"Same Time: Essays and Speeches" by Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review by Umi Hashitsume
Same Time: Essays and Speeches is a posthumous collection of Susan Sontag's short writings. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and spanning 256 pages, it is available for $11.24 on Amazon. It starts promisingly with an "Argument About Beauty," and declines into celebratory pieces of Sontag's favorite works. Finally, the end leaves us with conservative left approach on 9/11 and the use of art for hope. The compilation is loosely put together with idyllic pieces followed by a call for action. The book cover, however, was what was most compelling, the back cover touting "Do Something." This collection is a reminder that more can always be done, and in the end you are left with this self referencing feeling that in the same way, something more could have been done to strengthen the mission of this collection.
In the foreword, Sontag's son David Rieff reveals her wish to have written more novels. And it makes sense that in her last collection of essays before returning to fiction that she includes essays that celebrate her favorite works. These exaltations by her leave a bittersweet taste in your mouth. This collection is not fully representative of her works, but it is a mapping of what kind of woman she has become, a collection of her wishes that were left unfinished. Her son also concedes that although she chose the pieces for the most part, "she would have added to this book, amended the essays, and doubtless made cuts as well" (XII). This collection seems unfinished, lacking the concise way she writes, for example, in "Notes On 'Camp.'"
In the first essay in this collection, Sontag draws out the pluralistic concerns of beauty and comes to similar conclusions to Arthur Danto in The Abuse of Beauty that the definition of beauty can be found in its history. Beauty as a judgment is important, however, there are no normalizing standards that can be written about it. Few things are evident that contribute to this ambiguity of beauty, such as the intertwinement of ethics in aesthetics. In a triumphant end, however, Sontag shows that regardless of its tumultuous history, beauty is a relevant judgment that might prove to be important. Here, we see one of her gems as she asks whether we would ever prefer to say "That sunset is interesting," opposed to beautiful. She attempts to tie this into the moral. No matter what conclusion we come to with the idea of beauty, it is worth considering and relevant, as its own history suggests. She seems to suggest that the majority of our concern with beauty has to do with what it lends to moral questions. Here, she evokes the eighteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. She is in insightful when drawing out this issue in concern to discrimination. She analyzes that this is a clear problem when there is a criteria for beauty, when beauty is applied to some things and not others. Another point that is worth a mention is her analysis of something that is interesting. Interesting muddles the ethical waters, in that it is more inclusive. Interesting involves not only the extraordinary, but also the ugly. In fact, interesting is characterized as something we like or ought to like although it is not beautiful. Something interesting is notable because it holds our interest while being something other than a normalized standard. This is a modern phenomenon. Another German philosopher from the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morals that man first becomes an interesting animal and attains depth when the concept of evil develops. "An Argument About Beauty" lays the foundation for what in the end she calls the "ethical component" inherent in storytelling. There is an important task that cannot be taken up by the media outlets and television broadcasts that take so much time away from literature.
Through she begins and ends on a strong note, what is left in between leaves more to be desired. Her second essay, "1926É Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, Rilke," examines the possibility of writing what could not be expressed with speech. The correspondence between Rainer Maria Rilke, whom Sontag refers to as god, and his acolytes, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetayeva, (quickly turned into three equals) is something that could not have taken place without the use of a pen and paper. She works out the complicated relationship and context of the three's correspondence. She is fascinated by the uniqueness of this arrangement and poses that this networking could not have happen without the institution of literature and their personal passion driven by writing.
In the following essays, she writes about what made the authors and consequently their works go beyond interesting. Both of the novels by Leonid Tsypkin and Anna Banti are based on real people, which make the re-created fictive version a "metaphor for reading" (56). She introduces obscure authors and their works and not only celebrates what goes into making a good book, but attempts to bring attention to her favorite unrecognized works. The former novel by Tsypkin is published a day before the author's death and the latter novel by Banti is resurrected posthumously, both of which harkens transparent parallels. In a similar vein, the essay following these two, "Unextinguished: The Case for Victor Serge," starts by questioning the disappearance of the Russian revolutionary, Serge from the literary circuit after his death. All of Sontag's musing about the state of her works after her death is seemingly made public, as she hashes out what made these authors, mostly unheard of to the uninitiated, alive for her. At the end of this first section, she slyly criticizes the categories of literature laid out before her. This is done by her attempt to place an innovative novel that encompasses multiple genres and styles. This hopeful celebratory essay concludes that Under the Glacier by Hallador Laxness transcends these boundaries, and examines what more can be done by exemplary literature if it is not contained within the limitations of truth and categorizing. Sontag rightly wants to encourage future novels to push the limits.
