What a better way to spend a sunny weekend day than to read Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others,” and then to “enjoy” subsequent evenings full of nightmares stemming from her war photography imagery.
What allures me to Sontag is an analysis that concerns all artists — how is art, in this case photography, received amidst the unprecedented onslaught of attention-seeking images and information people are bombarded with.
I followed Sontag eagerly on her beautifully written essay, wholeheartedly compliant to her assumption that it is the consumers, including myself, who are blunted by habituating news of atrocity, and how easy it is for an elitist, educated population in the richest part of the world to become cynical. Yet, she finds, almost fortuitously, there persists images that do not lose their power on the viewer, despite the improbability of such resilience.
Before I could ponder why such images persevere, I happened upon a writing: A speech not directed at the public for its lack of awareness or state of distraction, but rather at one’s contemporaries; other artists, writers and poets — to call them out for being fearful (and therefore meaningless) in a most fearful time:
“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
“He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
“Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
This was William Faulkner’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1950, when the number of lives obliterated in the middle of their daily habits were still being counted — the aftermath of the U.S. atomic bombing on hundreds of thousands unarmed, Japanese civilians.
But somehow we need both impulses: Sontag who calls our attention to the suffering captured by art in order to remind us of the atrocities we are capable, sometimes enthusiastically, of; and Faulkner, to take us out of that paralytic grief, to summons everything forgotten in those acts of inhumanity, and despite the heaviness, to lift our hearts.
Today’s Advice: “To think, to write a poem, is to give thanks for whatever measure of homecoming to Being is open to mortal man.” Steiner on Heidegger