The Restless Mind

The Restless Mind

At the Same Time, Susan Sontag’s posthumous collection of essays and speeches, reveals her rapt attention to the world around her.


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.

Whatever she may have felt about her output of fiction, she was scarcely unproductive. Four novels; a collection of spiky, amusing stories; a beautiful Noonday reprint of her AIDS story “The Way We Live Now” illustrated by British painter Howard Hodgkin; several plays and film scripts: All this is ample evidence of a vocation fulfilled. Meanwhile her readers have the incessant demands on her curiosity to thank for her other writing, no less memorable or successful: collections like this one, as well as the monographs on photography, illness and AIDS. Her inability to walk away from political and cultural controversy or refrain from thinking about writers who inspired her isn’t something we should lament in deference to her feelings. She was, Rieff admits, a person who took herself awfully seriously, but her willingness to be distracted from the things she hoped to get on with shows how seriously she also took the world.

This gift for distraction was partly about her reluctance to cut off from the present. However thoroughly she could pitch herself into the past for an act of “worship” or a proselytizing piece like the one on Serge, she was always interested in what was going on around her. Wherever she is in her essays, in Leningrad in the 1920s, Paris in the 1930s or Tuscany in 1944, she returns sooner or later to the here and now–just to scan the horizon.

“An Argument About Beauty,” the first essay in this collection, is a good example. It presents the genealogy of an ideal in a concise series of steps, taking us from Renaissance notions of beauty (Shakespeare) to the elegiac Japanese tradition (the annual cherry-blossom viewing), on from there to early Modernism (Wilde and Gertrude Stein), back down to the Enlightenment (Kant and Lessing), only to return us to Modernism via Paul Valéry. From there we’re brought smoothly forward into Sontag’s present–her own time and place–to reflect on a set of values that have evolved for centuries but that are rapidly degrading, she believes, under the pressure of late capitalism in America.

Like an observer in a laboratory who sees her samples mutating, Sontag is gripped by the changes going on under her nose. The source of this rapid degradation, she concludes in “An Argument About Beauty,” is the “discrediting” of judgment itself, an exercise no longer understood as “impartial or objective” but as “self-serving or self-referring.” To speak of beauty is to presuppose ugliness, and “there are more and more taboos about calling something, anything, ugly.” “Political correctness” must shoulder some of the blame, she thinks, but the prime culprit is the “ideology of consumerism.” She urges readers to think about “the complicity between these two” in a cultural landscape where “good taste seems even more retrograde an idea than beauty” and “E-Z Art gives the green light to all.” The essay ends a few pages on with a touching passage about the natural world, to which beauty always refers us eventually, she argues, deepening “our sense of the sheer spread and fullness of reality, inanimate as well as pulsing, that surrounds us all.” This is an unusual tone for her to strike. It has something of the eighteenth-century sublime, something of the 1960s, but much more of the writer who’s happy, just once, to exit Word, shut down the computer and leave the universe to see to itself while she’s away from her desk.

Sontag was a snob by the standards that prevailed toward the end of her life. She liked rigor. She believed in judgment and taste and railed against demagogic words like “elitist” and evasive words like “interesting.” (She objects in the essay on beauty to the way “discrimination” has come to signify “prejudice, bigotry, blindness to the virtues of what was not identical with oneself” rather than discernment.) She could remember a time when affectlessness and condescension were not the ambassadors of the contemporary art scene. She was also familiar with an earlier past in which she found much, as usual, to admire. From the essay on Serge: “To read Serge’s memoirs is to be brought back to an era that seems very remote today in its introspective energies and passionate intellectual quests and code of self-sacrifice and immense hope: an era in which the twelve-year-olds of cultivated parents might normally ask themselves ‘What is life?'”

