At the Same Time

by Susan Sontag

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At the Same Time

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1926

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 lived longer, she would have caught this contradiction in her politics. Rieff cautions that this volume should not be taken as his mother’s last words. He notes that even in the final stages of preparing her books for the press, she made significant amendments. He also announces that there will be other editions of her uncollected essays as well as publications of her diaries and letters.

Sontag’s best writing in this volume is as a criticor, more properly speaking, as an introducer and enthusiast for the literature she considers great, including work that has been, in her estimation, unduly ignored. Thus, she praises the work of a writer like Victor Serge (a much earlier critic of Stalin and the gulag than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and in Sontag’s view a greater writer). Why is Serge not better known? Sontag provides several reasons, favoring the fact that he had no real country. He was Russian but wrote in French, and neither nation has considered him one of its own. Because he was an early supporter of the Russian Revolution turned apostate, Serge was shunned by many literary critics and readers on the left, Sontag supposes.

Other writers such as Halldór Laxness, an Icelandic author of one of the great twentieth century novels, Kristnihald undir Jökli (1968; Christianity at Glacier, 1972), have been ignored because they come from countries that have not made a huge mark in world history. In Laxness’s case, there is also the fact that his novelat once despairing and deeply comicis hard to categorize. It does not fit neatly into a literary niche.

The style of the literary essays in At the Same Time is reminiscent of Sontag’s earlier collection, Under the Sign of Saturn (1980). She includes telling biographical details and brief vignettes of history in order to re-create the writer’s ethos and the conditions in which he or she created literature. Occasionally Sontag will dwell on particular passages, but usually she does so only to make broader points about the writernot to analyze the passages themselves. It is curious, indeed, that although she mentions many times how important it is to craft beautiful sentences, she never examines any of those sentences in detail. The result is a critic whose enthusiasms are expressed in the loftiest terms rather than in the delight other critics take in the local felicities of a sentence or passage.

Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump note in their preface that Sontag did not have the opportunity to write a planned essay on “aphoristic thinking,” and this is to be regretted since her own style tends toward employing the epithet, the maxim, and the dictum. Like Oscar Wilde (a major influence on Sontag), she throws out offhand statements that startle with their aptness and provocation. Thus she claims, “Opera is the only medium now in which it is still acceptable to rhapsodize.” That may be true. Writers of rhapsodicsometimes called polyphonicprose, like Amy Lowell or Thomas Wolfe have gone out of fashion, but did Sontag ever consider that her own essays in worship of literature reflect the kind of effusiveness she claims to find only in opera? Moreover, how is what she terms rhapsody different from the “ecstatic prose” of Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke that she extols?

The point about aphorisms, however, is that they are prods to thinkingeven to challenging the gist of the aphorism, so it is a special loss that Sontag never gave the subject the full treatment it deserves. Instead, as Rieff points out in his foreword, the reader can only glimpse aspects of Sontag herself in her enthusiasms. A curious case in point is her exploration of Serge’s rejection of Soviet communism at the very time that many other writers were championing it. Underneath their support, Sontag argues, there was an anxiety that dare not be expressedor when it was, as in Serge’s case, then the writer had to be shunned. In effect, this is exactly what happened to Sontag: Even as she supported revolutionary communism, she had to overcome her doubts, not wishing to dash the hopes of a better world that so many writers sought in this ideology.

Sontag’s most revealing writing appears in “Literature Is Freedom,” a speech she gave in Germany in 2003, accepting the Friedenspreis prize, an award given by the German Book Trade. It is one of her few autobiographical essays. She begins by noting that Daniel Coats, American ambassador to Germany, immediately refused an invitation to attend the award ceremony. Sontag remarks that his absence “shows that he is more interested in affirming the ideological stance and the rancorous reactiveness of the Bush administration than he is, by fulfilling a normal diplomatic duty, in representing the interests and reputation of hisand mycountry.”

Sontag acknowledges that the prize calls her an “intellectual ambassador” between two continents (America and Europe), cunningly situating herself in such a way as to make Coats’s absence seem not only petty but ignorant. Describing the complicated relationship between Europe and Americahow America has been viewed as both a land of promise and a wasteland devoid of cultureSontag shows how she grew up in southern Arizona reading the great European authors, especially Thomas Mann and other German writers introduced to her by an elementary schoolteacher. These books provided a mental stimulation lacking in her own environment. At the same time, however, she tells the story of her German publisher, a man interned in a prisoner-of-war camp in northern Arizona, who spent three years there reading the classics of American literature. That the two of them should eventually work together so closely is, Sontag implies, what she means by the kind of freedom from narrow ideological focus that literature can provide. She mentions Coats only once at the beginning of the essay, but her rebuke to his reductive way of viewing the world is devastating.

Sontag underlines the irony of her remarks by noting that as a young Jewish girl she had a nightmare that Nazis would break out of their Arizona camp and invade her southern Arizona bungalow and kill her. What saved her from such fears and what buoyed the German prisoner of war was literature. “Literature was freedom,” Sontag concludes. “Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.”

It is a pity that this rousing and profound speech does not conclude At the Same Time. What follows is a rather tedious public lecture Sontag gave while accepting the honor of delivering the first Nadine Gordimer Lecture. This was Sontag’s last public appearance before her final illness, and it does not show her at her best. It is to be wondered whether she would not have wanted to excise this last piece or at least place it elsewhere, even though it is situated in the right chronological order.

In general, the uneven quality of this collection makes it a lesser achievement than Sontag’s signature work. Nevertheless, certain pieces, especially “Regarding the Torture of Others” and “Literature Is Freedom,” rank with her best prose.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 34

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.

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