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From the Shelf Styles of Radical Will

274 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I'M NOT SURE whether America can be radically changed, and it scares me. I want to save my soul as a subject of the American Empire 1969, but it isn't an easy fight and the outcome is in doubt. "Salvation becomes almost a mundane, inevitable goal when things are so bad, really intolerable," Susan Sontag says in an essay entitled "What's Happening in America (1966)." Salvation-artistic and moral-is what Sontag discusses in a complex yet ballsy way in Styles of Radical Will, a collection of essays written since 1966.

Sontag's brilliant book contains essays on Bergman and Godard, the pornographic imagination, the relation of theatre and film, the state of the nation, and E. M. Cioran, a modern aphoristic French philosopher. Two of the essays, the avant-garde "Aesthetics of Silence" and "Trip to Hanoi," rank among the most important intellectual documents of the sixties.

"Trip to Hanoi" illustrates how Vietnam has pushed intellectuals, artists. and students out of their limited enclaves and forced them to wrestle with political concerns. Sontag writes that she shared the archetypal left-leaning American's dilemma over Vietnam: although she is "passionately opposed to the American aggression," she had been unable to incorporate her convictions in her work. Awareness without the ability to act on it. (And that, comrades, is where we live.)

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During the first part of her visit to Hanoi this feeling of impotence is compounded by her inability to relate to the North Vietnamese who strike her as opaque and child-like in their great generosity and formality. This admission reflects two of her best traits: her refusal to examine any phenomenon with less than all of her formidable critical powers and her honesty. She relies totally on what she sees and feels and will not lapse into cliches. This is quite a feat when you are writing about a nation which your government is trying to exterminate.

Eventually Sontag discovers that the Vietnamese politeness is utterly unlike American social conventions, which hide the inner self. She writes that their sincerity is "a mode of ethical aspiration." Similarly, despite the way Americans are trained to discredit heroism, she realizes that the nobility and bravery of the Vietnamese are as real as they seem.

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She ultimately evaluates her trip to Hanoi as a crucial liberating experience. Explaining its effects on her, she cites the French students who manned the barricades in May, 1968. Sontag says they feel that, though they didn't obtain their specific objective, they haven't been defeated. That is, for individual who have "enjoyed a reprieve from the inhibitions on love and trust this society enforces, the revolution has just started, and it continues."

But who is this prophetess Susan Sontag? In her Cioran essay she gives us a glimpse: "More and more, the shrewdest thinkers and artists are precocious archeologists of... ruins in the making, indignant or stoical diagnosticians of defeat, enigmatic choreographers of the complex spiritual movements useful for individual survival in an era of permanent apocalypse."

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