The Mind as Passion

Once upon a time, American intellectual life featured a ritual known as the Partisan Review symposium. It was a solemn event, combining elements of high Mass and a boxing match. Here is how it worked: Every year or so, the tribal elders, gathering in the journal's offices in New York, would prepare a list of questions about some grand topic in contemporary politics or culture. The questionnaires were sent out to a select group of thinkers, and their answers printed, in batches, across two or three issues of the journal.

It was a ceremony of ideological boundary testing, of defining both the core of Cold War liberal thought and its radical margin. In 1952, it was Norman Mailer and C. Wright Mills who made defiant gestures at the outer limits. In 1967, Susan Sontag played that role in her essay “What's Happening in America?” It was the last performance of the ritual of any importance, for the very notion that Cold War liberalism might have a radical margin was already looking anachronistic.

Sontag's contribution embodied the Third Worldist fantasies of the New Left at their most stridently aphoristic, with its comment, subsequently oft-repeated, that “the white race is the cancer of history.” In 1978, in Illness as Metaphor, Sontag repudiated that Fanon-driven moment of rhetorical overkill. But not all of her response has aged badly. Reading it again, not long ago, I laughed at her rejoinder to the editors' question about “the meaning of the split between the Administration and the intellectuals” resulting from the Vietnam War. Its meaning, she answered, was simply “that our leaders are genuine yahoos, with all the exhibitionist traits of their kind, and that liberal intellectuals (whose deepest loyalties are to an international fraternity of the reasonable) are not that blind.” Déjà vu!

* * *

In late December, when Susan Sontag died in New York City at age 71, another ceremonial gathering of the intelligentsia, albeit of a very different kind, was under way a couple of hours down the road. In Philadelphia, several thousand professors of literature had assembled for the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA).

If the Partisan Review symposia recalled the cafeterias of the 1930s and '40s -- where smart young people with poor job prospects could gather to debate the merits of the new Auden poem or dissect the latest stunning twist of Soviet policy -- the atmosphere at the MLA is a lot more like a trade show. People go to market their ideas, or themselves, or at least to try. (The sad mood hanging in the air for several years now has been that both jobs and new ideas are getting ever harder to find.)

It was pure coincidence, of course. But the timing of Sontag's death seemed to underscore her peculiar role, over the course of four decades, as “the last intellectual,” to borrow the title of her essay on Walter Benjamin, which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1978. She had escaped what William James once denounced as “the Ph.D. octopus” -- a phrase that, when he coined it in 1903, called to mind the pernicious effect of monopolies and trusts. She was certainly a public figure, and mediagenic to an uncommon degree. Yet Sontag did not especially resemble the current model of the “public intellectual” (often an academic parachuting into the camera's eye with a prepared statement).

There were long periods when she simply disappeared from view. When she returned, it might be with an essay on a topic so utterly uncontemporary as Japanese puppet theater or the fiction of Machado de Assis. Indeed, with much of Sontag's work during the '80s and '90s, there seemed to be an element of capriciousness in her choice of topics. She had avoided the constraints of scholarly “professionalization,” to use that rather grim word so beloved of the MLA folk. The price was a tendency toward genteel self-delight that -- because of its aristocratic tone, and her solemn manner as Great Writer -- could be quite maddening, even to an admirer.

* * *

Perhaps especially to an admirer. My first recollection of reading her goes back a quarter-century, to the moment when (determined to get an education, despite the best efforts of the Texas public-school system to the contrary) I got hold of a copy of Against Interpretation and Other Essays from the Carnegie-funded public library in the next county. It was the original hardback, from 1966, its dust jacket wrapped in Mylar. Before opening the book itself, I sat looking at the photo on the back. It showed a woman looking down, so lost in thought that she could not possibly be aware of her own beauty.

At the end of the title essay, Sontag wrote, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” For me, this sentence meant, for one thing, an appointment with the dictionary. But its most important implication was already clear: So the yearning for cultural sophistication didn't need to be at odds with the even stronger desire for carnal knowledge! That was a relief. A few months later, opening Sontag's then-new book, Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), I found that one of the essays was called “Mind as Passion.” Its subject was the German writer Elias Canetti, but the title itself promised that it would be Sontag's own self-portrait.

Testimony to my own adolescent devotion seems worth recording, despite its embarrassments -- though not because it was some unique private experience. On the contrary, it appears to have been fairly common among bookish people over the years. It was not simply that she took a striking photograph. The real seduction occurred sentence by sentence.

