And Other Intellectuals
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 couldnt even argue with it. Any attempt
to refute her might expose you as a hopelessly linear, dessicated creature
of print culture.
was her way to say controversial things without getting into controversy
herself. Shed 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
dont think she had any effect at all, except on conservative
intellectuals digestive systems. She struck poses and uttered a
few outré 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: Im
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 theyre talking about.
For a long time I thought
Id missed something walked in late on the conversation, so
to speak. Then I came to realize that most intellectuals simply
dont know how to write; they know only how to punctuate. They
don't listen to themselves or each other. And their editors dont
send their copy back, demanding clarity.
Of course this isnt just a
vice of the highbrow. Most people dont 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
dont. They just drone on, like your Uncle Harry.
Susan Sontag was a feast for the
eye, if not for the mind. Thats more than you can say of most