Seriously Uncool

Jenny Diski

Susan Sontag intended something like the book which is now published as At the Same Time to be her final collection of essays. After that, says her son, David Rieff, in his foreword, she intended to get on with what she most valued, writing fiction. Edited by her, somewhat differently no doubt, this would, then, have been her next book. As it is, published two years after her death, and put together by Rieff and her assistants with an eye on her preliminary sketch of its contents, it is her last book. Or rather, it is her first posthumous book, since Rieff plans to bring out further collections of her letters, diaries and unpublished writings.

A next book and a last book must be read in different ways, even if they are identical in content and in either case written in the shadow of a cancer that she surely knew was going to kill her sooner rather than later. None of these introductions to other people’s books, contingent newspaper articles and speeches written between 2001 and 2004 was intended as last words. Rieff is adamant about that. And to underline it he speaks of her ‘unalloyed fear of extinction – in no part of her, not even in the last agonised days of her ending, was there the slightest ambivalence, the slightest acceptance’. But it is very hard for the reader, knowing it to be her last, rather than her next book (and coming to it via Rieff’s elegiac foreword) not to see these writings as valedictory – a round-up of Sontag’s thought and work. We may know that death is always an arbitrary interruption of a life, but with us here and her not, and our narrative-hungry brains being what they are, we bind death to life by assuming a summation rather than allowing life to spill pointlessly over the edge into oblivion.

When, after learning of Sontag’s frustration at not having time enough to write fiction, you read in ‘Unextinguished’, her introduction to Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev, that ‘finally, he was a lifelong practising intellectual, which seemed to trump his achievement as a novelist, and he was a passionate political activist, which did not enhance his credentials as a novelist either,’ the echo of her own literary disappointment is inescapable. The sense of mourning for an incomplete vocation is emphatic. She speaks of a ‘saving larger view’ that is ‘the novelist’s or the poet’s – which does not obviate the truth of political understanding, but tells us there is more than politics, more, even, than history. Bravery . . . and indifference . . . and sensuality . . . and the living creatural world . . . and pity, pity for all, remain unextinguished’ (the ellipses are hers). The impassioned language and breathless syntax haven’t changed since her earliest work and its exaltation of art as experience when, as in Against Interpretation, written in 1964, she demanded a more immediate response to art. ‘What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more . . . In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.’

Against Interpretation, with its plea for impact over analysis, was properly of its time as the Romantics, Freudian theory, Existentialism and an interest in Eastern systems of thought came together for their mid-20th-century party. And her contemporary literary and cultural subjects, too, were precisely of the period: Godard and Resnais, the Marat/Sade, Genet, Pavese, Norman O. Brown and Happenings. In this posthumous collection written four decades later, the literary pieces have hardly changed, the writers she applauds are still largely European, though of the past rather than the present, and her wholehearted admiration for the work of the imagination remains undiluted by time or over-familiarity. She is also an evangelist for the life of the mind. Perhaps this is the effect of having maintained her position outside the academy. As an independent writer attached to no institution or department, she retained the right to speak out on what mattered to her in the manner of her choosing. And though, of course, the reality of being a public intellectual has its own constraints, they may be fewer and less inhibiting than speaking from an academic platform. She did not have to acknowledge the passing parade of theory and counter-theory or choose sides. To what extent this is sticking with, or being stuck, depends, very likely, on your perspective on the academy.

It is remarkable to read her work then and now and observe Sontag’s capacity to remain fired up about writing, to speak consistently over the decades with the kind of infatuation adolescents have when they first discover the power of books. There is not a moment of dispassion to be found in her sentences on Tsvetaeva and Pasternak’s ‘impossible, glorious demands’ on each other and on Rilke, or in her praise of the courage of Anna Banti’s rewriting the lost manuscript of Artemisia. In ‘On Beauty’ she declines to be calm and find the world ‘interesting’, insisting that we reject that ‘usurping notion’ and rediscover our capacity to be ‘overwhelmed by the beautiful’. Cool, she isn’t. There may be no one in history less cool than Susan Sontag. But there’s no shortage of cool about, and writing (she would call it ‘literature’) certainly needs anyone it can get at the moment who can relish it for itself rather than measure it by its success in the market. She is the English teacher we would remember all our life with gratitude had we been fortunate enough to have had one, or the girl you sat in a corner with sharing the marvels of Dostoevsky as if no one else in the world but you and she knew about him. Her lack of irony and refusal to take a distance, however, don’t give much scope for lightness of touch or humour. She is dogged and determined in the cause of literature. Always intense, proselytising and in her own repeated word, ‘serious’.

