Brain Pickings

Susan Sontag: A Trifecta Remembrance

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What frontpage news has to do with graphic design and the craftsmanship of the self.

Today marks the 6th anniversary of the death of Susan Sontag, one of my big intellectual heroes and favorite authors. From her seminal treatise On Photography, required reading in any serious photography class around the world, to her poignant observations on human suffering in Regarding the Pain of Others to her status as an honorary citizen of Sarajevo due to her relentless activism during the Sarajevo Siege of the mid-90s, Sontag’s cultural legacy is as far-reaching as it is wide-spanning.

Today, I take a moment to remember her with three essential cultural artifacts that celebrate her work and capture her spirit — an interview, an essay and an animated short fim.

THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEW

Earlier this year, the iconic Paris Review opened up its archive to make available half a century worth of interviews with literary legends and cultural luminaries. In the journal’s 137th issue, published in the winter of 1995, Susan Sontag gives a priceless interview that reveals more of her countless facets than any other public inquiry into her rich, fascinating persona.

Of course I thought I was Jo in Little Women. But I didn’t want to write what Jo wrote. Then in Martin Eden I found a writer-protagonist with whose writing I could identify, so then I wanted to be Martin Eden—minus, of course, the dreary fate Jack London gives him. I saw myself as (I guess I was) a heroic autodidact. I looked forward to the struggle of the writing life. I thought of being a writer as a heroic vocation.” ~ Susan Sontag

DESIGN OBSERVER REMEMBERS

The day after Sontag passed away in 2004, Design Observer founder Bill Drenttel wrote a thoughtful and personal essay on his experience of knowing Sontag as her son’s close friend and how her keen intellectual curiosity applied to the essence of the design profession.

Susan was the most intelligent person I have ever met. She was intense, challenging, passionate. She listened in the same way that she read: acutely and closely. There was little patience for a weak argument. She assumed, often wrongly, that you possessed a general level of knowledge that would challenge even most college-educated professionals. She assumed you knew a lot and that you were interested in everything precisely because she was so interested in everything. Anything less left her unsatisfied, and, as she would not suffer fools, she wanted every encounter to be one in which she learned something.” ~ William Drenttel

REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS

Regarding the Pain of Others was Sontag’s final book, published a few months before her death in 2004. In what’s partly a sequel to On Photography, a quarter century later, partly a tremendously important larger conversation about the role of visual media in war. In it, Sontag sets out to answer the quintessential question posed in Virginia Woolf’s book Three Guineas: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?”

This simple yet beautifully crafted and powerful short animation, narrated by Sontag herself, uses the single most universal touchpoint with war — mass media — as a raw visual metaphor for the cultural criticism at the heart of Sontag’s book: Our media-driven desensitization and diminished capacity for empathy towards those truly suffering in the world.

BONUS

On Self is a priceless selection of Sontag’s private journal entries, first published in New York Times Magazine in 2006. It offers a rare glimpse of Sontag’s “four selves,” revealing the meticulous craftsmanship of her public persona and the raw tenderness of her private self. For more of that, see the excellent Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947–1963.

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