I've been reading Susan Sontag ass-backwards. Which in some ways is an asset. The first Sontag (1933-2004) essay I read was—not surprisingly—“Notes on Camp”. I read it online, possibly here. I crossed paths with her last book, 2003's Regarding the Pain of Others, while working on a self-directed class at the University of Ottawa. Regarding the Pain of Others had a stated predecessor, On Photography. That's as far as I got.
Regarding the Pain of Others was shot through with the idea that suffering isn't noble. It is not noble to suffer—while one can behave nobly during suffering, one is not noble for suffering. If one must suffer, one is noble for enduring.
I was early for a dinner date last week, so I picked up Sontag's Against Interpretation, a collection of essays written between 1962 and 1965. Sontag is among the 20th century's most readable thinkers. There's a very American straightforwardness about her work. Often enough, Sontag is in the position of translating European writers—in particular writers with a flair for contradiction, ambiguity, and even obfuscation—into the American sensibility.
So... Against Interpretation is blowing my mind. The title essay is a plea for critics to take form seriously, to turn away from the “what does this poem/story/novel mean” model of analysis. The title is a bit of a misnomer then, or at least an exaggeration. But her point is as refreshing today as it was in 1962.
But the essay that I find myself wanting to bring up in conversation—a good proxy for identifying ideas I'm having trouble internalizing—is “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer”. Ostensibly a discussion of the writer's notebooks of Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), the essay is a rumination on Sontag's discomfort with artist as sufferer. Or more precisely, her discomfort with the European glorification of suffering. While Regarding the Pain of Others takes its states antecedent as On Photography, this early essay is clearly part of the same evolution:
Many of Pavese's remarks on love seem like a case history supporting the thesis of Denis de Rougemont and other historians of the Western imagination who have traced the evolution of the Wester image of sexual love since Tristan and Isolde as a “romantic agony,” a death wish. But the striking rhetorical enmeshment of the terms “writing,” “sex,” and “suicide” in Pavese's diaries indicates that this sensibility in its modern form is more complex. Rougemont's thesis may throw light on the Western overvaluation of love, but not on the modern pessimism about it: the view that love, and sensual fulfillment, are hopeless projects.
So, here we are in typical Sontag fashion. The quote above ends the fourth-from-last paragraph in the essay. We love to love, Sontag says, but why to we love failed love so much? What is it about the idea that love is impossible that's so gripping? If love were impossible, why chase it? Her answer is that “it is not love which we overvalue, but suffering—more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering.”
(Thanks for tuning back into the blog, by the way. January and February have been thin months. Long nights and cold days sap one's energy. I also notice that I tend to be less of a rational and orderly writer in the midst of the winter wastes. It's harder to clearly organize my thoughts. Anyone else feel that way? Will things get better with a thaw underway?)