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Anti-Communism and the Sontag circle
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It was to be expected that the collapse of the intellectual Left in France—the virtual extinction there of Marxism and its ideological variants as a source of fashionable ideas —would sooner or later be reflected in the attitudes of those American intellectuals who habitually take their political cues from Paris. The only question that remained to be answered was: What form would this inevitable shift in political attitudes take on this side of the Atlantic? It remained to be seen, too, how widespread the effect of this shift would be when it came. Would it, for example, make any headway in the American academy, or were we going to have to wait for an entire generation of tenured révoltés to be retired from the scene before some semblance of intellectual enlightenment could be restored to the American professoriat?
At this writing, alas, the prospect of any significant change in the academy, at least as far as the humanities are concerned, looks pretty bleak. But outside the academy, especially among intellectuals who pride themselves on being culturally chic, the signs are not uninteresting. For in the milieu I speak of—let us call it, for short, the Sontag circle—it is no longer considered démodé to be anti-Communist. Indeed, it has become positively smart—sort of the dernier cri—not only to be anti-Communist but to be outspokenly anti-Communist. As abject as ever in its submission to French intellectual fashions, this privileged group has seized upon anti-Communism almost as if it were a new idea. And, of course, for many of its members it is a new idea—new, anyway, in its acceptability and modishness.
They do have a problem, however, and it is not a small one. How can the world be made to recognize that their anti-Communism isn’t like yours or mine? That it isn’t, you know, based on “coarse” or “vulgar” thinking; that it is somehow different, more cosmopolitan perhaps, maybe even sexier, and certainly more refined, than the anti-Communism of people they dislike. Distinguishing themselves from the people they dislike is terribly important, you see, because one of the things they especially dislike about the people they dislike is that they tend for the most part to be guilty of what I suppose must be called premature anti-Communism. Which is to say that they were anti-Communist in the days when the Sontag circle was busying itself with missions to Hanoi and Havana and denouncing the white race as “the cancer of human history.” Understandably, then, the crime of premature anti-Communism is not one that is easily forgiven in this milieu. For the world is full of simpletons who, knowing little or nothing about the way they order these things in France, might just possibly wonder why it took these smart people so long to discover what so many others, admittedly much less chic than themselves, have long known to be the most important political fact of the twentieth century.
Still, these intellectuals are not without their resources, especially when their reputations are at stake. Moreover, the kind of embarrassment and shame which you or I might feel if it emerged that we had been guilty of extolling ideas and praising regimes that were morally insupportable and were clearly seen to be morally insupportable at the time—well, that kind of embarrassment and shame is simply unknown to these exponents of cultural chic. They live, after all, for the moment. Yesterday’s fashions are easily shed, and when the moment arrives for a new position to be taken, they can be counted upon to be shameless in explaining away anything that you or I would consider contradictory or incriminating. Their sense of their own rectitude remains insuperable, and they never lack for allies to assist them in rehabilitating their claims to moral superiority.
An illuminating case in point is to be found in the remarkable article which a prominent member of the Sontag circle published this summer in The New Republic. Written by David Rieff and ostensibly a review of Against All Hope: The Prison Memoirs of Armando Valladares, the article is actually a polemic designed to establish the Sontag circle as the true and rightful custodians of intellectual anti-Communism, and thus to distinguish their anti-Communism from—what else?—the “vulgar” anti-Communism of the neoconservatives. While hailing Against All Hope as “one of the most complete accounts by a survivor of life in a gulag”— Armando Valladares is a Cuban poet who suffered more than twenty years of imprisonment and torture for his anti-Communism-Mr. Rieff uses the occasion of the book’s publication to offer us instruction in the subtleties of ideological etiquette. In the course of outlining for us what the Sontag circle now deems to be the “correct” form of anti-Communism, Mr. Rieff also attempts to explain how it happened that this group was always right—which is to say, Left—even when it was wrong. And this, in turn, may help us to understand—though this was scarcely Mr. Rieff’s intention—why this group is still dead wrong even now when, at least on the subject of anti-Communism, it has at long last awakened to the truth.
Mr. Rieff sets out the terms of his argument in the opening paragraph of his article:
The love affair between successive generations of bien pensant Western intellectuals [he writes] and the revolutionary communist regimes that have come to power since the storming of the Winter Palace is—Marx’s inane aphorism notwithstanding—simultaneously a profound tragedy and a gruesome farce. The story is tragic (not simply pathetic) because a passionate hope for a better world, even one that entails a stubborn refusal to despair of that hope, is a moral stance of considerable nobility.
