At the Same Time

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

When Susan Sontag died in 2004, she had nearly completed At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches, which is divided into three parts: discussions of individual authors and Sontag’s arguments about aesthetics, her responses to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and how photography engages with traumatic events such as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the torture at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War, and the role of literature in shaping public morality. The book also includes an informative foreword by her son, David Rieff, and a discussion of the book’s structure by its editors, Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump.

From the appearance of her first essay collection, Against Interpretation (1966), Sontag was regarded as a public intellectual defining cultural trends and boldly declaring views that often put her at odds with conventional, mainstream opinion. Her outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, the subject of essays in her second collection, Styles of Radical Will (1969), made her a political figure as well. Although Sontag later revised and, in some cases, repudiated part of her early publicationsmost notably recanting her enthusiasm for Marxist revolutionary movements and regimes like Fidel Castro’s in CubaAt the Same Time articulates core values that she never modified.

In particular, Sontag associates the writer with the dissenter. Indeed, the burden of this volume is a concern that the “ideology now dominant in what passes for culture in modern societiesis designed to render obsolete the novelist’s prophetic and critical, even subversive task, and that is to deepen and sometimes, as needed, to oppose the common understandings of our fate.”

The ideology Sontag alludes to is inseparably bound up with American hegemony in the political and cultural realms. An acerbic foe of the George W. Bush administration, Sontag detects in its language an effort to equate criticism of America not only with lack of patriotism but with a failure to support the White House’s “war on terror,” a phrase she deplores because it fosters a fear that stifles free speech and reduces the world to a kind of binary, simplistic formula. Thus, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to the countries of “old Europe” that refused to join the coalition in the war against Iraq. How are countries like Spain or Poland, she counters, new Europe? They are so only because Rumsfeld says it is so, because they support U.S. policy.

Included in this volume is Sontag’s controversial New Yorker article condemning the American government’s and the media’s response to the September 11 attacks as an almost unanimous failure to address the reasons for the attacks. Instead, the media allowed the Bush administration to cast the attack as a “cowardly” blow at civilization, liberty, humanity, and the free world. Why did almost no one point out that September 11 was the “consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” she asks. She is particularly contemptuous of attempts to allay public anxiety by saying that “our country is strong.” Sontag responds: “Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.” Sontag’s harsh rhetoric and ridicule of those seeking to deal with the September 11 attacks exclusively as a psychological problem (how to grieve) resulted in fierce attacks on heras she acknowledges in “A Few Weeks After,” an interview included in At the Same Time.

Quite aside from the merits of Sontag’s position, her heated rhetoric is part of what makes her political writing problematic. For example, she calls President Bush “robotic.” This kind of name-calling does not serve her argument well, especially since other essays in this volume emphasize how careful the novelist has to be with language and with the expression of opinions. Then, too, there is Sontag’s habit of contradicting herself. In “A Few Weeks After,” for example, she argues, “To in any way excuse or condone this atrocity [September 11] by blaming the United Stateseven though there has been much American conduct abroad to blameis morally obscene.” In The New Yorker article, she comes perilously close to blaming the victim, for in effect Sontag suggests that Americans should not be surprised that the twin towers tumbled. In the interview, she suggests that the September 11 attacks were an assault on civilization, liberty, and humanity. In the guise of nuanceher constant reinterpretations of her statements, especially in the form of interviewsSontag appears to straddle rather than resolve the contradictions in her positions.

Perhaps if Sontag had...

(The entire section is 1926 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Harper’s Magazine 314 (February, 2007): 87-92.

London Review of Books 29, no. 6 (March 22, 2007): 11-12.

The Nation 284, no. 12 (March 26, 2007): 31-36.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (March 11, 2007): 14.

Newsweek 149, no. 11 (March 12, 2007): 58-59.

The Times Literary Supplement, April 13, 2007, p. 13.