At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches by Susan Sontag

I'm embarrassed by and sorry for parts of what I initially wrote -- left unedited, below -- about At the Same Time.  Mainly, I'm sorry for having insinuated that Susan Sontag was intentionally terse or worse unintentionally terse, and I'm especially sorry for having implied that such a criticism was my, and presumably should be your, main take away from her writing, specifically in the noted collection of essays. What a dumb thing to say on my part. My bad.

What I did say that I think remains correct was that Susan Sontag and her writing belong to an exclusive category of work, a group for which entry to is gated not by snobbish, superficial, circular-framed-glasses wearing sycophants, but rather by the prerequisite passion and subsequent deep involvement in the world of literature. By the end of the book it was obvious to me, admittedly a novice in that world, that the adults were, in fact, having a conversation above my level of maturity. But hey, a kid's gotta learn somehow.

Having done that housekeeping, moving on to a proper reaction: There are so many foundational, universal ideas about culture and ethics and morality in this book. Two essays in specific that floored me with their simultaneous sophistication, relevance, and flow: Literature is Freedom and the title essay At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning.

To summarize simplistically and sloppily in a few sentences: The project of literature is an ongoing, monolithic effort to crystalize, react to, and inspire society; a claim that's couched in the explicit axiom that society is definable and that there are parts of it, of our behavior, of our participation in it that are more important than others. Literature is an attempt at defining that priority, and in doing so becomes a map and an escape both in the narrow, for individuals, from cultural vacuum, into vivid depth; but also in the broad, for the world at large, from disoriented chaos, into order.

Susan goes on to say so much more, starkly connecting different parts of what it is to be a human, to be a point of observation, and doing so with respect for all the various scales of expression that such a phenomenon expresses itself at (e.g. across time, within boundaries of specific space, as individuals, as cultures, as societies). Before her words, at least for me, these ideas seem to haphazardly float around the void of my head.

Thanks to her, and these works, the disparate has become more cohesive.

Original Notes On At the Same Time:

I'm only about 3/4 of the way through this, and will update when I finish, but I wanted to write a few things down while they're still fresh.

Two things two start:

(1) I don't think this is the best entry point to Suzan Sontag's writing, which is hard for me to say given I haven't read anything else of hers, so how would I know? But her reputation is so intense and interesting that I have to believe her other works are comparatively better. I think this, not so much because I've judged this book to be bad, per say; but because, having arbitrarily picked it up in a shop, excited by her name, I only found out afterwards that "At the Same Time" is a somewhat unedited amalgamation of various unrelated speeches and essays. (The subtitle wasn't printed on the spine of my edition.) And also, because some of those essays require a good amount of prerequisite knowledge, like her biographies of various Russian poets and other literary people.

(2) In addition, and this might be a consequence of me only just starting to passionately and frequently, as opposed to begrudgingly, read, as well as me being young -- maybe I'm just too stupid to follow along when the adults in the room are speaking --  but in some of these essays she writes as if the audience is already privy to what she's thinking. The essay, "The Consciousness of Words"  seems to  be a big beautiful tangled spider web of thoughts. Every now and again you can see the larger pattern, and there are some wonderfully elegant ideas scattered about within it. But I can't help but think she's being dense, inelegant on purpose for the sake of getting one more precious, beautiful word on the page. That might be fun, but I don't think it's effective, which is ironic given the thesis of the essay. Maybe that's just a stylistic thing, but personally I feel she could cut more deeply and been more impactful if she stripped down her prose and aimed at something more cohesive.

I also worry that some of her audience might be blinded by a sort of emperor's clothes situation, not understanding what they've read, but sufficiently impressed its architecture to assume the structure is sound and useful.

I'm not done with this book, and I'm certainly not done with Susan Sontag. There's way, way more good than bad in here.

To be continued...