It is daring, of course, for Mr. Rieff to invoke the spectre of those “bien pensant Western intellectuals” at the outset, for he is so clearly one of them. Yet that reference to “a passionate hope for a better world” is obviously expected to serve as a guarantee of virtue, and so Mr. Rieff, as bien pensant as ever, continues on, perfectly confident of the “nobility” of his “moral stance.” He cites George Steiner (writing on Sartre) as having defined for us the “two possible reactions to the awful reality of communism.” Mr. Steiner is quoted as follows: “One [reaction] is to say ‘Ha! I told you so. What a fool you were to expect otherwise.’ . . . The other reaction is to say, ‘Damn it to hell! One more great human hope gone to bits.’” Actually, this doesn’t begin to exhaust the possible reactions one can have to “the awful reality of communism,” and I can hardly believe that Mr. Steiner believes it does. But never mind—with the side of virtue clearly established, Mr. Rieff makes his main point:
This decent feeling of mourning for a great human hope is what is missing from neoconservatism; though its anti-communism is correct, its way with ideas is coarse and vulgar when compared with the tradition it criticizes.
There you have it. But what exactly is “the tradition” which neoconservatives are known to be so critical of in their “coarse” and “vulgar” way? About this tradition Mr. Rieff has curiously little to say, and one naturally wonders who, in his view, can be taken to represent it. Lenin? Stalin? Fidel Castro? Pol Pot? There is much to be said about the tradition which these names represent, but I somehow doubt if their “way with ideas” is what Mr. Rieff has in mind as the opposite of what is “coarse” and “vulgar.” No, he is probably thinking of someone closer to home—most likely Susan Sontag, whose “way with ideas” is so much admired. But if this is the case, then it is surely legitimate— indeed necessary—for us to be given some examples of what it is like to deal with ideas about Communism in a way that is free from the taint of coarseness and vulgarity. One wonders if the following represents the sort of thing Mr. Rieff has in mind:
All this, myth as well as reality, must be taken into consideration when evaluating the nature of public institutions in North Vietnam and their role in promoting or discouraging individuality. The life of an institution cannot be appraised by examining a blueprint of its structure; run under the auspices of different feelings, similar structures can have a quite different quality. For instance, when love enters into the substance of social relations, the connection of people to a single party need not be dehumanizing. Though it’s second nature for me to suspect the government of a Communist country of being oppressive and rigid, if not worse, most of my preconceptions about the misuses of state power in North Vietnam were really an abstraction. Against that abstract suspiciousness I must set (and be overruled by) what I actually saw when I was there—that the North Vietnamese genuinely love and admire their leaders; and, even more inconceivable to us, that the government loves the people .... Seeing for the first time in my life a prime minister praising the moral character of his country’s people with tears in his eyes has modified my ideas about the conceivable relations between rulers and ruled, and given me a more complex reaction to what I would ordinarily dismiss as mere propaganda.
Or maybe this choice item:
The people staffing IBM and General Motors, and the Pentagon, and United Fruit are living dead. The revolutionary response can’t be sabotage: blowing up the great corporate institutions. We are too few, too divided; and the violence they monopolize is formidable. The answer on which everybody is, miraculously, in agreement is subversion—subversion of the culture which produces the heartless bureaucrats of death and empty affluence: a kind of benevolent science-fiction operation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with the Body Snatchers as the good guys. Bending the mind and shaking loose the body makes someone a less willing functionary of the bureaucratic machine. Rock, grass, better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature—really grooving on anything—unfits, maladapts a person for the American way of life.
Or this one:
The first passage is quoted from Sontag’s “Trip to Hanoi,” now a classic in the literature of fellow-travelling apologetics; the second and third, from one of her lesser-known essays, “Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for Us) To Love the Cuban Revolution.” Of course, one can’t be certain that this is what Mr. Rieff was thinking of when he spoke of “the tradition” which neoconservatives are inclined to criticize, but I rather suspect it is.
With the line, then, firmly established—to his own satisfaction, anyway, and presumably that of his editor at The New Republic— between “vulgar” anti-Communism and the other kind, Mr. Rieff returns to the history of those “bien pensant Western intellectuals” and their defense of Communist tyranny, and, mirabile dictu, actually identifies himself, or rather his former self, as one of them.
