on Notes on Sontag, by Phillip Lopate (Princeton University Press)

Upon the wave of reminiscences and assessments following Susan Sontag’s death on December 28, 2004, Carlin Romano wrote in The Chronicle Review, “Too many people who sized her up committed the unpardonable sin in her book: parroting familiar clichés rather than thinking, reading, and analyzing for themselves.” Phillip Lopate isn’t one of the sinners.

Lopate8.jpgMake room for Notes on Sontag, the first volume in a new Princeton series called “Writers on Writing,” even if you feel sated with recent Sontagiana -- the post-mortems, the recent publication of her early journals, and David Rieff’s memoir. Lopate's long essay is by turns personal and critical, not only an incisive take on Sontag’s influence and work, but a lively and opinionated view of key literary and cultural trends of our time. As a fine calibration of Sontag’s effect on his sensibilities, Notes on Sontag tracks Lopate’s variable reactions as a writer and thinker through the Sontag decades.

About Sontag’s Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, and Under the Sign of Saturn he writes, “What is especially exhilarating about the essays in these first three collections is to be in the presence of her conviction. Whether you agree with her opinions scarcely matters; sometimes they are even more stimulating when you disagree, because she means to provoke.”

Lopate2.jpgIn that case, what is especially engrossing about Notes on Sontag is to be in the presence of someone still so affected, excited, repelled and at times stung by those provocations and interactions with Sontag that he must establish a counter-position. “She was a snob,” Lopate says. “Sontag was snobbish the way certain star writers from the provinces are, who never lose the feeling of insecurity about their right to be seated on the dais … For Sontag, there was an A-list and a Z-list and nothing in between.” In Sontag’s world, Lopate was one of a legion of nice guys who finished last among the other Z’s. His restitution consists of getting the last measured word.

But as Romano suggests, Sontag’s example gives Lopate permission to pay her the ultimate compliment of close examination. “In writing this book I have come to realize, sometimes uncomfortably, how much I have in common with my subject. I, too, have a habit of boasting,” he boasts or admits (what’s the difference?), “and a need to maneuver any situation so as to put myself in a superior light. I, too … am something of a snob in aesthetic matters … I say all this by way of warning the reader to be armed with skepticism and argumentativeness.” But I found little to argue with and much to savor in the compression of his candid judgments and terse summations.

Lopate10.jpgLopate treats her work chronologically, interrupting analysis with sharply recalled moments spent with or in the vicinity of Sontag. Starting with Against Interpretation he says, “If I tend to agree with her taste still, it may be because her aesthetic judgments have stood the test of time or because they’ve become so firmly anchored in own worldview that I couldn’t dislodge them if I tried … When she says ‘the moral pleasure in art, as well as the moral service that art performs, consists in the intelligent gratification of consciousness,’ at this fundamental level I am in total agreement with Sontag.”

But Notes on Sontag is essentially a book of fluently tense response, sparks still flying from distant encounters. The tension inspires the prose. He continues, “Our disagreements tend to proliferate at another level, having more to do with her eagerness to remain fashionable or ‘cutting-edge,’ which led her to dismiss rather too readily a few things I still hold dear, such as humanism, realism, and psychology.” Lopate’s general handling of Sontag resembles the latter’s treatment of Camus when Lopate writes, “Her essay on Camus is calm and fair, not a vicious attack, but a market correction.”

Lopate11.jpgIn this way, Lopate pledges allegiance to the iconoclastic spirit of Sontag’s essays, or at least to the image of his younger self doing so. But his fascination has been tempered by time and his more deeply rooted values. He writes, “Since critics are often people with large stores of anger and indignation, it was valid for Sontag to put forth consistent dislikes; they implied a set of standards.” That sentence reads like a euphemism for “she had no standards, just enthusiasms and ephemeral positions.”

Lopate7.jpgBut what really annoys Lopate is Sontag’s hectoring tone: “What is problematic is not that she contradicted herself over time, as everyone must, but that she kept taking strident, doctrinaire-sounding positions that did not seem to allow for the possibility that there were other, legitimate ways of thinking about the same topic – or the self-knowledge that she herself might come to them eventually.” Unlike Roland Barthes, who provided Sontag with a model for amused phenomenological observation, “she found herself getting on her high horse and moralizing, to her later chagrin.” And later, in a section called “Crisis as Starting-Point”: “The disadvantage of the crisis motif is that it is prone to exaggerating the eleventh-hourness of everything, and of drawing too-narrow terms in the interests of sharpening the dilemma.”

