“Fierce, cohesive, thoughtful” – Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

First published in 2004, and starting out as an Amnesty Lecture at Oxford University in February 2001, you can see why Penguin have thought to reissue Regarding the Pain of Others in the current climate. Why do we say that, you might ask (if you live under a rock). We’re obviously living at a time when seemingly increasing numbers of people find it hard to see things from any other point of view apart from their own (we’re guilty of it ourselves). If you take Brexit as a little, ugly, example – many arguments have sprouted from the fertile ground of an inability to see things from another person’s point of view. One of the reasons why I picked up Regarding the Pain of Others was to see if it would boost my sympathy. It didn’t do that.

Regarding the Pain of Others is best thought of as a semi-sequel to Sontag’s On Photography (which was published in 1977, having run as a series of articles in the New York Review of Books between 73-77). We say that because what Regarding the Pain of Others is more than anything else is a treatise on war photography. How war photography came about, from its lowly staged beginnings through various flourishes to its apotheosis in WWII and Vietnam (before circling back around and – if not quite eating its own tail – becoming more critical of itself as a form), taking in exploratory comparisons with both painting and television. Sontag is a writer who writes with what feels like surgical skill. Words are placed in such a fashion as to give you pause. Yes, she’s writing critically, and yes, she’s forming an argument but for all that her mind is such that the words on the page ring like the proverbial bell.

“Photographs objectify,” she writes

“They turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed. And photographs are a species of alchemy, for all that they are prized as a transparent account of reality.”

It isn’t until the latter stages of the book, having set out her photographer’s studio somewhat, that Sontag brings her focus to bear upon people and suffering:

“Even in the era of cybermodels, what the mind feels like is still, as the ancients imagined it, an inner space – like a theatre – in which we picture, and it these pictures that allow to remember. The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering.”

Sontag is, as you’d expect, wildly erudite and her argument swerves from Plato, via Edmund Burke and William Hazlitt, to George Bataille, Frederick Wiseman and William Wordsworth, alongside a great many others. You sense she writes with a great many books about her, stopping and checking references, her inspiration zinging off Sebald-like like in a dozen different directions at once. But it is the mind that is brought to bear that makes Regarding the Pain of Others so enthralling:

“To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment…”

She continues:

“It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people’s pain, just as it is absurd to generalize about the ability to respond to the sufferings of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror.”

So, it may not help you see the world better from other people’s points of view but it will give you much food for thought. It’s a fierce, cohesive, thoughtful and rousing piece of journalism, short enough to get from one side to the other in a day but deep enough to keep your mind rumbling on for weeks.

Any Cop?: A worthy Sontag reissue from Penguin.

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