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Notes on Susan

Susan Sontag was that unimaginable thing, a celebrity literary critic. Most readers of The New York Review probably would have been able to recognize her on the street, as they would not, say, George Steiner. An icon of braininess, she even developed, like Einstein, a trademark hairdo: an imperious white stripe, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi, as though she were declaring a cultural Emergency. Most readers probably know a few bits about her life, as they do not of any other critic: the girl Susan Rosenblatt—Sontag was her stepfather—in her junior high class in Arizona, with Kant, not a comic book, hidden behind her textbook. Her teenaged marriage to Philip Rieff that was her entry into highbrow society. (“My greatest dream was to grow up and come to New York and write for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people.”) Her trip to Hanoi in 1968. The mini-skirted babe in the frumpy Upper West Side crowd and her years as the only woman on the panel. The front-page news in 1982 when, after years of supporting various Marxist revolutions, she declared that communism was “fascism with a human face.” Her months in Sarajevo in 1993, as the bombs fell, bravely or foolishly attempting to put on a production of Waiting for Godot. Her struggle with cancer. Her long relationship with the glamour photographer Annie Leibovitz. We even know—from Leibovitz’s grotesque “A Photographer’s Life” exhibition and book—what Sontag looked like in the last days of her life and after her death.

At thirty, she had indeed become a regular contributor to Partisan Review, as well as The New York Review. At thirty-three, she collected her essays into Against Interpretation (1966), surely the best-known book of cultural criticism of its time, a dizzying, intimidating, simultaneous celebration of asceticism (Simone Weil) and absurdism (Eugène Ionesco), suicidal suffering (Cesare Pavese), physical self-loathing (Michel Leiris) and physical delight (Norman O. Brown), the criminal (Jean Genet) and the transgendered (Jack Smith), the minimal (Nathalie Sarraute) and the maximal (happenings, Marat/Sade), the films New York intellectuals were talking about (Godard, Resnais, Bresson) and the films French intellectuals were talking about (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond). The book ended with a declaration of a “new sensibility,” first proclaimed in the pages of Mademoiselle magazine, most of which sounded like the manifestos of a half-century before:

Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility. And the means for practicing art have been radically extended…. Painters no longer feel themselves confined to canvas and paint, but employ hair, photographs, wax, sand, bicycle tires, their own toothbrushes and socks. Musicians have reached beyond the sounds of the traditional instruments to use tampered instruments and (usually on tape) synthetic sounds and industrial noises.

The new sensibility is rooted in “new sensations such as speed,” the new crowds of people, and the proliferation of material things. It blurs the distinction between high and low art, refuses to be sentimental, views the artwork as an object and not an “individual personal expression,” and does not believe it should be a vehicle for meaning or moral judgment. “The new sensibility understands art as the extension of life.”

Against Interpretation was a bombshell partially because, cloaked in a familiar and unthreatening critical discourse, it finally brought the tenets of Dadaism and Futurism and Surrealism to Riverside Drive, where the modern had been Joycean and Eliotic, a territory patrolled by New Critical, Freudian, and Marxist exegetes. What was missing in the book was any sense that Sontag was raising the revolutionary banner in a very tiny kingdom. When, in a famous sentence—the entire last section of her title essay—she declared, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” the first-person plural reflected how isolated that kingdom was. It was already forty years after the first Surrealist manifesto or, closer to home, seven or eight years after “Howl” or On the Road. “We” could have taken the subway downtown.

Against Interpretation also contained, of course, “Notes on ‘Camp’,” which remained Sontag’s best-known shorter essay, and the one cited in nearly all the obituaries. It has dated badly, especially as the word “camp” (let alone “to camp”) has long since reverted to its summer leisure connotations, and its subtleties, so meticulously detailed by Sontag, have been reduced to the “Cult” section of the video store. Yet “Notes on ‘Camp’” inadvertently became Sontag’s most influential essay. Its fifty-three-point structuralist analytic overkill on a minor pop phenomenon—an ironic fad among certain witty gay men—was something new in the US, though the French had been doing it for years. From that seed, to her dismay, grew the vine that would eventually overrun the English Department, producing a thousand deconstructionist dissertations on Batman. But it was also—in a climate where the literary establishment passed over homosexuality in polite silence and the left was largely hostile—one of the earliest attempts, and surely the most important, to illuminate (and even praise!) a gay sensibility.

