Susan Sontag

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We live in a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.

Susan Sontag (January 16 1933December 28 2004) was an American essayist, literary critic, cultural theorist, and political activist.

Quotes[edit]

The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything. There would only be what is.
I believe that we think much more with the instruments provided by our culture than we do with our bodies, and hence the much greater diversity of thought in the world.
Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.
Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of Fascism. Fascism with a human face.
It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades.
To me, literature is a calling, even a kind of salvation. It connects me with an enterprise that is over 2,000 years old. What do we have from the past? Art and thought. That's what lasts. That's what continues to feed people and give them an idea of something better...
I don't want to express alienation. It isn't what I feel. I'm interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says be serious, be passionate, wake up.
For Peace. Against War. Who is not? But how can you stop those bent on genocide without making war?
  • Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering — rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer's words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.
  • The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.
    • Review of Selected Essays by Simone Weil, The New York Review of Books (1 February 1963)
  • The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything. There would only be what is.
  • The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean Algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.
    • Partisan Review (Winter 1967), p. 57
  • We live in a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.
    • "Women, the Arts, & the Politics of Culture: An Interview with Susan Sontag" in Salmagundi, No. 31-32 (Fall/Winter 1975), p. 29; later published in Conversations with Susan Sontag (1995) edited by Leland A. Poague, p. 77
  • Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in physique magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy.
  • In contrast to the asexual chasteness of official communist art, Nazi art is both prurient and idealizing. A utopian aesthetics (physical perfection; identity as a biological given) implies an ideal eroticism: sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a "spiritual" force, for the benefit of the community.
    • "Fascinating Fascism" (1974), published in The New York Review of Books (6 February 1975) and reprinted in Sontag's Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), p. 93
  • Sadomasochism has always been the furthest reach of the sexual experience: when sex becomes most purely sexual, that is, severed from personhood, from relationships, from love. It should not be surprising that it has become attached to Nazi symbolism in recent years. Never before was the relation of masters and slaves so consciously aestheticized. Sade had to make up his theater of punishment and delight from scratch, improvising the decor and costumes and blasphemous rites. Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.
    • "Fascinating Fascism" (1974), published in The New York Review of Books (6 February 1975) and reprinted in Sontag's Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), p. 105
  • Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
    • Illness As Metaphor (1978), foreword, p. 3, Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN 0-374-52073-9
  • There is a peculiarly modern predilection for psychological explanations of disease, as of everything else. Psychologizing seems to provide control over the experiences and events (like grave illnesses) over which people have in fact little or no control. Psychological understanding undermines the "reality" of a disease. That reality has to be explained. (It really means; or is a symbol of; or must be interpreted so.) For those who live neither with religious consolations about death nor with a sense of death (or of anything else) as natural, death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied. A large part of the popularity and persuasiveness of psychology comes from its being a sublimated spiritualism: a secular, ostensibly scientific way of affirming the primacy of "spirit" over matter.
    • Illness As Metaphor (1978), ch. 7 (pp. 55-56)
  • One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling... which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment. We have more or less the same bodies, but very different kinds of thoughts. I believe that we think much more with the instruments provided by our culture than we do with our bodies, and hence the much greater diversity of thought in the world. Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.
    • "Susan Sontag: The Rolling Stone Interview" with Jonathan Cott (1978; published 4 October 1979)
  • Not only is Fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies — especially when their populations are moved to revolt — but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of Fascism. Fascism with a human face.
  • The tide of undecipherable signatures of mutinous adolescents which has washed over and bitten into the facades of monuments and the surface of public vehicles in the city where I live: graffiti as an assertion of disrespect, yes, but most of all simply an assertion... the powerless saying: I'm here, too.
    • "The Pleasure of the Image" (1985) from Writers on Artists edited by Daniel Halpern (1988), p. 98, North Point Press ISBN 0-86547-340-4
