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by Alex Carnevale
Eliot Weinberger is a douchebag who somehow ingratiated himself to a lot of smart people. He is a bloviating bag of anti-Bush criticism, as if he invented every jab at Bush and is so much smarter than everyone else, even you.
His essay prompted a number of corrections and rejoinders, most of which I have included in context with the article.
Notes on Susan
by Eliot Weinberger
Susan Sontag was that unimaginable thing, a celebrity literary critic. Most readers of The New York Review probably would have been able to recognize her on the street, as they would not, say, George Steiner. An icon of braininess, she even developed, like Einstein, a trademark hairdo: an imperious white stripe, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi, as though she were declaring a cultural Emergency. Most readers probably know a few bits about her life, as they do not of any other critic: the girl Susan Rosenblatt—Sontag was her stepfather—in her junior high class in Arizona, with Kant, not a comic book, hidden behind her textbook. Her teenaged marriage to Philip Rieff that was her entry into highbrow society. (“My greatest dream was to grow up and come to New York and write for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people.”) Her trip to Hanoi in 1968.
The mini-skirted babe in the frumpy Upper West Side crowd and her years as the only woman on the panel. The front-page news in 1982 when, after years of supporting various Marxist revolutions, she declared that communism was “fascism with a human face.” Her months in Sarajevo in 1993, as the bombs fell, bravely or foolishly attempting to put on a production of Waiting for Godot. Her struggle with cancer. Her long relationship with the glamour photographer Annie Leibovitz. We even know—from Leibovitz’s grotesque “A Photographer’s Life” exhibition and book—what Sontag looked like in the last days of her life and after her death.
Suzanne Jill Levine writes of this portion of Weinberger’s essay in a letter to the NYRB, and I quote:
The first sentence is telling in this regard: “Susan Sontag was that unimaginable thing, a celebrity literary critic.” In our age when all is hype and appearance, a celebrity literary critic is, if not as common as the latest movie star, certainly not “unimaginable.” Fashion and quality go hand in hand like oil and water, as Jorge Luis Borges ferociously reminded his interlocutors on more than one occasion, but this does not mean that intellectual celebrities do not abound.
Against Interpretation also contained, of course, “Notes on ‘Camp’,” which remained Sontag’s best-known shorter essay, and the one cited in nearly all the obituaries. It has dated badly, especially as the word “camp” (let alone “to camp”) has long since reverted to its summer leisure connotations, and its subtleties, so meticulously detailed by Sontag, have been reduced to the “Cult” section of the video store. Yet “Notes on ‘Camp’” inadvertently became Sontag’s most influential essay. Its fifty-three-point structuralist analytic overkill on a minor pop phenomenon—an ironic fad among certain witty gay men—was something new in the US, though the French had been doing it for years. From that seed, to her dismay, grew the vine that would eventually overrun the English Department, producing a thousand deconstructionist dissertations on Batman. But it was also—in a climate where the literary establishment passed over homosexuality in polite silence and the left was largely hostile—one of the earliest attempts, and surely the most important, to illuminate (and even praise!) a gay sensibility.
The essays are ruminative, utterly humorless—her favorite word was “serious”—and unlike the work of many of the writers she most admired, in that she never attempted to do anything new or different, formally, with her critical prose. She did not, or could not, follow another Benjamin dictum she cited: “All great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one.” She was a celebrant of transgression, but there was nothing transgressive about her writing. Brilliant syntheses of what were often Continental ideas unfamiliar to American audiences, her best literary essays were unmatched models in the art of the introduction.
This was true for the most part. She was certainly never funny. I’d argue that some of her best work was a little bit transgressive. Perhaps there’s no such thing as ‘a little bit transgressive’, but his last line there is a put down, for sure.
Susan Sontag website
Annie Leibovitz‘s “grotesque” portrait
Buy Against Interpretation here.
Her lack of generosity to other women writers was most baldly apparent in the uncollected and unpleasant speech she gave in 2003 accepting the Prince of Asturias Prize, which she was obliged to share with the Moroccan writer Fatema Mernissi, whom she indirectly belittles as a mere ethnic token.
She had no apparent interest in poetry, other than Rilke, Auden, and a few friends. And though she was considered the trendiest critic, the one who was up on everything happening right now, she largely stopped writing about the living—particularly living writers—after the 1960s. There was an essay on Elias Canetti, then seventy-five, in 1980; one on W.G. Sebald twenty years later; and one on Adam Zagajewski in 2001.
