“Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.”
“The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world,” philosopher Judith Butler proclaimed in her fantastic 2013 commencement address on the value of reading, adding, “How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world?” A decade before Butler, Susan Sontag considered the role of literature — of reading, as well as of writing — in liberating us from our immediate limitations by anchoring us to a larger reality. In 2003, shortly before her death, she was awarded the Friedenspreis — the Peace Prize of the German book trade. In her sublime award acceptance speech, titled Literature and Freedom and published posthumously in the 2007 anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library) — which also gave us Sontag’s timeless wisdom on courage and resistance — she notes that much of her life has been “devoted to trying to demystify ways of thinking that polarize and oppose” and reflects:
One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counterstatements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.
More than that, she argues, the makers of literature — writers — have a certain responsibility in the weaving of the very myths to which we subscribe in seeking to understand the world’s aliveness, and weaving them in such a way that we find ourselves laced together rather than ripped apart:
Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference—for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but countermyths, just as life offers counterexperiences — experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.
Echoing E. B. White’s fantastic 1969 meditation on the role and responsibility of the writer to elevate rather than lower down, Sontag gives us her exquisite definition of the ideal writer:
A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted — made cynical, superficial — by this understanding.
Literature can tell us what the world is like.
Literature can give standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative.
Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.
Who would we be if we could not sympathize with those who are not us or ours? Who would we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than we are?
Sontag goes on to reflect on her friendship with the German editor and literary critic Fritz Arnold. Drafted into the German army during WWII while studying literature and art history in university, Arnold was captured by the Americans and sent to a prison camp in northern Arizona at the same time that Sontag was growing up in the southern part of the state. While she, an intense and anxious young girl who read constantly, was finding in books refuge and the promise of “escape into a larger reality,” he, a sensitive and literary young man, survived his three years as prisoner of war by “reading and rereading the English and American classics.” Sontag draws from the poetic symmetry the universal power of literature:
To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.
Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.
At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches is easily one of the finest essay anthologies in modern history, a stimulating and stirring read that lodges itself into your consciousness and reverberates across a lifetime. Complement it with Sontag on photography and aesthetic consumerism, writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.