Are You Trying to Seduce Me, Ms. Sontag and Ms. Kael?

Photo by Anie LeibovitzSusan Sontag, the North Hollywood High School graduate who made the jump to New York and went on to assume that unlikeliest of American roles—a glamorous public intellectual—died Dec. 28 at 71, leaving behind four novels (two severe avant-garde puzzlers and two richly narrated best-sellers), three plays, a book of short stories, and six books of essays, among them Against Interpretation and Where the Stress Falls, that will doubtless be her lasting legacy. She was one of the dwindling number of American intellectuals who cared about European culture, tirelessly combing the continent for artists Americans needed to attend to (she was instrumental in developing an audience for everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Elias Canetti, Roland Barthes and W.S. Sebald). In “Notes on 'CAMP,'” she helped break down the wall between high and pop culture that's become a hallmark of postmodernism (a breakdown she quickly regretted). In “What's Happening in America,” she infamously lacerated the United States as a country founded on genocide and populated by materialistic yahoos, earning her the ceaseless wrath of cultural conservatives. In the late '60s, she briefly flirted with Ho Chi Minh-style Communism before becoming a sustained and effective advocate for human rights in totalitarian regimes worldwide. She took on Norman Mailer regarding cancer (Illness as Metaphor); directed a production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the height of the Balkan conflict; wrote one of the more memorable pieces of fiction about AIDS (“The Way We Live Now”); and got herself in big trouble in the days after 9/11 when she wrote that it wasn't the terrorists who were cowards, but us, who use our technological mastery to “kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky.” Her elegant if often reckless handprints are stamped everywhere in the past 40 years of this nation's smeary cultural life. She was also beautiful and knew it, her succession of book-jacket photos steadily building the reputation of a writer whose looks were every bit as cool, seductive and forbidding as her prose.

I read her in college, as I've discovered lots of young guys did, charged (sexually, intellectually: it was pretty much the same thing then) by her demanding mind, vowing to become worthy of a writer who flattered you by assuming you could keep up with her impossible range of allusions, her steady courageous gaze into the abysses opened by the modernist masters she obsessed over: Beckett, Ingmar Bergman, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin. At the same time, though, I started reading another California writer who moved to New York City, Pauline Kael, whose charge was just as intense but considerably less forbidding and certainly more fun. Kael, the film critic for The New Yorker from the mid-'60s until 1991, wrote movie reviews whose whole-self, whole-body responsiveness to what was on the screen (I Lost It at the Movies was only one of her suggestive book titles) not only increased my pleasure in watching a movie, but they also basically taught me how to look. (I've discovered a lot of other guys—and women, too—who've had exactly the same response to being educated by her: in film critic quarters, there's even a name for them: they're called Paulettes.) Although she was learned in philosophy, literature and classical music, she loved the insouciant trashiness of American pop culture (which was why she caught on to the sensibility of Godard's early movies so quickly) and developed a style that simulated the sensory rush she felt at the movies. Her muscular prose sometimes resembles the all-over paintings of Jackson Pollock: everything she knows and feels, you come to think, she splatters brilliantly on the page. Kael died the same week that 9/11 happened and never got the cultural eulogizing I think she deserved.

Now, Craig Seligman comes along with a book proposing he had almost exactly the same intellectual enthusiasms and influences that I did, which made reading his Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me at first a weirdly dj vu sort of experience, then made me envious he got to the subject first, and finally grateful that someone could not only elucidate both writers' careers so judiciously but also explore how and why two writers so “opposite” in sensibility and in style could be attractive to the same mind.

Not that Seligman is equally open to Sontag and Kael. As anyone who's read them knows, Kael is effervescent, creamily warming up to movies she loves while caviling delightfully and bitchily at things she can't stand. Sontag is icy, formal, ever careful, cultivating a stylistic impersonality so idiosyncratic that it becomes personal itself and, in its way, sexy. At the outset, Seligman admits that Sontag's “not a likeable writer,” that her cultural elitism and forays into radical politics leave a bad aftertaste, that her silence about being gay (especially during the first years of the AIDS crisis) denote a woman whose personal nobility comes up way short of the severe moral standards implied in her work. Still, Seligman “reveres” Sontag, and more than half of the book tries to demonstrate why: Sontag's austere genius is fearless, her endlessly inquisitive mind ranged over a daunting number of fields (film, photography, literature, drama, literary criticism), all of which she's made lasting contributions to.

Seligman goes much easier on Kael, to whom he admits he was personally close, even nursing her during some of her declining years when she suffered from Parkinson's disease. He doesn't schtush over her, gaily celebrating her triumphant reign at The New Yorker and her clashes with other film critics (like Andrew Sarris, whose auteur theory Kael trashed witheringly) while defending her post-'70s writing—most of us think of it as in severe decline—as reviews that are accomplishments of high style. He couldn't be more wrong about that: you can read the reviews from the mid-'70s collected in, say, Reeling and feel the pressurized intelligence of a writer for whom every movie is an expression of a boiling, roiling national consciousness. Read her last book, Movie Love, and she seems as though she's given up on movies (especially foreign films, which she nearly abandoned), saving her enthusiasms for Steve Martin comedies and Star Trek sequels.

But what Seligman does accomplish throughout these four lengthy essays that really are “essays” in the original sense—attempts to think through a subject by writing about it, the essays serving as records of his process of discovery—is a demonstration that his own sensibility was formed by facing conflict and wrestling contradiction, which is of course how all interesting sensibilities are forged. Sontag liked to quote Oscar Wilde: “A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.” Wilde was right (and of course wrong) about that, and this book's dwelling on the contradictions these women created in a young writer's mind is continually revealing and insightful. It's Seligman's Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man.


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