Putting Her Body on the Line: The Critical Acts of Susan Sontag, Part 2

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Not only new relationships, but a new manner of re-articulating and adjusting.

--Robert Bresson Notes on Cinematography

Man is saddled with a rigid and stereotyped morality, which all of us recognize as such and yet sustain out of cowardice or sheer laziness ... a heavy baggage of emotional traits, which cannot exactly be called old and outmoded but rather unsuited and inadequate. They condition us without offering us any help; they create problems without suggesting any possible solutions.

--Michelangelo Antonioni in an interview

Sontag will draw upon an "amoral seriousness" to counter the regnant moral one. She will usher in that "liberatory body," escorted by Nietzsche and Wilde, decidedly not Freud (or Marx) or their New York epigone. And her entreaties for "erotics" over "hermeneutics," for immanence over transcendence, for "style" and "beauty" over moral pontification are also calls for a certain festiveness and delectation: a "Let's go out, see the city, and enjoy ourselves!" attitude. But as Sontag savors, she "destroys" too; taste and transformation go hand-in-hand. She corroborates that coupling in "On Style": "Awareness of style as a problematic and isolable element in a work of art has emerged in the audience for art only at certain historical moments--as a front behind which other issues, ultimately ethical and political, are being debated." To paraphrase Barthes, a little aestheticism turns one away from history, but a lot brings one back to it. In addition, she argues, that "awareness of style" arises "as a solution to crises that have threatened old ideas of truth, of moral rectitude, and also of naturalness." Old ideas of truth, moral rectitude and naturalness are precisely what's under assault by the bodily putsches of the 1960's (and today), particularly that putsch heralded by Sontag's zeal for "form" and "style"--i.e., her aestheticism. And the latter's ever reliable, almost limitless capacity to overturn those "old ideas" is based on a strategy that can be gleaned, once again, from the aesthete breviary, "The Critic as Artist." It's the passage where Wilde speaks of the heights he longs to scale, to attain a view "so divine," he asserts, "that it is able to transform into elements of a richer experience, or a finer susceptibility, or a newer mode of thought, acts or passions that with the common would be commonplace, or with the uneducated ignoble, or with the shameful vile. Is this dangerous? Yes; it is dangerous ..."

Wilde here identifies the aesthete maneuver essential to AI: the "transformation" of the base into something "fine"--Sontag's obtrusion of the body into the ken of critical consciousness is a prime instance of it. But such critical alchemy occurs throughout the book, to all kinds of disconcerting effect. Perhaps the most conspicuous and "dangerous" example of it is found in her "taste" for the movies. Sontag's aestheticism not only drubs the petty moralism and the rules of the critical game perpetuated by academic literary types--then as now overcome by "a certain low passion for middleclass respectability" in the words of Wilde--but calls severely into question the very basis for the distinctions and exercise of judgment of those litterateurs. It does this by not only championing the "ignoble" cinema and deriding contemporary "realistic" American literature and drama; but, what's worse, defending the mass production itself synonymous with "vile" popular culture. It is sometimes hard to remember now the repugnance felt for movies thirty years ago, particularly Hollywood movies, by literary and left-wing intellectuals, given the prestige and funds presently accruing to media, pop and cultural studies. Today everybody--lit. folks and leftists leading the pack--has something to say about Hollywood remarriage comedies or Dog Day Afternoon or Alfred Hitchcock. But Sontag was one of a small number of intellectuals at the time--Marshall McLuhan and Andrew Sarris are notable in this respect as well--who had to wage a protracted campaign to surmount literary, left-liberal, snobbery and prudery so to widen the bounds of pleasure to include contemned popular art forms. …