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Winter 2009

Notes on Sontag

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Phillip Lopate

My favorite book of Susan Sontag's—not necessarily her best book but the one I like best—is Under the Sign of Saturn. I like it partly because it is free of the aggressive, badgering tone of her aesthetic polemics, and is instead a fairly unified suite of sympathetic biographical portraits of male melancholics, her heroes of the intellect (Paul Goodman, Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Elias Canetti), with the one gender exception being Leni Riefenstahl in "Fascinating Fascism," which is not at all sympathetic but brilliant in other ways. I don't think it is incorrect to say that Sontag was essentially male-identified; she wrote much more sympathetically and readily about men than about women, which landed her in trouble at times with feminist critics. Nor would I put it past myself to have liked these biographical essays of luftmenschen so much, partly for the reason that as a male reader I identify more strongly with them.

What she admired, or envied, about these men was not only their intellectual achievement but their melancholy solitude, which allowed them to keep the world at bay and get on with their work. Benjamin was the quintessential isolate bachelor, despite his failed early marriage; Goodman, though he had a wife and kids, was gay and a restless cruiser, given (as he put it in his diary Five Years) to looking for love in places where it couldn't be found; Artaud was too crazy for the calm rhythms and accords of domestic life; Barthes, too, lived by himself; Canetti was married but a philandering scholar who ate up whole libraries. Sontag commented often on how difficult it was for a woman writer to appropriate the oceans of alone-time that every writer needs, since women tend to become more entangled in domestic responsibilities and are expected to be caregivers.

Craig Seligman, in Sontag & Kael, conjectures that Sontag was also a depressive, which is why she wrote so sympathetically about melancholia. We now have the proof from no less an authority than her son, David Rieff, in his memoir, Swimming in a Sea of Death, that "she was almost always dueling with depression. This was clearest immediately after she woke up, when, in an effort to shake off her despondency, she would talk, about anything and at breakneck speed, as if to overwhelm her mood with meteor showers of verbiage." That description recalls her own depiction of the Cavaliere in The Volcano Lover: "His is the hyperactivity of the heroic depressive. He ferried himself past one vortex of melancholy after another by means of an astonishing spread of enthusiasms."

Beyond her own experiences with melancholy, I also think she romanticized male depression as an aristocratic retreat. The roots of that tenderness toward male melancholics may have links to the early death of her father, Jack Rosenblatt, in China: she was only six at the time, and I take that event to have left a lifelong wound, in much the same sense that Edmund Wilson writes about the early fructifying traumas of various writers in The Wound and the Bow. The autobiographical "Project for a Trip to China," one of Sontag's best stories in I, etcetera, speaks directly about this loss. "My father, tubercular, never came back from China." "I still weep in any movie with a scene in which the father returns home from a long desperate absence, at the moment that he hugs his child. Or children." "It is oppressive to have an invisible father." "I shall forgive my father. For dying."

She addresses the moment when she learned of the death from her mother (called M. in the story): "After M. returned to the United States from China in early 1939, it took several months for her to tell me my father wasn't coming back... I didn't cry long. I was already imagining how I would announce this new fact to my friends. I was sent out to play. I didn't really believe my father was dead... I am six years old. My grief falls like snow-flakes." The working-out of that grief may have had another result, as she reports in the same story: "Somewhere, some place inside myself, I am detached. I have always been detached (in part). Always." It is this detachment, flecked with grief, that she enthusiastically examines in the studies that make up Under the Sign of Saturn.

The collection opens with "On Paul Goodman," an immensely appealing personal essay. She is sitting in a "tiny room in Paris," surrounded by books and manuscripts, trying "to make a new start." News has reached her of the death of Paul Goodman. "The grief I feel at Paul Goodman's death is sharper because we were not friends, though we co-inhabited several of the same worlds." This will partly be the story of a failed friendship between two audacious thinkers. Why were they not friends? "I disliked him—the reason being, as I often explained plaintively during his lifetime, that I felt he didn't like me. How pathetic and merely formal that dislike was I always knew." Sontag shows a very human side here: vulnerable to others' dislike, particularly the dislike of respected elders. She found him "mildly rude...cold and self-absorbed... I was told by mutual friends that he didn't really like women as people—though he made an exception for a few particular women, of course." Still, he had been her hero: "It was that voice that seduced me—that direct, cranky, egotistical, generous American voice... Paul Goodman's voice touched everything he wrote about with intensity, interest, and his own terribly appealing sureness and awkwardness." Gone are the gnomic European tones in her own voice as priestess-demystifier; nothing could be more transparent, more candidly American. We perceive that another influential national prose model, besides the French or German, has been operating in her head.

