New Essay: “The Struggle to Feel”

I’ve a long piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It’s about Benjamin Moser’s Susan Sontag: Her Life and Work. My piece has more of the review and less of the essay than I like in my essay-reviews, but my plan to explore Sontag’s themes while discussing a new account of her life was hijacked by certain features of the biography to which I felt compelled to respond.

How it begins:

“I DON’T KNOW what my real feelings are,” wrote Susan Sontag in one of her journals, “so I look to other people (the other person) to tell me.” This confession might seem surprising, coming as it does from one of the most famous critics of the 20th century. Sontag embodies the ideal — as Benjamin Moser puts it — of “the woman who went to every opening and saw every opera and read every book.” Why did she spend her life thinking and writing about cultural artifacts, if she wasn’t even sure how she felt about them?

Read the whole thing here.

  • “Why is the foundation of metaphor empathy?” Why, indeed? I’m going to be haunted by this line for some time, I think, though I doubt my capacity to write the essay it seems to provoke. When I read Sontag – and she IS “difficult” – I’m constantly aware that for her, to be a critic was a kind of “calling,” but not, perhaps, a “passion,” at least not in the sense that many essayists and biographers mean by “passion.” She wanted to examine closely what art DOES besides making us “like” it. As I write this I wonder if perhaps I am just “empathizing” with a writer who distrusts “feeling,” thereby undermining what would be my argument. Still. Why SHOULD the foundation of metaphor be “empathy?” I’ll re-read Stevens’s “The Motive for Metaphor,” I guess, but a poem never satisfies me as much as an essay. (The essay I cannot write.)

    • It nags at me too. The claim sounds plausible until you think about it hard. It is convenient for Moser to say for the reasons I specify in the review; but apart from his narrative conveniences, it’s hard to think of a reason it would be true. The capacity for figurative language isn’t obviously connected to the capacity to simulate another person’s consciousness… It’s almost as if it would be *nice* for this to be true, as it would suggest some kind of deep connection between ethics and aesthetics. But even there, I think we tend to over-moralize empathy and confuse it with goodwill (whereas, as certain philosophers have pointed out, extreme cruelty also requires a great deal of empathy to be effective), so I’m not sure it’s even desirable that Moser’s claim be true. At most, it seems to me that some measure of empathy is probably necessary to understand *another person’s* metaphors, but only in the way that some minimal measure of empathy is necessary to receive any communication whatsoever.

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