A Susan Sontag Reader

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1598

The publication of A Susan Sontag Reader affords an opportunity, indeed invites one, to take stock of the career of this formidably talented woman of letters. Much respected within the restricted circle of the Manhattan literary scene, she has not been treated very generously by American culture at large. Americans do not quite know what to do with “men of letters,” though Edmund Wilson found his place in that respect. It is even more difficult for American society to accept a “woman of letters,” particularly one, like Sontag, whose erudition and interests include literature, film, philosophy, and politics. When Americans accord a woman the title of “writer,” they expect her to be identifiable as a novelist or poet or biographer, but Sontag transcends conventional categories, thereby causing eyebrows to be raised. During her career as a writer, she has somehow come to be regarded more as an “event,” or as someone about whom one must form an opinion in quite a different way from the value placed upon the work of, for example, a Eudora Welty or a Joyce Carol Oates.

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Even given the deeply ingrained anti-intellectualism of Americans, it is surprising to note the degree to which Sontag is scornfully stigmatized as an “egghead.” This scorn comes her way from both ends of the political spectrum—both from those on the Right who use her learning as further evidence of the irrelevance of her concerns and tastes for “real Americans,” and from those on the Left who see her intellectualizing as an obstacle to the adoption of more strident political positions. Adrienne Rich is an example of the latter case, in her criticism of Sontag on feminist grounds. Rich’s attack, which produced a memorable debate that unfolded in the pages of The New York Review of Books (“Feminism and Fascism: An Exchange,” March 20, 1975), prompted the essay “Fascinating Fascism,” which the present volume contains. Rich seems to have resented the intellectual detachment with which Sontag, in her essay, could regard the cinematic oeuvre of the Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and she condemned Sontag’s essay for its lack of assertion of feminist values. It is a tribute to Sontag’s elusiveness that others are struck by what they regard as an excessively feminist bias in her writing. Whatever the politics, all of her critics seem united in expressing exasperation about the cerebral aspect of her work.

Sontag is a belletrist, an author, by and large, of occasional pieces. From its origins in the calm, meditative pieces of Michel de Montaigne, the essay is perhaps the literary genre that lends itself best to the process of self-discovery. It need not be for anyone else. Rather, the ostensible subject focused upon in the essay provides an occasion for reflection on the author’s response to it. Writing of this type does not necessarily assert its relevance to the reader’s life. When it strikes a responsive chord in the reader, this is largely a matter of taste or of an affinity of sensibilities. France, Montaigne’s country, is the country in which this type of writing has flourished, and, while Sontag’s essays have been published variously in Partisan Review, Evergreen Review, The Nation, and (especially in recent years) The New York Review of Books, they might find a home in a French journal such as the Nouvelle Revue Française. America, home of the blockbuster novel and the definitive biography, does not quite know what to do about writers who work largely in miniature, as Sontag has.

Sontag has also played the role, like Madame de Staël in the Napoleonic era, of introducing her compatriots to “foreign” influences, for which she has been accused of mere “trendiness.” Just as her style is Continental, her tastes and interests have often extended to authors or filmmakers whose work has been, at least at the time of her writing, as yet untranslated or little-known in this country. As a result, she has broken ground more than once with a list that includes Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jean-Luc Godard, Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukács, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Nathalie Sarraute, Georges Bataille, and Michel Leiris. As a society, Americans distrust this kind of cosmopolitanism and fear the sense of rootlessness and alienation it can convey. In her first volume of collected essays, Against Interpretation (1966), Sontag opens her well-known essay on Lévi-Strauss (“The Anthropologist as Hero”) with “Most serious thought in our time struggles with the feeling of homelessness.” Elizabeth Hardwick, in her introduction to A Susan Sontag Reader, perhaps sums up Sontag best when she writes:Susan Sontag is not drawn to her themes as a speciality, as one might choose the eighteenth century, but rather as expressions of her own being, her own style perhaps. Her imagination is obstinate, stubborn in its insistence upon the heroic efforts of certain moving, complex modern princes of temperament such as Walter Benjamin, Artaud, Roland Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Canetti, and the tragic moral philosopher Simone Weil. . . . The listing of her “interests” shows an almost spendthrift openness to example and precept and vivacious practice. But her thoughts surprise.

