Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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January 05, 2007
How to keep going

The winter 2007 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review will, if invited, administer unto you a mental butt-kicking breakdownable into Doc Marten-caliber implantings that may perhaps include:
1) devastation, via four articles about how the "curse of oil" is destroying Africa and, by extension, the planet,

2) charm, via the great Art Spiegelman's autobiographical five-page comic "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@$*!," the 1st comeek I've ever seen that quotes Victor Shlovsky, then at last

3) reflection, with David       Rieff's essay on his mother, "Remembering Susan Sontag."

VQR states that the essay will appear as the foreward to a new collection of Sontag essays and speeches, to be published a couple months from now.

Rieff's brief but very rich essay, here now two years after Sontag's death, might be compared with interesting results to the one he published approx. a year ago in the NYT, "Illness as More than Metaphor." A theme of the prior essay could be seen as the salvific power in this life of narratives of "positive denial." William James may have put the idea best in his aptly titled essay "Is Life Worth Living?" James dramatically described the will to believe that's necessary to prevent our plunge, "all unstrung and trembling," into the abyss when we have "worked [ourselves] into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap." James' essay is excerpted here.

At the time Rieff's 1st essay appeared, the journal First Things plumbed it inna c/Catholic style to suggest that his concerns are really everyone's, and to connect them with the widest possible imponderables of loss, guilt and mourning, with a nod to Act 2 of Beckett's Godot:
They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.
Notably on another level, the bulk of Reiff's "Illness" essay is a slamming indictment of the USA's healthcare sh!tstem.

By contrast, if Rieff's December 2005 essay asks how we can keep going when someone important to us is vanishing, maybe the December 2006 VQR essay asks how we can keep going after that someone is gone.

The most common words in the latter essay are one or another variant of the verbs "to admire" and "to appreciate." He begins by remembering how Auden's elegy for W. B. Yeats said that the latter, in death, "became his admirers." Or as Auden more explicitly put it:
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

Rieff's new essay strikes me as being more than a son's appreciation of his mother. It is a son's appreciation of his mother's appreciation: not necessarily of the objects towards which her enthusiasm was directed, but of her way, her methodology, the quality of her openness, the pathways along which her ideas flowed.

For example, he describes the profusion of objects Sontag owned, through which he's now sorting, as counterparts for the endless stream and sometimes maddening crush of ideas for which she felt enthusiasm:

[H]er apartment, which was a kind of reification of the contents of her head, was filled almost to bursting with an amazingly disparate collection of objects, prints, photographs, and, of course, books, endless books.

Rieff then proceeds directly to suggest that for Sontag, sensual experience mainly served as grist for her intellectual work, which was in turn a spur for more sensual experience, in a cycle:

In her story, "Debriefing," she wrote: 'We know more than we can use. Look at all this stuff I've got in my head: rockets and Venetian churches, David Bowie and Diderot, nuoc mam and Big Macs, sunglasses and orgasms.' And then she added, 'And we don't know nearly enough.'"

I like the above list because its last item shows Sontag's apparently characteristic tendency to direct the lazer beam of her intellect to analyze even the (supposedly) most non-brainy, unrational, intellect defying of objects. Her journal entries, also published in the NYT, mirror even more dramatically the exact same tendency. Even what the coarse-minded could superfically mistake for merely a carnal interest was so often instead only about ideas, though ones pursued with their own kind of passion.

However Sontag's mind's way seemed to know how then to critique such (supposedly) fixed distinctions, such that brain dissolved into body then body melted back into brain, and emotion was dissected by thought only to find emotion erupt again from within, like a worm coiled in the heart of the thought, as Sartre might have put it.

Though if, as Rieff kinda concedes, Sontag lived her life in service to aesthetics and ethics, i.e. to philosophy, she was not one of those persons, like Montaigne (or Socrates), for whom "To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die." The "More than Metaphor" essay makes clear that in the end Sontag was far from ready to go.

Ultimately, Rieff suggests that Sontag was admirable, to him if no one else, above all else because she was herself so joyous and avid of an admirer, a fan, an enthusiast:

[H]er essays of admiration -- on Roland Barthes, on Walter Benjamin, on Elias Canetti, to name three of the best of them -- were more self-revealing than she perhaps imagined. At very least, they were idealizations.

That last point is intriguing. I suppose it leads to the not terribly original conclusion that, when someone important to us vanishes
(including cases when they vanish because we realize that they never genuinely existed in the first place as the person we envisioned),
the most meaningful way to deal with the absence might be to:
1) try to isolate and identify the personal qualities that made that now-vanished person interesting or admirable to us, and

2) try to keep the person in some sense non-vanished, by striving to live out and embody those qualities ourselves.
The above project is probably easier insofar as the qualities we admire are idealizations, as Rieff puts it, or aspects of ourselves that are unrecognized, unacknowleged, and underdeveloped, but that we imputed to the other person.
[Disclaimer: Here, as in every blog post, the real possibility exists that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.]
Other interesting links to discussions with Rieff that reflect the wide range of his interests and ideas are here, from 2002; here, from 2003; and here, from fall 2004, in an interview entitled, "The Moral Dilemma of Pacifism in a World of War."

Finally, I am finding it for some reason impossible to read the accounts of Sontag's life, death, intellectual strategies and ideas, linked to variously above, without contemplating what seem to me to be the repeated intriguing parallels and/or even more intriguing constrasts with the life, death, strategies, etc. of Kathy Acker. This may be because Acker's voice, in all its permutations, has been striking me during the past few weeks as particularly important, even urgent, right about now.

I'm not sure why. But I am sure about one thing: I cannot seem to get the following passage, written by Acker's final caregiver, Matias Viegener, out of my head for more that a couple days at a time, before I feel drawn to go back and think about it some more, and then some more:

We believe that gender is our most extraordinary distinction, the most significant one, more significant than rich or poor, black and white, or word and thing.

But what I see now is that the real line, the most frightening line or division is between life and death. And all the others in a sense are arranged around that, to protect us from that division--because that division is too terrible.