Sontag, after 40 years: still reviling U.S. values

The Argument

How can a beneficiary of American democracy find it more anti-intellectual than Stalin or Mao?

October 28, 2001|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,Special to the Sun

Almost 40 years ago, Susan Sontag burst onto the literary scene with the battle cry, "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." And she delivered. This cultural gambit, developed in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (Picador, 312 pages, $14), has been republished to coincide with the appearance of her new collection of essays, Where the Stress Falls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 351 pages, $27). Sontag's status as a trendsetter has long been eclipsed, but the recent essays show that her moral and aesthetic self-righteousness remain intact.

Sontag's early essays established her as a cultural arbiter, a champion of pop art and the risque. In "Notes on Camp" she anatomized camp as primarily a homosexual sensibility before it dared speak its name. What appealed to her most was how seriously camp takes its own frivolity. Seriousness, for Sontag, is all. She whittled away at the "distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture." Pop culture itself, according to Sontag, is not necessarily philistine, the refusal to take it seriously is.

In "On Style," she elevated form over content. Content is merely a starting point, she reasoned, but style is an act of the artist's will, "an epistemological decision." From her championing of an artwork's style over its content it was but a short step to her sly defense of a pornographic movie. "What I am urging is that there is not only moral space by whose laws Flaming Creatures would indeed come off badly, there is also aesthetic space, the space of pleasure."

America's cultural landscape was different then. The standards which differentiated high and low brow seemed unassailable. Few dared discuss the aesthetics of pleasure or the pleasure of aesthetics, particularly in an amoral context. In the essay "Thirty Years Later" Sontag explains that she was advocating a "pluralistic, polymorphic culture," that could include both "the Doors and Dostoevsky."

She did not suspect that "some of the art [she] was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions." Her refrain against consumer capitalism recurs explicitly and implicitly throughout the new book. She believes it is the real culprit in the deterioration of the arts, certainly not her well-intentioned glorification of insolent "cultural mixes."

It is surprising that a critic who has made a cult of style should prove so tone deaf in her own writing. A passage from the title essay on the challenge of writing lean, compressed novels rather than expansive ones -- otherwise one of the stronger pieces in the collection -- contains several typical flaws. "To explain, to inform, to amplify, to connect, to color in -- think of the essayistic digressions in Lost Illusions and A Harlot High and Low, Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, The Egoist, War and Peace, In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain. Such pursuit of completeness plumps out a novel. Is there such a verb, 'to encyclopedize'? There has to be."

There is, in fact, such a word, but it means "to exhibit knowledge in a systematic form" or "to describe in an encyclopedia," not to expand a story's range. Also, it is difficult to imagine Balzac, Tolstoy, Proust or the others considering their narrative elaborations as "plumping out" their stories. The intellectual showmanship of the breezy references to classics instills a sense of Sontag's erudition but add little depth or subtlety to her analysis.

The context in which she writes now has changed, but much in her writing has not. Sontag is still intellectually omnivorous. She has read all the books and seen all the movies. Her enthusiasms can still generate interest. Her essays on W.G. Sebald, Witold Gombrowicz and Roland Barthes show her at her best -- engaging and interested, without being didactic or hectoring. And yet, banalities abound in this book, especially in her writing on dance: " 'Dancers on a Plain' / On a plane? An airplane? / On a plain. As open (borderless) as feasible." And her gift for portentous but empty aphorisms is undiminished: "To have two selves is the definition of a pathetic fate."

This collection is dominated by Sontag's complaints about America's shallowness and anti-intellectualism. For "[l]iberation from what passes in America for a culture," she must turn to Europe. But not the "Europe of Euro-business and Eurodollars" or "Euro-kitsch," for that is entirely too much like "barbaric" America.

Sontag describes herself as "a citizen of a country whose political and ethical culture promotes and reinforces distrust, fear and contempt for intellectuals (reread Tocqueville), the country with the most developed anti-intellectual tradition on the planet." Were Stalin's purges and China's Cultural Revolution not as anti-intellectual as American traditions because at least they considered intellectuals a serious enough threat to destroy them? And even William F. Buckley at his most patrician does not match the simplistic and disdainful hauteur in her aside "(reread Tocqueville)."

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