Intellectual Provocateur: Susan Sontag: A Partisan’s Review

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It’s hard to forgive a colleague for being brilliant, and even harder to forgive her for becoming a celebrity. Someone who’s both brilliant and a celebrity is unforgivable; hence, Susan Sontag has been a source of irritation to her fellow critics for nearly two decades. The subtle malice in the title and tone of Hilton Kramer’s recent “Atlantic” reappraisal, “The Pasionaria of Style,” has been a long time ripening; and there will be more of the same on the occasion of “A Susan Sontag Reader” (Farrar Straus Giroux, 446 pages, $17.95). Literati have long memories.

Of course, Sontag is not exactly an innocent victim. The early essays that made her famous are mined with provocations:

“The idea of content [in art] is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.. . . It is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art. (“Against Interpretation,”1964)

“Today the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. … Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world.” (“Against interpretation”)

“The commonest complaint abut [the interesting art of our time] is that it is hard to look at or to read, that it is ‘boring.’ But the charge of boredom is really hypocritical. There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a species of frustration.” (“One Culture and the New Sensibility,”1965)

These and other imperious, disdainful, impatient calls for a revolution in critical practice delighted, and galvanized some but annoyed or bewildered many more.

Her local judgments could infuriate too. Goethe is largely “a classroom bore.” D.H. Lawrence is “puritanical” and “sexually reactionary” (this 10 years before “Sexual Politics”). Most current American novelists and playwrights “are really either journalists or gentlemen sociologists and psychologists. They are writing the literary equivalent of program music.” The most interesting contemporary American thinker is John Cage.

Sontag further irritated and intimidated by her fabulous erudition. At 30, she had apparently read, seen, heard, and figured out everything, from the pre-Socratic philosophers to last night’s Happening. And was ready to expound it all, in a tone at once breathless and magisterial.

As if all this weren’t enough, there was her politics. In early 1968, before most mainstream intellectuals had turned against the war, she traveled to North Vietnam; her perplexed, poignant memoir, “Trip to Hanoi”, was a sensation. And in a mid-‘60s “Partisan Review” symposium, she coined perhaps the most scandalous phrase in recent political polemic: “The white race is the cancer of human history.”

Clearly, this promising young writer would be held to her promises. Could her, could anyone’s criticism and fiction fulfill the program implied in her aesthetic manifestoes? The question now seems moot. Sontag has produced a good deal of exciting and usable criticism and a fair amount of less indubitably successful fiction; their relation to her theoretical pronouncements, though, is not seamless. According to “Against Interpretation,” “On Style,” and other early statements, the task of contemporary literature is to abandon psychology and see what can be done with form, with the techniques of narration, symbol, idiom, and voice. Criticism must subordinate explication and evaluation to description, must “dissolve considerations of content into those of form” in order to “supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art.” These prescriptions culminated in perhaps her most celebrated and enigmatic dictum: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

But in practice, Sontag is too inquisitive and energetic to hew closely to her own or anyone else’s program. Her range has been vast: novels, stories, screenplays, criticism (frontally or in passing) of most of the significant developments in 20th-century art and thought, and highly idiosyncratic intellectual history (of ideas about photography, of metaphors of illness). If there’s any unity to her work, it’s not one of doctrine or methodology but a unity of temperament — intrepid, quick-witted didactic, a sort of earnest aestheticism — and of preoccupation. How are aesthetic and moral judgments related in criticism? What makes for interesting new art? What is modernity, and, especially, what is modernist taste?

“A Susan Sontag Reader” is a serviceable anthology of this diverse body of work. All the early, programmatic essays are included, except (surprisingly) “One Culture and the New Sensibility,” with its controversial account of a sensibility rooted in “extreme social and physical mobility… the crowdedness of the human scene… the availability of new sensations…the pan-cultural perspective on the arts made possible by the mass reproduction of art objects,” and its distressing (to mandarins like Hilton Kramer) conclusion that “the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture seems less and less meaningful.” Of her practical criticism, the “Reader” stresses her writing about film: her influential essay on Godard, Bresson, Riefensthal, and Syberberg. There are substantial excerpts from her two novels, “The Benefactor” and “Death Kit”, several stories from her collection “I etcetera”; an interview from the quarterly “Salmagundi”; and the concluding chapter of “On Photography.” From her recent work, there are long appreciations of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. Also, of course, the notorious and unclassifiable “Notes on Camp” and “The Pornographic Imagination.”

It’s arguable that, despite these many delights, “A Susan Sontag Reader” deserves to fail. After all, no one seriously, or even casually, interested in the cultural history of the last two decades can afford not to read “One Culture and the New Sensibility” or “Trip to Hanoi” or the rest of “On Photography.” Besides, isn’t a retrospective a bit premature? — she’s only (lets hope) in mid-career. Sontag has edited anthologies of Artaud and Barthes, presumably to introduce those difficult and not widely available authors to an American audience. But her own books are all still in print. Neither does the “Reader” suggest any obvious revision in Sontag’s sense of the shape of her career, or in her critical and fictional commitments. Maybe it has something to do with the economics of the freelance literary life. She has largely avoided the academy, partly, I imagine, out of fidelity to an ideal of the man (woman) of letters. Commercial publishing ventures are no doubt part of the price of this admirable (and convenient) autonomy.

