The Crucible

15 Sep
Susan Sontag by Annie Leibowitz (assuming she would give me permission to use image)

Susan Sontag by Annie Leibowitz (assuming she would give me permission to use image)

When Susan Sontag responded to the events of Sept 11, 20101 in the New Yorker she was pilloried and defamed almost universally (if I recall correctly Howard Zinn also). She wrote:

Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

Literature is Freedom by Susan Sontag

Literature is Freedom by Susan Sontag

When the Germans awarded Sontag a peace prize (the Germans, people!) previously awarded to Hermann Hesse, Vaclav Havel, Jürgen Habermas and Chinua Acheba, the US Ambassador, contravening protocol, absented himself from the ceremony.* Sontag gave a speech published in a slender, elegant chapbook by Winterhouse editions. She declaimed:

All modern wars, even when their aims are the traditional ones, such as territorial aggrandizement or the acquisition of scarce resources, are cast as clashes of civilizations — culture wars — with each side claiming the high ground, and characterizing the other as barbaric. The enemy is invariably a threat to “our way of life,” an infidel, a desecrator, a polluter, a defiler of higher or better values. The current war against the very real threat posed by militant Islamic fundamentalism is a particularly clear example. What is worth remarking is that a milder version of the same terms of disparagement underlies the antagonism between Europe and America. It should also be remembered that, historically, the most virulent anti-American rhetoric ever heard in Europe — consisting essentially in the charge that Americans are barbarians — came not from the so-called left but from the extreme right. Both Hitler and Franco repeatedly inveighed against an America (and a world Jewry) engaged in polluting European civilization with its base, business values.

Sontag went on to assert:

The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the “intellectual ambassador,” the human rights activist — those roles which are mentioned in the citation for this prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self-doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.

One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements 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.

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 counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences — experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.

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.

The responses to Nine Eleven are worth recalling, as again the caravans start rolling, with the dogs barking. Setting aside for a moment the horrific images of beheadings (as horrific as the drone murders of innocent civilians,off screen) I am chagrined at the media lynching of Ray Rice and the scarcity—actually the total absence — of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. No doubt my assertion that I have no sympathy with wife beaters and child abusers will be overshadowed by my calling for some measure of reflection on the consequences of all the herd ululating about throwing Rice in jail blah, blah, blah. As if that solves one thing except to clear the hysteria agenda of one more villain.

Personally, I am more disturbed at the notion that a tax exempt, 10 billon dollar enterprise led by a 45 million dollar a year salaryman is able to wield so much influence in civil society. And of even more concern that the US of A
is, to borrow an old school phrase, a nation of sheep (note: 4 million people have ordered the newest Apple smart phone—what does that tell you)

Currently reading the The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Pantheon)

*MS Sontag noted his absence

Ambassador Coats has chosen not to be here, I assume, because of criticisms I have voiced, in newspaper and television interviews and in brief magazine articles, of the new radical bent of American foreign policy, as exemplified by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He should be here, I think, because a citizen of the country he represents in Germany has been honored with an important German prize.

2 Responses to “The Crucible”

  1. hdinin September 15, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

    Where precisely is the probative logic behind the purchase of x million—it’s probably more than four by now, by the way; that was yesterday—iPhone 6 models as evidence that a nation of 300 million+ people is one of sheep? [disclosure: I have not ordered one; not yet]

    And if I take issue with Susan Sontag (which I do about so many things) does that not make me her brother, by her definition? I might argue that Sontag’s half of the dialectic is just so much more of the reigning piety, for hers is (that is, was) a kind of self-anointing piety. There’s something bizarre about manning the barricades, and yelling alternatively, “death to contrarians!” and “All hail the contrarians!”

    What it boils down to my brother, is that you’re for what’s right… But who says you are? What is right, anyway? And what are you doing besides writing about it, with sycophantic paeans to dead leftist glory hounds?

    • robertbirnbaum September 15, 2014 at 9:22 pm #

      I actually don’t know what probative logic is but 4 million sheep is a lot of sheep that here are more sheep waiting to be shorn doesn’t change my view that herd behavior is more and more the norm.

      Now as I am not a member of the clergy of the worship of Sontag I can with some claim of measured judgement say she was brilliant and and engaging and what ever the quirks of her large personality she was a thinker to be reckoned with…

      ST John Mandel whose new novel Station Eleven I enthusiastically recommend has written a thoughtful survey of Sontag

      And HBO will be screening a new documentary on Sontag in Dec.

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