Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The problem of Susan

Eliot Weinberger has a fairly devastating essay about Susan Sontag in the new issue of the New York Review of Books--devastating partly because of its unusual combination of dispassion, dislike and clarity of analysis.

Any thoughts from others who've read it? It seems to me at once compelling in its line of argument and so ruthless as to induce some squeamishness in me. I think scruples would prevent me writing an essay like this about someone so recently deceased, though I am rather full of admiration for Weinberger's moral fortitude on the occasion.

(I wouldn't say I have a brief either for or against Sontag, though perhaps that's damning in itself; in adult life, I haven't found her writing speaks to me, for reasons related to Weinberger's critique, but I remember somehow finding Illness as Metaphor on a library shelf as a teenager and reading it with a kind of relief, as if to say, "This is the kind of writing I want to do, what a good thing to learn that it is not just a figment of my imagination that people should write books like this!"

It is easy to forget, now in the age of the internet and (in my life) of free research-library access and of professional and personal access to interesting people of all sorts, how starved for intellectual stimulation I felt before I went to college, and that was with a book-reading kind of family and an excellent school and really perfectly reasonable access to intellectual things compared to the conditions many people labor under--only when you are that age people do not think you should be wanting to immerse yourself in such things! It is one of the ways in which the admirable theories of progressive educationalists do not actually fit with my real personal experience of having been a person who would have liked it if someone taught me calculus and Greek when I was nine!

And I must admit, a naive admission, that I did think that when I went to college somehow everyone would magically be exactly like me and want to read and write and talk about books all the time, but of course this is not at all the case, it was a rather comical misunderstanding of the nature of the Ivy League!

(Another book I found in high school, on the shelf of my friend S.'s step-mother who had I believe done a master's degree in literature, and which similarly gave me a feeling of recognition rather than of discovery, was Barthes' S/Z. And of course the novels and prose of Anthony Burgess were my real guide to intellectual things, entirely in absentia Burgess set me on a course of reading that undoubtedly shaped my sensibilities in the formative years...)

3 comments:

  1. I have a great deal of respect for Eliot Weinberger, but found his assessment to be way off mark. First of all, to define camp as a "minor pop phenomenon—an ironic fad among certain witty gay men" without any real lasting influence seems incredibly shortsighted. And then to somehow color Sontag as unhip, or, in his words "ungroovy," for championing The Supremes says more about his taste in pop culture than hers. Where he sees the seminal girl-group as "hopelessly showbiz," Sontag saw a profound and complicated reflection of the zeitgeist, and I'd agree. Then you have his estimation of her as Eurocentrist, which is strange because he mentions her writing on Machado de Assis and Juan Rolfo in the same breth. Also, remember the major series of Japanese cinema she curated at Japan Society? He didn't, apparently. That list could go on and on... Also, I love the part where he tries to present certain stylistic habits of hers as being influenced by Robert Lowell, when in fact those particular traits are much more characteristic of Lowell's wife Elizabeth Hardwick, who Sontag once described as teaching her how to write a sentence, or something along those lines. Anyway, a funny coincidence that such a misattribution would shortly precede Weinberger effectively calling her a bad feminist.

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  2. I didn't find it to be that vicious although I think it is pretty damning. Still, the conclusion is much less harsh than the rest of the article and almost makes her out to be a sort of Ruskin or Arnold of our time. Unless I missed something.

    -GH

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  3. "Starved for intellectual stimulation" — that describes my opinion of my pre-Columbia life pretty well! And my dad did teach me calculus at 9 or 10...I think I was hoping for some lessons in literary criticism!

    I also completely shared your misunderstanding of the Ivy League! But I have to say, now that I'm at a state school, the difference between it and CU is greater than the difference between CU and my expectations!

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