The earlier part of the twentieth century was exciting to Sontag precisely because it demanded so much of people: dissidents, poets, henchmen–even 12-year-olds. But she never doubted that the convulsions of war, revolution and economic depression had led to disaster, and she offered no excuses for the crimes committed in the name of “the people.” Having educated herself as thoroughly as she could about Bolshevism, Stalinism, Nazism and Phalangism, she was well placed to understand the long postwar period. Vietnam was relatively straightforward, but Solidarity in Poland and the war in Bosnia were not. To support Solidarity meant being lumped with other admirers of the unionized workers in Gdansk, notably Reagan and Thatcher, who didn’t care for homegrown unions like PATCO or the National Union of Mineworkers. To call for intervention in Bosnia, or to endorse it in Kosovo, was to be regarded by many on the left as a dupe or a liberalistic warmonger who mistook NATO’s expansion for a noble “humanitarianism.”

Sontag moved confidently across this dangerous terrain and emerged more or less intact. All of the essays and speeches here were originally published or delivered post-millennium–and therefore post-Balkans–but the clarity of her earlier interventions is still in evidence, along with her high moral tone (not always attractive) and the faith in old-fashioned internationalism that had led her and the novelist Juan Goytisolo, among others, to compare Bosnia to the Spanish Civil War.

In several of these pieces she approaches literature with the internationalist assumptions that informed her politics. In “The World as India,” the 2002 St. Jerome Lecture on Literary Translation, she commends the “libertarian inflection” of nineteenth-century European nationalism and the “progressive” ideal of national literatures, although Goethe’s vision of “world literature,” with which “the dignity and specificity of national languages…are entirely compatible,” intrigues her more. As a keen young reader growing up in Arizona and California, she had run her own one-person study course in Weltliteratur, graduating from English novels to translations from Russian, French and German. “Literature was mental travel,” she says in the same lecture. “Travel into the past…and to other countries…. And literature was criticism of one’s own reality, in the light of a better standard.”

In her acceptance speech at Frankfurt, where she received the 2003 Friedenspreis, she spoke of world literature as a way out of “the prison of national vanity.” National vanity was not a vice she indulged in; she attended remarkably little to the literature of her own country when she was younger. Going back over her early passions, in “The World as India,” she lists only four Americans: Poe, Helen Hunt Jackson, Louisa May Alcott and Jack London. It’s the English, Scottish, Russians and Europeans who make the running. She caught up with America later, but only just. Her internationalism, like her love of Manhattan, was a fugitive’s passion, rooted in a fear of anything resembling provincialism or ignorance.

Sontag was in Berlin when the Twin Towers came down, and her reaction, published in The New Yorker, is featured here in slightly adapted form. (In her first sentence–either a new one or something she reinstated–she refers to herself as “this appalled, sad American.”) The “war on terror” has kept 9/11 alive, and her reflections with it: They still have the courage and incisiveness they had at the time. They are followed by a set of written answers, published in Italy a few weeks after the New Yorker piece, to questions put by the Italian leftist daily Il Manifesto: second thoughts that appear for the first time here in English. Both these pieces and a third, originally published in the New York Times a year after 9/11, are now back to back, as a sequence. In theory, they allow us to see how far Sontag was prepared to go in revising her initial response to the attacks.

In The New Yorker she castigated the Bush Administration and the American media for the way they dealt with 9/11. Some readers of this short, Olympian piece took her disapproval of the official reaction (“self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions”) to be an approval of the attacks. In her replies for Il Manifesto, she stands by what she wrote. Her first impressions, she insists, were “all too accurate.” But there is more to say: “To in any way excuse or condone this atrocity by blaming the United States–even though there has been much in American conduct abroad to blame–is morally obscene.” Is she chiding others who have excused and condoned? Or is she thinking about something she said herself? For instance, that 9/11 was “an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” That sentence caused a bit of trouble. But whether or not you agree with it, it means to describe a process larger than the event itself. Description is not the same as approval or extenuation.

Elsewhere Sontag tells Il Manifesto she doesn’t believe “that America has been provoking the Islamic world for years,” and besides, she isn’t happy with the category “Islamic world.” She goes on to say that 9/11 was an assault on “modernity (the only culture that makes possible the emancipation of women) and, yes, capitalism.” She believes it justifies an “armed response” in the form of a “complex and carefully focused set of counterterrorist operations.” This is not an outright contradiction of what she said earlier, but the change of tone is emphatic. She is much happier in the third piece, where she can assail the Bush Administration, denouncing its “jihad language” and asserting that a “war on terror” is not the same as the legitimate “right to hunt down the perpetrators of these crimes and their accomplices.”