The following selections outline her writings on our current political climate, more specifically, 9-11. What ties this section together with the previous is its call for historical awareness and search for meaning in morality. She calls out the hypocrisy of our focus on grief control and what seems like a shutting out of the public on real actions internationally. The politicians and media are quick to name an enemy, categorize, and make the grief intelligible in a way that is convenient for the conservative right-wing party. Her writing borders on practical and sympathetic, rightly pointing out the follies of creating such a black and white picture. However, her essay unfortunately lacks any revelatory ideas. Despite her call for action the full extent of her solution is public understanding. She rightly distinguishes between the political machine and individual citizens, and in the same vain, rogue terrorists, other political machines overseas, and other individual citizens overseas. She expresses that these groups must be recognized separately, but is not mutually exclusive, and the way these groups interact and react to each other must be changed. These essays seem to be samples of writings that express certain realities, as well as pieces that draw our focus back to current events. I wish she had drawn a stronger link between these essays and the rest of the collection.
"Photography: A Little Summa," left more to be desired. Her main point, that photography offers a much different way of seeing that marks modernity (or post-modernity, depending on how one views it) is a short introduction to "Regarding the Torture of Others." However, it is not necessary. She privileges photography as a record, of history, tourism, and what have you. In her following essay "Regarding the Torture of Others," she shows us a more insightful and critical Sontag. She claims that photographic depictions on the atrocities and torture of war, such as the photos taken at Abu Ghraib, show more than people's actions during this unique suspension of law. These pictures have another significance as a creative act for its own sake. They are used, she writes, for gloating and to be collected (132). She refers to the use of pictures as a record of daily life, whether it is by bloggers or by soldiers stationed overseas. She writes, "to live is to be photographed" (134) and she refers to the photographs in Abu Ghraib as an insult to the people's "historical and moral sense" (137). All the essays in the last section of this collection drive home the idea that acts of creation, in literature and in photography, are acts of life, have political implications, and help to shape the historical and moral well being of people.
The compilation ends with a collection of speeches and lectures given by Sontag at various literary presentations. Here she elucidates the power of words and writing, as the titles "The Conscience of Words" and "Literature is Freedom" suggest. In the former, she writes, "The writer's first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truthÉ and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification" (151). Here, we assume she is referring to subjective but universal truths, truths of individual experiences that can be relatable to all. She refers to reality and the writers' job of expressing certain realities, which she believes would go beyond simple opinions. She seems to appeal to the complexities of reality and our need to do this justice. This is where her call for action comes in. The writer's moral duty is not to express what they believe, but to express what they believe to be the reality, such as the essays that Sontag writes on 9-11. Although this is admirably notable, she falls short of making a stronger statement about literature. For example, Jurgen Habermas writes in "Philosophy and Science as Literature?" that "propositional content of statements cannot be separated from the rhetorical form of its presentation. No innovative break with tried-and-true cognitive forms and scientific habits is possible without linguistic innovation" (Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, Pg. 205). In this statement, Habermas reveals that we cannot separate the presentation from the content, which would help Sontag's argument later on why linear narrative and fiction are important to have. Sontag appeals to the public and assumes them to have the same experience as her. This is probably why her experiences with literature in the first few essays are important to this compilation. I wish that she had made a stronger case.
The essays between "The Conscience of Words" and "Literature Is Freedom" seem to refer to the same thing. It talks about being a writer and what literature is and tries to inspire those marching on behind her. "The World as India," is a rather pragmatic look into the use and history of translations. What is key there is the translator's role as a reader with standards, who will co-author and change a work with their own convictions and choice. From the act of reading is where the writer develops. This is why Sontag dedicates the earlier essays to her favorite authors. In "Literature Is Freedom," she writes, "to have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom" (209). Literature as an institution has the ability to change and create lives, with it the ethical burden exists of expressing truths. With these last few essays, her collection comes full circle.
Through her overarching theme of literature, she also has many fragmented big ideas on beauty, suffering, terror, and freedom. She claims that these ideas are in direct correlation with the ethical burden of a writer to depict realities and truth. In her essays regarding 9-11, she found the US government's dissemination of accurate information to be downright nonexistent. In the essays regarding photography, she reveals how the expression of truth can come in other forms in modernity. However, all of this is limited as the author's subjective experience of realities and truth. She fails to write on how these fragments cooperate or fail to cooperate in terms of universal experience and truth in a stronger sense. It seems that she begins to address this idea in her essays on photography, but does not develop this idea.
In her final essay, "At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning," she specifically refers to writers and what their mission should be. Writing is a creation of a world and literature is this world organized into a literary narrative (216). In these final speeches, it almost seems a shame that she spent her time creating this compilation instead of penning a work of literature. She follows to write that fiction is important, because it stretches our world, beyond the realities (228). Here she claims that the fiction writer is different from the writer who must write about realities and truths. The fiction writer can elaborate on consequences and develop truths in a fictional work. This might exactly be what this compilation needs. Sontag also expresses that writers expand the realities in a way that stretches our boundaries, to consider the truth in new light. This is the ethical burden of writers. The writer is critical and often might seek to oppose that which we take as truth. However, at least in this collection, Sontag seems to miss the mark on this type of controversy.