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Susan Sontag 1933–
American essayist, critic, novelist, short story writer, editor, screenwriter, and film director.
Sontag is among the most influential contemporary American critics. Her numerous essays concentrate on utilizing a new sensibility in evaluating a work of art. Early in her career, Sontag proposed an end to standard methods of critical analysis that rely on content and various levels of meaning. She asserted that the function of criticism is to show "how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means." Sontag is credited with making the works of such writers as Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin more accessible to American audiences, and she has also earned the reputation among critics as an advocate of popular culture.
Sontag established her precepts for evaluating art in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966). In the title essay she contends that critical interpretation "depletes and impoverishes" creative works, arguing that art should be received with the senses—evoking pleasure and excitement—and not the intellect. Included in this volume is the famous essay "Notes on 'Camp,'" in which Sontag defends "camp" as a legitimate art form that is "serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious." She also proposed that style is the essence of "camp," asserting that "there exists a good taste of bad taste." Although most critics dubbed her the "Queen of Camp," some acknowledge the essay's importance in introducing avant-garde works into the cultural mainstream. "Trip to Hanoi" (1968) is a journalistic essay that recounts Sontag's visit to North Vietnam. Several critics commended her for not resorting to political rhetoric. Sontag instead concentrates on the personal growth and enlightenment realized through her interaction with the North Vietnamese. Styles of Radical Will (1969) contains the essays "The Pornographic Imagination," in which Sontag argues that pornography is a valid literary genre, and "The Aesthetics of Silence," an analysis of the intentionally noncommunicative qualities in works by John Cage, Samuel Beckett, and others. Also included are several pieces on the cinema.
Illness As Metaphor (1978), written after Sontag's own fight with cancer, discusses the ways in which society conceptualizes illness. She draws a parallel between the nineteenth-century tendency to equate tuberculosis with romanticism and the twentieth-century perception of cancer as an isolating, passionless disease. In both cases she contends that such attitudes have hindered scientific research into the causes of the two diseases. Illness As Metaphor is regarded as an attempt to remove these obstacles and advance the research and cure of cancer. The essays in Under the Sign of Saturn (1981) focus on European art and philosophy. Critics generally agree that the essays on German filmmakers Leni Riefenstahl and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg are the best in this volume.
While Sontag is best known as a critic, she has published two novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967), and a collection of short stories, I, etcetera (1978). She has also directed and written the screenplays for the films Duet for Can-nibals (1968), Brother Carl (1972), and Promised Lands (1974), a documentary on the Yom Kippur War of 1973. These works have not received the same serious recognition as Sontag's expository writings, yet the experimental nature of her fiction follows Sontag's conception of art as an immediate and sensuous experience. A Susan Sontag Reader (1982) is a selection of previously published works, including excerpts from the two novels.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 10, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)
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The chief commodity of Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation, according to its author and her reviewers, is a modern sensibility. Stress the modernity here, since she is distinguished less by a decided or passionate point of view … than by an eagerness to explore anything new. At times this eagerness lapses deliberately into inarticulateness, as in her celebrated essay on Camp, which will probably be unintelligible in ten years. At its best—for example in the essay on Happenings—it reports immediate emotions unpretentiously and sensitively. But sensitive people are a dime a dozen. The rarer gift Miss Sontag has to offer is brains. The theoretical portions of her book are delightful to read because she can argue so well. Even when she fudges her argument with standby ploys like name-calling, the shifted definition, the straw man, or the historical distortion, she does it with the skill of an expert. Her literary and philosophical references are broad and applied with originality. Her ideas are consistently stimulating, particularly when they do not get in the way of her major theoretical premise—as in the little essay "Piety Without Content," where she uses the analogy of political fellow-traveling to destroy, beautifully, the rosy idea of common-denominator religiousness.
For all that, however, her major premise is that brains are bankrupt. This is explicit in the snide comments about "philistinism" and about the bad effects on culture of "people with minds," in the vague asides about "magic" in art, in the preferences for non-verbal over verbal art, in the insistence that we need more feeling and less thought. It is implicit everywhere in her refusal to carry any line of reasoning through to the end. Finally, it cripples her attempt to develop "case studies for an aesthetic" (her own description of her intention) because an aesthetic is an intellectual thing.
What Miss Sontag wants to encourage, in art and criticism, is respect for sensuous surfaces, for feeling, for form, for style. What she apparently wants to encourage in real life is respect for the unconventional, the amoral, the extreme sensation, be it sensuous gratification or madness. So far so good. Anybody who does Freudian criticism or looks for morals in art, or whose vision is directed only toward what is happy, healthy and prudent, needs this book. But it is not enough to offer a corrective to such people.
Miss Sontag, seems to think it is enough, perhaps because she has despaired of the possibility that artists, critics, or the public can use their minds to create new syntheses of matter and manner, good and evil, health and insanity. She shares, perhaps, in a popular and anti-rationalist superstition according to which intelligence has not only failed to solve the problems of mankind, but is also indirectly responsible for getting us into our contemporary fix with the Gog and Magog of alienation and the bomb. (p. 83)
The sensuous bias of such criticism has severe limitations. It is so preoccupied with what we presumably need that it is ready to throw out a lot of what we can get. It asserts that we don't need "content"; but "content" is precisely what most verbal and much visual art, and even much music, from Buxtehude to Beethoven to the blues, ultimately depends on. Such criticism cautions that some arts are too prone to interpretation; of course they are: so is anything interesting. Because pedants flourish, shall we have no more cakes and ale? Reminding us to remember that Hamlet is about Hamlet, Miss Sontag omits the fact that Hamlet is importantly distinguished from Joe Schmoe because he "contains" a pattern of human behavior which is both permanent and significant. Jeering at psychoanalytical, religious, and sociological interpretations of Kafka because they can't all be right, she neglects to observe that they all may be relevant, and that Kafka's genius may lie precisely in his ability to perform a psychoanalytic study and a study of bureaucracy and a religious manifesto in a single fantastic fable.
Obviously it makes a difference what writers say. It makes a difference what painters say, whether they choose to paint "about" virgins and children, the disasters of war, or the harmonies and cacophonies of colors. Miss Sontag's kind of criticism fails to understand that great artists may want to change our lives by changing our vision…. (pp. 83-4)
Another problem of sensuous modern criticism is that it gives minor artists too much credit. Many of the styles and authors Miss Sontag admires, like Surrealism, Pop, Happenings, Genet, Peter Weiss in Marat/Sade, can be classified as representing what Coleridge called Secondary Imagination, or Fancy, as opposed to the Primary Imagination. That is, they are works of combination and juxtaposition, not of synthesis. In dripping watches in the desert, in Campbell's soup cans in the Modern Museum, in baby dolls glued to machine parts, in black people playing white people, in "discussions of the deepest issues of contemporary morality and history" used as "decor, props, sensuous material," we see artists having ironic fun, fooling around with things. There is nothing wrong with this, until fooling tries to impose itself on all other possibilities. Miss Sontag declares that "the most interesting works of contemporary art are adventures in sensation, new 'sensory mixes.'" Well, maybe so. In that case, our era resembles the latter half of the 18th century, which Coleridge found unsatisfactory because it contained no first-rate unifying, synthesizing imagination. In retrospect, it seems that most late 18th-century artists were trying to escape from a classical aesthetic that no longer compelled belief, but didn't know where they wanted to get to. Hence the proliferation of sentimental junk about graves and peasants and mountain landscapes; hence also, perhaps, second-rate pornography like Fanny Hill. There may be more similarity than meets the eye between 18th-century picturesque, and 20th-century grotesque, adventures in sensation.
In her final essay, "One Culture and the New Sensibility," Miss Sontag claims that this art is experimental in the same sense that science is: cool, rational, etc. But scientific experiment has as its assumption the real existence of facts and laws, and as its object the synthesis of principles or "models" which will resolve old paradoxes, which will incorporate all that is known, which will be simpler and more inclusive than anything thought earlier. So does some art; we are deceived if we sell our birthright to it for the mess of pottage in some new sensuous mix. (pp. 83-4)
Alicia Ostriker, "Anti-Critic," in Commentary, Vol. 41, No. 5, June, 1966, pp. 83-4.
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[The following excerpt is taken from an essay originally published in The New Republic, May 3, 1969.]
That Susan Sontag is philosophically oriented and has something of a metaphysical impulse to her thinking … is among the reasons why I think her one of the most interesting and valuable critics we possess, a writer from whom it's continually possible to learn, even when you're most dissatisfied with what she's saying, or perhaps especially at those times. For the past several years she has been the chief voice in America of one main tradition of French criticism, which is one of the reasons, I'm convinced, why she is disliked, where she's disliked, with such ferocity and xenophobic scorn. (p. 30)
When she said in the preface to her first book of essays and reviews [Against Interpretation] that "what I have been writing is not criticism at all, strictly speaking, but case studies for an aesthetic, a theory of my own sensibility," the remark was thrown out as an afterthought, a footnote, whereas it ought to be front and center, the motto for everything she has done. And that would include the journal of her recent visit to North Vietnam, reprinted in this new collection, Styles of Radical Will.
The point isn't that there is criticism, neat, familiar, unquestionable as a procedure, and then there is what Miss Sontag does, odd, peripheral although maybe useful; but that what she has been doing, or attempting, is more interesting and more relevant to what is going on than is most traditional criticism. (At least, on a pragmatic test, I don't know of any critic more interesting or more relevant.)
Her sensibility departs from that of the traditional literary critic in that she is very little interested in, or at least in writing about, fiction (except as it enters extreme modes, as in pornography) and seems to care nothing at all about poetry…. But she differs, too, from the traditional critic of general culture in that she is deeply involved in aesthetic awareness. We might call her a critic of ideas, except that she has always wished to treat ideas sensuously, aesthetically; or decide that she is a philosopher of cultural forms, except that philosophy for her has always been a drama rather than a method. (pp. 30-1)
The alarm that many people feel at the approach of Susan Sontag, the distaste, resentment and even fury she causes, has, it seems to me, two bases…. The cruder one is moral and "humanistic." She has been accused of being inhuman or antihuman for ignoring moral and spiritual elements in art, or rather for sanctioning and encouraging the immoral, pornography or camp, for example, violence or extravagance. To this the only answer is that no material or data or subject or, for that matter, mood in the aesthetic realm has anything to do with being sanctioned or deplored, needs validation or, in short, lies in the moral universe at all…. The moral charge against Miss Sontag, which is mainly a charge against the kinds of art she has been interested in, issues from the same morale such charges always do: apprehension in the face of new consciousness.
Beyond this Miss Sontag has marched, aggressively and with her great bristling apparatus of learning …, pointing every which way but most dangerously at certain processes of literary erudition itself, into some sacred realms, to the consternation of their guardians. At the least newcomers are expected to observe the rules. And one of the chief rules is that criticism is a province of the dispassionate (and fact-finding) intellect, which it is designed to serve and, so to speak, to fill out.
But Miss Sontag, it seems, would like to fill out the body or at any rate the whole man, to return the intellectual side—especially the hermeneutic side—of aesthetic experience to a subordinate place. When she wrote, as the coda to one of her most famous essays ["Against Interpretation"], that "in place of hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art," she drove many persons nearly wild with misapprehension that what she meant amounted to a new barbarism, a new species of self-indulgence, a relinquishment of the hard-won rationality through which we have steadily mastered art and myth in order to put them into the service of civilized being, of "culture." What she meant, of course, was a new appreciation, a new agreement on mystery, a new delight.
She hasn't always meant it convincingly, it's true, or, to speak more plainly, she hasn't always demonstrated that mystery and delight are what she herself experiences. It is surely a notable fact about Miss Sontag's sensibility—her "subject" and the principle of her shift in critical method—that it so often strikes you cold, even icy. This is the irony, detected by many, of her demand for an erotics of art. But to be caught in an irony of this kind has nothing to do with being inhuman; writers, more than most humans, are situated between what they are and what they hope it's possible to be. Nor is it a matter of any classical inability to "feel," and attempts to discredit her on this ground … are obtuse and unjust.
For the problem of her sensibility is also the generating power of its interest and importance for us as she exemplifies and tests and expounds and shapes it into form in her writing. It is precisely classical ability to feel, which, as it works itself out in our shibboleths and humanistic myths, means to feel the way others have, to feel certain emotions (in certain ways) that have been sanctified as properly human and necessary, that has come into question. (pp. 33-5)
Susan Sontag has been engaged in trying to plot the course of her new feelings, which is to say her responses as a representative advanced consciousness…. In doing this she has indicated all the debilities and irresolutions and compensatory aggressions and contradictions that are inevitable in consciousness in transition. The chief content of that transition now is the challenge to Western literary culture, or rather to the supremacy of literature as culture; the growing breakdown of the erstwhile separation between art and audience, or more strictly between art as object for contemplation and as material for reabsorption into total experience; the claim of bodily experience to a place in aesthetics; the more insistent relationship between politics and sensibility. These are Miss Sontag's themes; and she is the victim of their assaults, in their status as realities, upon our preparation, training, inheritance and need for continuity—on what we were like before—as much as she is their elucidator and master in awareness.
What we were like before, which is to say what our models were like for the fullest, most exemplary, victoriously sentient civilized beings, was learned, complex, ironic, intellectually armored, central, balanced, full of explanation and the wisdom of the abstract. Miss Sontag is still many of these things, and the discrepancy between them and wanting to be something else, something spontaneous, concrete, sensual, ready for extremes and wise through physicality, is the failure and the fruitfulness of her writing.
To take an important essay from the new volume, "The Pornographic Imagination." In this long, dazzlingly learned, risky piece of advocacy and interrogation, she illustrates the perennial problem of how to argue for the rights of the body and the more dangerous passions without having to rely on the intellect…. (pp. 35-6)
One way of dealing with this problem is to write sensually, to evoke rather than rest on analysis, and this is characteristic of the French writers Miss Sontag admires for their writing on the erotic—Bataille is chief among them—although I don't mean to suggest that they are pure lyricists in whom analysis plays no part. But what they can do, as she has so far been unable to, is offer the feeling of the erotic, as actuality and consciousness, in all its ardor, despair, questionableness, contradiction and urgency, instead of merely a learned process of thinking about it.
But Miss Sontag is of course not French, and if this essay suffers from her coldness of temperament and almost complete lack of any lyric impulse, what's in its favor is the fact that lyrical writing about the erotic so rarely in this country is saved by intelligence from being sheer sentiment, romantic asseveration or rhetorical wish-fulfillment. Her piece is full of an extraordinary intelligence, which sets as its tasks first the establishment of the theoretical possibility that pornography may indeed be literature and second that there are certain pornographic works that actually are.
She is rather better on the first task than the second, but she's continually interesting on both. To argue, cleanly and decisively as she does, that the main sophisticated counts against pornography as literature have to do with retrograde and obtuse identifications of fiction with verisimilitude, psychological realism and narrative logic is to say what needs saying—about fiction as well as pornography that uses the form. Here is Miss Sontag with her strong, complex intelligence focused on the new as it has to do with altered conceptions of fiction. She insists, with absolute rightness, that fiction is not to be defined by considerations of character-building, psychological complexity or centrality of theme, so that in its narrowness, obsession, extremity of theme and refusal of ordinary characterization, pornographic writing may still qualify as literature.
She then goes on to discuss a number of what she calls pornographic works, chiefly The Story of O, The Image by the pseudonymous Jan de Berg, and Bataille's The Story of the Eye. She is very good on them, even if she rates The Image much too highly, but the strength is analytic and very little is conveyed of how these erotic writings actually reach and move the imagination or why they should have a place there. And something else very curious emerges. I have been going along with her in calling a whole class of books "pornography," but a distinction should really be made, and Miss Sontag inadvertently provides one.
The books mentioned above and others she cites are distinguished from what we ordinarily call pornography precisely by their relative lack of explicit sexual scenes, certainly by their lack of sexual scenes composed as hermetic and single-minded substitutions for any other kind of experience, and by their correspondingly greater content of writing of an imaginatively freer and more complex kind. It isn't that they are less erotic; if anything, the books she admires have greater erotic power than ordinary pornography, but this is because of their greater literary power.
The result of all this is that they cannot be taken as representative of pornographic writing, which remains, as long as it is pornography, bad writing. What Miss Sontag fails to see is that she ends by defending not pornography but only such examples of writing with a sexual theme or even a sexual purpose (she defends, with much justice, the legitimacy of "arousing" through writing) as have shaken loose from the undifferentiated mass of such writing precisely through the greater literary strength and concern of their authors. I think it useful to retain "pornography" as a term (without moral condemnation) to denote sexual writing that fails as literature: that which succeeds doesn't need a defense, except perhaps against the kinds of minds Miss Sontag so admirably takes on in her remarks on the petrifaction of definitions of fiction.
"I have been writing … a theory of my own sensibility." With this avowal as justification, I would like to point out that from both the new essay on pornography and Miss Sontag's earlier famous one or. Camp there rises an aura of will, or willfulness, a wish that something be true, an unavowed prescriptive desire. There is nothing wrong with this, there is even I suspect something extremely useful in it, but it hasn't been seen. For all the brilliance of these pieces and their true extensions of our awareness, they reveal, as most of her other writing does, how beneath the clean-functioning, superbly armed processes of her thought exists a confused, importunate, scarcely acknowledged desire that culture, the culture she knows so much about, be other than it is in order for her to be other than she is.
When she writes that Camp is "loving" and "tender," the wish she is trying to fulfill is for the sophistication that Camp possesses and denotes to be redeemed from its quality as modern sophistication: hard, snobbish, ugly, ungenerous, a means of establishing superiority over the past and over simplicity. When she writes about pornography without attention to its narrowing and unliberating effects, she reveals how her authentic and justifiable longing for bodily liberation, her longing to lighten her own burden of consciousness, mistakes the statement for the thing. One can say that pornography is always wish-fulfillment (nothing inherently wrong with that), but the important thing about this, in her usage, is that it is not so much a wish for erotic experience as a negative desire for eroticism—as subject and atmosphere—to overcome the imbalance of a heavy, weighted, complex, abstract history, the history of the mind as it has offered itself to us as identical with life itself.
I think Miss Sontag is representative in this, and that her own so impressive qualities of mind make her more representative rather than less. And I also think, after reading Styles of Radical Will, that she is moving into areas where the "problem" of her sensibility, its transitional quality and status as an arena where new movements are seen and tested at least partly from old perspectives and where culture is being redirected from contemplation to action, will have even more usefulness than it has had. (pp. 36-9)
While Miss Sontag has never been apolitical, she has admitted that she hasn't been able to find the way for her political passions and awarenesses to enter her work on culture and aesthetics. The account of her trip to North Vietnam last year, "Trip to Hanoi," the major piece in her new book, seems to me to be a sign of a new-found ability to do just that as well as being a remarkable document in its own right.
Miss Sontag went on her journey, as a guest of the North Vietnamese, convinced that "unless I could effect in myself some change of awareness, of consciousness, it would scarcely matter that I'd actually been in Vietnam." At first she found the country and the culture alien, impenetrable, marked by what she regarded as a boring and "fairy-tale" simplicity. Her whole weight of Western complexity and psychological subtlety militated against her understanding and possible affection for the North Vietnamese. How she was able to effect the change in consciousness she knew she had to have, so that she emerged with the sense of different possibilities of life, a potential way out of self-consciousness, guilt, moral ambiguity and the ironic stance that has been the Western intellectuals chief weapon of both aggression and defense—all this is what the essay is about. And by being about these things, it is more centrally, refulgently and authentically about mind, consciousness, sensibility—and what is new in them—than any of the technical, analytic pieces whose bravura and cold knowledge-ability have gained her her reputation. (pp. 40-1)
Richard Gilman, "Susan Sontag and the Question of the New," in his The Confusion of Realms, Random House, 1969, pp. 29-41.
