Moral belief as aesthetic stance

Susan Sontag believed that intellectuals should, must, take political stands. She was active in the movement against the Vietnam War. She tried, with passion and persistence, to awaken American and European consciences to the genocidal catastrophe in Bosnia. And yet I would not call Sontag a political thinker. For Sontag, politics was an arena for practicing the high moral style. It was about the individual bearing witness. It was, in another of its aspects, about the writer defending literary values, the values of civilization, when they were under siege, as they were in Sarajevo.

This is from Ellen Willis’ Three Elegies for Susan Sontag. (As you may have noticed, Sontag is a perpetual topic of interest here at TNI.)

This passage raises all sorts of questions for me about art, morals, and political action. For example: what is the difference between the “high moral style” as practiced by Sontag and the rest of politics? Is that a grittier, more pragmatic kind of realpolitik? Is one more morally correct than the other?

And: are literary values moral values? Lionel Trilling would say yes; Camille Paglia would laugh derisively, then say no. Willis’ phrase “the values of civilization” is frustratingly vague–is this civilization in the sense of culture (the arts), or society (politics/ethics)? Willis elides the difference between them, perhaps because Sontag tried to do the same later in life, when she became predominantly a fiction writer (though she still did write criticism, most notably Regarding the Pain of Others, which certainly marries artistic and moral concerns).

We can read Sontag’s turn away from criticism toward fiction as a surrender to the realization that criticism can never hold the same moral power as art, the novel being the great moral form in the Western tradition. Of course, when Sontag gave up criticism for fiction–when she fully indulged her moral preoccupations–she became largely irrelevant, culturally speaking. But isn’t striving for moral seriousness always an admirable project? In the end, it depends on your priority: aesthetics or ethics, the interesting or the good. And I’m inclined to agree with Paglia: they do at times conflict.