By his polymath example as a poet/ playwright/social critic, Goodman gave consent to try many things, just as Sontag aspired to write novels and shoot films and direct theater alongside her essays. He also led the way in "being an academic freeloader and an outlaw psychiatrist," outside the university walls. "His so-called amateurism is identical with his genius: that amateurism enabled him to bring to the questions of schooling, psychiatry, and citizenship an extraordinary, curmudgeonly accuracy of insight and freedom to envisage practical change." Finally, he gave her the courage to badger in a straightforward, social-critic way, as Barthes never could. She ends the essay by saying how hard it will be to go on "without Paul's hectoring, without Paul's patient meandering explanations of everything, without the grace of Paul's example." In her rising above his personal rudeness toward her and celebrating his virtues (including hectoring) with grace and generosity, she sets a fine example.

The second piece in the collection is one of Sontag's most intellectually ambitious. "Approaching Artaud" is aptly named because she spends the whole essay circling her subject, Antonin Artaud, from different perspectives: first, a prologue about the "death of the author" crisis in modernism, extending back as always to Nietzsche, in this case his call for the "transvaluation of all values"; second, Surrealism, which both welcomed and repelled Artaud; third, a biography of the mad, failed, suffering theater visionary; fourth, an examination of his call for a theater of ritual, stripped of dialogue and individual psychology; fifth, the enduring influence of his ideas in experimental theater today, and their coextension with current topical fads, including shamanism, Oriental religions, trance, drugs, magic; sixth, an inquiry into the connections between Gnosticism and schizophrenia, and the incompatibility between the individual at his most anti-social, or mad, and humanist liberal democracy; seventh, the ultimately "unassimilable" nature of Artaud's "voice and presence," for all their trendy allure. She concludes:

He is an example of a willed classic—an author whom the culture attempts to assimilate but who remains profoundly undigestible. One use of literary respectability in our time—and an important part of the complex career of literary modernism—is to make acceptable an outrageous, essentially forbidding author, who becomes a classic on the basis of the many interesting things to be said about the work that scarcely convey (perhaps even conceal) the real nature of the work itself, which may be, among other things, extremely boring or morally monstrous or terribly painful to read. Sade, Artaud, and Wilhelm Reich belong in this company: authors who were jailed or locked up in insane asylums because they were screaming, because they were out of control; immoderate, obsessed, strident authors who repeat themselves endlessly, who are rewarding to quote and read bits of, but who overpower and exhaust if read in large quantities.

But she has read Artaud, and digested him, and saved us the trouble of doing so, and she is not above complimenting herself for her effort. Fair enough.

The problem with the essay, serious and searching as it is, is that it seems overly long for its payoff. Maybe Artaud was too extreme, too much of a nut, to pin all these ideas onto. The result is like being trapped in the circularities and tautologies of a crazy brain. "Only the exhausting is truly interesting," she declares—a wonderful Sontagian aphorism, but like most aphorisms, no more than partly true. Perhaps it really was true for her?

Another strand of her personal aesthetic was this insistence that only the haters, the obsessive ranters, were relevant to the cultural crisis of late modernism. She began her Simone Weil essay in Against Interpretation by writing:

The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force—not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self—these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live.

