You’d expect a compilation of essays and speeches put together after Susan Sontag’s death to have its dreary moments. Of course, she won her share of prizes and addressed plenty of audiences. She was also a restless figure who liked to keep signaling her position, wherever it happened to be. Yet her approach was fiercely economical, and this collection, which she was working on at the time of her death, is as succinct and absorbing as any of her books, even if a lot of its content is familiar.
At the Same Time consists of five published essays, five prefaces and introductions, five addresses and one interview. Among the writers whose work Sontag introduced are Leonid Tsypkin, the Russian author of Summer in Baden-Baden; Halldór Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel winner; and Victor Serge, the heroic revolutionary born in Belgium. All three are revisited here. The stand-alone essays include “An Argument About Beauty,” first published in Daedalus, and her controversial reaction to 9/11, published in The New Yorker. The lectures and speeches, the most discursive and in many ways the most rewarding of these pieces, give a strong sense of Sontag the celebrity, bedecked with ribbons and rosettes, on the hoof from one county fair to the next. Jerusalem, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, Cape Town. They also show how well she rose to public occasions and how insistently she felt those occasions should rise to her.
The title of the collection was taken from an address she gave in South Africa and chosen “as a tribute to the polyphonic quality of this book.” Perhaps the editors, Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, were worried that the choice of material is all over the place, or eager to assure us that Sontag doesn’t drone on. It isn’t and she doesn’t. David Rieff, her son, is more confident.
In his affectionate foreword, Rieff regrets that his mother didn’t finish her working life with a piece of fiction. She felt endlessly kept from writing novels and stories by an “evangelical incentive” that led her to devote much of her energy to meditating on the work of particular “gods”–which is how she describes Rilke, Pasternak and Tsvetayeva, for instance, in her introduction to an edition of their letters. Rieff adds that “the appropriateness of such worship was, for my mother, self-evident, and she practiced it until she could no longer practice anything at all.”
Her politics and her need to go on record narrowed the gap for fiction still further. She was a passionate admirer of Serge, “a lifelong activist and agitator,” and of his novels, which are steeped in politics and yet, as she says here, “much more than ‘political novels.'” But her fiction would have seemed clumsy, instrumentalized and plainly dishonest if she’d imagined she could follow in his footsteps. In her case the work of the imagination required one sort of attention and politics another, and as Rieff says, she could not “wall herself off from her own extraliterary commitments, above all her political involvements from Vietnam to Iraq.”
“Of course I have opinions, political opinions,” she announced when she took the Jerusalem Prize in 2001. She gave two pointed examples: First, she was opposed to “the doctrine of collective responsibility, as a rationale for collective punishment”–she was thinking about the Palestinians–and second, she believed that for any hope of peace, the settlements in the occupied territories would have to be dismantled and the army withdrawn. “But do I hold these opinions as a writer?” she asked. “Or do I not hold them as a person of conscience and then use my position as a writer to add my voice to others saying the same thing?” In Sontag’s judgment, it didn’t do to be confused about this.