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January 8, 2005

Susan Sontag


Charles McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, wrote an article for last Sunday's New York Times about Sontag, who died last week at 71.

He simply presented a passage from each of her most highly-acclaimed essays.

I started to quote from his selections, but stopped when I realized that it would be easier simply to present her distilled, rigorous thought as she expressed it.

The piece follows.

    No Hard Books, or Easy Deaths

    Susan Sontag, who died last week at the age of 71, was the pre-eminent intellectual of our time - visible, outspoken, engaged.

    The life of the mind was for her something both rigorous and passionate, moral and pleasurable, and she brought to it a lifetime of reading, watching and listening (she was a fixture at concerts and dance events) and a prose style of singular clarity and precision.

    Many of her essays were meditations of a sort, in which she brooded over something - the nature of camp, say, or the seductive power of photography - and then worked out her own thoughts and feelings. In the end, they were almost the same thing.

    Her ideas were deeply felt, her feelings deepened by reflection.

    She was by nature a fusionist - someone who could link high art and low, Patti Smith and Nietzsche - and a distruster of false or easy connections, like our way of using metaphor to talk about sickness.

    An excerpt from her unflinching essay "Illness as Metaphor" appears below, along with selections from other works.

    Against Interpretation, 1964

    Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.

    All the conditions of modern life - its material plentitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.

    And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, or capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of a critic must be assessed.

    What is important now is to recover our senses.

    We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

    Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there.

    Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

    The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us.

    Notes on Camp, 1964

    I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.

    That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can.

    For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it.

    To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

    Though I am speaking about sensibility only - and about a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous - these are grave matters.

    Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason.

    They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art.

    But this attitude is naïve.

    And even worse.

    To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself.

    For taste governs every free - as opposed to rote - human response. Nothing is more decisive.

    There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion - and there is taste in acts, taste in morality.

    Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.

    One Culture and the New Sensibility, 1965

    Having one's sensorium challenged or stretched hurts.

    The new serious music hurts one's ears, the new painting does not graciously reward one's sight, the new films and the few interesting new prose works do not go down easily.

    The commonest complaint about the films of Antonioni or the narratives of Beckett or Burroughs is that they are hard to look at or to read, that they are "boring."

    But the charge of boredom is really hypocritical.

    There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom.

    Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration.

    And the new languages which the interesting art of our time speaks are frustrating to the sensibilities of most educated people.

    But the purpose of art is always, ultimately, to give pleasure - though our sensibilities may take time to catch up with the forms of pleasure that art in a given time may offer.

    And, one can also say that, balancing the ostensible anti-hedonism of serious contemporary art, the modern sensibility is more involved with pleasure in the familiar sense than ever.

    On Photography, 1977

    The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust.

    And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied: first, because the possibilities of photography are infinite; and, second, because the project is finally self-devouring.

    The attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion.

    Our oppressive sense of the transience of everything is more acute since cameras gave us the means to "fix" the fleeting moment.

    We consume images at an ever faster rate and, as Balzac suspected cameras used up layers of the body, images consume reality.

    Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete.

    Illness as Metaphor, 1978

    The policy of equivocating about the nature of their disease with cancer patients reflects the conviction that dying people are best spared the news that they are dying, and that the good death is the sudden one, best of all if it happens while we're unconscious or asleep.

    Yet the modern denial of death does not explain the extent of the lying and the wish to be lied to; it does not touch the deepest dread.

    Someone who has had a coronary is at least as likely to die of another one within a few years as someone with cancer is likely to die soon from cancer.

    But no one thinks of concealing the truth from a cardiac patient: there is nothing shameful about a heart attack.

    Cancer patients are lied to, not just because the disease is (or is thought to be) a death sentence, but because it is felt to be obscene - in the original meaning of that word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the senses.

    Cardiac disease implies a weakness, trouble, failure that is mechanical; there is no disgrace, nothing of the taboo that once surrounded people afflicted with TB and still surrounds those who have cancer.

    Thirty Years Later..., 1996

    I had come to New York at the start of the 1960's, eager to put to work the writer I had, since adolescence, pledged myself to become.

    My idea of a writer: someone interested in "everything."

    I had always had interests of many kinds, so it was natural for me to conceive of the vocation of a writer in this way.

    And reasonable to suppose that such fervency would find more scope in a great metropolis than in any variant of provincial life, including the excellent universities I had attended.

    The only surprise was that there weren't more people like me.


January 8, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink


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