A careful reader

Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump did well in choosing a title for At the Same Time, a new collection of Susan Sontag’s later essays and speeches. As in so much of Sontag’s nimble writing, there is tension in the delivery, a suggestion of contradiction. Read alone, the words seem to point to the simultaneity and multiplicity very much on Sontag’s mind when discussing literature’s purpose. But then there’s the clause used to turn the screw of a contrary retort, the thunder of an active mind at work.

The works collected here take two forms: generically, as essays and speeches on literature and politics, and more broadly, as pieces tending toward either zealous conjuring or measured polemic. Early in Sontag’s fruitful career as an essayist, she began gravitating toward those writers who personally mattered to her. And such essays here read equally as meditations on writing, thinking and morality (inextricably entwined for her) and appreciations of singular authors and accomplishments. They are as much about what these authors represent—Anna Banti’s communing with a 16th-century woman painter, Victor Serge’s being on the right side of history in his novels and life —as who they actually were.

In a speech on translation (“The World as India”), Sontag muses on how such interpretation can blur our sense of authorship. Something similar happens in her appreciations (the piece on Banti is titled “A Double Destiny,” which in itself doubles to indicate Sontag’s relationship to Banti and Banti’s to her main character, Artemisia). Not only does one sense Sontag the writer sublimating into her heroic visions of these authors, reading the essays side by side, one sometimes also loses track of the subjects because of their attributes’ pervasive overlapping.

In her piece on Serge, she quotes the author: “Writing then becomes a quest of poly-personality, a way of living diverse destinies, of penetrating into others, of communicating with them … of escaping from the ordinary limits of the self.” Echoes between Sontag and her heroes, between Sontag and herself, occur throughout this slim book.

There is, of course, plenty of fire here, too. Sontag writes not just to celebrate who these authors were but also to emphasize who they were not. That is to say she remains deeply suspicious and resentful of philistinism, naiveté posing as innocence, and anything that over time makes us feel less. She lauds the high road in her essays on literary heroes; when it comes time to turn to politics, she spits invective, slicing through endemic illusionism and posturing.

Sontag is not at her most comfortable (read: masterly) in these pieces, especially in the unfamiliar terrain of the op-ed, but her contrarian spirit (the one that said, “The nature of thinking is but”) is engine enough. On the mourning of 9/11 anniversaries, she writes, “I doubt that great commemorative ceremonies were felt to be needed to keep up morale and unite the country on December 7, 1942. That was a real war and one year later was still going on. This is a phantom war, a war at the pleasure of the Bush administration, and therefore in need of an anniversary.” Bull’s-eye.

Sontag closes her Jerusalem Prize speech by saying, “I accept the prize—this international prize, sponsored by an international book fair—as an event that honors, above all, the international republic of letters.” It’s the type of romantic self-aggrandizement that drove her critics crazy, but, really, who would we have preferred at the podium? Do we hope for an idiosyncratic eccentric who platforms an idea (America produces some of the best) or a committed thinker who represents an ideal? “Susan Sontag” never meant a position or politics, but rather a challenge: to be careful readers, of books and the world.