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The Conscience of Words(By SUSAN SONTAG)

(2010-07-27 18:06:55)


分类: 名家访谈录

The Conscience of Words


Los Angeles Times Sunday June 10, 2001

(L.A.Times Editor's Note: Since 1963, the Jerusalem Prize has been awarded at the biennial Jerusalem International Book Fair to a writer whose work explores the freedom of the individual in society. Past recipients include Jorge Luis Borges, Simone de Beauvoir, Zbigniew Herbert, Graham Greene, Milan Kundera, J.M. Coetzee, and Don DeLillo. This year the award was given to Susan Sontag, who delivered the following remarks on May 9 in Jerusalem. )

We fret about words, we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality. And the more portentous, more general the word, the more they also resemble rooms or tunnels. They can expand, or cave in. They can come to be filled with a bad smell. They will often remind us of other rooms, where we'd rather dwell or where we think we are already living. There can be spaces we lose the art or the wisdom of inhabiting. And eventually those volumes of mental intention we no longer know how to inhabit, will be abandoned, boarded up, closed down.

What do we mean, for example, by the word "peace"? Do we mean an absence of strife? Do we mean a forgetting? Do we mean a forgiveness? Or do we mean a great weariness, an exhaustion, an emptying out of rancor?

It seems to me that what most people mean by "peace" is victory. The victory of their side. That's what "peace" means to them, while to the others peace means defeat.

If the idea takes hold that peace, while in principle to be desired, entails an unacceptable renunciation of legitimate claims, then the most plausible course will be the practice of war by less than total means. Calls for peace will be felt to be, if not fraudulent, then certainly premature. Peace becomes a space people no longer know how to inhabit. Peace has to be re-settled. Re-colonized ....

And what do we mean by "honor"?

Honor as an exacting standard of private conduct seems to belong to some faraway time. But the custom of conferring honors--to flatter ourselves and one another--continues unabated.

To confer an honor is to affirm a standard believed to be held in common. To accept an honor is to believe, for a moment, that one has deserved it. (The most one should say, in all decency, is that one is not unworthy of it.) To refuse an honor offered seems boorish, unconvivial, pretentious.

A prize accumulates honor--and the ability to confer honor--by the choice it has made in previous years of whom to honor.

By this standard, consider the polemically named Jerusalem Prize, which, in its relatively short history, has been awarded to some of the best writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Though by any obvious criteria a literary prize, it is not called The Jerusalem Prize for Literature but The Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society.

Have all the writers who have won the prize really championed the Freedom of the Individual in Society? Is that what they--now I must say "we"--have in common?

I think not.

Not only do they represent a large spectrum of political opinion. Some of them have barely touched the Big Words: freedom, individual, society ....

But it isn't what a writer says that matters, it's what a writer is.

Writers--by which I mean members of the community of literature--are emblems of the persistence (and the necessity) of individual vision.

I prefer to use "individual" as an adjective, rather than as a noun.

The unceasing propaganda in our time for "the individual" seems to me deeply suspect, as "individuality" itself becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness. A capitalist society comes to have a vested interest in praising "individuality" and "freedom"--which may mean little more than the right to the perpetual aggrandizement of the self, and the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete.

I don't believe there is any inherent value in the cultivation of the self. And I think there is no culture (using the term normatively) without a standard of altruism, of regard for others. I do believe there is an inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader and then as a writer, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other dreams, other words, other territories of concern.

As a writer, a maker of literature, I am both a narrator and a ruminator. Ideas move me. But novels are made not of ideas but of forms. Forms of language. Forms of expressiveness. I don't have a story in my head until I have the form. (As Vladimir Nabokov said: "The pattern of the thing precedes the thing.") And--implicitly or tacitly--novels are made out of the writer's sense of what literature is or can be.

Every writer's work, every literary performance is, or amounts to, an account of literature itself. The defense of literature has become one of the writer's main subjects. But, as Oscar Wilde observed, "A truth in art is that whose contradiction is also true." Paraphrasing Wilde, I would say: A truth about literature is that whose opposite is also true.

