THE DARK LADY, AND OTHER INTELLECTUALS January 4, 2005 by Joe Sobran Susan Sontag, who has died at 71, was more than just a pretty face. When she made her splash among New York intellectuals in the Sixties, I was a college boy watching from afar in Michigan and grasping only a few enigmatic words people were quoting from her. She drove conservatives nuts with such pronouncements as "The white race is the cancer of history" -- one of her more lucid lines. It was unsettling to me that a young woman so beautiful could be so infatuated with Cuba and North Vietnam. Did she see something in them that I was missing? She spoke as one who had some special insight, not easily communicable to lesser mortals, such as Midwestern college boys. Miss Sontag had a beauty all her own: arresting dark eyes, perfect mouth, flowing hair. Even when she aged, her looks remained absolutely distinctive. I once passed her on the street in Greenwich Village and recognized her instantly. She was older by then, but she still looked like nobody else. I dwell on her looks because I think they were the real reason people -- men, for instance -- paid attention to her. And I think she knew it. She had a feminine knack for getting noticed and saying provocative things. In her seemingly abstruse writing, I always sensed an element of flirtation. As with many lovely women, you listened in fascination even when she made no sense at all. Was she talking nonsense, or deepening her mystery? Someone called Miss Sontag "the Dark Lady of Radical Chic." If she was left-wing, it had nothing to do with the class struggle and the labor theory of value. It was just vaguely aesthetic. Roger Kimball of THE NEW CRITERION, in a testy obituary, quotes her early essay in praise of Communist Cuba. She urged her American readers to "love the Cuban revolution." American culture, she said, was "inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian." Whereas "the Cubans know a lot about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality, and freaking out. They are not linear, dessicated creatures of print culture." To which the only rational reply is: Say what? That was my general reaction to her writing. Every dogmatic assertion lost me, and I could only move on to the next dogmatic assertion. Her early prose was a kaleidoscope of obscure overstatements, delivered in unmeasured words. You couldn't even argue with it. Any attempt to refute her might expose you as a hopelessly linear, dessicated creature of print culture. It was her way to say controversial things without getting into controversy herself. She'd just say them, then let everyone else overreact. Kimball, for example, says of her, "Few people have managed to combine naive idealization of foreign tyranny with violent hatred of their own country to such deplorable effect." Deplorable effect? I don't think she had any effect at all, except on conservative intellectuals' digestive systems. She struck poses and uttered a few outre aphorisms, but that hardly adds up to cultural influence. Kimball goes on to say that "her celebrity was ... the tawdry coefficient of a lifelong devotion to the mendacious and disfiguring imperatives of radical chic." Come again? That sentence rivals Miss Sontag herself in its fusion of exaggeration and obscurity. It lacks only a certain coquettish touch. I may as well say it: I'm tired of intellectuals, Left and Right. Every week I buy a handful of highbrow magazines from New York and London, and after reading them I plunge into depression. I hardly know what they're talking about. For a long time I thought I'd missed something -- walked in late on the conversation, so to speak. Then I came to realize that most intellectuals simply don't know how to write; they know only how to punctuate. They don't listen to themselves or each other. And their editors don't send their copy back, demanding clarity. Of course this isn't just a vice of the highbrow. Most people don't listen closely either to themselves or to others. But we assume that some people are trained to do it habitually, and it comes as a shock to find that most of them don't. They just drone on, like your Uncle Harry. Susan Sontag was a feast for the eye, if not for the mind. That's more than you can say of most intellectuals. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Read this column on-line at "http://www.sobran.com/columns/2005/050104.shtml". Copyright (c) 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate, www.griffnews.com. This column may not be published in print or Internet publications without express permission of Griffin Internet Syndicate. You may forward it to interested individuals if you use this entire page, including the following disclaimer: "SOBRAN'S and Joe Sobran's columns are available by subscription. For details and samples, see http://www.sobran.com/e-mail.shtml, write PR@griffnews.com, or call 800-513-5053."