At the Same Time Essays and Speeches

Susan Sontag; Edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump; Foreword by David Rieff




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256 Pages



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When she accepted the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2003, Susan Sontag said, "a writer is someone who pays attention to the world."  No one exemplified this definition more than she. Sontag's incisive intelligence, expressive brilliance, and deep curiosity about art, politics, and the writer's responsibility to bear witness have secured her place as one of the most important thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. At the Same Time gathers sixteen essays and addresses written in the last years of Sontag's life, when her work was being honored on the international stage, that reflect on the personally liberating nature of literature, her deepest commitment, and on political activism and resistance to injustice as an ethical duty. She considers the works of writers from the little-known Soviet novelist Leonid Tsypkin, who struggled and eventually succeeded in publishing his only book days before his death; to the greats, such as Nadine Gordimer, who enlarge our capacity for moral judgment. Sontag also fearlessly addresses the dilemmas of post-9/11 America, from the degradation of our political rhetoric to the appalling torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. At the Same Time, which includes a foreword by her son, David Rieff, is a work from an American writer at the height of her powers, who always saw literature "as a passport to enter a larger life, the zone of freedom."


Praise for At the Same Time

"At the Same Time, a posthumous collection of [Sontag's] speeches and essays, shows how her feeling for a vanished Europe deepened even as she grew more distrustful of an America she saw in the grip of a 'dangerous, lobotomizing notion of endless war.' Mostly written during the Bush administration, [the essays] reveal a darkening vision of America as well as the rest of the contemporary world . . . The amplified note of despair and loss in At the Same Time makes Sontag resemble one of the European 'last' intellectuals she often wrote about, 'that Saturnine hero of modern culture' standing along in the ruins of history . . . In her latter weariness with modern civilization, Sontag fulfilled a particularly American destiny. Gertrude Stein once claimed that America was the oldest country in the world, since it was the 'mother of the 20th-century civilization.' Sontag, who had a tragic sense of history rarely found among her peers, never failed to absorb the lessons of her country's old age and accumulated experience of modernity. It is why the melancholy and occasional bitter wisdom of her last writings appear to be of a mature and passionately engaged American rather than of a marginal and jaded European sensibility—one that has not only learned from the past but, by grappling vigorously with the present, can also divine, if gloomily, the future."—Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times Book Review
"What ultimately matters about Sontag . . . is what she has defended: the life of the mind and the necessity for reading and writing as 'a way of being fully human.'"—Hilary Mantel, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“You’d expect a compilation of essay sand speeches put together after Susan Sontag’s death to have its dreary moments. Of course, she won her share of prizes and addresses plenty of audiences. She was also a restless figure who liked to keep signaling her position, wherever it happened to be. Yet her approach was fiercely economical, and this collection, which she was working on at the time of her death, is as succinct and absorbing as any of her books.”—Jeremy Harding, The Nation
“Sontag had a beautiful mind: shapely, sharp, incisive and quick. Her writing shuttles from the general to the particular, from metaphor to fact, from photography to philosophy, with the same ease that the rest of us devote to breathing in and out. At the Same Time is a collection of speeches and essays written since 2001. It’s a book she has been outlining and planning in the years prior to her death of cancer . . . . As a writer, Sontag was never afraid to take on the big topics, and it’s all here: beauty, freedom, civilization, war, etc. Whether her subject is photography (which she understood implicitly), the consequences of a 9/11 world (which she tackled fearlessly, often criticizing the Bush administration) or the genre of obscure Russian writers of the 1920s, you gladly go along for the ride as Sontag piles insight upon insight with a prose style that’s as breathtaking as it is inspirational . . . Sontag’s enthusiasm for literature is contagious and her knowledge is encyclopedic. Who else could take an essay on translation and mange to cover points of view ranging from St. Jerome to the English-speaking call-center operators in India . . . It’s bittersweet to realize this is the last collection of relatively recent writing by Sontag. More journals are on their way. But we’ll never see such brilliant essays as these again.”—John C. Ensslin, Rocky Mountain News