I am often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: ‘Several things. Love words, agonise over sentences. And pay attention to the world.’

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: ‘Be serious.’ By which I meant: never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

If the funny is hard to find in Sontag’s writing, her seriousness is never in doubt, and it is precisely the suspicion of that quality that seems to distinguish the present time. The great fear of taking things too seriously (lighten up, get over yourself, get a life) probably does stem from a concern that to be serious is to be humourless. And, in truth, it’s a difficult line to walk for Sontag as well as the rest of us. But being funny without being serious is surely a greater failure of taste and responsibility than the other way round.

Humour is certainly lacking in the political pieces in this collection, but being a dissenting American in the 21st century is no laughing matter. There are three responses to the events of 9/11: a few days later, several weeks and a year on. The first piece is an almost immediate reaction that was published in an edited version in the New Yorker. The writer is an ‘appalled, sad American and New Yorker’ and America ‘has never seemed further from an acknowledgment of reality than it’s been in the face of last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality’. The suicide mission was not, as the public rhetoric had it, a ‘cowardly’ act against ‘the free world’ but ‘an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions’. She notes the announcement that grieving centres were in operation and abhors the complicity of government and press to evade any analysis of ‘the colossal failure of American intelligence and counterintelligence, about the future of American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a sensible programme of military defence’. The politics of a democracy ‘which entails disagreement, which promotes candour – has been replaced by psychotherapy’.

The clarity of Sontag’s assessment resulted in uproar. A Sontag Award was invented for ‘glib moral equivalence in the war on terror and visceral anti-Americanism’ and she was described among other things as the ‘pathetic ayatollah of hate’. The next article is an interview in which she says that the idea held by ‘some American intellectuals like [Gore] Vidal and many bien-pensant intellectuals in Europe – that America has brought this horror upon itself, that America itself is, in part, to blame for the deaths of these thousands upon its own territory – is not, I repeat, not, a view that I share.’ If this feels like a wobble in the face of the near monolithic rage against dissent in the US immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center, she says earlier in the same piece that 11 September was ‘an unprecedented rebuke to American power and competence’. The third piece, written on the first anniversary, expresses her aversion to waging an unwinnable war on a metaphor, the empty rhetoric of politicians and the ‘grand tradition of American anti-intellectualism: the suspicion of thought, of words’.

What this mixed bag of work makes vivid is that her political judgment and her belief in the necessity to speak out are not separate from her passion for literature and her belief in its greater articulation of truths. Words are at the heart of Sontag’s understanding of the world. In ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, on the subject of the revelations of torture in Abu Ghraib, she centres again on the distortion of reality that the misuse of language permits. Of Rumsfeld’s opinion that the photos depicted abuse, ‘which I believe technically is different from torture’, she says: ‘Words alter, words add, words subtract . . . To refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib – and what is taking place elsewhere in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay – by its true name, torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the Rwandan genocide a genocide.’

You’d be hard put to find much in the way of ambivalence in Sontag’s work but it is apparent in her writings on the subject of photography. In this new volume she adds an addendum to her collection of essays On Photography written between 1973 and 1977. She has always had doubts about the value of the photograph and its relation to art. There is no denying its power, but she remained suspicious of the way the camera looks at the world and what it does to reality when it produces its static, single image of a part of that world. In ‘Photography: A Little Summa’ in the present book, numbered paragraphs add to what has already been said. Photographs are details, and to be modern ‘is to live, entranced, by the savage autonomy of the detail’. Photography understood as art can ask us ‘to stare at banality and also to relish it, drawing on the very developed habits of irony that are affirmed by the surreal juxtapositions of photographs typical of sophisticated exhibitions and books’.

I suppose that Annie Leibovitz, Susan Sontag’s partner for her last 15 years, is in one sense of the word as sophisticated a photographer as you get these days. She’s a celebrity snapper and shoots for fashion magazines, advertisements, movie stars and Disney. She charges more than $100,000 to take a photo and requires a huge retinue of assistants. Her book and the exhibition in New York, A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005, spans the period of her relationship with Sontag. In compiling the photographs (and with, she says, the ghost of Susan at her back) she appears to have taken Sontag’s notion of surreal juxtaposition to heart. In her introduction (put together from a conversation rather than written out) she explains the mixture of celebrity portraits, family snaps and pictures of the sick, dying and dead Sontag as an expression of the revelation she had while trying to sort out material for the book. Looking at the highly paid, commissioned work on one wall, and her private photos of family and Sontag in those years on another wall, she realised that ‘I don’t have two lives. This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.’ The problem perhaps arises because of the title of the book. Presumably, a book called ‘A Photographer’s Photographs’ would not have caused such a personal crisis. It would contain not a visual diary of the life but a considered selection of the work which the photographer judged to be worth collecting and exhibiting.