It is a commonplace to announce that Sontag captured and embodied the cultural and political moment of the '60s and '70s. But the characteristic tones and maneuvers of her writing, at its best, actually had a very different provenance. She practiced what Irving Howe called “the style of brilliance” of the New York intellectuals of the '40s and '50s. “It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode,” as Howe put it, “with an unashamed vibration of bravura and display. Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, willfully calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle -- such, at its best or its most noticeable, was the essay cultivated by the New York writers.”

* * *

With Sontag, the style of brilliance lent itself to recording the experience of a mind trying to map its own labyrinths, and to take an inventory of its own obsessions. The narrative voice of her short story “Debriefing,” from 1973, puts it best:

We know more than we can use. Look at all this stuff I've got in my head: rockets and Venetian churches, David Bowie and Diderot, nuoc man and Big Macs, sunglasses and orgasms. How many newspapers and magazines do you read? For me, they're what candy or Quaaludes or scream therapy are for my neighbors … . And we don't know nearly enough.

The habit now is to speak as though “information overload” were a recent development. In 1964, Sontag wrote of living in “a culture based on excess, on overproduction,” in which there is “a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience” -- with no good effects for moral sensibility, either. The real theme of her book On Photography (1977) was the role of technology in the super-saturation of consciousness. “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images,” she wrote, furnishing “vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats.”

Of course, the obituaries emphasized Sontag's celebration of popular culture, of heralding the breakdown of cultural hierarchies -- a reputation that will endure so long as people don't actually read her all that carefully. Except for her acclaimed “Notes on ‘Camp,'” from 1964, and a related essay on low-budget science-fiction films published the following year, Sontag never wrote on popular culture as such. And the striking thing about her essay on camp is its deep ambivalence. She traces the celebration of mass culture that's so bad it's good to the threat of boredom in “societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.” She notes “a sharp conflict in my own sensibility” driving her to analyze camp. “To name a sensibility,” she writes, “to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.”

* * *

Such ambivalence was a source of energy for Sontag in her prime. It fueled her critical writings on literature and film. And her fiction and drama often portrayed an unhappy consciousness, paralyzed while trying to hoist itself by its own psychic bootstraps. About Sontag's creative writing, generosity requires the tact of quickly changing the subject. (Except for The Volcano Lover, her novels are, for the most part, lifeless and disappointing.) But she was a virtuoso of the interview, and one of the finest books of her last decade was the volume assembled by Leland Poague called Conversations with Susan Sontag, published in 1995.

In recent years, her writing had appeared less frequently -- a matter of ill health, but also of what seemed an exhaustion of the driving passions of her earlier work. In her last collection of essays, Where the Stress Falls, appearing in 2001, Sontag wrote, “My energy as a writer impels me to look forward, to feel still that I am beginning, really beginning, now.” But much of her later writing involved spirals backward, rather than bold advances. AIDS and Its Metaphors, published in 1989, was a long postscript to Illness as Metaphor, from 11 years earlier. Her fourth novel, In America, recycled the historical-romantic form of The Volcano Lover.

And the handful of her new essays appearing in the 1990s tended less to think about the culture than to worry over it (something most of us can do just fine for ourselves, thanks). While my own admiration for Susan Sontag did not falter, my patience with her did. And then came September 11, and her notorious few paragraphs in The New Yorker -- for which, in some quarters, she will never be forgiven. “The public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality,” she wrote. “The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.”

Then, just as the long-prepared war on Iraq began, she published Regarding the Pain of Others, a meditation on the role that photography plays in how noncombatants understand the violence of war. And last May, after the revelations from Abu Ghraib emerged, Sontag wrote an analysis of the “ecology of images” (as she had put it in On Photography) in which the pictures emerged: “To act is to share in the community of actions recorded as images. The expression of satisfaction at the acts of torture being inflicted on helpless, trussed, naked victims is only part of the story. There is the deep satisfaction of being photographed, to which one is now more inclined to respond not with a stiff, direct gaze (as in former times) but with glee. The events are in part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin for the camera. There would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn't take a picture of them.”

Everything Sontag wrote during this final period was brave and necessary -- and certain to bring, in the midst of all her illness, an additional measure of suffering. (One sure way to get America to hate you is to tell it to grow up.) A few years ago, a cultural journal in Paris invited her to respond to “an international survey about intellectuals and their role.” What, the editors wondered, is the task of the intellectual today? A Sisyphean one, she replied, “to embody (and defend) a standard of mental life, and of discourse, other than the nihilistic one promoted by the mass media.”

Not an easy role -- least of all in America, least of all now. But remember that Camus, at the end of The Myth of Sisyphus, imagined his subject happy. (Endless and futile? Yes, but it's steady work.) One hopes -- no; one is certain -- that Sontag was, too.

Scott McLemee was the 2004 recipient of the National Book Critics Circle citation for excellence in reviewing.

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