Intellectuals and Stupid Ideas

Susan Sontag in 1979

Joseph Epstein:

A single essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,'” published in Partisan Review in 1964, launched Susan Sontag‘s career, at the age of 31, and put her instantly on the Big Board of literary reputations. People speak of ideas whose time has not yet come; hers was a talent for promoting ideas that arrived precisely on time. “Notes on ‘Camp,'” along with a companion essay called “ Against Interpretation,” vaunted style over content: “The idea of content,” Ms. Sontag wrote, “is today merely a hindrance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.” She also held interpretation to be “the enemy of art.” She argued that Camp, a style marked by extravagance, epicene in character, expressed a new sensibility that would “dethrone the serious.” In its place she would put, with nearly equal standing, such cultural items as comic books, wretched movies, pornography watched ironically, and other trivia.

These essays arrived as the 1960s were about to come to their tumultuous fruition and provided an aesthetic justification for a retreat from the moral judgment of artistic works and an opening to hedonism, at least in aesthetic matters. “In place of a hermeneutics,” Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” ended, “we need an erotics of art.” She also argued that the old division between highbrow and lowbrow culture was a waste not so much of time as of the prospects for enjoyment. Toward this end she lauded the movies—”cinema is the active, the most exciting, the most important of all the art forms right now”—as well as science fiction and popular music.

These cultural pronunciamentos, authoritative and richly allusive, were delivered in a mandarin manner. They read as if they were a translation, probably, if one had to guess, from the French. They would have been more impressive, of course, if their author were herself a first-class artist. This, Lord knows, Susan Sontag strained to be. She wrote experimental fiction that never came off; later in her career she wrote more traditional fiction, but it, too, arrived dead on the page.

The problem is that Sontag wasn’t sufficiently interested in real-life details, the lifeblood of fiction, but only in ideas. She also wrote and directed films, which were not well-reviewed: I have not seen these myself, but there is time enough to do so, for I have long assumed that they are playing as a permanent double feature in the only movie theater in hell.

“Intelligence,” Sontag wrote, “is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.” In her thrall to ideas she resembles the pure type of the intellectual. The difficulty, though, was in the quality of so many of her ideas, most of which cannot be too soon forgot. Her worst offenses in this line were in politics, where her specialty was extravagant utterance.

During the Vietnam War, Sontag went off to Hanoi as one of those people Lenin called “useful idiots”—that is, people who could be expected to defend Communism without any interest in investigating the brutality behind it. There she found the North Vietnamese people noble and gentle, if a touch boring and puritanical for her tastes. Doubtless that trip led to her most famous foolish remark, when she said that “the white race is the cancer of human history,” later revising this judgment by noting that it was a slander on cancer. Hers was the standard leftist view on Israel, which was—natch—that it is a racist and imperialist country. All her political views were left-wing commonplace, noteworthy only because of her extreme statement of them.

Some might think Sontag’s renunciation of communism an exception to this record of nearly perfect political foolishness. In a 1982 speech at New York’s Town Hall, she announced that communism was no more than “fascism with a human face.” The remark drove bien-pensants up the (still standing Berlin) wall. Others who had fallen for the dream of communism had got off the train as long as 50 years earlier. And whatever can Sontag have meant by “a human face” to describe a monstrous system of government that in Russia, Eastern Europe, China and Cambodia slaughtered scores of millions of people?

Rounding her political career off nicely, when the Twin Towers were destroyed and nearly 3,000 people murdered, Sontag, in the New Yorker, wrote that the attack was “on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions”—and so America, in other words, had it coming. “Some ideas are so stupid,” Orwell said, “that only an intellectual could believe them,” and Susan Sontag seems, at one time or another, to have believed them all.

Sontag was an aesthete and held that “the wisdom that becomes available over a deep, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.” Some might argue, though, that she gave aestheticism a bad name and that hers fed nicely into her political foolishness. Apropos of Sontag, Hilton Kramer remarked: “Aestheticism is not, after all, primarily a philosophy of art. It is a philosophy of life.” This woman who eschewed morality and judgment in art never had the least doubt about her own moral superiority and the righteousness of her views.

From “A Very Public Intellectual” (Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2011)

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