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 

     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 

     Susan Sontag was a feast for the eye, if not for the 
mind. That's more than you can say of most intellectuals.


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