  • It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades.
    • AIDS and Its Metaphors, (1989), ch. 4, p. 125, Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN 0-312-42013-7
    • Note: AIDS and Its Metaphors was later published in combination with Illness As Metaphor. This combined edition is the one referenced here.
  • Authoritarian political ideologies have a vested interest in promoting fear, a sense of the imminence of takeover by aliens — and real diseases are useful material.
    • AIDS and Its Metaphors, (1989), ch. 6, p. 149
  • The AIDS crisis is evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide.
    • AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), p. 180
  • I guess I think I'm writing for people who are smarter than I am, because then I'll be doing something that's worth their time. I'd be very afraid to write from a position where I consciously thought I was smarter than most of my readers.
    • "The Risk Taker", profile/interview by Gary Younge, The Guardian (19 January 2002)
  • I don't want to express alienation. It isn't what I feel. I'm interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says be serious, be passionate, wake up.
  • I envy paranoids; they actually feel people are paying attention to them.
    • "Susan Sontag Finds Romance," interview by Leslie Garis, The New York Times (2 August 1992)
  • To me, literature is a calling, even a kind of salvation. It connects me with an enterprise that is over 2,000 years old. What do we have from the past? Art and thought. That's what lasts. That's what continues to feed people and give them an idea of something better. A better state of one's feelings or simply the idea of a silence in one's self that allows one to think or to feel. Which to me is the same.
    • "Susan Sontag Finds Romance," interview by Leslie Garis, The New York Times (2 August 1992)
  • Modernist tasks and liberties have stirred up a canny diffidence among painters of the largest accomplishment when pressed to talk about their art. It appears unseemly, or naive, to have much to say about the pictures or to attach to them any explicit "program." No more theories expounding an ideal way of painting. And, as statements wither and with them counter-statements, hardly anything in the way of provocation either. Decorum suggests that artists sound somewhat trapped when being drawn out, and venturing a few cagey glimpses of intention.
  • The sublimity of color in Hodgkin's pictures can be thought of as, first of all, expressive of gratitude — for the world that resists and survives the ego and its discontents.
    • "About Hodgkin," from Howard Hodgkin Paintings (1995), p. 109
  • Yes, this is Europe. The Europe that did not respond to the Serb shelling of Dubrovnik. Or the three-year siege of Sarajevo. The Europe that let Bosnia die.
    A new definition of Europe: the place where tragedies don't take place. Wars, genocides — that happened here once, but no longer. It's something that happens in Africa. (Or places in Europe that are not "really" Europe. That is, the Balkans.) Again, perhaps I exaggerate. But having spent a good part of three years, from 1993 to 1996, in Sarajevo, it does not seem to me like an exaggeration at all.
Not all violence is equally reprehensible; not all wars are equally unjust.
  • Stop the War and Stop the Genocide, read the banners being waved in the demonstrations in Rome and here in Bari. For Peace. Against War. Who is not? But how can you stop those bent on genocide without making war?
    • "Why Are We in Kosovo?", The New York Times (2 May 1999)
  • Not surprisingly, the Serbs are presenting themselves as the victims. (Clinton equals Hitler, etc.) But it is grotesque to equate the casualties inflicted by the NATO bombing with the mayhem inflicted on hundreds of thousands of people in the last eight years by the Serb programs of ethnic cleansing.
    Not all violence is equally reprehensible; not all wars are equally unjust.
    No forceful response to the violence of a state against peoples who are nominally its own citizens? (Which is what most "wars" are today. Not wars between states.) The principal instances of mass violence in the world today are those committed by governments within their own legally recognized borders. Can we really say there is no response to this?
    • "Why Are We in Kosovo?", The New York Times (2 May 1999)
  • War is a culture, bellicosity is addictive, defeat for a community that imagines itself to be history's eternal victim can be as intoxicating as victory. How long will it take for the Serbs to realize that the Milosevic years have been an unmitigated disaster for Serbia, the net result of Milosevic's policies being the economic and cultural ruin of the entire region, including Serbia, for several generations? Alas, one thing we can be sure of, that will not happen soon.
    • "Why Are We in Kosovo?", The New York Times (2 May 1999)
  • The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.
  • The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.
    • The New Yorker: Talk of the Town (24 September 2001)
  • Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People don't become inured to what they are shown — if that's the right way to describe what happens — because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.
    • Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), p.101, Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN 0-374-24858-3
  • The course of modern history having already sapped the traditions and shattered the living wholes in which precious objects once found their place, the collector may now in good conscience go about excavating the choicer, more emblematic fragments.
    • On Photography

Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966)[edit]

Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN 0-312-28086-6
From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.
  • From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practices.
    This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.
    • "Against Interpretation" (1964), p. 5
  • What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.
    • "Against Interpretation" (1964), p. 5
  • Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.
    • p. 6
  • The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.
  • Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.
    • p. 7
  • To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’
    • p. 7
The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating.
  • Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.
    • "Against Interpretation" (1964), p. 8
  • In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
    • "Against Interpretation" (1964), p. 14
  • Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.
    • "The Imagination of Disaster" from Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), p. 212
  • The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.
    • "Notes on 'Camp'" (1964), note 54, p. 291
Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility.
  • Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility. And the means for practicing art have been radically extended. ... Painters no longer feel themselves confined to canvas and paint, but employ hair, photographs, wax, sand, bicycle tires, their own toothbrushes and socks. Musicians have reached beyond the sounds of the traditional instruments to use tampered instruments and (usually on tape) synthetic sounds and industrial noises.
    • "One culture and the new sensibility", p. 296

Styles of Radical Will (1966)[edit]

  • If within the last century art conceived as an autonomous activity has come to be invested with an unprecedented stature—the nearest thing to a sacramental human activity acknowledged by secular society—it is because one of the tasks art has assumed is making forays into and taking up positions on the frontiers of consciousness (often very dangerous to the artist as a person) and reporting back what’s there.
    • “The Pornographic Imagination,” p. 45
  • The notion of art as the dearly purchased outcome of an immense spiritual risk, one whose cost goes up with the entry and participation of each new player in the game
    • “The Pornographic Imagination,” p. 45
  • Since it is hardly likely that contemporary critics seriously mean to bar prose narratives that are unrealistic from the domain of literature, one suspects that a special standard is being applied to sexual themes. … There is nothing conclusive in the well-known fact that most men and women fall short of the sexual prowess that people in pornography are represented as enjoying; that the size of organs, number and duration of orgasms, variety and feasibility of sexual powers, and amount of sexual energy all seem grossly exaggerated. Yes, and the spaceships and the teeming planets depicted in science-fiction novels don’t exist either. The fact that the site of narrative is an ideal topos disqualifies neither pornography or science-fiction from being literature. … The materials of the pornographic books that count as literature are, precisely, one of the extreme forms of human consciousness. Undoubtedly, many people would agree that the sexually obsessed consciousness can, in principle, enter into literature as an art form. … But then they usually add a rider to the agreement which effectively nullifies it. They require that the author have the proper “distance” from his obsessions for their rendering to count as literature. Such a standard is sheer hypocrisy, revealing one again that the values commonly applied to pornography are, in the end, those belonging to psychiatry and social affairs rather than to art. (Since Christianity upped that ante and concentrated on sexual behavior as the root of virtue, everything pertaining to sex has been a “special case” in our culture, evoking particularly inconsistent attitudes.) Van Gogh’s paintings retain their status as art even if it seems his manner of painting owed less to a conscious choice of representational means than to his being deranged and actually seeing reality the way he painted it. … What makes a work of pornography part of the history of art rather than of trash is not distance, the superimposition of a consciousness more conformable to that of ordinary reality upon the “deranged consciousness” of the erotically obsessed. Rather, it is the originality, thoroughness, authenticity, and power of that deranged consciousness itself, as incarnated in a work.
    • “The Pornographic Imagination,” pp. 45-47
  • In some respects the use of sexual obsessions as a subject for literature resembles the use of a literary subject whose validity for fewer people would contest: religious obsessions. So compared, the familiar fact of pornography’s definite, aggressive impact upon its readers looks somewhat different. Its celebrated intention of sexually stimulating readers is really a species of proselytizing. Pornography that is serious literature aims to “excite” in the same way that books which render an extreme form of religious experience aim to “convert.”
    • “The Pornographic Imagination,” pp. 47-48
  • Total experiences, of which there are many kinds, tend again and again to be apprehended only as revivals or translations of the religious imagination. To try to make a fresh way of talking at the most serious, ardent, and enthusiastic level, heading off the religious encapsulation, is one of the primary intellectual tasks of future thought.
    • “The Pornographic Imagination,” p. 69
  • For Cioran the aphoristic style is less a principle of reality than a principle of knowing: that it’s the destiny of every profound idea to be quickly checkmated by another idea, which it itself has implicitly generated.
    • “‘Thinking against oneself’: reflections on Cioran,” p. 79
  • As Cioran correctly points out, a principal danger of being overcivilized is that one all to easily relapses, out of sheer exhaustion and the unsatisfied need to be “stimulated,” into a vulgar and passive barbarism. Thus, “the man who unmasks his fictions” through an indiscriminate pursuit of the lucidity that is promoted by modern liberal culture “renounces his own resources and, in a sense, himself. Consequently, he will accept other fictions which will deny him, since they will not have cropped up from his own depth.” There, he concludes, “no man concerned with his own equilibrium may exceed a certain degree of lucidity and analysis.”
    • “‘Thinking against oneself’: reflections on Cioran,” p. 85

