Happy Warholidays

Susan Sontag Breaks Camp, Moves On Into Larger World

So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.

    -- Susan Sontag (Rolling Stone interview)

Professor Althouse links an early obituary for writer/intellectual Susan Sontag, who died today of leukemia at age 71.  Although the link is to Newsday, the story actually originates with its Tribune Company compatriot, the Los Angeles Times, and the excerpt quoted on the Althouse weblog serves to remind that although one always thinks of Sontag as a New Yorker, her origins were very much tied to southern California.  (The reference to the long gone and much missed Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard - at one time the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi, subsequently acquired and run into oblivion by the B. Dalton chain - raised a smile for me.)

Accompanying the obituary, Newsday also reproduces large portions of an April 7 speech Ms. Sontag gave here in Los Angeles, on the occasion of her receiving an award from the Los Angeles Public Library.   Two passages caught my eye.  First, a comment on the functions of literature (which surprisingly would not have been out of place in John Gardner's oft-maligned manifesto, On Moral Fiction):

Literature is a form of responsibility—to literature itself and to society. By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense too, which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness which we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.

Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. In my view, a fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation. This doesn't entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense.

Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.

The second passage gains extra resonance as we try in some way to grasp the enormity of events Elsewhere Than Here, particularly the almost unimaginable devastation wreaked upon southern Asia by the Christmas tsunami:

Hearing the news of the earthquake that leveled Lisbon on Nov. 1, 1755, and (if historians are to be believed) took with it a whole society's optimism (but, obviously, I don't believe that societies have only one basic attitude), the great Voltaire was struck by our inveterate inability to take in what happened elsewhere. 'Lisbon lies in ruins,' Voltaire wrote, 'and here in Paris we dance.'

One might suppose that today, in the age of genocide, people would not find it either paradoxical or surprising that one can be so indifferent to what is happening simultaneously elsewhere. Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that 'now' refers to both 'here' and 'there'? And yet, I venture to assert, we are just as capable of being surprised by, and frustrated by the inadequacy of our response to, the simultaneity of wildly contrasting human fates as was Voltaire two and a half centuries ago. Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events, by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That we are here, prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening, while elsewhere in the world, right now in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio....

    * * *

It is a beginning of a response to this painful awareness to say: it's a question of sympathy, of the limits of the imagination. You can also say that it's not 'natural' to keep remembering that the world is so extended. That while this is happening, that is also happening.


But that, I would respond, is why we need fiction: to stretch our world.

For further reading:  Susan Sontag has been mentioned here once before, in this post from last April, which is mostly about Emma Hamilton, one of the subjects of Sontag's 1992 postmodern historical novel (which I will again recommend to you), The Volcano Lover.  And apropos the title of this post, here is a link to her famous 1964 essay, "Notes On 'Camp'."

There is also a bit more on the Sontag-Southern California connection at L.A. Observed and at LAist.

And on the subject of Voltaire and the Lisbon earthquake, mentioned in Susan Sontag's April speech, George Hunka has posted a portion (in translation) of Voltaire's "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster" at his weblog, Superfluities.  Here is the passage to which Sontag referred:

Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.


David Giacalone

Good exerpting, George. Learning to broaden our capacity for sympathy is important -- however, so is the ability to live "here and now" with optimism and joy, despite what is happening on our own block, and despite all of the sorrows that cover this planet. Good literature can do both.

p.s. Do you have the same "Continue Reading" editor as Evan?


Thoughts after pondering the meaning of the Great Asian Tsunami of 2004

by The Zenman (with a bow and a nod to Voltaire in 1775)


In 20 minutes, immense tidal waves, or ''tsunami'', as the Japanese call
them, wiped out over 500,000 people living or vacationing along the
seashores of the vast Indian Ocean. The Great Tsunami of 2004 will go
down in history as one of the greatest natural disasters ever
witnessed by the postmodern world, where digital cameras, videos,
websites, blogs, TV camera crews and newspapers told the tragic story.

