Humanist Perspectives: issue 152: Remembering Susan Sontag

letter from new york
Remembering Susan Sontag
by Jonny Diamond

“We live in a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.” —Susan Sontag

I’d always wondered which stretch of land was hers, which disappearing gravel drive led to the house she shared with Annie Leibowitz. This part of the Hudson River Valley is among the most beautiful places in the world: rows of old oak trees line the road; rolling green fields limned with crumbling stone walls lead down to the river, interspersed with stands of maple, cedar and hemlock; across the water, the Catskills collect shadow as the day passes, releasing it up into to the sky with the coming of night. If one had a choice where they might die, I can’t imagine a better place.

But it wasn’t here that Susan Sontag died on December 28; it was an hour and a half to the south, amidst the hard, clamorous, spilling-over life of New York City. I don’t know how much choice there was in where the end came, but I imagine Sontag would have chosen the city, her city, a place that for all its cruel, vulgar absurdities, lies along the keenest edge of existence. You cannot look away from life in New York, and it was here, on the Upper East Side, that Sontag, clear-eyed and tough, came to face death. One of my favorite lines of hers is the admonishment, “Be passionate, be serious, wake up.” There’s nowhere better than New York to do just that.

Part of the mandate to “wake up” is the mandate to choose. When Sontag received her three cancer diagnoses in the early 1970s, she chose to throw herself into a study of her disease — chose not to deny but to embrace, chose to be informed. The result of Sontag’s choice was the 1977 book Illness As Metaphor, an invaluable cultural history of terminal affliction that systematically lances society’s bromides about death and dying. The incandescent clarity of this book is on hand in much of Sontag’s work, alongside the conviction that we can still wake up, “punch through the ceiling of self-deception,” and choose to move beyond the brittle dogmas of power and convention. We, she reminds us again and again, are responsible for our actions and culpable for our inaction; and no matter what shelters we contrive for our consciences, we cannot evade the choices that are ours to make.

Nowhere has Sontag’s refusal to evade responsibility been more evident than in her reaction to September 11, 2001. In a commentary appearing in The New Yorker shortly after 9/11, she decried the fact that, “Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy — which entails disagreement, which promotes candor — has been replaced by psychotherapy.” Even those sympathetic to its sentiment found the piece coldly rational in the face of death and destruction on American soil (in Sontag’s hometown no less); those unsympathetic found it treasonous. Looking back, however, amidst all the patriotic pieties that mutated so swiftly into calls to war, the piece reads as an articulate voice of reason and sanity, exemplified by the final sentence: “‘Our country is strong,’ we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.” If you haven’t read this New Yorker piece, or have not done so in a while, I strongly urge you to do so.

With Sontag’s death we have lost a voice of clarity and ethical authority — a voice sorely lacking in America right now. To use the parlance of the playground, Sontag always ‘called bullshit’ when she saw it (even when she saw it in herself), and it’s near-tragic that she isn’t around to counter the increasingly brazen Christian Right, who are not only waging a war on secular reason, but are attacking and appropriating the language itself. From evolution to abortion, from the environment to national security, the Right is redefining and distorting the terms of debate. A very brief sample of the Orwellian monikers given to various government proposals is as chilling as it is revealing: The Clear Skies Act (increased freedoms for fossil fuel polluters); The American Jobs Creation Act (a 500 billion dollar tax exemption for small businesses like Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard and Eli Lilly); The Patriot Act (illegal round ups, torture, investiture of life and death power in one man, the President); and perhaps the most infuriating for those of us beyond the Bible Belt, George W Bush’s use of the term “Culture of Life.” An enumeration of the hypocrisies inherent in this last catchphrase (from a warmonger and avowed enemy of the poor and the environment) would exceed the size and scope of this space. In fact, just such an enumeration is exactly what Sontag, in her role as public intellectual gadfly, was so very good at. Sadly though, this role is fast being replaced by that of the mercenary TV pundit, practiced in platitude and soundbite, ideal spokesman for an America increasingly uncomfortable with any prospect of self-examination — an America that refuses to grow up.

An adult society celebrates and seeks to preserve wherever possible the ability and opportunity to make choices, even if they are difficult ones; but America has never really gotten over its 20th-century hormonal burst, and stands today a hyper-muscled adolescent, preternaturally strong, quick to anger, and like most teenagers, extremely sensitive to insult, intentional or otherwise. This teenager is picky, and doesn’t like to have its assumptions challenged; it is infatuated with superstition, in love with faith; it doesn’t want to talk about complexities. “Look,” it snaps out, “Yer either part of the Culture of Life, or yer part of the Culture of Death! There just ain’t no two ways about it!” Cheers. Abortion, stem-cell research, assisted suicide: to be in favour of these is to abet the Culture of Death (and don’t even think of trying to bring up capital punishment, let alone war).

For even if there isn’t always dignity in the blunt, biological realities at the end of life, there is a transcendent dignity in the act of choice.

I don’t know where Sontag stood on the topic of assisted suicide. Her positions never lined up that neatly on either side of the political spectrum, and she always reserved the right to change her mind (at the very least, signs of an original thinker). I suspect that in her own struggle with cancer, Sontag fought tooth and nail for every last second of life, regardless of how attenuated it became at the end (and life did become a painful trial, after years of intensive chemotherapy). I am equally certain, however, that she would have fought for the right to end one’s own existence on one’s own terms. For even if there isn’t always dignity in the blunt, biological realities at the end of life, there is a transcendent dignity in the act of choice. And this will to choose, this devotion not to a Culture of Life but to a culture of living, this responsibility undertaken with unwavering commitment, is precisely what Sontag exemplified, in her work and in her life. Let it stand as example to us all.

Jonny Diamond is a transplanted Torontonian, who currently works as a writer and editor in New York City. His short fiction has appeared in Geist, PRISM and Exquisite Corpse.