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05:14 pm: Susan Sontag
My older brother gave me On Photography to read when I was nineteen or twenty or so. I remember reading it in Texas, talking about it with him in the den with the knotty pine and the orange furniture with horseshoes carved into their arms, where the television played all of those reruns of Mighty Mouse, Three Stooges and The Lone Ranger that were never on at home. The idea that putting a camera between your face and whatever you were looking at might be an act of separation, of seeing and experiencing less, of gathering evidence rather than being willing to actually go through something, was shocking and thrilling to me. (Writing that now, in front of my computer, I get uneasy – it's so cold, but it's probably time to go out again soon.) I think her discussion in that book about Freaks was the first time I'd ever heard of Diane Arbus – and there was something there that gave me hope, or at least a sensation of possibility.

I went to hear Susan Sontag give a talk at the University of Colorado once, after I already loved her work. I was mortified that people left the auditorium in large numbers as she lectured dryly and without energy about French literature. I was startled when one of my favorite professors spoke cattily about her afterwards.

I felt both envy and also the sneaky joy of being able to picture it when a beautiful and excellent writer I had met at a residency told me that when she was in grad school, she had gone somewhere with people from her department after Susan Sontag spoke, and Susan and a novelist I liked (was it Bobbie Ann Mason? Jayne Ann Phillips?) had a tiny moment of dispute about who got to sit next to her in the car. Serious fantasy material!

I read Against Interpretation at another residency, the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, where I spent enormous amounts of time alone and had a big burst of work. Her mind, so palpable in her writing, was such good company:

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plentitude, its sheer crowdedness—conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our sense, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

I loved Illness as Metaphor. I couldn't read a novel of hers, The Volcano Lover. I admired her political courage, and when I read her brief piece on the attack on the World Trade Center in The New Yorker immediately after September 11, I felt relief at her tight, sharp courage, at what she wasn't afraid to say.

And, it made me just so strangely happy to read an essay, "Reading," in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, by Larry McMurtry, an interesting, underrated thinker (and my older brother, once again, gave me the book), and find this description of her, whom he describes as one of three great readers he's known in his life:

Susan Sontag is a reader who can almost be said to sweat literature—it is in her juices, as basketball is in Michael Jordan's. With Susan, I think, the tug of literature is as constant as breath. A characteristic she shares with all great readers is that, however stern she may intend to be, politically or philosophically, when she begins to talk about her reading she reveals a broadly catholic taste. The thrill Susan experiences when she spots a desired book she has not been able to find is probably comparable to that of a bird-watcher who at last glimpses a long-sought species.

I'll miss her in this world, but am grateful that she left a lot of reading to catch up on.

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[User Picture]
Date:December 29th, 2004 12:35 am (UTC)
let's hear it for the smart girls.
thanks for this.
[User Picture]
Date:December 29th, 2004 01:11 am (UTC)
Absolutely. And my pleasure -- her work means a lot to me.
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