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In that ideal Republic which is invoked by anyone who writes a criticism of life, Susan Sontag would have no status, since her mind is nourished solely on products of decomposition. Her opportunity depends absolutely on there being a condition of latent anarchy to sanction the impudence with which she defines the condition as admirable…. Miss Sontag has many of the secondary attributes of a professional revolutionary: an irreparable want of humor, a sweeping disregard of the nuances of history, a hatred of elites over which she does not personally preside, a faculty for translating all data into propaganda—and underneath it all, barely concealed, a private thirst to be devoured by something bigger, more forceful and simpler than herself: in her case, an Apocalypse which would nullify forever her compulsive quarrel with the Word.
From first to last, in [Styles of Radical Will], she is preoccupied with the familiar sequence of modern agony: the problematic nature of art, the burden of language and the urge to "destroy" it; the elimination of the subject, the object, the image; silence and "self-transcendence" as the ultimate other-worldly gesture of the artist. Every essay is a ruse de guerre, and ordering of her little circle of friends, a strenuously argued attempt to hold an untenable position. Always one senses that the proposition going forward is what Freud called a memory screen: the real battle is going on somewhere else and the arrangements she has chosen are provisional, designed to consolidate her foothold of the hour…. (p. 513)
[Sontag] has no passion, only resentment, which may well be a major source of her anxiety. Her convictions have been inhibited by too many academic reservations, by the milieux in which she has, I gather, been conditioned (Southern California and the Parisian Left), by the frigidity of her sympathies (her mind seems to cherish no content of affection or rooted memory) and by the temptations of Madison Avenue. (It is hard to maintain a nostalgia for the abyss or to remain a sleeping Trotskyite when you're chic-photographed by Vogue!). Her typical mode of discourse is neither altruistic nor inflamed; solipsistic, rather. Her aesthetic principles are up-to-date and bleak—like Swedish Modern…. Her repeated effort to impose herself as an apostle of the multiple point of view scarcely attains the stature of a deception, for she is rarely able to pay attention to an alternative point of view of any subject she takes up. Her preferences and her method are alike exclusive; her strategy is that of the post-graduate seminar: from the matter at hand eliminate all normative. "moral" considerations and concentrate on its linguistic and structural components. (p. 514)
"Trip to Hanoi" chronicles the fall of valor. Her subject: not What is Happening in Vietnam but What is Happening in Susan Sontag. No blinding conversion, evidently; on the other hand, few amendments to her obtuse but strained partisanship: her visit is an extended exercise in ideological temperature-taking. She is constantly dismayed, like a sophomore, at the vacillations of her spirit under fire. Disoriented by harrowing transitions in space and time, she is understandably confused by almost everything…. (p. 518)
Understandably confused. But not sufficiently to enlarge her rudimentary political doctrine or to dispense with the simplistic Commy slogans she finds herself accepting in lieu of any more plausible, insufficiently to restrain herself from quoting those God-awful gems of Ho Chi Minh, such as "There are no bad people; there are only bad governments." Not the least unbelievable feature of her account is that nowhere does she in so many substantial words recognize that the North Vietnamese were fighting the South Vietnamese. There was only North Vietnam, a peace-loving but embattled little country fighting off an imperialist aggressor. She swallowed whole the verdict of that rigged Stockholm tribunal and the official line of Ho Chi Minh which every uninformed liberal seems to have accepted since 1965. What took place in 1954 she never broaches. I can understand why, since this is a complex question; all the same, when legality, moral outrage and U.S. bombing tactics have been enlisted to condemn the duration of the war, it is pertinent to remember that it was Ho Chi Minh who chose to resume hostilities in order to impose Communism on the South and that the South pleaded for American assistance…. [In] her eye (she couldn't have used both) the North Vietnamese are altogether innocent, noble and altruistic (those she met may have been), doing no more than defend their homeland against a colossus seeking to crush them (for no reason except Imperialism with which she never comes to grips) while hopefully preparing the peaceful reconciliation of the peninsula. Never a hint of the 50,000 village headmen murdered in the Collective preparation of 1954; of prostitutes who had their breasts cut off for fraternizing with the French; of 1200 Laotian tribesmen, women and children among them, battered to death with clubs and guns (this is a mere incident in the history of Viet Cong atrocities).
Her gullibility is often comical. I resist—against my susceptibility to the exotic anecdote—her straight-faced retailing of the restoration of North Vietnamese prostitutes to a condition of primal innocence. "Fairy tales were read to them; they were taught children's games and sent out to play." There is also room for reasonable doubt of her amazed, and I don't think very approving, impression that men and women worked, fought and slept together "without raising any issue of sexual temptation." How does she know there wasn't, for certain? I'm skeptical because her inference is not verified by Robert Shaplen's amusing observation on the thousands of cadre-women utilized by the Viet Cong in their Underground Village Committees throughout South Vietnam. "While women are hard workers, the Communists acknowledge that 'they are credulous and cannot resist love'; they need special indoctrination on revolutionary concepts toward sex relations.'" Be that as it may, Little Miss Muffet was otherwise seriously upset by the spider of empiricism which, in North Vietnam, sat down beside her. At one perilous moment, she abandons herself completely to the duplicity and banality of language, with no semantic provision for escape.
If some of what I've written evokes the very cliché of the Western left-wing intellectual idealizing an agrarian revolution that I was so set on not being, I must reply that a cliché is a cliché, truth is truth, and direct experience is—well—something one repudiates at one's peril.
A temporary convulsion. If the brunt of reality had intruded as painfully as she would have us believe, then, upon returning to the West (i.e. Sweden, the ultimate boneyard towards which she has long been travelling) she would have torn up the scenario of that film [Duet for Cannibals] she had prepared as being, from the point of view of life, an affront to the spirit of authentic suffering. Faced with acknowledging the irreconcilable or maintaining her previous profile, she chose the profile. (pp. 518-20)
Vernon Young, "Socialist Camp: A Style of Radical Wistfulness," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXII, No. 3, Autumn, 1969, pp. 513-20.
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More than any other writer today, Susan Sontag has suffered from bad criticism and good publicity. If she could be rescued from all her culture-hungry interpreters, it might be possible to find the writer who has been made into a symbol. This is no longer easy because a popular conception of her has been rigged before a natural one could develop—like a premature legend…. The standard picture now in circulation is that of the up-to-date radical, a stand-in for everything advanced, extreme and outrageous, for artistic revolt, political disaffection, perversity and that peculiar combination of moral responsibility and moral irresponsibility associated with revolutionary movements—a fusion of Che and Genet. Middle-aged liberals are shocked by her politics and her aesthetics, and loudmouthed moral conservationsists have been accusing her of trying to undermine the good old sexual establishment. On the other hand, a recent adulatory review endowed her with the kind of subversive wisdom only a great revolutionary prophet could have. And then there is the tintype of the smart rebel promoted a few years ago by the fashionable magazines and the commercial media with their cultural thermometers looking for the hottest things going in intellectual life. Naturally, they have struck gold in the Camp and the Hanoi pieces, and have ignored the rest of her writing. (p. 388)
[Since] she is taken as a spokesman for The New, she is thought of as someone to take a stand for or against. Hence, as with so many of the younger writers, the reactions to her have fallen into the stereotypes of polarization. But because she is so articulate and takes all questions as her theoretical province, because her writing has political as well as literary implications, the polarization is both sharper and more distorting. (p. 389)
Susan Sontag is both an exponent and a victim of the new polarization: an exponent in that she doesn't go in for modulation and adjustment, a victim because her concern with speculative and literary problems often falls outside the prevailing left-right fashions. Hence she is not radical enough for the footloose generation and the new crop of militants who think with their feet, and she is too wild for those who get scared when they discover that the new movements do not look like the old ones. She is particularly frightening to those who do not like either their art or their politics to be open, fluid, uncertain, unbridled and youthful. She is too much a child of her time and too intelligent to accommodate to the placid thinking of an earlier period, yet she is too much addicted to theorizing and too much aware of complexities to be satisfied with a purely activist politics and aesthetics. All Susan Sontag's writing has these two sides: a skeptical mind steeped in the unsolved problems that make up the history of thought and a strong, almost willed, feeling for change and discovery, and for new ideas that are attractive because they cannot be insured by history. (p. 390)
The three best and most typical pieces [in Styles of Radical Will], on Pornography, on Silence and on Vietnam, are essentially reexaminations of accepted ideas about art and politics. In all three—as in the other essays too—the point of view from which the accepted rules and definitions are revised is the malleable sense of literature and society that shapes writing and thinking today. But the language is the accepted language of criticism; and the assumption throughout is that the way to understand the current rejections of the past is through the continuities of criticism, and history. This has been the traditional role of criticism. And if at times her tone is apocalyptic and oracular, there are precedents in the essays of Ortega y Gasset, and the manifestos of the Futurists and the Surrealists.
Yet it is this self-assured and condensed style that offends most academic critics, this mode of assertion and speculation that disdains an orderly argument, that repeats old ideas with the same verve with which it explores new ones, that bypasses contemporary American criticism as though it didn't exist. Hence some of her criticism is thought to be homemade and half-baked by academicians brought up to be orderly. My own feeling, however, is that while rigorous analysis will reveal many such failings, it doesn't do justice to one of the few bold and original minds to be found among the younger critics. And anyway, the so-called order of most academic criticism comes from playing it safe. The usual run of criticism is devoted to the application and refinement of some accepted views of literature and society…. Susan Sontag's shortcomings, on the contrary, are usually of her own making. Thus it can be said that the essay on Silence never really overcomes the ambiguities of the term, and it confuses the deflation of the human claims of art talked about by Ortega and exemplified in earlier abstract and experimental painting and writing with the deflation of art itself, in pop, rock, ephemeral theater and movies that write off the medium. Nevertheless, it is an unusually sophisticated exploration of the theoretical implications of contemporary styles. Similarly, her discussion of pornography, though it doesn't sufficiently explain the difference between potboilers and literature, takes us out of the cozy limits that have kept literature safe for academic criticism. Her idea of a "pornographic imagination" goes beyond the liberal tolerance of a subject; it legitimizes a repressed faculty.
Actually, some of the implications of Susan Sontag's argument are more far-reaching than the flamboyant views with which she is associated. Despite the fact that she is an elitist, she suggests a way out of the predicament of elitism. For in pressing for the liberation of the arts from their history, Susan Sontag opens them up to popular exploitation, thus breaking with the elitist tradition which assumed serious art to be alienated from middle-class society and hence from the political and commercial manipulations of the mass mind. But it is also a break with the kind of adaptation to popular taste in the last few decades that made literature so conventional in form and in subject. The effect is to rescue the experimental tradition from its loss of power and the exhaustion of its subject, from its unbearable isolation as it struggled to remain both pure and advanced. In a sense, this is a formal solution to a social problem, the problem of the social role of art and its relation to an audience, for the loosening of style has made it possible to be at the same time popular and unconventional…. [One] of the striking things in Susan Sontag's essays is her recognition that the last few decades have been a kind of interlude during which avant-garde writing lost its elan, while most academic criticism went into the business of educating readers or talking vaguely about the relation of literature to society. This is why most of Miss Sontag's critical references are to an earlier period and to the French who are often saved from banality by their aloofness from reality.
The essay on Silence is a good example of Susan Sontag's method. The idea of silence actually is used as a metaphor for the opposite of talkiness in art, talkiness being too full of subject matter, too directly aimed at an audience, too bustly in its language, too neatly constructed—all suggesting a closed, stale view of existence. Art that babbles thinks of itself as finished, with an audience out there, an inert, voyeuristic mass. Only a silent medium can properly engage an audience, because it is not performing but completing itself…. Throughout all her essays, she attacks the idea of the separation of form and content as the main source of the illegitimate moral and social demands on art, particularly since the dichotomy, she says, leads to the primacy of content. This is not exactly a new idea for academic criticism, though her insistence that despite all disclaimers the separation of theme from form is rooted in our cultural habits goes beyond the usual analysis. Nor is she able to solve the problem, which, I suspect, is not soluble today because the terms in which it is put preclude a solution. But the most suggestive approaches have been taken by younger critics like Susan Sontag and Richard Poirier who argue that style is the shape and meaning of the "content"; and that an examination of the style is an examination of the "subject."… The trouble with this view is that so long as we are locked into the old language and the old categories it leads less gifted critics to exalt any kind of formal innovation and to downgrade thematic innovation. But, then, the critics who ride a new approach always run it into the ground.
Miss Sontag has also been taken down for not displaying in her own work the abandon and playfulness her aesthetic calls for. There is, of course, a quality of intense dedication in her writing, suggesting a generational gap between her intelligence and her sensibility. And sometimes there is an elevation of tone which endows "art" with the very sanctity she is constantly questioning. Nor is she a witty writer. But the play of her mind is to be found in her speculative sensibility, expressed more in the texture of her thinking than in her writing.
Another familiar charge is that Miss Sontag's aesthetic comes down to a celebration of novelty. Usually, this indictment takes the crudest form and is proved by ignoring what she actually has said. Whatever basis there is for the accusation is to be found in her observation that contemporary art is less concerned with the quality of a finished work than with the process and the idea of making it. Nor does she dissociate herself from this attitude; on the contrary, she regards it as basic to the entire modern tradition. She points out, correctly, I think, the sources in such figures as Joyce, Picasso and Beckett of the tendency today to break down the formal structures of art through irony, self-parody and the free play of the medium that calls into question its very existence. This does not mean the end of critical judgment, which is what Susan Sontag is accused of by critics with a large stake in the past. All that can be said is that she has failed to reconcile the new deflation of art with the old merit system. But Miss Sontag can't be held responsible for a dilemma all modern criticism has failed to resolve: the dilemma of how to judge—or relate—new works that defy the old criteria. (pp. 391-94)
The collection also includes Susan Sontag's long essay on her trip to Hanoi and a short reply to a political questionnaire in PR. So far as I can recall they are her first excursions into politics, and though both are spirited and sophisticated they lack the depth and the daring of the best of her criticism, not the daring to oppose the system, but to question all assumptions. (p. 395)
The tortured honesty and clarity of Susan Sontag's analysis is quite impressive, and I am scarcely doing justice in this quick summary to the awareness that makes her self-examination an important document of radical thought. But I am more concerned at the moment with what I think is its exemplification of the dilemma of the Left. What I mean is that Susan Sontag's discussion of the aims of the North Vietnamese and the role of the United States has great moral and emotional force but fails to put them in any new or large political perspective. It reduces the combat to the good guys vs. the bad guys. And this is one of the reasons why Miss Sontag has trouble squaring all the complexities of thought and social vision that have come out of the West, including its radical ideas, with the villainy of the Americans. Obviously, the policies of the United States make no sense morally, politically, militarily, not even in its own terms, in terms, that is, of "anti-communism" or the "national interest." But it should be clear by now that opposition to the war—or to America—is scarcely enough on which to build new socialist policies or theories. Nor is it any reason to romanticize all revolutionary or militant movements, or to fail to distinguish, say, between the advanced consciousness of the revolutionary Czechs and the tragic limitations of the North Vietnamese, who, after all, were forced to support the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. My own feeling is that the brightest revolutionary hopes have been sustained by the Czechs, who brought to socialism a glimpse of its human possibilities. And I suspect it is an awareness of these distinctions, not the intellectual baggage of the West, that kept Susan Sontag from identifying with the Vietnamese, despite all her good will.
But whether or not one agrees with her analysis, her speculations are so wide-ranging that one is led to think about many of the questions occupying the Left. (pp. 395-96)
And if there are no answers to many of [the questions raised by Susan Sontag's new book], it might be because this is a time not for rigor and caution in politics and criticism but for boldness in disgarding stale ideas and trying out untested ones. This, it seems to me, is one of her main achievements. Miss Sontag has given some shape and will to a new sensibility in art and politics, but, appropriately, without systems or programs. Hence she has been able to speculate about many of the contradictions facing those who are both aware of the past and open to new literary and political experience. Isn't this enough?—even if she can't satisfy her conservative critics or keep up with the latest styles in radicalism. (p. 400)
William Phillips, "Radical Styles," in Partisan Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, 1969, pp. 388-400.
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[Under the Sign of Saturn] contains seven examples of the form in which Sontag first made her popular reputation and in which she still does her best work—the supple, graceful genre that used to be called the occasional essay. The pieces reprinted here were published at odd intervals between 1972 and 1980; two are brief personal memoirs (of Paul Goodman and Roland Barthes), two are mainly concerned with film (Leni Riefenstahl and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg), and the remaining three (on Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, and Elias Canetti) belong to a venerable subgenre that the 19th century excelled in but the 20th has neglected, the "literary portrait."
For much of the past decade, Sontag worked in other forms: short fiction (I, etcetera), and full-length nonfiction (On Photography and Illness as Metaphor). She also directed a film (Promised Lands)….
I have … [followed Sontag's] criticism with interest and respect, and I think I do her no injustice by saying that in Under the Sign of Saturn she returns to her metier, in which it's a quite sufficient accomplishment to have, as she does, no living American equal.
It may be that, by defining her as primarily an essayist, I'm exercising what she calls in her memoir of Paul Goodman the "terrible, mean American resentment toward someone who tries to do a lot of things." I'm not sure that the resentment exists, or that Goodman suffered from it; but Sontag's remark, true or not, illustrates the intriguing doubleness of her critical writings, a doubleness surely missing from her "creative" work. The remark applies to Goodman, but any reader familiar with Sontag knows that it applies to her, too. So it's an intersection, a double illumination. Indeed, the doubleness may be triple, since the intersection of Goodman and Sontag casts light on "America," which Sontag has been characterizing, piece by ambivalent piece, since her career began.
This multiplicity of response is aided by the fact that Under the Sign of Saturn pretends to no overriding unity of form….
The unity of Under the Sign of Saturn is not formal. It derives only from the "modernity" of its subjects and what Sontag would call the "sensibility" of its author. These two terms tend steadily toward identity, since as the foremost diagnostician (or pathologist) of our modernity, Sontag has defined our idea of the modern by what she has written about it. Yet doubleness persists. Deeply involved in modernity, she still stands outside it, bringing to bear on its writhings a set of standards so extremely old-fashioned that they look radically new. She sees modernity, as it were, from behind, judging it always in terms of the 19th century, off which, even now, it persistently and helplessly rebounds.
That Sontag's distinctively modern sensibility should also be firmly Victorian isn't quite the paradox it seems. The desperate search for new forms, new styles, and new subjects her essays have chronicled gets its impetus and its desperation from the modern sense that the old forms are glutted, old styles worn blunt from overuse, old subjects drained and dead. It was the 19th century that despoiled all these things, and a principal constituent of what she calls "the modernist agony" has continued to be the maddening awareness that, though the 19th century invented the terms by which we still understand it, the 20th must always be taking the 19th into account. Sontag's stalwart Victorianism is probably the most modern thing about her.
