Feb/Mar 2007

Novelist as Metaphor

How did Susan Sontag's self-identification affect her essays?

Vivian Gornick


Forty-eight hours after learning of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Susan Sontag delivered herself of a statement that was composed entirely of an indictment of the US government's response to the horrifying event. The gist of the piece, published in the New Yorker, was her disgust with the rhetoric pouring out of Washington. "The disconnect between what happened and how it might be understood," she wrote, "and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by virtually all our public figures . . . and TV commentators . . . is startling, depressing."

Many Americans (this one included) felt the same—even at the very moment that Sontag felt it—but that sentiment alone was not sufficient unto our day. Especially not for those of us who had been on the street in New York that morning in September watching the tall buildings sink, unimaginably, into the ground. In the crowd around me, no one spoke, no one wept or cried out. It was as though the human condition itself were undergoing a character change: Before our very eyes, the suicidal and the homicidal were merging. It was understood in the nerve endings that one huge part of humanity was serving notice on the other: We'd rather die than go on living in the world that you have made, and if that means holocaust, so be it. It would have taken the genius of the poet to find the words and formulate the sentences that could address even a fraction of what was being felt on that unforgettably sunny September morning.

At this richly pained moment, so full of shock and anxiety, Sontag's remarks—cold, clear, condemnatory—revealed an absence of emotional imagination that left a majority of her compatriots feeling more bereft after they'd read them than before. Some weeks later, obviously feeling chastised by the storm of rebuke that broke over her head after the publication of the piece, Sontag observed that her "initial focus on the rhetoric surrounding the event" seemed less relevant than it had at the time; but in reality, she could not concentrate on the complicated drama of the psyche that millions of Americans were caught up in. She wanted to empathize with the distress of the nation—"To not mourn would be barbaric," she now wrote—but she nonetheless went on obsessing (by now, of course, joined by many others) over America's refusal to acknowledge any responsibility for the motive force behind the catastrophe. She paid lip service to the horror of the attack— "the first thing to keep in mind is that what happened on September 11th was an appalling crime"—but her passion was reserved for railing against her country's "imperial presumption and arrogance."

Ultimately, there were three pieces about September 11—the one in the New Yorker; then a series of answers written in response to questions posed by a journalist, from an Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto; then a reflection, one year later, published in the New York Times's op-ed pages. Taken all in all, we have in these pieces a small, perfect demonstration of what Sontag's gift for writing could and could not accomplish. In her youth, it had made of her an electrifying champion and interpreter of a cultural sea change in America whose significance needed to be explained to the class of intellectuals from which she had emerged; and now, in her late middle age, having achieved for herself iconic status, it gave her the wherewithal to become a world-famous denouncer of the reactionary politics that that altered culture had helped bring into existence. The one thing the gift could not do was provide her with the charged empathy necessary to the making of art.

Susan Sontag became famous in her late twenties for her bold essays of the '60s, the ones announcing that sea change in tones of high seriousness. From the beginning, hers was the voice of an educated urban intellectual, free of inflection or nuance, in rigorous possession of a strong, stimulated intelligence that produced insights by the dozen, researched them prodigiously, and organized the findings so brilliantly that the results equated with cultural authority. From start to finish, she was a formal rather than a personal essayist. Even when the impetus for the work was openly derived from her own years-long battle with cancer (as in Illness as Metaphor [1978]), she herself was never there on the page. Concomitantly, living as she did in a fishbowl, she very early put in place a way of appearing in the world—haughty and dramatic—that, for many years, provided a living mask that served her well.

After some decades, Sontag's unchanging mien began to be perceived by many (herself included) as more static rather than dynamic, as though her trademark appearance reflected something going stale inside her. In her late fifties, she seemed hungry to invent herself anew—no doubt in order to feel again the incomparable high of writing in a state of genuine engagement—and returned with some fanfare to an old love, fiction writing. In 1992, she produced The Volcano Lover: A Romance, a historical novel marked above all by the lavish skill with which its eighteenth-century Italian settings were evoked. Eight years later came In America, another historical novel praised for very much the same reason as the first had been.

From this time on (after the publication of Volcano), Sontag began pronouncing herself a novelist—in newspaper and television interviews, on lecture podiums, in acceptance speeches for the international prizes she received for her public ardor on behalf of the beleaguered of the world. With quiet force, she said repeatedly, "I am a novelist. That is how I wish to be remembered." Many writers and readers, both in the United States and abroad (among them this reviewer), admired the strength of character it took to insist on a self-created identity not at all widely endorsed.

