Reviews — From the December 2009 issue

¡Una Lesbiana Enamorada!

The reverse bowdlerization of Susan Sontag

Discussed in this essay:

Against Interpretation: And Other Essays, by Susan Sontag. Picador. 336 pages. $15.

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963, edited by David Rieff. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 336 pages. $25.

I picked up Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963 hoping for a peek into the origins of her first book of essays, Against Interpretation. In 1966 this collection was the first serious, nonacademic book that encompassed the constellation of my own generation’s passionate enthusiasms. Sontag was “against interpretation.” She was for “an erotics of art.” She wrote about Alain Robbe-Grillet, Albert Camus, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, all of whom we were devouring on a daily basis. She wrote (less kindly than she should have) about Nathalie Sarraute, my favorite professor, whose novels were fine French acid trips, whose low-heeled, lace-up, black nun-shoes were the coolest. Sontag also wrote about camp, and we were such ardent devotees of The Velvet Underground & Nico (with Andy’s pink banana on the cover) that louche coeds kept bullwhips on hand for dancing to “Venus in Furs.”

In her most famous essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Sontag identified this sort of behavior as having its origins in the homosexual community. She characterized “camp” as an infectious project to empty out the received meaning of fine art and popular culture with the aid of feathers, mascara, whips, and pink dildos. She was right about that. She was wrong to presume this maneuver was new. “Sacred art” became “fine art” in late fifteenth-century Italy because Italian bankers wanted the pictures. “History painting” became “political painting” in late eighteenth-century France because revolutionaries wanted the narratives. “Sissy” became “camp” in 1969, when the New York City police tried to frog-march bridge-and-tunnel campsters, feathers askew, out of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Under this assault, the frothy white bubble containing Busby Berkeley, Betty Boop, and Tinker Bell exploded into a rough piece of street theater that ignited the riots that changed the world. So Sontag was wrong to describe camp as an “unserious, ‘aesthete’s’ vision.” Aesthetics is always serious when agreed-upon interpretations are changed or stolen or emptied out.

None of these quibbles mattered in the moment. Sontag caught a rising wave, and Against Interpretation came to us like a message in a bottle from an antique land. We were hiding from the Vietnam War by miming education. Sontag was a thirty-something Jewish Intellectual who had trekked from Tucson to Berkeley to Chicago to Cambridge to Oxford to Paris and, finally, to New York, devouring schools like a cat on a trail of kibble. For us, this was mysterious and quaint; it meant no Yucatán, no Casablanca, no Lhasa, no Waimea, no smuggling, no jail, and no rock and roll—and we were no less vain about our prerequisites than Sontag herself. So Sontag was not one of us, but she was a hottie—one of those super-smart lipstick lesbians you met at Saint Adrian’s Company down on Broadway for all-night marathons of intellectual speed-rap.

By the late Sixties, however, Sontag had begun to hedge her bets. She saw herself as having enabled an orgy of sordid piracy. Like Jack Kerouac, cornered by hippies a generation before, she looked into the maelstrom she had helped create and flinched. By 1975 she was insisting that some subversive tastes that “pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established.” This edict appears in “Fascinating Fascism,” an essay in which Sontag reads Leni Riefenstahl’s final but inevitable fifteen minutes of fame as a threat to all mankind. Everyone giggled at this, of course. My own interpretation of Sontag’s self-repudiation has always been that, back in the Sixties, the writer’s disobedient body told her a story about freedom and transgression that, ultimately, her mind and temperament could not countenance.

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writes fiction and cultural criticism, and lives in Las Vegas. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “It’s Morning in Nevada,” appeared in the November 2006 issue.

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