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Remembering Susan Sontag

ISSUE:  Winter 2007

In thinking of my mother now, more than a year after her death, I often find myself dwelling on that startling phrase in Auden’s great memorial poem for Yeats—words that both sum up what small immortality artistic accomplishment sometimes can confer and are, simultaneously, such an extraordinary euphemism for extinction. Once dead, Yeats, Auden writes, “became his admirers.”

Loved ones, admirers, detractors, works, work. Beyond soon-to-be-distorted or at least edited memories, beyond the possessions soon to be dispersed or distributed, beyond libraries, archives, voice recordings, videotape, and photographs, that is surely the most that can ever remain of a life, no matter how well and kindly lived, no matter how accomplished.

I have known many writers who assuaged themselves about mortality, to the extent they could, with at least the fantasy that their work would outlive them and also the lives of those of their loved ones who would keep faith with memory for whatever time remained to them. My mother was one such writer, working with one eye imaginatively cocked toward posterity. I should add that, given her unalloyed fear of extinction—in no part of her, even in the last agonized days of her ending, was there the slightest ambivalence, the slightest acceptance—the thought was not just scant consolation, it was no consolation. I do not pretend to know much about what she felt as she lay dying, three months in two successive beds in two successive hospital rooms, as her body became almost one huge sore, but this at least I can assert confidently: She did not want to leave.

She wanted to experience everything, taste everything, go everywhere, do everything. Indeed, if I had only one word with which to evoke her, it would be avidity. Even travel, she once wrote, she conceived of as accumulation. And her apartment, which was a kind of reification of the contents of her head, was filled almost to bursting with an amazingly disparate collection of objects, prints, photographs, and, of course, books, endless books. If anything, the gamut of her interests was what was hard (for me at least) to fathom, impossible to keep up with. In her story “Debriefing,” she wrote: “We know more than we can use. Look at all this stuff I’ve got in my head: rockets and Venetian churches, David Bowie and Diderot, nuoc mam and Big Macs, sunglasses and orgasms.” And then she added, “And we don’t know nearly enough.” I think that, for her, the joy of living and the joy of knowing really were one and the same.

I used to tease my mother by saying to her that though she had largely kept her own biography out of her work, her essays of appreciation—on Roland Barthes, on Walter Benjamin, on Elias Canetti, to name three of the best of them—were more self-revealing than she perhaps imagined. At the very least, they were idealizations. At the time, she laughed, lightly assenting. But I was never sure whether she agreed or not, nor am I now. I was taken back to such conversations when, in the essay “An Argument about Beauty,” I came upon the sentence that reads: “Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation.”

Did she write in order to console herself? I believe so, though this is more intuition than grounded judgment. Beauty, I know, was a consolation for her, whether she found it on the walls of museums to which she was such an ardent and inveterate visitor, in the temples of Japan that she so adored, in serious music, which was the virtually nonstop accompaniment to her evenings at home while working, or in the eighteenth-century prints on the walls of her apartment. “The capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful,” she writes in the same essay, “is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions.” I would speculate that here she is thinking of that harshest of all the distractions that claimed her in life, her illnesses, the two bouts of cancer that wracked her but that she survived (before she developed cancer for the third and last time).

It is sometimes said of my mother’s work that she was torn between aestheticism and moralism, beauty and ethics. Any intelligent reader of hers will see the force of this, but I think a shrewder account would emphasize their inseparability in her work. “The wisdom that becomes available over a profound, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic,” she wrote, “cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.” I do not know if this is true. I do know that she believed this with every fiber of herself, and it led her to a kind of “devotee-ship.”

She excelled in admiration. In another late essay, “1926 . . . ,” a meditation on Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, and Rilke, she describes the three poets as participants in the sacred delirium of art, of a god (Rilke), and of his two Russian worshippers whom, she writes, “we, the readers of their letters, know to be future gods.” The appropriateness of such worship was, for my mother, self-evident, and she practiced it until she could no longer practice anything at all, so much was it second nature to her. This is what her essays of admiration are all about. It is also why, though she valued her work as a fiction writer far more than anything else she did, she could not stop writing them.

In the run-up to the stem cell transplant that was her last, thin chance for survival, she would speak of her failure to write the novels and stories she had wanted to, some of which are mapped out in her diaries and workbooks. Fiction writing alone had brought her pleasure as a writer. But she was never able to think of herself as a writer alone, and it was what she called the would-be “world-improver,” I believe, who wrote most of the essays, while the fiction languished. She knew it, of course. On her seventieth birthday, she told me that what she most yearned for was time, time to do the work that essay writing had distracted her from so often and so lengthily. And as she grew sicker, she spoke with leaden sadness of time wasted.

What she did not know how to do was wall herself off from her own extraliterary commitments, above all her political involvements, from Vietnam to Iraq. Much as I admire her piece on the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib, I wish it had not been the last major piece of work she undertook. I wish . . . Well, I wish she had written a short story. She herself was the first to insist that she did not hold her political opinions “as a writer,” adding that “the influence a writer can exert is purely adventitious,” that it was now “an aspect of the culture of celebrity.”

But it was not only the activist in herself that my mother viewed with misgiving. She returned again and again not to her life as a writer but to her life as a reader. In her essay on translation, “The World as India,” she notes, “A writer is first of all a reader. It is from reading that I derive the standards by which I measure my own work and according to which I fall lamentably short. It is from reading, even before writing, that I became part of a community—the community of literature—which includes more dead than living writers.” Now she has joined them. Now she has become her admirers.


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