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Regarding the Interpretation of Others

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Patrick Nathan | Longreads | September 2019 | 30 minutes (8,235 words)

“The only review of Under the Sign of Saturn would be the eighth essay — an essay describing me as I have described them. The pathos of intellectual avidity, the collector (mind as every-thing), melancholy & history, arbitrating the moral claim versus aestheticism, and so forth. The intellectual as an impossible project.”

Susan Sontag, journal entry, May 1980



Differently, we buy and borrow, and steal, our ongoing educations. American writers tend to forget this, even dissuade it. There is an assumption — general, if not unconscious — that “we” have all read Raymond Carver and Joan Didion, seen Dazed and Confused and The Princess Bride, and exhausted “prestige” television from Lost to Big Little Lies. That these works are canon in a post- or anti-canonical culture highlights the need for inexhaustible and pluralistic inspiration against the deprivation of that need. What’s worse, if you are labeled — black, queer, immigrant, disabled, trans, or a woman — those expectations constrict; the canon tightens. To be a gay writer means one must have read Edmund White and seen Mean Girls; to write as a black woman means one must have read Angela Davis and seen Kara Walker’s silhouettes. What was supposed to liberate our literary sensibilities has reduced us, clinically, to trained specialists. Under this pressure, so carefully curated and categorized, it’s difficult to will one’s own work into being. To learn passively, and ultimately write passively, is the great cultural temptation.

Yes, I have been reading — and reading about — Susan Sontag. There is nothing passive in her legacy. In her combined erudition, ambition, and seriousness, she has few peers, and for several years she has symbolized my aspirations as a writer — the uncompromising rigor with which she approached her essays; her self-proclaimed interest in “everything”; an urgency in dissenting, when ethically necessary, from received opinion; her energy in consuming art constantly; and the esteem, to the end of her life, in which she held literature, above all fiction. Her passion is contagious. Sontag’s narcotic approach to art and experience is, for a provincial writer with little access, renewably invigorating; and because Sontag’s lifetime of work is willed, Nietzscheanly, from her passions, reading about her life is its own invigorating project. In this, Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work, at 832 pages, is certainly her legacy’s largest complement. Read more…