Sontag had a tendency to blame everything on consumerism, though surely one could also say: “the more things become beautiful, the more the marketplace grows.” And she herself was frequently not immune to the use of “interesting” as a catch-all, as in (on Barthes) “everything he wrote was interesting.”
A year later, she was writing in The New York Times of the War on Terror as a “pseudo-war,” a metaphor more than a war, and decrying the patriotic blather attending the first anniversary of September 11. In May 2004, in what is evidently the last piece she wrote, she returned to themes in On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others to consider the pornography of the torture photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison, and both the official and media responses to them. Although she is adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq, it is startling that she now refers, without elaboration, to the invasion of Afghanistan as “quite justified.”
Jane Farrell in a letter to the NYRB wrote of this passage:
I also must comment on Mr. Weinberger’s citation of Sontag’s September 11 article in The New Yorker. He talks about Sontag being assailed in an atmosphere of “jingoism” for writing “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.” One does not have to be a jingoist to be offended by that statement. Any intelligent reader can see that Sontag felt no grief whatsoever, and was impatient with those who did. It’s ironic that the woman who wrote the first-rate book Regarding the Pain of Others seemed so unable to sympathize or even grasp the pain of those others who were just forty blocks south of her home.
“Earth Intruders (live on SNL)” — Bjork (mp3)
With Halldór Laxness’s Under the Glacier, she seems far off her turf, contextualizing as best she can with everything from Steppenwolf to Buster Keaton. (And disbelief does not get willingly suspended when she declares, twice, that this book is “like nothing else Laxness ever wrote,” considering that he produced some sixty novels, most of them as yet untranslated from the Icelandic.)
Oops. Laxness expert and a genius poet himself Brad Leithauser wrote to the NYRB to say…
To the Editors:
While I applaud Mr. Weinberger’s plea for the avoidance of impossibly sweeping critical judgments, he has quadrupled Laxness’s oeuvre. There are something like fifteen Laxness novels, most of which indeed have appeared in English.
“Wanderlust (live on SNL)” — Bjork (mp3)
Brad Leithauser. His wife is the dynamite poet Mary Jo Salter.
Eliot Weinberger responded,
Thanks to Brad Leithauser for his correction. My misinformation came from Sontag herself (At the Same Time, p. 98). She thought Laxness wrote sixty novels, so her assertion of the uniqueness of Under the Glacier remains somewhat presumptuous. As far as I can tell, nine of Laxness’s fifteen novels have been translated. Untranslated are eleven collections of short stories and some twenty-odd other books.
Back to Weinberger’s essay. Here he is now concluding his assassination.
It is a Hollywood cliché that a beautiful actress needs an element of ugliness to become a great star, and one might say that a genius needs an element of stupidity, or something wrong, to become a great imaginative writer. Sartre certainly had his. But Sontag seems to have had nothing stupid about her at all. Arguably the most important American literary figure or force of the last forty years, she may ultimately belong more to literary history than to literature.
Something’s wrong with the world when Hitchens really gets Sontag and the NYRB kills her.
On one hand, I admire Weinberger for not writing a bloviating appreciation when all he was asked to do was review her last book. And in many of the portions I did not excerpt, he nails what were her books of interest: On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, and Regarding the Pain of Others, and dismisses the rest. He is probably dead-on there.
Still, it’s never nice to turn on your antecedents for being not as liberal as they should have been, especially when they are among the most “liberal” people on earth. The left wing loves to eat itself, but such a hindsight-based approach wins no friends and leaves no ethos afterwards. This is perhaps why the American left is so bankrupt of ideas today.
Susan Sontag was not a great person. As a writer, she was short of genius but far above most of her contemporaries. That her best work holds up at all is a testament to who she was and what she believed.
We are all entitled to our mistakes, and Susan was willing to admit hers, especially when they were egregious. Is she one of my favorite writers or thinkers? God no. But slamming her for not being transgressive enough is the weakest slight I can think of, criticizing that she was wealthy, connected and pretentious is no better, and picking on her changing views of a litany of subjects is really harsh, too. If we do not doubt ourselves, we have no chance of actually being right.
Buy On Photography here.
Hear Susan’s voice.
Joan Acocella on Susan.
Sontag’s 1975 essay on fascism.
Peeps commenting on Susan’s death.
This guy didn’t like her very much.
Daniel Johnson criticized her views on television.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
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