Sontag vs. Kael: Opposites Attract Me

Craig Seligman begins by saying “I didn’t want to write a book with a hero and a villain, but Sontag kept making it hard for me.”, a statement which reflects my primary objection to this book: too much Craig Seligman. Perhaps because they are closely integrated with well-thought-out literary criticism, I found his personal asides to be distracting and sloppy.

“She [Sontag] is not a likeable writer — but then she doesn’t intend to be. She’s elitist and condescending towards those less-informed than she is (i.e., everbody) and gratingly unapologetic about it.” By using this “shoot from the hip” style, Seligman is simply emulating his heroine Kael.

Pauline Kael is my favorite film critic, not because of her approach to criticism which is undisciplined and ideosyncratic, but because she is right almost all the time. I too find Meryl Streep to be fluttery and anemic, and I love Kael’s line about Richard Chamberlain: “He keeps us conscious that he’s acting all the time. His toes act in his shoes”.

This approach to writing falls apart quickly though when the instant conclusions don’t resonate. In contrast I was very affected by a lecture I attended, given by Susan Sontag in 1986 at the Toledo Museam of Art (Ohio not EspaƱa) where she spoke about the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. I realize that she has been criticized for grandstanding on this subject, and for not being well-informed, but she came across as very caring and aware of the daily suffering of people that was so easily ignored in the Reagan 80’s (and today).

I had just returned from visiting Communist Poland and Czechoslovakia, then made a brief unsuccessful attempt to find off-the-books work in London. I had been rattling around in an apartment heated by coins, where two of the roomates were droning, chanting Bhuddists , being amazed at the daytime despairing gray streets of Thatcher’s England. I was not eating regularly and lost a lot of weight and cut my hair very short. You’ve been there. When I got back to the US my friend said I looked like a ghost.

In my attenuated state Sontag’s words about the forgotten people of the Balkans struck home “They are just like us, they raise their children, and sit down to dinner at night…” something like that. It seemed like she was paying attention.

Sontag has also been criticized for her statement after 9/11:

“Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq?”

This prompted the misguided Andrew Sullivan to create the “Sontag Award” for those who oppose the war on terrorism. Is this the signal example of the old vs. new public intellectual? The real scandal is the death of half a million Iraqi children, prior to 9/11, due to U.S.-sponsored sanctions:

from a 60 Minutes interview (5/12/96)

“Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

It’s shocking to think that Sontag was branded a traitor simply for stating that the attack was a response to specific actions. She did not say it was morally right. She correctly points out the shameful lack of outrage and press coverage for the deaths of a far greater number of innocents than that which occured at the WTC. Immediately following 9/11 this was a very difficult thing to say and shows a great deal of bravery.

Sontag and Kael weren’t opposites, Kael was a brilliant pop writer for whom judgments about personal style were paramount (her own style excepted). She wrote about popular culture within the bubble of popular culture. Sontag’s imperious personal style may have been an important defense mechanism against the oppressive male high culture crypt-keepers of the day. She compares favorably to glamour feminists like Steinem and Naomi Wolf, whom Camille Paglia so effectively skewers. You’ll find no white stripe in their tresses.

If you remove the personality factor, and look into the substance of Sontag’s writings, to me she comes across as brave and warm-hearted. “Opposites Attract” is, in fact, inapposite: Kael and are not opposite personalities — for Sontag personality was oblique, an accoutrement, her inner thoughts revealed only in the context of her writings, and in the times in which those writings were created (e.g. 9/11). Analyzing ideas in this manner is a challenging task, and just as Edmond Morris did in his Reagan biography “Dutch”, I think Seligman may have taken the easy way out.


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