Imagining a Different Future

Reconsidering Susan Sontag, Part II

Even as Susan Sontag’s celebrity has dimmed, the time she spent in battered Sarajevo in the 1990s, directing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot remains a touchstone in discussions of intellectual engagement.

Early critic of Israel. Scene from Susan Sontag's Promised Lands (1974).

Many people, including plenty of Bosnians, continue to praise her for putting herself at risk, for months on end, to help shine a beacon of hope. 

Others are less charitable, mocking the very idea of putting on a play in a war zone. 

And some are downright derogatory, regarding it as a publicity stunt intended to restore the newsworthiness of a woman who had outlived her cultural usefulness. 

Sontag’s statements about the experience were uncharacteristically modest. She came, initially, because her son David Rieff had been covering the war there as a political journalist. 

The New Yorker had a clear sense of her limits as a foreigner who did not speak the language and had limited knowledge of the complex historical circumstances that had led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and the civil wars that followed in its wake. 

But Susan Sontag went anyway, not just for a brief wave from the tarmac like Hillary Clinton, but long enough to understand the existential isolation of the besieged. 

Why did she go?

Because Sontag believed in the power of art. Because it was important to her to demonstrate her willingness to suffer in its service. But also — it must be said — because she was a thrill-seeker.

That last quality invites reproach. It conflicts with the selfless ideal of political activism. The point, we are told, is to concentrate on helping others, not to please ourselves. 

Yet it is precisely this quality, one which dates Sontag every bit as her taste preferences, that has the potential to restore much of her intellectual lustre. 

At a time when most political and business leaders seem willing to let us hurtle towards the destruction of life as we know it, when almost everything that progressives care about is in grave danger, we can learn a lot from Sontag’s datedness. 

Curiously, for all the energy she expended trying to stay on the leading edge, Sontag now seems more remote than most of her contemporaries. 

The main reason is the unusual route she took to intellectual maturity. 

Despite having moved several times during her school years — from New York to Florida to Arizona to California – she always managed to stay well ahead of her peers.

That meant that she was already thinking the way teenagers do when she was just beginning grade school and like an advanced undergraduate before she finished high school. 

Instead of becoming fully aware of the world and her place within it in the late 1940s and early 1950s — and thereby developing the distinctly “postwar” mindset identified with her generation — Susan Sontag registered the rapidly gathering darkness of the late 1930s and the overwhelming sense of precarity that Jews contended with during WWII. 

As texts Sontag published during her lifetime indicate and her posthumously released diaries confirm, she retained a melancholy attachment to the culture produced during those dark times for as long as she lived.

Indeed, as an adult, she often sought out situations in which she could experience firsthand what she had only fantasised about, however perversely, while still a child. 

That’s what brought Susan Sontag to Sarajevo in 1993 and made her stay much longer than was prudent for any foreigner, much less someone of her international stature. 

And it’s also what brought her to Israel, two decades earlier, to make a documentary film, Promised Lands, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.

If you are looking for a clear statement of Sontag’s feelings about Israel and its many enemies, Promised Lands will disappoint. 

To be sure, the film focuses on the nation of Israel, with all that implies. It gives Israelis the opportunity to speak, but not Palestinians. And the viewpoints of Israel’s enemies in the Arab world are only communicated indirectly, through a reading of their anti-Semitic school textbooks. Yet Promised Lands assiduously avoids the iconography of pro-Israel propaganda, connecting the disparate footage she and her crew collected together with montage techniques that imbue shots with a sense of scare quotes.

Part of that has to do with the fact that she didn’t know Hebrew and makes no effort to position her film as the product of expertise. 

On the contrary, Promised Lands communicates a reluctance to commit to the place or its people, a self-conscious opacity that makes it feel more like a jumble of home movies than a professional document. 

Critics were understandably baffled and, for the most part, underwhelmed. But if we think of Promised Lands, less In terms of its subject than Sontag’s relationship with it, the film takes on a different aspect.

Travelogues presume an irreducible difference between the traveller and their destination. If they are compelling, it is because they come from a position of well-intentioned ignorance. A degree of exoticisation is essential.

Since the publication of Edward Said’s landmark book Orientalism, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have learned to avoid such blatant “othering”. 

