My sole face-to-face encounter with Susan Sontag occurred at Stanford, when she was a visiting star sometime in the 1990s. She was dressed in the slightly dowdy “prison matron” threads that were her trademark, alleviated with a colorful scarf, another trademark. I had expected her to be physically towering; she was not. Obviously, that was the impression her books left on my psyche. I’m pretty certain she would say that had been the real encounter.
Steve Wasserman, editor at large for Yale University Press (and my former editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review) got the double exposure of her books and her friendship. He recounted both yesterday in Berlin, in his keynote address, “Susan Sontag: Critic and Crusader” at a symposium at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry (Steve called it a “secular monastery”). He spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the “Susan Sontag Revisited” symposium honoring the legendary cultural critic and author ten years after her death. He gave was a knockout address – one that should become the defining retrospective on the impact Susan Sontag has had on an entire generation.
His comments on her writing:
“Sontag’s style is her subject. For it is the way she thinks, how she goes about it, how she offers her readers the chance, as it were, to eavesdrop on a mind thinking as hard and as nimbly as it can that is most compelling about her work. Or, to put it another way, it is not so much her opinions that matter—though of course they do—but rather how she goes about arriving at them, how she renders them, the very warp and woof of her sentences. Wayne Koestenbaum, in his appreciation written soon after her death, understood this well, observing that she ‘is usually cited for her content rather than her form or style, and yet her paragraphs and sentences bear close and admiring scrutiny as exemplars of … prose forms that would permit maximum drift and detour.’ He marveled at what he called ‘her prose’s Mercurochrome aesthetic, her stern, self-conscious, tense sentences.’ He saw that ‘Her essays behave like fictions (disguised, arch, upholstered with attitudes), while her fictions behave like essays (pontificating, pedagogic, discursive).’ Koestenbaum writes that ‘The ends of her novels are the best parts.’ Often the same is true of her essays. He offers a number of examples: ‘The last three sentences of The Volcano Lover: ‘They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.’ The last two sentences of Death Kit: ‘Diddy has made his final chart; drawn up his last map. Diddy has perceived the inventory of the world.’ The last sentence of The Benefactor: ‘You may imagine me in a bare room, my feet near the stove, bundled up in many sweaters, my black hair turned grey, enjoying the waning tribulations of subjectivity and the repose of a privacy that is genuine.’
‘And, of course, the famous end of her essay on Riefenstahl and Nazi aesthetics: ‘The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.’”
Koestenbaum’s appraisal is insightful, but the best words yesterday came from Steve himself:
“Writers, Sontag had long felt, if they are any good at all, are obliged to try to understand the forces that shape us. They seek to give us a more truthful sense of things, a more nuanced sense of the world we inhabit. They oppose simplification and mystification. They are interested in complex readings informed by history. They write to help us understand what, for many, eludes understanding.
“Sontag in all her political essays and public statements and interviews and deeds tried valiantly to marshal her exceptional combination of erudition, intelligence, and empathy yoked to an abiding commitment to democratic values, in order to illuminate the present in a time of dizzying transformations, cynical manipulations and malleable geopolitical realities. She wanted to apprehend the forces that have given rise to murderous anger and to excavate the specific policies and alliances that have gone awry. She tried to articulate a coruscating and lucid analysis of the underlying conflict of our times: religious and tribal fundamentalism versus secular consumerist capitalism, or, in Benjamin Barber’s succinct formulation, Jihad versus McWorld. That conflict has birthed a world that is simultaneously coming together and falling apart. On the one hand, warp-speed capitalism is steadily weaving the globe into a single international market, challenging traditional notions of national sovereignty. On the other hand, the world is increasingly riven by fratricide, civil war, identity politics, and the breakup of nations. What capitalism and fundamentalism have in common is a distaste for democracy.
“Americans, Sontag long recognized, suffer from a persistent collective historical amnesia. Our politics are hobbled by our refusal to understand the manifold ways in which history, as was once so famously said, weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Americans have cleaved to the conceit that history, insofar as it was deemed important at all, was more hindrance than help in our presumed march to the munificent future. Optimistic, pragmatic, impatient, inventive, generous, Americans refused to be held hostage to history, believing that America had burst its bounds and that it could remake the entire planet in its own image. More: that the peoples of the world yearned to be Americans. The cost, as Sontag knew, of such myopia is large. It enfeebles understanding, promotes nostrums of all kinds, licenses the infantilization of public debate.”
“For too long, Americans have let our romance with distance and escape and denial define our culture and our politics. Susan understood this in her gut and in her head. For her, as she often said, California was America’s America, where you went to reinvent yourself. Her voluntary migration to New York was an effort to make her home in the one city she thought least American, if by “American” we mean deliberately provincial, uninterested in the rest of the world, anti-cosmopolitan. Similarly, for Sontag, New York was America’s Europe. And indeed, for many years, she divided her time between America and Europe, traveling incessantly. She both championed the American Dream of self-invention and was herself a successful example of such a project, and, as her critics rightly suspected, its fervent opponent, if by American Dream one means a country devoted, as Michael Wood suggested in his useful book, America in the Movies, to ‘a dream of freedom which appears in many places and many forms, which lies somewhere at the back of several varieties of isolationism. . .It is a dream of freedom from others; it is a fear … of entanglement. It is what we mean when we say, in our familiar phrase, that we don’t want to get involved.” There is, however, as 9/11 made clear and as the grotesque assault on Charlie Hebdo in Paris made plain, no hiatus from history, no reprieve from reality, no retreat from engagement.
“Sontag endeavored to live as Einstein enjoined us: to ‘remember your humanity and forget the rest.’ She sought assiduously to affirm—and to reaffirm—the ideas of secularism, reason, libertarianism, internationalism, and solidarity.
“In an interview for the Paris Review, published in 1995, Sontag was asked what she thought was the purpose of literature:
‘A novel worth reading,’ she replied, ‘is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.’ She was the cartographer of her own literary explorations. Henry James once remarked that ‘Nothing is my last word on anything.’ For Sontag, as for James, there was always more to be said, more to be felt. Alas, these ten years since her death, there is only silence from her grave at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, alongside Baudelaire and Beckett and Sartre.
“And yet and yet: the sound of Susan’s voice is still in my head. Her lust for life, her avidity, her pursuit of aesthetic bliss, her detestation of philistinism, her love of learning, her opposition to ethical and aesthetic shallowness, her insistence on being a grown-up, her passion for justice and capacity for outrage, and, always, her hatred of suffering and death, are everywhere to be found in her sentences, in her essays and in her stories. Her exemplary effort to swallow the world, as she concludes her revelatory short story, ‘Unguided Tour,’ tells the tale: ‘If I go this fast, I won’t see anything. If I slow down—Everything. –then I won’t have seen everything before it disappears. Everywhere. I’ve been everywhere. I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list. Land’s end. But there’s water, O my heart. And salt on my tongue. The end of the world. This is not the end of the world.’
I hear most of all her cri de coeur, given to the narrator of her story, “Debriefing,” – it could be her epitaph, her final aria, as she ends her story with the defiant throbbing declaration: ‘Sisyphus, I. I cling to my rock, you don’t have to chain me. Stand back! I roll it up – up, up. And. . .down we go. I knew that would happen. See, I’m on my feet again. See, I’m starting to roll it up again. Don’t try to talk me out of it. Nothing, nothing could tear me away from this rock.’”
Synchronicity: the words with which Steve ended his talk are the very same words with which Sontag ended her talk and reading at Stanford. I never forgot them.