Most of the qualities of Sontag’s work as a critic were in place in that first book of essays. Her prose style barely changed over the next forty years. As much of literary criticism sank into an imported technojargon, she was notable for the clarity of her heavily worked phrases that seemed to have been written under Walter Benjamin’s dictum that every sentence should contain a thought. (She had a fondness for the unnecessarily italicized word and, like Edward Said, a tendency to string together three nouns, verbs, or adjectives—a tic perhaps picked up from Robert Lowell’s poems.) One always knew exactly what Sontag was saying, even if one didn’t think it was true. And each essay was extensively researched and elegantly argued with her University of Chicago training in philosophy, full of precisely apt quotations that apparently came from a photographic memory. Describing Roland Barthes, she described herself:

[His work] has some of the specific traits associated with the style of a late moment in culture—one that presumes an endless discourse anterior to itself, that presumes intellectual sophistication: it is a work that, strenuously unwilling to be boring or obvious, favors compact assertion, writing that rapidly covers a great deal of ground.

The essays are ruminative, utterly humorless—her favorite word was “serious”—and unlike the work of many of the writers she most admired, in that she never attempted to do anything new or different, formally, with her critical prose. She did not, or could not, follow another Benjamin dictum she cited: “All great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one.” She was a celebrant of transgression, but there was nothing transgressive about her writing. Brilliant syntheses of what were often Continental ideas unfamiliar to American audiences, her best literary essays were unmatched models in the art of the introduction.

Fashioning herself after the European (especially Eastern European), Russian, and Latin American literary writers who had become intellectual consciences in their societies, Sontag began her role as an often-inflammatory political commentator the year after Against Interpretation, in the Winter 1967 issue of Partisan Review. An artifact of its age, it was dedicated to a symposium on “What’s Happening to America.” (“There is a good deal of anxiety about the direction of American life. In fact, there is reason to fear that America may be entering a moral and political crisis.”) Participants were asked to answer seven questions on Lyndon Johnson, inflation, foreign policy, the role of the intellectual, the “activities of young people today,” and so on. Although one of the questions was “Is white America committed to granting equality to the American Negro?” it did not occur to anyone to ask any actual American Negroes. Only two women were invited: Sontag and Diana Trilling, then sixty-two.

Sontag’s response was a full-scale bombardment of H.L. Mencken’s Yahooland, not excluding “John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House,” the genocide of the American Indian, and “box architecture.” Amazingly, in 1967, she was (with Jack Newfield, in passing) the only participant to mention sex, drugs, and rock and roll. She even admitted to taking drugs herself, though her cultural references reveal her as somewhat less than groovy: her primary example of the sounds of the counterculture was the hopelessly showbiz—the word then was “plastic”—Supremes. Her response also contained the lines that set off a long apoplectic reply from Sidney Hook in the next issue, and were among her most notorious at the time:

The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history…. [her italics]

She came to regret that last phrase, and wrote a whole book against the use of illness as metaphor, and yet this sentiment never led to any public curiosity about those who are not cancerously white. In her collected critical writings there are only a few pages—some program notes for a Japanese Bunraku puppet performance and a passage on photography in China—that deal with the cultural products of the majority of the world. Her one published entry into the third world—the 1968 “Trip to Hanoi”—shows her trying to put on a brave face but utterly at sea, and her early short story “Project for a Trip to China” is an embarrassing bit of Chinoiserie, however dismantled and self-consciously postmodern. Like the old joke about the Oxford don, she knew everything, and nothing about everything else. It’s too bad. One would have thought, to take only one example, that Yukio Mishima would have been a perfect subject for her—a counterpart to her essay on Leni Riefenstahl—with his conjunction of authoritarianism, militarism, the cult of the body, and self-destructive narcissism.

She may well have been the last unashamed Eurocentrist. Even the Americas barely appear in her taste for writers. There are three essays on American writers of any stripe: a review of Norman O. Brown (1961), an obituary for Paul Goodman, “quite simply the most important American writer” of the last twenty years (1972), and an appreciation of Glenway Wescott (2001). Latin America is confined to Machado de Assis (1990), three pages on Juan Rulfo (1994), and a very slight “Letter to Borges” in 1996. Unexpectedly, though she is taken to be an urfeminist, she rarely wrote on women writers: Weil and Sarraute in Against Interpretation, Pauline Réage (the author of The Story of O) as part of a long essay on pornography in 1967, an introduction to Marina Tsvetayeva in 1983 (that says little about Tsvetayeva and much about Joseph Brodsky), a few pages on Elizabeth Hardwick in her essay on Wescott, and Anna Banti in 2003. In the early years, this was perhaps to avoid ghettoization as a woman writer on women writers, a need to be taken as one of the guys in what was essentially a guy-world, but this was not the case later on, when her fame allowed her to write on anything she chose. Her lack of generosity to other women writers was most baldly apparent in the uncollected and unpleasant speech she gave in 2003 accepting the Prince of Asturias Prize, which she was obliged to share with the Moroccan writer Fatema Mernissi, whom she indirectly belittles as a mere ethnic token.1

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