All those tourists of the revolution [ he writes], seeing nothing and approving everything. The repulsive examples continue to pile up, and it is not pure polemic to cite them. For are Beatrice Webb’s chirpy accolades for the OGPU so very different from Noam Chomsky’s breezy dismissals of the first accounts of the Cambodian genocide? Or were Henry Wallace and Owen Lattimorc’s bracing gambols through the Soviet slave labor camps of Magadan and Kolyma (“p;a combination of Hudson’s Bay Company and the TVA” was Lattimore’s unforgivable summing up) any more intellectually disgraceful than the more incoherent but equally heartfelt gushings—the “right ons,” the chants of “Cuba Si, Yanqui No”—of the young (and not so young) Americans like myself who traveled to Cuba in the 1960s and ’70s?
Now anyone who has read Paul Hollander’s book, Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba 1928-1978, published by Oxford in 1981 and reissued as a Harper Colophon paperback in 1983, will recognize straightaway that Mr. Rieff is telescoping certain of its details in the foregoing paragraph. What is interesting is not that he should make use of this excellent book but the way he makes use of it. For one of the more conspicuous figures under discussion in Mr. Hollander’s book is none other than Susan Sontag. On page 353 of the paperback edition of Political Pilgrims, one of her remarks in “Trip to Hanoi” is quoted in the same paragraph containing a reference to the Webbs, but in the book as a whole Sontag looms much larger than Beatrice Webb. Sontag is, as you might say, one of the stars of the show. And while it may be gallant of Mr. Rieff to substitute his own youthful political mistakes for Sontag’s not so youthful ones in the passage I have quoted, one is nonetheless made a little queasy by the omission—especially when, a few paragraphs further on in his article, Sontag is given a cameo role, so to speak, as one of “a significant number of Western European and North American intellectuals [who] first subjected an act of the Cuban government to intense scrutiny and criticism.” That is, she is cited for her activities on behalf of writers imprisoned by Castro but not for her own writings in defense of Castro’s revolution and the Communist regime in North Vietnam.
This use—and abuse—of Paul Hollander’s book interested me for, another reason. It reminded me of something I had almost forgotten. About five years ago, at one of those posh dinner parties that people give for writers on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I found myself seated next to Susan Sontag. As writers tend to do, I asked her what she was working on. Imagine my astonishment upon being told that she was writing an article for The New York Review of Books that would constitute a “reply” to Hollander’s book. He shouldn’t—she said in a tone of moral indignation—be allowed to get away with it. The article, of course, never appeared. No doubt it was overtaken by events—the crackdown in Poland, most particularly, and the increasing influence here of certain émigré writers from Communist countries, Joseph Brodsky among them— which would have made a “reply” to Hollander along the lines originally envisioned somewhat problematical. Instead of this lost reply to Hollander, Sontag presently gave us something else. A year later, in 1982, she made her famous Town Hall speech, declaring that “Communism is fascism,” which, though it alienated certain die-hards on The Nation and The Village Voice, nonetheless had the effect of making a certain kind of anti-Communism sort of okay in certain circles. It initiated what might be called anti-Communism’s nouvelle vague.
But let us return to David Rieff’s article in The New Republic, for it reads in some respects like the kind of piece Sontag might have written in response to Hollander’s book—though Hollander’s book is never mentioned by Mr. Rieff. In his article Mr. Rieff attempts to explain why Castro’s revolution was seized upon by himself and so many others as the embodiment of that “passionate hope for a better world” which, in his view, is so much to be admired. It turns out that the key word here is “passionate,” for in his effort to explain the appeal of Cuban Communism Mr. Rieff resorts, very much as Sontag did in explaining the delights of the one-party system in North Vietnam, to the language of love.
Surely only the language of romantic love [he writes] (and, at least in the case of Cuba and perhaps Nicaragua, that of Club Med) can account for the phenomenon. This impression is, if anything, strengthened by the degree to which those who have repudiated their radical sympathies have done so using the vocabulary of the disenchanted lover.
Then, to amplify our understanding of the sexual “turn-on” which Cuba afforded its passionate American supporters, Mr. Rieff writes:
It is important to keep in mind that the degree to which the passion American radicals of the 1960s and ’70s felt for Cuba was, in reality, as much an erotics happily ratified by a dialectic as the other way round.
