Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Susan Sontag as Metaphor

Here's some of what Susan Sontag had to say after 9/11, words she was instantly pilloried for, an attack from right wing lapdogs that really only proved her more wise, of course:

Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be.

Of course, it's only gotten worse in three plus years. If only America could figure out what else it has to be. Instead we have murderously bumbled into and over Iraq; we have turned our trust over to people who proclaim hatred for people they most certainly are not is a moral value; and we are now planning the end of Social Security, and to hell with the old who are poor.

And now Sontag is dead and will not help us find our way to what we might be. Not that we listened to her enough before she pissed off much of the country by saying we helped bring 9/11 on ourselves. Even the people who liked her work often found it hard; in his terrific essay Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me Craig Seligman opens with "I revere Sontag. I love Kael," and pretty much nails the Sontag style with the description "as colorless, as odorless, as tasteless, and as intoxicating as vodka." (Full disclosure: as a gin man, myself, I tend to side with Kael. But I see the purpose of vodka, too, and Sontag even moreso.)

Not that this is a country for thought. Sontag was often thought of as European, and clearly anyone who smacks of the intellectual risks putting his or her Americaness on the line. Even John Kerry got vilified as French, of all things, not just as a way to slander his patriotism but to make clear that he actually could see nuance, a word that not only means there's more than good and bad (impossible! cry the moralists), but also a word with roots in Old French (the language, not as in old Europe). We have given up public intellectuals in trivial pursuits, for why else would the country be so involved in the victorious ways of Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings (beyond the money, of course)? A vast accumulation of facts is no more true wisdom than a pile of wood is a building or a draft of words, alas, an essay.

Here's to hoping we can somehow remember that strength isn't certitude, but the grace of reflection, the will to change, the gumption to bridge that gap. That we can learn from Sontag, that her words can teach us how to read as we read. That their very difficulty slow us down, remind us that when we think easy our thoughts are facile. That we can live the way she suggests in the following, from a talk she gave this April:

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention—a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits, but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to bow one's head before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything and the incapacity of our moral understanding—which is also the understanding of the novelist—to take this in.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for a wonderful post. I found this via TBOGG.

Barry (bloggy.com)

9:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very nice sendoff. Did you attend the talk you quoted? I wish I'd had the chance; few could match her for moral authority.

The American Street

5:42 PM  
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