The Other Susan Sontag

Tobi Haslett in The New Yorker:

SusanSeriousness, for Susan Sontag, was a flashing machete to swing at the thriving vegetation of American philistinism. The philistinism sprang from our barbarism—and our barbarism had conquered the world. “Today’s America,” she wrote in 1966, “with Ronald Reagan the new daddy of California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing.” Intellectuals, doomed to tramp through an absurd century, were to inflict their seriousness on Governor Reagan and President Johnson—and on John Wayne, spareribs, and the whole shattered, voluptuous culture. The point was to be serious about power and serious about pleasure: cherish literature, relish films, challenge domination, release yourself into the rapture of sexual need—but be thorough about it. “Seriousness is really a virtue for me,” Sontag wrote in her journal after a night at the Paris opera. She was twenty-four. Decades later, and months before she died, she mounted a stage in South Africa to declare that all writers should “love words, agonize over sentences,” “pay attention to the world,” and, crucially, “be serious.”

Only a figure of such impossible status would dare to glorify a mood. Here was a woman who had barged into the culture with valiant attempts at experimental fiction (largely unread) and experimental cinema (largely unseen) and yet whose blazing essays in Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books won her that rare combination of aesthetic and moral prestige. She was a youthful late modernist who, late in life, published two vast historical novels that turned to previous centuries for both their setting and their narrative blueprint; and a seer whose prophecies were promptly revised after every bashing encounter with mass callousness and political failure. The Vietnam War, Polish Solidarity, aids, the Bosnian genocide, and 9/11 drove her to revoke old opinions and brandish new ones with equal vigor. In retrospect, her positions are less striking than her pose—that bold faith in her power as an eminent, vigilant, properly public intellectual to chasten and to instruct. Other writers had abandoned their post. So Sontag responded to a 1997 survey “about intellectuals and their role” with a kind of regal pique:

What the word intellectual means to me today is, first of all, conferences and roundtable discussions and symposia in magazines about the role of intellectuals in which well-known intellectuals have agreed to pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which, as their participation in these events testifies, they belong.

She held a contrary creed. “I go to war,” she said a decade after witnessing the siege of Sarajevo, “because I think it’s my duty to be in as much contact with reality as I can be, and war is a tremendous reality in our world.” Behind the extravagant drama, though, was a shivering doubt. Her work rustles with the premonition that she was obsolete, that her splendor and style and ferocious brio had been demoted to a kind of sparkling irrelevance. The feeling flared up abruptly, both when she was thrilled by radical action and when she was aghast at public complacency.

More here.