So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.
-- Susan Sontag (Rolling Stone interview)
Professor Althouse links an early obituary for writer/intellectual Susan Sontag, who died today of leukemia at age 71. Although the link is to Newsday, the story actually originates with its Tribune Company compatriot, the Los Angeles Times, and the excerpt quoted on the Althouse weblog serves to remind that although one always thinks of Sontag as a New Yorker, her origins were very much tied to southern California. (The reference to the long gone and much missed Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard - at one time the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi, subsequently acquired and run into oblivion by the B. Dalton chain - raised a smile for me.)
Accompanying the obituary, Newsday also reproduces large portions of an April 7 speech Ms. Sontag gave here in Los Angeles, on the occasion of her receiving an award from the Los Angeles Public Library. Two passages caught my eye. First, a comment on the functions of literature (which surprisingly would not have been out of place in John Gardner's oft-maligned manifesto, On Moral Fiction):
Literature is a form of responsibility—to literature itself and to society. By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense too, which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness which we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. In my view, a fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation. This doesn't entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense.
Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.
The second passage gains extra resonance as we try in some way to grasp the enormity of events Elsewhere Than Here, particularly the almost unimaginable devastation wreaked upon southern Asia by the Christmas tsunami:
Hearing the news of the earthquake that leveled Lisbon on Nov. 1, 1755, and (if historians are to be believed) took with it a whole society's optimism (but, obviously, I don't believe that societies have only one basic attitude), the great Voltaire was struck by our inveterate inability to take in what happened elsewhere. 'Lisbon lies in ruins,' Voltaire wrote, 'and here in Paris we dance.'
One might suppose that today, in the age of genocide, people would not find it either paradoxical or surprising that one can be so indifferent to what is happening simultaneously elsewhere. Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that 'now' refers to both 'here' and 'there'? And yet, I venture to assert, we are just as capable of being surprised by, and frustrated by the inadequacy of our response to, the simultaneity of wildly contrasting human fates as was Voltaire two and a half centuries ago. Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events, by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That we are here, prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening, while elsewhere in the world, right now in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio....
* * *
It is a beginning of a response to this painful awareness to say: it's a question of sympathy, of the limits of the imagination. You can also say that it's not 'natural' to keep remembering that the world is so extended. That while this is happening, that is also happening.
But that, I would respond, is why we need fiction: to stretch our world.
For further reading: Susan Sontag has been mentioned here once before, in this post from last April, which is mostly about Emma Hamilton, one of the subjects of Sontag's 1992 postmodern historical novel (which I will again recommend to you), The Volcano Lover. And apropos the title of this post, here is a link to her famous 1964 essay, "Notes On 'Camp'."
And on the subject of Voltaire and the Lisbon earthquake, mentioned in Susan Sontag's April speech, George Hunka has posted a portion (in translation) of Voltaire's "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster" at his weblog, Superfluities. Here is the passage to which Sontag referred:
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.