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Susan Sontag Tells All

The newly published second volume of the great critic’s journals reveals her transformation from hedonistic revolutionary to elitist enforcer

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Susan Sontag in the atrium of Mills Hotel for a Symposium on Sex, New York City, Dec. 2, 1962. (Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)
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It would be hard to find two writers with less in common than Cynthia Ozick and Camille Paglia. Ozick the owl is wise, serious, modernist, and devoted to literature; Paglia the peacock is flashy, provocative, postmodernist, and celebrates pop. Put them in a room together and they would probably have nothing to talk about. Except, perhaps, for one thing: their profoundly ambivalent feelings about Susan Sontag. Both Ozick and Paglia have written essays describing their own private agons with Sontag and everything she represented, especially to other women writers, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ozick’s essay “On Discord and Desire” was written in response to Sontag’s death in 2004 (it can be found in her book The Din in the Head), and it begins with a reflection on Sontag’s image, as it appeared on “the back cover of my browning paperback copy of The Benefactor, [Sontag’s] first novel published in 1963, when she was thirty: dark-haired, dark-browed, sublimely perfected in her youth.” The image is an appropriate, even inevitable starting place for a consideration of Sontag, not because her image was her main achievement or primary concern, but because so much of her power as a cultural figure came from what she was seen to represent.

As Ozick sees it, when Sontag published her landmark essay collection Against Interpretation in 1966, she fired the first shot in what would become the 1960s revolution in taste and standards. When Sontag declared, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” she issued what sounded to Ozick like a “summons to hedonism” and a “denigration of history.” Sontag’s name became a battle cry, which stood for “fusion rather than separation, it meant impatience with categories, it meant infinite appetite, it meant the end of the distinction between high and low.” And to Ozick, who at the time was laboring away in obscurity in the Bronx, Sontag seemed to speak with all the authority of the Zeitgeist itself: “She was the tone of the times, she was the muse of the age, she was one with her century.” When Ozick looks at that photo of Sontag, she sees the stylish barbarism of the sixties in a single alluring image.

Turning from Ozick’s Sontag to Paglia’s Sontag, however, is a weird, Rashomon-like experience. For in “Sontag, Bloody Sontag,” Paglia’s slashing, self-regarding attack (it can be found in her essay collection Vamps and Tramps), what angers her most about Sontag is precisely her dull, old-fashioned seriousness. Paglia, too, begins by remembering Sontag’s “glamorous dust-jacket photo,” which “imprinted [her] sexual persona as a new kind of woman writer so indelibly on the mind.” But by the time Paglia met her idol, when she arranged for Sontag to speak at Bennington College—an event that turned into a memorable fiasco—she found Sontag a different person from the one she had expected.

Ironically, what infuriated her is that Sontag was not the hedonistic leveler Ozick imagined, and that Paglia herself had admired. “I grew more and more aggravated by her arch indifference to everything she had glorified in Against Interpretation,” Paglia writes. “Sontag’s calculated veering away from popular culture is my gravest charge against her.” She was particularly appalled by Sontag’s declaration, in a Time magazine profile, that she didn’t own a television: “Not having a TV is tantamount to saying, ‘I know nothing of the time or country in which I live,’ ” Paglia scoffs.

The strange thing is that Ozick and Paglia were both right about Susan Sontag. At the beginning of her career, she was a revolutionary and a hedonist and a leveler; by the end, she was an elitist and an enforcer of literary and cultural hierarchies. You can see the transformation neatly encapsulated in the paperback edition of Against Interpretation, which comes with an afterword Sontag wrote in 1996, on the 30th anniversary of the book’s publication. In the title essay, the 31-year-old Sontag inveighs against the mind in Blakean terms: “In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’ ” Instead of meanings, she calls for “transparence,” for “new sensory mixes,” for sheer experience cut loose from the need to interpret, analyze, and moralize: “A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something.”

Yet in the afterword, the 63-year-old Sontag sounds a Prufrockian note: That is not what she meant, at all. “In writing about what I was discovering,” she now realizes, “I assumed the preeminence of the canonical treasures of the past. The transgressions I was applauding seemed altogether salutary, given what I took to be the unimpaired strength of the old taboos.” But in fact, those taboos were like a house eaten up by termites, ready to collapse at the first push. “What I didn’t understand (I was surely not the right person to understand) was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large,” Sontag writes in 1996. “Barbarism is one name for what was taking over. Let’s use Nietzsche’s term: we had entered, really entered, the age of nihilism.”

