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The Conscience of Words: Susan Sontag on the Wisdom of Literature, the Danger of Opinions, and the Writer’s Task

“A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine… The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.”

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf observed in the only surviving recording of her voice. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote many decades later in contemplating the magic of real conversation. The poet David Whyte marveled at “their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty” as he set out to reclaim the deeper meanings of everyday words. But what do words actually do — what is their responsibility to us and ours to them?

That’s what Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) explores in her spectacular 2001 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, published as “The Conscience of Words” in At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library) — the indispensable posthumous anthology that gave us Sontag on moral courage and the power of principled resistance to injustice, literature and freedom, beauty vs. interestingness, and her advice to writers.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar
Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar

Sontag begins by weighing the elasticity of language and the way in which words can expand meaning as much as they can contract it:

We fret about words, we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality. And the more portentous, more general the word, the more they also resemble rooms or tunnels. They can expand, or cave in. They can come to be filled with a bad smell. They will often remind us of other rooms, where we’d rather dwell or where we think we are already living. They can be spaces we lose the art or the wisdom of inhabiting. And eventually those volumes of mental intention we no longer know how to inhabit will be abandoned, boarded up, closed down.

What do we mean, for example, by the word “peace”? Do we mean an absence of strife? Do we mean a forgetting? Do we mean a forgiveness? Or do we mean a great weariness, an exhaustion, an emptying out of rancor? It seems to me that what most people mean by “peace” is victory. The victory of their side. That’s what “peace” means to them, while to the others peace means defeat… Peace becomes a space people no longer know how to inhabit.

Reflecting on the complete name of the prize that occasioned her speech — the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society — Sontag reflects on the writer’s relationship to words as a tool of personal agency:

It isn’t what a writer says that matters, it’s what a writer is.

Writers — by which I mean members of the community of literature — are emblems of the persistence (and the necessity) of individual vision.

And yet because “there are contradictory impulses in everything,” as Sontag herself so poignantly observed a quarter century earlier, there is a dark side to this notion of individual vision. In a passage of particular timeliness amid our age of identity and self-broadcasting, Sontag, who lived through “the century of the self,” writes:

The unceasing propaganda in our time for “the individual” seems to me deeply suspect, as “individuality” itself becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness. A capitalist society comes to have a vested interest in praising “individuality” and “freedom” — which may mean little more than the right to the perpetual aggrandizement of the self, and the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete.

I don’t believe there is any inherent value in the cultivation of the self. And I think there is no culture (using the term normatively) without a standard of altruism, of regard for others. I do believe there is an inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader and then as a writer, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other dreams, other words, other territories of concern.

In a sentiment almost countercultural today, as we watch entire careers be built upon rampant opinion-slinging, Sontag considers the true task of the writer:

A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine… The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth … and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to believe the mental despoilers. The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.

It is the job of the writer to depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture. It is the essence of the wisdom furnished by literature (the plurality of literary achievement) to help us to understand that, whatever is happening, something else is always going on.

Sontag’s words radiate an aching recognition of our contemporary tendency to form instant opinions and to mistake for informed opinions what are really reactions to reactions. She observes:

There is something vulgar about public dissemination of opinions on matters about which one does not have extensive first-hand knowledge. If I speak of what I do not know, or know hastily, this is mere opinion-mongering.

[…]

The problem with opinions is that one is stuck with them. And whenever writers are functioning as writers, they always see … more.

Attesting to literature power to reinstate nuance and celebrate what the poet Elizabeth Alexander calls “multivocality, polyphony, gumbo yaya,” Sontag adds:

If literature itself, this great enterprise that has been conducted (within our purview) for nearly three millennia, embodies a wisdom — and I think it does and is at the heart of the importance we give to literature — it is by demonstrating the multiple nature of our private and our communal destinies. It will remind us that there can be contradictions, sometimes irreducible conflicts, among the values we most cherish.

Susan Sontag’s diary meditations on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton

Out of this recognition of multiplicity and complementarity arises the highest task of literature, as well as its greatest reward. Centuries after Hegel, one of her great influences, admonished against the peril of fixed opinions, Sontag writes:

The wisdom of literature is quite antithetical to having opinions… Furnishing opinions, even correct opinions — whenever asked — cheapens what novelists and poets do best, which is to sponsor reflectiveness, to pursue complexity.

In a sentiment of especial relevance today, as we increasingly struggle to live with wisdom in the age of information, Sontag echoes her hero Walter Benjamin’s timeless ideas about the crucial difference between information and illumination and considers the ultimate task of the storyteller:

Information will never replace illumination… Let the others, the celebrities and the politicians, talk down to us; lie. If being both a writer and a public voice could stand for anything better, it would be that writers would consider the formulation of opinions and judgments to be a difficult responsibility.

