Desperately Freaking Susan

“Toward the end of ”Regarding the Pain of Others,” her coruscating sermon on how we picture suffering,” notes John Leonard in the NYT “Susan Sontag loses her temper.”

Hoo-Yah! batten down the hatches! Susan Sontag’s pissed and we all know what that means, don’t we?

Nothing much, actually.

“As usual she’s been playing a solitary hand, shuffling contradictions, dealing provocations, turning over anguished faces, numbing numerals, even a jumping jack (”we have lids on our eyes, we do not have doors on our ears”). But she seems personally offended by those ”citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk” who ”will do anything to keep themselves from being moved.” And she is all of a sudden ferocious:”

Well as anyone who has followed Sontag over the years knows she’s been ferocious before. She once went so far as to say that “the white race is the cancer of civilization” — only to take it back a few years later. (Personally, I think she got it right the first time.)

But let’s lesson to what the woman woman Esquire magazine once called “the Natalie Wood of the avant-garde” has to say this time.

”To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment. . . . It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people’s pain . . . consumers of news, who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.”

Or the luxury of being able to fly to Bosnia to stage a production of Waiting for Godot either.

“So much, then,” says John Leonard, “for Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard and their French-fried American fellows in the media studies programs, looking down on staged events as if from zeppelins, or like the kings of Burma on the backs of elephants, remote and twitchy among the pixels, with multiple views in slo-mo, intimate focus or broad scan, and an IV-feed of chitchat. When we think about the pictures we have seen from Bosnia, Rwanda and Chechnya, about the videotapes available to us of Rodney King being beaten and Daniel Pearl being murdered, media theory seems merely impudent. “

But it’s not just a question media theory — it’s media practice that counts. Debord is long gone, but Baudrillard is still very much capable of speaking for himself. Both his The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Indiana University Press, 1995) and his latest The Spirit of Terrorism (Verso, 2002) have much to say about the way that actual events are visually mediated in a way that led even up-close observers of the World Trade Center attack to speak of it being “like a movie.”

If there is nothing that the last few days have taught us it’s that the Iraq attack is a spectacle confected for our delictation designed to render us all passive and mute in (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?) “Shock and Awe”

What an obscene term. What an obscene “war.” To invoke the Dreaded French it’s a “son et lumiere” with actual weapons and actual deaths. Yet for all of it’s reality, the Iraq Attack can only strike U.S. televiewers as a fantasy. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering when they cut to a commercial of Bruce Willis’ latest macho epic Tears of the Sun if it weren’t part of Rummy-o-rama as well.

But of course it is. Just like that recruiting film Black Hawk Down. One wonders how many of those currently tramping across the sands were led to do so by fantasies of celluloid glory starring Josh Harnett.

“Yet Sontag,” Leonard continues, “has no more use for the pure of heart and perpetually incredulous who are always shocked by the wounds of the world, by evidence of ”hands-on” cruelty and proof ”that depravity exists.” Where have they been? After a century and a half of photojournalistic witness, ”a vast repository” of ”atrocious images” already exists to remind us of what people can do to each other. At this late date, to be surprised is to be morally defective: ”No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.”

But superficialty, ignorance and amnesia are the Mother’s Milk of U.S. policy, dear. Moreover as Leonard notes —

“So there is suffering, and there are cameras, and it is possible to worry about the motives of the men and women behind the cameras, whether one may be too arty, another a bit mercenary, a third a violence junkie, as it is possible to worry about whether our looking at the pictures they bring back from the wound is voyeuristic or pornographic; whether such witness, competing for notice among so many other clamors, seems more authentic the more it’s amateurish (accidental, like satellite surveillance); whether excess exposure to atrocity glossies dulls Jack and jades Jill; or whether. . . . But then again, maybe these worries are self-indulgent and beside the point, which should be to think our way past what happened to why.”

But getting an answer to “why” is no small affair.

”It is not a defect,” Sontag says, ”that we do not suffer enough” when we see these images:

”Neither is the photograph supposed to repair our ignorance about the history and causes of the suffering it picks out and frames. Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers. Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable? Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now that ought to be challenged?”

Rather banal questions, all told.

“Photographs ”haunt” us; ”narratives can make us understand.” As thinking people used to do, before what Sontag calls ”the era of shopping,” we are invited to make distinctions and connections, and then maybe fix something. Or have all of us already sold, leased or leveraged our skepticism, our intellectual property rights and our firstborn child for a seat at the table and a shot at the trough?”

