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Susan Sontag, the Iron Lady of New York

Susan SontagNot that the American intellectual left can take another hit right now, but you have surely heard the terrible news that Susan Sontag has died. She had leukemia. She was 71. Here are some excerpts of what they are writing about her in France, where she usually lived half of each year and where she was much admired. In fact, the first article quoted below, from Libération, reports a rumor that she may will be buried in Paris [see updates below].

Natalie Levisalles, Susan Sontag en son temps (Libération, December 29):
In July and August 1993, in besieged Sarajevo, Susan Sontag produced Beckett's Waiting for Godot. She then narrated this experience for Libération, in a magnificent series of articles published over five days in November 1993. She wrote then, "I was not under the illusion that going to direct a play in Sarajevo would make me as useful as if I had been a doctor or an engineer for the water company. [...] But it was the only of the three things I can do—writing, making films, directing plays—that could produce something which would be made and consumed here and would exist only in Sarajevo."
Luc Briand, Gérard Lefort, and Clémentine Mercier, «La mémoire est faite de plans fixes» (Libération, December 29). This is a reprint of an interview Sontag gave last year (first published on October 11, 2003). The first question is about a photograph of a victim of a bombing in Haifa, Israel, that the newspaper refused to publish.
Should we have published this image?

I think there are at least two reasons not to publish it. First, one can distinguish perfectly the face of this decapitated young woman. We may therefore presume that those close to her, her parents, her friends, would recognize her, and we can imagine the extra pain that it might unleash. The other reason is that you are French and that this image refers to a very French mythology, that of the Revolution. In this sense, in a subliminal way, a decapitated head evokes unmistakably the way that France administered the death penalty from the Revolution to the time of its abolition in 1981: the guillotine. There you have it, these are questions more than answers.

After the September 11 attacks, American television and newspapers refused to show pictures of cadavers. Why?

I asked this question of editors-in-chief of American newspapers. They responded that it would have been in very bad taste. I don't trust that kind of reason. To invoke bad taste when contemporary society, for commercial ends, is saturated with bad taste, I think that's suspicious. Behind that reason, there is another, much more troubling, which concerns the control the United States has over what the American public, and by extension the worldwide public, should see or not. By what right? What could have been so dangerous about Americans seeing American cadavers?

Are some photos best left unseen?

That is not the right question. The raw photo does not exist. Everything depends on the context, on everything that frames an image and that can radically change its meaning. A photo published in a newspaper like yours is not the same if it is shown in an exhibit, which is not the same if it is printed on high-quality paper in a beautiful book. What I'm saying is banal, but it's a banality that is forgotten.
Susan Rubin Suleiman [Professor of French Literature at Harvard University], Susan Sontag, les passions de l'esprit (Le Monde, December 30):
Sartre said somewhere that an intellectual is "a man who thinks and who, at any time, says what he thinks." It is also necessary for an audience to take interest in what the intellectual thinks, and rare are the intellectual women who command such a public. Our image of the penseur [thinker] (are there any penseuses?) is by definition male: "Woman, always the principle of the anti-spirit in this mythology of the intellectual," wrote Susan Sontag [...] in an essay dedicated to a great intellectual whom she admired, Elias Canetti. Susan Sontag was that rare creature, an intellectual woman whose writing, opinions, and thoughts always interested a large audience, in the United State as in Europe and throughout the world.
Jean-Claude Lamy, Susan Sontag, la dame de fer de New York (Le Figaro, December 29), whose title translated is the title of this post:
The illness ended up being the stronger one. Susan Sontag, who was hoping to have escaped from cancer and drew from that experience of pain and struggle a short essay, Illness as Metaphor, has just succombed with the courage of one who is watching death approach and does not want to lower her guard.
Michel Guerrin, Guevara neutralisé (Le Monde, December 30):
Susan Sontag is surely the first writer to have truly analyzed the images of our time. In On Photography (1973), she urges the reader not to accept news reports as proofs, but as the result of "a conflict between two imperatives: to embellish, imperative inherited from the fine arts, and to tell the truth." This belief, which would be developed by many historians starting in the 1980s, was illustrated by the "narratives" of famous photos: such as, this year, her commentary on shots of the Abu Ghraib prison; such as the analysis of this report showing the display of the cadaver of Che Guevara, in October 1967, in Bolivia.
Sontag's death at any time would be a terrible loss for the United States, but at this particular moment we need her more than ever. Yes, we need someone who will not flinch from saying the truth, no matter how unpopular, as she did about the September 11 attacks, about the Patriot Act, and about Abu Ghraib. She said and wrote these things in spite of the grave personal danger it brought to her own person, which is what I think we can call, without any irony, heroism. She prized erudition and she abhorred ignorance. Of course, she should be buried in Paris.

The city of Sarajevo has announced that it will name a street after Susan Sontag, and one of the theaters there will install a plaque honoring her.

It's official, according to another article («Déjà, la voix de Susan manque», December 31) by Mathilde La Bardonnie in Libération: "The homages are multiplying to honor the passing of American intellectual Susan Sontag, who will be buried next week in Paris, in accordance with her wishes." But which cemetery will it be?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To honor is a vital act; however, it is generally expressed in the most mundane manner. What of it that a street is named in Sontag's honor, or that a plaque shall bear her name? Sarajevo's gesture is thoughtful, but a more active and beneficial form of honor would be to create a grant in Sontag's name for burgeoning writers.