The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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

“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.

Published December 19, 2016




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