She made this assertion a number of times, explaining the importance of Thomas Bernhard, Céline, Artaud, Beckett—the progeny of Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground. I think she was right in identifying the obsessive-rant narration as a significant offshoot in modernist writing, perhaps a way of circumventing the scene-and-dialogue conventions of realist fiction, which seemed played-out to her; but I think she was wrong in saying its practitioners were the only ones that counted in contemporary culture. It's like saying that only the boring or fanatical are interesting. Yes, up to a point, but...no. Sontag herself expresses qualms, in the same Simone Weil essay, while going on to resolve them:

I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

I am much more drawn to balance as a goal than Sontag was, which is why Montaigne remains my essayistic ideal, and she rarely mentions him. I also am more put off by insanity and hysteria (perhaps I've seen too much of them in my life) to glamorize them as promising distortions, the way she did. But the idea of madness as occult knowledge was very much in the air when Sontag wrote her Weil and Artaud essays: R.D. Laing's The Divided Self, for instance, argued that schizophrenia was a sensible way-station on the road to integration, that one needed to "go through" the craziness, just as LSD users claimed that you must lose your mind in order to gain it, or the movie King of Hearts premised that lunacy was an appropriate adaptive response to a mad society. Sontag's film Brother Carl was a muddled attempt to give these concepts dramatic form, while trying to approximate the atmosphere of Dreyer's Ordet.

The title essay on Walter Benjamin, "Under the Sign of Saturn," is my favorite in the book, and probably my favorite of all her essays. Her tribute is a rare act of sympathy by which one author assimilates another, and transmits unselfishly that spirit to the reader, rendering his notoriously difficult aspects into something coherent and attractive. The key is her explication of melancholia (Saturn being the astrological sign of melancholics) as fundamental to Benjamin's work.

The prose is dense but clear, never stuffy or derivative; one would have to quote the entire Sontag essay to convey its method of piling idea upon idea, so that each insight builds on all the previous ones. A few sentences, extracted from the middle, may suffice:

Benjamin's recurrent themes are, characteristically, means of spatializing the world: for example, his notion of ideas and experiences as ruins. To understand something is to understand its topography, to know how to chart it. And to know how to get lost.

For the character born under the sign of Saturn, time is the medium of constraint, inadequacy, repetition, mere fulfillment. In time, one is only what one is: what one has always been. In space, one can be another person. Benjamin's poor sense of direction and inability to read a street map became his love of travel and his mastery of the art of straying. Time does not give one much leeway: it thrusts us forward from behind, blows us through the narrow funnel of the present into the future. But space is broad, teeming with possibilities, positions, intersections, passages, detours, U-turns, dead ends, one-way streets. Too many possibilities, indeed. Since the Saturnine temperament is slow, prone to indecisiveness, sometimes one has to cut one's way through with a knife. Sometimes one ends by turning the knife against oneself.

Anyone familiar with Benjamin's work will hear echoes and paraphrases here: for instance, he dedicated his collage of reflections, "One Way Street," to Asja Lacis, "who cut it through the author." Sontag's prose here is also remarkably rhythmic, as though she were in a semi-trance when composing it, able to channel Benjamin's spirit calmly while looking at him objectively. The probing way she reads and understands Benjamin would seem a vindication of that very psychological method she elsewhere disdains. She is aware of the contradiction, saying: "One cannot use the life to interpret the work. But one can use the work to interpret the life."

She begins novelistically, by describing Benjamin as he appears in photographs. Then she takes us through some of his dominant motifs and characteristics: topography, miniaturization, indecisiveness, keeping one's options open, a courtier's courtesy. Benjamin was a passionate collector, and in her analysis of his fidelity to things ("The more lifeless things are, the more potent and ingenious can be the mind which contemplates them"), we get a first glimpse of the Cavaliere, the collector-protagonist of her novel The Volcano Lover. Benjamin was also another exemplar for her of "the freelance intellectual." Finally, he was a negative model in the difficulty he had finishing books. "His characteristic form remained the essay. The melancholic's intensity and exhaustiveness of attention set natural limits to the length at which Benjamin could develop his ideas. His major essays seem to end just in time, before they self-destruct." Her own essay on Benjamin runs a mere twenty-five pages. She later said, by way of explaining why she no longer gave her main energies to essay-writing, that some of the essays in Under the Sign of Saturn had taken her six months to write. From my perspective, this means she should have persisted in essay writing; it was just getting to the proper level of difficulty.

Phillip Lopate's most recent books include Two Marriages, a pair of novellas, and Notes on Sontag (Princeton University Press, 2009), from which this excerpt is taken. He is a professor at Columbia University.

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