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15-Year-Old Susan Sontag on the Explosive Elasticity of the Self

“All that animates me and is the original and responsive desire that constitutes my ‘self’ — all this takes on a definite shape and size — far too large to be contained by the structure I call my body.”

“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” Walt Whitman wrote as he contemplated identity and the paradox of the self. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” the young Leo Tolstoy distilled the eternal quest in his diary as he wrestled with moral development and the search for selfhood — a search that begins as soon as we become conscious, reaches a crescendo in the formative years of adolescence and young adulthood, and continues until our last neuron ceases to fire. We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.

A century after Whitman and Tolstoy, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) — another towering intellect of uncommon insight into the human spirit — examined the perennial preoccupation of consciousness in a cometic passage from the diary of her youth, posthumously published as Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — that spectacular collection of meditations, which also gave us the young Sontag on personal growth, art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something.

Susan Sontag

In a journal entry from late February 1948, shortly after her fifteenth birthday, Sontag writes:

I must not think of the solar system — of innumerable galaxies spanned by countless light years — of infinities of space — I must not look up at the sky for longer than a moment — I must not think of death, of forever — I must not do all those things so that I will not know these horrible moments when my mind seems a tangible thing — more than my mind — my whole spirit — all that animates me and is the original and responsive desire that constitutes my “self” — all this takes on a definite shape and size — far too large to be contained by the structure I call my body — All this pulls and pushes — years and strains (I feel it now) until I must clench my fists — I rise — who can keep still — every muscle is on a rack — striving to build itself into an immensity — I want to scream — my stomach feels compressed — my legs, feet, toes stretching until they hurt.

Complement this particular passage of the intensely insightful and rewarding Reborn with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being, the power of music, the conscience of words, art as a form of spirituality, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.


Being Against Becoming: Susan Sontag on Our Ambivalent Historical Conscience

“We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum. Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”

“Time and reason are functions of each other,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her philosophical novel exploring why honoring the continuity of past and future is the wellspring of moral action. The human animal is indeed a temporal creature, our experience of time at the center of our psychology. Locating ourselves is therefore largely a matter of locating ourselves in the stream of time — diurnal, civilizational, and cosmic. It is hard enough to grapple with the micro end of the spectrum — to acknowledge, with Annie Dillard, that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” — and nearly impossible to fathom the macro, the incomprehensible scales of spacetime. And yet most of our suffering seems to reside in the middle of the spectrum — in our understanding of and orientation toward the selective collective memory we call history. In Figuring, I wrote that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance. Whose judgment? one inevitably asks, and how much room for choice in a universe governed by chance — by randomness and chaos? What, then, do we make of history, and what does it make of us?

That is what Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) explores in a 1967 essay about the work of the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran, found in Styles of Radical Will (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Sontag on art as a form of spirituality and the paradoxical role of silence in creative culture.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar
Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar

Sontag writes:

We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum. Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future. But even the most relevant events carry within them the form of their obsolescence. Thus, a single work is eventually a contribution to a body of work; the details of a life form part of a life history; an individual life history appears unintelligible apart from social, economic, and cultural history; and the life of a society is the sum of “preceding conditions.” Meaning drowns in a stream of becoming: the senseless and overdocumented rhythm of advent and supersession. The becoming of man is the history of the exhaustion of his possibilities.

Half a century before Rebecca Solnit — a Sontag of our own time — insisted that we must know our history in order to rewrite its broken stories, that “you need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent,” Sontag frames the presentism bias with which we live:

The best of the intellectual and creative speculation carried on in the West over the past hundred and fifty years seems incontestably the most energetic, dense, subtle, sheerly interesting, and true in the entire lifetime of man. And yet the equally incontestable result of all this genius is our sense of standing in the ruins of thought and on the verge of the ruins of history and of man himself. (Cogito ergo boom.) More and more, the shrewdest thinkers and artists are precocious archaeologists of these ruins-in-the-making, indignant or stoical diagnosticians of defeat, enigmatic choreographers of the complex spiritual movements useful for individual survival in an era of permanent apocalypse. The time of new collective visions may well be over: by now both the brightest and the gloomiest, the most foolish and the wisest, have been set down. But the need for individual spiritual counsel has never seemed more acute.

Arguing that the rise of this historical consciousness was expedited by the collapse of “the venerable enterprise of philosophical system-building,” Sontag writes:

At the point that history usurped nature as the decisive framework for human experience, man began to think historically about his experience, and the traditional ahistorical categories of philosophy became hollowed out… The leading words of philosophy came to seem excessively overdetermined. Or, what amounts to the same thing, they seem undernourished, emptied of meaning.

Susan Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton

It strikes me that, today, we see ourselves just as falsely separate from history as we feel ourselves falsely separate from nature. We have artificially islanded ourselves both in the river of time and in the river of being, perhaps because we would rather have illusory stability than bob about helplessly with the unbearable ambiguity and uncertainty that froth the rapids of existence.

Sontag intuits as much in quoting Cioran — a writer she celebrates as both powerful and delicate, one for whom “nuance, irony, and refinement are the essence of his thinking” — and his condemnation of our grasping for such illusory certitudes. Cioran eviscerates history as “man’s aggression against himself” in one essay and writes in another:

Men’s minds need a simple truth, an answer which delivers them from their questions, a gospel, a tomb. The moments of refinement conceal a death-principle: nothing is more fragile than subtlety.

After noting Cioran’s debt to Nietzsche — particularly the German philosopher’s skepticism of historical (which is to say human-made) truth and his notion of the eternal return — Sontag points to the trailblazing composer John Cage, patron saint of silence as an aesthetic response, as “the only figure in the world of Anglo-American letters embarked on a theoretical enterprise comparable in intellectual power and scope to Cioran’s.” Having opened her essay with an epigraph by Cage — “Every now and then it is possible           to have absolutely nothing; the possibility of nothing.” — Sontag concludes:

Perhaps, for a unified transvaluation, one must look to those thinkers like Cage who — whether from spiritual strength or from spiritual insensitivity is a secondary issue — are able to jettison far more of the inherited anguish and complexity of this civilization. Cioran’s fierce, tensely argued speculations sum up brilliantly the decaying urgencies of Western thought, but offer us no relief from them beyond the considerable satisfactions of the understanding. Relief, of course, is scarcely Cioran’s intention. His aim is diagnosis. For relief, it may be that one must abandon the pride of knowing and feeling so much — a local pride that has cost everyone hideously by now.

Novalis wrote that “philosophy is properly home-sickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.” If the human mind can be everywhere at home, it must in the end give up its local “European” pride and something else — that will seem strangely unfeeling and intellectually simplistic — must be allowed in. “All that is necessary,” says Cage with his own devastating irony, “is an empty space of time and letting it act in its magnetic way.”

Couple with Cage himself on human nature, then revisit Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, the power of music, the conscience of words, how photography helps us navigate complexity, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.


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.


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.


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