Susan Sontag, Simon Weil, and the Pursuit of Seriousness

Susan SontagI could stare for many hours at that famous 1975 picture of Susan Sontag lying on her bed. She’s wearing a turtleneck sweater and her arms are tucked behind her head. She is thinking. Her eyes are open, slightly dreamy, but fixed.

She looks serious. How else could she look? By God, that woman was serious. It is her main contribution as a belletrist, the idea that seriousness itself is a goal, that in the collapse of all other values, we can be serious about being serious.

There is also a picture of Simone Weil at age thirteen, before she got those round glasses you see in the later photos. Weil is laughing and pretty and resting her left arm casually on her neck. It seems impossible that this is the woman who later refused treatment for her tuberculosis and who more or less starved herself to death out of spiritual solidarity with those suffering under German occupation during WWII.

Susan Sontag wrote a review of a collection of Weil’s essays for the New York Review of Books in 1963. Sontag used the publication of Weil’s essays as an excuse to talk about her favorite subject: being serious. Sontag loved Weil’s harshness, her unrelenting, unremitting commitment to seeing her thoughts through wherever they lead. [Read more...]

How to Write in a Sick Person’s Body

Guest Post by Paige Eve Chant

Not too long ago, just as spring was turning over into summer, I awoke with a slight numbness in the fingers of my right hand. The morning was early yet, the sky outside still dark, and as I wrote, my fingers were a little slower than usual to find their keys. By the end of the day, I was fumbling in the most ordinary of tasks, like opening a jar of peanut butter or reaching for a doorknob.

The next morning, I dropped my toothbrush; days later, I could no longer sign my name, which struck me as somewhat scandalous. I could not brush my hair (a secret vanity of mine), or unbutton my husband’s shirt (a secret pleasure of an altogether different kind).

Before the end of the week, I found myself in the radiology unit of our local hospital. As the technician pushed me into the MRI machine, I thought of medieval monks with their halos of hair and the coffins they climbed into each night to sleep.

Time is an altogether other force in the tube—it operates by a different set of rules—but inside, holding myself stiller than still as each scan sounded its blaring alarm, I did not worry so much as wonder at this swift betrayal of my body. Even then, in those early days, my body did not seem unkind to me.

By the time the diagnosis was confirmed, nearly two weeks after the onset of my first symptoms, it seemed oddly anti-climactic, almost beside the point. Time passes and time does not pass. And so already, even then, when I heard the words multiple sclerosis, what interested me most was not the disease so much as the disability, because if my hand failed me once, falling away from me like so many strings of a marionette, it could fail me again, and how could I write if I could not feel the keys beneath my fingertips, hear the rhythm of my words as they made their first noisy appearance in my early-morning world?

[Read more...]

Genius(es) Wanted

Guest Post
By Santiago Ramos

Where do literary geniuses come from? Or should the question be: Where does literary genius come from? Does genius live only in certain persons or can even a mediocre writer get a humble share? These questions are agitating certain sectors of American letters.

“No more appeals to the inexplicable nature of genius,” observe the editors in a recent issue of n + 1. “Poets now are music makers, not mythmakers,” laments Mark Edmundson, in a recent essay for Harper’s.

The n + 1 editorial is titled “Too Much Sociology,” and wrestles with the ambiguous legacy of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who, in thick books with commanding titles like Distinction and The Rules of Art, developed a “sociology of taste” that attempted to map out the ways in which class and social standing determine artistic taste and creation.

His project was meant to be subversive, not merely descriptive; Bourdieu was a Marxist. And yet, decades hence, it seems as if those very same capitalist bourgeois forces that Bourdieu wished to subvert have adapted to his critique and even harnessed its power. [Read more...]

A Baby Smaller Than Roosevelt’s Eye

Guest Post
By Lindsey DeLoach Jones

For most new parents, the first glimpse of the life they’ve created is a grainy ultrasound printout, when the baby resembles—if not a human being—at least a gummy bear.

In my daughter’s first photograph, three inches by five and black-and-white, she is microscopic in size. She is a five-day-old blastocyst, smaller—as one website puts it—than Roosevelt’s eye on the face of a US dime. She looks like a flaky-crusted apple pie.

Our sneak peek is not what I would call lucky; my husband and I sloughed through years of infertility before consenting to the medical interventions that made it possible for my daughter to grow in a dish for five days before being ushered to my warm insides. [Read more...]

On Plumber’s Block and the Birth Process, Part 2

Guest Post

Yesterday, I asked a question that I will now attempt to answer. That question was: Are writers truly alone when they enter their private writing spaces?

My answer is no. Or at least no, they are not alone most of the time.

Who goes with them, you ask? Oh, lots of people.

I will tell you who goes with me:

For starters, in this year as the Milton Fellow, provided with the all but unfathomable luxuries of time and money and space for my writing, most days when I sit down to write, my editor and friend, Greg Wolfe, enters the room with me. Not because he ever actually enters the room or because he’s constantly checking up on me. He’s been as kind and generous and open-handed with this gift as anyone could be. In fact, Greg is one of the kindest people I know and one of the most universally supportive of my writing, but don’t tell him I told you so. [Read more...]


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