Ed Driscoll

Susan Sontag: From Avant-Garde to Garde

At Tablet, Adam Kirsch writes that “at the beginning of her career,” Susan Sontag “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.”

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.

You don’t say.

Related: Back in January of 2005, shortly before the inauguration of George W. Bush’s second term, and on the day of the 35th anniversary of Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s infamous Park Ave. party to raise funds for the Black Panthers, as described in Tom Wolfe’s classic “Radical Chic,” I wrote, “the next four years will be interesting to watch, indeed. The wheels came off [New Deal-era liberalism] in ’72. This might be their last chance to put them back on.”

So much for that idea. Late last month, fellow PJM columnist Barry Rubin brought my post into 2012, with the depressing, if spot-on note that “contemporary America is [now] one big radical chic party,” as “Radical Chic Conquers America.”

(H/T: Kathy Shaidle.)