Sontag was an acquaintance more than a friend or colleague, but they saw enough of each other for Lopate to have registered some piquant memories. In one scene, another of Lopate’s idols of psychological realism, Alberto Moravia, spoke at the 92nd Street Y, introduced by Sontag:

“ ‘Susan,’ I said, ‘You didn’t sound so enthusiastic about Moravia in your introduction.’ ‘No, I’m not,’ she said emphatically, ‘he’s a second-rater. I much prefer Landolfi!.’ Since she spoke, as was her wont, in a fairly loud voice, and Moravia stood only twenty feet away across the room, I immediately feared he might hear her. Sontag did not seem concerned about that in the least, however. What mattered to her, apparently, was to be seen betting on the right horse, aesthetically speaking …She did not want anyone to get the wrong idea that she actually respected him.” Elsewhere he says, Sontag “seemed blithely unaware that she was even giving offense … she sometimes resembled a math nerd who has not been properly socialized.” So was she aware or unaware of giving offense? Lopate is still agitated by her behavior. He reads Sontag the way she reads a text, with aphoristic punchiness, sometimes shifting opinion along the way. He indicts with a forgiving hand and a whiff of magnaminity.

Lopate9_0.jpgI don’t fault Lopate for any of this. Quite the contrary. The persistent if respectful antagonism between him and his subject gives us an entertaining and profitable opportunity to consider how much of the post-modernist agenda we each buy into. For instance, in taking up the question of “are the arts progressive?” Lopate quotes from Sontag’s 1965 essay “Nathalie Saurraute and the Novel” in which she proposed, “Art is the army by which human sensibility advances implacably into the future, with the aid of ever-newer and more formidable techniques.” Dismissing realism, Sontag said in “Against Interpretation,” “It has sunk to the level of an art form deeply, if not irrevocably, compromised by philistinism.” She advocated for Nabakov, Burroughs, and Robbe-Grillet, while young Lopate, studying at Columbia when she taught there, was “trying to imbibe the lessons of Dostoyevsky, Fielding, Kleist, Stendahl, Svevo, and Tolstoy.” It’s at this point that Lopate examines Sontag’s tendency to accuse her audience of philistinism. He quotes one of his heroes, William Hazlitt, on “Why the Arts are not Progressive.” Ultimately, Sontag retreated from both militancy and anti-realism, telling Joan Acocella in The New Yorker, “I thought I liked William Burroughs and Nathalie Saurraute and Robbe-Grillet, but I didn’t. I actually didn’t.”

Sontag may have prescribed Robbe-Grillet to America’s literate philistines, but Americans who were reading Robbe-Grillet in the first place knew that her own fiction didn’t measure up. Lopate the literary craftsperson believes “Sontag was never a consistent prose stylist. Some of her sentences are elegantly turned, others are clumsy and clotted … Always a hard worker, always in love with beauty, she herself did not have that automatic grace that certain writers of the highest order possess.”

“Sontag’s main subject as a fiction writer,” he says, “was inauthenticity of feeling … But Sontag had a hard time making readers care about her numbed-out subjects. Her watery idea of character meant that she could never succeed as a fiction writer.” However, Lopate gives her credit for “that one truly vivid character she created from scratch, the speaker of her essays.”

Lopate5.jpgThis book would not have a purposeful animating spirit if that vivid character were not still challenging Lopate through sheer erotic energy, a talent for speaking to the moment, and a provisional point of view. For someone who had “not been properly socialized,” she commanded the attention of literary society unlike anyone else of her generation. Notes on Sontag would be a much less valuable and interesting book had Sontag bothered to give Lopate the time of day.

[Published May 6, 2009, 256 pages, 4.5x7-inch format, $19.95 hardcover]

Note: Sarah Caldwell at Princeton University Press has told me that the next two titles in the “Writers on Writing” series will be by Alexander McCall Smith on W.H. Auden and C.K. Williams on Walt Whitman.

re: Buying Sontag a Drink

I never bought her a drink but I made her one. I don't remember what it was, maybe a martini, very light on the vermouth.

I was a student tending bar at a faculty party in her honor at Purdue. She had given a talk there. It was sometime in the late 70s. I don't remember what she talked about either. There's not much I remember expect her courage and how nice she was. She was still weak from the cancer that made her write about illness as metaphor, and she couldn't come to the bar to get a drink. The host, Prof. Eisinger, suggested I get her a drink, and I said I would.

I carried it over to where she was sitting on the couch. She couldn't stand.

When I handed her the glass, she gave me a warm look and thanked me for the drink.

I could feel the tiredness in her, the way she was fighting to stay interested in the conversations that were going on around her. I said, "Your welcome," and she gave me another big smile.