Monday Musing: Susan Sontag, Part I

In an essay about the Polish writer Adam Zagajewski, Sontag writes that as Zagajewski matured he managed to find “the right openness, the right calmness, the right inwardness (he says he can only write when he feels happy, peaceful.) Exaltation-—and who can gainsay this judgment from a member of the generation of ’68—is viewed with a skeptical eye.” She’s writing about what Zagajewski was able to achieve but she is also, of course, writing about herself.

Sontag was also a member of the generation of ’68, if a slightly older one. She too achieved an openness, calm, and inwardness as she matured, though it came with regrets and the sense that the pleasure of a literary life is an ongoing battle against a world that is predisposed to betray that pleasure.

Writing about Zagajewski again, she explains that his temperament was forged in the fires of an age of heroism, an ethical rigor made sharp by the demands of history. These men and women spent decades trying to write themselves out of totalitarianism, or they were trying to salvage something of their selves from what Sontag does not hesitate to call a “flagrantly evil public world”. And then suddenly, in 1989, it was all over. The balloon popped, the Wall came down. Wonderful events, no doubt, but with the end of that era came the end of the literary heroism made possible by its constraints. Sontag says, “how to negotiate a soft landing onto the new lowland of diminished moral expectations and shabby artistic standards is the problem of all the Central European writers whose tenacities were forged in the bad old days.”

Sontag also managed to come in softly after scaling the heights of a more exuberant time. In Sontag’s case, she wasn’t returning to earth after the struggle against a failing totalitarianism, she was coming down from the Sixties. But that is one of the most remarkable things about her. Not everyone was able to achieve such a soft landing after the turbulence and utopian yearnings of those years.

Sontag’s early writings are shot through with a sense of utopian exaltation, an exaltation so often associated with the Sixties. In her most ostensibly political work, “Trip to Hanoi”, she talks specifically about her mood in those days. As always, she is careful not to overstate things. “I came back from Hanoi considerably chastened,” she says. But then she goes on, heating up. “To describe what is promising, it’s perhaps imprudent to invoke the promiscuous ideal of revolution. Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the amount of diffuse yearning for radical change pulsing through this society. Increasing numbers of people do realize that we must have a more generous, more humane way of being with each other; and great, probably convulsive social changes are needed to create these psychic changes.”

You won’t find Sontag in a more exalted state than that. Rarely, indeed, does she allow herself to become so agitated and unguarded, especially in the realm of the outwardly political. But that is exactly where one must interpret Sontag’s politics, and exaltation, extremely carefully.

Sontag’s political instincts gravitate toward the individual, in exactly the same way that she reverses the standard quasi-Marxian directions of causality in the above quote. Marxists generally want to transform consciousness as the necessary first step toward changing the world. In contrast, Sontag wants the world to change so that we can get a little more pleasure out of consciousness. Convulsive social changes, for Sontag, are but extreme measures for affecting a transformation that terminates in psychic changes. Politics means nothing if it obscures the solid core of the individual self. Her commitment to this idea gives all of her writing a Stoic ring even though she never puts forward a theory of the self or a formal ethics. It is the focus on her particular brand of pleasure that provides the key. Pleasure and the Self are so deeply intertwined in Sontag’s writing that one cannot even be conceived without the other.

Writing years later, in 1982, about Roland Barthes, Sontag spoke again pleasure and the individual self. Barthes great freedom as a writer was, for Sontag, tied up with his ability to assert himself in individual acts of understanding. Continuing a French tradition that goes back at least to Montaigne (a man not unaware of the Stoics), she argues that Barthes’ writing “construes the self as the locus of all possibilities, avid, unafraid of contradiction (nothing need be lost, everything may be gained), and the exercise of consciousness as a life’s highest aim, because only through becoming fully conscious may one be free.” She speaks about the life of the mind as a “life of desire, of full intelligence and pleasure.”

A human mind, i.e., an individual mind, will, at its best, be ‘more generous’ and ‘more humane’. But for Sontag, it is what humans have access to in the world of ideas, as individual thinking agents, that marks out the highest arena of accomplishment.

“Of course, I could live in Vietnam,” she writes in A Trip to Hanoi, “or an ethical society like this one—but not without the loss of a big part of myself. Though I believe incorporation into such a society will greatly improve the lives of most people in the world (and therefore support the advent of such societies), I imagine it will in many ways impoverish mine. I live in an unethical society that coarsens the sensibilities and thwarts the capacities for goodness of most people but makes available for minority consumption an astonishing array of intellectual and aesthetic pleasures. Those who don’t enjoy (in both senses) my pleasures have every right, from their side, to regard my consciousness as spoiled, corrupt, decadent. I, from my side, can’t deny the immense richness of these pleasures, or my addiction to them.”

