Admiring Susan Sontag

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With the death of Susan Sontag America has lost one its most invigorating and irritating social gadflies, who by the end managed to alienate just about everybody with her maddening, moralistic meanderings. Given her arrogance and the irreligious conclusions of her intellectual quest I would imagine few evangelicals will be trumpeting her virtues, but I for one wish the Christian community could produce a dozen like her in spirit, intensity and influence. And so lest, as Shakespeare said of Caesar, “her evil live after her and her good be interred with her bones,” let me observe some of Sontag’s desirable qualities.

1) She was Intelligent

At Harvard she earned two masters degrees, one in English another in Philosophy, and entered the PhD program but did not complete her dissertation. “We live in a culture,” she said, “in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.” She made the study of popular culture intellectually credible, yet did not own a TV and held a personal library of 15,000 volumes.

2) She was Independent

In her NYT Obituary Margalit Fox observes, “Through four decades, public response to Ms. Sontag remained irreconcilably divided. She was described, variously, as explosive, anticlimactic, original, derivative, naƒ¯ve, sophisticated, approachable, aloof, condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic, sincere, posturing, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing, profound, superficial, ardent, bloodless, dogmatic, ambivalent, lucid, inscrutable, visceral, reasoned, chilly, effusive, relevant, passé, ambivalent, tenacious, ecstatic, melancholic, humorous, humorless, deadpan, rhapsodic, cantankerous and clever. No one ever called her dull.”

3) She was Interdisciplinary

“Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes compared Ms. Sontag to the Renaissance humanist Erasmus. “Erasmus traveled with 32 volumes, which contained all the knowledge worth knowing,” he said. “Susan Sontag carries it in her brain! I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded, with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate.””

Margalit Fox observes, “Ms. Sontag’s work ¢â‚¬¦ gleefully blurred the boundaries between high and popular culture;” ¢â‚¬¦” [she] was a master synthesist who tackled broad, difficult and elusive subjects: the nature of art, the nature of consciousness and, above all, the nature of the modern condition. Where many American critics before her had mined the past, Ms. Sontag became an evangelist of the new, training her eye on the culture unfolding around her. For Ms. Sontag, culture encompassed a vast landscape. She wrote serious studies of popular art forms, like cinema and science fiction, that earlier critics disdained. She produced impassioned essays on the European writers and filmmakers she admired, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin and Jean-Luc Godard. She wrote experimental novels on dreams and the nature of consciousness. She published painstaking critical dissections of photography and dance; illness, politics and pornography; and, most famously, camp. Her work, with its emphasis on the outré, the jagged and the here and now, helped make the study of popular culture a respectable academic pursuit.

4) She displayed inciteful insight

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and an old friend of Ms. Sontag’s, said: “The theme that runs through Susan’s writing is this lifelong struggle to arrive at the proper balance between the moral and the aesthetic. There was something unusually vivid about her writing. That’s why even if one disagrees with it – as I did frequently – it was unusually stimulating. She showed you things you hadn’t seen before; she had a way of reopening questions.”

Margalit Fox said, “What united Ms. Sontag’s output was a propulsive desire to define the forces that shape the modernist sensibility. And in so doing, she sought to explain what it meant to be human in the waning years of the 20th century.”

“In a 1992 interview with The Times Magazine, Ms. Sontag described the creative force that animated “The Volcano Lover,” putting her finger on the sensibility that would inform all her work: “I don’t want to express alienation. It isn’t what I feel. I’m interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says, be serious, be passionate, wake up.””

In the 1990’s she grew disillusioned with the left for its failure of moral never in confronting genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia and said, [I find myself] “moved to support things which I did not think would be necessary to support at all in the past,” she said in a rueful interview, adding, “Like seriousness, for instance.”

And so why do I take this opportunity to extol the virtues of Ms. Sontag, with whom I share so little common space theologically? Because her intelligence, independent, interdisciplinary thought and communication that is insightful and incites are gifts from God and I find them so lacking in people who say they know this God intimately.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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