For Sontag, Purpose of Lit Was Change

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

Yesterday I came across an interesting Slate article on Susan Sontag’s relationship with literature. I enjoyed hearing about the public intellectual’s passion for books and also appreciated the contrast that author Mark O’Connell makes between Sontag and Harold Bloom. According to O’Connell, Sontag believed that literature can change the way we look at the world whereas Bloom’s “encyclopedic erudition” is “a kind of petrification.”

A quick digression on Bloom. I think O’Connell is correct in his assessment of Bloom, who another critic once described as (I’m quoting from memory) “not learned but merely well read.” Obsessed with ranking works, Bloom sees it as his job to be the gatekeeper of the literary canon. The classics under his watch appear more as museum pieces than living and breathing parts of our lives.

Sontag, on the other hand, loved how literature constantly pushed her into new realms. Here’s an excerpt from O’Connell’s article:

There’s always the sense, with Sontag, of reading as a process of acquisition and assimilation, as a kind of territorial expansionism of the self. All those itemized resolutions in the journals, all those lists of things to be read and absorbed; her project was, as she put it, “taking all of knowledge as my province.”  And this is one of the most striking things about her, this conquistadorial spirit brought to bear on a basically democratic sensibility—the famous imperative to be interested in everything. She seems to have read all of Western literature, and to have learned from it everything that might be worth knowing.

This, of course, is exactly the impression you’d be well advised to start giving off if you wanted to make any kind of impact as a public intellectual. But with Sontag, you suspect that she really has read everything—and not in the Harold Bloom way, either, where encyclopedic erudition starts to look like a kind of petrification, where the critic manifests himself as the canon made flesh. Change is, for her, the end of reading; what she prizes in literature is its capacity to bring otherness into the self—the paradoxical way in which books take us outside the limits of ourselves while pushing those limits outward. “It’s exciting to me to subscribe to something that’s foreign to my earlier taste,” she says. “Not in an unfriendly spirit with respect to the earlier work—but just because I need new blood and new nourishment and new inspiration. And because I like what I’m not, I like to try to learn what isn’t me or what I don’t know. I’m curious.”

And that’s one of the more inspiring things about Sontag: the way in which she positions curiosity as not just a primary critical value, but a primary human value. To be curious is, in the most vital sense, to be serious. There’s another wonderful moment, later on [in her 1978 interview with Rolling Stone], when [interviewer Jonathan] Cott mentions phoning her to ask about completing the interview, to which she replied that “We should do it soon because I may change too much.”

And further on:

Intense seriousness, of course, always has a tendency to verge on the comic. Sontag was the Platonic ideal of the intellectual, and so she could also come across as a not-too-subtle parody of the very idea of such a person. At one point, she tells Cott that the first book that really thrilled her was a biography of Marie Curie by Curie’s daughter Eve, which she recalls reading at age 6. The interviewer is impressed that a child of that age would go in for material of such relative heft. “I started reading when I was 3,” she expands, “and the first novel that affected me was Les Misérables—I cried and sobbed and wailed. When you’re a reading child, you just read the books that are around the house. When I was about 13, it was Mann and Joyce and Eliot and Kafka and Gide—mostly Europeans. I didn’t discover American literature until much later.” What to do with such a claim but both laugh at it and marvel at it? …

But this long and largely genial portrait of the (not always quite so genial) intellectual in middle age also amounts to a strong and deeply personal argument about what it means to be cultured—an argument for why a middle-aged intellectual might be something worth being in the first place. Part of what is so appealing about Sontag’s thinking is the absence of any heavy intellectual machinery being brought to bear on whatever topic she happens to be considering; there is rarely very much in the way of dogma to be contended with. But there is a kind of personal dialectic at work in her attitude toward herself, toward her writing and reading and thinking and speaking. “The most awful thing,” as she puts it in the book’s final lines, “would be to feel that I’d agree with the things I’ve already said and written—that is what would make me most uncomfortable because that would mean that I had stopped thinking.”

McConnell makes one other point that I particularly appreciate as it makes me feel a little bit better about myself as a pretentious high school student who went around quoting “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the French existentialists, and Crime and Punishment. Looking at the early Sontag diaries, which are also pretentious, he says that mimicking intellectuals may be

 a necessary stage on the way to being a nonpseudo-intellectual, and that the two classifications aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Being an intellectual is often, after all, a matter of getting away with trying to be seen as one.

Further thought – There is another view of Sontag, once less complimentary, that I should mention: she often comes across as a  detached intellectual, obsessed with ideas but unable to negotiate the practical realm. We see this especially in her son David Rieff’s account of her death in Swimming in a Sea of Death. I talked frequently about this book with my good friend Alan Paskow when he was dying of cancer and who was riveted by the story, in part because he saw himself in it.

Rieff describes a woman panicked, in denial, and willing to try any unorthodox treatment to forestall the inevitable. Sontag does not appear to have died well. The literature in which she had immersed herself did not help her handle her passing. If anything, it just fed the illusion that her mind could triumph over biology.

I don’t want to be too judgmental here because we none of us know how we will handle our own deaths. But I know that, with the deaths I have experienced close up (those of my eldest son, my father, and Alan), literature has been vital, a comfort and a guide. It didn’t make the hurt any less but it provided a life raft that I could cling to.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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