Thus literature--and I speak prescriptively, not just descriptively--is self-consciousness, doubt, scruple, fastidiousness. It is also--again, prescriptively as well as descriptively--song, spontaneity, celebration, bliss.

Ideas about literature--unlike ideas about, say, love--almost never arise except in response to other people's ideas. They are reactive ideas.

I say this because it's my impression that you--or most people--are saying that.

Thereby I want to make room for a larger passion or different practice. Ideas give permission--and I want to give permission to a different feeling or practice.

I say this when you're saying that, not just because writers are, sometimes, professional adversaries. Not just to redress the inevitable imbalance or one-sidedness of any practice which has the character of an institution--and literature is an institution--but because literature is a practice which is rooted in inherently contradictory aspirations.

My view is that any one account of literature is untrue--that is, reductive; merely polemical. While to speak truthfully about literature is necessarily to speak in paradoxes.

Thus: Each work of literature that matters, that deserves the name of literature, incarnates an ideal of singularity, of the singular voice. But literature, which is an accumulation, incarnates an ideal of plurality, of multiplicity, of promiscuity.

Every notion of literature we can think of--literature as social engagement, literature as the pursuit of private spiritual intensities; national literature, world literature--is, or can become, a form of spiritual complacency, or vanity, or self-congratulation.

Literature is a system--a plural system--of standards, ambitions, loyalties. Part of the ethical function of literature is the lesson of the value of diversity.

Of course, literature must operate within boundaries. (Like all human activities. The only boundless activity is being dead.) The problem is that the boundaries most people want to draw would choke off the freedom of literature to be what it can be, in all its inventiveness and capacity to be agitated.

We live in a culture committed to unifying greeds, and one of the world's vast and glorious multiplicity of languages--the one in which I speak and write--is now the dominant language. English has come to play, on a world scale and for vastly larger populations within the world's countries, a role similar to that played in mediaeval Europe by Latin.

But as we live in an increasingly global, transnational culture, we are also mired in increasingly fractionalized claims by real or newly self-constituted tribes.

The old humanistic ideas--of the republic of letters, of world literature--are under attack everywhere. They seem, to some, naive, as well as tainted by their origin in the great European ideal--some would say Eurocentric ideal--of universal values.

The notions of "liberty" and of "rights" have undergone a striking degradation in recent years. In many communities, group rights are given greater weight than individual rights.

In this respect, what makers of literature do can, implicitly, bolster the credibility of free expression, and of individual rights. Even when makers of literature have consecrated their work to the service of the tribes or communities to which they belong, their accomplishment as writers depends on transcending this aim.

The qualities that make a given writer valuable or admirable can all be located within the singularity of the writer's voice.

But this singularity, which is cultivated in private and is the result of a long apprenticeship in reflection and in solitude, is constantly being tested by the social role writers feel called on to play.

I do not question the right of the writer to engage in debate on public matters, to make common cause and practice solidarity with like-minded others.

Nor is my point that such activity takes the writer far from the reclusive, eccentric inner place where literature is made. So do almost all the other activities that make up having a life.

But it's one thing to volunteer, stirred by the imperatives of conscience or of interest, to engage in public debate and public action. It's another to produce opinions--moralistic sound-bites--on demand.

Not: Been there, done that. But: For this, against that.

But a writer ought not to be an opinion-machine. As a black poet in my country put it, when reproached by some fellow African-Americans for not writing poems about the indignities of racism, "A writer is not a jukebox."

The writer's first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth ... and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to believe the mental despoilers. The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.

It is the job of the writer to depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture. It is the essence of the wisdom furnished by literature (the plurality of literary achievement) to help us to understand that, whatever is happening, something else is always going on.

I am haunted by that "something else."

I am haunted by the conflict of rights and of values I cherish. For instance that--sometimes--telling the truth does not further justice. That--sometimes--the furthering of justice may entail suppressing a good part of the truth.

Many of the twentieth century's most notable writers, in their activity as public voices, were accomplices in the suppression of truth to further what they understood to be (what were, in many cases) just causes.

