Quantcast

This Week in 'Nation' History: Susan Sontag on the Avant-Garde, Communism and the Left | The Nation

  •  
Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in 'Nation' History: Susan Sontag on the Avant-Garde, Communism and the Left


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.

* * *

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:

This form of prophecy and critical insight, this mode of radical will, can be extremely clarifying and stimulating for the willing reader. But politics is an unwelcome intrusion upon it. A radical critique of consciousness, so it is said, is itself a radical political ideology. Do not speak therefore of war protests, black demands, student rebellion; how can one talk of changing the political system when human consciousness is the fundamental issue? When consciousness is altered, politics will necessarily be different—or irrelevant.

Both of these criticisms of Sontag would later be amended in the pages of The Nation, including by Sontag herself.

* * *

The most notorious encounter between Sontag and The Nation came in 1982, when she and various other members of the New York left-liberal community—including our own Victor Navasky—gathered at Town Hall to express support for the Solidarity labor movement in Poland and to lament the imposition of martial law to put it down (and also to differentiate the left’s objections from the self-serving ones of the Reagan administration, which was then abetting worse atrocities in El Salvador in the name of anti-communism). Sontag rose to deliver a speech questioning the attendants’ legitimacy to criticize the crackdown in Poland, given what she perceived as insufficient denunciation of Soviet Communism in previous years. The key lines—excised from the version she gave to The Nation to publish, but included by the editors in prefatory remarks, corroborated by other attendees of the event, and not denied by Sontag in later exchanges—were these:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

She argued that the American left had blinded itself to the crimes committed by Soviet Russia by falsely positing differences between communism and fascism that, regrettably (in her view), did not exist. As most recently evidenced by the events in Poland but also much earlier, communism was, Sontag alleged, “fascism with a human face.”

That this would be a relatively uncontroversial thing for someone—even someone on the left—to say today is a testament to how flat our historical thinking has become. The intellectual climate of 1982—Reagan and Thatcher ruled, and it was still several years before glasnost and perestroika—meant that Sontag’s comments created a firestorm. In the best of our tradition, The Nation reprinted Sontag’s remarks and opened its pages for comment from other prominent intellectuals of the left, like current Nation editorial board member Philip Green (“If Susan Sontag really needed to learn from the right, that was her problem, not ours”); the longtime (self-described) liberal anti-communist Diana Trilling (who called Sontag insufficiently scrubbed of the Red-tinged trace); Phillip Pochoda (“I, for one, should hate to see Sontag, long one of the most valued assets of the American left, allow herself to become caricatured as Norman Podhoretz with a human face.”); and Christopher Hitchens (“Let us be charitable and assume that she was trying to galvanize an audience by deliberate exaggeration.”). In a follow-up editorial, The Nation dug up a few noteworthy Reader’s Digest headlines from the period in question—i.e. “What is a Communist?” by Whittaker Chambers—but, fortunately, now you can go through our own archives here to see what we did write about communism and the Soviet Union between 1950 and 1970. (Or, since there is no reason those should be the operative years, you might read our two-part series by Bertrand Russell from 1920, headlined on the cover, “I went to Russia believing myself a communist, but…”)

* * *

Thirteen years after our last review of a Sontag work, later in 1982 the Fordham professor Walter Kendrick wrote about A Susan Sontag Reader, edited by the writer herself. Echoing previous Nation criticisms Kendrick called Sontag’s fiction “dull and derivative” but her nonfiction “vivacious,” adding, however, that he felt she had shown no desire to grapple with recent critical developments, including “semiotics, deconstruction, the reinterpretation of Freud, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx.” In the fifteen or so years since she had first been reviewed in The Nation, Sontag had gone from radically ahead-of-the-curve to somewhat old-fashioned and passé: “If the Reader is in fact Sontag’s self-portrait, what she shows us is an unexpectedly conservative, philosophically retrograde writer whose primary function has always been domestication.” Kendrick felt that Sontag’s role in American culture was to essentially declaw the “avant-garde” artists she discovered and promoted—echoing previous criticisms of Sontag as, basically, a publicist—and to make them safe for the “liberal bourgeois civilization” she had originally set out to undermine. Further, whereas previous Nation criticisms of Sontag had emphasized her airy playfulness, Kendrick’s review pointed out the self-styled seriousness (which Sontag: Reborn portrays to disturbing effect):

None of this would make any difference if Sontag didn’t have such important influence on somebody, somewhere. I must confess, I don’t know anyone who looks to Sontag for esthetic guidance. But she takes herself so seriously, and her publisher treats her with such awe, that I can only presume the existence of a vast, anonymous readership, hungry for Sontag’s pearls. If these readers exist, their reverence is Sontag’s only real achievement—a notable achievement, to be sure, but a far more trenchant criticism of the world of American letters than any essay she ever wrote.

