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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’

28 OCTOBER, 2013

Letter to Borges: Susan Sontag on Books, Self-Transcendence, and Reading in the Age of Screens

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“Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence.”

In October of 1982, 83-year-old Jorge Luis Borges, who at that point had been blind for nearly 30 years, gathered sixty of his closest friends and admirers at a special dinner in New York. Susan Sontag was there. Speaking to a reporter covering the event, she captured the enormity of Borges’s spirit and significance with her signature eloquent precision, saying: “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer … Very few writers of today have not learned from him or imitated him.”

Borges died four years later.

On the 10th anniversary of his death, Sontag revisited her admiration for his work and the enormity of his cultural legacy in a short and beautiful essay titled “Letter to Borges,” penned on June 13, 1996, and included in the altogether fantastic 2001 collection Where the Stress Falls: Essays (public library).

Sontag begins the letter, the proposition of which she deems not “too odd” since Borges’s literature has always been “placed under the sign of eternity,” with a sublime paean to his genius and humility:

You were very much the product of your time, your culture, and yet you knew how to transcend your time, your culture, in ways that seem quite magical. This had something to do with the openness and generosity of your attention. You were the least egocentric, the most transparent of writers, as well as the most artful. It also had something to do with a natural purity of spirit.

She considers him a wizard of time-warping and a masterful, respectful practitioner of the art of remix who brought to the inevitable borrowing of ideas a kind of integrity the opposite of Coleridge’s unapologetic plagiarism and Duke Ellington’s uncredited appropriations:

You had a sense of time that was different from other people’s. The ordinary ideas of past, present, and future seemed banal under your gaze. You liked to say that every moment of time contains the past and the future, quoting (as I remember) the poet Browning, who wrote something like “the present is the instant in which the future crumbles into the past.” That, of course, was part of your modesty: your taste for finding your ideas in the ideas of other writers.

Above all, however, Sontag holds Borges as an essential antidote to the tortured-genius myth of literary success, an antidote which Ray Bradbury also embodied and Charles Bukowski championed in verse. She writes:

The serenity and the transcendence of self that you found are to me exemplary. You showed that it is not necessary to be unhappy, even while one is clear-eyed and undeluded about how terrible everything is. Somewhere you said that a writer — delicately you added: all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. (You were speaking of your blindness.)

But Sontag’s most timeless and soul-stirring meditation transcends Borges himself and extends into the magic of literature itself — a singular yet equally stirring articulation of Carl Sagan’s assertion that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic” and E. B. White’s proclamation that reading possesses “a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.” Sontag ends the essay with a poignant and prescient reflection on just what’s at stake if we turn away from books and reduce reading to a mechanized function of transient technologies:

Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the “real” everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that books are now considered an endangered species. By books, I also mean the conditions of reading that make possible literature and its soul effects. Soon, we are told, we will call up on “bookscreens” any “text” on demand, and will be able to change its appearance, ask questions of it, “interact” with it. When books become “texts” that we “interact” with according to criteria of utility, the written word will have become simply another aspect of our advertising-driven televisual reality. This is the glorious future being created, and promised to us, as something more “democratic.” Of course, it means nothing less than the death of inwardness — and of the book.

Sontag signs off by tying the two — the beauty of Borges and the beauty of books — back together with her signature blend of deeply personal reflection and universally resonant insight:

Dear Borges, please understand that it gives me no satisfaction to complain. But to whom could such complaints about the fate of books— of reading itself— be better addressed than to you? (Borges, it’s ten years!) All I mean to say is that we miss you. I miss you. You continue to make a difference. The era we are entering now, this twenty-first century, will test the soul in new ways. But, you can be sure, some of us are not going to abandon the Great Library. And you will continue to be our patron and our hero.

Complement this double dose of literary timelessness with a parallel reading of Borges on writing and Sontag on writing, then revisit Sontag’s wisdom on why lists appeal to us, literature and freedom, photography and aesthetic consumerism, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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22 OCTOBER, 2013

Susan Sontag on Literature and Freedom

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“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.

Susan Sontag on art. Click image for details.

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.

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17 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Famous Writers on New York: Timeless Private Reflections from Diaries, Letters & Personal Essays

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Mark Twain, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, E. B. White, Washington Irving, Anaïs Nin, Italo Calvino, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

New York City has been the subject of poetic love letters, essayistic homages, emotional cartographies, and artistic tributes. But hardly anything captures the gritty, unfiltered magic of the world’s greatest city than the private recollections of beloved authors, recorded in their journals and correspondence, untainted by the prospect of an evaluating audience. Collected here are some of my favorite such impressions, culled from years of my personal marginalia in famous diaries, letters, and the occasional personal essay.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for details.

Mark Twain — in between dispensing advice to little girls and criticizing the popular press — makes a laconic note of New York’s unmanageable scale in an 1867 reflection included in the vintage anthology Mirror For Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present (public library):

The only trouble about this town is, that it is too large. You cannot accomplish anything in the way of business, you cannot even pay a friendly call, without devoting a whole day to it — that is, what people call a whole day who do not get up early. Many business men only give audience from eleven to one; therefore, if you miss those hours your affair must go over till next day. Now if you make the time at one place, even though you stay only ten or fifteen minutes, you can hardly get to your next point, because so many things and people will attract your attention and your conversation and curiosity, that the other three quarters of that hour will be frittered away. You have but one hour left, and my experience is that a man cannot go anywhere in New York in an hour. The distances are too great — you must have another day to it. If you have got six things to do, you have got to take six days to do them in.

