Wednesday, April 05, 2006

literary compassion

The Believer's Lisa Levy compares the paradoxical obituaries of Susan Sontag.

The most Sontagian tribute to her yet is Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Perspicuous Consumption.” Koestenbaum writes in a fragmented, provisional style, “Sontag achieved her customary tone of passionate detachment by refusing academic thoroughness. As a writer she was solely self-commanded, not taking editorial orders, obeying allegiance only to her own momentary or abiding enthusiasms: Fassbinder, Robert Walser, Marina Tsvetaeva, bunraku, Alice James…” And this, as good an explanation as any the obituaries offer on her shifts from fiction to essay: “Fiction was one escape ramp, she used it to flee the punitive confines of the essay. And she uses essays to flee the connect-the-dots dreariness of fiction. Her essays behave like fictions (disguised, arch, upholstered with attitudes), while her fictions behave like essays (pontificating, pedagogic, discursive).” He does what neither objective obituary nor personal reminiscence can: he tries to understand her, obeying her edicts on, or against, interpretation. Sontag argued that commentary should enhance art rather than dismantle it, and the same is true of her elegies. We encounter these men—and they were always men, her idols, Goodman, Benjamin, et al.—idealized and all too human, as writers and as people, the roundest and richest of characters. Koestenbaum’s piece comes closest to interpreting Sontag herself. The first time he ever saw her speak he confesses that he blurted out to his companion: “‘Sontag’s got a crush on me.’ I meant the reverse: ‘I have a crush on Susan Sontag.’ Instinctive, preposterous substitution,” he chides himself. But the reality lurks behind the fantasy: what if she did have a crush on him? What would it be like to have a drink with her, to gossip, to hear her private pronouncements, ridiculous and profound?