In fact, a close look at the evolution of Sontag’s writing shows that it did not take her half a lifetime to start regretting, or at least rethinking, Against Interpretation. Take, for instance, the development of her views about Leni Riefenstahl, the director whose films glorifying Nazism are among the greatest works of propaganda ever made. In Against Interpretation, Sontag went out of her way to praise these films on aesthetic terms: “To call Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will and The Olympiad masterpieces is not to gloss over Nazi propaganda with aesthetic lenience. The Nazi propaganda is there. But something else is there, too, which we reject at our loss.” For a Jewish writer publishing in Partisan Review—for decades the Bible of scrupulous anti-totalitarians—this was a carefully chosen heresy. It was meant as a concrete example of Sontag’s elevation of the aesthetic over the ethical, of “sensory mixes” over what she called, contemptuously, the Matthew Arnold school of moral journalism.

It was an unmistakable recantation, then, when Sontag published the essay “Fascinating Fascism,” which is collected in her 1980 volume Under the Sign of Saturn. For in this celebrated piece, she writes thoughtfully and indignantly about the rehabilitation of Riefenstahl. She exposes the way Riefenstahl rewrote her C.V. to minimize her profound Nazi ties and links her late-life photographic portraits of African tribesmen to her earlier fascist glorification of the body and violent struggle. But most of all, Sontag decries the way Western intellectuals and connoisseurs have been complicit in this rehabilitation. The author of “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” blames this moral dereliction on “the sensibility of camp, which is unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness: and the modern sensibility relies on continuing trade-offs between the formalist approach and camp taste.”

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Carl says:

She is the classic example of someone who the New York intellectual elite decided was important so she was let into their echo chamber. I read a couple of her books and I have to admit that I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. She had nothing interesting to say.

What a wonderful exploration of a “serious artist.” Susan Sontag’s voice and image captivated me in the small bits that I saw her. She was a model to me of a gorgeous, sexy woman, though I really only read a smattering of her work. Kirsch beautifully captures the contradictions that fired her – the mix of seriousness with a passionate erotic yearning (almost unrequited love for love), and which gave to Sontag a soaring brightness that made her live as much as icon as – well, serious writer. Sontag probably was maddening as a friend (or lover) precisely because she was so torn and with an intelligence that was deep and wide as the Atlantic, over which she traversed back and forth in search of… greatness? truth? love? Thanks for capturing this woman better than I’ve ever seen, and someone has has stayed in my imagination since first seeing her picture on the back of a paperbook sometime in my teens.

James Winchell says:

I agree with Jonathan Field (above), wholeheartedly. I would add to his comment, that Sontag’s high-tension intelligence, as “deep and wide as the Atlantic over which she traversed…” so regularly, primarily drew its power through her profound and “serious” francophilia: the line about the white race being a “cancer,”–is that not taken directly from Lévi-Strauss? And her sense of semiotics and hermeneutics–is it not a series of elaborations upon her beloved Roland Barthes? This is by no means to denigrate her; she was, and is, a perfervid pollinator. Thank you, Adam Kirsch.

George Balanchine says:

Yes, but what exactly is this article trying to say about Sontag?
Is it me, or are more and more articles of this type, a certain kind of “cultural journalism”, extremely vague and unclear, no matter how many words there are?
I have an opinion about Sontag’s work and importance, both not very kind. But at the end, I suppose the important thing is is what is this writer trying to say about her? My reply: I haven’t the slightest idea.

“to other people she evidently seemed more like Dr. Johnson”


Dr. Johnson had a sense of humor.

Jim Spivack says:

I don’t know if I have it right but Gore Vidal once wrote in an NYRB article that ‘Susan Sontag operated in that rarified American reality of having no irony whatsoever.’

I can see your reviewer is a man of a few (thousand) words!

Robyn Delfin says:

With the parsing, hermenutics, semiotics, fusion, I am rendered confused and take away little.

Susan Sontag was smart, energetic, ambitious, sexy, lesbian, and Jewish, all of which helped her become famous. (Her hair ranked in the 99th percentile among lesbians for sexiness.)

Unfortunately, she didn’t have much to say of interest, as Mr. Kirsch’s many thousands of words of explication inadvertently demonstrate. She’ll be remembered for saying “the white race is the cancer of human history,” but that’s about it.

Bizenghast says:

In a way, I understand Susan Sontag. She seems like an impenetrable figure, one that others cower at ever trying to figure out. I saw the clip where Camille Paglia lambasted Sontag for her “superior” and “elitist” attitude. Yes those criticisms were warranted in some respects, but it mostly boils down a difference in personality and thus a difference in approach. Sontag wasn’t aware of the portentous air that she gave off ; she would write about kitsch topics with the utmost formality. Seriousness is a trap, those who assume it have a hard time ever tunneling out of that stereotype.

