Books: The Metropolitan Critic — A Whole Gang of Noise |
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A Whole Gang of Noise : Susan Sontag

Despite the relative civility with which Against Interpretation was greeted, Susan Sontag’s reputation in this country has never really recovered from her first disastrous appearance with Jonathan Miller in an episode of Monitor which could have been called “Captain Eclectic and Thinkwoman Meet Public Ridicule.” The medium was the massacre: scarcely anybody came out of the programme with prestige intact and Miss Sontag was immediately incorporated into the British intelligentsia’s typology of dreadful examples. Her appearances in print—a less damaging medium revealing neither her self-assurance rivalling Ethel Merman’s nor her nonstop ponderosity which rendered even Miller unable to get a word in edgeways—have by now done something to correct this bad impression. In fact some of the home guard one might normally expect to be more careful when handling imported brainpower have started to overcorrect. “She has all the qualities of an excellent critic,” avers A. Alvarez in an unwise statement which the publishers are now employing on the jacket of Styles of Radical Will: “she is intelligent, perceptive, and impressively well informed.” Can’t agree. She certainly possesses the qualities named, but conspicuously lacks the one quality every critic must have and an excellent critic must have in abundance: the capacity not to be carried away by a big idea.

Except for the two political essays in the book, one of them being the truly superlative “Trip to Hanoi,” her work is customarily marked by the use of a half-argued, hugely magnetic central notion which attracts examples to its surface so quickly and in such quantity that its outlines are immediately obscured. Sainte-Beuve once said that Montaigne sounds like one continuous epigram but Miss Sontag, like Harold Rosenberg most of the time and Hugh Kenner all the time, sounds like one continuous aphorism. The opportunity to stop the flow and ponder is rarely offered. When it is, usually by an overglib employment of a “thus” or a “nothing less,” the results yielded by a good hard think are seldom happy. Her long essay on pornography, for example, is an impressive against-interpretation job of getting facts in and prejudices out, but even in this field, where she seems to have read absolutely everything, the urge to generalize blocks the way of ordinary observation: you need only have read Restif de la Bretonne, let alone the modern pornographers, to realize that her statements about the use of speech in pornography are wide of the mark. Similarly in her essay on Godard it’s the little things that bring on the big objections and the eventual wondering whether the thesis really is a thesis. She briefly notes that Godard’s handling of torture scenes is pretty sketchy. Card-carrying Godard fans have long since realized that they must defend him at this point or lose all: they say that the master’s imagination is so exquisite he can’t sully it by trying to represent (or redeem, to employ the dusty vocabulary of Kracauer which Miss Sontag puts herself on record as admiring) reality in such things. But Miss Sontag doesn’t feel bound to defend him since what she is postponing is not interpretation but judgement.

Wherein lies the fallacy and this lady’s besetting intellectual vice—because judgement is not some higher brain function you turn on after a set period of omnivorous data-gathering, it’s a process which should be continuously operative and in the critic is continuously operative. Thus (there, now I’m doing it) her contention that Godard needs to be regarded in the totality of his films is easily countered by the contention that you will gain no wisdom from a fool’s utterance by cancelling the rest of your appointments and listening to him all day.

Miss Sontag attempts to break free of the historical burden and ready herself for the new but her attempt, fulsomely documented and exhaustingly fluent, doesn’t alter the fact that the historical burden is only burdensome historically: aesthetically the giants of the past are our contemporaries and must be competed with as if they were still around—we’ve changed, but we haven’t changed as much as we haven’t changed, and Miss Sontag unconsciously concedes this point by being vague about when Modern Man actually got started—i.e., stopped being the old kind. There is great play here with Hegel as the last of the religious philosophers: it appears that his materialistic component got picked up and carried forward but his spiritual component got neglected, which only goes to show that Miss Sontag hasn’t made much headway with Italian idealism. None of her broad arguments about modern trends and currents of thought is very trustworthy and there is a tendency to identify the unholy American mess with a crisis in Western civilization, a notion which ought to be resisted. The best and only solid part of the book is “Trip to Hanoi” but it should quickly be added that you only have to write one thing as good as that to earn a name. Here for once her prose has grace, her argument clarity and her whole literary personality a human presence.

(The Listener, 1969)


Susan Sontag deserved rather better than this: after all, it was she who wrote “Trip to Hanoi,” not I. But the really reprehensible thing I did then that I wouldn’t have done later was to go along with the bad press she had received after her notorious Monitor appearance. It certainly was a deliciously absurd moment in television history when Ms. Sontag, or Miss Sontag as she then would have been called, turned up at Andy Warhol’s celebrated Factory to interview him and spent half an hour of precious screen-time examining the aesthetic implications of his failure to keep the appointment. She might have discussed the moral implications with some profit—he had been vilely rude, and we all might have benefited from having had that pointed out. Jonathan Miller no doubt regretted later on, in less indulgent times, that he had helped his protégée to drop herself in it. The publicity that accrued stuck to her for years. But since all publicity is binding publicity, and television publicity is intensely so, the task of the critic is to help sort out the real person from the image that has trapped him, or in this case her.

The real Sontag was, and is, a very clever woman—and a brave one, as I found out much later when I met her in New York and heard her on the subject of Sarajevo, where she had taken considerable risks to stage Waiting for Godot in circumstances that even Samuel Beckett might have found too appropriately eschatological. If she was carried away by big ideas, at least she had the courage to speculate over a wide cultural range, and often to original effect. An enthusiasm for the collected cinematic works of Jean-Luc Godard looked less ludicrous at the time, when the later films had not yet arrived to sow irreversible suspicion even in his most unquestioning fans that the earlier films might have been trivial all along. The sceptical Alvarez wrote a Fontana Modern Masters booklet about Godard, and it was far less corrosive than Jonathan Miller’s companion volume on Marshall McLuhan. “Can’t agree” was an over-colloquial, and hence under-spontaneous, way of saying “I can’t agree.” Wouldn’t do it now. Sontag’s empirical acuteness would have shone more brightly for being less veiled in whirling conceptual fluff. She wrote the way Salome danced, but the head she wanted was yours. Her relentless intellectualism asked to be appreciated uncritically for its aesthetic impact, with the inevitable corollary that if you couldn’t take it you left it alone. She had, however, more staying power than her impatient young critics gave her credit for, and when the time came her proclivity for treating any subject as grist to her mill made her an indispensable commentator on the disease that struck her but found it so hard to strike her down. Nowadays, when I re-read her early work, I can see that strength in embryo, waiting to be born and flourish. It is a commonplace that books have their histories. It is less commonly noticed that the people who write them have their histories too, so that you can’t quite know why they are like that at the start until you see what they do later.

(The Metropolitan Critic, 1994)