In the recently released Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us the author’s wisdom on writing, America, and the meaning of lifeItalo Calvino writes to his friend Paolo Spriano on Christmas Eve 1959, shortly after receiving a grant from the Ford Foundation to travel around America for six months alongside six other young writers:

New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).

From the fantastic New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library) — one of the best history books of 2012, which you can sample here — comes this 1947 celebration of New York’s defiant diversity by Simone de Beauvoir:

I’m utterly taken with New York. It’s true that both camps tell me, “New York is not America.” V. irritates me when he declares, “If you like New York, it’s because it’s a European city that’s strayed to the edge of this continent.” It is all too clear that New York is not Europe. But I’m even more distrustful of P., another pro-American Pétain supporter, when he contrasts New York — a city of foreigners and Jews — to the idyllic villages of New England, where the inhabitants are 100 percent American and endowed with patriarchal virtues. We have often heard “the real France” praised this way in contrast to the corruption of Paris.

In another reflection from the same volume, de Beauvoir further marvels at New York’s singular character and medley of complementary contradictions:

In Paris, in Rome, history has permeated the bowels of the ground itself; Paris reaches down into the center of the earth. In New York, even the Battery doesn’t have such deep roots. Beneath the subways, sewers, and heating pipes, the rock is virgin and inhuman. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway bathe in the shadows of the giant buildings; this morning they belong to nature. The little black church with its cemetery of flat paving stones is as unexpected and touching in the middle of Broadway as a crucifix on a wild ocean beach.

Illustration from 'Paris vs. New York' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

In a 1934 letter to her lifelong friend and then-lover Henry Miller, found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932–1953 (public library), Anaïs Nin echoes de Beauvoir’s affection for the city:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

But five years later, Nin grows diametrically disillusioned and writes in her diary — which also gave us her timeless wisdom on anxiety and love, how emotional excess fuels creativity, and embracing the unfamiliar — she contrasts New York to her native Paris:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

In another diary entry a year later, she revisits the contrast with growing fervor:

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for details.

In a September 22, 1917, letter to her mother and sister — found in the same superb out-of-print anthology that gave us the poet’s reflections on the love of music, her playfully lewd self-portrait, and the story of how she was almost banned from her own graduation — 18-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay grumbles with her signature wry wit:

There is no air on 5th Avenue, there is nothing but oil & old gasoline & new gasoline — there is never one breath of pure air — nothing but gas, gas, gas — but people who live in New York walk there to get air. Probably they do get it — all of it — & that’s why it blows to me so scummily.

She later adds:

There is a beautiful anonymity about life in New York.

Three years later, in another letter to her mother, Millay grows exasperated with the city:

New York life is getting too congested for me — too many people; I get no time to work.

Washington Irving shares Millay’s frustration with the city’s density. How endearing and comic to consider that, in this 1847 letter to his sister who hadn’t seen her native city in over forty years, he compares New York (current population: 8.3 million) to Frankfurt (current population: 691,000) in an effort to capture its bustling expansiveness:

I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives. New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city ; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt — all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering. I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair. Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.

Unlike Irving, E. B. White found in the city’s exuberant turmoil cause for awe rather than distress. In Here Is New York (public library), one of the best books about Gotham, he captures the city’s vibrant whimsy in his breathlessly beautiful prose:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Malcolm Gladwell's hand-drawn personal memory map of Manhattan. Click image for details.

26-year-old Susan Sontag writes in an 1959 diary entry, found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library), which also gave us her meditations on art, marriage, life, and the four people any great writer must be:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here … In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality — no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt … Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Adjusting to the city vs. making the city answer better to the self.

Also in New York Diaries, Randy Cohen notes Gotham’s curious customs, which take on a wholly different context than their practice anywhere else:

New York is not Mexico City, but twice a year, we parents at the 96th Street school-bus stop collect money for Mr. R., the driver. “You have to give, or he’ll drop your kid in Times Square alone,” someone jokes. And it is a joke. New York is not Lagos, Mr. R. is a responsible man, and the money is a gift.

The Chrysler Building by James Gulliver Hancock from 'All the Buildings in New York.' Click image for details.

But perhaps most poignant and timeless of all is this meta-meditation on writing about New York from The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library). In a diary entry dated April 3, 1976, the celebrated author and literary sage reflects:

The impulse of every writer is to create a fictional world that represents the “real” world in abbreviated, heightened, poetic fashion. … Philip Roth’s New York is his own no less than Beckett’s interior landscapes are his own. Otherwise there would be little pleasure in art: it would be a mere attempt at reportage.

New York, to Oates, is the realest and most pleasurable of worlds. In another diary entry several weeks later, she rejoices in the city’s imminent promise:

Leaving tomorrow for my parents’, then to NYC… Poetry reading Monday evening. Then: freedom to explore New York. Our favorite city. The only city.

After the “totally enjoyable, many-faceted visit,” Oates captures New York’s polarizing mesmerism:

The undeniable attraction of that city: its pulse, atmosphere, people. (NYC is much maligned by the rest of the country out of resentment, one suspects. There is only one city in the United States and the others are envious.)

For more on the private joys and tribulations this “only city” has afforded some of literary history’s greatest icons, revisit the wonderful New York Diaries, then celebrate its dimensional magic with these 10 favorite books on Gotham’s glory.

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