As her political hopes crumbled in the seventies, so did her hopes for the new art. In her early essays, Sontag was very much the Jacobin: a fiery reformer, laying down the law. Classical assumptions—that there was a reality we all agreed on, that language was adequate to describe it, that stories had a beginning, middle, and end—were classical, not modern. American art had to be brought up to date, converted to formalism, to style over content, and, preferably, to a style that was transgressive or in some way distancing, to mark the distance between the modern mind and the world. But, Sontag says, “it never occurred to me that all the stuff I had cherished, and all the people I had cared about in my university education, could be dethroned. All that would happen is that you would set up an annex—you know, a playhouse—in which you could study these naughty new people, who challenged things. And you could have it all! Little did I know that the avant-garde transgressiveness of the sixties was to become absolutely institutionalized and that most of the gods of high culture would be dethroned and mocked.” She is worried, of course, that she might be seen as having contributed to this. In a recent essay, “Thirty Years Later,” which she wrote as the introduction to a new edition of “Against Interpretation,” she says that, if so, she was misunderstood:
To call for an “erotics of art” did not mean to disparage the role of the critical intellect. To laud work condescended to, then, as “popular” culture did not mean to conspire in the repudiation of high culture and its burden of seriousness, of depth. When I denounced . . . certain kinds of facile moralism, it was in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness. What I didn’t understand . . . was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large. . . . Now the very idea of the serious (and of the honorable) seems quaint, “unrealistic,” to most people.
We have entered a period of barbarism, she says.
Those were the outer forces—political disappointments, artistic failures—that sapped Sontag’s critical ambitions. But there were inner forces, too. The leading idea of “Against Interpretation” was its call for formalism, particularly in fiction, which to her at that time seemed America’s most out-of-date art form. But, she now says, what appealed to her about formalism was mostly just the idea of it. As for its application to the novel, the very thing she stumped for, she didn’t really like the models she held up: “I thought I liked William Burroughs and Nathalie Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet, but I didn’t. I actually didn’t.” In “Against Interpretation” you can sense her reservations. The most energetic essays in that book are not on fiction but on film. (The piece on Bresson is still, thirty-six years later, the best essay on him—moving, deep, judicious.) And it is telling that the writers she focussed on in her later criticism were not—or not primarily—novelists but thinkers, essayists: Artaud, Canetti, Barthes, Benjamin. And she went on writing about filmmakers: Bergman, Godard, Leni Riefenstahl, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.
Still, the idea of formalism haunted her. It seemed to her to represent, she says, “a certain fastidiousness.” There was a lot of bad art around. Why was it so bad? Because, she told herself, it focussed on content, not form. Eventually, however, that explanation failed her. A crucial experience was her infatuation with dance, and particularly with New York City Ballet, beginning in the sixties. “I remember, when I started going to see Balanchine’s work, I thought that what I loved in it was the austerity and the purity, the non-narrative quality. I loved ‘Agon,’ I loved ‘The Four Temperaments.’ Things such as ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ I merely tolerated. Also, I was very influenced by Lincoln Kirstein’s writing on Balanchine’s work, by his screwy Gurdjieffian take on it. Ballet, Balanchine—it was discipline, order, submission, formality. And I thought, Sure, that’s what I love. But you know, that wasn’t what I loved. I remember, in ‘La Valse,’ Joseph Duell putting his white-gloved hand in front of his face, and he did it in a certain way, and I used to feel stabbed through the heart. I would go and see ‘La Valse’ again and again, and I would wait for that moment. I would say to myself, ‘Is it going to happen again?’ And it did. And what is that about? I’m not sure, but it’s not about formalism. Formalism, I think, was a good ploy, a strategy for stripping away a lot of things. But it certainly isn’t an account of why these experiences are so transfiguring.”
