Alien Sages

Under the Sign of Saturn

by Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 204 pp., $10.95

At a time when nobody any longer has a very clear idea of what it means to be educated (uncertain even of the rudiments, we withhold them from our children) there exists a tendency, surprising only at first sight, to make heroes of intellectuals and savants who retain something of the obsolete grand manner. Twelve years back, students who professed to be anarchic with respect to institutions of learning, abolitionist with respect to inherited wisdom, chose to venerate Herbert Marcuse, an aging mid-European polymath in exile. Even today, when that peculiar fervor is dead or dormant, Jacques Lacan draws large crowds in London, and Jacques Derrida in New Haven. It wouldn’t be unduly cynical to guess that only a quite small proportion of these audiences has much notion of what the lecturers are talking about. What is wanted is some kind of contact with a sage. These occasions are less pedagogical than cultic. The gap between a normal education and the wisdom of great men becomes a breeding ground of wonder, almost of adoration.

The heroes so worshiped may be of different kinds; what they have in common is their remoteness from us in some admirable respect. They may, like Marcuse or Walter Benjamin, be the products of political and educational traditions long dead; or, like Lacan and Derrida, they may be philosophical virtuosos of a living but alien formation. Or they may seem to belong to a psychic order almost wholly inaccessible to us, like Artaud, who astounds by the unimaginable extent of his suffering as an artist. How are we to understand such heroes? Our efforts to discover what they mean to us, in our relatively comfortable, relatively impoverished condition, may well be as much devoted to their venerable strangeness as to what they seem to be saying. And even the professional explainers, working within the gap, the go-betweens, are affected by the cult, and may, without culpable egotism, be tempted into a mode of exposition too feverish, a rhetorical extremism meant to match the mysterious importance of the subject.

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, 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…

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