The World of Susan Sontag
By ALAN BRIEN
IN the literary supplement of the Sunday Herald Tribune for July 5, 1964. there ap- peared a two-page lead review entitled The Centrality of the Net.' The book under discussion was How to Play Tennis the Professional Way (edited by Alan Trengrove; Simon and Schuster, $4.95). Not being able to play tennis in any way, and not feeling the need to learn how to play tennis in any way, I should normally have skipped this rather oddly-chosen opening article. But somehow the opening two sentences froze my eye. 'Writing about a tennis book—or about any other book, for that matter—is not easy, and, as one critic has recently expressed it, "the critic must take on a note of urgency, even of com- bative gaiety" in dealing with a book about a sport that has traditionally been written about as a mere confection somewhat outside the American Experience, as defined so powerfully —and, I think, permanently—by most of my friends. Although tennis may not appear to be a confection to the people deeply involved in Playing tennis (and, if it's involvement you're talking about, most of my friends and I are authorities), it is a confection to literary critics, whose relationship to tennis is that of voyeurs—
a thus the majority of critics have tended to write about tennis as, I am compelled to say, ein kleines Garnichts.'
I was press-ganged into reading on—chained to the leaking, creaking hulk as it sank a little deeper under each wave of verbiage.
. . . a significant, fragmented. powerful, and intensely moral account of tennis in a twentieth- century context . . . nothing less than a book about the total human predicament . . . a bold, flawed, impressive confrontation . . . an intri- cate post-Kafka symposium that makes the average contemporary dialogue, or even mono- logue, seem déclassé . . . written throughout with subtlety, with style masquerading as anti- style, with layers of irony, with disinvoltura. . . . It is here that Kramer's weakness, his failure as a modernist, manifests itself: he neglects to address himself to professional tennis in all its hallucinatory aspects. He hallucinates, but he doesn't hallucinate in a major way; he is—let us face it—distinctly minor. . . . No one has dealt more trenchantly with the rhetoric of the back-hand or the syntax of tennis since Mahler in Tennis and the Jewish Dilemma . . . the morality of the back-hand is thus joined. in a kind of transcendent surge of Lessing's Selbstdanken to the Revisionist American Ex- perience. Unfortunately Rosewall neglects to point out that whereas at Wimbledon what one sees is authentic High Tennis, what one sees on the courts of Central Park is pure Kitsch. . . Hoad's range may be a little narrow, but that's the way the ball bounces, as Wittgenstein ex- pressed it in That's the Way the Ball Bounces. (Sec Is That the Way the Ball Bounces? An Examination by Wright and Ditson.) ... In con- clusion, I would suggest that Tennis the Proles- sional Way is a brilliant. definitive, morally relevant, positively central book, full of Angst and free of Kitsch, but that it casts no light whatever on the game of golf and therefore must be judged a failure.
Even if the name of the reviewer, Lillian Ross, did not ring a warning bell in the brain of the literal-minded reader, the references to 'my friends' in the opening lines should nudge us not to take this elaborate parody seriously. And the rest of the article deploys all the vogue- jargon—'American Experience,' alienation,' 'moral relevance,' dialogue,"existential,"human predicament,' 'anti-style,"engage,"centrality'—which is spotted like measles across any page of modern American criticism. The first editions of Monitor edited by Jonathan Miller suggest that the avalanche was intended to bury one American intellectual in particular, Miss Susan Sontag.
Miss Sontag is almost as famous now in Britain as in America—and it seems impossible to pick up any literary weekly or little magazine there without coming upon an article by her or, at least glancingly, about her. Here, because of tele- vision; she is a face and a voice as well as an attitude and a style of expression. Her reputation as a critic has been unfairly overlaid with a patina of folksy donnishness, like that of a hobohemian professor in an early John Ford Western, which stems from that elaborately casual frame of baroque informality contrived by Mr. Miller for her first appearance. At one end of the great leather-buttoned, clubman's sofa, in a studio like an aeroplane hangar, sat Miss Sontag, a pixie face under a Rolling-Stone pompadour. At the other, Mr. Miller, a rocking-horse profile be- neath a bathing-cap hair-do. Like the man and woman on an old-fashioned barometer, Mr. Noah and Miss Yeah,' they took turns at emerging to report whether the cultural weather in Old Movie- land was currently wet or dry. It was an exhibi- tion of egg-head back-scratching, or logic-rolling, with each slangy sentence carefully weighted by a polysyllable, each off-the-cuff dogmatism punctuated by a just too self-consciously sage nod of the head or youthfully eager grin of complicity. The cumulative effect was of a satirical burlesque, more subtle, and therefore
more damaging, than anything in Miss Ross's blow-torch blast. The resemblance to Mike Nichols and Elaine May just beginning to have a relationship in 'Bach to Bach' seemed too close to be accidental. The result was that only the punch-lines were remembered, as in a revue
sketch. And at smart, booksy parties in London now, anyone who wants to insulate a phrase like 'cultural nostalgia' within invisible quotation marks prefaces it by an apologetic rubric—`as Susan Sontag might say.'
