Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

Remembering the voice of moral responsibility—and unembarrassed hedonism

Like Maria Callas's voice, Susan Sontag's mind, to borrow a phrase from the great filmmaker Werner Schroeter (one of countless underappreciated artists Sontag championed), was "a comet passing once in a hundred years." In a dauntingly, often viciously anti-intellectual society, Sontag made being an intellectual attractive.

She was the indispensible voice of moral responsibility, perceptual clarity, passionate (and passionately reasonable) advocacy: for aesthetic pleasure, for social justice, for unembarrassed hedonism, for life against death. Sontag took it as a given that our duty as sentient beings is to rescue the world. She knew that empathy can change history.

She set the bar of skepticism as high as it would go. Allergic to received ideas and their hypnotic blandishments, she was often startled to discover how devalued the ethical sense, and the courage to exercise it, had become in American consumer culture.

Sontag had impeccable instincts for saying and doing what needed to be said and done while too many others scrambled for the safety of consensus. Hence the uproar when she declared, at the height of Solidarity's epochal crisis in 1982, that "communism . . . is fascism with a human face." Hence also the depressingly rote indignation mobilized against her response to a New Yorker survey about the 9-11 attacks, published on September 24, 2001—a survey that most respondents used to promote themselves, their latest books, the depth of their own "feelings."

Of course it was, and still is, easier for many Americans to pretend the events of 9-11 were inexplicable eruptions of violence against American virtuousness, perpetrated by people who "hate us for our freedoms." Indeed, the habitual assertion of the American way of life's superiority is probably what persuades supposedly serious writers to weigh in on a civil catastrophe by promoting their own narrow interests, dropping in news of their current travel itineraries, their marriages, their kids—oh, and how shaken they were by the tragic events.

It takes unusual bravery to cite, in a large media venue, cause and effect as operant elements in a man-made emergency—especially when the programmed pieties and entrenched denial mechanisms of society run in the opposite direction.

Sontag drew her own better-than-well-informed conclusions about what happened on 9-11. The habit of independent thought has so little currency in 21st-century America that dissent is the last thing most Americans consider worth protecting.

What Jean Genet referred to as "the far Right and its imbecilic mythology" have already been activated in several "obituary" pieces, including one fulminating, hateful dismissal of Sontag's entire lifework. It's lowering to realize how terminally bitter the American right really is: Even in its current triumphal micro-epoch, it needs to demonize somebody.

Sontag's political "lapses," cited even in sympathetic articles, are in fact the public moments one should most admire her for. She was usually right, and when she hadn't been, she said so. It's customary these days to damn people for "inconsistency," as if it's somehow virtuous to persist forever in being wrong. Sontag interrogated her own ideas with merciless rigor, and when she discovered they no longer applied, or were defectively inadequate or just plain bad, she never hesitated to change her mind in public.

Certainly she felt the same revulsion and horror at the atrocity of 9-11 that any New Yorker, any citizen of the world, did. But she also had the moral scruple to connect the attacks to generally untelevised, lethal American actions abroad, to the indiscriminate carnage that has typified both state policy and terrorist violence in the new century. Where, exactly, does the difference lie?

Unlike our government's loudest warmongers and their media cheerleaders, Sontag put her own life on the line, many times, in defense of her principles—in Israel during the Six Day War, in Hanoi during the American bombardment, in Sarajevo throughout much of the conflict there. Like Genet, she was willing to go anywhere, at a moment's notice, out of solidarity with people on the receiving end of contemporary barbarism.

The range of her talents and interests was no less impressive than her moral instincts. She once told me that "every good book is worth reading at least once" (in her case, it was usually at least twice). Her appetite for cultural provender—opera, avant-garde theater, film, dance, travel, historical inquiry, cuisine of any kind, architecture, the history of ideas—was inexhaustible. If you told her about something she didn't know, she soon knew more about it than you did. She routinely went directly from a museum to a screening, then to a concert; and if there was a kung fu movie playing somewhere after all that, off she went, whether you were still ambulatory or not.

I know I'm in a minority, but I remain a fan of Sontag's early novels The Benefactor and Death Kit—Sontag herself cared little for them in later years. Not enough people have seen the films she directed: Duet for Cannibalsand Brother Carlin Sweden, Promised Landsin Israel, Unguided Tourin Venice. These early and middle works could be considered noble experiments, operating on a high level of fluency and daring.

None of these works are as sumptuously realized as her best essays, or her later novels The Volcano Lover and In America. At times, her reverence for the European modernists who influenced her eclipses her own seldom mentioned, American gift for absurdist black humor. (Death Kit has anything but a reputation for hilarity, but it's one of the most darkly funny narratives written in America during the Vietnam War.) Many of Sontag's essays, for that matter, have threads of Firbankian whimsy and manic satire running through them—and no, I'm not referring to "Notes on Camp."

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