Friday, December 31, 2004

John Berger On Susan Sontag

Here is a short and quirky tribute to Susan Sontag from John Berger. He calls her Quicksilver:

Susan Sontag - quicksilver darting between past and future to shed light on the otherwise dark present -

and your conscience that travelled almost at the speed of light.

I recall playing ping-pong with you and your fast services, and your laughter, which was always about surprise.

One surprise prompting another. Twenty all. Your service.

And the flick of your wrist, which looked so young, and which long, long before had already been an example for your mind that later grasped the world.

Quicksilver, liquid metal, nickname for Mercury, keeper of eloquence and dexterity, protector of roads, deliverer of the messages we need.

Game and set to you, Quicksilver.

There are many remembrances of Susan Sontag's life and work here, here, here and here.

I have just re-read parts of Sontag's Regarding The Pain Of Others which seems to speak directly to the catastrophe that has unfolded in Asia and the visual reporting of it. Near the end she has a ferocious passage in which she excoriates those "citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk'' who ''will do anything to keep themselves from being moved" by disaster or pain. Surely she speaks of a profound truth when she says that photographs - like those we have seen recently - "haunt us" and also help to form part of a narrative of understanding and, ultimately, of solidarity. And then she has this to say of the impudence of the postmodern obsession of pain as spectacle:

To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment .... It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people's pain ... consumers of news, who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.

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