Sontag and Tsunami

The news of Susan Sontag's death arrived as a single sentence spoken in the opening moments of a radio news program Tuesday morning, and then the program returned to what had been the main story since the day after Christmas: the tsunami and the death toll, then in the tens of thousands, that would continue to rise. It was strange to weigh these two incidents of mortality against each other. Though for some people it would be considered insensitive or irreverent even to do so, one of the things to be appreciated about Sontag, I think, is that she considered everything a proper occasion for more thinking, more analyzing, more writing.

I knew her very slightly: In the spring of 2003, she had invited me to visit her at home, in her apartment with a view of sky, river, and the back ends of rooftop gargoyles, and I visited a few times. It was an invitation to enter the republic of literature as she saw it, and one of the things clear through all her work is that she was not interested merely in writing, but in tending and cultivating a literature-based public sphere in which ideas and principles mattered. It was a romantic idea, but not an unrealistic one – since, after all, she realized it. Sontag used her tremendous visibility to enter the political realm directly, going to Bosnia, taking stands on the Vietnam and Yugoslav wars, serving as American president of PEN, berating the Israelis as she accepted the Jerusalem Prize from them, defending Salman Rushdie in particular and free speech and human rights in general.

The BBC set up a tribute Web site immediately, and a man who had been prompted by "On Photography" to go back and finish college at age 48 wrote in, as did a man who had been inspired by her Sarajevo production of "Waiting for Godot" in the ruins of Sarajevo to direct "Romeo and Juliet" in Beirut; admirers from Vancouver to Gdansk to Taipei posted comments, as did a number of sneering detractors, some still bitter about her post-Sept. 11 comments. Only God is right about everything, which is why we are fortunate that God speaks so seldom. It is not important whether or not Sontag was always right in her conclusions, only that she was right in raising the issues that she did; for the most useful position is the one that prompts people to test an idea and perhaps think for themselves by disagreeing. After all, on key subjects from communism to photography, she eventually disagreed with her earlier self. What she said when writing about the Jewish mystic Simone Weil can be said of her outspoken writing as well: "An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit ..."

Sontag has achieved the immortality of people whose work reaches far beyond them in time and space, not one that means death does not matter, only that part of her is still here for us – a truth born out immediately by the way her comments on photography and representation allow us to continue navigating the news and examine the terms in which it is delivered to us.

In the disaster around the Indian Ocean, you read of people searching among scores of bodies for the body of their child or spouse, you see photographs of the search. One photograph shows untidy rows of dead children who mostly look like they are sleeping, save for the randomness with which they are naked or clothed, and in a corner a woman in a brilliant blue sari, head thrown back, bangle-adorned brown arms clasped to her temples, is contorted with sorrow. People were searching for their own children, for their own dead, among the many dead, for the tragedy that was personal amid the enormity; and anyone who believed that poverty or high levels of infant mortality loosen the bonds of parent to child got over it reading these shattering stories of people who wished they had died with or instead of their children. Photographs are being taken, have been taken, of many of the dead, so that the families can identify them on bulletin boards and Web sites. Never has photography been more personal or more public. The photographs serve, as photography always does, to make us feel present, to make visible, imaginable what has happened. They serve empathy as much as understanding.

When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area on Oct. 17, 1989, it killed 60 people; but for many of the rest of us, the disaster seemed strangely reassuring. It was an assertion that nature was not so small and diminished as it sometimes seemed that fall when global warming was first entering the public imagination. Nature was more powerful than our plans and impositions. That disaster was not like a war; it was instead like a truce, perhaps like that famous Christmas morning in the World War I when soldiers on both sides stopped fighting. The region's tremendous engines of producing and consuming stopped; people didn't go to work; businesses were shut; the Bay Bridge was out of commission for months, and some of the elevated freeways were gone for good. People localized themselves in the here-and-now that certain disasters bring in their wake, staying home, talking to the people they loved, letting go of discontent, long-term plans and distant travel.

This thousand-times-larger Indonesian earthquake was not like a truce but like a war, and for a while the death count hovered near what the estimated Iraqi death count is in our current war, and then it rose higher. The tsunami has been treated as an occasion when we should know as much as possible, see as much as possible, feel as much as possible, give as much as possible. You can look at the superabundant photographs of those scenes of devastation, those bodies contorted with grief and loss, and extrapolate from them that the assault on Fallujah must have left orphans with the same blank, stunned looks on their faces, mothers without children contorted with the same unbearable grief, must have shattered homes, families, lives, hopes with the same kind of physical force. To realize this is to realize how much imagery – or its lack – shapes our response to both disasters. When our military has created the catastrophe, we are not allowed to see so much or encouraged to empathize or attempt to assuage it with charitable contributions – though those contributions are made anyway: the day the tsunami struck, the U.S. peace group Code Pink sent a delegation to Iraq with $600,000 in donations for the people of Fallujah.

