Saturday, March 17, 2007

Susan Sontag

I have never, I confess, 'got' the late Susan Sontag. People routinely rave about her brilliance and, so, conscientiously, I read her and find uninteresting prose and simple and sometimes interesting arguments rendered complex and uninteresting by fussy organisation. The same is broadly true of this previously unpublished essay in the Guardian. This time, however, I think there is a genuinely very good essay struggling to get out. The argument - almost buried by the structure - is that there is a conflict between 'the modern' and the pursuit of literary fiction. The modern homogenises - 'The quintessential site of the modern is an airport; and all airports are alike...'- whereas the novel particularises. Furthermore, the modern destroys cultures by globalising everything and offering everything, whereas literature - 'with its invitation to develop the kind of inwardness that resists the modern satieties' - is localised and tentative. This isn't quite right. All airports aren't the same any more than all Gothic cathedrals are the same, indeed their surface similarity dramatises their differences. But the question imperfectly framed by Sontag's conclusion is the big one: is an international culture of the modern possible? Probably not, which is why - and she's dead right here - the pursuit of literature is more important than ever.


  1. Bryan, in saying that '. . . literature - 'with its invitation to develop the kind of inwardness that resists the modern satieties' - is localised and tentative' might you have in mind a localism or regionalism, or a provincialism or parochialism something like this?:

    Flannery O'Connor:

    '"The best American fiction has always been regional. The ascendancy passed roughly from New England to the Midwest to the South; it has passed to and stayed longest wherever there has been a shared past, a sense of alikeness, and the possibility of reading a small history in a universal light."'

    Patrick Kurp comments:

    'That’s a concise redefinition of parochial, in the sense I intend: “reading a small history in a universal light.”'

    (In his posting 'Passionate Parochialism' )

    And if so, might it be said, to adapt Hamlin Garland's comment, that:

    'Provincialism [or parochialism] (that is to say, localism) is no ban to a[n inter]national literature." Hamlin Garland, Crumbling Idols (Chicago: Stone and Kimball, 1894), pp. 30-31.'?

    (Quoted by Bill Kauffman in 'Subsidies to the Arts: Cultivating Mediocrity' )

  2. Dave, thanks for a characteristically learned comment. The paradox of culture is that it must be local and, in being successfully so, must be global. Flaubert could only be French but, by being so, he became universal. I think Sontag is right to identify the problem of the destruction of the local by globalisation as an enemy of literature. But she perhaps goes a little too far. The local - as in airports - emerges whatever the planner of the global may intend. Making this a source of wisdom rather than terror is the business of literature.

  3. Settings, accents, topical concerns must be local (how can they be otherwise? Things happen in a partic. place to partic. characters); it's the emotions readers bring to the stories that are universal. And not just universal, but time-transcending. I can read an essay by Montaigne, a story by Marguerite de Navarre, or part of Ben Franklin's autobiography and feel what each writer felt, even though they put their pens to paper hundreds of years ago.

    Now *that's* good writing.

    Susan Sontag was very smart and her heart was in the right place, but the only one of her intellectual books I liked was the one about illness as metaphor. Her fiction stank. I reviewed one of her novels (I think she wrote two) and its characters moved like wood through a cement landscape.

    Loved her hair though: That white stripe was way cool. Apparently (I read this recently) it indicated she had a recessive gene for albinism.

  4. I'm not sure if this is exactly what Bryan is saying, but my view is that while there is a trend towards a global monoculture - mostly, but not exclusively Americanisation (because mostly globalisation is about allowing individuals to choose, and since some things do seem to be universal, choice pushes them to the top)- local diversity will always then modify it. Globalisation is like a big wave hitting the shore, but then after it has hit all sorts of diverse little things grow in the rock pools left behind. Or something like that - the analogy needs some work.

  5. There probably is a degree of truth in your analogy, Brit, but to give my own ill-thought out version of it, the wave of globablisation can certainly swamp and drown the rock pools of the individual cultures with its mono-culture. Too lazy to try and think about it right now.

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