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Newsday, 30 March 2003

REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS, by Susan Sontag. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 131 pp. 

It has been quite some time since Susan Sontag published anything that doesn't fill an admirer of her best work with embarrassment. Where the Stress Falls, her last collection of essays, consisted for the most part of hints to posterity about how she would prefer to be described. She proclaimed a devotion to complexity (both moral and intellectual) and seriousness (ditto), and also said that she is very passionate - a quality seldom evident from her fiction, with its thin trickle of emotion. It was the kind of solemn preening that calls to mind Jean-Paul Sartre's remark that the poet Paul Valery had spent the final decades of his life preparing posthumous editions of his own work.

So it is with some misgivings that I opened Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag's meditation on the imagery of warfare, which revisits the concerns first staked out in On Photography, published in 1977. "My energy as a writer impels me to look forward," she proclaimed in Where the Stress Falls, "to feel still that I am beginning, really beginning, now." Yet much of her work in recent years has consisted of spirals backward, rather than energetic forward thrusts. AIDS and Its Metaphors offered a set of afterthoughts on Illness as Metaphor, for example, while In America recycled the historical-romantic pastiche of The Volcano Lover (Sontag's one readable novel, of the four published thus far).

But Regarding the Pain of Others is not simply a repetition of the earlier writings on photography; rather, it is a genuine return to the source of the energy driving Sontag's critical prose from the 1960s and '70s.

The immediate topic is the role of war photography in how noncombatants understand military violence and respond to its human cost. (Or fail to understand it, and grow numb to it.) A timely subject, unfortunately. But a longtime reader of Sontag notices that her discussion of Matthew Brady's images of the Civil War--or photojournalistic coverage of downtown New York, autumn 2001--land her in the middle of familiar questions about the history of sensibility in a culture shaped by the mechanical reproduction of imagery. That has always been one of the guiding preoccupations of her best work, from Against Interpretation to The Volcano Lover.

Her most sustained and explicit set of reflections on that theme, more than a quarter of a century ago, explored the way the camera transformed vision and sensibility. It was not simply that some photographs were beautiful or moving or instructive, while others were banal. Rather, photography itself created an "ecology of images" in which fragments of the world were torn from their context and history and mixed together in a way that Sontag compared to surrealism. That kind of promiscuous aestheticizing of experience, she wrote, "makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own." (That passage is echoed in Don DeLillo's White Noise, with its scene at the landmark called "The Most Photographed Barn in America.") The camera, then, reinforces a predatory mode of consciousness.

The notion that a casual snapshot enacts some kind of metaphysical aggression against the world seems a little too subtle for its own good, however, when one contemplates pictures of the actual effects of actual violence. Sontag once criticized photographs for providing not knowledge but "the semblance of knowledge." In the new book, she writes that "the understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of [war photographers'] images." If photos are, in a sense, the mere semblance of knowledge - as substantial, perhaps, as the shadow of a cloud of smoke - they do nonetheless have a function within the moral order of the world, even so. They show what words cannot express, or what words struggle to conceal. (To choose an example not quite at random: "collateral damage.")

Sontag quotes, and argues with, Virginia Woolf's comment that photographs "are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye." For one thing, every picture arrives surrounded (in print and otherwise) by well over a thousand words. Visceral impact is not meaning. Photographs are not simply documents of combat and its aftermath. They form part of the rhetoric of warfare. They have strategic uses. And the "good taste" exercised by editors and others in positions of authority in choosing which images to circulate "obscures a host of concerns and anxieties about public order and public morale ... as well as pointing to the inability otherwise to formulate or defend traditional conventions of how to mourn."

On Photography tended to portray the camera as a kind of single-minded (yet also mindless) force unleashed on the world--leaving everything fragmented and ironic and "interesting," if morally meaningless. Sontag's perspective now is more complex, her sense of the photographer's role is more ambivalent, and certainly far less monolithic. (All that time in the company of Annie Liebovitz has presumably not been without some effect.)

Given the density of its historical references and the number of allusions to her earlier work, Regarding the Pain of Others invites, and rewards, more than one reading. It is a book posing serious questions--an altogether different matter than adopting the pose of seriousness.

On a third look at the book, a few hours after the most recent war began, I was struck by a passage that seems almost to have been written as a gloss on the experience of looking at newsmagazines in the days ahead.

"So far as we feel sympathy," Sontag writes, "we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent--if not an inappropriate--response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a consideration of how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may - in ways that we prefer not to imagine--be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only the initial spark."