She maintains in these essays, as she has always done, a chaste decorum of style. Artaud may babble of semen and shit, but Sontag, riding high above such mean specifications, speaks rather of his "disavowal of all forms of mediation." This has been her consistent tactic in dealing with the deliberate shock effects of modernism—the critic is never shocked, or if she was, she's fully recovered by the time she writes her essay. Those essays never ape their subjects. Instead the subjects get absorbed into the smooth, steady flow of a style that deserves to be called classical….
This distinction, or discrepancy, between Sontag's style and subjects suggests another old-fashioned feature of her criticism—its confident sense of the function, even the duty, of the critic in relation to both the artist and the general public. Artists have long been thought of as the antennae of their societies, but insects can give but a poor account of what they do, and the public was and is a vulgar herd. The professional critic, as the 19th century knew him, belonged to neither the artistic nor the popular camp, though he had access to both. His proper place was between and beyond them, explaining each to the other while placing artist and audience alike in the larger context of "culture."
This has always been Sontag's critical project. She has been for two decades the foremost interpreter of the European avant-garde to American readers…. She continues that project in Under the Sign of Saturn, turning her attention now toward Germany, with essays on Riefenstahl, Benjamin, and Canetti…. (p. 44)
In her devastating debunking of Leni Riefenstahl (part one of "Fascinating Fascism"), Sontag demonstrates how, from Riefenstahl's earliest work as an actress in 1920s silents to her posh picture-book The Last of the Nuba (1974), she has adhered without deviation to the code of what Sontag calls "fascist aesthetics." Its manifestations have been various and might easily be thought to mark a course of creative growth: cloudy-headed "Alpinism" in the '20s; glorification of physical splendor in her two famous "documentaries" of the '30s, Triumph of the Will and Olympia; melancholy adulation of a dying African tribe in the '70s.
Since the end of the war, Riefenstahl and her apologists have been fashioning for her the image of a lifelong searcher after beauty who believed for a while, mistakenly and forgivably, that the Third Reich embodied what she sought. But Sontag corrects the record: Nazism was not a detour in Riefenstahl's artistic journey; she always had been, and still is, thoroughly in harmony with its values. Sontag adduces plenty of documentary evidence to show that Riefenstahl worked hand-in-hand with Hitler and his henchmen…. Even more telling is Sontag's classic exposition of the absolute consistency in Riefenstahl's work from first to last. Riefenstahl never grew, never changed: she was aesthetically fascist in 1926, and she is so now.
Riefenstahl's campaign to purify her image by rewriting history would be reason enough to debunk her. Even more outrageous for Sontag, however, is Riefenstahl's reiterated claim that in her best-known film, Triumph of the Will. "Everything is genuine. It is history—pure history." This, of course, is nonsense—dangerous nonsense. The 1934 Nuremberg rally that Riefenstahl's film records was deliberately designed to be filmed. It was not an innocent historical event at which a beauty-seeking filmmaker happened to be present; it was reality planned as an image, falsified by the knowledge that future generations would take the image for reality. As Sontag writes, "the document (the image) not only is the record of reality but is one reason for which the reality has been constructed, and must eventually supersede it."
Here the case of Leni Riefenstahl, small enough in its own right, intersects one of Sontag's continuing concerns. On Photography and Illness as Metaphor express this concern most vehemently, but it is present to some degree in all her work—the nervous worry that, in modern culture at large, the real thing and its image are getting progressively more involved, and confused, with each other. The threat of photography and metaphorized cancer is the same as that of Triumph of the Will unwisely viewed: The image, feeding back on the real, pollutes it, so that reality, even in the making, turns self-conscious, distanced, and false.
The antidote to this modern poison is exemplified by another German subject treated in Under the Sign of Saturn, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's Hitler, a Film from Germany…. The best thing about Syberberg's film, for Sontag, is that it presents images as images, hoodwinking neither itself nor its audience by blurring the line between the imaged and the real. Its scene is a stage that looks like one, its actors are clearly actors, and its Hitler is a doll. Syberberg has no truck with "realism" (his and Sontag's 19th-century bete noire); he calls his art "a continuation of reality by other means," and this for Sontag is just what all art should be.
When she feels free to track the strategies of images, Sontag is unfailingly brilliant. But when she gets anxious about reality, she gets muddled. On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, and to a less severe degree "Fascinating Fascism," shipwreck on the paradox that reality for Sontag must be full, immediate, alive—innocent in its spontaneity and in need of no defense—while at the same time images, those pale copies of the real, are capable of draining it, dulling it, and forcing it to call in defenders. She has never come close to resolving this paradox, and one sometimes gets the feeling that she simply doesn't understand it. But so long as she sticks to what she does best, the interpretation of cultural surfaces, and steers clear of the murky metaphysical depths, perhaps she doesn't need to understand what lurks beneath.
The interpreter of one culture to another can belong whole-heartedly to neither, and it has been a mingled release and burden for Sontag that, though she's emphatically American, her critical project has led her to take up a position between Europe and America from which she can see both cultures whole. The anguish of this position was at its most acute in the late '60s, when, in her famous "Trip to Hanoi," she tried to think of herself as a "citizen of the American empire," and complicatedly failed. In the post-imperial world of Under the Sign of Saturn, her transcultural isolation reflects itself mostly in a resigned but slightly bitter contempt for the American madhouse, a confirmed elitism that's thoroughly justified but must be rather lonely.
From the start, Sontag was an elitist, writing about the enthusiasms of her own clique in the correct expectation that what her friends had already embraced the general public would eventually latch onto. The interesting interplay of elite and mass culture was the fruitful source of such essays as the famous "Notes on Camp" (1964) and "The Pornographic Imagination" (1967). But in the '70s her elitism turned a bit sour—lending to On Photography, for example, the ungraceful, monitory tone of one who has seen the awful truth while the rest of us stumble in the dark. Elitism is stronger than ever in Under the Sign of Saturn—but it is also calmer and even somewhat academic, as if Sontag had given up playing the harbinger of things to come and were content to be the preserver of things past.
At one point, elitism turns explicit. "The hard truth is," she writes in "Fascinating Fascism," "that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed." Overlooking the platitude in the last sentence—Sontag's fondness for platitudinous aphorisms remains as strong as ever—the worst thing about this statement is not that it's true (it very likely is), but that it suggests Sontag's retreat from a problem she once attacked with an urgency and energy and that produced some of her finest writing. (pp. 45-6)
"Approaching Artaud" is a brilliant exercise in the venerable critical function of making an off-putting writer palatable, and it's also the finest example we've had in decades of what I called at the start of this review the "literary portrait."… "Approaching Artaud" is Sontag's most ambitious effort in this form, but in retrospect one sees that she's had an affinity for it all along.
The greatest advantage to the literary portrait is that, neither purely critical nor purely creative, it allows its writer to comment on another writer's work while producing at the same time art of his or her own. It therefore has the power of bridging the tiresome old gap between the creative and the critical, between writing about "life" and writing about other writing. All the great 19th century literary portraitists suffered from some version of this malaise … and in the 20th century the gap has come to seem unbridgeable, splitting writers off into discrete parties of book reviewers, academic critics, and artists who drive themselves mad trying to be constantly "creative."
Sontag, too, one assumes, has worried about the split between criticism and creation, and the disproportionate success of her own two kinds of writing has no doubt afflicted her with the well-known critic's guilt for inhabiting a cave yet darker than Plato's, making images of images instead of images of life. Ever since her essays in the early '60s, however,… Sontag has been at her best when situating herself not only between cultures and between classes, but also between genres, reflecting on the ambiguous relation of an artist's life to his work, of that work to its audience, and of the critic to both and to himself. These reflections are, in the fullest sense of both terms, artistic and critical at once.
It might seem perverse to find Sontag's roots in the 19th century when she has so clearly been influenced by all the fashionable forces of the 20th. If one listened to her on this matter, one might see her primary precursor in Walter Benjamin…. Or one might choose Michel Foucault, whose unacknowledged, largely mishandled influence is particularly visible in Illness as Metaphor. Or Roland Barthes, to whom she remains, as she says in her remembrance of him, "toujours fidele."
But these European influences are red herrings, excrescences on a body of work that belongs squarely in the mainstream of the Anglo-American tradition of the genteel essay. Note how often "philistinism," both the word and the concept, appears in Sontag's essays from early to late, and you'll see Matthew Arnold everywhere in her. Consider how enrichingly ambivalent her mingling of cultures has been, how her double perspective on America and Europe has informed her best writing, and you'll recognize the ghost of Henry James. Her weaknesses, too, are part of this tradition—her inability to sustain an extended argument, her frequent sacrifice of sense to euphony of phrase, her snobbery—but her strengths from the same source far outweigh them. Under the Sign of Saturn confirms that Susan Sontag is, without a doubt, our greatest living Victorian writer. (p. 46)
Walter Kendrick, "Eminent Victorian," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 42, October 15-21, 1980, pp. 44-6.
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Susan Sontag is a good deal more than a mere explainer. Her strong, idiosyncratic sense of the contours of her own culture makes her sensitive to the cultural difference of the alien sage. She may think veneration an appropriate response to some subjects, but not, usually, at the expense of her own judgment. It is therefore not surprising that in this collection of essays [Under the Sign of Saturn], nearly all of which are about alien sages, there are some that one could confidently propose as models of what such introductory studies ought to be, though there are others in which the cult corrupts the exposition, and we are asked to wonder at the Hercules under discussion rather than to understand his labors.
The long essay on Artaud seems to me the finest in this collection. It was written as an introduction to a selection of Artaud's works, and since it isn't difficult to imagine a perfectly satisfactory, workmanlike piece doing just that job, one has a measure of the much greater achievement of Sontag; fully engaged, urgent, bold, she strives to hand over an image of Artaud as a whole—a whole conceived by her and not assembled from scraps of prevailing wisdom on the subject. Her Gnostic Artaud may not be yours, but he is credible, and belongs to a credible history of ideas….