The selection in “A Susan Sontag Reader” is Sontag’s own, so it’s worth noting that fiction is in, politics out. Reversing the general estimate, Sontag has all along maintained that she’s primarily a writer of fiction. In the preface to her first essay collection, “Against Interpretation,” she wrote that its contents had fulfilled their function, that is, had given her “a new conception” of her “tasks as a novelist.’ Yet her novels leave me respectful but bemused, “The Benefactor” is a somewhat disembodied reminiscence, a drama of slightly desiccated consciousness. “Death Kit” is more compelling, a story of unlikely love and gratuitous murder whose narration be comes increasingly complicated and dreamlike. Although clever, both books are too deliberately experimental. The stories from “I, etcetera” are less demanding but more rewarding, especially the witty and plaintive “Project for a Trip to China” and “Debriefing,” a wry, mournful sketch of a friend slipping toward suicide. Reviewing “Death Kit”, Gore Vidal predicted that “once she has freed herself from literature, she will have the power to make it.” He was right: Sontag’s later fiction is less “literary” but more satisfying.

It’s unfortunate that Sontag has included none of her political writing in the “Reader”, since her political intelligence has been widely and unfairly impugned during the furor over her speech last winter at New York’s Town Hall. On that now-infamous occasion. she accused herself and others on the American left of insufficient rigor toward pseudo-socialist (Leninist) regimes. Out of understandable reluctance to leave the field to the Cold Warriors, the left slighted some important truths, she charged, and especially the painful truth that has so many noble hopes: that Leninist communism is no better than fascism, is merely “fascism with a human face.”

Predictably, the right was gleeful and patronizing, the left outraged and un forgiving. And both were eager to explain why Sontag on politics ought never to have been taken seriously in the first place. Nonetheless, her few, scattered, almost offhanded political pieces are gems. “What’s Happening In America” (1966), impious and despairing about Western, Faustian civilization, sympathetic but shrewd about the counterculture is to “The Greening of America” as Ortega y Gasset is to William Buckley. “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967), full of inchoate but intriguing suggestions about the deep structure of sexuality, illumines some questions about pornography now agitating the women’s movement. “The Third World of Women” (1972), a questionnaire response to a Latin American feminist journal, may be the best statement ever of radical feminism. And ‘Trip to Hanoi” is a tour de force: novelistic and ambivalent, successful at both cultural comparison and self-revelation, honest but honorably tactful toward a society under cataclysmic attack from her own. “Trip to Hanoi” burned many bridges behind Sontag, and the exasperation it provoked continues to surface (this spring, for example. in a vindictive assault by Richard Grenier in “The New Republic”). Apart from her opposition to the war, what exercised many of us was her avowed amateurism, her determination to avoid patronizing the Vietnamese and to wrest from the ceremonies of solidarity some increment to her maturing radical consciousness. As she’s since admitted, she was partly wrong about North Vietnam: but she was never simply or foolishly or irresponsibly wrong. She was complexly, usefully, and, above all, generously wrong. but to Grenier and, after Town Hall, even to some on the left, the episode was sheer spiritual adventurism — an epitome of the silly ‘60s. Sontag’s sense of her writerly vocation is apparently too austere for her to have included these mostly occasional pieces in the “Reader”. One wonders whether their omission isn’t also, perhaps subliminally, a gesture of contempt for the con temporary ideological scene.

Over the years, the tone of Sontag’s work has modulated from manifesto to meditation. Her most recent essays are sinuous, ruminative portraits of Barthes, Benjamin, and Elias Canetti — figures she greatly admires. Some of the dazzle and brio of the earlier essays is missing; these pieces are mellower, more muted, less argumentative. Why is Sontag now more serene? In part, surely, it’s her affection for her recent subjects: for Barthes’s playfulness, Benjamin’s wistfulness, Canetti’s outlandish intellectual ambition. And not merely affection: each must seem to her in proportions indistinguishable after years of intimate, wayward apprenticeship, both a model and a vindication. A sensibility as mobile as Sontag’s must occasionally require the anchor of an allegiance, an alternation of the thrills of iconoclasm with the quieter satisfactions of identification.

It’s also possible that Sontag’s increased assurance owes something to her standing in the society she’s so fervently scolded. True, it’s not easy to mature in public; and Sontag has remarked ruefully (in her exquisite memoir of Paul Goodman) on the “terrible, mean American resentment toward a writer who tries to do many things.” But she’s also remarked on the fantastic and unprecedented scale of 20th-century America, on its amazing abundance of sensations and its limitless (often mindless) appetite for novelties, Both a business civilization and an empire, America in the ‘60s and ‘70s produced a cultural mix of cosmopolitanism, philistinism, good intentions, and status anxiety; the neo- (and paleo-) conservative majority of 1980 was as yet silent; an extravagantly wealthy but culturally diffident haute bourgeoisie paid conscientiously to be amused, edified, or astonished. Although mavericks like Sontag were widely disparaged, they were also indulged; and she, at least, made the most of the precarious independence that celebrity confers.

