NEW YORK — Susan Sontag died the same week as a tsunami in south Asia killed over a hundred thousand people. There’s no logical connection between these two events. Even though Sontag titled one of her books Regarding the Pain of Others, nothing of substance is to be learned by their juxtaposition except to remark that, when free association counts as intellectual work, as it did in Sontag’s world, intimations of significance can always be found.
After Sontag published as essay last year in the New York Times about the Abu Ghraib scandal in which she compared prisoner abuse by Americans to mass executions carried out at Nazi concentration camps — arguing, in effect, that human brutality is all of a piece — I wrote a column in which I referred to her as a “pseudo-intellectual.” In retrospect, that was unfair. Sontag was a heroine of the political left, a talented writer who tackled ambitious subjects in respected journals. She was indeed an intellectual. She was just a very bad intellectual.
What I mean is that, for all her rhetorical gifts, Sontag could not think — or, rather, she could not reason. She didn’t do if-then logic. She tossed around ideas as though they were horseshoes and hoped that their proximity to a thesis formed an argument. This method made her consistently provocative, consistently readable, and consistently irrelevant.
In a 1967 essay for Partisan Review, she wrote: “It is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.” This is the kind of preening, self-loathing declaration intended first and foremost to announce the writer’s sympathy with the romanticized Other. It’s also a harbinger, given the essay’s date, of a mindset that would soon embrace the ear-gagging phrase “people of color” — as though concentrations of melanin conferred existential unity and behavioral nobility to populations who happen to think of themselves that way.
But setting aside Sontag’s motivations for writing it — she would later make a sarcastic retraction, saying the line slanders cancer patients — is there a way to rescue it logically from the hundred objections that can be lodged against it? Doesn’t there throb, beneath Sontag’s words, a hardened racial essentialism of the sort that seeks to define the intellectual, moral and spiritual potentials of individual human beings by the geographic origins of their distant ancestors? And isn’t her condemnation of “the white race” actually a function of her disappointment that Europeans and their descendants, who developed the scientific and technological means to dominate the planet, didn’t also develop a corresponding ethical superiority that would have made them better stewards? Why weren’t white people a kinder, gentler master race? The “autonomous civilization” of India had a quaint little custom of burning widows alive at the funerals of their husbands; why did the Brits have to go mucking around the subcontintent and force the locals to scrap it? Why didn’t Fulton, Edison and Ford realize the havoc their inventions would wreak on the eco-system?
In recent years, Sontag caused a political firestorm with her notorious New Yorker essay on the events of 9/11. Her words seemed shocking just days after the attack, but in retrospect the performance was pure Sontag: “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world,'” she wrote, “but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?… 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.”
Analyses don’t come more wrongheaded than this; a reader could negate every proposition Sontag puts forward and arrive closer to the truth than she does. But since she makes such an issue of cowardice versus courage, let’s focus on that. Because the hijackers killed themselves in order to kill their victims, she claims, they exhibited courage and shouldn’t be called cowards. She insists that courage is a morally neutral virtue. (What is a “morally neutral virtue” anyway? Is it like a “shapeless square”? A “colorless shade”?) Moral neutrality, however, changes the meaning of the word; courage has never been thought of that way. If courage were morally neutral, in the sense she’s using it, then every premeditated murderer would count as courageous since he’s risking capture and punishment, perhaps capital punishment, for his crime. But Sontag, I suspect, wouldn’t call Jack the Ripper or Richard Speck or Ted Bundy courageous.
Likewise, her notion of cowardice. If America is taking the “cowardly” route of dropping bombs from airplanes “beyond the range of retaliation” — the courageous route, I suppose, would be to send in the Marines to engage in knife fights — then why do American pilots ever get shot down? Answer: Because they don’t fly beyond the range of retaliation; they intentionally fly low to avoid collateral damage. Unlike the 9/11 hijackers, American pilots can inflict mass destruction with no danger to themselves. The fact that they risk their lives to minimize civilians casualties exemplifies a courage that is not morally neutral; rather, it’s a courage that recognizes that even an unshakable perception of your cause’s justice doesn’t justify wanton violence.
The quality in the hijackers Sontag has fixated on isn’t courage but what Aristotle would call “rashness,” what Cheech Marin would call it “cojones.” It derives from a failure to esteem life, an obliviousness, ironically, to “the pain of others.” Taken down a notch, it’s the character trait that stokes the heart of every soccer hooligan, every barroom brawler, every drunk driver.
To be sure, Sontag was a person of integrity. As president of the PEN American Center in 1989, she rallied support for Salman Rushdie after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his death — this, at a time when many in the publishing industry were quaking in their boots. After decades of battling cancer, her own courage — in the usual sense of the word — cannot be questioned. On the evidence of the testimonials which have followed her death, many of which go far beyond customary graciousness, it seems fair to conclude she was a generous friend, colleague and mentor.
Sontag once said, “I like very much the idea of being serious.” Whatever her personal merits, that accomplishment will forever elude her.