Thursday, December 08, 2005

The passing of an Icon

I first heard of Susan Sontag in reference to her seminal essay Notes on Camp. The essay showcased not only the breath of her vision in portraying such an accurate description of camp mentality, but also the power of her intellect to enunciate so lucidly a concept that can be best understood by observation. Having set eyes on her work, I read with eagerness her remarks following Sep 11, and the Abu Ghraib torture photographs. Always engaging, Sontag’s work has that rare quality: accessibility. She draws you into the debate with so cogent an argument that you are left scouting for possibilities to counter her. In Regarding the Torture of Others, she blinds you with her hard-hitting espousal of the banality of cruelty.

Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers -- recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities -- and swapping images among themselves and e-mailing them around the globe.

Looking at these photographs, you ask yourself, How can someone grin at the sufferings and humiliation of another human being? Set guard dogs at the genitals and legs of cowering naked prisoners? Force shackled, hooded prisoners to masturbate or simulate oral sex with one another? And you feel naive for asking, since the answer is, self-evidently, People do these things to other people. Rape and pain inflicted on the genitals are among the most common forms of torture. Not just in Nazi concentration camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein. Americans, too, have done and do them when they are told, or made to feel, that those over whom they have absolute power deserve to be humiliated, tormented. They do them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing belong to an inferior race or religion. For the meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators apparently had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show.

Sontag died in December last year of myelodysplastic syndrome or MDS, a particularly baneful blood cancer. Now her son recalls the last days of her life in this essay. David Rieff captures the indomitable spirit of a woman who beat two earlier cancers hollow and was devastated to learn that this third final one was going to take her away.

If she had imagined herself special, my mother's last illness cruelly exposed the frailty of that conceit. It was merciless in the toll of pain and fear it exacted. My mother, who feared extinction above all else, was in anguish over its imminence. Shortly before she died, she turned to one of the nurses' aides - a superb woman who cared for her like her own daughter - and said, "I'm going to die," and then began to weep.

This painful extract leads to the calming realization that his mother’s final exit was quick and with “little visible anguish”.

And yet, if her illness was merciless, her death was merciful. About 48 hours before the end, she began to fail, complaining of generalised low-grade pain (a sign that the leukaemia was in her bloodstream). Shortly after, she came down with an infection. The doctors said there was little chance her body could stave it off. She remained intermittently lucid for about another day, though she could barely speak and she was confused. I feel she knew I was there, but I am not at all sure. She said she was dying. She asked if she was crazy…. And her death was easy, as deaths go, in the sense that she was in little pain and little visible anguish. She simply went. First, she took a deep breath; there was a pause of 40 seconds, such an agonising, open-ended time if you are watching a human being end; then another deep breath. This went on for no more than a few minutes. Then the pause became permanence, and Nimer said: "She's gone."

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