REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS
Twenty-six years after the publication of her influential collection of essays On Photography (1977), Sontag (In America) reconsiders ideas that are "now fast approaching the status of platitudes," especially the view that our capacity to respond to images of war and atrocity is being dulled by "the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images" in our rapaciously media-driven culture. Sontag opens by describing Virginia Woolf's essay on the roots of war, "Three Guineas," in which Woolf described a set of gruesome photographs of mutilated bodies and buildings destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. Woolf wondered if there truly can be a "we" between man and woman in matters of war. Sontag sets out to reopen and enlarge the question. "No 'we' should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain," she writes. The "we" that Sontag has come to be much more aware of in the decades since On Photography is the world of the rich. She has come to doubt her youthful contention that repeated exposure to images of suffering necessarily shrivels sympathy, and she doubts even more the radical yet influential spin that others put on this critique—that reality itself has become a spectacle. "To speak of reality becoming a spectacle... universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world...." Sontag reminds us that sincerity can turn a mere spectator into a witness, and that it is the heart rather than fancy rhetoric that can lead the mind to understanding. (Mar.)
FYI: In a letter published in the January 13, 2003, issue of the New Yorker, Woolf scholar Jane Marcus asserts that Woolf never published the horrible war photos that she described—they appeared only in later editions of her antiwar essay. Instead, Woolf substituted images of a general, an archbishop, a judge—wordlessly insisting that her readers constantly consider the men of power who make wars. Marcus assumes that Sontag was drawing her conclusions from a later edition without realizing that she was crying Woolf.