The reviews of Sontag's novels were almost uniformly good-natured—"A tightly wound mind relaxing is always interesting," wrote Walter Kirn in his New York magazine review of In America—at the same time that they variously remarked on the rigor of the research and the panache of the prose rather than the presence of a literary imagination. And rightly so. In his acceptance speech for the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, Orhan Pamuk said, rather humbly, that he thought "a writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him . . . a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward." If we accept this definition of what a writer of imaginative prose is, Sontag did not qualify for the job. Whichever way she turned, alone in that room, it was not inward. Each of these novels is a hard-worked piece of writing that sometimes glitters on the skin but never sinks below the surface of either its situation or the lives of its characters. Both leave the reader feeling emptied out rather than filled up.

I say all this because these are the thoughts this posthumous publication of Sontag's last writings has pressed on me. At the Same Time collects as essays a number of book introductions, the three 9/11 pieces, the long piece on photography reconsidered, and the text of a number of speeches mainly written for occasions on which Sontag herself was being honored. Taken all in all, however, the collection rings with the peculiar sound of the author's insisted-upon identity—"I am a novelist"—as reflected in the pronouncements on literature she makes so often throughout these pages.

In her last years, whether writing or speaking, Sontag did seem to be lecturing the reader or the listener on what the novel is, and is not; what words are, and are not; what the writer must think and do, be and become—at the risk of not being considered a writer at all. Her words and her tone were unashamedly, to use her own term, "prescriptive." Often, they succeeded in sounding like the pomposities of an idealistic young person who has just discovered Literature with a capital l and is bent on making of it a Fate and a Destiny. Such predilections led to the use of a rhetoric many found astonishing and, on occasion—if you can believe this of Susan Sontag—incoherent. It is startling now to see in these pages many of these utterances gathered in abundance. A few examples are in order:

In the preface to the 1926 correspondence of Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, and Rilke, Sontag, writing in 2001, tells us that the letters are "a portrait of the sacred delirium of art. There are three participants: a god and two worshippers, who are also worshippers of each other (and who we, the readers of their letters, know to be future gods)." Moreover, "they portray a domain of reckless feeling and purity of aspiration that it would be our loss to dismiss as 'romantic'" (exactly what I did do when I read the letters). Further, we are told, the conversation among the poets is "angelic"; their upsurge of feeling makes her want to "rhapsodize"; the "consuming" love among them is thrilling.

Now, here's the first paragraph of Sontag's acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 2000:

We fret about words, we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are
arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality. And the more portentous,
more general the word, the more they also resemble rooms or tunnels. They
can expand, or cave in. They can come to be filled with a bad smell. They
will often remind us of other rooms, where we'd rather dwell or where we
think we are already living. They can be spaces we lose the art or the
wisdom of inhabiting. And eventually those volumes of mental intention we
no longer know how to inhabit, will be abandoned, boarded up, closed down.

And finally, in 2004, in the inaugural address of the Nadine Gordimer Lecture (Gordimer's work is also "ravishingly eloquent"), Sontag states categorically:

Literature incarnates and defends high standards.
Having a story to tell is the chief formal property of a novel.
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story.
When we make moral judgments . . . we are saying that this is more important than that."

That word in the last of these pronouncements, moral, was never very far from any set of remarks—political or literary—that crossed Sontag's lips in the last fifteen years of her life.

Most writers are great readers; in Sontag, this truism was writ large. From the get-go, her readers realized that it was reading that sparked in her an excitement of the critical intelligence that gave her both her subject and her way into writing. The essays that made Sontag's career—the ones written thirty and forty years ago—are alive to this day with the love of reading. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays (1966) is still a marvelous work, rich in intellectual formulation and invigorating opinion. To be sure, the book is full of judgments many of which are now without significance, but no matter. To be in the company of the writer responsible for those pieces is a pleasure and, yes, an education.

It is truly a sorrow and a pity that the generating power of that kind of writing deserted Sontag in midlife and made her leave her true path for a road destined to turn out be a dead end. She was a woman of real courage—in her person and in her determination to stay alive in mind and spirit to the very last minute—but when, in recent years, some of her readers had complained that she didn't put herself into her pieces, she misunderstood. She thought they were asking for confessional writing when, in fact, they were simply wanting her to make art of her essays by turning inward.

Vivian Gornick is the author, most recently, of The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005).

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