On Discord and Desire
When Susan Sontag died in the winter of 2004 — at seventy- one, far too soon for her powers to have been exhausted or her intellect slaked — she left a memorable and mottled trail. Much of her life will endure in photographs— but cameras, she argued, do not so much defeat transience as render it “more acute.” Still, here she is on the back cover of my browning paperback copy of The Benefactor, a first novel published in 1963, when she was thirty: dark-haired, dark-browed, sublimely perfected in her youth. The novel, which reads like an audacious, sly, somewhat stilted translation from the French of a nineteenth-century philosophical memoir, ends with “a photograph of myself” — the self of the old narrator, who is contemplating his death. How distant death must have seemed to the young novelist then! In another photograph, dated 1975, she is lying on her back, hands under her head, with strongly traced Picasso eyelids and serene lips less curled than Mona Lisa’s: beautiful at forty-two. Like any celebrity, she could be watched as she aged. Ultimately there came the signature white slash through the blackened forelock, and the face grew not harder but hardier (despite recurrent illness, throughout which she was inordinately courageous). She had a habit of tossing back her long loose hair when it fell, as it did from moment to moment, over her eyes: the abrupt shake of the head, once girlish, turned incongruous in the sexagenarian. She was tall and big- shouldered. She dominated any room, any platform; her voice was pitched low, mannish, humorous, impassioned, impatient. She was more than a presence: it was as if she had been inscribed in a cartouche — a figure who had, in effect, founded the culture in which she moved. And wherever she moved, the currents flowed with her.
Only her politics could not be said to be mottled: it was all of a piece, early and late, standard-issue and stereotypical: you could find its like in any university or elitist periodical in the Western world. Her politics, to which she gave so much of her vitality, some of it bravely (in Sarajevo), some of it reflexively (almost everywhere else), was, I think, the least interesting because the most commonplace part of her, though it ran deep and she valued it: it contributed to her celebrity and sometimes to her notoriety. But her celebrity was not her fame. Her fame erupted out of the publication in Partisan Review of “Notes on Camp,” the 1965 essay that brought her instant recognition, in which she defined taste as the paramount contemporary aesthetic principle. “Taste,” she wrote, “governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion — and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is a kind of taste: taste in ideas.” With this manifesto she nearly single-handedly (though she soon had an army behind her) altered the culture. “The best that has been thought and said”— Matthew Arnold’s exalted old credo, long superannuated — devolved to “Whatever.” If taste governs all, then distinctions melt away, and the jihadist’s “taste in morality” is no worse than mine or yours, and choosing life or choosing death comes down to chacun r son gout.
But set all that aside: it counts as politics, so let it go. The culture of art is where Sontag left her indelible and individual mark; and fame is when the individual becomes the general. As she prophesied in Against Interpretation, published in 1964,
All the conditions of modern life— its material plentitude, its sheer crowdedness — conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, or capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of a critic must be assessed. What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
This was less a summons to hedonism (though it was that too) than it was a denigration of history. The emphasis on “now,” the quick dismissal of “another age,” the repeated “our,” the ardent call to see, hear, feel, meant that one would be open to seeing and hearing and feeling nearly everything that lay in one’s path. It meant fusion rather than separation, it meant impatience with categories, it meant infinite appetite, it meant the end of the distinction between high and low. And the end of that distinction made a cut in the common understanding, so that Norman Mailer, for instance, could write of rampant subway graffiti by urban vandals as others had written of Bernini and Matisse. And oddly, oddly, oddly! — the newly elitist doctrine of “the condition of our senses” came to resemble the “I know what I like” of the once-upon-a-time philistines and Babbitts.
The cut has been made; there is no going back. Yeeeeet Sontag herself did, in her final years, long to go back. At a symposium only months before her death, condemning the prevalence of “the idea that anything is better than anything else,” she announced what amounted to a catchall self- repudiation: “It is the triumph of a pernicious relativism. . . . I am certainly not prepared to say the satisfactions derived by art are no different structurally, in content, or in quality, or in importance, from other kinds of satisfactions. I am not prepared to think that the satisfaction that I might get in front of a Chardin, a Vermeer, or a Vuillard, is in any way similar to the satisfaction I would get watching a beautifully pitched baseball or inspecting a shoe collection.” And she reflected in a late interview that she wished she had written novels instead of the essays that had overturned public sensibility: she had since reawakened to the seductions of the novel in its traditional realist dress. The two novels that were her last were light-years from her first — in tone, in structure, in aspiration. The Benefactor has no beneficiaries, no literary heirs, either in Sontag’s own work or in that of her admirers. But society at large is heir to the cultural rupture, the linked discordances, that she championed.
In Eden, desire came before discord: first the apple, then the expulsion. In earthly life, discord will often precede desire, and chaos may wildly roil before the advent of clarity. In the period of Sontag’s greatest influence, when she had declared realism in contemporary fiction to be passé, when novels were to be lauded for the aridness of a stringent metaphysics, a deep discord descended, a choking chaos suffocated. Or, I should say, this is what happened to me. Perhaps I was too easily swayed, or too readily impressed, or simply too timidly willing to accept what seemed at the time to be an enduring cultural authoritativeness. Or else a prior eternity, what until then had always been seen to be eternity, was now being crushed and thrown all over the horizon in irrelevant shards. That eternity was the belief, now grown useless, in the impermeability of high art; it was whatever principles of discrimination had been esteemed before. And what had been esteemed before was surely not “pop.” All this was noted in the press in the elegiac reports of Sontag’s death. For The New Yorker, Sontag was “a central figure in the aesthetic bouleversement of that period: the absorption of pop culture into high culture, the abandonment of classical form for modernist fracture, the enthronement of the shattered consciousness in place of realism and morals and beg...