The really jarring shift comes in May 2004 with her piece about Abu Ghraib, “Regarding the Torture of Others.” In Il Manifesto she announces that it would be “useless…as well as wicked–to bomb the oppressed people of Afghanistan.” Two and a half years later she talks of “the quite justified invasion of Afghanistan.” This is a big and rapid change for an intellectual to undergo–perhaps also a hostage to fortune, allowing her to remain in the conversation about US foreign policy as a staunch opponent of the war in Iraq. Some of her detractors had undergone big changes of their own in order to close that conversation down.

To read Sontag’s 9/11 pieces now is to hear an eerie note reverberating from a story she wrote much earlier and published in her 1978 collection, I, etcetera. “Doctor Jekyll,” a brilliant retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella, is set mostly in contemporary New York and the Hamptons. Sontag loved Stevenson and does radical justice to his story by casting Jekyll and Hyde as separate individuals, the better to identify them, later on, as aspects of the same person. We first encounter them together in Manhattan. Hyde has arranged a meeting at the North Tower of the World Trade Center on a windswept Sunday in July. He chooses the WTC because it is “out of everyone’s way.” In this weekend wilderness, the two cross only for a few seconds: Hyde is unaccountably anxious and doesn’t want to talk. Jekyll wanders into a deserted cafe across the street and watches with interest as his breathless double keeps rounding the corner every few minutes like a hamster in a cage.

Strictly speaking, this vivid, sinister series of images has nothing to do with Sontag’s writings on 9/11. Even so, as you go back over her work you’re startled by the curious afterlife it has acquired. Thirty years on, it’s as if her Jekyll and Hyde had colonized a small patch of debris at the edge of Ground Zero and looked on impartially as the dust thickened and drifted across the world.

Sontag liked the Jekyll and Hyde story because she understood the dangerous liaison between vice and virtue. In her Il Manifesto interview she is maddened by talk of the struggle “between two rival civilizations, one productive, free, tolerant, and secular (or Christian), the other retrograde, bigoted, and vengeful.” The way she’d understood America for most of her life, the atrocious Hyde had always gotten the better of the plausible Jekyll, and anytime she’d wanted “retrograde, bigoted, and vengeful,” she’d never had far to look. In the last political essay she wrote, about the Abu Ghraib scandal, she scorned Bush’s assertion that “people who have been seeing those pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.” On the contrary, she argued, “the photos are us.” The bunker politics and denunciations that came after 9/11 had unsettled her, but here she was once more, fluent and incensed and ready to take the consequences.

At the Same Time ends with a speech Sontag delivered in South Africa two months before the Times Magazine ran her Abu Ghraib article. It is an act of worship at the shrine of literature and an admission that the kind of writing she most admires may be a dying art, stifled by “our debauched culture,” which “invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom.” The picture she paints is extraordinarily bleak. Far from widening our horizons, the spread of information technology has shrunk our “ethical” world to the size of a mouse hole, while the grandeur of “modernity”–which she’d earlier identified as Al Qaeda’s principal target–has been hollowed out by consumerism, voyeurism, “fantasies of eros and violence” and “demagogic appeals to cultural democracy that accompany…the ever-tightening grip of plutocratic capitalism.” If fiction has a duty to “enlarge and complicate,” she can’t see it surviving for much longer. And a world without literature–“criticism of one’s own reality”–is sure to lose what’s left of its moral bearings. This is a kind of farewell speech. It is full of Sontag’s affection for the art of storytelling, and full of anger about the philistinism she seemed to see all around her. It says something too about her sense of defeat in the wake of 9/11 and about her stoicism, which allowed her to plead her allegiance to “modernity,” even though she found so much of it indefensible.

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