All too often, however, these attempts at cultural sensitivity require a pretence —being more of an insider than one actually is — that leads to close-mindedness.

What Sontag’s work consistently demonstrates — whether as a filmmaker in Israel, a theatre director in Sarajevo, or a critic making the case for the culture she loves — is a sense of wonder, the conviction that thinking must be an adventure. 

Her achievement sometimes feels like one of the “novels” written by W.G. Sebald, only parcelled out over a wide variety of texts. This explains, to a degree, why her longer books tend to fall short of their mark: they make more sense relationally, when read with her entire oeuvre in mind, than they do as stand-alone works.

The frustration many readers experience when returning to Sontag, now that she is no longer so famous for being famous, seems to derive from this character. Because what they find, now that they can see more clearly, is that her sudden and improbable rise to prominence in the 1960s transformed her into a literary auteur, whose brand transcended the subjects she pursued.

Susan Sontag could have become a traditional literary scholar, a prospect she emphatically discards in one of the diary entries she wrote while a teenager attending UC-Berkeley. She could have become an experimental novelist, in the mode of the French nouveau roman she loved. 

She could have become a historian of cultural history, as her superbly crafted essay “Under the Sign of Saturn” demonstrates. Or an art critic, focusing on photography. Or even a bestselling author, as In America suggests. 

But Sontag didn’t want to be reduced to any of these identities. What mattered to her was the freedom to follow her desire, in both a cerebral and carnal sense, wherever it led her, without ever having to answer for her decision to move on from one pursuit and take up another.

For this, she has been called a dilettante, an assessment that cuts with a sharper edge because it comes from critics who have toiled in relative obscurity, denied the trappings of cultural celebrity of which she so richly partook. 

Is it fair, though? From the historical distance that separates us from her, it is easy to regard her as someone who liked to dabble, rather than settling down, who approached her subjects the way she approached her people’s purported promised land, resisting the call to put down roots. As her diaries make abundantly clear, though, she worked extremely hard at improving herself. Dilettantes are supposed to move on when the going gets tough. She did the opposite, seeking out new challenges.

One problem, as we try to make sense of Sontag’s legacy, is that the pursuit of novelty itself feels dated. And many of the subjects Sontag sought out seem especially out of step with contemporary culture precisely because they were once imbued with a powerful aura of the new and different. 

Antonin Artaud, camp, the French nouveau roman: these once hot topics no longer attract sustained attention. And while her essays on these subjects still come off like typical New York Review of Books prose, splitting the difference between academic and journalistic approaches, her fiction frequently has an air of historical remoteness, almost as if it were being translated from another language. 

It’s telling that her contemporary Joan Didion, though less invested in all forms of experimentation — literary, political, sexual — than Sontag was, now seems more important to read. 

Someone putting together a syllabus of American women’s writing from and about the 1960s would be more likely to include Didion’s essays “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album” — and possibly her novel Play It as It Lays, because of its treatment of abortion — than anything by Sontag.

Didion didn’t claim to be anything more than a keenly observant commentator on the upheavals of that time. Susan Sontag, though, left the impression that she was a much deeper thinker, not just reflecting surface impressions, but transmuting them into something more substantial. 

That does her no favours with those inclined to belittle her work, since she tended to move on from projects before she had exhausted their possibilities. If people call her a dilettante now, it’s because she always seemed to be promising more than she could deliver, never taking the time to master anything other than her own self-presentation.

Nevertheless, it’s precisely that trait that makes Sontag worth revisiting today, when her reputation has diminished. Because her approach to learning, that inexhaustible restlessness, is far better suited to the world we currently inhabit than the sort promoted by traditional scholars. 

At a time when we are confronted every day by the sheer too-much-ness of culture, the realisation that it has never been harder to master any subject, we need good models for positioning ourselves in relation to this surfeit of possibilities. 

But the realisation that almost anything can and will be co-opted by consumer society means that we also need advice on how to keep our distance from what we love. We must remain travellers who vigorously reject comfort.

In one of Sontag’s early diary entries — when she was still only seventeen, yet in her second year at university and already married to a professor — she reflects on the meaning of death: 

Even if we die before experiencing things we demand from life, it won’t matter when we die—we lose only the moment we are ‘in’—life is horizontal, not vertical—it cannot be accumulated so live, don’t grovel.