“Against Interpretation,” “Notes on Camp,” and “The Pornographic Imagination,” did not seek to overthrow the intellectual in favor of the sensual, but sought (in part) to return art’s sensuality, its eroticism, to proper consideration as one of its modes of action. Lovers of film (of which Sontag was one) can never escape the sensuality of that medium, but for whatever reason, sensuality is often dismissed by theorizers of literature, especially academicized ones.

But it’s obvious (to me, anyway) that those three essays only consider sensuality as a means toward the higher aspirations of art. Sontag doesn’t seek to ennoble pornography or vulgarism, nor to topple a tradition of intellectual rigor, but to elevate art (in its “spiritual” role) above both. The position isn’t incoherent or inconsistent or hypocritical, but early Sontag’s particular blind spot, her ingenuousness, even, was failing to anticipate that to reject a false dichotomy could easily result in enlistment by committed partisans on both sides (e.g., Ozick and Paglia). She underestimates the sophistication of her readers.

Similarly, Kirsch characterizes Sontag’s reference to Riefenstahl in “On Style” as an elevation of the “aesthetic over the ethical,” when in fact the crux of the essay is precisely a denunciation of what she calls the “pseudo-problem” of art versus morality, and, having demolished this opposition, she even returns to synthesize how art with morally objectionable “content” may have a role in forming a moral will.

There is no recantation, then, in “Fascinating Fascism,” only a rueful awareness that—and let me provide the full quote—”[b]acking up the solemn choosy formalist appreciations [of Fascist aesthetics] lies a larger reserve of appreciation, the sensibility of camp, which is unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness.” The problem is not the camp per se, but the lack of seriousness. (I also don’t understand why Kirsch omits the last sentence of the paragraph he blockquotes: “Taste is context, and the context has changed.” Historical contingence is something Sontag freely granted in “On Style.”)

The quoted 1960 journal entry about will and mind, in its larger context, is a miniature exemplar of the approach: Sontag characterizes Philip Rieff as subjugating his mind to his will, i.e., his “moral responses” and his prejudices, because he has “no love of the truth.” He comes up with conclusions and then thinks in order to justify them, she says. (The danger faced by any thinker.) Sontag sees her own will in this situation, inasmuch as it can be “hypostasized,” not so much to be a good wife and mother, but to “support [the one she loves] even in his lies.” Thus is Sontag’s own mind subjugated to her will. (Lies aren’t very categorical-imperativey, I note.)

But for one who loves truth, that hypostasization amounts to an excuse, and must be defeated, unifying, perhaps in a not-so-paradoxical Kantian way, the mind and will. It would be a synthesis similar to what she discusses in “On Style,” and quite interesting when considering that “will” is the very word she uses for the “organic” synthesis she advocates there. Alas, the journal entry concludes with a resolution to “destroy the will”; one wonders whether her “commitment to truth” allowed her to ever accomplish such a synthesis in her personal psychology.

Anyway, Sontag appears to have been well aware that her seriousness sometimes made her a crashing bore at parties or intolerable to be around, but I don’t think Kirsch has explained why it impaired her criticism, or how seriousness in a critic can be a vice.

licet, not licit

Ron Coleman says:

Pretty ironic lack of irony in this essay.  Was Sontag the pseudo-intellectual precursor to Seinfeld’s “show about nothign”?

Richard Samuelson says:

Perhaps I’m dim, but I’m not sure I see the relationship between the bits about Ozick and Paglia at the start and the conclusion.

Happycrow says:

 @Carl: (coming into discussion late)
no, she didn’t.  Neither is there anything mysterious about this supposed “change” in her perspectives — it had nothing to do with artistic integrity or intellectual “seriousness,” only in appealing to Group X while distancing herself from (and preferably above) Group Y.  That’s all there is to Sontag’s work, and no amount of desperate projection will infuse meaning into what is ultimately turgid  bloviation. 

holdmewhileimnaked says:

reading all of the above- or belownoted comments [depending on yr sort] complaining that the commenters do not understand what susan sontag was saying only furthers my ability to understand what she was saying even more. sadly, too. very sadly. cos in the end she was right & it has only gotten worse.

AllenLowe says:

I’m somewhat shocked that no one seems to have really read or considered what is quoted above,  from Against Interpretation: “interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings…A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something.”    Brilliantly perceptive; she was not really saying tha you cannot interpret but rather objecting to a whole school of middle-class magazine criticism; at the same time she was skewering academics  bogged down in increasingly narcissistic forms of “contextualization”. Note too that the same ideas, almost verbatim, were expressed by Beckett and Robbe Grillet

I like the part about “Art is not only about something; it is something.”  But unless she toured the Hebrides, I’m not reading her journals. 


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Susan Sontag Tells All

The newly published second volume of the great critic’s journals reveals her transformation from hedonistic revolutionary to elitist enforcer