On Photography (1977)[edit]

Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN 0385267061
The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past.
The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own.
  • The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past.
  • Whitman thought he was not abolishing beauty but generalizing it. So, for generations, did the most gifted American photographers, in their polemical pursuit of the trivial and the vulgar. But among American photographers who have matured since World War II, the Whitmanesque mandate to record in its entirety the extravagant candors of actual American experience has gone sour. In photographing dwarfs, you don't get majesty & beauty. You get dwarfs.
    • "America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly", p. 29
  • Evans wanted his photographs to be "literate, authoritative, transcendent." The moral universe of the 1930s being no longer ours, these adjectives are barely creditable today. Nobody demands that photography be literate. Nobody can imagine how it could be authoritative. Nobody understands how anything, least of all a photograph, could be transcendent.
    • "America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly", p. 31
So successful has been the camera's role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful.
  • The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own.
    • "Melancholy Objects", p. 57
  • So successful has been the camera's role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful.
    • "The Heroism of Vision", p. 85
  • The tradition of portrait painting, to embellish or idealize the subject, remains the aim of everyday and of commercial photography, but it has had a much more limited career in photography considered as art. Generally speaking, the honors have gone to the Cordelias.
    • "The Heroism of Vision", p. 105
  • The destiny of photography has taken it far beyond the role to which it was originally thought to be limited: to give more accurate reports on reality (including works of art). Photography is the reality; the real object is often experienced as a letdown.
    • "Photographic Evangels", p. 147
  • Between two fantasy alternatives, that Holbein the Younger had lived long enough to have painted Shakespeare or that a prototype of the camera had been invented early enough to have photographed him, most Bardolators would choose the photograph. This is not just because it would presumably show what Shakespeare really looked like, for even if the photograph were faded, barely legible, a brownish shadow, we would probably still prefer it to another glorious Holbein. Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross.
    • "The Image-World", p. 154
  • Reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras. It is common now for people to insist upon their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up — a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing — that "it seemed like a movie." This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was. While many people in non-industrialized countries still feel apprehensive when being photographed, divining it to be some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture, people in industrialized countries seek to have their photographs taken — feel that they are images, and are made real by photographs.
    • "The Image-World", p. 161

Salon interview (2001)[edit]

I'm not against fighting this enemy — it is an enemy and I'm not a pacifist.
Interview, "The 'Traitor' Fires Back" by David Talbot, Salon.com (16 October 2001)
What we're dealing with here is a view of the U.S. as a secular, sinful society that must be humbled, and this has nothing to do with any particular aspect of American policy. In my view, there can be no compromise with such a vision. And, no, I don't think we have brought this upon ourselves, which is of course a view that has been attributed to me.
  • I'll take the American empire any day over the empire of what my pal Chris Hitchens calls "Islamic fascism." I'm not against fighting this enemy — it is an enemy and I'm not a pacifist.
    I think what happened on Sept. 11 was an appalling crime, and I'm astonished that I even have to say that, to reassure people that I feel that way. But I do feel that the Gulf War revisited is not the way to fight this enemy.
  • I'm sickened by the way that the delivery of so-called humanitarian aid is once again being used as a justification — or cover — for war.
  • As a secular person, and as a woman, I've always been appalled by the Taliban regime and would dearly like to see them toppled. I was a public critic of the regime long before the war started. But I've been told that the Northern Alliance is absolutely no better when it comes to the issue of women. The crimes against women in Afghanistan are just unthinkable; there's never been anything like it in the history of the world. So of course I would love to see that government overthrown and something less appalling put in its place.
    Do I think bombing is the way to do it? Of course I don't. It's not for me to speculate on this, but there are all sorts of realpolitik outcomes that one can imagine.
  • But just because I am a critic of Israeli policy — and in particular the occupation, simply because it is untenable, it creates a border that cannot be defended — that does not mean I believe the U.S. has brought this terrorism on itself because it supports Israel. I believe bin Laden and his supporters are using this as a pretext. If we were to change our support for Israel overnight, we would not stop these attacks.
    I don't think this is what it's really about.
    I think it truly is a jihad, I think there is such a thing. There are many levels to Islamic rage. But what we're dealing with here is a view of the U.S. as a secular, sinful society that must be humbled, and this has nothing to do with any particular aspect of American policy. In my view, there can be no compromise with such a vision. And, no, I don't think we have brought this upon ourselves, which is of course a view that has been attributed to me.
Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.
  • I believe that courage is morally neutral. I can well imagine wicked people being brave and good people being timid or afraid. I don't consider it a moral virtue.

