Regarding the Pain of Others
"The war has used up words," Henry James declared in The New York Times in 1915. "[T]hey have weakened, they have deteriorated." It was a sobering notion at the time--that language had become exhausted, useless in describing the horrors of World War I--but to those in what might be described as the "media elite" of the day, it was also rousing. A whole generation of young writers sympathized with James' lament, and in time it came to serve as a kind of grito for a new modernist mind-set, a rallying cry for war-weary aesthetes who set out to make language fresh again.
It's only fitting that Susan Sontag cites this episode in her new book, Regarding the Pain of Others. In 1977, she herself unlimbered a very similar argument about photographs. In her On Photography, Sontag was among the first to suggest that, if by nothing else than their sheer numbers, pictures were becoming meaningless. The "ubiquity of the photographic record is photography's 'message,'" she wrote then, "its aggression." But rather than inspiring some newly energized art, as James had, Sontag seemed instead to dispirit it. Before long, conservatives started using notions like hers to declare war on the images themselves, blaming them for numbing us to sex and violence, as if American culture was somehow at odds with the very Americans who were making and using it. Too many pictures, we were told, would only weaken us.
Perhaps because of this recoil, as well as our culture's seemingly permanent war footing, in Regarding the Pain of Others Sontag finally revisits--and adds riders to--the case she made 26 years ago. An essay as long as a novella and about as elegant in its economy, Regarding refocuses the debate exclusively on depictions of war. From Goya's prints detailing Napoleon's bloody wrath to television's coverage of war-wracked Kosovo, Sontag chases down the legacy of combat pictures, advancing the theory along the way that the importance of these images ultimately rests with us, the viewers. "One should feel obliged to think about what it means to look at them," she writes, "about the capacity actually to assimilate what they show." It's not quite a retraction of the point she made in On Photography, but it's an important codicil. Media blitzes from the battlefield may indeed trivialize the reality of war, but only if we refuse to think about what we see.
And for all this lofty talk, Sontag proves herself to be thoroughly heartfelt in her thinking, which is the book's saving grace. Like the pictures she's so preoccupied with, she spares us no detail--in her discussion of disfigured World War I doughboys, say, their faces half-melted from mustard gas, or of the Rape of Berlin, in which Soviet soldiers raped more than 100,000 women. This is not a mere exercise for her, nor is it for us. It's a challenge she lays out in prose that's as dexterous as it is dense. And ultimately, Regarding the Pain of Others is a jeremiad a lot like Henry James', a call to look at what, even still, we rarely force ourselves to face. Being on the receiving end of the media can be difficult these days, she says, and it should continue to be. "An ample reservoir of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning," as she writes, "given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry."