Under the Sign of Saturn

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Once the darling of the avant-grade in the 1960’s in two influential collections of essays, Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will, Susan Sontag in this recent collection tempers her views now that the advance guard has become the main column. Although her heroes here are still the Marxists and structuralists and her villains are the Fascists and Reactionaries, she is less the outspoken champion now than she was twenty years ago. Moreover, although still cryptically quotable, the essays here are not as controversial as when she called for an erotics rather than a hermeneutics of art in “Against Interpretation” or when she termed sexuality one of the “demonic forces in human consciousness” in “The Pornographic Imagination.” Furthermore, one will not find here essays that will have as much influence on the critical establishment as her earlier “Notes on Camp” or “The Aesthetics of Silence.”

These new essays are occasional pieces; some, such as the articles on Paul Goodman and Roland Barthes, are so slight as to be personal tributes only. The longest piece, “Approaching Artaud,” is a reprint of the Introduction Sontag wrote for a collection of Artaud’s selected writings which she edited for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. There is also an essay on Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films for Adolf Hitler (which she does not like) and an essay on Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler, a Film from Germany (which she likes a great deal). Pieces on Elias Canetti and Walter Benjamin round out the collection.

The essay on Benjamin provides both the title and the keynote for Sontag’s collection. “I came into the world under the sign of Saturn,” says Benjamin, “the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays.” As usual, Sontag writes about intellectuals she likes, which also happen to be those most like her. Like Artaud, Barthes, Canetti, and Benjamin, Sontag is marked by the saturnine temperament—a temperament which Sontag says is characterized by the self-conscious relation to the self, seeing the “self as text.” It is a temperament, Sontag adds, which is the most apt one for intellectuals. Sontag says that other major characteristics of such a temperament are blundering (from seeing too many possibilities) and stubbornness (because of the longing to be superior). Like other structuralist intellectuals who share this sign of Saturn, Benjamin takes as his theme the attempt to spatialize the world, to understand reality through topography. Benjamin’s works are filled with the metaphors of maps and labyrinths. “His goal,” says Sontag, “is to be a competent street-map reader who knows how to stray.” Other characteristics of Benjamin, which Sontag seems to share with Barthes, Canetti, and Syberberg, are the perception of learning and thinking as forms of collecting. As Benjamin says, the most praiseworthy method of collecting books is by writing them. Sontag, author of nine books, surely agrees.

Like Benjamin, Canetti is also an incurable thinker and writer. In fact, says Sontag, Canetti is a type of intellectual often found in the essays of Benjamin—the reclusive scholar devoted to building a library in his head, living in a “desperate attempt to think about everything.” Like Sontag herself, Canetti is the “eternal student, someone who has no subject or rather, whose subject is everything,” like a scholar in a story by Jorge Borges. The natural mode for the saturnine melancholic, says Sontag, is allegory; the natural limit is the essay form; the natural need is to be alone, to get work done; the natural style is total immersion. Anyone who has read Sontag’s collections, especially the thematically linked essays in her collections Illness as Metaphor and On Photography will readily recognize these characteristics as Sontag’s own. Her perception of the symbolic significance of both illness and photography and her effort to make symbolic maps of these areas (which is different from them as actual territories) link her with the European freelance intellectuals she writes about.

Roland Barthes, the most significant literary intellectual of the French structuralist movement similarly loves, as does Sontag, classifying, mapping, and perceiving the symbolic significance of a wide variety of activities and artifacts. Sontag admires him for his love of the perverse, for his being what she calls a disciplined “appetitive writer.” All his works are an “immensely complex enterprise of self-description”; and almost everything he read he wrote about, says Sontag. Calling Barthes a “voluptuary of the mind,” who, along with Paul Valéry, gives being an aesthete a good name,” Sontag similarly defines herself, or at least what she wishes for herself.

In an essay that takes up almost one third of the collection, Sontag presents Antonin Artaud as an example of the modern disestablished artist who refuses to be morally useful to the community, who, on the contrary, seems concerned to transform the community itself into the...

(The entire section is 2080 words.)