Woman of valor

Susan Sontag's influence lives on in a book of posthumously published essay.

sontag book 88 298 (photo credit: )
sontag book 88 298
(photo credit: )
At 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.