Hitchens on Susan Sontag

Wingnuts are shedding few tears over the death of one of our great thinkers and writers. Michelle Maglalang (Malkin’s real last name)and Charles Johnson spewed forth their predictable populist poison, remembering Sontag only for her unfortunate remarks after the September 11 attacks, when she said American actions had much to do with the calamity. They can scarcely conceal their glee (no, I won’t link to them) as they live up to the Sean Hannity standard of journalism, where you find an incendiary thing someone once said or did and brand them permanently with it so it becomes their whole identity. (Think Willie Horton and Kerry’s “I voted for it before voting against it.”) It’s a Karl Rove tactic that is supremely effective and nearly impossible to counteract; the power of the meme is near-invincible.

Anyway, there is is some hope of balance with Christopher Hitchens’ superb obituary of Sontag, which puts her dumb remarks into perspective and gives her lavish praise as one of the great thinkers of our age.

In what I thought was an astonishing lapse, she attempted to diagnose the assault of Sept. 11, 2001, as the one thing it most obviously was not: “a consequence of specific [sic] American alliances and actions.” Even the word “general” would have been worse in that sentence, but she had to know better. She said that she didn’t read reviews of her work, when she obviously did. It could sometimes be very difficult to tell her anything or to have her admit that there was something she didn’t know or hadn’t read.

But even this insecurity had its affirmative side. If she was sometimes a little permissive, launching a trial balloon only to deflate it later (as with her change of heart on the filmic aesthetic of Leni Riefenstahl) this promiscuity was founded in curiosity and liveliness…She was always trying to do too much and square the circle: to stay up late debating and discussing and have the last word, then get a really early night, then stay up reading, and then make an early start. She adored trying new restaurants and new dishes. She couldn’t stand affectless or bored or cynical people, of any age. She only ventured into full-length fiction when she was almost 60, and then discovered that she had a whole new life. And she resisted the last malady with terrific force and resource, so that to describe her as life-affirming now seems to me suddenly weak. Anyway—death be not proud.

I met Sontag many years ago and she signed my copy of her book On Photography with a very warm, personal note. I loved the way she wrote, I loved the way she bravely faced her lifelong battle with cancer, I loved her ability to cut through the crap and to present time-worn topics with a wholly original and often brilliant perspective. She was sometimes too critical of the US, a bit far to the left, but that’s a very tiny speck, a crumb of what she stood for. But of course, Johnson and Maglalang and their wingnut friends see only treachery and evil. It’s their loss.

Update: For a good example of wingnut loathing of Sontag, go here.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 8 Comments

I honestly can’t understand how people like this can live with the cognitive dissonance they must experience daily.

They call themselves “pro-life”, but then take great pleasure when people they dislike die.

When I heard about Hussein’s sons being killed in a conference by Wolfowitz, I was absolutely disgusted by how happy and energized he seemed by it. I remember thinking, “yes the world is better off with their deaths, but its a tragic shame it had to come to this, and its nothing worth rejoicing in.”

December 30, 2004 @ 1:13 pm | Comment

I just saw, to Johnson’s credit, that he updated his post and pointed out that Sontag stood for more than just her ill-considered remarks on 911.

December 30, 2004 @ 1:48 pm | Comment

Susan Sontag will go down as one of America’s (and the world’s) most greatest intellects. Charles Johnson, by contrast, will barely be remembered at all, and only by a few.

Fortunately, Songtag has left us all with the wonderful legacy of her many writings and ideas, her valuable insights, all of which I am sure will go on being discussed and debated on for no doubt centuries to come.

Richard – I don’t think she was ever “too critical of the US” – if anything, she was sometimes not scathing enough in her remarks.

I do envy you though, for unlike you, I never had the chance to meet her.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 30, 2004 @ 6:15 pm | Comment

Susan Sontag will go down as one of America’s (and the world’s) most greatest intellects. Charles Johnson, by contrast, will barely be remembered at all, and only by a very few.

Fortunately, Sontag has left us all with the wonderful legacy of her many writings and ideas, her valuable insights, all of which I am sure will go on being discussed and debated on for no doubt centuries to come.

Richard – I don’t think she was ever “too critical of the US” – if anything, she was sometimes not scathing enough in her remarks. She was a vociferous critic of the Soviet Union as well – particularly of their treatment of writers, and frankly I really admired her bravery, when, only within a matter of days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, she criticised US foreign policy, referring to the terrorists’ behaviour as “an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions”. Many may, as you point out, find treachery and evil in this, but I’m afraid there exists an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence to support her views.

I loved her for her honesty, as much as anything. And I also loved her for her provocations: she visited Hanoi during the Vietnam war (after which she described the white race as “the cancer of human history”), and I loved her for her bravery: in 1993 she directed a production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo when that city was under siege.

I do envy you though Richard, for unlike you, I never had the chance to meet her.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

December 30, 2004 @ 6:56 pm | Comment

richard, i am in illustrious company then. i also have a copy of On Photography personally autographed by her. no personal note, though, since i got on a line and did not tell her anything about me.

December 30, 2004 @ 7:32 pm | Comment

It’s rather unfortunate that the first line I read about Susan Sontag was her remarks on 911. Later on a Hong Kong writer (Dong Qiao) ‘s bestseller points me to her On Photography.

January 4, 2005 @ 11:45 am | Comment

As an aside, can I suggest that we all begin using Hannity as a verb, meaning “the act of branding a person’s entire identity with their single most intemperate remark?”

January 6, 2005 @ 8:52 am | Comment

Scott, I really like that idea. It might sound better if we make the verb “to Hannitize” — sounds more verb-like than “to Hannity.”

January 6, 2005 @ 10:57 am | Comment

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