Susan Sontag Tells All
The newly published second volume of the great critic’s journals reveals her transformation from hedonistic revolutionary to elitist enforcer
More, Sontag detects a subterranean connection between fascism, with its celebration of irrationality and community, and the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, which valued the same things. Thus “a fair number of young people now prostrating themselves before gurus and submitting to the most grotesquely autocratic discipline are former anti-authoritarians and anti-elitists of the 1960s.” By the end of “Fascinating Fascism,” Sontag concludes that when it comes to culture, quod licit Jovi non licit bovi:
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 is 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.
Indeed, it’s possible to see this dilemma—the balancing of the claims of ethics with those of aesthetics—surfacing even earlier in Sontag’s career. Her second collection of essays, Styles of Radical Will, appeared in 1969, at the height of the sixties’ turmoil, and probably the best-known piece in it is “What’s Happening in America” (1966). This originally took the form of a response to a Partisan Review symposium, which served Sontag as a chance to issue a wholehearted attack on America, using a kind of irresponsible rhetoric that would become standard-issue on the left in that polarized decade.
Most famously, she declared that “the white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.” Sontag praised the lifestyle experiments she would go on to condemn in “Fascinating Fascism,” sympathizing with “the gifted, visionary minority among the young” and “the complex desires of the best of them: to engage and to ‘drop out’: to be beautiful to look at and touch as well as to be good; to be loving and quiet as well as militant and effective—these desires make sense in our present situation.”
Yet even in Styles of Radical Will, Sontag is clearly wrestling with her own scruples about the limits of the “new sensibility.” This is especially clear in one of the book’s best essays, “The Pornographic Imagination.” In keeping with the program of Against Interpretation, Sontag sets out to argue that pornography should not be too quickly written off as a vulgar or utilitarian genre. The Marquis de Sade and The Story of O, she writes, have their own wisdom; they are experiments in spiritual extremity and have something in common with the ordeals of religion. “The exemplary modern artist,” she writes with aphoristic flair, “is a broker in madness.”
Yet by the end of the essay, she cannot avoid the question of whether the authenticity and spiritual integrity of pornography make it proper reading, or viewing, for the average sensual man, who is not inclined to put it to such elevated or intellectual purposes. Sontag remains evasive, not yet ready to state forthrightly what she will say in “Fascinating Fascism,” but already she recognizes what is at issue: “The question is not whether consciousness or whether knowledge, but the quality of the consciousness and of the knowledge. And that invites consideration of the quality or fineness of the human subject—the most problematic standard of all.”
Sontag writes so exigently and intelligently about pornography that it is easy to miss the basic comedy of “The Pornographic Imagination,” which is the basic paradox of all her most radical and groundbreaking work. After all, this is a writer who praises the liberating power of porn by turning it into a spiritual and intellectual experiment—that is, by draining it of any sensuality, any genuine transgressiveness. “However fierce may be the outrages the artist perpetrates upon his audience, his credentials and spiritual authority ultimately depend on the audience’s sense … of the outrages he commits upon himself,” Sontag writes, thus shifting the grounds of discussion from pleasure to “spiritual authority” and—an even less erotically charged term—“credentials.”
Credentials, in fact, are an important category of Sontag’s thought. The ones that matter to her are not university degrees or professorships—after starting out in academia, she spent her whole career defiantly outside the academic system—but something more profound, if still capable of misuse: seriousness. Indeed, you could learn a lot about Sontag just by following the career of the word “serious” in her work. In “The Aesthetics of Silence,” she notes that a writer who stops writing, such as Rimbaud, thereby earns “a certificate of unchallengeable seriousness”; silence is what happens “whenever thought reaches a certain high, excruciating order of complexity and spiritual seriousness.” In her essay on Elias Canetti, “Mind as Passion,” she praises the way “his work eloquently defends tension, exertion, moral and amoral seriousness.” In the introduction to Reborn, the first volume of Sontag’s diaries, her son David Rieff recounts the story of how her Oxford tutor, the philosopher Stuart Hampshire, once sighed to Sontag: “Oh, you Americans! You’re so serious … just like the Germans.” “He did not mean it as a compliment,” Rieff observes, “but my mother wore it as a badge of honor.”
If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke, it might just be ‘Dayenu,’ the Passover punch line that is never enough