Another problem with opinions. They are agencies of self-immobilization. What writers do should free us up, shake us up. Open avenues of compassion and new interests. Remind us that we might, just might, aspire to become different, and better, than we are. Remind us that we can change.

At the Same Time is a terrific and timely read in its totality. Complement it with Sontag’s abiding wisdom on the power of music, the role of silence in creative work, storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, how photography helps us navigate complexity, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.

BP

Susan Sontag on How Photography Mediates Our Relationship with Life and Death

“We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably.”

Susan Sontag on How Photography Mediates Our Relationship with Life and Death

“Life is a movie. Death is a photograph,” Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) wrote in The Benefactor, her 1963 debut novel. That year — the year she turned thirty and began writing her masterwork Against Interpretation — she met the photographer Peter Hujar (October 11, 1934–November 26, 1987). The shared sensibility Sontag instantly intuited was further affirmed three years later when Hujar showed her the extraordinary photographs he had taken in the Catacombs at Palermo, which impressed themselves upon Sontag’s imagination so profoundly as to become the landscape of the final scene in her second novel, Death Kit.

In 1976, a year before she published what remains the finest, sharpest, most prescient thing ever written about photography, Sontag agreed to write the introduction to Hujar’s slim, stunning coffee table book Portraits in Life and Death (public library) — a collection of his Palermo photographs alongside uncommonly soulful portraits of people in his life, including John Waters, William S. Burroughs, Fran Lebowitz, John Ashbery, Candy Darling, his partner David Wojnarowicz, and Sontag herself.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar
Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar

Sontag’s introduction examines how photography mediates the relationship between life and death, and has only swelled with significance and cultural relevance in the decades since, as we have shuttered and pixelated our way into this life-as-commemoration-of-itself age of ours. She writes:

Photographs turn the present into past, make contingency into destiny. Whatever their degree of “realism,” all photographs embody a “romantic” relation to reality.

I am thinking of how the poet Novalis defined Romanticism: to make the familiar appear strange, the marvelous appear commonplace. The camera’s uncanny mechanical replication of persons and events performs a kind of magic, both creating and de-creating what is photographed. To take pictures is, simultaneously, to confer value and to render banal.

Photograph from the Catacombs in Palermo by Peter Hujar
One of Hujar’s photographs from the Catacombs in Palermo

This dual function, Sontag argues, renders photography a vehicle of mythmaking, embedded in whose claim to immortality is the pulsating awareness and even fetishizing of mortality:

Photographs instigate, confirm, seal legends. Seen through photographs, people become icons of themselves. Photography converts the world itself into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for esthetic appreciation.

Photography also converts the whole world into a cemetery. Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also — wittingly or unwittingly — the recording-angels of death. The photograph-as-photograph shows death. More than that, it shows the sex-appeal of death.

John Waters by Peter Hujar
John Waters by Peter Hujar

Reflecting on Hujar’s subjects, who “appear to meditate on their own mortality,” Sontag considers the strange and rather delusional defiance that defines our relationship with death, that most natural and inevitable of experiences — a defiance that has only grown more vehement and belligerent in the decades since, with only occasional beacons of lucidity. Half a millennium after Montaigne observed that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Sontag writes:

We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably… Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death. I am moved by the purity and delicacy of his intentions. If a free human being can afford to think of nothing less than death, then these memento mori can exorcise morbidity as effectively as they evoke its sweet poetry and its panic.

Peter Hujar
Peter Hujar

Hujar died in 1987 from AIDS-related pneumonia. He was fifty-four and had outlived many of those he photographed, also taken by the Plague. The book’s dedication, emblematic of Hujar’s largeness of heart, reads simply: “I dedicate this book to everyone in it.”

Portraits in Life and Death is, lamentably, so out of print that there appears to be a kind of black market for it — but is very much worth the used-book hunt or a trip to the local public library. Complement it with Sontag on aesthetic consumerism and the violence of photography, how the camera helps us navigate complexity, art as a form of spirituality, and what it means to be a moral human being, then see Italo Calvino on photography and the art of presence.

BP

Susan Sontag on Selfies, Selfhood, and How the Camera Helps Us Navigate Complexity

“There is a dialectical exchange between simplicity and complexity, like the one between self-revelation and self-concealment.”

Susan Sontag on Selfies, Selfhood, and How the Camera Helps Us Navigate Complexity

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) wrote in her timeless 1977 treatise on photography, an inquiry of uncanny and swelling timeliness today. She had been tussling with and incubating these ideas — this growing concern with how the commodification of images is changing our relationship to ourselves and the world — for some years.

