Books: Sontag's Last Stands

Before she died in 2004, Susan Sontag mapped out what would be her last book of essays. (Not her last book—as always, she just wanted to get back to fiction.) Some planned pieces never got written, and she didn't have a title. But her editors have put together something close to that collection: 16 essays and speeches written in Sontag's last years. "At the Same Time" is an ideal title: these pieces glide from literature into politics into photography into esthetics—sometimes in the same piece. These are her old preoccupations, which she kept making new. Her 1976 "On Photography" connects directly to "Photography: A Little Summa," a pithy set of observations from 2003. But it also connects to "Regarding the Torture of Others," a 2004 essay about Abu Ghraib and its digital-camera images—which in turn connects to her 2003 book "Regarding the Pain of Others," about visual images of pain and atrocity from lynchings through 9/11. Sontag's thought was all of a piece, driven by both her moral and esthetic sense and her instinct for dialectics: while X is true, isn't there a case to be made for Y?

This propensity for seeing both sides got Sontag in trouble after her first, short 9/11 essay in The New Yorker 13 days after. This was the piece which stated that the attacks were "undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions." But in later pieces Sontag acknowledged that such grievances were merely excuses, and that to blame the United States is "morally obscene."

The best pieces in "At the Same Time" are on topics closer to Sontag's own experience and expertise: writers and their work, language and rhetoric, esthetic insights and controversies. "An Argument About Beauty"—not, significantly, "A Conclusion About Beauty"—takes off from Pope John Paul II's comment on the church's child-molestation scandals: "A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains." The comparison, she writes, is "inane"—sexual abuse isn't like scratches on an old photo. But it's her door into a discussion of "the beautiful"—and how the modernist sensibility has devalued it in favor of "the interesting." Though Sontag is one of modernism's great champions, she sees that the interesting is losing its "transgressive bite." Beauty, she concludes, is "a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one's energies, affinities and admirations."

The several critical essays on novels in translation—they were originally book introductions—show that political righteousness was never enough for Sontag. She defends "the saving indifference, the saving larger view, that is the novelist's or the poet's—which does not obviate the truth of political understanding, but tells us that there is something more than politics, more, even, than history." And the title essay picks up this theme: "Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature—the matchless storyteller." She distinguishes story from information: stories seek "completeness, closure," while information is "always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary ... Literature tells stories. Television gives information."

But wait. Doesn't Sontag's beloved modernism prefer the fragmentary—e.g., "The Waste Land"—over the conventional form of beginning, middle and end? When you work to extend boundaries, as modernists do, doesn't that imply a "limitless number of unstopped stories"? If only Sontag were here to write an essay showing why this little "gotcha" point is poorly argued and profoundly uninformed.

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