Larissa MacFarquhar, then a Paris Review editor and now a New Yorker staff writer, noted the same point in a much more Sontag-friendly review of a 1995 biography: “She had a sophisticated understanding of the comic but no sense of humour.”

* * *

Sontag’s second and final contribution to The Nation—not counting the speeches she gave elsewhere and published here—was a dispatch from war-wracked Bosnia, where she spent much time in the 1990s. A supporter of NATO’s intervention, Sontag—flipping Robert Sklar’s previous criticism of her on its head, while subtly reinforcing her 1982 jabs at The Nation and the left—lamented that intellectuals back in the United States were not more engaged in conflicts in the rest of the world:

If the intellectuals of the 1930s and the 1960s often showed themselves too gullible, too prone to appeals to idealism to take in what was really happening in certain beleaguered, newly radicalized societies that they may or may not have visited (briefly), the morosely depoliticized intellectuals of today, with their cynicism always at the ready, their addiction to entertainment, their reluctance to inconvenience themselves for any cause, their devotion to personal safety, seem at least equally deplorable…By and large, that handful of intellectuals who consider themselves people of conscience can be mobilized now solely for limited actions—against, say, racism or censorship—within their own countries. Only domestic political commitments seem plausible now. Among once internationally minded intellectuals, nationalist complacencies have renewed prestige…There has been a vertiginous decay of the very notion of international solidarity.

A few years later, the late Alexander Cockburn turned the very same argument against Sontag herself, writing two blistering columns attacking her acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society—presented by the Jerusalem International Book Fair, though the prize committee consists of topic Israeli government officials—and for traveling to the city to accept it. “Does Sontag see no irony in getting a prize premised on the recipient’s sensitivity to issues of human freedom, in a society where the freedom of Palestinians is unrelentingly suppressed?” Cockburn asked in an April 2001 column.

Two months later Cockburn noted Sontag’s visit to Jerusalem and praised her comments upon receiving the prize that “the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified, militarily or ethically.” But for Cockburn that wasn’t enough: “She deserves credit for condemning the occupation policies, but she could have gone a lot further.” He went on to quote Sontag allegedly referring to Ehud Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, as “an extremely persuasive and reasonable person,” while Cockburn called Olmert “a fanatical ethnic cleanser.” (A letter to the editor from Sontag in a subsequent issue claims Cockburn fabricated the quote; he insisted it was correct and corroborated it with the Jerusalem Post journalist who had initially reported it.)

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

In yet another interesting twist to Sontag’s relationship with The Nation, less than two years after the Cockburn spat she gave a speech, published as the lead article in our May 5, 2003 issue, honoring a group of Israeli soldiers who had refused to serve in the occupied territories, linking their commitment to American dissent from the then-launched war in Iraq and to a broader, endless, global struggle for justice and human rights. In the way that, in her earlier days, Sontag used art to launch broader philosophical investigations, this Sontag speech, given the year before she died, used political dilemmas to embark on meditations about ethical commitment, generally. Though it would be an insult to suggest that Sontag published the speech as a response to all her Nation critics over the years—from Sklar’s suggestion of her impatience with politics to Cockburn’s charge of hypocrisy—the speech had that effect, and, ten years later, rewards a careful rereading:

The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions—who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.

The standard that a society should actually embody its own professed principles is a utopian one, in the sense that moral principles contradict the way things really are—and always will be. How things really are—and always will be—is neither all evil nor all good but deficient, inconsistent, inferior. Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally. Principles invite us to clean up our act, to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us what we are doing is not right, and so counsels us to that we’d be better off just not thinking about it.

The cry of the anti-principled: “I’m doing the best I can.” The best given the circumstances, of course.

Let’s say, the principle is: It’s wrong to oppress and humiliate a whole people. To deprive them systematically of lodging and proper nutrition; to destroy their habitations, means of livelihood, access to education and medical care, and ability to consort with one another. That these practices are wrong, whatever the provocation. And there is provocation. That, too, should not be denied.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.