Ah but the “Era of Shopping” began some time ago. It’s first epic Au Bonheur des Dames was written by Emile Zola in the 1880’s.

“Sontag of course has done our homework for us, her usual archaeology. She follows the trail of photojournalism from Roger Fenton in the Valley of Death after the charge of the Light Brigade, to Mathew Brady’s illustrating of America’s Civil War, to Robert Capa among Spanish Republicans, to the horrors of Buchenwald and Hiroshima, to famine in India and carnage in Biafra and napalm in Vietnam and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. After consulting Goya on what a victorious army does to a civilian population, she takes us to Tuol Sleng, near Phnom Penh, to look at the photographs the Khmer Rouge took of thousands of suspected ”intellectuals” and ”counterrevolutionaries” (meaning Cambodians who had gone to school, spoke a foreign language or wore glasses) after they were tortured but before they were murdered.

She reminds us of how hard it is for the image makers to keep up with improvements in the technology of torture and execution, from the stake, the wheel, the gallows tree and the strappado to smart bombs dreamed up on bitmaps in virtual realities. (Long-distance mayhem gets longer by the minute. The British who bombed Iraq in the 1920’s and the Germans who bombed Spain in the 1930’s could actually see their civilian targets, whereas the recent American bombings of Afghanistan were orchestrated at computer screens in Tampa, Fla.) She has shrewd things to say about colonial wars, memory museums, Christian iconography, lynching postcards, Virginia Woolf, Andy Warhol, Georges Bataille and St. Sebastian; about ”sentimentality,” ”indecency” and the ”overstimulation” Wordsworth warned us would lead to to (lovely phrase!) ”savage torpor.”

Isn’t it a tad glib to slide from torture devices to improvements in photographic technique — not to mention Andy Warhol to Georges Bataille? But then as Leonard notes —

“And, as usual, she provokes.”

Well maybe just a little. Everybody has something to say about the extents and limitations of photography. As for deeper issues —

“It probably isn’t true that ”not even pacifists” any longer believe war can be abolished, that photos have a ”deeper bite” in the memory bank than movies or television, that ”the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked,” and that ”most depictions of tormented, mutilated bodies do arouse a prurient interest.” I don’t know, and neither does she.”

Precisely!

“On the other hand, when she revises her own conclusions from ”On Photography” to say she’s no longer so sure that shock has ”term limits,” or that ”repeated exposure” in ”our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities,” I agree with her for no other reason than I want to. Her job is not to win a verdict from a jury, but to make us think. And so she has for 40 years”

And the first thought that comes tomind is how often Sontag has revised her conclusions. Most famously she embraced Leni Riefenstahl as an artist in spite of her politics only to turn around a few years later and (rightly) deplore her art because of her politics. Surely one can be grateful when someone admits to making a mistake or changing positon. Yet in Sontag’s case this goes hand-in-hand with her self-dramatization. Leonard is well aware of this.

“Never mind that Cyndi Lauper reputation from those essays in ”Against Interpretation” on happenings, camp and science fiction. Maybe in the early 60’s girls just wanted to have fun. By the time of ”Styles of Radical Will,” she was already Emma Goldman, if not Rosa Luxemburg, reviewing Vietnam as if it were a Godard film.”

Actually she was more like a Mary McCarthy wannabe watching a Godard film. Vivre sa Vie, in fact — about which she wrote so memorably for James Stoller’s late and much-lamented little-mag, Moviegoer.

Leonard again:

” But there was nothing playful about ”On Photography,” which deserved all those prizes, or ”Illness as Metaphor,” which actually saved lives, or ”Under the Sign of Saturn,” where essays so admiring of Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti reminded us that she had always been the best student Kenneth Burke ever had, and could be relied upon to value Simone Weil over Jack Smith. ”If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky,” she would write years later, ”then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?”

Well I’d choose Nico rather than either of them. And as for Walter Benjamin there’s much to say — though I doubt she’s the ideal person to say it.

“Yes, she had to, with the culture she cared about going down the tubes. Against that gurgle and flush, she sent up kites and caught the lightning bottled in ”Where the Stress Falls,” asking us to think the prose of poets and the ”excruciations” of everybody else, from Machado de Assis to Jorge Luis Borges to Adam Zagajewski to Robert Walser to Danilo Kis to Roland Barthes, before he was struck down by a laundry truck on his way to his mother’s, not to mention side excursions to the dance of Lucinda Childs, the photography of Annie Leibovitz and the 15-hour version of Alfred Doblin’s ”Berlin Alexanderplatz” that Rainer Werner Fassbinder managed to make for German television. All this, plus what she found out about herself under the influence of morphine and chemotherapy, and an essay, hilarious in its very conception, on ”Wagner’s Fluids.”