Ah, that wonderful word “erotics”—a favorite in the Sontag circle ever since it made its first appearance in Against Interpretation. What would they do without it? Yesterday it was called upon to aid us in grasping “the sensory experience of the work of art”; today it serves to explain the appeal of Castro’s revolution.
This, I gather, is what it means to write about Communism without being coarse or vulgar.
The question that inevitably arises is: Didn’t these people ever read anything about what was really going on in Cuba? Despite all the blather about “erotics,” these are people who read and write. They do it for a living, and are expected to know something about the subjects they write about. The truth about Cuba—for anyone who was interested in the truth—was well known long before Mr. Rieff walked the streets of Havana or either Heberto Padilla or Armando Valladares became a literary cause célèbre for the Sontag circle. Castro announced in 1961 that Cuba was a Marxist-Leninist state on the Soviet model, and he made no secret of the fact. He broadcast it to the world, and the whole world knew. Moreover, it was a subject much written and argued about— by, among others, Theodore Draper, whose book, Castro’s Revolution: Myths and Realities, published in 1962, was widely discussed at the time. You could hardly pick up an issue of The New Leader in those days without finding one of Mr. Draper’s meticulously documented articles on what Castro was up to. It was in the same magazine, by the way, that you could read—if you were inclined to pay attention to such matters— the transcript of Joseph Brodsky’s trial in Leningrad in 1964 and what I believe was the publication here of the first translation (by the late Jean Garrigue) of one of Mr. Brodsky’s poems, the “Elegy for John Donne.” I mention this because, by an odd twist of fate, Mr. Rieff is now Mr. Brodsky’s editor at Farrar, Straus Be Giroux.
In the Sixties, of course, Mr. Rieff was a kid. But he is a grown-up now (and Susan Sontag was passing for one at the time). Yet he still hasn’t a clue to how politics works in the real world. So enchanted is he with his notion of the role of sexual aesthetics in politics that he can write the following passage and still believe he is saying something smart:
It would be impossible to underestimate this aesthetic and aestheticizing element. (I sometimes wonder whether the contrast between the passionate identification anti-war Americans felt for the Vietnamese and the indifference they so lavishly exhibit toward the Afghans doesn’t have something to do with criteria of physical beauty.) Great beauties use their charm to get away with murder. As Fidel Castro has.
When, more than twenty years ago, Susan Sontag called for “an erotics of art,” I knew the consequences were likely to be bad, but I little dreamed that this half-baked idea would be adopted as a mode of political analysis. Somebody should break the news to Mr. Rieff: The reason “anti-war Americans” are indifferent to the war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with aesthetics or “erotics.” It has everything to do with the fact that American college students stand in no danger of being drafted into fighting that war. And it has something to do, too, with the fact that there is no way the war in Afghanistan can be used to make the United States government, or the country as a whole, look bad—always a key consideration for “anti-war Americans” as well as for the Sontag circle.
The truth is, Susan Sontag doesn’t have much of a mind for politics—and neither does Mr. Rieff. They are aesthetes hopelessly in thrall to the winds of fashion, forever in search of the “turn-on” that will serve their narcissism and their self-esteem. We probably owe it to Joseph Brodsky’s influence as well as to developments in France that they have now discovered the merits of anti-Communism, and if they have to muck around in matters they don’t understand, I suppose it’s better for them to be anti- than pro-Communist. But to an understanding of the political realities of Communism—or, for that matter, the political realities of American democracy—they have nothing whatever to contribute. Their disabilities in this respect have been amply demonstrated. History to them is not a record to be scrupulously explored but a sort of disco in which to be seen and have a good time; politics is somehow indistinguishable in their minds from the pleasure principle. No wonder they are so bothered by the ideas of the neoconservatives. When it comes to history and politics, this is what Mr. Rieff has to offer us:
Think of a slogan [he writes in The New Republic] like “Which Side Are You On?” the mot d’ordre first of American Stalinism and now of neoconservatism. That’s not a thought, it’s a rock ’n’ roll lyric: “Who Do You Love?” in political drag.
In this vulgar and unforgivable equation of American Stalinism, which long supported a system of tyranny and terror, with neoconservatism, which emerged from the turmoil of the Sixties to defend American democracy against the atrocious ideas of people like Susan Sontag, we are given a glimpse of the real spirit that governs this nouvelle vague—the preening ignorance, the incurable facetiousness, and the unremitting display of self-congratulatory airs.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 September 1986, on page 1
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