Still seeking Susan Sontag …


sontag3Czesław Miłosz told me in 2000:  “It seems to me every poet after death goes through a purgatory, so to say.  …  So he must go through that revision after death…”

He was referring to T.S. Eliot — but he might as well also have been referring to prose writers, too, such as essayist and novelist Susan Sontag. We recently participated in the cyberspace roasting with Terry Castle here — but reading an interview with Sontag by my friend James Marcus (of House of Mirth blog fame) reminded me of how inspiring and impressive she was in the first place — a figure so relentless and towering that you craved her approval and patronage.  You can read the Marcus interview here.   An excerpt that reminds me why I’ve spent a lifetime with my nose in a book:

“Reading should be an education of the heart,” she says, correcting and amplifying her initial statement. “Of course a novel can still have plenty of ideas. We need to discard that romantic cliché about the head versus the heart, which is an absurdity. In real life, intellect and passion are never separated that way, so why shouldn’t you be moved by a book? Why shouldn’t you cry, and be haunted by the characters? Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”

“Perhaps some people don’t want to be taken out of themselves,” I suggest.

“Well, reading must seem to some people like an escape,” she allows. “But I really do think it’s necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

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2 Responses to “Still seeking Susan Sontag …”

  1. Elena Says:

    Sontag’s death has left a big gap in American intellectual life. So I’m on the side of those who revere her work even if she could be “difficult.” A personal favorite is her description of meeting Thomas Mann in Los Angeles, when she was in high school, very amusing. But most of all it is her work on photography that gets to me. Every time I did an exhibition of historic photos, like Katyn photos for instance, I thought about how she’d interpret the presentation. That critical eye… We don’t have enough public intellectuals to spare…Elena

  2. black boy: images and imagination | saga: the feminist muse Says:

    […] but I say, if you really want to understand an experience, read fiction. Susan Sontag once described reading as “an education of the heart.” She said, “Literature is what keeps us […]