As it is, this ‘one life’ notion (all work is autobiography, all life is work) results in the slick professional studies of what amounts to a society photographer (Johnny Depp and Kate Moss beautifully arranged half-naked on top of each other on a dishevelled bed, neither so interested in the other as in their own exquisite image) rubbing shoulders with snapshots of the Leibovitz family get-togethers at the beach (‘Good to know even Annie Leibovitz’s family snaps are boring,’ said another photographer). There are a handful of shots of death and dying from a trip she took with Sontag to Sarajevo, and some pictures of Monument Valley commissioned by Condé Nast Traveller taken from a helicopter, all interspersed in a roughly chronological fashion with many more posed studies of the rich, powerful and famous, looking just the way they’d like to look. Running between these are pictures of Sontag during her second bout of cancer, having chemotherapy, in her hospital bed, losing her hair, and further photos from her final illness of an unrecognisable Sontag bloated with disease, hooked up to grim machinery, too near to death to be aware of being photographed, and finally a series of polaroids of her actually dead.

Perhaps there is a case to be made for calling this Leibovitz’s ‘very developed habits of irony’. The argument for the inclusion of the dying and dead Sontag (and Leibovitz’s dead father) must be that the ‘surreal juxtaposition’ puts the glamour shots into their banal perspective. But who needs Leibovitz to explain the distinction between the posturing of politicians and movie stars and an individual’s sickness and death? And if the intention is to point out that some things are more important than others, perhaps the simpler option is to leave out the less important ones.

In On Photography Sontag questioned, in relation to the strange staring of Diane Arbus and the sentimentality of the famous 1960s exhibition The Family of Man, what we have the right to observe and the value of our observations: ‘The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices – a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom; as the act of taking pictures is a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of rape.’

The ‘semblance of knowledge’ that Sontag wrote of is especially evident in these pictures of Sontag, no longer her thinking self, but just a body to be looked at. She has been dressed in clothes chosen by Leibovitz, who describes them in both nostalgic and fashion terms: ‘The dress is one we found in Milan. It’s a homage to Fortuny, made the way he made them, with pleated material.’ Sontag loved to dress up, says Leibovitz, so she added scarves ‘bought in Venice and a black velvet Yeohlee coat that she wore to the theatre’.

This, I suppose, would be an example of the humanist sort of sentimentalism. As to what we have a right to observe, or if we do observe, what we have a right to show, I’m not sure if the lack of taste or the lack of privacy is more troubling. Perhaps there is no right to expect privacy after death. (Recently a friend received an email containing a photograph of her foetal grandchild, so I suppose there is no privacy before life, now, either.) But while it’s certain that, in Leibovitz’s most recent assignment for the Disney Corporation, David Beckham agreed to be photographed on a white horse as Prince Charming conquering a fiery dragon (‘I’m the prince and I’m sort of slaying the dragon, which is not something I’ve ever done, obviously’), it’s not clear at all that Sontag comatose in hospital or the naked dying soldier in Sarajevo could have consented to becoming Leibovitz’s models. Of course, war photographers take such pictures all the time, but they do not mix them up with Arnold Schwarzenegger posing in a white T-shirt on skis in Sun Valley.

Leibovitz acknowledges that her portraits don’t attempt to get beyond the surface that is presented. ‘I observe. Avedon knew how to talk to people. What to talk to them about. As soon as you engage someone, their face changes. They become animated. They forget about being photographed. Their minds become occupied and they look more interesting. But I’m so busy looking, I can’t talk. I never developed that gift. I have the same problem with my children. I know I have to be more involved, to interact more, but I love just looking at them.’ Under those constraints a dead body is the perfect subject.

Leibovitz has said that the book ‘was a way of trying to be understood in some way. You publish it because at some level everyone wants to be understood.’ But even if you subscribe to the notion of the oneness of our lives, most people don’t find they need to show everything, or not all at once. Everyone edits their family album.