Be more susan sontag


In memory of the late, great Susan S. my friend Mac and I added another resolution to our list: to be more Sontag.

Don’t know why these spontaneous affinities come into my head. but reading all her obituaries I felt that she had something pertinant to say to me. So I popped out and bought a copy of her last book of essays: Where the Stress Falls.

I’d come across her name in connection with her “Notes on Camp” and “AIDS and its Metaphors” at University – but what appeals to me now is her moral intelligence. All my reading and thinking and listening around Buddhism et al in the last few years has been negotiating this idea of morality – that in the glossy, fun-fun-fun phantasma created by consumerism, there are some values, some instincts that are worth setting above others. That tolerance is not the same as moral sloppiness.

Sontag also speaks about this. In an essay she wrote 30 years after the publication of “Against Interpretation” – her famous book of essays from the 60s which she advocated a high regard for what had previously been seen as low arts: cinema, gay culture, photography etc. – she rues how the “cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure” she championed then have all now been sucked up by the global machine of Capitalism and used to sell things. Unintentionally she contributed to what she archly calls the “capitulations…of the ‘post-modern'”.

There’s a certain exasperated note of defeat in this essay from the mid 90s. The Sixties seemed so refreshing to her because they were so free from nostalgia, unironically engaged to the “nowiness” of the Modern and so “distainful of commerce”. The present day, in contrast, seems impossibly leaden with “Retro” and the constant stimulation to move on, be discontent, buy things.

I, however, feel inspired by her description of herself as a “pugnacious aesthete and barely closeted moralist”. I’ve said it before – in connection with Rufus Wainwright – that now more than ever is the time to come out and stand up for beautiful things, difficult things, challenging things and irritating things. Just as the 60s were important because artists were “insolent again, as they’d been after WW1 until the rise of fascism”, I think it’s time for people to embrace insolence (which any mass-produced “punk” band can do) but combine it with a “more alert, less complacent seriousness.” I know it’s controversial to compare the present world with 1940s Fascism, but there is a sort of blanket Consumer Conformism nowadays which is all the more totalitarian for having assimilated everything transgressive and turned it into a sales strategy.

So, along with looking after my feet (another of my resolutions), I’m going to try my damnedest to stand up for “alert seriousness” mixed with ‘insolence” wherever I find it or feel it this year. The battle Sontag took up in the 60s has a new foot soldier: “a newly minted warrior in a very old battle: against philistinism, against ethical and aesthetic shallowness and indifference.” Hope my feet are up to it…


  1. Valerie

    September 12, 2005 at 4:09 pm

    Just re read this essay. So agree about the consumerism.
    Here in USA we are such conspicuous consumers. Newer,
    better, bigger Yuck! It’s such a vicsous circle. Do we keep
    buying to keep the population employed or do we just be
    content with what we have and continue on. Don’t forget
    every thing whether we like it or not goes in cycles.
    We happen do be in the down side of that cycle so we
    can only go up from there. People will have a new awakening
    as happened in the sixties. Having been a child of the 60’s
    it certainly was a interesting journey. But maybe it only
    seemed that way because that was my coming of age era. We
    tend to look at current times from the stage of life we’re
    in. Would your essays sound the same if you were writing
    them when you were 20 or when you are 60. HMMMM.Oh well
    just some rambling thoughts for a Monday morning.

  2. helle

    December 29, 2006 at 1:56 pm

    Marvelous. Thanks, will spread this among my friends!

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