“Susan Sontag is a powerful thinker, as smart as she's supposed to be, and a better writer, sentence for sentence, than anyone who now wears the tag 'intellectual.'” —Adam Begley, The New York Observer with praise for author Susan Sontag
“[Sontag is] one of our very few brand-name intellectuals. . .the bearer of the standard of high seriousness in a culture that has essentially capitulated to the easy lifting of the ironic mode or the ready clasp of pure entertainment.” —Sven Birkets, The Yale Review with praise for author Susan Sontag
“Not only did [her work] serve what should be an essential function of criticism, that of introducing readers to new work, weird work, things they wouldn't ordinarily encounter . . . it did so in a notable un-weird manner. Thoroughly trained in literature and philospohy, Sontag applied the standard of the past--truth, beauty, transcendence, spirituality--to the new art of the sixties, with its alienation, extremity, perseverity . . . And the writing was marvelous--high-toned, Brahmin, but full of zest and the pleasure of performing.” —Joan Acocella, The New Yorker with praise for author Susan Sontag
At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches
Susan Sontag, edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump
Hamish Hamilton £18.99, pp256
Complex and contradictory, Susan Sontag, who died in 2004, was one of America's greatest public intellectuals. Writing up to the end, she never lost the strength and clarity of her moral vision. Yet in this posthumous collection of criticism, we see her still struggling to reconcile herself to the fate of the public intellectual: that her work will diminish as the events it depicts recede.
The book opens and closes with two sections of literary criticism, but its heart is the series of essays written in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Included here are two essays that provoked a great deal of controversy in the US: '9.11.01', written a few days after the attacks, and 'Regarding the Torture of Others', a reflection on the obscene photographs that issued from Abu Ghraib prison showing American soldiers torturing their captives.
Sontag excoriates the 'dangerous, lobotomising notion of endless war', surreptitiously introduced by Bush as the 'war on terror'. This war, she says, is at best a metaphor, 'a phantom'. Yet it is a phantom with consequences, for 'it inevitably leads to the demonising and dehumanising of anyone declared by the Bush administration to be a possible terrorist'. It is this doctrine that made possible the bestial behaviour of the Americans in Abu Ghraib. The cipher of the endless war becomes filled with 'the savage autonomy of detail'.
For such a fervent advocate of peace, Sontag is at her best on the attack. Away from the harsh light of moral interrogation, her voice falters. If the dominant theme of this book is the writer's engagement with politics, then Sontag's attempt to resurrect the idea of literature as protest comes across as a desperate last attempt at self-justification.
For all its brilliance, At the Same Time confirms the suspicion that these are the traces of a mind which, for all its power, was often more strong than subtle. Read it now - it may not last 10 years.