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Critical Review by Larissa MacFarquhar
SOURCE: "Premature Postmodern," Nation, Vol. 261, No. 12, October 16, 1995, pp. 432-34, 436.
Below, MacFarquhar reviews Liam Kennedy's Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion, a study of Sontag's writings and their historical context.
There are certain poignant little facts sprinkled around us by that novelist in the sky that convey with especial vividness the gulf between past and present. One of these facts is that in the sixties some people considered Susan Sontag to be lacking in seriousness. Listen to Irving Howe writing in Commentary in 1968:
We are confronting, then, a new phase in our culture, which in motive and spring represents a wish to shake off the bleeding heritage of modernism and reinstate one of those periods of the collective naif which seem endemic to American experience…. The new American sensibility does something no other culture could have aspired to: it makes nihilism seem casual, good-natured, even innocent…. Alienation has been transformed from a serious and revolutionary concept into a motif of mass culture, and the content of modernism into the decor of kitsch…. [This new sensibility] is reinforced with critical exegesis by Susan Sontag, a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from grandmother's patches.
In 1968, at 35, Sontag was both a popular icon and one of the country's most respected critics. She wrote for Partisan Review and Esquire, for Mademoiselle and The New York Review of Books. She had published her first novel, The Benefactor, in 1963, her second, Death Kit, in 1967 and her first essay collection, Against Interpretation, in 1966. Reading it now, you can sense how exciting it must have been to pick up Against Interpretation in 1966, when it was unexpected: those luscious sentences, those enticing paragraphs and that curious, appreciative, calm, intelligent, innocent voice, without a trace of knowingness or sarcasm, that skipped so easily between flirtatious epigrams and earnest reasoning.
At the time, compared with Stalin-era types like Howe, Sontag was indeed a girl of the Zeitgeist. She had railed against traditional, Howe-style literary interpretation and condemned it as "reactionary," "cowardly" and "stifling." She had resuscitated Antonin Artaud by favoring spectacle over psychologizing in art, and proclaimed the "new sensibility" to be exemplified by visual arts like cinema, dance and painting—not novels. Rejecting Clement Greenberg's and Dwight Macdonald's efforts to put a cordon sanitaire around the avant-garde, she had attached quotation marks to "high" and "low" culture and declared the distinction practically meaningless ("The feeling … given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes"). She had infamously declared the white race to be "the cancer of human history" and concluded that "Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx and the Balanchine ballets don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world."
It was clear even then that Sontag did not reject everything Howe's generation had stood for, but she gave it all a new, impertinent, sixties twist. She agreed with Lionel Trilling, for instance, that art could and should have a moral effect on consciousness, but she thought that that effect could be derived from the most disengaged, aesthetic kinds of experience. She looked for self-transcendence, yes, but she found it in pornography (though only of the most high-brow sort).
She still believed in the unity of political and cultural radicalism, that signature of Howe's generation, but was too fond of her anti-interpretive ideas to conceive of an easy connection. She loved pop culture, but for high-culture reasons: Every bit as formalist as Greenberg, she argued that the business of contemporary art should be the "analysis of and extension of sensations," for which purpose a Supremes song might indeed be as useful as a Rauschenberg painting. All of this made for a peculiar, ambivalent style: She was a rigorous sensualist, an optimistic modernist, an earnest advocate of irony, a serious champion of playfulness. She had a sophisticated understanding of the comic but no sense of humor.
As far as Howe was concerned, this ambivalence—what he saw as Sontag's pseudo-modernist trappings—made her all the more insidious. Modernism, he had concluded gloomily in another late-sixties essay, "will not die [but] live on … through vulgar reincarnation and parodic mimesis…. Not the hostility of those who came before but the patronage of those who come later—that is the torment of modernism." Sontag was one of those who came later. Howe was ludicrously wrong, of course, to suspect Sontag of lacking seriousness, or even of valuing the modernist legacy any less than he did. But he may have understood better than she where her theories were leading.
Reading Sontag now, her essays seem less to be refining ways of thinking about modernism, as she thought they were, than presaging postmodern developments. Howe predicted the mutation of modernism into postmodernism, but reading Sontag you can actually see it happening. In "Notes on 'Camp,'" you can see her vacillate between her proto-postmodern attraction to camp—its unapologetic aestheticism, its generous playfulness, its style—and her instinctive, modernist revulsion from its frivolous amorality ("I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it"). In "On Style" you can see her championing formalism, surfaces and materiality against the notion of "content," but still for the old-fashioned moral reason of educating the senses: "For it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice, and prompts our readiness to act … the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinterestedness, contemplativeness, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) … are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life."
In a 1980 essay on Elias Canetti, Sontag distinguished between "ear culture" and "eye culture"—Hebrew versus Greek, as she put it, moral versus aesthetic. "The ear," she wrote, "is the attentive sense, humbler, more passive, more immediate, less discriminating than the eye [which] … affirms the pleasures and the wisdom of … surfaces." In the sixties, it was eye culture that captured Sontag's attention. Howe worried, more than she did, that ear culture was in danger of disappearing altogether.
By the late seventies and early eighties, though, Sontag's perspective had shifted. By the time she began writing the essays that would constitute On Photography (1977), she had become much warier of the dehumanizing, morally neutralizing quality of the sensuous-formalist ways of thinking that she had relished before. Thinking about photography, she became suspicious of its tendency to depersonalize, to flatten value systems, to encourage satisfaction with the status quo, to fracture the wholeness of the world. In 1974 she wrote:
Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed.