In one particularly poignant 1975 Boston Review interview, later included in the magnificent compendium Conversations with Susan Sontag (public library), she reflects on how the technology of photography has shaped one of the most abiding mysteries of the human experience — the puzzlement of what makes us and our childhood selves “the same person” despite a lifetime of change.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

In a sobering reality check with history, Sontag observes:

The vast majority of people, those who could not afford to have a portrait painted, had no record of what they looked like as children. Today, we all have photographs in which we can see ourselves at age six, our faces already intimating what they were to become. We have similar information about our parents and grandparents. And there’s a great poignancy in these photographs; they make you realize that these people really were children once. To be able to see oneself and one’s parents as children is an experience unique to our time. The camera has brought people a new, and essentially pathetic, relation to themselves, to their physical appearance, to aging, to their own mortality. It is a kind of pathos which never existed before.

It’s a jarring notion to contemplate amid our present culture, where this pathos has reached a shrill crescendo in the selfie pandemic. Here we are, facing the camera in order to face ourselves, both instantaneously and perpetually, as we look to the world to affirm the reality of our very existence by validating these snapshots of selfhood. I’m reminded of Italo Calvino who, in contemplating photography and the art of presence also in the 1970s, observed: “The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.”

And yet Sontag, a staunch opponent of artificial polarities, cautions against reducing photography to simplistic binaries. Instead, she points to it as our coping mechanism, however imperfect, for dealing with the complexity of the outside world and of our interior lives. Echoing Hannah Arendt on being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-revelation, Sontag notes:

The problem with photography is that … it’s too imperious a way of seeing. Its balance between being “present” and being “absent” is facile, when generalized as an attitude — which it is now in our culture. But I’m not against simplicity, as such. There is a dialectical exchange between simplicity and complexity, like the one between self-revelation and self-concealment. The first truth is that every situation is extremely complicated and that anything one thinks about thereby becomes more complicated. The main mistake people make when thinking about something, whether an historical event or one in their private lives, is that they don’t see just how complicated it is. The second truth is that one cannot live out all the complexities one perceives, and that to be able to act intelligently, decently, efficiently, and compassionately demands a great deal of simplification. So there are times when one has to forget — repress, transcend — a complex perception that one has.

For a deeper dive into these complexities, revisit Sontag’s extended meditation on visual culture, then complement the magnificently insightful Conversations with Susan Sontag with her enduring wisdom on love, art, silence, personal growth, beauty vs. interestingness, and what it means to be a decent human being.

BP

The Aesthetic of Silence: Susan Sontag on Art as a Form of Spirituality and the Paradoxical Role of Silence in Creative Culture

“The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway.”

“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Adrienne Rich asserted in her spectacular 1997 lecture Arts of the Possible. But it was exactly three decades earlier that another of humanity’s most incisive intellects made the finest — and timeliest today — case for the generative function of silence in a creative culture drowning in noise.

In The Aesthetics of Silence, the first essay from her altogether indispensable 1969 collection Styles of Radical Will (public library), Susan Sontag examines how silence mediates the role of art as a form of spirituality in an increasingly secular culture.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.’ Click image for details.

Shortly after she wrote in her diary that “art is a form of consciousness” and shortly before Pablo Neruda penned his beautiful ode to silence and Paul Goodman — who shared a mutual admiration with Sontag — enumerated the nine kinds of silence, she writes:

Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)

In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.” The activities of the painter, the musician, the poet, the dancer, once they were grouped together under that generic name (a relatively recent move), have proved a particularly adaptable site on which to stage the formal dramas besetting consciousness, each individual work of art being a more or less astute paradigm for regulating or reconciling these contradictions. Of course, the site needs continual refurbishing. Whatever goal is set for art eventually proves restrictive, matched against the widest goals of consciousness. Art, itself a form of mystification, endures a succession of crises of demystification; older artistic goals are assailed and, ostensibly, replaced; outworn maps of consciousness are redrawn.

But modern art, Sontag argues, is as much a form of consciousness as an answer to our longing for anti-consciousness, speaking to what she calls “the mind’s need or capacity for self-estrangement”:

Art is no longer understood as consciousness expressing and therefore, implicitly, affirming itself. Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote — evolved from within consciousness itself.

As such, art usurps the role religion and mysticism previously held in human life — something to satisfy our “craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.” The spiritual satiation that arises from this dialogue between art and anti-art, Sontag points out, necessitates the pursuit of silence. For the serious artist, silence becomes “a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak.”

In a counterpart to her later admonition that publicity is “a very destructive thing” for any artist, Sontag considers the zeal the artist must have in protecting that zone of silence — a notion of particular urgency in our age of tyrannical expectations regarding artists’ engagement with social media:

So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience… Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Open House for Butterflies’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

And yet, in a sentiment that calls to mind Kierkegaard’s astute observation that expressing contempt is still a demonstration of dependence, Sontag recognizes that the gesture of silence in abdication from society is still “a highly social gesture.” She writes:

An exemplary decision of this sort can be made only after the artist has demonstrated that he possesses genius and exercised that genius authoritatively. Once he has surpassed his peers by the standards which he acknowledges, his pride has only one place left to go. For, to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, and that he possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence.

