Challenge and Wisdom
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
In 1961, a brilliant, witty, and provocative young critic took the world by storm with her stunning pronouncements on culture and politics. Susan Sontag’s virtuoso critical performance in her first book, Against Interpretation, challenged accepted aesthetic and literary conventions while at the same introducing Americans to the gritty French neo-realistic cinema of Resnais, Godard, and Bresson. In the books that followed, from Styles of Radical Will and On Photography to Illness as Metaphor and her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag dispensed opinions on the Vietnam War, shaped the contours of modern photography, and probed the nature of her own advancing cancer. We sorely miss Susan Sontag.
Thanks to the efforts of her son, David Rieff, Sontag’s lively and stimulating voice will ring in our cultural ears for years to come as her publisher releases her notebooks and other previously uncollected writings.
At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $24), the first of such volumes, offers a glimpse of Sontag at the height of her powers. The essays and speeches collected here range from her now famous editorials challenging the Bush administration’s rush to war after September 11, 2001, to acceptance speeches for various awards.
Included in this collection is Sontag’s now-famous (or infamous) New Yorker piece responding to the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Outspoken as usual, a sad Sontag takes issue with the “self-righteous drivel” that this was “cowardly” attack on “civilization.” (105) “Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.” (106)
Regrettably, Sontag was attacked because most critics stopped reading at that sentence. Sontag, however, goes on to indict the Bush administration: “If the word ‘cowardly’ is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than those willing to die themselves in order to kill others.” (106)
Although Sontag concedes a few weeks later that this is a period of mourning, she never backs off from severely criticizing the arrogance and political ignorance of the Bush administration and its wrongheaded response to 9-11. In her biting essay, “One Year After,” Sontag incisively focuses on what for her is the real reason for the war on terrorism. “Real wars are not metaphors. And real wars have a beginning and an end . . . But the war that has been decreed by the Bush administration will never end. That is one sign that this is not a war but, rather, a mandate for expanding the use of American power.”
Sontag minces no words about the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib: “To refuse what took place in Abu Ghraib by its true name, torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the Rwandan genocide a genocide.”
For Sontag, literary works function morally as well as aesthetically. At her best, Sontag recovers for us those writers whose political visions are inextricably woven into their novels and poems. In various essays, she champions Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden, Anna Banti’s novel Artemisia, and Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev, recovering almost single handedly these great revolutionary writers.
In her introductory essay to Letters: Summer 1926 (the letters of Boris Pasternak, Rilke, and Tsvetayeva), Sontag rhapsodically pronounces on the nature and power of poetry. “These three-way love letters and they are that are an incomparable dramatization of ardor about poetry and about the life of the spirit.”
It is in her long speech on the nature of literary translation that Sontag reveals her own sense of the vocation of writing that animates her. “A writer is first of all a reader. It is from reading that I derive the standards by which I measure my own work and according to which I fall lamentably short. It is from reading, even before writing, that I become part of a community the community of literature which includes more dead than living writers.”
It is immensely gratifying to have Sontag’s rich and powerful voice back among us again.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at