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Of beauty, survival, criticism, love and pain: Why Susan Sontag will always be relevant


Susan Sontag dwelled between two worlds. One that was there and the one that could have been in all fairness and evolution. The iconic essayist and writer who passed away in 2004 intrigued many across cultures and communities with her set of beliefs and disbeliefs and she disturbed many with how perenially relevant she can be. A personal hero to many, Sontag touched up and lingered on subjects like wars, freedom, civilisations, consumerism, suffering, violence, conflict, art, literature, photography, intellectual and emotional intelligence, culture, betrayal, camp among many others domains without imposing a derivative rather taking one through the collective journeys we take in a lifetime. That cathartic form of writing, that sense of acceptance and the how brutally aware and honest Sontag appeared in her thoughts was unimaginable by many.

Many writers in time have tried to guard and warn the progressing societies on past mistakes and present failures and possible future collapses but Sontag was a bit different when it came to embody those developments. She was serious about each and everything.

She wrote in her first experimental work, Benefactor, that was published in 1963 when a 30-year-old Sontag wrote, “The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything. There would only be what is.” She challenged the deep-rooted habromania that thrived across societies and presented in the most naked way.

Biographer Benjamin Moser’s work, Sontag: Her Life and Work that recently won the 2020 prestigious Pulitzer Prize got us talking again of the enigma that the fearless writer was. Interpreting the interpreter can be very challenging but Moser bravely sketched Sontag with simplicity touching upon the not-so-simple realities, juxtapositions and fears that shaped the life and writing of one of the most profound and honest voices in the world of writing.

 

The grey streak in her dense hair, the no-makeup iridescent face, the genderless wardrobe and those fiercely peaceful eyes created a whole world of assumptions as to how Sontag want to be seen before being understood. Her sense of justifying beauty was truly a revelation. She wrote, “Beauty defines itself as the antithesis of the ugly. Obviously, you can’t say something is beautiful if you’re not willing to say something is ugly. But there are more and more taboos about calling something, anything, ugly.” Even in terms of how Sontag perceived the idea of love through childhood, youth and accommodating relationships special to her reflected in her writings and if you read into it, there stood a form of love that was protected yet exposed, yielded yet negated. Sontag in a way was not quite public in terms of her personal capacity to love and be loved be it the long relationship she shared with American photographer Annie Leibovitz or her son David Reiff. She wrote in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, “My emotional life: dialectic between craving for privacy and need to submerge myself in a passionate relationship to another.”

 

Not a firm believer in meliorism indicating at the hope for a better world, Sontag stuck to the vagary of it. The sense of public and private varies for many but Sontag managed to bring out the merger in the most lucid manner. In her work, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-1980, Sontag wrote, “As a writer, I tolerate error, poor performance, failure. So what if I fail some of the time, if a story or an essay is no good? Sometimes things do go well, the work is good. And that’s enough. It’s just this attitude I don’t have about sex. I don’t tolerate error, failure—therefore I’m anxious from the start, and therefore I’m more likely to fail. Because I don’t have the confidence that some of the time (without my forcing anything) it will be good.”

As the world is battling a global pandemic and the idea of living and surviving is changing by the minute, one only wishes that Sontag was here to witness it and guide us through such unpredictable and fragile times. To dissect and reveal all kinds of pain, means of survival and how to own a sense of acceptance and live with it.

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