The characteristic strength of this piece lies in the author's awareness that to explain Artaud (or any other hero) is, in part, to domesticate him, to make him useful, to make it possible for his work to be understood as other literature is understood; while at the same time she knows that this kind of writing … cannot, without betrayal, be subjected to the ordinary forms of exposition. And it is precisely this exasperated sense of the near impossibility of the project that causes some expository defects—overheated language, an occasional uncertainly in the progress of the argument—that are more in evidence in other, less majestically conceived, essays, when there seems less reason, the subject being less extreme, for resort to rhetorical extremes.
Artaud is "modern literature's most didactic and most uncompromising hero of self-exacerbation"—Sontag often sounds like that, even when the occasion is less pressing. It is the style of hero worship, but also of the need to coerce the reader into hero worship. It tries to satisfy the need to account, to one's own intellectual satisfaction, for the greatness of the subject, but it also tries to inflame a possibly ignorant, possibly skeptical readership with the same enthusiasm. By having opinions of her own, and letting them show (on movies, on political anarchism) this writer mostly keeps her balance. But she does have difficulty assessing her audience….
The other heroes expounded in this book are Paul Goodman, Walter Benjamin, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Roland Barthes, and Elias Canetti. (There is only one villain, Leni Riefenstahl.) The Goodman piece is an obituary notice…. Neatly turned, and a little self-regarding, the piece dwells on the shyness that muted the author's personal relations with Goodman; goes on to express devotion; complains that other obituarists had wrongly dismissed Goodman as a maverick, a writer who spread himself too thin. It praises a distinctive voice, a distinctive courage. Perhaps because it was written for an audience that might be expected to know Goodman's work already, it is unspecific; it focuses on a hero (and on hero worship) rather than on the hero's labors.
Much the same might be said of the longer piece on the death of Barthes, though she knew Barthes better, less shyly, and catches the personality in a way that is at once expert and endearing. Yet again, however, the man seems more important to her than his books. It is a familiar modern paradox that the Death of the Author, so powerfully demanded by theory, seems slow to occur in practice; Barthes, who had seemed alarmingly rigorous in his adherence to the new Inhumanism, let it be seen more and more clearly that he was in many respects an old-fashioned littérateur and extremely charming to boot.
Sontag, very much alive to the charm, wants to correct any wrong impressions we might have about this hero. When he first became well known outside France it was as a polemicist and a formidable one…. But Sontag is right to say that his personality is not so much polemical as celebratory—though to call him a "taxonomist of jubilation" may be rather more resonant than accurate. (p. 42)
The peculiar heroism of Walter Benjamin proves more resistant than Barthes's, and there is a special misfortune in the blurb writer's singling out Benjamin as, of all her subjects, the one Sontag herself most closely resembles. She does have some things in common with him—curiosity, an openness to oddly angled pieces of information, a willingness to pursue a notion wherever it goes, to find out if it will eventually pay off. And perhaps, like Benjamin, she has the advantage of loosely adhering to a guiding faith or set of principles. But of the penetration and accuracy of Benjamin's notations on specific texts, his power suddenly to transform with his intelligence a paragraph of Kafka, Proust, Goethe, Baudelaire, she has little (nobody has much). I think she may exaggerate the relative value, among Benjamin's works, of the book on the Baroque Trauerspiel, seduced by its strangeness and its parody of erudition; but I am not sure about this—the thoughtful accuracy of her caption for Benjamin's style ("freeze-frame Baroque") is a warning that one might lose the argument.
Benjamin's version of the saturnine temperament is the origin of the title of this book; he didn't know all that is now known about Renaissance and Baroque theories of melancholia and its creative aspects, but in his eccentric way he devised variants of them, and Sontag reasonably enough thinks of all her heroes as under the same sign: "Melencolia I" broods over every desk, all those strange but very concrete objects held in stillness by the saturnine glare….
Elias Canetti, though a lesser figure than Benjamin, has something of the same appeal to Sontag. Another Middle European Jew, only a little younger than Benjamin, he is also celebrated as an exotic, a polymath who would like to live forever in order to become wise and good, in order also sometimes to pause, to breathe. Canetti is restless and misogynistic, but Sontag will overlook these defects, and, though restless herself, ends her book with an exhortation to "talented admirers" (including, presumably, herself) to "give themselves permission to breathe … to go beyond avidity," and so "identify with something beyond achievement, beyond the gathering of power." But Sontag uses the word "avidity" with noticeable frequency, usually applying it with admiration to her heroes; and the renunciation of avidity, the ceasing to admire it in others whom one desires to emulate, is, given the cultural role she has assumed, all too difficult.
The strength of Sontag's own personality—her own avidity for ideas and detail—is demonstrated in the virtuoso essay on Syberberg's Hitler, a Film. This movie … is enormously long, but her avidity is equal to the absorption of what must be its multitudinous detail. Moreover, she gives a convincing account of its precursors in film, photography, and music, especially Wagner. Syberberg appeals to Sontag's Romantic view of art: "a truly great work must seem to break with an old order" and "extend the reach of art," she claims; and she finds in the film a strong apocalyptic strain…. Being a work of genius, Sontag would argue, Hitler, a Film demands from us fealty.
An interesting expression, which suggests the chivalric quality of the author's dedication to the idea of greatness. A little halting, a little hectic in its exposition, this essay is nevertheless of more importance than the one that deftly puts down Leni Riefenstahl and does a good Barthesian job on the Nazi iconography of sado-masochism. It is under the stress of excitement, the solemnities of affirmed fealty, that occasional clumsinesses occur, almost as signs of homage, indices of an avid deference. But the cooler reader must make what he can of the heat and rush of Sontag's prose; it beckons him on with its offer of an intelligible heroism. Perhaps she will, in due time, follow Canetti's advice: learn to breathe, seek something beyond the gathering of power. (p. 43)
Frank Kermode, "Alien Sages," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVII, No. 17, November 6, 1980, pp. 42-3.
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In Under the Sign of Saturn Sontag is at work again reshaping the canon of modern European literature. Her particular polemic—a strong element in the general thrust of postwar New York literary criticism—is to celebrate the leopards in the temple of literature, not those cool and calm consciousnesses (like the Sophocles and Shakespeare of Matthew Arnold) who abided all questions and saw life whole, but those whose own derangement allowed them to explode the lies of order so that better forms might be discovered. In her criticism she labors to turn even the most self-isolating, uncompromising, and personally outrageous of such figures (I think here especially of Artaud) into humane teachers, whose flame, all the brighter for being trimmed, she will pass on to future generations.
In the 1960s such a critical project was both exuberant and expansive. But as Sontag wrote further and became part of the critical establishment herself, her tone became more sober and somber, until in Saturn she finds a moral and emotional benchmark in the melancholic temperament (specifically Benjamin's), with its "self-conscious and unforgivable relation to the self, which can never be taken for granted," born under "the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays." Sontag's heroes are, therefore, those writers whose acute sense of the difficulties of using language properly allows them, paradoxically, to pierce its veil and see into the heart of things. Without being system-builders, they search for the core of a newly whole reality that gives due respect to the fragmentations of 20th-century knowledge and perception. (pp. 43-4)
Reality is a crucial term for Sontag, not least because, for all her appreciation of movies, she is specifically hostile to what she calls nominalism, the view that there are no absolute concepts or ideas, only words that are socially accepted ways of communicating. Of course, the philosophical realist need not live entirely in a world of Platonic ideas and the nominalist is hardly happy only when he contemplates fragments and ruins. But Sontag's sympathies are clear. Her goal is an understanding of what is essential and what is real, and those she most admires retain a Platonic sensitivity to the disorder of the world and a Platonic faith in the ability of mind to penetrate that disorder and find truth. (p. 44)
To pursue the life of the mind and maintain its vitality in the face of both the dehumanizing horrors of 20th-century war and the more subtle dehumanizations of technological advance and aesthetic democratization, implies Sontag, requires the self-questioning detachment of the melancholic critic/artist, whose essentially passive objectivity her own style seems to imitate. Ever since the Renaissance, melancholy has been the mark of the artist whose work or aspiration made claims on the philosophic and eternal. Sometimes the melancholic artist, separated from ordinary men by his link to what is permanent, could be a satirist as easily as a high-stalking dreamer of the divine…. Sontag's essays are in fact filled with traditional satiric themes—the incoherence of public sources of information, the corrupt emptiness of theatrical versions of reality, the pressure that time and bodily decay put on human aspirations—even though she never writes satire as such…. Instead, she is fascinated with the effort, through writing and sometimes film, of creative individuals to be Romantic eccentrics in a time of mass societies. The strategies of such an assertion obviously have changed since the days of Wordsworth, Byron, and Napoleon. But Sontag adds her own emphasis on the importance of the melancholic's corrosive self-awareness. In the view that she derives primarily from Benjamin, 20th-century history has forced the critic/artist to take up a custodial relation to the world—collecting, deciphering, rearranging what is discovered into patterns that in their turn must be criticized. Enter, then, the interpreter of such writers, who deciphers their references and fragments not by the piecemeal process of ascertaining the meaning of each but by enlightening us about the cultural significance of such fragmented referentiality.
Such a role suited Sontag well in her earlier incarnation as a questioner of critical and cultural clichés, when her special status as an émigré by adoption allowed her to champion many artists and thinkers whose moral purpose was often less clear than her own. But in our climate of confusion over what political, aesthetic, or spiritual leadership might be, Under the Sign of Saturn raises more questions than its ideals can satisfy. Where Sontag once strode the marches in search of outlandish but crucial sensibilities to bring back struggling and vital to the general reader, her trophies now have the slightly greenish tinge of the coterie or the salon. The fault lies more in her net than in her quarry.
