Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Susan Sontag, RIP

"To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge -- and, therefore, like power. A now notorious first fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern, inorganic societies. But print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present."


Susan Sontag, On Photography

According to the AP, Susan Sontag is dead. Actually, yesterday when I was on my tirade against photography, I wanted to mention her, but thought otherwise because one doesn't just toss around Sontag's nuanced position on photography -- perhaps the most well articulated defense of photography as an ethical and artistic mode of expression -- and just walk away. She deserved better.

I can't say that I was ever a fan of Susan Sontag, but she had an incredible, penetrative mind, most evident in her essays, where she reigned as Sovereign Queen, and her essay on Ingmar Bergman's Persona in Styles of Radical Will is quite astonishing.

The AP writes:

"Susan Sontag, the author, activist and self-defined 'zealot of seriousness' whose voracious mind and provocative prose made her a leading intellectual of the past half century, died Tuesday. She was 71.

"Sontag called herself a 'besotted aesthete,' an 'obsessed moralist' and a 'zealot of seriousness.'
She wrote a best-selling historical novel, 'The Volcano Lover,' and in 2000 won the National Book Award for the historical novel 'In America.' But her greatest literary impact was as an essayist."

Sontag was definitely an aesthete, a "foraging pluralist," much like the supreme flip flopper himself, Jacques Derrida, (Sontag coined the Derridaesque, "Cogito ergo boom") who also recently passed on, but she had her moments of concentrated ethical battle, especially against the Europe's pathetic silence on the Sarajevo conflict raging on their doorstep as well as articulating her own courageous battle with cancer. Sontag was a great lover and champion of contemporary European writing and art, from Elias Canetti and Walter Benjamin to Roland Barthes, Goddard, and Leni Riefenstahl.

But to limit her as an American with pretentions towards contemporary European art is misleading. Sontag's interests were vast, including Asian film (she served on the jury of Hawaii Film Festival in 1986), Surrealism, and the bridging of high and low culture. Sontag was also a minor playwright and a human rights activist. As a sort of paragon of the blue states (as, perhaps, Leo Strauss might be for the red states; I have this theory that the virtue red staters value above all others is the feminine "sophistication," and, ancillary to that, "internationalism," "tolerance," and "pluralism;" the highest of all red stater values is the masculine "righteousness," and, ancillary to that, "hierarchy," "godliness," and the Kierkegaardian, "purity of heart is to will one thing"), Sontag said in a recent interview about her novels:

"Maybe these novels should be viewed as books about travel, about people in foreign places: The Volcano Lover is about the British in Italy; In America is about the Poles emigrating to the US; the novel I'm about to start is about some Japanese people in France in the 1920s. However, I'm not trying to fulfill a program--I'm trying to stretch myself."

And stretch her mighty Arizonan Eagle's wings she did, as she was the very model of intellectual sophistication. I'd like to mention that she was also drop dead gorgeous, a dark, intense woman whose eyes -- sharp eagle eyes -- always registered her deep intelligence, who, as she grew older, developed a dramatic white streak in her hair. Rowwr.

The AP notes:

"'Unfortunately, Miss Sontag's intelligence is still greater than her talent,' Gore Vidal wrote in a 1967 review of 'Death Kit.'"

"'Yet ... once she has freed herself of literature, she will have the power to make it, and there are not many American writers one can say that of.'"

Her experimental novels (where she "stretched") -- with the exception of the best selling Volcano Lover -- were more critical than financial hits. Vidal often chided her for her being overinfluenced by the virtually unreadable Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Europeans who luxuriated in being difficult, but underneath it all, I suspect, was a grudging respect, and a desire to see Sontag write in a more "organic," American-style. The jerky, interrupted stop-and-start style of I, Etcetera, and the old melancholy sepia-toned snapshot laden Death Kit, represent her at her most interesting. And of course Sontag was capable, like the old European intellectuals she held in such high esteem, of making poignant, thoughtful statements, like, "intelligence ... is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas."

Sontag began her life an autodidact, a dark eyed unhappy little girl in Phoenix, Arizona, in love with European writers who took her away from her disappointing parents. In a New York Times magazine article, she once described her childhood as one of being "abandoned."And, in a sense, the stubbornness of the autodidact and her idealization of the European intellectual remained with her to the end (Sontag was perhaps the most European intellectualish American intellectual of all time; we have no trouble imagining her in a Paris cafe smoking Galhousie's, waiting for Godot). The AP continues:

"In 1999 she wrote an essay for 'Women,' a compilation of portraits by her longtime companion, photographer Annie Leibovitz."

Liebovitz eventually left Sontag for the nanny, and Sontag labored on, in pursuit of the life of the mind. Perhaps it was the battle with cancer, but Sontag always equated suffering -- on the microcosmic level of herself, or at the macrocosmic level of corrupt governments and war -- with moral seriousness:

"I had already set foot outside of the wealthy countries of North America and Western Europe. For example, I had been to North Africa and Mexico. But Vietnam was the first country I visited where I saw real suffering. And I looked at such experiences not just in aesthetic terms, but also with moral seriousness. So it's not that I'm disenchanted with modernism. I want for myself to take in more reality, and still with the tools of modernism, to address real suffering .."

And, in that respect, she was a true humanist, an Arizona eagle -- Phoenix variety? or Phoenix variety? -- free at last, a warrior who has earned our undying respect for her brave battles in the gladitorial fundament of the world of ideas. That dark eyed little girl in Phoenix would be proud of what she had become. Now put the mundance worries of the past existence behind. Rest a well earned warriors rest.

RIP, Susan Sontag.


(S)wine said...

Extremely sad. Saw the obit this morning on CNN. We've lost a dynamic intellectual. Thanks, Ron for putting this up on your site. I continue to be amazed at the quality of your choices--from Pop culture to Literature to Politics. Your site is truly special.


The Corsair said...

Awwww (hugs LX)