Like everyone else I’ve spent much of the past month regarding the pain of others. Susan Sontag’s new book, Regarding the Pain of Others, serves, almost, as a pre-emptive guide to what I have been seeing — and not seeing. Even the most graphic and shocking pictures, warns Sontag, “should not distract you from asking what pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown.” Again and again this short book — written before the current conflict got under way, of course — pinpoints exactly the ethical, aesthetic and political issues that inform and misinform the way we regard the visual imagery streaming in from the Gulf. In one respect, however, things have not conformed to Sontag’s template. Contrary to expectations, the “preferred current American way of war-making” — a high-tech onslaught “minimizing opportunities for the enemy to inflict any casualties at all” — has also generated an abundance of traditional images of men in combat. Aside from a few modifications to the uniforms, many of the shots of American Marines in Iraq replicate canonical photos — such as those by W. Eugene Smith in World War II or Larry Burrows in Vietnam — from previous conflicts.

Decisions as to whether images of these same Marines being killed or injured should be broadcast or published are cast as judgments of “good taste” which, as Sontag acidly observes, is “always a repressive standard when invoked by institutions.” This insistence on good taste is also “puzzling” in the context of “a culture saturated with commercial incentives to lower standards of taste.” Sontag does not leave it there, however, for we (and one of the many intentions of the book is to make us think carefully about who we mean by “we”) are all party to this by virtue (!) of “our” prurient eagerness to see images of suffering.

Sontag is characteristically high-minded about — and, by implication, unblemished by — this. That is the prerogative and privilege of the essayist. But it also suggests something about the way that, although she has written fiction, her real métier is — and always has been — discursive or analytical prose. Good fiction, even when it is anti-autobiographical, is invariably self-implicating where Sontag’s is often simply self-conscious. For writers of the best fiction, the pain of others can become indistinguishable from their own — and vice versa. Take, for example, the appalling — so appalling it is grotesquely comic — marriage of tabloid sensationalism, morbid curiosity and moral high-mindedness as devastatingly rendered by Thomas Bernhard in his final novel, Extinction. The narrator’s parents have been killed in a car wreck, and he is nauseated by the “ruthless cruelty” of the tabloid press and their “abominable pictures” of the death scene:

“They even printed a large photograph of my mother’s headless body. I gazed at this picture for a long time, though all this time I was naturally afraid that someone might come into the kitchen and catch me at it . . . Each paper felt obliged to outdo the next in vulgarity. Family wiped out, screamed one headline, under which I read, Three concert-goers mutilated beyond recognition. Full report and pictures centre pages. I at once searched for the centre pages, shamelessly leafing through the paper to find the illustrated report promised on the front page and simultaneously keeping my eye on the kitchen door, fearful of being caught in the act. I mustn’t immerse myself entirely in these reports of the accident, I told myself, as I may not notice if someone comes into the kitchen and catches me at it.”

The novelist’s instinct is to imaginatively immerse him- or herself in a situation; the essayist’s is to clarify. Personally I do not subscribe to the idea that the one practice is of an inherently higher order than the other. Toward the end of the book, Sontag observes that “Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of public space is the mega-store.” By analogy, it could be argued that the chief model for private space is the mega-novel, either in literary (DeLillo, Franzen) or purely commercial mode. For me, Sontag did not need the mega-support of In America or The Volcano Lover to prove that she was a writer on a par with many of those she had written about. Her discernment, radical clarity and engaged intelligence find their perfect home in that precious little “space reserved for being serious,” the essay.

These same qualities are everywhere evident in Regarding the Pain of Others, which, almost inevitably, refers back to the essays in On Photography. In an obvious way the new book is a postscript to that collection in the same way that AIDS and Its Metaphors was a coda to Illness as Metaphor. At a distance of 30 years, Sontag now feels “an irresistible temptation to quarrel” with some of her earlier ideas on the subject. One of these ideas was that by bringing home the grim reality of war, photographs are a “determining influence” on “what . . . we pay attention to, what we care about.” As early as 1972, John Berger had suggested that while “photographs of agony” are ostensibly gestures of protest against specific circumstances, they can actually become evidence of the opposite: of a situation immune to intervention in which people suffer because that’s how things are. Sontag herself is now wary of the way that even a photographer of conscience like Sebastiao Salgado tends to focus on “the powerless, reduced to their powerlessness.” In a characteristic piece of dialectical probing, Sontag sees “the cult of celebrity” as fueling this “insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph”: images, that is, of anonymous representatives “of their occupations, their ethnicities, or their plights.” As W.H. Auden put it in his sonnet sequence In Time of War (1938): “They are and suffer; that is all they do.”

Back in the ’70s, Sontag also wondered if our responsiveness to the pain of others was being numbed by ceaseless exposure to images of war. This is a specific variant of a “founding . . . critique of modernity” (as expressed by, among others, Wordsworth and Baudelaire): Namely, that sensational news habituates us to the very horrors it claims to alert us to. As evidence of this, Sontag quotes an acquaintance from Sarajevo who found that she could not be indignant about the world’s indifference to the suffering there because in her time she too watched footage of the destruction of Vukovar and then just changed channels. Bob Dylan provides a similarly ironic twist at the end of the epic narrative of “Black Diamond Bay” on Desire:

I was sittin’ home alone one night in L.A.,
Watchin’ old Cronkite on the 7 o’clock news.
It seems there was an earthquake that
Left nothin’ but a Panama hat
And a pair of old Greek shoes.
Didn’t seem like much was happenin’,
So I turned it off and went to grab another beer.

By that point, of course, the Panama hat and Greek shoes are as emblematic of the reality of individual human frailty as the “useless fragment of a wooden bowl” that moved Wordsworth in “The Ruined Cottage.” This is a far cry from the idea — promulgated by Jean Baudrillard and others — that nowadays the Panama hat, the wooden bowl and the Gulf War only exist on TV, that reality has dissolved into its image. For Sontag this is “a breathtaking provincialism” that “universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population” living in an affluent part of the world where news has been converted to entertainment. The devastating simplicity and good sense of this particular rebuke put me in mind of Joseph Brodsky’s admiring verdict on the way that Sontag once took issue with Ezra Pound’s widow. “Now that,” reported Brodsky, “was one of the greatest returns I had ever heard.” Quite. Small wonder, then, that “we” return to her so readily.

Geoff Dyer, the Weekly's literary critic in residence, is the author of, most recently, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It.

REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS | By SUSAN SONTAG | Farrar Straus and Giroux | 144 pages | $20 hardcover

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