In essence, I think it is difficult for Sontag to maintain an argument that attacks one side of Romantic individualism (that leads to political megalomania) in order to accept another (that leads to artistic self-aggrandizement). I hardly want to equate the two myself: strutting artists do much less harm than strutting dictators. But the paradox of the grandly assertive work of art that attacks the grandly assertive gesture in the public world of politics is a delicate one indeed, and Sontag is unconvincing about the terms of the competition, perhaps because she is so caught up in it herself. Syberberg's Our Hitler is Sontag's set piece here—"probably the most ambitious Symbolist work of this century"—and Saturn's structure very carefully poises it against Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. In this implicit contrast Syberberg is the modernist virtuoso of fragments, playing in the spray of 20th-century images, constantly aware of the lie and deceit of all visual insignia, while Riefenstahl is the monolithic God's-eye director, soaring over the world like her subject, reducing all to pattern, sentimentally invoking the coercive abstractions of leader, nation, and body, and leaving her film unetched by any nuance of individual life and doubt.
In this contest the palm is clearly to Syberberg (or to Sontag's account of him). But from the competition seeps a corruption of means and terminology. Sontag devotes some telling comments to Syberberg's ambivalent relation to Wagner (who plays second fiddle to Hitler in the film), but scants the extent to which Syberberg, with his seven-hour film, administers an aesthetic dictatorship to his audience in order to purge the political dictatorship whose paraphernalia he portrays. Movies especially raise the question of how to draw the line between aesthetic and political control…. Must the artist counter the sins of political absolutism by an absolute gesture of his own?
Sontag no doubt thinks that melancholic self-questioning can keep the true artist and critic from such indulgences. But the coolness of her own style belies her prescriptions for self-awareness…. Sontag remarks on the fact that many of the exemplary thinkers she treats—from the modernist monk Artaud to the goliard intellectual Goodman—were riven by the worry that they hadn't been appreciated, hadn't become famous enough. (pp. 44-5)
For the secular writer and artist, musing on the face of death and the failure of the body and mind, the question of fame is crucial…. Under the Sign of Saturn is [Sontag's] effort to reassess the public aspect of her pursuit of a career that has been defined historically by its distaste for public life and display. Searching for the shape of other careers, she implicitly meditates on her own: what am I to make of this pile of books that in some way is me? The question is all too modern. At the end of the Middle Ages Chaucer's House of Fame described statues of the great writers of antiquity, each holding up his greatest work. By the 18th century, in Pope's rewriting of Chaucer, The Temple of Fame, they are standing on top of their books. Sontag similarly first dons the costumes of her various heroes and villains and then packs each neatly away in the cultural closet. As always, her intelligence makes her essays refreshing, even though we may often learn less about her subjects than about what she thinks of them and how their ideas affected her. In pursuit of new connections she has fashioned a rhetoric of subordination that puts her forward as the humble lightning rod of culture. This is my tradition, she seems to say, these are my boys, and thus the Romantic project of finding the heart of a culture in its eccentrics winds up recommending instead the eccentricity of its own quest. (pp. 45-6)
Leo Braudy, "A Genealogy of Mind," in The New Republic, Vol. 183, No. 22, November 29, 1980, pp. 43-6.
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Susan Sontag: the name is a resonance of qualities, of quality itself. The drama of the idea, the composition, a recognition from the past that tells us what the present may bestow when we see her name. The term "essay" itself is somewhat flat as a definition of the liberality of her floating, restless expositions. A Susan Sontag Reader, a choice from her criticism and fiction, is in no way scant, but it interested me to note that one could regret the omission of almost any piece of her writing, any square of the mosaic that is in the end an extraordinarily beautiful, expansive, and unique talent.
Her writings are hers, intimately and obsessively one might say. They bear, each one, the mark of a large and coherent sensibility, the mark of her interests, her sense of the aesthetic and moral world around us. Almost none of her work comes out of the mere occasion, the book published, the film released, or the fad acknowledged. I suppose her theme is the wide, elusive, variegated sensibility of modernism—a reach of attitude and feeling that will include great works of art, the modern disturbance of the sense of self seen in "camp" and in pornography, and account for the social, historical disturbance represented by the contemporary glut of photographic images. Modernism is style and the large figures of culture she likes to reflect upon leave in their styles the signature of wishes, attractions, morals, and, always, ideas.
Susan Sontag is not drawn to her themes as a specialty, as one might choose the eighteenth century, but rather as expressions of her own taste, 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 modern sensibility in her view is democratic; it embraces the aristocratic spirit of the films made by Godard, Bresson, Bergman, and Syberberg. The listing of her "interests" shows an almost spendthrift openness to example and precept and vivacious practice. But her thoughts surprise. Films, writers, philosophers are, as it were, excavated, brought up to the topsoil to be viewed in the round. This is a particular vision, the defining glance of cultural history in which each thing is itself, unique and to some degree "against interpretation"—and yet reflecting a disjunctive modern consciousness that is historical. On this theme and its fascinations each of her essays has a profound authority, a rather anxious and tender authority—the reward of passion. (pp. ix-x)
The writers she has chosen to reflect upon are somewhat daunting and I do not think she would place herself among the undaunted. The tone of her writing is speculative, studious and yet undogmatic; even in the end it is still inquiring. There remains what Henry James called the "soreness of confusion," the reminder of the unaccountable and inexhaustible in great talents. This remnant of wonder is her way of honoring the exceptional, the finally inimitable. (p. xi)
She, like Barthes and Benjamin, chose philosophy as a student…. Her metaphysical vocabulary retains this habit of mind and she has Nietzsche and Plato as readily at hand as bits of memorized poetry…. Conceptualization from instances gathered from afar is her method. There is seldom anything whimsical or indulgent in this far-flung patterning. The structure is genuine, convincing, and the gathering-in is an illumination.
She practices delicately and lightheartedly the aphoristic summation, rather than the aphoristic interruption…. Her style, her prose language, is clear, fresh, not meant to tease or to confound. However, the extremity of her subjects will often demand that the expositor be a gymnast. Waywardness attracts her and in waywardness there is humor, outrageousness, the unpredictable, along with extremity. In that sense her work is sensual and many of her essays are about heroic insatiability, as in the instance of the brilliant "Syberberg's Hitler."
"Notes on Camp" is an early, exhilarating work about "style" at an ineffable outpost of sensibility. "Camp" is parochial in that it can only be fulfilled in the city with its infinite byways. "Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture." If the word is beyond definition, it is not beyond reflection, example, listing. The essay is amused, a sophisticated precondition for a pose that elevates the amusing to a criterion. The camp sensibility is not a text to be held in the hand. The only text is finally this essay, with its incorporation of the exemplar of the camp mode—the epigrams of Oscar Wilde. The essay is intuition, observation, tolerance for the inverted, the willful. (pp. xii-xiii)
In 1966 a number of essays by Miss Sontag which had appeared in magazines were collected into a published book, Against Interpretation. "Appeared" is to the point in this case since it leads to the personal, the noticeable, the theatrical element in taste and in "point of view" when the observer is a foraging pluralist. This first book of essays was provoking, meaning to unsettle by an insistent avant-gardism, by aesthetic irregularities such as "camp," science fiction, and the film Flaming Creatures, "the poetry of transvestism," closed on the ground of obscenity by the police. These diversions are bright, poisonous poppies, flaming about Simone Weil, Lévi-Strauss, Camus, and others. There is an anarchic, intrepid stretch to the book. In it we are invited to a "new sensibility," in which the "beauty of a machine or of the solution to a mathematical problem, of a painting by Jasper Johns, or a film by Jean-Luc Godard, and of the personalities and music of the Beatles is equally accessible." Youthful, brilliant, and so ardently interesting and unmistakably hers. And a mood that would at last disappoint, or if not disappoint, fall into familiarity and thereby ask of her intelligence some steadier and more difficult refinement.
Her essays gradually became longer, and perhaps more serene, and certainly less imploring. The labyrinthine perfectionism, the pathos of a "dissatisfied" spirit like Walter Benjamin came to her, I think, as a model, and certainly as an object of love, the word in no way out of bounds. It is love that makes her start her essay on Benjamin by looking at a few scattered photographs. Benjamin is not an image to us; his is one of those faces that dissolve. It would seem that his body and soul are not friends. And so we can never be surrounded, illuminated as we are by the face of Kafka, a face of absolute rightness. The wish to find Benjamin as a face is touching, subjective, venerating. And this is the mood of much of her recent work, particularly the majestic honoring of Barthes and the homage to Canetti, himself a great and complicated "admirer" of his own chosen instances of genius.
Thinking about Susan Sontag in the middle of her career is to feel the happiness of more, more, nothing ended. An exquisite responsiveness of this kind is unpredictable, although one of the intentions of her work is to find the central, to tell us what we are thinking, what is happening to our minds and to culture. There are politics, fashions, art itself, and of course the storehouse of learning to be looked at again and again in her own way. I notice that in her late work she stresses the notion of pleasure in the arts, pleasure in thinking. Only the serious can offer us that rare, warm, bright-hearted felicity. (pp. xiv-xv)
Elizabeth Hardwick, in an introduction to A Susan Sontag Reader by Susan Sontag, Farrar/Straus/Giroux, 1982, pp. ix-xv.
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A fully established American figure, Sontag is ready for the archive; and so, appropriately, we have A Susan Sontag Reader. It's not the Reader—maybe there will be a sequel—but it offers a heavy sampling of her work, from her first novel, The Benefactor (1963), through her obituary essay on Roland Barthes (1981), all selected by Sontag herself. Ordinarily, writers are dead or incapacitated before Readers are bestowed on them. Sontag is neither—though you'd never know it from Elizabeth Hardwick's elegiac introduction [see excerpt above], which croons of "unique talent" and "profound authority" till you can fairly smell the formaldehyde.
