The Way We Live Now: Without Susan Sontag

By Joshua Cohen

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.

Susan Sontag, essayist, novelist, playwright, filmmaker and so many other things, will perhaps be most important to the future of American culture — if it indeed has a future — as an introducer. With her death on December 28 at age 71, there are few inquisitive enough to fill that all-important role. And there are none with her erudition and good humor.

In the publishing industry today, in which advertising and mass marketing have taken the place of slow, true assessment, Sontag’s achievement was uncommon. Americans, and American Jews, read Sontag’s essays and in them discovered for themselves a new world — in many ways, the Old World rediscovered. Through her remarkable reading (pen in hand), Sontag gleamed the greatest from postwar Europe and presented it — not dumbed down, not the Fox News version, but with total understanding, witty insight and passion — to an audience all too removed both geographically and often ideationally from the concerns of what has become, even for New York Jews, “foreign” culture.

Sontag’s list of European cultural interests was astounding both in spectrum and in depth, altogether a worthy syllabus for the postwar and post-socialist inclined: Her magisterial essay on Walter Benjamin went far in establishing modern Germany’s (and assimilated Jewry’s) most difficult, displaced thinker as the early critic of cataclysmic modernity; her writing on Romanian-French philosopher E.M. Cioran did much to elevate Cioran’s reputation from a dandy nihilist to that of a serious mind of global importance.

If one focused only on fiction, the list could still go on and on: Her love for and promotion of writers as diverse as Danilo Kis and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz; her establishment of Gombrowicz in American academia as a leading Polish writer did much to enhance his reputation in the country he fled (though only after the fall of communism); Sontag’s championing of another too recent, too tragic loss, W.G. Sebald, was in part responsible for the latter’s American (and British) reputation as an heir to James Joyce (though his image as a more serious Thomas Bernhard seems more apt).

Sontag as introducer was not a PR machine, but rather a genius with a strong moral streak. As post-September 11 America too often fell into sentimental narcissism and isolationism — in the view of leftist Europe, at least — Sontag exhorted America to a world audience. She told America that the attacks were not attacks on Western civilization, that they were not attacks on our culture. Maybe Sontag meant — and only half-jokingly — that we had none. We certainly have less now that she is gone.

Eastern Europe — so long a blind supporter of America in the face of communism — first encountered the modern American dissent-from-within from her pages and presence. And now Europe as a whole has lost one more voice of sanity. Many of us in Eastern Europe most remember Sontag from her much-publicized mission to Bosnia in 1993. While intellectual “fact-finding” missions sometimes devolve into shows of misguided solidarity, anti-American politics and the like, Sontag was in war-torn Sarajevo with a mission of her own: to direct a stripped-down, locally cast production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Once again, she was introducing. Though she was made an honorary citizen of the city, she was always a citizen of the world.



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