Frankfurt Book Fair speech (2003)[edit]

Speech upon being awarded the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels (Peace Prize of the German Book Trade), Frankfurt Book Fair, (12 October 2003)
All modern wars, even when their aims are the traditional ones, such as territorial aggrandizement or the acquisition of scarce resources, are cast as clashes of civilizations — culture wars — with each side claiming the high ground, and characterizing the other as barbaric.
"Old" and "new" are the perennial poles of all feeling and sense of orientation in the world...
We are told we must choose — the old or the new. In fact, we must choose both.
  • All modern wars, even when their aims are the traditional ones, such as territorial aggrandizement or the acquisition of scarce resources, are cast as clashes of civilizations — culture wars — with each side claiming the high ground, and characterizing the other as barbaric. The enemy is invariably a threat to "our way of life," an infidel, a desecrator, a polluter, a defiler of higher or better values. The current war against the very real threat posed by militant Islamic fundamentalism is a particularly clear example.
  • Americans have it right. Europeans are not in an evangelical — or a bellicose — mood.
    Indeed, sometimes I have to pinch myself to be sure I am not dreaming: that what many people in my own country now hold against Germany, which wreaked such horrors on the world for nearly a century — the new "German problem," as it were — is that Germans are repelled by war; that much of German public opinion is now virtually ... pacifist!
  • From "old" Europe's point of view, America seems bent on squandering the admiration — and gratitude — felt by most Europeans. The immense sympathy for the United States in the aftermath of the attack on September 11, 2001 was genuine. (I can testify to its resounding ardor and sincerity in Germany; I was in Berlin at the time.) But what has followed is an increasing estrangement on both sides. The citizens of the richest and most powerful nation in history have to know that America is loved, and envied ... and resented.
  • It is hard for people not to see the world in polarizing terms ("them" and us") and these terms have in the past strengthened the isolationist theme in American foreign policy as much as they now strengthen the imperialist theme. Americans have got used to thinking of the world in terms of enemies. Enemies are somewhere else, as the fighting is almost always "over there," with Islamic fundamentalism now replacing Russian and Chinese communism as the implacable, furtive menace to "our way of life." And terrorist is a more flexible word than communist. It can unify a larger number of quite different struggles and interests.
  • Americans are constantly extolling "traditions"; litanies to family values are at the center of every politician's discourse. And yet the culture of America is extremely corrosive of family life, indeed of all traditions except those redefined as "identities" that can be accepted as part of larger patterns of distinctiveness, cooperation, and openness to innovation.
  • The United States is a generically religious society. That is, in the United States it's not important which religion you adhere to, as long as you have one.
  • "Old" and "new" are the perennial poles of all feeling and sense of orientation in the world. We cannot do without the old, because in what is old is invested all our past, our wisdom, our memories, our sadness, our sense of realism. We cannot do without faith in the new, because in what is new is invested all our energy, our capacity for optimism, our blind biological yearning, our ability to forget — the healing ability that makes reconciliation possible.
  • We are told we must choose — the old or the new. In fact, we must choose both. What is a life if not a series of negotiations between the old and the new? It seems to me that one should always be seeking to talk oneself out of these stark oppositions.
  • The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the "intellectual ambassador," the human rights activist — those roles which are mentioned in the citation for this prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self-doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.
  • Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.
    Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference — for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences — experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.
  • A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted — made cynical, superficial — by this understanding.
  • To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.
    Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.