- Yet Miss Sontag's own published criticisms of films do sometimes bear the stigmata so pains-
takingly probed by Lillian Ross's scalpel. A re- view in the Nation, April 13, 1964, for example: The only thing to be regretted about the close- ups of limp penises and bouncing breasts, the
shots of masturbation and oral sexuality, in J.
Smith's Flaming Creatures, is that it makes it hard simply to talk about this remarkable and beautiful film—one has to defend it. . . . Smith's depiction of nakedness and various sexual em- braces (with the notable omission of straight screwing) is both too full of pathos and too ingenuous to be prurient .. . Flaming Creatures is that rare modern work of art—it is about joy and innocence. To be sure, this joyousness, this innocence is composed of themes which are —by ordinary standards—perverse, decadent, at
the least, highly theatrical and artificial . .
creatures flaming out in intersexual polymor-
phous joy.... The texture of Flaming Creatures is made up of a rich collage of camp lore.. .
Flaming Creatures is a triumphant example of
an aesthetic vision of the world—and such a vision is perhaps always, at the core, epicene.
This devotion to the paradox, this allegiance to extraordinary standards, this loyalty to the jar- gon of the in-group outsider, is both Central and Morally Relevant to the Sontagian view of art. Equally as dubious, eccentric and improbable as her final sentence is another maxim in a more recent article (Second Corning, January 1965)— 'There is something which moves one to laughter, if our social pieties and highly conventional sense of the serious would allow it, in the most terrible of modern catastrophes and atrocities.'
To meet and talk with, outside the range of camera and tape-recorder, Susan Sontag is neither the beatnik Boadicea of her writings nor the precocious girl-scout of her television appear- ances. She is a tall, tough, cheerful forthright woman of about thirty-two with an eleven-year- old son—a prodigious worker, a rapid-fire talker, a philosophy teacher, and a novelist, as well as an indefatigable contributor to scores of non-paying avant-garde magazines. She denied any intention of patenting her own individual, clotted, peda- gogic, polymathic, parodiable style of criticism. She gave the impression of considering herself the typist, rather than the writer, of her opinions. 'Most people think I have no style at all,' she said.
'The British are intellectuals only with the left hand,' she complained. The days when we could see ourselves as the subtle, witty Greeks initiating stolid, humourless Romans in the art of high thinking have long since gone. Criticism in our weeklies and serious Sundays seems in New York frivolous, superficial, flashy, slapdash—journalis- tic in the worst sense. Our critics (always except- ing the oddly assorted pair of totem figures, V. S. Pritchett and Professor Frank Kermode) are en- tertainers: theirs seek to be educators. A high- brow publication in Britain (they allege) is like a series of smart cocktail-party monologues. A highbrow publication in America is like a post- graduate seminar. There is a certain accuracy in the distinction. Too often a review here is little more than a vivid and colourful description of the work under discussion, plus a few personal expressions of preference and prejudice as a last-minute footnote. But too often a review there is so much devoted to arguing out the nature of drama or the purpose of criticism that it is pos- sible five minutes after putting down the maga- zine to forget whether it was a book, a film, or a play that occasioned the piece.
Not all American egg-heads are equally self- satisfied about the standard of their own criticism. There was a brilliant denunciation of the fashionable tendency to treat art as 'a docu- ment of intellectual history, a cracked mirror reflecting the ideas of the age, rather than as an entity capable of existing for itself and moving the climate which gave it birth' by Conrad Knickerbocker in the Herald Tribune book sup- plement for December 27, 1964. But since Miss Sontag first appeared on the British horizon, for most of us, enthusing about the films of the Forties, I would like to end with a savagely accurate indictment by John Simon (New Leader, November 23, 1964) of this cult:
To the movies went flocking a curious coalition of disaffected intellectual drifters, neurotic young women, homosexuals in search of 'camp,' young people too lazy to read or go to art galleries and concerts, gadgeteers to whom a 16 mm camera presented itself as a passport to Parnassus—an intellectual demi-monde which recognised that film is potentially the most ener- getic art form of our time, but which by its cynicism, pathology, immaturity or lack of cul- tivation was hardly in a position to recognise real art when confronted with it. . . . Given the nature of the shrine and most of its ministrants, affectations, curlicues, gimmicks—whatever falsi- fications of psychology, history or philosophy could elbow reality a little farther back—were greeted with special rapture. And whoever had, escaping reality most stringently, achieved the most encyclopaedic knowledge of minutiae of the movies, naturally became a member of their aristocracy.