Under the Sign of Saturn

by Susan Sontag

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Under the Sign of Saturn

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2080

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 transcendent realm of art. In his efforts to close the gap between art and life in such experiments as the theater of cruelty, the magical theater, and the theater of the flesh, Artaud saw all art as theatrical and was bent on theatricalizing life itself; and the first step toward such a goal is toward the theatricalizing of the self. Modern literature, says Sontag, projects the “romantic conception of writing as a medium in which a singular personality heroically exposes itself.” Trying to link art and consciousness leads inevitably to the kind of metaliterary considerations that Sontag has found appealing since she termed her first collection of essays “metacriticism.” Sontag says that Artaud’s poetics is one in which “art is the compendium of consciousness, the reflection by consciousness on itself, and the empty space in which consciousness takes its perilous leap of self-transcendence.”

The most predominant theme for Artaud is the link between suffering and writing, a theme in which he treats his mind as if it were a “kind of body.” Sontag says Artaud’s gift is for “a kind of physiological phenomenology of his unending desolation.” Artaud’s need to transcend body through body led him to alchemy, the tarot, the cabala, astrology, and other esoteric systems. In fact, says Sontag, in the 1920’s Artaud had almost every taste that became prominent in the counterculture of the 1960’s. As a result Sontag believes that Artaud is one of those esoteric thinkers, like Marquis de Sade and Charles Reich, who have become classics because they have not been read, because in some intrinsic way they are unreadable. “For anyone who reads Artaud through,” says Sontag, “he remains fiercely out of reach, an unassimilable voice and presence.”

Sontag also admires Syberberg’s seven-hour film in four parts, Hitler, a Film from Germany, for his self-reflexive view and his extreme antirealism. For Syberberg, history is unrepeatable and ungraspable except indirectly—“adventures in the head ... staged in the theater of the mind,” says Sontag. It is not surprising that Sontag would admire one of the film’s central conceits—that Hitler, who never visited the front, viewed the war every night through newsreels and was therefore a kind of filmmaker intent on making Germany, a Film by Hitler. Sontag calls Syberberg’s film the most ambitious symbolist film of the twentieth century, a ghostly phantasmagoric film haunted by its models (Méliès and Eisenstein) and its antimodels (Riefenstahl and Hollywood). Calling Syberberg the greatest Wagnerian since Thomas Mann, she claims that here he realizes Wagner’s great ideal of the invisible stage. For Sontag, the film is a “meta-spectacle” that creates Hitler as a phantom presence in modern culture. A pastiche work in the model of James Joyce, the film deserves the kind of ideal viewer that Joyce desired for his novels—one who could devote his life to it.

Perhaps the best-known essay in the collection is the one entitled “Fascinating Fascism,” a combination of one long piece on Leni Riefenstahl, which is the most polemical in the book, and a short essay on a paperback picture book entitled SS Regalia, which Sontag rightly terms pornographic. Primarily, the essay is Sontag’s effort to cancel out the attempted purification of Riefenstahl’s reputation in 1974 after the publication of a book of photographs by her entitled The Last of the Nuba. Both the influence of the feminist movement and the new focus of the avant-garde on the beautiful have resulted, says Sontag, in efforts to whitewash Riefenstahl of her involvement in Nazi propaganda, especially in her most famous film, The Triumph of the Will (1935). Sontag spends much of her essay pointing out the factual misinformation in the Introduction to the photographs of Nuba natives. She also argues with Riefenstahl’s insistence in the 1950’s that The Triumph of the Will was history when she denied that it was propaganda, calling it instead cinema verité. Sontag quite easily squashes such a claim by noting the transformation of reality which Riefenstahl engineers in the film.

In her 1965 interview in Cashiers due Cinéma, Riefenstahl also claimed (in response to an interviewer’s suggestion that what both her films The Triumph of the Will and Olympia share is a “certain idea of form”) that her primary concern was with beauty, a care for composition, an aspiration to form, that she called something very German. “Whatever is purely realistic, slice-of-life, which is average, quotidian, doesn’t interest me.” The publication of The Last of the Nuba then confirmed for Riefenstahl partisans, says Sontag, that “she was always a beauty freak rather than a horrid propagandist.” To combat this idea, Sontag spends the rest of the essay laboriously showing the relationship between the photographs of the Nuba tribesmen and the techniques used by Riefenstahl in her propagandistic films.

Such an effort seems more laborious than perhaps the task merits. Sontag is able to cite only one critic, Jonas Mekas in The Village Voice, who praises Riefenstahl’s focus on beauty and form while ignoring her role as the creator of the single most important Nazi propaganda instrument. For whatever reason, it is a task that Sontag performs with a great deal of effort and commitment. In so doing, Sontag places herself in somewhat of a contradictory position with regard to the artists she praises in the rest of the book. Granted, it would be unthinkable for such a socially committed thinker as Sontag to praise Riefenstahl; however, it seems difficult for such a passionate aesthetic thinker as Sontag (who praises form, pattern, and schematizing in Artaud, Benjamin, Barthes, and Canetti), to scorn what she calls Riefenstahl’s Fascist aesthetic in The Triumph of Will. Especially since, according to Sontag, it can be seen in such works as Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001—an aesthetic that is characterized by the rendering of movement in rigid patterns and by the transformation of the masses into design and form.

For Sontag to praise Syberberg for his eschewal of actuality and for his preference for Wagnerian patterns and then to scorn Riefenstahl for her eschewal of the “purely realistic, slice-of-life, which is average, quotidian” seems contradictory. The only reason Sontag can really offer for her preference for the formal system-making of Barthes and Canetti and her vigorous attack on Riefenstahl for the same formalizing of experience is to cite the uses to which their work has been put. Although it is just as possible for some groups to use the plays of Artaud for propaganda as it is to use the films of Riefenstahl, Artaud did not create purposely for propaganda, and of course Artaud was not used to justify the Nazi war machine and the unspeakable atrocities that rolled under it. This kind of a judgment; however, is a moral, not an aesthetic judgment; therefore, it is somewhat surprising to have such a thoroughgoing aesthete as Sontag take this approach.

Although one can grant with Sontag that the attempted purification of Riefenstahl indicates a Fascist longing of which one should be aware, surely Sontag must be aware that the very formalists and structuralists which she so much admires and praises lend themselves to the same kind of characteristics which she claims are typical of the Fascist aesthetic. It is precisely such films as Fantasia, 2001, and The Gangs All Here that are most susceptible to the kind of systematic structural deconstruction that Barthes has mastered. It may be that those critics who have attempted to redeem Riefenstahl are precisely those who have been reared on the avant-garde milk of Susan Sontag’s teaching.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 98

Kennedy, Liam. Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Poague, Leland, ed. Conversations with Susan Sontag. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Poague, Leland, and Kathy A. Parson, eds. Susan Sontag: An Annotated Biography, 1948- 1992. New York: Garland, 2000.

Rollyson, Carl. Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag. New York: iUniverse, 2005.

Rollyson, Carl. Reading Susan Sontag. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

Rollyson, Carl, and Lisa Paddock. Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: Elegiac Modernist. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Seligman, Craig. Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me. New York: Counterpoint, 2004.

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