Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Susan Sontag, 1933-2004

Susan Sontag, the essayist, novelist and activist, died yesterday at the age of 71. She had leukemia. There are early reports here, here, and here. The New York Times has a retropective on her writing and includes reviews of some of her most important books. The difficulties of summarising Sontag's eclectic output have been strikingly put in this essay by William Gass on the book that most influenced me, On Photography:
No simple summary of the views contained in Susan Sontag's brief but brilliant work on photography is possible, first because there are too many, and second because the book is a thoughtful meditation, not a treatise, and its ideas are grouped more nearly like a gang of keys upon a ring than a run of onions on a string. I can only try, here, to provide a kind of dissolute echo of her words. The hollow sounds are all my own.
So perhaps it's best to quote her directly. Here is the unforgettable opening of On Photography:
Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads - as an anthology of images.


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