05 Apr 2011

Now Playing at the Only Movie Theater in Hell…

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The late Susan Sontag’s hyperintellectual perspective was formed as part of the post-WWII Beat, Queer, Żydokomuna (a Polish term for the well-known Jewish cultural penchant for Marxism) international left-wing counter-cultural intelligentsia. Sontag actually broke with the left in the early 1980s, after the news of what had happened in Cambodia came out, but inevitably over the course of her long literary career, Susan Sontag was normally to be found in the mainstream of contemporary political fashion, and she several times went on the record saying very foolish things.

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, the sharp-tongued Joseph Epstein took the occasion of the publication of a new memoir of life with Sontag by one of her former minions, Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag, to deliver some just criticism for some of Sontag’s worst statements and behavior and to put her in her place in cultural history once and for all.

In Epstein’s view, Susan Sontag was just a pretty girl with a remarkable gift for self-promotion.

A single essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,'” published in Partisan Review in 1964, launched Susan Sontag’s career, at the age of 31, and put her instantly on the Big Board of literary reputations. People speak of ideas whose time has not yet come; hers was a talent for promoting ideas that arrived precisely on time. “Notes on ‘Camp,'” along with a companion essay called “Against Interpretation,” vaunted style over content: “The idea of content,” Ms. Sontag wrote, “is today merely a hindrance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.” She also held interpretation to be “the enemy of art.” She argued that Camp, a style marked by extravagance, epicene in character, expressed a new sensibility that would “dethrone the serious.” In its place she would put, with nearly equal standing, such cultural items as comic books, wretched movies, pornography watched ironically, and other trivia.

These essays arrived as the 1960s were about to come to their tumultuous fruition and provided an aesthetic justification for a retreat from the moral judgment of artistic works and an opening to hedonism, at least in aesthetic matters. “In place of a hermeneutics,” Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” ended, “we need an erotics of art.” She also argued that the old division between highbrow and lowbrow culture was a waste not so much of time as of the prospects for enjoyment. Toward this end she lauded the movies—”cinema is the active, the most exciting, the most important of all the art forms right now”—as well as science fiction and popular music.

These cultural pronunciamentos, authoritative and richly allusive, were delivered in a mandarin manner. They read as if they were a translation, probably, if one had to guess, from the French. They would have been more impressive, of course, if their author were herself a first-class artist. This, Lord knows, Susan Sontag strained to be. She wrote experimental fiction that never came off; later in her career she wrote more traditional fiction, but it, too, arrived dead on the page.

The problem is that Sontag wasn’t sufficiently interested in real-life details, the lifeblood of fiction, but only in ideas. She also wrote and directed films, which were not well-reviewed: I have not seen these myself, but there is time enough to do so, for I have long assumed that they are playing as a permanent double feature in the only movie theater in hell.


Good abuse, but not entirely just. True, Susan Sontag yearned to write important novels, to score a breakthrough with some plus nouveaux nouveau roman and also to rise to the level of auteur in the most challenging regions of the cinema where she felt herself most at home as a critic and a fan. And it is true that she was not particularly successful as a novelist. Her earlier novels The Benefactor and Death Kit were formalist experiments whose only excellence lay in inducing sleep with certainty. Her later novels seemed to me even less interesting.

Her films were clearly not successful. I cannot defend or criticize her four films, as I too am waiting to see them repeatedly in the hereafter with mild alarm. But Sontag does deserve better on the basis of her essays and her criticism.

It is easy to mock the manifesto calling for criticism as an erotics of art, rather than a hermeneutics. Susan Sontag’s rhetoric and critical aspirations were bold and uninhibited and a trifle prone to overreach, but her critical essays were also a breath of fresh and exotic air blowing into middlebrow American culture from the heights of Montparnasse.

Countless Americans found their way to the accessible cinema of Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut beckoned by the beacon of Sontag’s travelogues from the remote and inaccessible regions of Antonioni, Bresson, and Ozu. Sontag made the concept of the avante-garde into the art cinema’s equivalent of “the banner with a strange device.”

It was not enough, this passionate young woman persuaded readers, to appreciate the familiar and the beautiful, it was necessary to press on, to leap beyond present artistic and cultural forms of understanding and expression, to conquer strange new heights and plumb unprecedented depths. Susan Sontag seemed, back then, a cultural Joan of Arc, leading the literary and cinematic audience forward in a headlong assault on possibility and the existing state of literature and the arts in a brave and determined effort to break through the barriers and liberate new forms of cultural expression and understanding.

Today, when I watch Last Year at Marienbad or L’Aventurra, when I look into a novel by Nathalie Saurraute, I feel rather the way a veteran of a lost, romantic cause, like some aged grenadier of the wars of Napoleon, must feel thinking back and remembering Austerlitz or Marengo. I smile ruefully at the memory of being young and naive enough to believe that this sort of thing would come to anything, but I also remember the aspirations and the hopes we entertained back then.

Susan Sontag is extremely vulnerable to all the criticisms to which mainsteam Western high culture in the second half of the last century is vulnerable. She was naively romantic, prone to left-wing postures and insanity, and not above following the community of fashion herd into disgraceful positions. But she was still a heroine who, at times, at least, brought great honor to that same high culture and the same civilization her entire class was usually busy trying to destroy.

I knew her a little, and when I lived in New York, I would exchange greetings with her at the kind of key cultural events at which we would both invariably be present. I would also run into her sometimes at the revival houses, and we occasionally sat together and watched Mizoguchi or Renoir at Bleeker Street. Perhaps someday at the cinema in Tartarus mentioned by Mr. Epstein, I can sit beside her and discuss Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl.

2 Feedbacks on "Now Playing at the Only Movie Theater in Hell…"

Francisco Bruno

Although I must admit to a great Sontagphobia, I think I’m not being unjust when I say that Epstein is absolutely right. Do you really believe that Sontag’s concept of “camp” and of “dethroning the serious” should, or coud, be applied to Bergman, Fellini or Truffaut? Come on, now!

Fortunately Sontag wasn’t taken seriously not even by herself, problably – or now we would be calling “great directors” the likes of John Waters…


I don’t think those specific notions, camp and erotics vs. hermeneutics, were necessarily relevant outside those specific essays.


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