 1970s she once remarked that “a decade long residence in the 1960s have made me alert to the dangers of the aesthetic worldview”. Her pronouncements in the late sixties thus took a more overtly political slant, covering the Vietnam War, communism and American consumerism; moreover, since Sontag had always been a pugnacious political activist, her politics started to take centre stage alongside – and on occasion eclipsing – Susan Sontag the literary critic. This tension was crystallised in her infamous visit to Bosnia in 1992 where she faced sniper-fire and bombs in order to direct a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. At the Same Time reiterates the dual polarities of the political and the aesthetic that defined Sontag’s life as a public intellectual par excellence, yoking together pieces that reflect her intense life of the mind as well as her controversial adventures as an engagé committed to the castigation of American imperialism.

While Sontag unquestionably occupied both of these roles with aplomb, it seems important to remember that her fame as an essayist troubled her in later years. In an interview in 2000 she worried that she had “lost the capacity” for the essayistic prose that made her famous. In later life she considered herself primarily a writer of fiction. Indeed, the six literary essays collected in At the Same Time are of variable quality. Where Sontag once berated cultural reactionaries like George Steiner for a facile elevation of the past over the present, one senses that she struggled to temper her condescension for the alleged intellectual starkness of contemporary televisual culture. It is this condescension towards mass media in the name of “defending seriousness” that seems a million miles away from the cool agent provocateur of “On Culture and the New Sensibility”, collected in Against Interpretation, where Sontag argued against premature, reactionary appeals to “high” and “low” as cultural categories. In her later years, however, Sontag was emphatic in her insistence that much of contemporary Anglo-American film and fiction was ephemeral and trivial. In an essay on W. G. Sebald, from her collection, Where the Stress Falls, she opens with a rhetorical flourish, asking “Is literary greatness still possible?” In her essay on the correspondence of Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva and Rainer Maria Rilke in At the Same Time, she chooses to present this triangulation of literary genius both elegiaically and superlatively, as if she longs to return to a climate of quasi-religious literary gravitas that no longer exists:

Letters: Summer 1926 is a portrait of the sacred delirium of art. There are three participants: a god and two worshipers, who are also worshipers of each other (and who we, the readers of their letters, know to be future gods)….Today, when ‘all is drowning in Pharisaism’ – the phrase is Pasternak’s – their ardors and their tenacities feel like raft, beacon, beach.

A more blatant condemnation of contemporary culture is particularly forceful in Sontag’s speeches. In the titular “At the Same Time”, she writes that:

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 standardised entertainments and fantasies of eros and violence manufactured in the United States, Japan, wherever…

This desire to elevate attitudes and tastes is a common feature of Sontag’s rhetoric. While the sentiment that informed it was undoubtedly noble, born of a long-standing commitment to seriousness, in previous works it was delivered with rather more decorum. Here, it seems perfunctory, verging on little more than plangent pontificating. Strangely, this tone surfaces less frequently when Sontag is animated with righteous indignation, as opposed to condescension, as in her responses to 9/11 for which she was widely vilified by the American media. Her ability to filter her own opinion through powerful collective or nationalistic strains made her a beacon of independence and, even in isolation, ultimately more humane. This indignation, when applied to matters less susceptible to elite/mass demarcations, reveals something of the young Sontag’s gift for upsetting the apple cart, while reminding us why her earlier political works were so widely-discussed. Writing a week after September 11th, Sontag was unapologetically accusatory: “The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilisation’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower”.

Although Sontag never abandoned her moral outrage towards aggressive American foreign policy, she did revise her opinions on 9/11 to emphasise the human element in the disaster over the supposed strategic faults of the West’s political leaders. Indeed, her Regarding the Pain of Others (2000) suggests that her moralism had a human face; the book’s evocation of a wide range of writers and painters alongside ethical issues gives a good indication of the tension between the aesthetic and the moral which Sontag worked so hard to reconcile for herself.

At the Same Time also offers aesthetic considerations with political ones. In her essays on little-known writers such as Leonard Tsypkin and Victor Serge, Sontag reminds us of her gifts for bringing to light forgotten works that deserve a much wider audience. Here, she manages to pull off that most difficult task: paying attention to the specificities of a literary work while exploring its place in wider national literary currents. Both these essays provide a crash course in the major currents of nineteenth and twentieth century Russian literature, covering everything from spirituality to politics. At times, Sontag can pinpoint exactly what facet of a literary work most resembles her own project. For example, writing on Victor Serge, she notes that “The point of fiction was storytelling, world-evoking […] the historical panorama, in which single novels have their place as episodes of a comprehensive story”. However, her skill with contextualisation can, on occasion, falter, making some essays in the book seem slightly hit-and-miss. At times, Sontag’s desire to contextualise can be less successful, as in her essay on the Icelandic novelist, Hallador Laxness, where she opts for too much linkage and literary comparison. Her introduction to Laxness’s Under the Glacier leaves the reader with a feeling of obfuscation as a result of its wideness and fails to capture the dryness and economy of Laxness’s novel.

It is a lack of range that mars the speech section of At the Same Time. Although Sontag’s acceptance speech for the Friedenspreis is a fluid attempt to situate her concerns about the interplay between art and politics, the rest of the section merely rehashes, in a less eloquent way, her fears of American cultural hegemony. While it provides a widely available record of Sontag’s responses on social issues in public forums, these pieces will be more interesting for biographers and scholars trying to map the paradigm shifts between the early and late Sontag.

This lateness in At the Same Time is inescapable. David Rieff urges readers to avoid approaching the book as Susan Sontag’s “final word”, or, as a “summing up” of her thoughts. The projected future publication of Sontag’s letters, notebooks and diaries guarantee that there will indeed be an uncanny futurity for this fascinating writer. As a result of its lateness, the unevenness that defines At the Same Time must be excused on the grounds that its author would not have anticipated its finality – the book was compiled after Sontag’s death by a team of editors in consultation with her son. Had Sontag lived, there is every chance that what Rieff terms the “stern critic” in her would have toned down some of the moralistic haranguing that permeates At the Same Time. The collection would certainly have more variety since Rieff mentions that Sontag was planning more essays to widen the collection until shortly before her death. Thus, to balance the sense of lateness and maintain Sontag’s own variety, it is necessary to take the advice of the book’s title and re-read the early Susan Sontag of Against Interpretation at the same time as the melancholy cultural diagnostician of these essays. The contrast is startling. There, her energy, verve and range shine far brighter than in this variable, albeit valuable, posthumous collection.

Andrew Hay is writing a DPhil on Modernism and literary theory at Balliol College, Oxford.