There's too much of Sontag's fiction here—a harmless gesture of vanity on its author's part, but an unwelcome reminder to the reader of how dull and derivative that fiction is….
Her nonfiction, however, is always vivacious, even when its polemic is blurry and its impact has grown blunt with time. Her most famous essays are here—"Against Interpretation," "Notes on 'Camp,'" "The Pornographic Imagination," "Fascinating Fascism"—along with others that are less well known but equally provocative, such as "On Style" and "The Aesthetics of Silence."… Everything here has been published before, some of it more than once; but now the arrangement is strictly chronological, so that you can follow (or at least look for) signs of development in Sontag's thought.
I couldn't find any, except perhaps the loss of ardency, and gain of serenity, that Hardwick notes in her introduction. But, because the Reader is apparently a self-portrait, the absence of a piece can be as revealing as its presence. Many of the short, early pieces from Against Interpretation were probably omitted because they are too slight or too closely tied to works and events that appear minor in hindsight. "Trip to Hanoi" might have been passed over for reasons of space, or because it reeks too much of 1968; but I'd rather have had it than The Benefactor. Without that troubled, ambivalent attempt to come to terms with herself as a "citizen of the American empire," the Reader makes Sontag look much more placidly detached, much more of a nabob, than she in fact has been. But this effect may very well be deliberate.
The total omission of Illness as Metaphor is undoubtedly so: even more clearly than On Photography, this little book demonstrates Sontag's inability to sustain an extended argument. Her considerable talents as a writer are confined to the fashioning of memorable phrases and elegant sentences; sometimes she can even make a paragraph hang together. But when it comes to a sequence of paragraphs, she slips and slides; and when that sequence must form itself into the larger structures that constitute a coherent book, she collapses. Her best essays are either formless by design, like "Notes on 'Camp,'" or else propped up on the ready-made structure of someone else's film, novel or oeuvre.
Her essay on Walter Benjamin ("Under the Sign of Saturn"), for example, is a graceful blending of biography, appreciation and criticism. For Sontag, Benjamin's life and his writing were both shaped by his "Saturnine temperament," and under that rubric she is able to move smoothly back and forth between the man and his work, producing a stylish literary portrait….
When Sontag's subjects are less clearcut, however, she habitually starts, stops, starts again and finally loses her way. "Camp" may be such a scatterbrained phenomenon that a shoal of fifty-eight "notes" is an appropriate form for discussing it, but even such an apparently unified essay as "The Pornographic Imagination" moves at the same jerky, uncertain pace. (p. 404)
Sontag's best writing is impressionistic, and the limits of her thought are those of esthetic impressionism. On Photography and Illness as Metaphor reveal her limitations most plainly, but they hem in all her work and are more than merely formal. Her "exquisite responsiveness" (Hardwick's phrase) is genuine and often beguiling, but her responses are dictated by a time-worn understanding of the world that is no longer adequate to what the world contains. Sontag's eminence in American letters is disproportionate to the quality of her thought; she perpetuates a tradition of philosophical naïveté that has always kept America subservient to Europe and that surely should have run its course by now. (p. 405)
In the early 1960s, when her most controversial essays were written, Sontag might have looked avant-garde; but since then, her constant devotion to the Anglo-American tradition of genteel literary discourse has sorely outmoded her. She seems to know nothing of semiotics, deconstruction, the reinterpretation of Freud, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx—the true leading edge of the European intelligentsia….
Sontag's only concession to the actual avant-garde has been her appropriation of Roland Barthes. "Writing Itself," her eulogy of him, concludes the Reader and is a fine example of Sontag at her most Sontagian. Barthes is an ideal subject for Sontag, because in his late work he seemed to turn away from the scary semiotic radicalism of his middle career, producing a series of gentle, impressionistic books that even Matthew Arnold would have found congenial. In Sontag's hands, Barthes becomes just another sensibility on tour; the essay is heartfelt and touching, but it represses the danger in Barthes and distorts the multifaceted intellectual movement of which he was an important part.
If the Reader is in fact Sontag's self-portrait, what she shows us is an unexpectedly conservative, philosophically retrograde writer whose primary function has always been domestication. She introduced American culture to several artists who would have remained obscure much longer without her aid. But in the process she also made them safe, accommodating them to a familiar vocabulary of appreciation and evaluation. That vocabulary has hardly changed since the eighteenth century. When Samuel Johnson spoke of "sensibility," the term meant something definite to him and to his limited, homogeneous audience; when Matthew Arnold used the term, he was already defending the citadel against the noisy rabble; when Sontag uses it, it means nothing except that her unanalyzed preconceptions must at all costs be soothed.
None of this would make any difference if Sontag didn't have such important influence on somebody, somewhere. I must confess, I don't know anyone who looks to Sontag for esthetic guidance. But she takes herself so seriously, and her publisher treats her with such awe, that I can only presume the existence of a vast, anonymous readership, hungry for Sontag's pearls. If these readers exist, their reverence is Sontag's only real achievement—a notable achievement, to be sure, but a far more trenchant criticism of the world of American letters than any essay she ever wrote. (p. 406)
Walter Kendrick, "In a Gulf of Her Own," in The Nation, Vol. 235, No. 13, October 23, 1982, pp. 404-06.
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Sontag has done an able job of editing [A Barthes Reader], and her introduction is thoughtful, an elegiac retrospective, what in the eighteenth century would have been called an éloge—a commemoration of the illustrious dead. This introduction to Barthes forms the concluding essay in her own selection, A Susan Sontag Reader…. It is quite instructive to read the Barthes and Sontag Readers in tandem; the real thing looks even more real beside the imitation.
Sontag's ability to stay one step ahead of Continental Thinking has earned her high marks in the world of intellectual journalism. She is always a half-step ahead of the fashion, with a knack for saying the outrageous thing—à la Barthes—but without the impishness and controlled ambivalence of her master. Where Sontag is correct, she is often sophomoric; where she is wrong, she is irritating and, frequently, pretentious. Her style reflects this pompousness, as when she writes: "Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence." Were her essays (and fiction) not bestrewn with such stuff, one would have to assume she was kidding.
Sontag is always dead serious, even when she is "being funny." Her first book was The Benefactor (1963), a novel about a young man called Hippolyte (move over, Racine!) who has strange dreams and then, for some reason, attempts to duplicate them in his life. Says her hero: "I am surprised dreams are not outlawed. What a promise the dream is! How delightful! How private! And one needs no partner, one need no enlist the cooperation of anyone, female or male. Dreams are the onanism of the spirit." Perhaps this is meant to be funny. Sontag's Reader begins with eighty-five pages of this stiff, almost unreadable novel.
Five essays from Against Interpretation (1966) follow. They are written in a style reminiscent of Oscar Wilde and Barthes but with the suppleness of neither. "Against Interpretation," the title essay, argues that "all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation." This is backed up by a sophomoric excursion into what Plato meant by mimesis. What is wrong here is that Sontag assumes a naive dichotomy of form and content, thus allowing herself (in the tradition of aestheticism) to champion form-as-style over content-as-message. She casts aspersions on all "reactionary" critics who stifle us with their boring "interpretations," pleading for "an erotics of art" in place of sterile academic hermeneutics. Her rhetoric is all fizz, without intellectual rigor or moral force. (pp. 415-16)
One has to wonder if Sontag is serious much of the time. Attempting on the one hand to abolish the distinctions between "high" and "low" art, she focuses [in "Notes on 'Camp'"] repeatedly on works that might be called Camp Highbrow: Pierre Louÿs's Trois Filles de leur Mère, George Bataille's Histoire de l'Oeil and Madame Edwards, the Mystica Theologia of Dionysius the Areopagite, and so forth. She uses the old trick of name-dropping to a ludicrous degree; unlike, say, George Steiner, whose excessive name-dropping at least suggests the resonating chamber of a deeply learned mind, Sontag does not call up the sense of connected worlds. The reader is asked to admire her range, which is all breadth and no depth, not enter into a process of thought with her. (p. 417)
There is also another novel-excerpt, from Death Kit (1967), which concerns the feeble attempts of one "Diddy" to figure out whether or not he really did (did he? = Diddy) murder a workman in a train tunnel. Though very brief, the excerpt is unspeakably tedious—a thing no novelist can afford to be. The setting is entirely abstract, impalpable, idealized. Critical aphorisms (which sound like parodies of Barthes) jump out of the narrative to assert Sontag's presence: "Dying is overwork," or "The splendor of children is never, really, more than pathos." One marvels at Sontag's willingness to type out such a novel.
Her best work is certainly in the criticism, and one does find patches of brilliance, as in "The Image-World," taken from On Photography (1977)….
Perhaps the main problem in Sontag is that she wants everything all ways: a "radical" stance (with the implicit choices involved) and the cool amoral impartiality of Wildean aestheticism. She wants to be a democrat, but she clings to Camp exclusiveness. She disdains critics who still separate content from style, then she does just that when it suits her argument. (p. 418)
Both Sontag and Barthes argue from a position that cannot, finally, withstand excessive scrutiny. The aesthete can never resist putting key words in quotation marks, thus undermining the seriousness of any statement. Art is a form of play, but it is serious play—as is the play of children—what Auden called "a game of knowledge." Art depends upon what Wallace Stevens called "the necessary angel / of reality." If art is not a criticism of life, per se, as Matthew Arnold would have it, it is nonetheless an interpretation of it. Barthes, at his best, interprets the world-as-text, tacitly rendering judgments that can only be called moral. Sontag is just too dead-set against interpretation to read the world at all. (p. 419)
Jay Parini, "Reading the Readers: Barthes and Sontag," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 411-19.∗