What does it all mean? Is there a God who caused all this human
suffering? Was the Earth angry at us for the way we have treated her
the last 100 years, producing vast clouds of pollution everywhere,
cutting down her forests and depleting her coal, oil and gas reserves
for our homes, our cars, oun airplanes and our vacations in exotic
locales? Was all this predicted by Nostradamus long ago, or within the
mysterious pages of that book titled The Bible Code?

The answers to all the above questions are no, no, no and no. There is
no God, and it's time to get over it. Earth is not a concious living
thing that gets angry or smiles or lauhgs or coughs. Nostradamus was a
French poet and a quack doctor, forget about him. And as for The Bible
Code, what a bunch of crock!

This tragic event, seen worldwide this time via TV and video, the
Internet and blog websites, was just the way things happen. From time
to time, there are powerful earthquakes on Earth that do immense
damagge. From time to time, there are floods, typhoons, tsunamis,
tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms, draughts. We can prepare for them,
and we can use technology to be prepared for them.

But one thing we must keep in mind, as the events of the Great Tsunami
of 2004 are replayed in our minds over and over again, is that we
humans are mere evolutionary guests here on Planet Earth. We evolved
from the earliest forms of organic life, and now we have arrived at
the point in cosmic history where we are. But we did not create Earth,
and there is no God or gods who created the Earth either. The Earth
was here long before we were ever here, and it will remain here long
after we are gone, and even after all forms of human life are gone in
the future.

I think the Buddhist teachings have it right: there is suffering in
the world, in life, and we must lean to accept it, and then get on
with our lives as best we can, working together to lessen the
suffering and the pain. That is one lesson we can all take from the
footprints left on the beaches of South Asia by the Great 2004 Tsunami
in the Indian Ocean.

I was reading the story of a young 16 year old Sri Lankan girl who
miraculously survived the tsunami in her village, but lost many
members of her own family. She said: "It's hard to bear this tragedy,"
she said softly to a CNN camera crew, "but I have to."

One of the greatest natural catastrophes in generations was just
another milestone on the trail of this shy girl's ill fortune. It's
hard for all of us to bear this tragic event, that killed nearly
500,000 people -- innocent people, young and old, black and white and
brown and yellow, from over 40 nationalities -- but we have to.

We must go on, we will go on, supporting one another in the best ways
we can, and as human history evolves, seesawing from tragedy to
tragedy, we are slowly understanding our place in the vast scheme of

It is our place to be born, to live, to dream, to suffer, to
experience joy and bliss, to write and to dance and to paint and to
make music and to hold hands, watching sunsets and sunrises, and while
there is no supernatural God of the Bible or the Koran, and no Hindu
or Shinto or Taoist gods, we do have each other to rely on, and there
is where our real strength and power lie. Use it. Let us hug one
another and rise up from this indescribable natural calamity and
become one with the world we are part of. Let us endure, let us
persevere, let us move forward.


Why did the New York Times obit on Susan Sontag not once mention that she was Jewish? Is the new PC? Jews are no longer Jews?



Ms. Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in Manhattan on Jan. 16, 1933, the daughter of Jack and Mildred Rosenblatt. Her father was a fur trader in China, and her mother joined him there for long periods, leaving Susan and her younger sister in the care of relatives. When Susan was 5, her father died in China of tuberculosis. Seeking relief for Susan's asthma, her mother moved the family to Tucson, spending the next several years there. In Arizona, Susan's mother met Capt. Nathan Sontag, a World War II veteran sent there to recuperate. The couple were married - Susan took her stepfather's name - and the family moved to Los Angeles.



She was born Jan. 16, 1933, in New York City and raised in Tucson and
Los Angeles, the daughter of a schoolteacher mother and a fur trader
father who died in China of tuberculosis during the Japanese invasion
when Sontag was 5.


My point is this, what's the point of NOT MENTIONING that the dear woman was Jewish?

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