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Susan Sontag: a Prediction

by Roger Kimball

Posted: Dec 28, 2004 06:17 PM

When a friend called me this morning with the news that Susan Sontag had died at the age 71, just about the first thing I thought was, "well, we’ll have a huge, hagiographical, front-page obituary tomorrow in The New York Times." Check to see if I am correct. In the meantime, as you prepare yourself for the Times’s litany about 1) what a penetrating critical intelligence Sontag wielded and 2) what a "courageous" and challenging "dissident" voice she provided (those quotation marks are proleptic: let’s see if the Times uses those words), here is another "courageous," "penetratingly intelligent" dissident voice, that of Salman Rushdie, who provided this bouquet in his capacity as President of the PEN American Center:

Susan Sontag was a great literary artist, a fearless and original thinker, ever valiant for truth, and an indefatigable ally in many struggles. She set a standard of intellectual rigor to which I and her many other admirers continue to aspire, insisting that with literary talent came an obligation to speak out on the great issues of the day, and above all to defend the sovereignty of the creative mind and imagination against every kind of tyranny.

Those with strong stomachs can read all of Mr. Rusdie’s encomium here.

There can be no doubt that Susan Sontag, the doyenne of (to use Tom Wolfe’s apposite coinage) radical chic, commanded rare celebrity throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Accordingly, her influence in those decades and beyond was great. The question is, was it a beneficent or a baneful influence? Sontag has been celebrated as a towering intellectual. In fact, though, what she offered were not so much arguments or insights as the simulacra of arguments and the mood or emotion of insights. I wrote at length about Sontag in my book The Long March: How the Cultural Revoution of the 1960s Changed America. I draw upon that book and some other writings about her in what follows.

Sontag burst upon the scene in the early 1960s with a handful of precious essays: "Notes on `Camp’" (1964) and "On Style" (1965) in Partisan Review, "Against Interpretation" (1964) in Evergreen Review; "One Culture and the New Sensibility" (1965), an abridged version of which first appeared in Mademoiselle; and several essays and reviews in the newly launched New York Review of Books Almost overnight these essays electrified intellectual debate and catapulted their author to celebrity.

Not that Sontag’s efforts were unanimously praised. The critic John Simon, to take just one example, wondered in a sharp letter to Partisan Review whether Sontag’s "Notes on `Camp’" was itself "only a piece of `camp.’" No, the important things were the attentiveness, speed, and intensity of the response. Pro or con, Sontag’s essays galvanized debate: indeed, they contributed mightily to changing the very climate of intellectual debate. Her demand, at the end of "Against Interpretation," that "in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art"; her praise of camp, the "whole point" of which "is to dethrone the serious"; her encomium to the "new sensibility" of the Sixties, whose acolytes, she observed, "have broken, whether they know it or not, with the Matthew Arnold notion of culture, finding it historically and humanly obsolescent": in these and other such pronouncements Sontag offered not arguments but a mood, a tone, an atmosphere.

Never mind that a lot of it was literally nonsense: it was nevertheless irresistible nonsense. It somehow didn’t matter, for example, that the whole notion of "an erotics of art" was ridiculous. Everyone likes sex, and talking about "erotics" seems so much sexier than talking about "sex"; and of course everyone likes art: How was it that no one had thought of putting them together in this clever way before? Who would bother with something so boring as mere "interpretation"--which, Sontag had suggested, was these days "reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling," "the revenge of the intellect upon art"--when we could have (or pretend to have) an erotics instead?

In "Susie Creamcheese Makes Love Not War," a devastating--and devastatingly funny--review of the Sontag oeuvre as of 1982, the critic Marvin Mudrick noted that Sontag was

a critic whose every half-baked idea is a reject or thrift-shop markdown from the pastry cooks of post-World War II French intellectualism. . . . [W]hat matters [to her] isn’t truth or sincerity or consistency or reality; what matters is "style" or getting away with it.

Mudrick is especially good on Sontag’s use of the word "exemplary": "Barthes’s ideas have an exemplary coherence"; "Some lives are exemplary, others not"; Rimbaud and Duchamp made "exemplary renunciations" in giving up art for, respectively, gun-running and chess; "Silence exists as a decision--in the exemplary suicide of the artist . . ."; etc. Dilating on Sontag’s effusions about silence--"the silence of eternity prepares for a thought beyond thought, which must appear from the perspective of traditional thinking . . . as no thought at all"--Mudrick usefully points out the similarity between Sontag and that other sage of silence, Kahlil Gibran: "Has silence or talk about it," Mudrick asks, "ever anywhere else been so very . . . exemplary?"

