On Susan Sontag

On Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag, who died in December at age seventy-one, was a brave intellectual; but her bravery was not just intellectual. In 1989, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sentenced Salman Rushdie and his publishers to death, a great many people all over the world, on the left and on the right, fell over themselves trying to explain that Rushdie must have done something truly unforgivable in his Satanic Verses, and that perhaps he was merely an opportunist, a man trying to sell books in the most sensationalist of ways-as Jimmy Carter managed to suggest. In that year, Susan happened to be the president of the American branch of PEN and, in that capacity, testified to the U.S. Senate. And it fell to Susan, not to any of the political leaders, to explain that Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie had already threatened an American publisher with death, and that freedom of literature might well be a national interest of the United States.

More than fifty people were killed around the world as a result of the ayatollah’s fatwa and anti-Rushdie rioting. Rushdie’s Japanese translator was killed, and two Norwegian bookstores were bombed. A suicide bomber attacked a British hotel, and Rushdie’s Italian translator was stabbed. It took courage to stand up for Rushdie. But Susan did stand up, and gave the impression that doing so was merely, for her, a matter of instinct, requiring no courage at all. And this was precisely the right impression to give.

A few years later Susan went to Sarajevo, in Bosnia. The city was under violent siege by crazed Serbian nationalists. Susan directed a production of Waiting for Godot there. And this was a magnificent thing to do. By directing a play (and what a play, for a city under siege!), she remained in character as an intellectual and artist. She didn’t present herself as a warrior, or a geopolitical strategist, or an armchair general. She merely put on a play. But, in doing this, she demonstrated vividly to cosmopolitan and liberal-minded people all over the world what was at stake in Sarajevo-namely, the survival of the kind of urbane civilization that might put on a production of Waiting for Godot. And, in this indirect fashion, she appealed for help from her own country, as well-the faraway and largely indifferent United States, which was in a position to rescue the besieged Sarajevans, if only the American leaders would rise to the occasion.

It is hard to remember today how much bravery was required in the Rushdie affair, and it is equally hard to remember how controversial was this call for intervention in the Balkans. For if the United States intervened militarily, wouldn’t this amount to an act of imperialism, akin to American interventions in Latin America a century ago? Wasn’t American intervention an atrocity by definition, something to avoid at all cost? Wasn’t an American intervention likely to enrage and embit...