Roger Kimball on Susan Sontag

Many lit blogs have re-awakened from their holiday slumber to post links and thoughts on the passing of Susan Sontag. I am not really that familiar with Sontag’s writing, and her left-wing politics are the opposite of mine, but (or perhaps as a result) I found this Roger Kimball post interesting and so thought I would pass it along. Here are a few quotes I enjoyed:

Almost overnight these essays electrified intellectual debate and catapulted their author to celebrity. Not that Sontag’s efforts were unanimously praised. The critic John Simon, to take just one example, wondered in a sharp letter to Partisan Review whether Sontag’s “Notes on `Camp'” was itself “only a piece of `camp.'” No, the important things were the attentiveness, speed, and intensity of the response. Pro or con, Sontag’s essays galvanized debate: indeed, they contributed mightily to changing the very climate of intellectual debate. Her demand, at the end of “Against Interpretation,” that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”; her praise of camp, the “whole point” of which “is to dethrone the serious”; her encomium to the “new sensibility” of the Sixties, whose acolytes, she observed, “have broken, whether they know it or not, with the Matthew Arnold notion of culture, finding it historically and humanly obsolescent”: in these and other such pronouncements Sontag offered not arguments but a mood, a tone, an atmosphere. Never mind that a lot of it was literally nonsense: it was nevertheless irresistible nonsense.

[ . . .]

Having immersed herself in the rhetoric of traditional humanistic learning, she is expert at using it against itself. This of course is a large part of what has made her writing so successful among would-be “avant-garde” intellectuals: playing with the empty forms of traditional moral and aesthetic thought, she is able to appear simultaneously unsettling and edifying, daringly “beyond good and evil” and yet passionately engagé. In the long march through the institutions, Sontag has been an emissary of trivialization, deploying the tools of humanism to sabotage the humanistic enterprise.

Those interested in Kimball’s perspective might want to check out his The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America. It is on my TBR pile and I hope to get to it in 2005.

UPDATE: Here is another post on Sontag from a conservative perspective, but this author is more willing to give Sontag credit where it is due:

If she could not quite grasp the inexorable logic that leads directly from her courageous stands (pace the deceased, courage is not morally neutral) for Poles, Bosniacs and Kosovars to the present struggle for Iraqis, are we to hold that so dearly against her? It is a long road from shilling for genocidal Communism to nearly arriving at a consistent worldview of freedom’s inexorable expansion. In the case of Susan Sontag, she ought to get credit for the distance traveled.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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