Balanchine was only part of a larger conversion. In the seventies and eighties, Sontag says, she discovered in herself a need for intensity, as opposed to the deep cool, the control, of formalism. She found it not just in dance but in opera and in other things that were, as she puts it, “sort of stand-and-deliver—you know, ‘I love,’ ‘I hate,’ ‘I this,’ ‘I that.’ ” Her youth, she says, had been given over to a quest for the Truth. In an uncharacteristic psychoanalytic aside, she speculates that maybe this was the result of not knowing about her father’s death, of finding out that she had been barred from the truth. But no, she says, her absolutism was part of her temperament, and was encouraged by her childhood reading. “I remember when I first read Kant—I was fourteen or something—it made perfect sense to me that your behavior should be something that could be a model for everyone else. You shouldn’t do anything that wasn’t right.” Her early essays were written in that spirit. “I was involved in an immense self-mortification,” she says. “Those essays aren’t just austere”—I had remarked on their austerity—“they’re positively ascetic, as if I didn’t trust the sensuality of my imagination. I think I was afraid of getting lost. I just wanted to support things that were good, and that would be improving to people. I wanted to be useful and valuable, and that was natural to me, because I always had a moralistic frame of mind.” Now, as the passage on the garden smells shows, she is more likely to trust the sensuality of her imagination, to glory in the world.
Such fevers are not new to her, however. If, now, her realism is powered by intensity, her didacticism was pretty intense, too, as is often the case with didacticism. Whatever the rigors of her film analyses, they were forged in passion. At the movies, she always had to sit in the third row, center. (She still does. I have been to the movies with her, and I have neck problems as a result.) “It was about having the image very, very large and overwhelming,” she explains. “I wanted to be kidnapped.” And when, following her formalist nose, she found something that seemed to her exciting, everyone she knew had to experience it, too. “The things she made us go to!” the poet Richard Howard, a longtime friend of hers, says. “That Syberberg person—‘Our Hitler’? Seven hours! We call it ‘Her Hitler.’ ” According to Howard, she always worked in a lather: “I remember her writing those essays through the night, and listening to ‘Elektra,’ very loud, with those women screaming. When she was completely wrung out, she’d take a nap on the floor by the typewriter. Two hours—then she was up and at it again.” She often lost weight when she was writing. She couldn’t eat. [cartoon id=”a4963″]
Sontag is an enthusiast. A conversation with her is what a conversation with Rousseau must have been like. Her eyes flash. She waves her arms. She has a million ideas, and feels that all of them are right. She does not know how she seems. She tells you she doesn’t like to talk about herself. (This after several hours of vivacious discussion of herself.) She says she loves to be corrected, and wonders why others don’t. She is very forthcoming with information on what a precocious child she was. But this is all part of the thrilling adventure that for sixty-seven years has been going on in her brain, and she is not about to suppress details. Also, she is still a Kantian, still trying to be a model, and seeking models. Whatever essays she now writes are mostly homages, as were her earlier essays, and the qualities she praises in her subjects are often her own qualities, or ones she aspires to. In her piece on Canetti, she speaks of his tendency to write homages: “So wholehearted is Canetti’s relation to the duty and pleasure of admiring others, so fastidious is his sense of the writer’s vocation, that humility—and pride—make him extremely self-involved in a characteristically impersonal way. He is preoccupied with being someone he can admire.” This is a good description of Sontag.
When she isn’t reminding me of Rousseau, she reminds me of Buster Keaton. There they both go, eyes straight ahead, utterly intent on what they’re trying to do—get the girl, understand Communism—and oblivious of the felled houses, the outraged constables that they leave in their wake. Sontag has a superlatively strong ego. She rarely responds to criticism. (Actually, she’s one of those writers who say they don’t read reviews: “I get my son to read them for me and just tel1 me thumbs up or thumbs down.”) She is undiscourageable. Who else, upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer, would sit down and write a book on the history of attitudes to cancer, the wrongness of any attitude that tends to stigmatize the patient, the rightness of going out and getting proper medical care? She cheered herself up, and helped others, and, not incidentally, survived, just as Keaton usually got the girl.