Norman Podhoretz has suggested that the "rapidity" of Sontag’s rise was due partly to her filling the role of "Dark Lady of American Letters," vacated when Mary McCarthy was "promoted to the more dignified status of Grande Dame as a reward for her years of brilliant service. The next Dark Lady would have to be, like her, clever, learned, good-looking, capable of writing [New York-intellectual] family-type criticism as well as fiction with a strong trace of naughtiness." The "ante on naughtiness," Podhoretz notes, had gone up since McCarthy’s day: "in an era of what Sherry Abel has called the `fishnet bluestocking,’ hints of perversion and orgies had to be there."

In this context, it is worth noting that one of Sontag’s characteristic productions was "The Pornographic Imagination" (1967), which appears in Styles of Radical Will (1969), her second collection of essays. In essence, it is a defense of pornography--though not, of course, as something merely salacious; Sontag doesn’t champion pornography the way its usual clients do: for its content, for the lubricious stimulation it supplies. Instead, she champions pornography for its "formal" resources as a means of "transcendence." (The dancer and connoisseur of sodomy Toni Bentley clearly has taken a page from Sontag on the issue of sex and transcendence.)

It is hardly news that sexual ecstasy has often poached on religious rhetoric and vice versa; nor is it news that pornography often employs religious metaphors. That is part of its perversity--indeed its blasphemy. But Sontag decides to take pornography seriously as a solution to the spiritual desolations of modern secular culture.

One of Sontag’s great gifts has been her ability to enlist her politics in the service of her aestheticism. For her, it is the work of a moment to move from admiring pornography--or at least "the pornographic imagination"--to castigating American capitalism. Accordingly, toward the end of her essay she speaks of

the traumatic failure of capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsession, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness. The need of human beings to transcend "the person" is no less profound than the need to be a person, an individual.

"The Pornographic Imagination," like most of Sontag’s essays, is full of powerful phrases, seductive insights, and extraordinary balderdash. Sontag dilates on pornography’s "peculiar access to some truth." What she doesn’t say is that The Story of O (for example) presents not an instance of mystical fulfillment but a graphic depiction of human degradation. Only someone who had allowed "form" to triumph over "content" could have ignored this.

In a way, "The Pornographic Imagination" is itself the perfect camp gesture: for if camp aims to "dethrone the serious" it is also, as Sontag points out, "deadly serious" about the demotic and the trivial. Sontag is a master at both ploys. Having immersed herself in the rhetoric of traditional humanistic learning, she is expert at using it against itself. This of course is a large part of what has made her writing so successful among would-be "avant-garde" intellectuals: playing with the empty forms of traditional moral and aesthetic thought, she is able to appear simultaneously unsettling and edifying, daringly "beyond good and evil" and yet passionately engag�. In the long march through the institutions, Sontag has been an emissary of trivialization, deploying the tools of humanism to sabotage the humanistic enterprise.

"The Pornographic Imagination" also exhibits the seductive Sontag hauteur in full flower. After telling us that pornography can be an exciting version of personal transcendence, she immediately remarks that "not everyone is in the same condition as knowers or potential knowers. Perhaps most people don’t need `a wider scale of experience.’ It may be that, without subtle and extensive psychic preparation, any widening of experience and consciousness is destructive for most people." Not for you and me, Dear Reader: we are among the elect. We deserve that "wider scale of experience"; but as for the rest, as for "most people," well . . .

As a writer, Sontag is essentially a coiner of epigrams. At their best they are witty, well phrased, provocative. A few are even true: "Nietzsche was a histrionic thinker but not a lover of the histrionic." But Sontag’s striving for effect (unlike Nietzsche, she is a lover of the histrionic) regularly leads her into muddle. What, for example, can it mean to say that "the AIDS epidemic serves as an ideal projection for First World political paranoia" or that "risk-free sexuality is an inevitable reinvention of the culture of capitalism"? Nothing, really, although such statements do communicate an unperturbable aura of left-wing contempt for common sense.

In "One Culture and the New Sensibility" Sontag enthusiastically reasons that "if art is understood as a form of discipline of the feelings and a programming of sensations, then the feeling (or sensation) given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes." But of course the idea that art is a "programming of the sensations" (a phrase, alas, of which Sontag is particularly fond) is wrong, incoherent, or both, as is the idea that feelings or sensations might be "given off" by any song or painting, even one by Rauschenberg (odors, yes; sensations, no). As often happens, her passion for synesthesia and effacing boundaries leads her into nonsense.

And then there were Sontag’s own political activities. Cuba and North Vietnam in 1968, China in 1973, Sarajevo in 1993 (where she went to direct a production of Waiting for Godot--surely one of the consummate radical chic gestures of all time). Few people have managed to combine na�ve idealization of foreign tyranny with violent hatred of their own country to such deplorable effect.

