Monday Musing: Susan Sontag, Part 2

The first part of this essay can be found here.

Inevitably, the exaltation and dreams of unity that she harbored during the Sixties were to disappoint Sontag, as they did everyone else. She was going to have to come down from those heights and find her own version of Zagajewski’s soft landing. And that is another thing that makes Susan Sontag so remarkable. At her most exalted, writing in 1968, just after returning from Hanoi, she says:

“I recognized a limited analogy to my present state in Paris in early July when, talking to acquaintances who had been on the barricades in May, I discovered they don’t really accept the failure of their revolution. The reason for their lack of ‘realism’, I think, is that they’re still possessed by the new feelings revealed to them during those weeks—those precious weeks in which vast numbers of ordinarily suspicious, cynical urban people, workers and students, behaved with an unprecedented generosity and warmth and spontaneity toward each other. In a way, then, the young veterans of the barricades are right in not altogether acknowledging their defeat, in being unable fully to believe that things have returned to pre-May normality, if not worse. Actually it is they who are being realistic. Someone who has enjoyed new feelings of that kind—a reprieve, however brief, from the inhibitions on love and trust this society enforces—is never the same again. In him, the ‘revolution’ has just started, and it continues. So I discover that what happened to me in North Vietnam did not end with my return to America, but is still going on.”

The world did return to normalcy, if not worse. But Sontag didn’t indulge in the outright lunacy of the New Left as it spiraled off into fantasyland. (Though she did endorse something of the mood of the New Left in one of her less successful and rather more hysterical essays “What’s Happening in America? (1966).” Still, when the chips were down she didn’t take that path. She kept her head.)

And the hint as to how she kept her cool is already there in the above passage. Her commitment to the integrity of the individual mind was a buttress for her. The solid structure of her mental edifice, built with that sternness of pleasure she never abandoned, allowed her to come in for a soft landing while people like the Situationists or the Yippies or The Weathermen floundered or came apart at the seams.

More than that, she was able to recognize her own missteps and rethink her exaltation. Even as she continued to lament the way in which her new experiences were sullied and her new consciousness never came to pass, she realized that much of its promise, especially in its political variants, had been an illusion. Increasingly in her essays in the Eighties and Nineties she celebrated the writers and artists of Central and Eastern Europe who fought the disaster of the ‘revolution’. In 1997, she was to write, “Intellectuals responsibly taking sides, and putting themselves on the line for what they believe in . . . are a good deal less common than intellectuals taking public positions either in conscious bad faith or in shameless ignorance of what they are pronouncing on: for every Andre Gide or George Orwell or Norberto Bobbio or Andrei Sakharov or Adam Michnik, ten of Romain Rolland or Ilya Ehrenburg or Jean Buadrillard or Peter Handke, et cetera, et cetera.”

She came to see that communism in Vietnam had been a lie and a farce, even as the Vietnamese resistance to the American war machine had been noble and just. She went to Bosnia again and again and never, for even a moment, indulged in the repellant apologies for Serbian nationalism that many of her colleagues on the Left dishonored themselves with. In fact, she always saw Europe and North America’s failure in Bosnia as another manifestation of the shallow interest in material happiness and comfort.

Such a vapid happiness was not what Sontag was referring to in her quest for difficult pleasure.


This is not to say that she was happy about politics and culture after the Sixties. Sometimes she was outright despondent. Sometimes she felt she had been tricked. She marveled how her own arguments had come back to haunt her. Things that she had advocated for in the Sixties were realized in ways completely contrary to her original intentions.

For instance in her seminal essay “Against Interpretation” (1962), she argued that criticism had become too Baroque. It was preventing immediate appreciation of things as things. So she made a call for transparence. “Transparence,” she said, “means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.” And then notoriously, at the end of the essay, she proclaimed, “In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”

Later, she came to realize that history had pulled something of a fast one on her. People did begin to appreciate, even worship, surface and appearance. Camp moved further into the mainstream. But it wasn’t happening in the way that Sontag intended. In a preface to Against Interpretation written in 1995 and entitled “Thirty Years Later . . .” she addressed the issue.

“It is not simply that the Sixties have been repudiated, and the dissident spirit quashed, and made the object of intense nostalgia. The ever more triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote–indeed, impose–the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating for quite different reasons.”

She won a battle at the expense of the greater victory she was hoping for. There was a revolution in a sense, and a democratizing of culture. But Sontag realized that it wasn’t leading to pleasure, real pleasure. Instead, it led to a devaluation of the seriousness of intellect that Sontag took to be a prerequisite for genuine pleasure. In what she calls her own naiveté, Sontag, in the Sixties, made an appeal for changes that consumer culture was only too ready to provide during the next few decades. But those changes came as an empty package. Talking thirty years later about the essays of Against Interpretation, she says, “The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have prevailed. The values underlying those judgments did not.”

