Susan Sontag: Juggler of the Moral and the Aesthetic

By Mark Oppenheimer

Published May 18, 2007, issue of May 18, 2007.
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At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches By Susan Sontag, Edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $23.

In his foreword to “At the Same Time,” the new collection of essays and speeches by his mother, the late Susan Sontag, David Rieff writes: “It is sometimes said of my mother’s work that she was torn between aestheticism and moralism, beauty and ethics. Any intelligent reader of hers will see the force of this, but I think a shrewder account would emphasize their inseparability in her work.” I think that’s exactly right; her position has been clear at least since the moment she wrote, in her great 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”: “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.” The aim of “Notes on ‘Camp’” is to describe a homosexual mode that exalts frivolity — and yet Sontag twins that frivolous sense with the tradition of Hillel and Marx, Kafka and Joseph Roth, Janet Malcolm and (though gentile) Joan Didion. For Sontag, life itself, not just the modern sensibility, was to be found in the dance of the escapist and the inescapable. Camp points us toward fantasy, and the Jewish sensibility, like Jewish history, reminds us that reality is that which we’re not at liberty to ignore.

This posthumous collection of a great essayist and fine novelist, comprising occasional pieces such as acceptance speeches for awards and introductions to reissued books, as well as brief musings about our “war on terror,” amounts to yet another consideration of that central belief, the “inseparability in her work” of aestheticism and moralism. Sontag once put it another way: “The wisdom that becomes available over a profound, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.” That’s an extraordinary claim, and its simplicity is the rare flaw in Sontag’s thinking. Sometimes, aestheticism produces no wisdom at all. Cultivated people can be totally barbaric — they can even aestheticize cruelty. The morality of beauty has been debated since before Plato. But if beauty is to be moral, then it’s beauty of a deeper, distinctly nonaesthetic kind. Compared with Sontag’s older collections, these pieces, written in her late style — calmer, less ecstatic, less overbearing in their erudition — seem more cognizant of various tensions between aesthetics and wisdom. They’re less brusquely certain, a little more ambivalent.

Several of the essays collected in “At the Same Time” are in a wholly adulatory mode, and they’re a delight. Because Sontag herself is so heroically learned, she can engage in hero worship without embarrassing herself or the reader. If I had written “Loving Dostoevsky,” her essay in praise of underappreciated Russian writer Leonid Tsypkin, I would have come across as a boy with a crush. Sontag, however, is a queen bestowing a knighthood. “[I]t seems unlikely,” she writes, “that there are still masterpieces in major, intently patrolled languages waiting to be discovered. Yet some ten years ago, rifling through a bin of scruffy-looking paperbacks outside a bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road, I came across just such a book, ‘Summer in Baden-Baden,’ which I would include among the most beautiful, exalting, and original achievements of a century’s worth of fiction and parafiction.” By the end of this essay, she has persuaded the reader of Tsypkin’s necessity, incidentally offering meditations on a question that must have preoccupied Tsypkin himself: “Loving Dostoevsky, what is one to do — what is a Jew to do — with the knowledge that he hated Jews?”

But the essay is grander still. Lauding Tsypkin, Sontag is asserting an almost forgotten role of the critic: someone who discovers new things for us to love. That was how Edmund Wilson saw the critic’s job, but is that how James Wood or Lee Siegel sees it? Perhaps, and in any case, I admire both men. But maybe because they write in prominent places, and for the masses, they take fewer opportunities to share curiosities found at the side of the road. To read these essays is to see Sontag effulgent with praise for Tsypkin, for Victor Serge, for Halldór Laxness. Serge has had a recent vogue, and Laxness, after all, did win the Nobel Prize, but today both men are obscure. And Sontag means to restore their reputations.

The difficult question of “[l]oving Dostoevsky, what is one to do — what is a Jew to do — with the knowledge that he hated Jews?” hints at Sontag’s concern for the relationship of art to politics, and nowhere has she written more subtly about the two than in the five lectures that close this volume, several given in accepting literary prizes. All of them orbit around the point that literature is freedom. Not only can the captive mind be liberated by books, but it also might be defined as that which is forbidden certain ideas. In “Literature as Freedom,” her Friedenspreis acceptance speech, Sontag tells the assembled Germans: “I am primarily neither a cultural ambassador nor a fervent critic of my own government (a task I perform as a good American citizen). I am a storyteller.” But the stories she tells make her a cultural ambassador — as when she relates the remarkable fact that her German publisher was, as a boy, a Nazi prisoner of war in Arizona, not far from where Sontag was a child and where her publisher read the American classics that led him to become a man of letters. It’s a tale worthy of O. Henry. Harold Bloom once said that Emerson’s natural unit of expression was the sentence; Sontag’s, I’ve decided, may be the speech.

Of course, Sontag’s speeches and writing are often criticisms of the United States government. But between the Vietnam War and the Bush era, Sontag seems to have decided that the reconciliation of art and politics would be, in her work, an insistence that the writer speaks above all in the narrative, literary mode, not as the vehement pundit. Her critiques became more terse, more oracular, and better for it. I don’t think I’d ever read The New Yorker piece, published the week after 9/11, that got Sontag in so much trouble with the patriotic right. I had assumed that it was, in fact, a bit cold and cruel, perhaps needlessly indulgent of Islamic terrorism or indifferent to the suffering of New Yorkers. But to read that essay and its two mates is to see not only that she was right — we were caught in a frieze of groupthink — but also that she was humane, not self-righteous.

Sontag is famous for the most antagonistic line in the piece: “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” Well, that was a stiff drink to take, as the ashes still smoldered. But I found the final lines of the essay to be wonderfully heartening, at once patriotic and gently critical: “Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.” The cool, disinterested intelligence that Sontag brought to world affairs at the end of her life does the memory of Orwell proud.

And she wasn’t kidding when she called herself “a good American citizen.” She plainly loved this country, in the manner of the rooted cosmopolitan. She had recovered from the late-’60s Romanticism that had led her astray about the Viet Cong. She supported the American invasion of Afghanistan. She was a fierce critic of Israel who also, as she writes in this volume, wished for Israel to survive. “At the Same Time” does not lack for revolutionary brio, but if there’s a revolutionary in these pages, it’s one who, like the Emma Goldman of the dubious, apocryphal anecdote, wants to dance at the revolution. There’s humor in these pages, too, and a childlike sense of discovery: Susan Sontag was the kind of woman who started studying piano at age 67. But then she was dead of cancer at 71.

In 2004, Sontag told an audience in South Africa: “I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: ‘Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.” It could be her epitaph, and how sad that she needs one.

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