From this perspective, Sontag’s preference for moving on doesn’t seem like a weakness. 

If “life is horizontal”, as she writes here, the logical corollary is that death is vertical. When people stay too long in one place, as becoming an acknowledged expert on any subject requires, they risk missing out on life.  

By contrast, the kind of expertise Sontag spent her entire career pursuing is relational. If she tried to master anything, it wasn’t individual subjects but the art of navigating between them. She didn’t simply start over when she began a new project but shaped it in relation to a wealth of previous experiences. 

Even if Susan Sontag didn’t refer to her analysis of pornography when writing about Walter Benjamin or Walter Benjamin when explaining her love of the early punk scene at CBGBs, a careful reader can discern that influence in the negative space of her prose. 

A strong case could be made for Sontag as a twentieth-century incarnation of the women who presided over literary salons in eighteenth-century Paris, someone who was more interested in facilitating conversation between others than dominating it herself. 

The difference, of course, is that whereas those earlier salons were bound to a specific location, her modern-day version was virtual, dispersed across a wide range of international media. 

This aspect of Susan Sontag’s career dovetails with her preference for “horizontal” existence — the sexual overtones are explicit in her diary entry — to reinforce the qualities which have led critics to deem her a dilettante. 

They regard her fitful love life and peripatetic existence as confirmation that she either couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to anything long enough for us to figure out that Sontag was far more shallow than she initially seemed. 

But what if this superficiality wasn’t something she tried to hide? What if her goal all along had been to break free of the constraints imposed by the intellectual investment in depth? 

Perhaps it seems absurd to direct a play when the actors all speak a language you don’t know. Perhaps it seems silly to go through the effort of travelling around a country shooting documentary footage without being able to communicate your own feelings about the place.

From the perspective of what we might call “travelling criticism”, though, the sort best suited to a world in which the physical and virtual are hopelessly intertwined, these impediments to understanding can be regarded as strengths.

As the passage about preferring a “horizontal” existence indicates, Susan Sontag’s early diaries contain plenty of evidence that she was already thinking along these lines before submitting herself to the institutional framework of the academy. 

Because she sounds so grown-up, her critics tend to forget that Sontag was still a teenager, as excited by sex as she was by ideas. Or rather, they fail to see how the idea of sex and the sex of ideas were hopelessly tangled inside her, that she was both unable and unwilling to compartmentalise. 

Susan Sontag’s desire to preserve a space for the exotic might not have been the way to achieve long-term happiness in her personal relationships. 

However, it makes her work especially valuable to us today, when we are simultaneously confronted by fear that society is on the verge of collapse and frustration that the unprecedented accessibility of culture threatens to render it powerless to suggest alternatives to the status quo. 

Towards the end of her life, Sontag wrote a short piece about one of her most important influences. It wasn’t a German philosopher, Russian poet, or French novelist, but the quintessentially American travel writer Richard Halliburton, who found a way to instill a love of faraway places in readers, like the grade-schooler Susan Sontag, who were desperate to escape the claustrophobia of the close-to-home.

Long after she had found the means to follow in Halliburton’s footsteps, which she enthusiastically did, she retained the feeling of only being able to follow him in her head. For the rest of her life, she alternated between physical and mental journeys, going somewhere with her body and then going somewhere with her mind.

Invoking the main character of Don DeLillo’s novella The Body Artist, who uses the internet to monitor a webcam trained on a lonely stretch of Finnish highway, Sontag explains that it has no become possible “to travel solo, without traveling, to vacancy itself.” If we understand how strongly she believed in the power of this kind of voyage, her doubly peripatetic existence makes a lot more sense.

“To write,” she goes on, “I have to stay put. Real travel competes with mental traveling.” But both are equally valid. “What is a writer but a mental traveler?”:

When I acknowledge to myself that I’m interested in everything, what am I saying, but that I want to travel everywhere?

Imagining a future different from the present — which means imagining any future at all, really — is only possible if we remember what it’s like to feel ignorant and marvel, as Richard Halliburton inspired Susan Sontag to do, at the manifold wonders of the world.

This article is the second in a series. The first is Between Europe and America.

Screenshot courtesy of Susan Sontag. All rights reserved.