My own view is, if I have to choose between truth and justice--of course, I don't want to choose--I choose truth.

Of course, I believe in righteous action. But is it the writer who acts?

These are three different things: speaking, what I am doing now; writing, what gives me whatever claim I have to this incomparable prize, and being, being a person who believes in active solidarity with others.

As Roland Barthes once observed: " ... who speaks is not who writes, and who writes is not who is."

And of course I have opinions, political opinions, some of them formed on the basis of reading and discussing, and reflecting, but not from first-hand experience. Let me share with you two opinions of mine--quite predictable opinions, in the light of public positions I've taken on matters about which I have some direct knowledge.

I believe that the doctrine of collective responsibility, as a rationale for collective punishment, is never justified, militarily or ethically. I mean the use of disproportionate firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes and destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and their right to employment, schooling, medical services, untrammeled access to neighboring towns and communities ... all as a punishment for hostile military activity which may or may not even be in the vicinity of these civilians.

I also believe that there can be no peace here until the planting of Israeli communities in the Territories is halted, and is followed--sooner rather than later--by the dismantling of these settlements and the withdrawal of the military units amassed there to guard them.

I wager that these two opinions of mine are shared by many people here in this hall. I suspect that--to use an old American expression--I'm preaching to the choir.

But do I hold these opinions as a writer? Or do I not hold them as a person of conscience and then use my position as a writer to add my voice to others saying the same thing? The influence a writer can exert is purely adventitious. It is, now, an aspect of the culture of celebrity.

There is something vulgar about public dissemination of opinions on matters about which one does not have extensive first-hand knowledge. If I speak of what I do not know, or know hastily, this is mere opinion-mongering.

I say this, to return to the beginning, as a matter of honor. The honor of literature. The project of having an individual voice. Serious writers, creators of literature, shouldn't just express themselves differently than does the hegemonic discourse of the mass media. They should be in opposition to the communal drone of the newscast and the talk show.

The problem with opinions is that one is stuck with them. And whenever writers are functioning as writers they always see ... more.

Whatever there is, there is always more. Whatever is happening, something else is also going on.

If literature itself, this great enterprise that has been conducted (within our purview) for nearly three millennia, embodies a wisdom--and I think it does, and is the root of the importance we give to literature--it is by demonstrating the multiple nature of our private and our communal destinies. It will remind us that there can be contradictions, sometimes irreducible conflicts, among the values we most cherish. (This is what is meant by "tragedy.") It will remind us of the "also" and "the something else."

The wisdom of literature is quite antithetical to having opinions. "Nothing is my last word about anything," said Henry James. Furnishing opinions, even correct opinions--whenever asked--cheapens what novelists and poets do best, which is to sponsor reflectiveness, to perceive complexity.

Information will never replace illumination. But something that sounds like, except that it's better than, information--I mean the condition of being informed; I mean concrete, specific, detailed, historically dense, first-hand knowledge--is the indispensable prerequisite for a writer to express opinions in public.

Let the others, the celebrities and the politicians, talk down to us; lie. If being both a writer and a public voice could stand for anything better, it would be that writers would consider the formulation of opinions and judgments to be a difficult responsibility.

Another problem with opinions. They are agencies of self-immobilization. What writers do should free us up, shake us up. Open avenues of compassion and new interests. Remind us that we might, just might, aspire to become different, and better, than we are. Remind us that we can change.

As Cardinal Newman said, "In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."

And what do I mean by the word "perfection"? That I shall not try to explain but only say, Perfection makes me laugh. Not cynically, I hasten to add. With joy.

I am grateful to have been awarded the Jerusalem Prize. I accept it as an honor to all those committed to the enterprise of literature. I accept it in homage to all the writers and readers in Israel and in Palestine struggling to create literature made of singular voices and the multiplicity of truths. I accept the prize in the name of peace and the reconciliation of injured and fearful communities. Necessary peace. Necessary concessions and new arrangements. Necessary abatement of stereotypes. Necessary persistence of dialogue. I accept the prize--this international prize, sponsored by an international book fair--as an event that honors, above all, the international republic of letters.


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