Gurgle and Flush indeed! And Barthes mother had already passed on when the great writer had that fateful encounter with a laundry truck.

“Then there were the novels. If the early ones, ”The Benefactor” and ”Death Kit,” smelled of the lab, the recent ones, ”The Volcano Lover” and ”In America,” are full of ocean and desert airs. It is an amazing, buoyant transformation, by a writer with as much staying power as intellectual wherewithal — a writer, moreover, who went a dozen times to Sarajevo while the rest of us were watching the Weather Channel — and still she’s niggled at even by people she hasn’t sued.”

Can’t Stop the Niggling! And why should we Weather Channel Watchers do so? It is, in point of fact, the obscene glamour of Sontag’s “hot spot” exploits that make her turning up her nose at Baudrillard so specious. She is as much a spectacle in and of herself as the twin towers.

“Late in the first act of ”Radiant Baby,” the new musical about Keith Haring, they bring on a highfalutin critic. She is trousered and turtlenecked in black, with a white streak in her dark mane. She is, of course, a Susan Sontag doll, maybe even a bunraku puppet. You almost expect her to quote Kleist. How remarkable, when even the best-known critics in the history of Western culture pass among us as anonymously as serial killers, that this one should end up emblematic, a kind of avant-garde biker chick, and also be so envied and resented for it.”

“Envied”? Has John Leonard been dipping into “Datalounge”? What’s to “envy” about Sontag? A freelance “intellectual” of no particular portfolio — feckless in comparasion to Gore Vidal and gutless in comparasion to James Baldwin.

“From the political right, you’d expect vituperation, a punishment for her want of piety or bloodthirstiness about 9/11, as if all over hate radio, Fox News and the blogosphere, according to some mystical upgrade of the Domino Theory, every pip was caused to squeak. But in our aggrieved bohemias?”

Now, now Johnny Nightsounds — we’re not “aggrieved” at all. Merely amused.

“Who cares that her picture has been taken by Harry Hess, Peter Hujar, Irving Penn, Thomas Victor, Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz, not even counting Woody Allen for purposes of ”Zelig”? That she’s shown up as a character in unkind novels by Judith Grossman, Alfred Chester, Edmund White, Philippe Sollers, Francis King and Sarah Schulman?”

Well she sure as hell cares! Sollers a clef portrait in his novel Femmes was especially nasty as he depicted her swanning about in search of a male lover for her son.

Maybe Sollers had mistaken her for Nico.

“The only Sontag who matters is the one who keeps on publishing her own books. ”One result of lavishing a good part of your one and only life on your books,” she wrote in 1995, ”is that you come to feel that, as a person, you are faking it.” I hope not, but I don’t have time to find out because I have to look up, at her recommendation, another writer I’ve never read, Multatuli, who’s written another novel I never heard of, ”Max Havelaar.” Anyway, in the course of admiring so many serious thinkers, she became one.”

And truth to tell, Leonard’s right. In fact, outside of one or two essays in Against Interpretation, the only value I’ve found in Sontag over the years is her reccomendation of writers I’d never heard of — like Carlo Emilio Gadda. And who told her about him?

Elliott Stein, I’ll wager.

“If, however, we must plight some troth to the cult of Gaia, this is how I imagine her, as the poet Paul Claudel saw the ornamental sandstone dancing maiden in the jungles of Cambodia, one of those apsaras that Andre Malraux tried to steal — smiling, writes Claudel, her ”Ethiopian smile, dancing a kind of sinister cancan over the ruins.” She knows lots of things the rest of us only wish we did. Think of Susan Sontag as the Rose of Angkor Wat.”

Not really. When I think of Angkor Wat these days it’s to recall the last scene of Wong Kar Wai’s exquisite In the Mood For Love, whose hero whispers into a crevice of the temple the worlds he longs to tell the woman who is forever lost to him.

As regards the “dancing maiden” analogy, Sontag might try playing Miss Gooch to Joan Collins’ Auntie Mame if that threatenend revival makes it to the boards.

Now that’s “shock and awe” like mother used to make!

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