Regarding the Torture of Others (2004)[edit]

The meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show.
"Regarding the Torture of Others" in The New York Times (23 May 2004)
  • An erotic life is, for more and more people, that which can be captured on digital photographs and on video. And perhaps the torture is more attractive, as something to record, when it has a sexual component.
  • The expression of satisfaction at the acts of torture one is inflicting on helpless, trussed, naked victims is only part of the story. There is the primal satisfaction of being photographed, to which one is more inclined to respond not with a stiff, direct gaze (as in former times) but with glee. The events are in part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin for the camera. There would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn't take a picture of them.
  • People do these things to other people. Not just in Nazi concentration camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein. Americans, too, do them when they have permission. When they are told or made to feel that those over whom they have absolute power deserve to be mistreated, humiliated, tormented. They do them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing belong to an inferior, despicable race or religion. For the meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show.
  • Soldiers now pose, thumbs up, before the atrocities they commit, and send off the pictures to their buddies and family. What is revealed by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality. Ours is a society in which secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal, you now clamor to get on a television show to reveal.
  • The Bush administration has committed the country to a new, pseudo-religious doctrine of war, endless war — for "the war on terror" is nothing less than that.
  • The charges against most of the people detained in the prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan being nonexistent — the Red Cross reports that 70 to 90 percent of those being held seem to have committed no crime other than simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in some sweep of "suspects" — the principal justification for holding them is "interrogation." Interrogation about what? About anything. Whatever the detainee might know. If interrogation is the point of detaining prisoners indefinitely, then physical coercion, humiliation and torture become inevitable.
    Remember: we are not talking about that rarest of cases, the "ticking time bomb" situation, which is sometimes used as a limiting case that justifies torture of prisoners who have knowledge of an imminent attack. This is general or nonspecific information-gathering, authorized by American military and civilian administrators to learn more of a shadowy empire of evildoers about whom Americans know virtually nothing, in countries about which they are singularly ignorant: in principle, any information at all might be useful. An interrogation that produced no information (whatever information might consist of) would count as a failure.



Misattributed[edit]

  • Styles change, style doesn't.
    • Styles, like everything else, change. Style doesn't. - Linda Ellerbee, Move On: Adventures in the Real World (1991), p. 35 G.P. Putnam's Sons ISBN 0399136231

Quotes about Sontag[edit]

  • [Sontag] belongs less to the history of literature than to that of publicity. Anyone with the least intellectual pretension seemed to have heard of, if not actually read, her.
    • Joseph Epstein (2011). "A Very Public Intellectual", The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2011
  • During the Vietnam War, Sontag went off to Hanoi as one of those people Lenin called "useful idiots"—that is, people who could be expected to defend Communism without any interest in investigating the brutality behind it. There she found the North Vietnamese people noble and gentle, if a touch boring and puritanical for her tastes. Doubtless that trip led to her most famous foolish remark, when she said that "the white race is the cancer of human history," later revising this judgment by noting that it was a slander on cancer.
    • Joseph Epstein (2011). "A Very Public Intellectual", The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2011
  • Some might think Sontag's renunciation of communism an exception to this record of nearly perfect political foolishness. In a 1982 speech at New York's Town Hall, she announced that communism was no more than "fascism with a human face." The remark drove bien-pensants up the (still standing Berlin) wall. Others who had fallen for the dream of communism had got off the train as long as 50 years earlier. And whatever can Sontag have meant by "a human face" to describe a monstrous system of government that in Russia, Eastern Europe, China and Cambodia slaughtered scores of millions of people?
    • Joseph Epstein (2011). "A Very Public Intellectual", The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2011
  • Unlike many politically engaged writers, Sontag never hankered after the security of a finished system of thought. If she acquired a reputation for contrarian thinking it was because she responded directly to historical events, which rarely conform to ideological stereotypes.
  • Sontag's cool exile was a disaster for the American women's movement. Only a woman of her prestige could have performed the necessary critique and debunking of the first instant-canon feminist screeds, such as those of Kate Millett or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose middlebrow mediocrity crippled women's studies from the start. No patriarchal villains held Sontag back; her failures are her own.
    • Camille Paglia, "Sontag, Bloody Sontag" in Tramps and Vamps (1994) NY:Vintage.
  • The white race is the cancer of human history? Who was this woman? Who and what? An anthropological epidemiologist? A renowned authority on the history of cultures throughout the world, a synthesizer of the magnitude of a Max Weber, a Joachim Wach, a Sir James Frazer, an Arnold Toynbee? Actually, she was just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering to the podium, encumbered by her prose style, which had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review. Perhaps she was exceptionally hell-bent on illustrating McLuhan's line about indignation endowing the idiot with dignity, but otherwise she was just a typical American intellectual of the post-World War II period.
    • Tom Wolfe, on Sontag's 1967 claim that "the white race is the cancer of human history," in Wolfe's essay "In the Land of the Rococo Marxists," Harper's Monthly, June 2000.

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