ONCE UPON A TIME, AMERICAN intellectual life featured a ritual known as the Partisan Review symposium. It was a solemn event, combining elements of high Mass and a boxing match. Here is how it worked: Every year or so, the tribal elders, gathering in the journal's offices in New York, would prepare a list of questions about some grand topic in contemporary politics or culture. The questionnaires were sent out to a select group of thinkers, and their answers printed, in batches, across two or three issues of the journal.
It was a ceremony of ideological boundary testing, of defining both the core of Cold War liberal thought and its radical margin. In 1952, it was Norman Mailer and C. Wright Mills who made defiant gestures at the outer limits. In 1967, Susan Sontag played that role in her essay "What's Happening in America?" It was the last performance of the ritual of any importance, for the very notion that Cold War liberalism might have a radical margin was already looking anachronistic.
Sontag's contribution embodied the Third Worldist fantasies of the New Left at their most stridently aphoristic, with its comment, subsequently oft-repeated, that "the white race is the cancer of history." In 1978, in Illness as Metaphor, Sontag repudiated that Fanon-driven moment of rhetorical overkill. But not all of her response has aged badly. Reading it again, not long ago, I laughed at her rejoinder to the editors' question about "the meaning of the split between the Administration and the intellectuals" resulting from the Vietnam War. Its meaning, she answered, was simply "that our leaders are genuine yahoos, with all the exhibitionist traits of their kind, and that liberal intellectuals (whose deepest loyalties are to an international fraternity of the reasonable) are not that blind." Deja vu!
IN LATE DECEMBER, WHEN SUSAN Sontag died in New York City at age 71, another ceremonial gathering of the intelligentsia, albeit of a very different kind, was under way a couple of hours down the road. In Philadelphia, several thousand professors of literature had assembled for the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA).
If the Partisan Review symposia recalled the cafeterias of the 1930s and '40s--where smart young people with poor job prospects could gather to debate the merits of the new Auden poem or dissect the latest stunning twist of Soviet policy--the atmosphere at the MLA is a lot more like a trade show. People go to market their ideas, or themselves, or at least to try. (The sad mood hanging in the air for several years now has been that both jobs and new ideas are getting ever harder to find.)
It was pure coincidence, of course. But the timing of Sontag's death seemed to underscore her peculiar role, over the course of four decades, as "the last intellectual," to borrow the title of her essay on Walter Benjamin, which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1978. She had escaped what William James once denounced as "the Ph.D. octopus"--a phrase that, when he coined it in 1903, called to mind the pernicious effect of monopolies and trusts. She was certainly a public figure, and mediagenic to an uncommon degree. Yet Sontag did not especially resemble the current model of the "public intellectual" (often an academic parachuting into the camera's eye with a prepared statement).
There were long periods when she simply disappeared from view. When she returned, it might be with an essay on a topic so utterly uncontemporary as Japanese puppet theater or the fiction of Machado de Assis. Indeed, with much of Sontag's work during the '80s and '90s, there seemed to be an element of capriciousness in her choice of topics. She had avoided the constraints of scholarly "professionalization," to use that rather grim word so beloved of the MLA folk. The price was a tendency toward genteel self-delight that--because of its aristocratic tone, and her solemn manner as Great Writer--could be quite maddening, even to an admirer. …