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Black and white photograph of Susan Sontag.

Susan Sontag: Literature Is Freedom


‘Who would we be if we were unable to forget ourselves, at least some of the time?’ asks Susan Sontag.

Susan Sontag was an exceptional writer and at the same time a relentless ‘intellectual ambassador’. She, who strongly believed in privacy and lists, was concerned with the tools that help us make sense of life, above all, of course, literature.

She felt that the role of literature was to unburden us from our immediate limitations and anchor us onto a vaster reality. In short, it is an instrument that allows us to cry for those who are not us or ours.

In 2003, a few months before she passed away, Sontag was awarded the prestigious Friedenspreis, the Peace Price from the German Editors and Booksellers. In her acceptance speech, entitled ‘Literature and Freedom’, the writer talks about the essence of literature, and why it is essential for freedom.

One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.

Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference—for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but countermyths, just as life offers counter experiences — experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted — made cynical, superficial — by this understanding.

Literature can tell us what the world is like.

Literature can give standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative.

Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.

Who would we be if we could not sympathize with those who are not us or ours? Who would we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than we are?

To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.

Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.

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