She has always talked like a political radical but lived like an aesthete. At the annual PEN writers’ conference in 1986, Sontag declared that "the task of the writer is to promote dissidence." But it it turns out that, for her, only dissidence conducted against American interests counts. Consider the notorious essay she wrote about "the right way" for Americans to "love the Cuban revolution." Sontag begins with some ritualistic denunciations of American culture as "inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian." Item: "America is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of productivity that inundates the country with increasingly unnecessary commodities, services, gadgets, images, information." One of the few spots of light, she tells us, is Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, which teaches that "America’s psychic survival entails her transformation through a political revolution." (It also teaches that, for blacks, rape can be a noble "insurrectionary act," a "defying and trampling on the white man’s laws," but Sontag doesn’t bother with that detail.)

According to her, "the power structure derives its credibility, its legitimacy, its energies from the dehumanization of the individuals who operate it. The people staffing IBM and General Motors, and the Pentagon, and United Fruit are the living dead." Since the counterculture is not strong enough to overthrow IBM, the Pentagon, etc., it must opt for subversion. "Rock, grass, better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature--really grooving on anything--unfits, maladapts a person for the American way of life." And here is where the Cubans come in: they enjoy this desirable "new sensibility" naturally, possessing as they do a "southern spontaneity which we feel our own too white, death-ridden culture denies us. . . . The Cubans know a lot about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality and freaking out. They are not linear, desiccated creatures of print culture."

Indeed not: supine, desiccated creatures of a Communist tyranny would be more like it, though patronizing honky talk about "southern spontaneity" doubtless made things seem much better when this was written. In the great contest for writing the most fatuous line of political drivel, Sontag is always a contender. This essay contains at least two gems: after ten years, she writes, "the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression and bureaucratization"; even better perhaps, is this passing remark delivered in parentheses: "No Cuban writer has been or is in jail, or is failing to get his work published." Readers wishing to make a reality check should consult Paul Hollander’s classic study Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society, which cites Sontag’s claim and then lists, in two or three pages, some of the many writers and artists who have been jailed, tortured, or executed by Castro’s spontaneous gaiety.

Sontag concocted a similar fairy tale when she went to Vietnam in 1968 courtesy of the North Vietnamese government. Her long essay "Trip to Hanoi" (1968) is another classic in the literature of political mendacity. Connoisseurs of the genre will especially savor Sontag’s observation that the real problem for the North Vietnamese is that they "aren’t good enough haters." Their fondness for Americans, she explains, keeps getting in the way of the war effort.

They genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese population gets, "because they’re bigger than we are," as a Vietnamese army officer told me, "and they’re used to more meat than we are." People in North Vietnam really do believe in the goodness of man . . . and in the perennial possibility of rehabilitating the morally fallen.

It would be interesting to know what Senator John McCain, a prisoner of war who was brutally tortured by the North Vietnamese, had to say about this little fantasia.

Sontag acknowledges that her account tended somewhat to idealize North Vietnam; but that was only because she "found, through direct experience, North Vietnam to to be a place which, in many respects, deserves to be idealized." Unlike any country in Western Europe, you understand, and above all unlike the United States. "The Vietnamese are `whole’ human beings, not `split’ as we are." In 1967, shortly before her trip to Hanoi, Sontag had this to say about the United States:

A small nation of handsome people . . . is being brutally and self-righteously slaughtered . . . by the richest and most grotesquely overarmed, most powerful country in the world. America has become a criminal, sinister country--swollen with priggishness, numbed by affluence, bemused by the monstrous conceit that it has the mandate to dispose of the destiny of the world.

In "What’s Happening in America (1966)," Sontag tells readers that what America "deserves" is to have its wealth "taken away" by the Third World. In one particularly notorious passage, she writes that "the truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history."

What can one say? Sontag excoriates American capitalism for its "runaway rate of productivity." But she has had no scruples about enjoying the fruits of that productivity: a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1964, a Merrill Foundation grant in 1965, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1966, etc., etc., culminating in 1990 with a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. Sontag preserved her radical chic credentials to the end. In the 1960s in was Vietnam and Cuba; in the 1990s it was Sarajevo. The one constant was unremitting animus against the United States: its culture, its politics, its economy, its very being. Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, Sontag took to the pages of The New Yorker to explain that the assault of September 11 was "not a `cowardly’ attack on `civilization’ or `liberty’ or `humanity’ or `the free world’ [note the scare quotes] but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions. . . . [W]hatever may be said of the perpetrators of [September 11’s] slaughter, they were not cowards." Does she say, then, that they were murderous fanatics? Hardly. Sontag is at once too ambivalent and too admiring for that: too ambivalent about the "world’s self-proclaimed superpower" and too admiring of the murderous Muslim fanatics.

Sontag enjoyed an extraordinary career. But, pace Salman Rushdie, her celebrity was not the gratifying product of intellectual distinction but the tawdry coefficient of a lifelong devotion to the mendacious and disfiguring imperatives of radical chic.

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