The first thing you think of when you think of someone like Susan Sontag must be something encyclopedic, someone who’s incredibly avid. At least that’s what comes initially to mind when I approach Susan Sontag. Then it’s followed by feelings of excitement, feverish curiosity; there’s the contagious ambition to know everything, to be more aware, to become, as Sontag wants us to become, more human.
This feeling infects the reader most in her latest, and last, book of essays, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches. You get the sense that here was a woman who was vitally invested in the pursuit of life. And in Sontag’s world, the pursuit of life is the pursuit of the aesthetic, which operates — at best — to make us better (read: more aware) human beings. The solemn foreword by her son, David Rieff, tells us:
“The wisdom that becomes available over a profound, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic,” [Sontag] wrote, “cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.” I do not know if this is true. I do know that she [Sontag] believed this with every fiber of herself, and that her almost devotional insistence on never missing a concert, an exhibition, an opera, or a ballet was for her an act of loyalty to seriousness, not an indulgence, and a part of her project as a writer, not a taste, let alone an addiction.
Rieff’s foreword goes on to explain how Sontag “excelled in admiration”. It’s the perfect phrase. “Excel” is the stem for excellence. To be excellent — which does not mean to do the best that one can — is almost a mantra throughout the book. In Sontag’s world, excellence is refining a set of principles — principles which sculpt life and make us more aware. It’s the fervent devotion to the aesthetic that gives Sontag’s essays a continuous glow.
This book raises some perplexing questions. It works best as a panorama of a moment. Here we have Sontag’s controversial response to 9/11, the meaning(lessness) behind the Bush administration’s endless war on terror, American moralism and populist conformity, globalism and the art of translation, the increasing borderlessness of our cultures and languages, unadmired great writers, and much about being serious (which does not mean being not funny or not silly), and then: truth. The picture these essays paint is of a fractured, ambivalent time — a time where seriousness has given way to other things, which provide immediate relief, but, somehow, poison the spirit, toxify the cultural body.
Sontag’s humanism sounds at the same time refreshing and archaic. “Everybody in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom.” She says. A short hit list of fashionable words comes under attack: “elitist”, “politically correct”, “closure” … At times one gets the sense that At the Same Time is a short autopsy of the cancers of American life right now.
Words, more than anything, play a huge role in the book’s construction. Perhaps that’s why the writer of literature features so prominently in this collection. “The writer’s job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth … and to refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation.” The media also comes under necessary fire, with Sontag noting that serious writers “must be in opposition to the communal drone of the newscast and the talk show.” Her valorization of the writer’s role is thrilling, and seems to be something being repeated in many literary and academic circles alike.
What does this serious writer look like? One wishes Sontag would finally admire a living writer instead of picking from the selected dead. One also wishes that Sontag might have more thoroughly addressed the altered world of publishing and the role of the novel in society in the internet age. She touches on this is in the collection’s final essay, At the Same Time, where she lightly dismisses any coup of superiority of hypertext over the novel. Sontag argues that novels in their singularity of voice, as opposed to an uninterrupted stream of voices, images, media that we are increasingly becoming engulfed in — that novels, good novels, are what’s more necessary than ever right now: “[The novel] is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and it’s 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 media-disseminated glut of unending stories.” This point is valid and is somehow compelling coming from Sontag, whose flagship essay, “Against Interpretation”, argued for an “erotics of art”, and against any Aristotelian understanding of narrative, traditionally composed of a beginning, middle and an end.
It’s almost shocking to read Sontag discussing “beginnings, middles, and ends”, and yet somehow the completeness offered by the novel (which need not have moral implications) is compelling, and somehow exceedingly complicated in the quagmire of pathos our society endorses. This is perhaps one of the quandaries one wishes Sontag would have touched. How is it possible to be serious when so much of today’s seriousness is muddied by a hammy sincerity, politicized jargon, Oprah-fied interpretations — a quasi-seriousness: self-help instead of moral and ethical development. Sontag addressed this matter directly at one point. In her brilliant short essay to the New York Times days after the 9/11 attacks, Sontag noted: “Our leaders have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy — which entails disagreement, which promotes candor — has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.”
This book is largely for fiction writers. “A fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation.” For whatever can be said about Sontag’s own fiction, she surely knows what she’s talking about when discussing the project of literature and the lackluster ambitions of writers now. Anything but archaic-sounding, overly moralistic, or inexcusably elitist, Sontag is a necessary figurehead for today’s young writers, most of whom are dilly-dallying in a fame game, or falling prey to “self-expressive” confessionals. “Serious writers … shouldn’t just express themselves differently from the hegemonic discourse of the mass media. They should be in opposition to the communal drone of the newscast and the talk show … what writers do should free us up, should shake us up.” Sontag’s raising the bar — and though she’s addressing writers across the globe — there is a sense she’s really calling upon the American writers, who are lost.
Consistently, Sontag’s demand is for inquiry and awareness. It’s almost shocking to see the idea of “truth” brought up. (But what does that mean about us and our times when the idea of truth seems old-fashioned and cliché?) “It seems all too easy for people not to recognize the truth, especially when it may mean having to break with, or be rejected by, a community that supplies a valued part of their identity.” There’s an exciting pressure here for artists and writers alike to shake up the status quo, to go under attack, and to question more, and to think more, and to resist complacency. The guidance that Sontag has offered to a generation of writers who participate feverishly in the rebellious act of seriously, will be needed, will be missed.