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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 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.

What fires her to these efforts is Artaud’s horrible appraisal of his own psychic agony. He described as a tragedy his pursuit of “intellectual being.” (The translator has contrived an echo of the marvelous speech of Milton’s Belial: “But who would lose,/ Though full of pain, this intellectual being?” But the fallen angel wills to suffer the pain of continuing to have it, not the pain of pursuing it.) The pursuit is not merely recorded; in Artaud the man who suffers and the artist who creates are indivisible, and the suffering lies in the need to use language; so, as Sontag says, his anguish “constitutes his work.” She is evidently and understandably awed by this climax of Romanticism, and rightly distinguishes between Artaud’s practice and other merely aesthetic uses of pain and cruelty, in which the Romantic tradition abounds. He mistook surrealism for an aesthetic of despair, and abandoned it when he came to understand its relatively cheerful character. He shunned the “narrow tonal range” of normal literature with its hints of possible pleasures and satisfactions; his discourse is violently discontinuous because he distrusted the false comforts of continuity. Rejecting any theory that takes works of art to be steady-state objects, he made the drama paramount—drama conceived as a scene of pure sensory violence, a regenerative assault on the audience, unmediated by a text or by any other inherited convention.

It is the anguished heroism of this that Sontag admires, though she doesn’t forget the fact, once dismaying but now almost too familiar, that the revolutionary violence of modernism has never been able to elude the constraints placed upon it by the culture; everything can be “recuperated,” legitimated. Artaud wasn’t interested in political revolution, believing (wrongly, according to Sontag) that you could have a cultural revolution on its own. And he didn’t succeed in regenerating a single audience; all that has happened, as a consequence of this tormented, demented effort, is that the repertory has changed a bit, and directors have acquired some new conceptual resources. The theater can no longer accommodate rites and mysteries; Artaud was inappropriately religious, a spiritual heretic. Sontag elaborates a parallel between his thought and Gnosticism—he recoiled from the body (“made out of meat and crazy sperm”) and longed for a spiritualization of matter. It is a brilliant excursus, though, like most such speculations, it claims too much, for instance that the terminus of Gnostic thought must be schizophrenia, here defined as an ultimately political revolt against the prevailing norms, the bad faith, of the culture.

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—“the literature of the crazy in this century is a rich religious literature”—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 uncertainty 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 (even though most of these pieces were written for The New York Review of Books). They probably don’t read French. They have to have it explained to them that Roland Barthes used the Greek word doxa, which means something like “opinion” as opposed to “knowledge,” for his own purposes, because he was trained in the classics; though a very elementary acquaintance with Plato would have sufficed him, or them, without such training; an ordinary education would do. Such are the problems of haute vulgarisation, and the most gifted and passionate of expositors cannot quite escape them.

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 written for this journal; it seems that the news of his death reached the writer, along with a lot of other bad news from America, when she was living and working hard in extremely cramped conditions in Paris in 1972. 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 formicable one (it’s curious that Critique et vérité, his remarkable polemic against Picard, should never have been translated). 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.

Much preferring his late work to his earlier, and especially Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes and the Discours amoureux, which are personal books, she seems to think some of the earlier ones uncharacteristically schematic, and for that reason slights the book on fashion; but Barthes was passionately though playfully skillful in schematic writing, witness the introduction to semiology and the brilliant 1966 essay on narrative analysis, soon to be replaced by the entirely new system of S/Z, which was itself used once and once only. In the move from virtuoso schematizing toward the later, more personal style, the fascinating Plaisir du texte is a vital stage, but Sontag says little of it, and that little, since it blurs the distinction between plaisir and jouissance, may be misleading.

Yet if Sontag has some difficulty in reconciling the theoretic Barthes (whose extraordinary variety and fertility she justly acknowledges) with the personality she so much admired, the cause of it probably lies in Barthes himself. He helped to define the utopia of modern writing, he cultivated people who, more fanatic than he, sought to inhabit it, and he allowed its laws to influence his own projects to some extent. But he liked best to meditate on “classic” texts, where instead of the perpetual disorientation of the modern he found a continuity of civilized pleasure, interrupted by moments of modern disorientation and dismay which were qualitatively different from pleasure, and which he thought of as orgasmic. Reading then became a perverse eroticism, a very modern notion; but it depended upon classic continuities. That is why he could say he belonged to the rearguard of the avant-garde.

His reading was a feat of extraordinary personal refinement; what made him the most gifted of postwar critics was a Montaigne-like fluidity of mind, reflected in his beautiful French—even the neologisms, of which Anglo-Saxony is so suspicious, are invariably elegant. It is the truth of such a man that Sontag has to render in terms of the doxa that is available to her audience.

To bridge the gap, the expositor must illuminate an exotic personality; and it doesn’t always come off. 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. The imagery is ancient; it belongs no more than that quality Benjamin called aura to the modern world. (Aura is the property of works of art—their distinctiveness, uniqueness—that must be lost in an age of mechanical reproduction.) Benjamin himself had aura; for all his modernity he is poignantly of an earlier age. Private scholar, collector, intellectual flâneur of genius, always in some measure a heroic exile, he was of a kind they don’t make any more in Vienna or Paris, New York or London; nobody even resembles him.

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, which I haven’t seen (and if I had it might not make much difference, for I am closer to some of Sontag’s heroes than to her on the issue of whether the cinema is our master art), 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. It is a document of the advent of anti-Christ; it addresses the German people on their inability to do the necessary work of mourning; it adds to the history it recounts that missing element. 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.

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