Sontag has never quite been able to live down two of her earlier essays, neither of which matches the charm and masterful concentration of her later work. One was her 1964 “Notes on ’Camp’” in which she sought to apply the label “camp” to the emerging aesthetic sensibility that would come to be associated, for better or worse, with the 1960’s. Despite the fact that she displayed keen sensitivity and understanding of the blurring of the lines between official and popular culture, the word “camp” came to be used against her by critics seeking justification for refusing to take her work seriously. The other essay that has haunted her career was the 1968 piece “Trip to Hanoi,” which dared to portray North Vietnamese society sympathetically, the result being that, for some, the name of Sontag came to be equated with a kind of starry-eyed, romantic, and fashionable gauchisme by which, with a condescending smile, one remembers those crazy years of the 1960’s.

Early in 1982, at New York City’s Town Hall, Sontag gave a talk in which, among other things, she commented on the degree to which some on the Left had been slow to acknowledge the abuses and atrocities committed by Communist countries. This sentiment could as easily have been expressed by a member of the renegade Italian Communist Party, but the fact that the author of “Trip to Hanoi” had made such a statement sparked gleeful, sneering, “I told you so” responses from American journalists. The April 14, 1982, issue of The New Republic, for example, carried a brutally sarcastic hatchet job by Richard Grenier entitled “The Conversion of Susan Sontag,” illustrated with a grotesque, flamboyantly sexist caricature by Donald Gates. Grenier argued that Sontag’s “grasp on reality” had always been “weak” and chided her for having belatedly realized the crimes of Stalinism and its imitations. This attack on Sontag was both gratuitous and misleading, for an examination of even her earliest essays shows her to have been keenly aware of such matters. In “The Literary Criticism of Georg Lukács” (1965), she laments the damage visited upon an otherwise brilliant corpus by Lukács’ determination to conform to Party standards of literary taste. In the essay, she also comments admiringly on the work of the Frankfurt School theorists, who were certainly never known for toeing the Party line. Such is not the perspective of a Soviet dupe, as Grenier implied.

The pivotal selection in A Susan Sontag Reader that touches upon the controversies surrounding both her political and aesthetic identifications is “The Salmagundi Interview,” conducted in April, 1975, and published in the Fall, 1975/Winter, 1976, issue of that magazine. It is one of the inspired additions to this volume, just as “Trip to Hanoi” is the most striking omission. In the interview, Sontag, while good-humored, forcefully refutes the kinds of political criticisms she has received, such as the one by Adrienne Rich mentioned earlier, as well as the attempts at categorization she has endured. She strongly upholds the writer’s privilege to resist all conventional political or aesthetic labels, recalling Julia Kristeva’s comment, in response to her own critics, that she hoped she was not following any party line correctly.

Apart from this interview, the essays impress much more than the excerpts from Sontag’s fiction (The Benefactor, 1963; Death Kit, 1967; and I, Etcetera, 1978). It is in the essays that she truly comes into her own, and it is the last hundred pages or so of the volume that contain her finest, most enduring work. “The Image-World,” from her finest book, On Photography (1977), is included, and reminds one that her philosophical reflections on photography are without peer, particularly as she transcends the usual discussions of “photography as art” to explore the social and cultural roles that both “serious” photographs and snapshots play.

Within this last section, she writes most movingly about Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, whose predilection for essays and more fragmentary writings resembles her own. She closes “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes” in this way:. . .his work now appears to unfold with more grace and poignancy and with far greater intellectual power than that of any other contemporary, the considerable truths vouchsafed to the aesthete’s sensibility, to a commitment to intellectual adventure, to the talent for contradiction and inversion—those “late” ways of experiencing, evaluating, reading the world; and surviving in it, drawing energy, finding consolation (but finally not), taking pleasure, expressing love.

Sontag’s own experience must surely have shaped her composition of that tribute.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

The Atlantic. CCL, September, 1982, p. 88.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 12, 1982, p. 2.

Nation. CCXXXV, October 23, 1982, p. 404.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 24, 1982, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, September 17, 1982, p. 105.

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