Sontag’s political thinking is driven by the idea that what is otherwise ethical, is often thereby sequestered from what is great, and what is otherwise great, is often mired in the unethical. She never stopped worrying about this problem and she ended her life as conflicted about it as ever. It was a complication that, in the end, she embraced as one of the interesting, if troubling, things about the world.

But for a few brief moments, as the Sixties ratcheted themselves up year after year, she indulged herself in considering the possibility that the conflict between ethics and greatness could be resolved into a greater unity. She thought a little bit about revolution and totality. She got excited, exalted. Summing up thoughts about one of her favorite essays, Kleist’s “On the Puppet Theater,” Sontag leaves the door open for a quasi-Hegelian form of historical transcendence. She says, “We have no choice but to go to the end of thought, there (perhaps), in total self-consciousness, to recover grace and innocence.” Notice the parenthesis on ‘perhaps’. She’s aware that she (and Kleist) are stretching things by saying so, but she can’t help allowing for the possibility of ‘total self-consciousness’. Often, when Sontag uses parentheses she is allowing us a glimpse into her speculative, utopian side.

In “The Aesthetics of Silence (1967),” for instance, she equates the modern function of art with spirituality. She defines this spirituality (putting the entire sentence in parenthesis). “(Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)”.


In the amazing, brilliant essays that make up the volume Against Interpretation it is possible to discover more about the utopian side of Sontag’s thinking. Drawing inspiration from Walter Benjamin, whose own ideas on art explored its radically transformative, even messianic potential, Sontag muses that, “What we are witnessing is not so much a conflict of cultures as the creation of a new (potentially unitary) kind of sensibility. This new sensibility is rooted, as it must be, in our experience, experiences which are new in the history of humanity…”

Again with the parenthesis. It is as if, like Socrates, she always had a daimon on her shoulder warning her about pushing her speculations too far. But the talk of unity is an indication of the degree to which she was inspired by the events of the time, or perhaps more than the specific events of the time, by the mood and feel of the time. Her sense that there was an “opening up” of experience, sensibility, and consciousness drove Sontag to attack certain distinctions and dichotomies she saw as moribund. Again following closely in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin and his influential “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” she writes, “Art, which arose in human society as a magical-religious operation, and passed over into a technique for depicting and commenting on secular reality, has in our own time arrogated itself a new function…. Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility.” This led her to a central thesis, a thesis that drove her thinking throughout the Sixties, a thesis that is nestled into every essay that makes up Against Interpretation. She sums it up thusly:

“All kinds of conventionally accepted boundaries have thereby been challenged: not just the one between the ‘scientific’ and the ‘literary-artistic’ cultures, or the one between ‘art’ and ‘non-art’; but also many established distinctions within the world of culture itself—that between form and content, the frivolous and the serious, and (a favorite of literary intellectuals) ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.”

Sontag’s famous “Notes on ‘Camp’” is simply a sustained attempt to follow that thesis through. Her defense of camp is a defense of the idea that worth can be found in areas normally, at least back in the Sixties, relegated to the realm of the unserious. The new unity was going to raise everything into the realm of the intellectually interesting, and pleasurable.

Yet, Sontag is not trying to abolish all distinctions. It isn’t a leveling instinct. Even in her youngest days, Sontag was suspicious of the radically democratic impulses that would, say, collapse art and entertainment. Sontag is doing something different. She is trying to show that the arena for aesthetic pleasure should be vastly expanded, but never diluted. She wants the new critical eye to stay sharp and hard. Sontag’s version of pleasure is an exacting one. It is relentless and crystalline. It is an effort.

“Another way of characterizing the present cultural situation, in its most creative aspects, would be to speak of a new attitude toward pleasure. . . . Having one’s sensorium challenged or stretched hurts. . . . And the new languages which the interesting art of our time speaks are frustrating to the sensibilities of most educated people.”

In this, there was always an element of the pedagogue in Sontag. She was trying to teach a generation how to tackle that frustration in the name of aesthetic pleasure. She was driven by her amazing, insatiable greed for greater pleasure. She wanted us to be able to see how many interesting and challenging things there are in her world of art, a world vaster and richer than the one surveyed by the standard critical eye of her time. And at least in the Sixties, her passion for greatness and its pleasures spilled over into a yearning for a societal transformation that would make that passion and pleasure universal…

to be continued…