By 1979 Sontag had decided that Howe's worst nightmare had indeed come true. "There is really quite a close fit between avant-garde art and the values of the consumer society which needs products, constant turnover, diversity, outrage and so on," she admitted in an interview. "The consumer society is so sophisticated and so complex that it has broken down the lines between high and mass taste, between the conventional sensibility and the subversive sensibility."
The context has changed. And at this point, although most of Sontag's essays seem as brilliant and relevant as they ever did, others seem hopelessly quaint. The camp sensibility that in 1964 she considered so esoteric, so private that "to talk about [it was] therefore to betray it" has of course become thoroughly mainstream—indeed irritatingly omni-present. In the wake of deconstruction, Sontag's old formalist theories seem antiquated. It's telling, though, that that wild excess of hers she later regretted—calling the white race "the cancer of human history"—today sounds more banal than anything else, coming from a white person.
In Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion, Liam Kennedy sets out to describe Sontag's work and the context within which it appeared. It's Kennedy's first book; he's a lecturer in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham in England. Most of the book is summary—unfortunately, since Sontag does an excellent job of explaining herself. As an exegesis, though, it's nicely done, and Kennedy traces Sontag's main themes deftly along tortuous paths through both essays and fiction. Her metasubject, Kennedy quotes Sontag as saying, is "what it means to be modern." And then there are her various demi-metasubjects: Sontag exploring extreme states of consciousness, Sontag thinking about artistic isolation, Sontag pondering the ethics of connoisseurship, etc.
Unfortunately, Kennedy writes as though Sontag were dead. He compares her work only to that of her predecessors, with the result that you have little sense, upon finishing the book, of what effect (if any) she is having on younger writers. Her generalism, her polemical essay style, her Europhilia and her political engagement Kennedy links, naturally, to the New York intellectuals: to the generalism of Edmund Wilson, Paul Goodman and Harold Rosenberg, and to the engagé literary criticism of Trilling, Philip Rahv and Mary McCarthy. The let's-think-about-me mode she employs in Trip to Hanoi and elsewhere he connects to the Mailer-style new journalism of the sixties. Periodically he discusses her in relation to the dead-or-not-dead debate over the public intellectual.
Since Sontag herself spends so much time detailing her relationship to her antecedents, I regret not hearing more about the aspects of her oeuvre she doesn't talk about. With a publication history as eclectic as hers, her omissions are as telling as her subjects. Why, for instance, after vacuuming up more or less everything written in French in the fifties, from Camus to Barthes to Cioran, did she not write about anyone from the generation that followed? These questions are left hanging.
"My aim," Kennedy states at the outset, "is not to incorporate Sontag into academic frames of thinking." Insofar as that means he's resolved not to use jargon, fair enough, but a dogmatic exclusion of academic reference points seems silly, though certainly Sontagian. One would think it would follow from Kennedy's (and everyone's) conclusion that the public-intellectual tradition has mostly withered away that academic debates are precisely the most interesting ones to include her in these days. Especially the literary-theoretical ones of the seventies and eighties that took up the thread of French thought where Sontag appears to have dropped it.
This is a particularly frustrating omission since Sontag has always been more or less ignored by academia. Kennedy's explanation for this is only somewhat plausible: He claims academics are threatened by her refusal to specialize. Angela McRobbie, a British cultural studies theorist, is more pointed: "In many circles she is viewed with suspicion as at best an elitist, Eurocentric aesthete." McRobbie's view seems to have been borne out by the reception of Sontag's 1989 book, AIDS and Its Metaphors. Intruding as she was on a particular academic turf, Sontag suddenly received lots of professorial attention, much of it negative. D.A. Miller wrote a particularly hostile review in which he accused her of homophobia. Much of what he was reacting to, though, was her perhaps willful ignorance of academic politics: her use of the word "homosexual," for instance, and her aggressive assertion of her right to talk about AIDS with the prefatory sentence, "Rereading Illness as Metaphor now, I thought…."
Kennedy offers only a few critiques. Boringly, he faults her for restricting her discussion of pornography to the literary variety, thus "bracket[ing] off many of the socio-moral questions central to the pornography debate." Boringly, he reproves her for the cultural elitism that is at the heart of her enterprise. At a very late stage in the book he suddenly comes out as an antimodernist and begins to take Sontag to task for her "perverse, private effort to keep the dead alive." Still, he does defend her against accusations that she has turned to the right, correctly ascribing some of these to a facile equation of her retro universalist rhetoric with neoconservatism.
Shortcomings aside, the mere fact that Kennedy's book exists is interesting. Sontag, as Partisan Review editor William Phillips observed in 1969, has always "suffered from bad criticism and good publicity"; she's underrated by the right people and overrated by the wrong people. As a result she is frequently gossiped about but rarely discussed in writing. The only other book-length study of her work—Sohnya Sayres's Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist (1990)–is out of print. She's in neither of two recent essay anthologies—Phillip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay and The Oxford Book of Essays.
I would like to read a book that situated Sontag in the present as well as the past, and that analyzed her from the point of view of sensibility—as a writer and appreciator, rather than primarily as a theorist (though of course the two are inextricable). This approach might go some way toward explaining, for one, why her essays are so much better than her novels—why her writing seems too sweet without the salt of information. And it would be an appropriately Sontagian approach, since so much of her writing consists of, as she has put it, "case studies of [her own] evolving sensibility." After all, as she wrote admiringly of fellow-generalist Roland Barthes on his death in 1980, "It was not a question of knowledge … but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention."
This section contains 2,264 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)