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Susan Sontag

By Richard Howard

Susan Sontag began her first book of criticism, Against Interpretation, published in 1966, as indeed she began her first fiction, The Benefactor, published in 1963, with the assumption of a determined esthetic stance, for she was at pains to articulate, and even to favor, the phenomenon of affective opacity—the resistance to moral security, to what George Eliot would call duty—in every aspect of represented experience. This “modernist” project of an esthetic basis, indeed an esthetic justification, as opposed to old ideas of emotional adequacy, impelled Sontag to what always seemed to me the most resourceful and passionate consideration of the powers of literature, and indeed of all the arts, to be exercised in her generation.

The consequence of her protean explorations was a remarkable series: seven volumes of essays and meditations, homages and polemics that accompanied and certainly informed her four, no five volumes of novels, tales, and fables, as well as her plays and screenplays. Studies of film and photography, of popular culture and science fiction were matched, indeed were sustained, by her searching attentions to medicine and politics, and by her earlier studies in religion and philosophy. Indeed she had begun her intellectual life as a teacher (at 28, she was giving a course at Columbia on “the sociology of religion”), and although the academy remained a road not taken, anyone who heard her lecture or merely read aloud could be in no doubt of her loving responsibility to what we have learned to call, in our distrust of genre, the text. It had been apparent to several writers of Sontag’s generation—to Barthelme, to Gass, to Davenport—that there were figurations and contraptions that a new, or a renewed, fiction would find generative; a certain aphoristic and fragmentary sequence (in Nietzsche, for instance, in Cioran or in Roland Barthes) would constitute her narrative as it would her argument, for just as the genre of such works as Human, All Too Human or of A Lover’s Discourse is uncertain or at least wavering, so the fictions that have found such works as these a resource make less of a claim to be fiction in the “story-telling” sense and more of one in the “poetic” sense, which is to say, a made thing—for in that sense a fiction and a poem are one, and the “broken wisdom” of aphorism would serve as the device sustaining to their goal her last two novels, The Volcano Lover of 1992 and In America of 2000, as well as her remarkable play of 1993, Alice in Bed, that “free dramatic fantasy” on the life of Alice James.

That play, or my enthusiasm for it, produced a characteristic Sontag zinger. She hadn’t yet published Alice in Bed and was trying to find a way of getting the thing on stage, and having no luck at all. “It’s perfect for television, Susan,” I would tell her (maybe three times) until her patience gave out: “I detest television, Richard, do you watch television? I never do—I read.”

“We aspire to life in the body,” that reader wrote in her first book of criticism, and all her works persisted in examining the exemplary instances which sustained, which flouted, or which merely articulated such an aspiration. It was Susan Sontag’s delight to discover, and in her texts to prove, that there is a power disparate from the powers of political argument or even of religious postulation, a power inherent in what we sometimes call Wisdom Literature (though in her hands such literature might be called the literature of folly)—in which power is merely and magically that of Showing Forth, the apparition and epiphany of the person, of the poor, defenseless, and invincible human body.

In this endeavor she was somewhat despoiled of her continuing vocation, as in this apprehension of her powers by emergent needs she was reduced—although in Susan Sontag’s case I should say she was enlarged—to something like despair. For if in her metamorphic explorations of creative possibility (“I am always starting up,” she writes somewhere, “straining to hear a change in the sound”) and even in her journeys to Vietnam and Sarajevo, to Israel and Argentina and Japan (she was working at the end of her life, until she could no longer work, on a further fiction set, or upset, in contemporary Japan which many visits and friendships there had made familiar to her)—if from the outset she had been the promptest exponent of the modern esthetic resonance in a world of writers and artists she tirelessly scrutinized for her new mysteries of experience unsuspected by an indolent public, in her last years Susan Sontag often shocked herself as well as her complacent fellow citizens by the severity of her moral responses to what she knew were betrayals in the realm of national policy and public responsibility.

We hear the writer’s melancholy impatience with the postponement if not the betrayal of a chosen pursuit in her Friedenspreis acceptance speech of 2003:

Let me rather speak as a writer, as a champion of the enterprise of literature, for therein lies the only authority I have. The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the ‘intellectual ambassador,’ the human rights activist—those roles which are mentioned in the citation of this prize, much as I am committed to them… A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world…[and] literature can tell us what the world is like.

And even as Sontag speaks—she is 69 years old at this point—of what she now calls this ultimate purpose of literature: “to have access to the world’s literature is to escape the prison of national vanity, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck,” she adds a final sentence that is a strange acknowledgment for the fierce advocate of esthetic redemption, the radically “immoralist” novelist and critic who claimed in her twenties that what we needed, we American readers, was “an erotics of art.” For literature’s ultimate fortune, she found herself saying in that Frankfurt address two years ago, was that it “can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.”

An untoward conclusion, the strange obiter dicta of a remarkable and of what it seems to me a fulfilled vocation, though I am also saying that I believe that in the last years during which she knew she was dying Susan Sontag felt otherwise. She felt despair not because of the third bout of cancer that was finally to defeat her, but because of the passivity of her country to its elected government, its policies and its representatives, about whom St. Paul might have written, as she quoted him to me in 2004, “there is none righteous, no, not one. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that does good, no, not one.”

And she felt that what she had written and what she would still write, if she had the choice, must give way, must be replaced by texts in opposition to such policies. She had become that obsessed thing, a conscience. “You watch television? I read.”

I believe that my friend of forty years would rather have made no such rude or prophetic claims, no pleadings with readers, no efforts to be understood or even not to be understood. I believe Susan Sontag would have preferred to go on with such work of hers that might be, as she said of our friend Roland Barthes’s writings, “a plea for savor, for a festive (rather than dogmatic or credulous) relation to ideas. As it was for Nietzsche”—and how readily this name came to her lips. Thirty-seven years ago I recall getting a glimpse of her notes for a series of lectures, “Beyond Personality” at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y; on one 3-by-5 card was the scrawl: “Nietzsche—my hero.” And in 2003, she could still—though her overwhelming efforts were in moral suasion and political conviction—be loyal to that initial aspiration when she said: “As it was for Nietzsche, the point is not to teach us something in particular, the point is to make us bold, agile, subtle, intelligent… and to give pleasure.” That was the ulterior meaning of Susan Sontag’s life in literature. But then she died.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2005.

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