Susan Sontag. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Through June 30, the New York Theater Workshop is staging a fascinating, ingenious stage production called Sontag: Reborn, based on the late writer’s early journals. Moe Angelos, who also wrote the adaptation, plays a teenage Sontag, sitting at a desk writing precocious journal entries, as well as the older Sontag, who appears on a screen smoking cigarettes and rifling through old papers. Among those papers shown is the April 13, 1964, issue of The Nation, which contained her first contribution to the magazine, a review of the highly scandalous Jack Smith film, Flaming Creatures. The film had been seized by New York City police and declared obscene by the courts. Much in Sontag’s review anticipates her monumental essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” published in Partisan Review later in 1964. Her Nation review begins:
The only thing to be regretted about the close-ups of limp penises and bouncing breasts, the shots of masturbation and oral sexuality, in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, is that it makes it hard simply to talk about this remarkable and beautiful film, one has to defend it.
Among the things one must defend the film from, Sontag thought, was censorship:
Art is, always, the sphere of freedom. In those difficult works of art, works which we now call avant-garde, the artist consciously exercises his freedom. And as the price the avant-garde artist pays for the freedom to be outrageous is the small numbers of his audience, the least of his rewards should be freedom from meddling censorship by the philistine, the prudish and the blind.
By 1964, Sontag had already married (and divorced) the sociologist Phillip Rieff, published her first novel, The Benefactor, and participated in the first issue of The New York Review of Books (a condensed version of her essay on Simone Weil was reprinted in a recent issue). As evidenced by its inclusion in Sontag: Reborn, the publication of her review in The Nation was an important part of Sontag’s emergence as one of the most important American intellectuals in the second half of the twentieth century.
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The flurry of books in the late 1960s that established that reputation received mixed reviews in The Nation, which may—may—explain why she didn’t write for us again for more than thirty years: while Nation reviewers consistently admired Sontag’s boldness and sophistication, they often judged that her reach tended to exceed her grasp, and that her criticism demanded things her fiction couldn’t supply. The Williams College professor Charles Thomas Samuels, in his review of Against Interpretation (1966), Sontag’s first essay collection (which included her review of Flaming Creatures, her essay on Weil, and “Notes on ‘Camp,’”), called her “a writer of rare energy and provocative newness, sustained by an intimidating if arcane erudition.” Yet she was also, in his view, “less a critic or an aesthetician than she is a publicist with a subtlety and flair suitable for an epoch in which nothing but the recherché and novel will serve.” Similarly, the late film scholar Robert Sklar, reviewing Styles of Radical Will in 1969, argued that “few critics are as capable as Miss Sontag…in making aesthetic criticism a form of philosophical inquiry.” But Sklar found in Sontag’s reliance on art as the basis for a broader criticism a deep “impatience” with politics that, despite her acute meditations on forms of consciousness, limited her influence as an intellectual: