At first glance, the cover of Susan Sontag’s final book—the almost-complete manuscript she left at her death in December 2004—seems antiseptic and ultra-modern, like an architectural photograph of the Düsseldorf School. Designed by Winterhouse, a small press run by her friend William Drenttel, it features a neutral vertical gray panel beside a photograph of Sontag’s face cropped so tightly that neither eye is seen whole.
Still, this is unmistakably Sontag—grave and sensual, with the signature white streak of hair. Closing the book between essays, you confront her off-center gaze, finding it pensive, warm or accusatory, depending on what you’ve just read. And if you consider that she died soon after she wrote most of these pieces, it makes reading At the Same Time an eerily intimate experience.
Sontag thought her novels represented her more fully than the essays. “The essays, I’m kind of cranking myself up and trying to say something true and eloquent and useful,” she told an interviewer, “but they are a bit of a straitjacket.” You wouldn’t know it to read them. The book opens with “An Argument About Beauty,” a playful trouncing of centuries of aesthetic theory. Characteristic of Sontag are the meaty, often portentous assertions—“Thinking about the history of beauty means focusing on its deployment in the hands of specific communities”—supported by impassioned arguments and odd examples, all nestled in dense, crackling prose.
To the academic reader, these are provocative, even flashy performances. To the common reader, they’re like shots of intellectual espresso. You want to tear through the Duino Elegies in time to make it to the Whitney, a fringe production of Aristophanes and a coffee-house poetry reading of a Latvian émigré.
Sontag is at her best when she’s advancing her private enthusiasms, like the bookstore bargain-bin discovery of Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden—a virtually unknown novel written with no hope of publication by an obscure, politically disfavored doctor in Soviet Russia. Sontag finds the novel “among the most beautiful, exalting, and original achievements of a century’s worth of fiction and parafiction.” All her admiration and zeal emerge in “Unextinguished: The Case for Victor Serge,” an introduction to his novel, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, and a grim primer in literary politics of the 20th century.
In a forward to this volume, David Rieff—Sontag’s son—recalls teasing his mother about her essays of appreciation, which he found “more self-revealing than she perhaps imagined.” Her speeches, too, are self-revealing—sterner, stiffer, statelier, as if the face she brought to the podium had to be different from the one she brought to her computer each morning. I endured one of these public talks many years ago and can remember trying to suppress my deep, self-pitying sighs. On the other hand, they include moving passages of reminiscence, in one case a description of Sontag’s childhood reading, and in another—for the German Book Trade award, the Friedenspreis—her relationship (as a Jew, as a writer) with German culture: “[M]y entire childhood was haunted by Germany, by the monstrousness of Germany, and by the German books and the German music I loved, which set my standard for what is exalted and intense.”
As you would expect, the most challenging works in this volume are about 9/11. Sontag’s diatribe against the instant public-relations spin in America was published by The New Yorker immediately after the attacks, drastically edited; it appears here for the first time in its intended form. “The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by nearly all American officials and media commentators in these last days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy,” she wrote. “Our leaders have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management.”
Two essays that follow demonstrate Sontag’s evolving response to the catastrophe. She had been in Berlin on 9/11, glued for 48 hours to her hotel television. “In those first days after my return to New York,” she explains in “A Few Weeks After,” “the reality of the devastation, and the immensity of the loss of life, made my initial focus on the rhetoric surrounding the event seem to me less relevant.”
Sontag was brave to publish her furious first impression of 9/11, which earned her enemies; even braver to temper and expand on it in subsequent statements. Similarly, in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) and in “Regarding the Torture of Others” (collected here), she shrugged off some of the famous views she expounded in her great classic, On Photography (1977). Her new collection includes another short essay on the subject, “Photography: A Little Summa,” in which she argues that photography is not seeing but a way of seeing, and that this characteristically modern way of seeing—this fragmenting and framing, this way of accessing realities beyond our own lives—gives “shape and form to our experience” at the same time that it “denies the infinite variety and complexity of the real.”
That is why we need writers, whose job is to be aware—and make us aware—of more: the messy, thrilling world beyond the edges of the photograph. Although this book is full of vigorous arguments on various topics, its recurrent themes are the importance of literature (Sontag defines literature as works not just worth reading, but worth rereading, translating, advocating) and the writer’s job. She expects a lot from writers.
“Not to have opinions but to tell the truth.”
“To depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture.”
“Serious writers, creators of literature, shouldn’t just express themselves differently from the hegemonic discourse of the mass media. They should be in opposition to the communal drone of the newscast and the talk show.”
Who will speak over the communal drone, now that Susan Sontag’s is gone?
Regina Marler is the editor of Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex (Cleis Press) and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and The Advocate.