The Iraq war has been a strangely unseen war, or rather a war in which conventional and uncontroversial images are the standard fare – lots of pictures of us, few of them, images of blown-up military vehicles and uninhabited Iraqi ruins, but not in this country the images of the injured and the dead civilians we have been producing in such prodigious numbers, nothing like the images of the tsunami. But it has also been a war of images. There was the staged toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein as our invasion ended. There was the crisis opened up by leakage of photographs of Abu Ghraib torture (which Sontag wrote about in one of her last published pieces, "Regarding the Torture of Others") and more recently the American soldier shooting a wounded man in a mosque in Fallujah. And there are the videotapes of guerrillas beheading their captives in what seemed to be media stunts of a sort. We know that Al-Jazeera shows radically different images of this war and of the Israeli-Palestinian war, a difference both generated by and reinforcing the different views on those conflicts. Even Europeans see more graphic images of such civilian casualties.

You can remember the ways this war has been kept invisible, so out of range of our potential for empathy or outrage that even photographs of the returning coffins of American soldiers were banned – and then obtained and distributed against the Pentagon's wishes. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a gallery of pictures of the all U.S. dead nine months ago when the casualty figure was 556 and maintains that gallery of what is now 1347 dead. The yearbook of images is a reminder of another gallery of images, the portraits with sentimental biographies The New York Times ran of the victims of Sept. 11, and before that the forlorn flyers posted in Manhattan by family members looking for the missing who almost all turned out to be the dead. Now those kinds of missing-person flyers have been posted on walls in Thailand, but the photographs on the Thai website are of the dead mutilated by the force of the water.

You can say in some ways that what has happened in Iraq is a tsunami that swept ten thousand miles from the epicenter of an earthquake in Washington D.C., an earthquake in policy and principle that has devastated countless lives and environments and cities far away – and near at hand, where friends and families of dead soldiers also grieve, and tens of thousands of those kids sent abroad to carry out a venal foreign policy are maimed in body and spirit. You can add up the numbers we spent to achieve all this devastation like that of the tsunami, the more than $150 billion it cost us to make this suffering and devastation. You can compare that price to the tiny offering of money Bush made, when he was forced to interrupt his Texas vacation – first $15 million, then $35 million (approximately the cost of his inauguration), and then, under shaming pressure, $350 million. You can understand the harnessing of the forces of nature – aerodynamics, chemistry, atomic fission – as means of making war more like natural disaster in its indifference, its scale, its ruination. But never natural.

One of the challenges of a natural disaster is that there is no one to blame, to allow us to make the shift from the difficulty of grief that is a kind of love to the ease of scorn or loathing that is a kind of hatred. Some polemicists have already moved to castigate governments, perhaps as a way of moving away from the uncertain, uneasy realm of such vast suffering that is in many ways natural, suffering that can be mitigated and sometimes prevented but not banned or outlawed. The economics that kept these countries from having warning systems and pushed the poor into living on the perilous coastal edge are part of the disaster, but no government generated or even foresaw this earthquake with, says my local paper, the force of two million atomic bombs the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima. The fault on which it occurred was thought to be inactive.

Thus politics plays a small role in this disaster, which is therefore not entirely natural, but not nearly as unnatural as drought- and war-induced famine, as anything having to do with the weather nowadays, like the four hurricanes to hit Florida in 2004. Not even like the 1985 earthquake in Mexico, where shoddy building codes, shoddy enforcement of those codes, and governmental indifference and incompetence had everything to do with the thousands who died, not like last year's earthquake in Bam, Iran, where old buildings collapsed so that one can say that it was the man-made structures and not the earth itself that inflicted such mortality, not even like the cyclones that killed half a million Bangladeshis in 1970, 140,000 in 1991 – colossal catastrophes that journalists and commentators seem to have forgotten as they frame the scale of this event as unprecedented. As so many images press us to feel and respond to this disaster, other unseen disasters come to mind, notably this year's displacement of Chinese and Indian farmers and villagers by the rising water of huge dam projects.

Sontag wrote beautifully about the images that we see, particularly those of suffering and of war. Now I wish she had said more about what we don't see, about how photographs must be weighed against the obliviousness they dispel as well as against the callousness they might generate, the exploitation they might cause, and the perils of interpretation. In her most recent book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag writes, "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. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds." And then she took up her old argument, in "On Photography," that there should be an "ecology of images" to keep "compassion, stretched to its limits" from "going numb." She argues with her former self, "There isn't going to be an ecology of images. No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock." But the images of Abu Ghraib were shocking anyway, and the images of the tsunami are harrowing.

What is now most striking now about Sontag's argument is that it is not so much about photography but about compassion, an emotion and an ethic that photographs can awaken or undermine. Elsewhere in "Regarding the Pain of Others," she writes, "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People don't become inured to what they are shown – if that's the right way to describe what happens – because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling."

We can act to deal with the consequences of the earthquake and tsunami, but the disaster was only faintly political – not only the poor died but thousands of Europeans and Americans. The relief will be very political, in who gives how much, and to whom it is given, but the event itself transcends politics, the realm of things we cause and can work to prevent. We cannot wish that human beings were not subject to the forces of nature, including the mortality that is so central a part of our own nature. We cannot wish that the seas dry up, that the waves grow still, that the tectonic plates cease to exist, that nature ceases to be beyond our abilities to predict and control. But the terms of that nature include such catastrophe and such suffering, which leaves us with sorrow as not a problem to be solved but a fact. And it leaves us with compassion as the work we will never finish.


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