Silence, then, is exercised not in the absolute but in degrees, mediating between art and anti-art, between consciousness and anti-consciousness:

The exemplary modern artist’s choice of silence is rarely carried to this point of final simplification, so that he becomes literally silent. More typically, he continues speaking, but in a manner that his audience can’t hear…

Modern art’s chronic habit of displeasing, provoking, or frustrating its audience can be regarded as a limited, vicarious participation in the ideal of silence which has been elevated as a major standard of “seriousness” in contemporary aesthetics.

But it is also a contradictory form of participation in the ideal of silence. It is contradictory not only because the artist continues making works of art, but also because the isolation of the work from its audience never lasts… Goethe accused Kleist of having written his plays for an “invisible theatre.” But eventually the invisible theatre becomes “visible.” The ugly and discordant and senseless become “beautiful.” The history of art is a sequence of successful transgressions.

[…]

Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist’s inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence.

And yet, Sontag points out, silence is relational — while it may be the intention of the artist, it can never be the experience of the audience. (For a supreme example, we need not look further than John Cage, who even during his most forceful imposition of silence was in dynamic dialogue with the audience upon which silence was being imposed.)

Sontag, in fact, shined a sidewise gleam on this notion three years earlier in her masterwork Against Interpretation — for what is interpretation if not the act of filling the artist’s silence with the audience’s noise? She writes:

Silence doesn’t exist in a literal sense, however, as the experience of an audience. It would mean that the spectator was aware of no stimulus or that he was unable to make a response… As long as audiences, by definition, consist of sentient beings in a “situation,” it is impossible for them to have no response at all.

[…]

There is no neutral surface, no neutral discourse, no neutral theme, no neutral form. Something is neutral only with respect to something else — like an intention or an expectation. As a property of the work of art itself, silence can exist only in a cooked or non-literal sense. (Put otherwise: if a work exists at all, its silence is only one element in it.) Instead of raw or achieved silence, one finds various moves in the direction of an ever receding horizon of silence — moves which, by definition, can never be fully consummated.

Illustration by John Vernon Lord from a rare edition of ‘Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.’ Click image for more.

She illustrates this with the classic scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where Alice encounters a shop “full of all manner of curious things,” and yet whenever she looks closely at any one shelf, it appears “quite empty, though the others round it were crowded full as they could hold.” Silence, similarly, is relational rather than absolute:

“Silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence: just as there can’t be “up” without “down” or “left” without “right,” so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence…

A genuine emptiness, a pure silence is not feasible — either conceptually or in fact. If only because the artwork exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.

Silence, Sontag argues, is also a way of steering the attention. In a passage triply timely today, half a century of attention-mauling media later, she writes:

Art is a technique for focusing attention, for teaching skills of attention… Once the artist’s task seemed to be simply that of opening up new areas and objects of attention. That task is still acknowledged, but it has become problematic. The very faculty of attention has come into question, and been subjected to more rigorous standards…

Perhaps the quality of the attention one brings to bear on something will be better (less contaminated, less distracted), the less one is offered. Furnished with impoverished art, purged by silence, one might then be able to begin to transcend the frustrating selectivity of attention, with its inevitable distortions of experience. Ideally, one should be able to pay attention to everything.

Many years later, Sontag would advise aspiring writers to learn to “pay attention to the world” as the most important skill of storytelling. Silence, she argues here, invites us to pay selfless and unselfconscious attention to the world the artist is creating. In a sentiment that explains why there are no comments on Brain Pickings and captures today’s acute spiritual hunger for a space for unreactive contemplation amid a culture of reactive opinion-slinging, Sontag writes:

Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject… In principle, the audience may not even add its thought. All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.

[…]

The efficacious artwork leaves silence in its wake. Silence, administered by the artist, is part of a program of perceptual and cultural therapy, often on the model of shock therapy rather than of persuasion. Even if the artist’s medium is words, he can share in this task: language can be employed to check language, to express muteness… Art must mount a full-scale attack on language itself, by means of language and its surrogates, on behalf of the standard of silence.

Once again, Sontag’s extraordinary prescience shines its brilliant beam upon our time, across half a century of perfectly anticipated cultural shifts. Much like she presaged the downsides of the internet’s photo-fetishism in the 1970s and admonished against treating cultural material as “content” in the 1960s, she captures the entire ethos of our social media in 1967:

The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway. Discovering that one has nothing to say, one seeks a way to say that.

The Aesthetics of Silence is an immeasurably rewarding read in its entirety, as is the remainder of Styles of Radical Will. Complement it with Sontag on love, “aesthetic consumerism” and the violence of visual culture, how polarities imprison us, why lists appeal to us, her diary meditations on art, and her advice to aspiring writers.

BP

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