Susan Sontag

by Yule Heibel on December 29, 2004

When I heard of Susan Sontag’s death yesterday morning, this surge of anger passed through me like a bolt of electricity. It was the first time that I felt angry at the news of someone’s death. How do I explain this? I didn’t know Susan Sontag. And although I’ve read quite a bit of her work over the years, I can’t even say that I’ve read most of it, or that I could refer to it easily in conversation. But I feel this rage at the fact that another good person has died. Someone we need now, here, has died and won’t speak to our situation, while other people who are incredibly stupid continue to hog airtime. So that was one reason for the anger.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that there was a deeper, psychological, and possibly embarassing reason, too. Because I know that I’ll never be able to match her prodigious intake of learning and reading, nor her nearly equally prodigious output, I feel like an intellectual insect compared to her. She was this shining example of what’s possible, and even without knowing all that much about her, I did know that I couldn’t come close to working that hard, or being that good. I’m not even sure where the dividing boundary lies between working hard and being good — I want to believe that they lie far apart from one another. You don’t get to be someone like Sontag just by working your tail off. No, there’s a giftedness inherent in being Sontag, which she had, and most other people simply don’t. And when she figured out where that gift lay, she did work hard to increase it. But you can’t acquire it without the initial hoard, and she had that in spades.

My anger over Susan Sontag’s death was fueled by the obvious: what her death means is that, well, it means that her life is over. It means that now she’ll be a biography, and in becoming a finite bounded biograph-entitity, the comparison — the one I was making for myself — is final for me. That’s her, that’s me, and because she is no longer becoming, I will never ever be able to begin even to allude matching Susan Sontag’s intellectual share. I think that’s what really hit me hard. I’m an insect, and that’s that. And I was angry because there are so few women who are that tremendous and clear (because when you’re a clear woman vs. a “mysterious chick,” chances are that guys will hate you), but it’s those women that I want to compare myself to. And when she died, I knew that the die was cast: I’m the insect, and that’s it.

And my anger is fueled by loneliness too. Anger and loneliness. There are too many stupid people everywhere, and too few people who escape the limitations. I want the company of those outstanding escapees, and when they die, there’s this terrible anger and loneliness at their passing. For consolation, I can summon no belief. For me there’s no platitude that spouts, “Oh well, good thing that’s done and over with,” or, “She must have been suffering horribly with her disease, and it’s all for the best that she died.” No, I’m just angry that human beings haven’t found cures for these diseases, I’m just angry that people like Susan Sontag don’t get to rule the world, but people like George Bush do, I’m just angry that I’m surrounded by people who — if I consider myself an intellectual insect — are mineral or vegetable substances. It’s the loneliness, and it’s so intense you want to roll over and die. When you feel like that, everything once again begins to pool over into everything else, and you think, “God, I’ve marooned myself on this island here, and the internet sort of keeps me connected, but what does it really mean, and I’ll never live in New York.” It’s just crazy, and it’s so banal.

For further reading: I came across this article by Tim Rutten about Sontag and her death, Sontag’s Life Is Testament To Democratic Meritocracy. The poets among you will like it (read to the end, to punchline). Steve Wasserman has another article on her death, Author Susan Sontag Dies; A self-described “besotted aesthete” and “obsessed moralist,” she sought to challenge conventional thinking. She was 71. She was actually only 19 days short of her 72nd birthday. Wasserman has some good quotes:

“We live in a culture,” she said, “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.”

My favourite is this:

Sontag devoted herself to demolishing “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. Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.”

This is completely in tune with Adorno’s thinking about the subject-object relation, with his critique of idealistic thinking: the idealist, Adorno noted, flatters himself by analysing “opposing” concepts which he himself divided into oppositions in the first instance.

Rest in peace, Susan Sontag. We’ll miss you.

There are many other things I want to blog, but won’t have time for till later. Thanks for b-day wishes, more later. Did go to Massive Change at the Vancouver Art Gallery; it was fantastic and I want to blog about it for weeks to come. Later.

Just briefly for now because this is really important, Chris Locke sent around an email sometime during last night to his EGR subscriber list (note: subscribe now, it’ll do you good) about Amazon‘s incredible leveraging of its efficiency scale to make it easy for you to donate some money to the American Red Cross’s disaster relief fund for the victims of last Sunday’s tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. One click will do it. If you’ve bought stuff from before, you’ll have made your donation and gotten a receipt within 30 seconds, no kidding. If you try calling the Red Cross direct to make a donation, be prepared to wait on the phone for ages. Amazon is leveraging its phenomenal efficiency of scale for a good purpose. So far (7:40 pm, PST), the donations to the American Red Cross are at $3,359,571.57 from 57,439 people. I think that’s effing amazing.

Oh, and I’ve got my bit to say about George Bush and the disaster, too, but it’ll wait till later.


Shelley December 30, 2004 at 12:37 am

First, Happy belated hatching day. I hope it was eggsactly what you wanted.

I’m really sorry I said that. I promise not to do it again.

I also wanted to say that of all the farewells to Sontag, yours is the one I felt she would have liked the most, but probably would have give you much grief over.

Yule Heibel December 31, 2004 at 5:40 pm

Thanks for the b-day wishes, Shelley — and corny jokes are better than none, right? I’ve tried to remain sunny-side-up the past few days, found myself over-easy once or twice, but find myself generally scrambled all about by everything that’s going on. Just like everyone else.

Ack. My life as a souffl

Elaine of Kalilily January 1, 2005 at 2:33 pm

Thanks for that post about Sontag. I, too, was very upset by her death but haven’t been able to figure out why. You’ve said it for me.

Any Happy Birthday from me, too, late as I am with everything.

But it is New Year’s Day. So I send my timely wishes for a much better year than we all have had.

Yule Heibel January 1, 2005 at 2:44 pm

Thanks, Elaine, and best wishes for a New Year to you, too! I try not to worry about being late — or maybe I have been worrying about it, and that’s what’s causing this strange feeling of vertigo, almost a kind of morning-sickness sensation, I get everytime I sit down and look at the computer screen lately. I feel bedevilled by all the times I’ve recently written “more later,” and then there’s no “more later” after all because I don’t get to it, or the comments on some of the older posts I haven’t answered, but want to. It’s like a rabbit hole or something…

Stay well, and keep on pestiferating! 😉

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