September 2012

Leah Triplett


Regarding the Pain of Sontag

There's something in the tone, the timbre, of Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others that seems especially somber, almost nihilistic, against her other essays and criticism. Sontag published this short treatise on how we, in the modern age, understand and live with visual evidence of human suffering through war in 2003, shortly before she died in 2004. Sontag suffered for three decades with cancer, an experience that incised and contoured her writing about people, politics, and, most of all, how our relationship with the two is (or should be) defined by aesthetics. Sontag's published career as a writer began with 1966's collection of essays Against Interpretation, only a decade before she had developed her illness. "Through four decades, public response to Ms. Sontag remained irreconcilably divided," wrote Margalit Fox in Sontag's obituary, titled "Susan Sontag, Social Critic with Verve, Dies at 71," and published in The New York Times. "She was described, variously, as explosive, anticlimactic, original, derivative, na´ve, sophisticated, approachable, aloof, condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic, sincere, posturing, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing, profound, superficial, ardent, bloodless, dogmatic, ambivalent, lucid, inscrutable, visceral, reasoned, chilly, effusive, relevant, passÚ, ambivalent, tenacious, ecstatic, melancholic, humorous, humorless, deadpan, rhapsodic, cantankerous and clever."

I only quote The New York Times at length because Sontag was a very public writer who probed social issues as an unapologetic human. That is, she felt, and then felt differently. Sometimes. She expressed her curiosity and fallibility through writing, invoking words as political armaments or missiles, often to express identity for political ends. ("My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality," Sontag wrote in her diary on December 24, 1959. "I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.") Sontag splices and sharpens her words and verbiage in so many ways that she sometimes seems reckless in her declarations, meek in her retractions. In Regarding the Pain of Others, there is a sense in writing the words that compose this text, she realized they would always be among her last, that consciousness allowing her to embrace her vacillations between the assured and the hesitant. 

Sontag begins Regarding the Pain of Others with a vision of Virginia Woolf, Modernism's grand dame, looking at pictures of people profoundly physically suffering as a result of the Spanish Civil War. Woolf reflects on the pictures in part to answer a question, "How in your opinion are we to prevent war?" posed to her by a male member of her station in life. Woolf's reply came by way of her book Three Guineas, and Sontag queries that answer, that war is a man's domain, dissecting as emblematic of modern, early feminist opinion. Woolf quibbles over the implied in her asker's question -- his maleness -- but Sontag reminds us that no matter gender, both parties are intrinsically separated from whom and what they are looking at. To look at an expository image of a person in pain is to highlight your separation from that person, Sontag suggests. If Woolf, or her male compatriot, looks upon any image of a person suffering war-inflicted physical or emotional trauma, that gaze only enhances that separation and reinforces the cultural, geographical, economic, and political gulfs between them. "Who are the 'we' at whom such shock-pictures are aimed?" Sontag writes. "The photographs are a means of making 'real' (or 'more real') matters that privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore... For Woolf, as for many antiwar polemicists, war is generic, and the images she describes are of anonymous, generic victims." To aggressors of war, however, war is anything but generic -- it is personal, it's a preservation of a certain way of life, it's a way to protect or thrive. Sontag suggests this because war images are so often photographed by and for spectators: if we only look to such images as evidence that war happens, and war is evil, it's easy to overlook the personal and cultural sources of struggle.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag probes not the meaning of war, or who starts it, but how some become the witness-victims of war, while others assume the role of witness-spectator. Through a weaving, erudite discussion of the creation and distribution of photographs of war from the early modern era to the present, Sontag describes how such images have aggregated and aggravated difference, both politically and personally.

"Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half's worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists," writes Sontag. And later, "Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death." Dramatic, sometimes hyperbolic, Sontag's solitary debate of the evolution of witness-spectators, a troop spawned by the technological ability to reproduce a mirage of reality, is harrowingly sensory, taking us from the cannonball-pitted fields of the Crimean War to the horrible, bone-strewn yards of Sikandarbagh Palace during the Indian War of Independence. Understated is the fact that Sontag, and indeed any critic who takes to task photographing war, only knows such historical atrocities through photographs and other archival devices.

Sontag refutes collective memory, however, arguing that all memory is fundamentally individual. She discusses, with trepidation, how Christian iconography -- often occupied with images of human suffering -- informs how photographers and viewers compose and comprehend war photography. I wish, however, that Sontag had more fully delved into the complex relationship between painted (or drawn!) images of human suffering, compared to their photographic counterparts, throughout Modernism. She does thoroughly review Francisco Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), which is apt, given Goya's contribution to modern painting. In The Disasters of War, Goya uses aesthetics and context in order to impart a truthful account of pain and suffering as it actually happened. Sontag thus points to Goya as the father of a revolutionary new way of rendering images of human in art. Where many pre-modern painters composed grand, glorified pictures of war through cultural memory -- oral histories, narratives, and iconic examples of their ancestors -- Goya depicted war as it was witnessed from within, as an individual.

Considering history painting is how Sontag finishing Regarding the Pain of Others, with a quick, razor look at Jeff Wall's gigantic, staged photograph, Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986). These soldiers, deceased, seem to be talking and joking with one another. Blown up to huge proportions and illuminated by a light box mount, Wall's photograph stresses the surreal foreignness of all war photographs seen as news. "What would they have to say to us?" Sontag derisively asks. "'We' -- this 'we' is everyone who has never experienced anything like they went through -- don't understand."