R.I.P. Susan Sontag

That shock of white hair always gave her an air of immortality, but Susan Sontag died today, at 71, after a bout with leukemia. She spoke earlier this year about “the truth of fiction.” (Thanks for letting me know, GMB.)

Some of my favorite pieces on Sontag in recent years have been penned by Scott McLemee, an ardent — but far from uncritical — admirer of her criticism (and, in a much more qualified sense, her fiction).

I’d say more, but I’m still on deadline, so I’ll leave you with this excerpt and the hope that a smart editor somewhere will invite Mr. McLemee to share his thoughts on Sontag and her life’s work:

It has been quite some time since Susan Sontag published anything that doesn’t fill an admirer of her best work with embarrassment. Where the Stress Falls, her last collection of essays, consisted for the most part of hints to posterity about how she would prefer to be described. She proclaimed a devotion to complexity (both moral and intellectual) and seriousness (ditto), and also said that she is very passionate – a quality seldom evident from her fiction, with its thin trickle of emotion. It was the kind of solemn preening that calls to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s remark that the poet Paul Valery had spent the final decades of his life preparing posthumous editions of his own work.

So it is with some misgivings that I opened Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag’s meditation on the imagery of warfare, which revisits the concerns first staked out in On Photography, published in 1977. “My energy as a writer impels me to look forward,” she proclaimed in Where the Stress Falls, “to feel still that I am beginning, really beginning, now.” Yet much of her work in recent years has consisted of spirals backward, rather than energetic forward thrusts. AIDS and Its Metaphors offered a set of afterthoughts on Illness as Metaphor, for example, while In America recycled the historical-romantic pastiche of The Volcano Lover (Sontag’s one readable novel, of the four published thus far).

But Regarding the Pain of Others is not simply a repetition of the earlier writings on photography; rather, it is a genuine return to the source of the energy driving Sontag’s critical prose from the 1960s and ’70s.

The immediate topic is the role of war photography in how noncombatants understand military violence and respond to its human cost. (Or fail to understand it, and grow numb to it.) A timely subject, unfortunately. But a longtime reader of Sontag notices that her discussion of Matthew Brady’s images of the Civil War — or photojournalistic coverage of downtown New York, autumn 2001 — land her in the middle of familiar questions about the history of sensibility in a culture shaped by the mechanical reproduction of imagery. That has always been one of the guiding preoccupations of her best work, from Against Interpretation to The Volcano Lover.

If you’re looking for more Sontag once you’ve read McLemee, Ron Hogan of Beatrice marvels at the omission of Annie Lebovitz, Sontag’s longtime partner, from the New York Times obituary.


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