I miss Susan Sontag, the essayist and novelist who died near the end of 2004. Her biting political commentaries and insightful explorations of reading and writing were always worth reading. Archivists best know her work for her two books on photography, On Photography (1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), and her novel, The Volcano Lover (1992), an assessment of many aspects of the human condition, including the urge to collect.
Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump have edited the last group of essays and speeches Sontag was working and brought them out as At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007). As with most of her writings, there is something in this collection that the archivist will find worth a moment to consider. The editors indicate that this book consists of the work Sontag was “actively outlining and planning in the last years of her life” (p. vii). But it is not the last we will hear of Sontag; there is a project to edit and publish her letters and notebooks that I am sure will be a compelling read. The title of my blog, “do something,” comes from the back cover of this volume, reproducing an entry in her notebooks where she wrote this phrase three times in succession; Sontag was always doing something.
The essays in this book concern beauty; Russian and other poets and writers (including an essay about one author rewriting a novel lost in the destruction of her house during the Second world War before being published and the impact of that traumatic event on the novel itself); her reflections on the implications of September 11, 2001; the changing nature of photography, especially in war time; and a variety of speeches given at ceremonies and special occasions.
She constantly touches on themes that will be of interest to archivists. In her musings about the meaning of 9/11, she is an advocate for the importance of historical context. In her first brief contribution to the meaning of 9/11, Sontag wrote, “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shred of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen” (p. 107). A year later, Sontag reflected on the use of Lincoln’s speeches and other such historic sources as patriotic prose to support the present war: “When the great Lincoln speeches are cited at the commemorative ceremonies of September 11th, they have – in true postmodernist fashion – become completely emptied of meaning. They are now gestures of nobility, of greatness of spirit. What they were being great about is irrelevant” (p. 121).
Sontag is especially interested in mulling over the nature of the literary life, and the activity of writing. In her essay about Anna Banti’s novel Artemsia lost in the destruction of her home, Sontag writes of that book’s “double destiny, of a book lost and re-created. A book that by being posthumous, rewritten, resurrected, gained incalculably in emotional reach and moral authority. A metaphor for literature, perhaps. And a metaphor for reading, militant reading – which, at its worthiest, is rereading – too” (p.56). Maybe there is a metaphor there for archives as well. Sontag was an unabashed searcher after truth: “The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth. . . and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation” (p. 151). Archivists, likewise, ought to be committed to some objective such as this, as difficult as it may be to describe such a task. And, Sontag was a true believer not in the value of the form of writing or the process of reading, but the story behind the writing. And it is stories we find in archives, just needing to be released from their confines into the public space.
In considering the release of the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs, Sontag considers how this kind of photography reflects a “shift in the use made of pictures – less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated. A digital camera is a common possession among soldiers. Where once photographing was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers – recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities – and swapping images among themselves, and e-mailing them around the globe” (pp. 132-133). This also reflects a shift in individuals documenting themselves, something archivists will need to come to terms with in their work.
Susan Sontag’s writings were always engaging, sometimes inspirational, and usually informative.