[Paleopsych] NYT: Word for Word | Susan Sontag: No Hard Books, or Easy Deaths

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Word for Word | Susan Sontag: No Hard Books, or Easy Deaths
New York Times, 5.1.2

SUSAN SONTAG, who died last week at the age of 71, was the
pre-eminent intellectual of our time -visible, outspoken,
engaged. The life of the mind was for her something both
rigorous and passionate, moral and pleasurable, and she
brought to it a lifetime of reading, watching and listening
(she was a fixture at concerts and dance events) and a
prose style of singular clarity and precision. Many of her
essays were meditations of a sort, in which she brooded
over something - the nature of camp, say, or the seductive
power of photography - and then worked out her own thoughts
and feelings. In the end, they were almost the same thing.
Her ideas were deeply felt, her feelings deepened by
reflection. She was by nature a fusionist - someone who
could link high art and low, Patti Smith and Nietzsche -
and a distruster of false or easy connections, like our way
of using metaphor to talk about sickness. An excerpt from
her unflinching essay "Illness as Metaphor" appears below,
along with selections from other works.

Against Interpretation, 1964

Ours is a culture based on
excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of
sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of
modern life - its material plentitude, its sheer
crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it
is in the light of the condition of our senses, or
capacities (rather than those of another age), that the
task of a critic must be assessed.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must
learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a
work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the
work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content
so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make
works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more,
rather than less, real to us.

Notes on Camp, 1964

I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly
offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and
why I can. For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given
sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his
intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its
contours and to recount its history, requires a deep
sympathy modified by revulsion.

Though I am speaking about sensibility only - and about a
sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious
into the frivolous - these are grave matters. Most people
think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely
subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions,
mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the
sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of
taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works
of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To
patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For
taste governs every free - as opposed to rote - human
response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in
people, visual taste, taste in emotion - and there is taste
in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is
really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.

One Culture and the New Sensibility, 1965

Having one's
sensorium challenged or stretched hurts. The new serious
music hurts one's ears, the new painting does not
graciously reward one's sight, the new films and the few
interesting new prose works do not go down easily. The
commonest complaint about the films of Antonioni or the
narratives of Beckett or Burroughs is that they are hard to
look at or to read, that they are "boring." But the charge
of boredom is really hypocritical. There is, in a sense, no
such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a
certain species of frustration. And the new languages which
the interesting art of our time speaks are frustrating to
the sensibilities of most educated people.

But the purpose of art is always, ultimately, to give
pleasure - though our sensibilities may take time to catch
up with the forms of pleasure that art in a given time may
offer. And, one can also say that, balancing the ostensible
anti-hedonism of serious contemporary art, the modern
sensibility is more involved with pleasure in the familiar
sense than ever.

On Photography, 1977

The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to
lust. And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be
satisfied: first, because the possibilities of photography
are infinite; and, second, because the project is finally
self-devouring. The attempts by photographers to bolster up
a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion.
Our oppressive sense of the transience of everything is
more acute since cameras gave us the means to "fix" the
fleeting moment. We consume images at an ever faster rate
and, as Balzac suspected cameras used up layers of the
body, images consume reality. Cameras are the antidote and
the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means
of making it obsolete.

Illness as Metaphor, 1978

The policy of equivocating about the nature of their
disease with cancer patients reflects the conviction that
dying people are best spared the news that they are dying,
and that the good death is the sudden one, best of all if
it happens while we're unconscious or asleep. Yet the
modern denial of death does not explain the extent of the
lying and the wish to be lied to; it does not touch the
deepest dread. Someone who has had a coronary is at least
as likely to die of another one within a few years as
someone with cancer is likely to die soon from cancer. But
no one thinks of concealing the truth from a cardiac
patient: there is nothing shameful about a heart attack.
Cancer patients are lied to, not just because the disease
is (or is thought to be) a death sentence, but because it
is felt to be obscene - in the original meaning of that
word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the senses.
Cardiac disease implies a weakness, trouble, failure that
is mechanical; there is no disgrace, nothing of the taboo
that once surrounded people afflicted with TB and still
surrounds those who have cancer.

Thirty Years Later..., 1996

I had come to New York at the
start of the 1960's, eager to put to work the writer I had,
since adolescence, pledged myself to become. My idea of a
writer: someone interested in "everything." I had always
had interests of many kinds, so it was natural for me to
conceive of the vocation of a writer in this way. And
reasonable to suppose that such fervency would find more
scope in a great metropolis than in any variant of
provincial life, including the excellent universities I had
attended. The only surprise was that there weren't more
people like me.


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