Celebrity is rarely an innocent or straightforward phenomenon, and in Sontag’s case it’s bound up with a related, equally complicated matter: the fate of cultural radicalism in mass society. Few cultural products can escape the mechanisms of marketing and publicity, mechanisms that left Sontag musing sardonically on “the speed at which a bulky essay in “Partisan review” because a hot tip in “Time””. And celebrity may aim at domestication as well as homage. The American culture-consuming public in the early and mid- ‘60s was appreciative of but also uneasy about attacks on the genteel traditions of American arts and letters. Sontag’s was a prime instance of the subversive, deconstructive criticism that tries (in drama critic Richard Gilman’s description) “to discern what actually is coming to be born, to distinguish it from the stillborn, to welcome it …make room for it by pushing aside, metaphorically at least, what in the form of dead bodies has, been taking up all the space.” An indispensable but uncomfortable role, and so she was often reductively and defensively portrayed as and a highbrow Tom Wolfe, an avatar of transatlantic intellectual chic.

Sontag’s sense of proportion was also questioned, and with more reason. For what’s valuable about her writing — her prodigal imagination, her willingness to think aloud, tentatively —is also the source of what’s sometimes irritating about it. In one of the few intelligent responses to her Town Hall speech, modernist historian Marshall Berman took Sontag to task for “leaping brilliantly over history” in much of her work, and for her “fatal rhetorical flair” — in other words for the audacity and virtuosity that have also generated, as Berman acknowledged, “excitement, an infusion of intense feelings ... rare emotions and dangerous sensations.”

What is this excitement? And when it subsides, what’s left? Clearly what’s left are not well-made arguments and well-established themes. Sontag is not much given to (some would say, capable of) consecutive reasoning; and the absence of the familiar sequence of critical exposition — introduction, statement, development, defense, recapitulation: the critical essay in sonata form — can be frustrating. Suggestions appear and then disappear; insights gleam fitfully and fade; exhilarating gambits evaporate in the mind soon afterward. And lack of continuity is not a problem only within individual essays: promising themes announced early in her career. such as the elaboration of a critical sensibility embracing both elite and popular culture, have been abandoned. Restlessness and omnivorousness can be inspiriting but also exhausting, and thus (some would say) a mode of evasion.

Still, there are continuities, of which the most significant and elusive is the tenor of her imagination, the style of her judgment, the timbre of her critical voice. It is Sontag’s voice that has antagonized or bewitched so many, and most of all, her undaunted confidence in her voice and in the dependable interest of her impressions. The modest, perhaps slightly defensive disclaimer in the preface of “Against Interpretation” — “What I have been writing is not criticism at all, strictly speaking, but case studies for an aesthetic, a theory of my own sensibility” — might as well have been a red flag. Impressionism has never been a favored mode of American criticism; it has always been considered frivolous or self indulgent. True, there are affinities between Sontag’s early work and the then dominant (or just past dominant) New Criticism: emphasis on formal properties and rejection of the notion of art as moral commentary. But there was something devout and self-effacing in the attitude of many New Critics toward literature, as well as a distaste to exploit individual works as occasions for aesthetic theory. Neither is aphorism — a frequent vehicle for exploratory, fragmentary thinkers like Sontag— a congenial form in a civilization that owes more to Cotton Mather than to Montaigne. The American essay from Emerson onward is a pageant of moral passion; inspired intellectual play, what one might call theoretical passion, is less common.

Of course, playing by oneself is not much fun, which may be one reason why Sontag’s recent work seems to have eased into a less provocative tone and a less programmatic format. Her influence, though not particularly visible, has been considerable. She hasn’t carved out a specialty or founded a school, but her example has emboldened younger critics (Robert Christgau comes to mind) to trust their own voices and to celebrate popular culture without condescension or apology. In her earlier writing, the risks of isolation were more prominent: a defiant, compensatory raising of the stakes, a rhetorical self-intoxication. At times, when her ambivalence or uncertainty about her cultural identity was too great, the rhetorical temperature rose and the reader’s excitement might produce vertigo. But more often, when something less cosmic than the fate of criticism is at issue, she’s merely breathtaking, as in this characteristic passage from “On Photography,” explaining why photography is the Surrealist par excellence:

“Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored, the less patently crafted, the more naive — the more authoritative the photo graph was likely to be.

Surrealism has always courted accidents, welcomed the uninvited, flattered disorderly presences. What could be more surreal than an object that virtually produces itself, and with a minimum of effort? An object whose beauty, fantastic discourses, emotional weight are likely to be further enhanced by any accidents that might befall it? It is photography that has best shown how to juxtapose the sewing machine and the umbrella, whose fortuitous encounter was hailed by a great Surrealist poet as an epitome of the beautiful.”

Actually, Sontag, herself, in her latest essay, has offered a useful clue to her identity, or at least to her cultural function. Comparing her beloved Barthes to her beloved Nietzsche, she observes of both: “The point is not to teach us something in particular. The point is to make us bold, agile, subtle, intelligent, detached. And to give pleasure.” It’s Sontag’s point, too, of course.


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George Scialabba