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Lauren Elkin on Susan Sontag

Lauren Elkin sings the praises of Susan Sontag, in a new essay at Aeon that characterises Sontag as an “art monster” of unflagging commitment to her intellectual craft:

Her special brand of monstrous relentlessness saw her go in search of paradox. Moderation, and those who practised it, never interested her. It seemed to her like a cop-out. And she believed that only the immoderate rose to the level of the culture-hero: people who took things to extremes, who were ‘repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force’, as she wrote of the French philosopher Simone Weil. Sane writers are the least interesting writers, and Sontag had that stripe of insanity, like that grey thatch of hair, that made you sit up and listen, and also made you a little nervous. Her pungent public personality won her a reputation for being, as Sigrid Nunez put it in 2011, ‘a monster of arrogance and inconsideration’. She was a monster — for art. She read everything, watched everything, listened to everything, went to see everything. How did she fit it all in? It’s as if she lived several lives in one. She sat in the middle of the third row at the cinema, so that the image would overwhelm her. She would not, could not, relax. Art was too important. Life was too important.

Look across her many books: she simply does not let up. Every sentence is a new challenge; there is no filler. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read On Photography (1977), and every time it’s like I’m reading a new book. There’s something very constructed and Germanic about her sentences; I find myself reading her cubistly, not left to right only but also up and down, piecing together what she’s saying chunk by chunk instead of line by line. She quotes very infrequently, and is less interested in local textual moments than in building up a global reading of an author’s work. She frequently revised her opinions, so no sooner have I got a handle on On Photography than she’s off on another tack in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), further refining it in ‘Photography: a Little Summa’ (2003). She was uninterested in boiling down her views to an easily citable argument; she resisted simplification in every aspect of her life and work.