“‘The photographs are us,’ the late Susan Sontag wrote in 2004, in her last major essay, about the obscene images from Abu Ghraib. Those words, which have already become famous, appear in ‘Regarding the Torture of Others,’ one of 16 essays in At the Same Time, a posthumous collection of criticism that, it’s gratifying to report, numbers among her finest books . . . At the Same Time has the stateliness of age. The ideas in it have been measured over a life time; they’re substantial, articulated with precision and—to call on a word Sontag once shunned and later embraced—profoundly humanist. The adjective that comes to mind, throughout, is ‘magisterial.’”—Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News
“Written during the last years of Susan Sontag’s life, when she was still ill with cancer, these 16 pieces brim over with vitality. Every one of them opening up fresh lines of thought, they are in so sense last words . . . In At the Same Time we hear the voice of a unique writer, who loved the world and spent her life in an attempt to see it whole.”—John Gray, The New Statesman 
"The world lost a brilliant, passionate, and ethical thinker and writer when Susan Sontag died in December 2004. In his moving foreword to this collection of resonant essays and speeches, Sontag's son, David Rieff, writes that his mother 'was interested in everything. Indeed, if I had only one word with which to evoke her, it would be avidity.' But for all her arresting insights into photography and other arts, literature was Sontag's true love, and nowhere else has she so directly addressed what literature accomplishes. Sontag was working on this book at the end of her life, and it is a generously personal volume addressing her greatest ardors and gravest concerns. Here is Sontag on beauty, Russian literature, and the art of literary translation. Here, too, are Sontag's clarion writings on Israel, 9/11, and Abu Ghraib. Although Sontag was happiest writing fiction, she never failed to celebrate the work of others or protest injustice and brutality, and in this she was both artist and hero."—Donna Seaman, Booklist
"As a writer, late American literary luminary Sontag managed to cross genres with ease and grace. She received prizes and acclaim for her fiction . . . but also captured public attention through essays that brooked both political and literary spheres, elucidating their interconnectedness. This latest collection of sixteen essays written toward the end of her life continues that tradition. It ranges widely: Sontag references early Christian scholars, 17th-century painters, and contemporary political leaders. She breezily assumes the breadth of her readers' understanding and in doing so shocks them out of any national, and thus parochial, view of literature or current events. The preface is by David Rieff, Sontag's only son."—Maria Kochis, Library Journal
"Literature and politics are inextricably intertwined and unified by moral purpose in this powerful collection of pieces (a couple not previously published in English or at all) by iconic critic and novelist Sontag, who died in 2004. Sontag was a dedicated champion of literature in translation, and the book opens with several introductions to such works, led off by a meditation on beauty. The section might have been called 'Art and Ardor,' so laced is it with artistic passion, both Sontag's own and that of the writers she celebrates, such as Leonid Tsypkin and Anna Banti. Part three contains speeches Sontag gave in accepting the Jerusalem Prize and other awards, and honoring others whose moral courage she admired. But most striking is to re-read the pieces she wrote in the wake of 9/11 and the Abu Ghraib scandal, which constitute the book's middle section. Sontag's controversial attack on the Bush administration immediately after 9/11 may have been an act of courage or of folly, but from a distance of five years, her critique seems on the mark. Sontag's brilliance as a literary critic, her keen analytical skill and her genius for the searingly apt phrase (like her damning 'the photographs are us' in relation to the Abu Ghraib photos) are all fiercely displayed here."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Read an Excerpt

Susan Sontag immediately became a major figure of our culture with the publication in 1966 of the pathbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation. She went on to write four novels, including In America (2000), which won the National Book Award for Fiction, as well as a collection of stories, several plays, and seven subsequent works of nonfiction, among them On Photography (1977), Illness as Metaphor (1978), and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Her many international honors included the Jerusalem Prize (2001) and the Friedenspreis (Peace Prize) of the German Book Trade (2003). She

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  • Susan Sontag; Edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump; Foreword by David Rieff

  • Susan Sontag was the author of numerous works of non-fiction, including the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, and of four novels, including In America, which won the National Book Award.   

  • Susan Sontag Mikhail Lemkhin