AT THE SAME TIME
Essays and Speeches.
By Susan Sontag. Edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump.
235 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.
Writing to Hannah Arendt in December 1967, Mary McCarthy reported Susan Sontag’s arrest in an antiwar demonstration, and then abruptly asked: “And what about her? When I last watched her with you at the Lowells, it was clear that she was going to seek to conquer you. Or that she had fallen in love with you — the same thing. Anyway, did she?”
Arendt’s response is not known. But it is not hard to see why the young Sontag chose the German-Jewish philosopher as one of her “models of the serious.” As a precocious reader in Arizona and California, Sontag grew up on the high idea of European literature and thought upheld by The Partisan Review, the primary magazine of New York liberal intellectuals in the 1940s and ’50s. After moving to New York in the early 1960s, Sontag decided that the liberal imagination needed to loosen up a bit. Joining in the emerging counterculture, she called for an “erotics of art” and celebrated the “defiantly pluralistic” new sensibility “dedicated both to an excruciating seriousness and to fun and wit and nostalgia.” She argued for an understanding of the “revolutionary implications of sexuality in contemporary society.”
In later years she would come to refine and even abandon some of these views. “Recreational, risk-free sexuality,” she declared sternly in “AIDS and Its Metaphors” (1989), “is an inevitable reinvention of the culture of capitalism.” In a 1995 afterword to “Against Interpretation,” her first collection of essays, she lamented that the “triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote — indeed, impose — the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating.”
However, Sontag never ceased to seek her cultural heroes in Europe. Hannah Arendt, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany and analyst of totalitarianism, clearly embodied the virtues “of the European suffering, of European intellectual courage, of European vigor, of European overcomplexity” as glamorously as those European writers — Camus, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, E. M. Cioran, Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald — whom Sontag wrote about in tones of elegiac piety.
The nostalgia for a European nobility of mind that suffused Sontag’s aesthetic and intellectual quests was accompanied by an often scornful suspicion of what she called in one of her last speeches “the strenuous mercantilist biases of American culture.” “At the Same Time,” a posthumous collection of her speeches and essays, shows how her feeling for a vanished Europe deepened even as she grew more distrustful of an America she saw in the grip of a “dangerous, lobotomizing notion of endless war.” Mostly written during the Bush administration, they reveal a darkening vision of America as well as the rest of the contemporary world. Writing about Victor Serge — one of the European writers praised here along with Halldor Laxness, Leonid Tsypkin and Anna Banti — Sontag speaks fondly of “an era that seems very remote today in its introspective energies and passionate intellectual quests and code of self-sacrifice and immense hope.” Reading the private correspondence of Rilke, Pasternak and Tsvetayeva, she confesses that “their ardors and their tenacities feel like raft, beacon, beach.”
Feeling herself marooned by “American conformism, self-righteousness, and moralism,” Sontag responded with startling vehemence to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in a short, much-reviled piece in The New Yorker (reprinted in “At the Same Time”). Sontag, who died in December 2004, did not witness the true scale of the political and intellectual failure that led to the disaster in Iraq — what today makes her denunciation of the “sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric” of government officials and the media seem cautionary rather than callous. Nevertheless, there was enough in the post-9/11 political climate to disturb and alarm her, and to provoke her into redefining and restating her views on literature.
While praising Victor Serge, Nadine Gordimer and Fernando Pessoa in her speeches, she resurrected an old-fashioned idea of literature as protest. “A great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.”
This quasi-Marxist view of the writer’s responsibility could not seem further from Sontag’s youthful enthusiasm for the pleasure principle over moral and political interpretation. But then her vision of “reality redeemed, recovered, transcended by consciousness; a vision of the life of the mind as a life of desire, of full intelligence and pleasure,” a vision that Sontag once defined as particularly French, always coexisted in her with the traditions that she claimed were “so different”: “the traditions of high moral seriousness of German and Russian literature.”
Sontag asserted a uniquely American privilege by embracing multiple European traditions; and she used a word prone to much abuse — “spiritual” — often and remarkably precisely to make a higher consciousness appear imperative for political as well as artistic engagements with the world. Indeed, no secular intellectual in our time rescued “spirituality” more effectively from its usual vendors, the pious, the hypocritical and the deluded.
Defining culture as a “dialectic” and great artists as “repositories of the dialectic of their times,” Lionel Trilling once claimed that the notable writers of 19th-century America could balance “both the yes and no of the culture, and by that token they were prophetic of the future.” Sontag’s ardent inconsistencies and contradictions over the years now make her seem a part of this venerable American tradition. Living through the countercultural ’60s, and the subsequent ascendancy of conservative and neoconservative politics, she felt compelled to respond, even at the risk of self-contradiction, to what she saw as particular aesthetic and political imperatives within her society.
Acutely aware of the ideologically motivated crimes Europeans had committed upon themselves and others in the 20th century, Sontag feared “another century of extremes, of horrors.” Economic and cultural globalization, generally proposed as an antidote to violence and terrorism, did not impress her much. “I live,” she wrote after a trip to Vietnam in 1968, “in an unethical society that coarsens the sensibilities and thwarts the capacities for goodness of most people.” In her last speeches Sontag offered a similarly bleak view of the American-style consumer society that spreads itself across the globe, destroying the past, and enclosing all horizons within a selfish materialism. “We live in a culture committed to unifying greeds,” with “everyone on the planet feeding at the same trough of standardized entertainment and fantasies of eros and violence.” She grew nostalgic for the iconoclastic spirit of the 1960s: “How one wishes that some of its boldness, its optimism, its disdain for commerce had survived.” In her later years she warned repeatedly of the dangers that the global culture of individual gratification posed to thinkers and artists. “There is no culture … without a standard of altruism, of regard for others.”
The amplified note of despair and loss in “At the Same Time” makes Sontag resemble one of the European “last” intellectuals she often wrote about, “that Saturnine hero of modern culture” standing alone in the ruins of history. This anguish may seem exaggerated, part of her frequently noted self-regard. But, in her later weariness with modern civilization, Sontag fulfilled a particularly American destiny. Gertrude Stein once claimed that America was the oldest country in the world, since it was the “mother of the 20th-century civilization.” Sontag, who had a tragic sense of history rarely found among her peers, never failed to absorb the lessons of her country’s old age and accumulated experience of modernity. It is why the melancholy and occasional bitter wisdom of her last writings appear to be of a mature and passionately engaged American rather than of a marginal and jaded European sensibility — one that has not only learned from the past but, by grappling vigorously with the present, can also divine, if gloomily, the future.