Susan Sontag Tells All
The newly published second volume of the great critic’s journals reveals her transformation from hedonistic revolutionary to elitist enforcer
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.”
If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke, it might just be ‘Dayenu,’ the Passover punch line that is never enough