In response to this cruel trick of history, Sontag did verge dangerously close to nostalgia on occasion. Perhaps that is understandable. Her problem was even more acute than the problem of the Central Europeans for whom she had such sensitivity. Central Europeans might look back with some wistfulness on the intense seriousness of the ‘bad old days’ but they were, still, the bad old days. For all of Sontag’s hesitation in identifying with the Sixties as a movement, it was during those years that she experienced her greatest pleasures in art and understanding. They weren’t bad old days at all for her.

And she felt that as she was getting older she was simultaneously witnessing the disappearance of much of what had given her the greatest pleasure. In 1988, she expressed this as a European elegy. Europe, to Sontag, always represented resistance to the tide of philistinism—she even calls it barbarity—that emanates from America and its consumer culture. She says, “The diversity, seriousness, fastidiousness, density of European culture constitute an Archimedean point from which I can, mentally, move the world.”

By the late Eighties, she believed that that Archimedean point was drifting away as Europe became more homogeneous and “Americanized”. Without naming it directly, her contempt for the idea of European integration (this, again, in 1988) is palpable. What she calls the ‘diversity’ of Europe is predicated, for Sontag, on preserving the differences that come with national and thereby cultural boundaries. But with all the language of preservation and loss, Sontag manages to rescue the essay from outright nostalgia. She recognized the malleability and relativity of the “idea of Europe”. The idea of Europe is at its most potent, she argued, when wielded by the Central and European intellectuals who used it, implicitly, as a critique of the Soviet domination they were resisting. But Sontag was also aware that the rallying cry of “Europe” was distinctly unpalatable when raised in Western Europe as a warning against the new immigration. This latter point has only become more incisive in recent years. As always, Sontag was ahead of the times.

Indeed, by the end of her lament for Europe, Sontag turns a corner. Having aired her grievances, she begins to move forward. She comes in for another soft landing. She begins to shift onto another battlefield, moving just as quickly as modern experience does. That quickness, that readiness to move at the pace in which new experiences present themselves allows her, in seeming paradox, to find what is solid and lasting in things. “The modern has its own logic,” she writes, “liberating and immensely destructive, by which the United States, no less than Japan and the rich European countries, is being transformed. Meanwhile, the center has shifted.”

Having started “The Idea of Europe (One More Elegy)” by veering into a cultural conservatism that she spoke so eloquently against in her earliest essays, she manages to steer herself back into more Sontag-like territory. She is prepared to become an exile again, as she always was in the first place. Exiled in the sense that every intellect of integrity stands alone in the last instance, as a self. In asking what will happen next, as the greatness of Europe fades and transforms, Sontag refers to Gertrude Stein’s answer to those who wondered how she would deal with a loss of her roots. “Said Gertrude Stein, her answer perhaps even more Jewish than American: ‘But what good are roots if you can’t take them with you’.”


Susan Sontag always understood the melancholic personality lingering in the back alleys of modern consciousness. She understood the will to suicide in men like Walter Benjamin. She knew why Benjamin lived under the sign of Saturn and could write:

“The resistance which modernity offers to the natural productive élan of a person is out of proportion to his strength. It is understandable if a person grows tired and takes refuge in death. Modernity must be under the sign of suicide, an act which seals a heroic will . . . . It is the achievement of modernity in the realm of passions.”

Sontag understood the will to death and failure in Artaud. She understood the will to silence in Beckett and John Cage. Not only did she understand these things, she could write about them clearly, put her finger on them. She knew that Nietzsche’s prognostication about the coming nihilism had come to pass in much of the modern, and modernist, aesthetic she cherished so dearly.

She felt the exhaustion of the modern spirit. But she wasn’t exhausted by it. In her essay on Elias Canetti, “Mind as Passion,” she wrote the following;

“‘I want to feel everything in me before I think it’, Canetti wrote in 1943, and for this, he says, he needs a long life. To die prematurely means having not fully engorged himself and, therefore, having not used his mind as he could. It is almost as if Canetti had to keep his consciousness in a permanent state of avidity, to remain unreconciled to death. ‘It is wonderful that nothing is lost in a mind’, he also wrote in his notebook, in what must have been a not infrequent moment of euphoria, ‘and would not this alone be reason enough to live very long or even forever?’ Recurrent images of needing to feel everything inside himself, of unifying everything in one head, illustrate Canetti’s attempts through magical thinking and moral clamorousness to ‘refute’ death.”

Sontag is writing about Canetti but she is writing about Sontag too. As much as she measured and reported the pulse of an era in thought, art, morals, . . . as much as she eulogized its passing, she also stood for the brute continuation of life, of pleasure, and of joy. She’s dead now, but there is nothing that stimulates a desire to live more than reading one of her essays. If it so happens that we’re stumbling into an age of new seriousness and new sincerity we’re doing so partly because Susan Sontag showed us how important the world can be.