Women, The Arts, & The Politics of Culture

An Interview with Susan Sontag

By

Susan Sontag

Interviewers: Robert Boyers, Maxine Bernstein

R.B.: In the mid ‘60s, when I was coming of age, and you were yourself a very young writer, it seemed the most eagerly anticipated of literary ‘events’ was the publication of a new essay by Susan Sontag, usually in Partisan Review. The essay didn’t have to be as timely as “Notes on Camp” or the piece on science fiction—it might dwell on moral sententiousness in Camus, or on the aspect of disinterestedness involved in an appreciation of style. Those of us who went through those years, awaiting expectantly your new work, are delighted that you are once again writing speculative essays on a more or less regular basis. Word of your return, in this sense, to the intellectual scene, had been circulated for some time, and with the publication of the recent essay on Leni Riefenstahl in The New York Review of Books there can be few serious readers who do not know how important that return can be. Did you anticipate the interest that the Riefenstahl essay would generate?

SONTAG: It’s always agreeable to be welcomed back, though I don’t think I’ve been away. What seemed to you like an absence was for me a going on. After the mid ‘60s, I wrote a second novel (Death Kit), then made two movies; in the last two years I’ve published five smaller fictions, made a third film (Promised Lands), and been tunneling through a third novel. As for essays, I never stopped writing them but I did decide to write fewer. The ones that have appeared recently in The New York Review are another go at the same problems that I’ve been stalking for years—the idea of “modernity,” the relation between moral and aesthetic ideas—but, maybe because I’m no longer “a very young writer,” the problems seem more and more complex. And I’m still only interested in writing about hard cases. Lately I’ve been using some ideas I’ve had about the careers of photographed images to get at these problems in another way. The Riefenstahl essay is not part of the photography series (which will come out as a book early next year), although it was her book of photographs, The Last of the Nuba, that supplied me with a pretext for discussing her work as a whole and for reopening the subject of fascist aesthetics. I did expect the essay to matter, because the campaign underway since the ‘60s to rehabilitate Riefenstahl—minimizing her official connection with the Nazi regime, obfuscating what is explicit in her work—had been so successful.

M.B.: In your essay “On Style” written in 1965 and included in Against Interpretation, you state:

“To call Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will and The Olympiad masterpieces is not to gloss over Nazi propaganda with aesthetic lenience. The Nazi propaganda is there. But something else is there, too, which we reject at our loss. Because they project the complex movements of intelligence and grace and sensuousness, these two films of Riefenstahl (unique among works of Nazi artists) transcend the categories of propaganda or even reportage. And we find ourselves—to be sure, rather uncomfortably—seeing ‘Hitler’ and not Hitler, the ‘1936 Olympics’ and not the 1936 Olympics. Through Riefenstahl’s genius as a filmmaker, the ‘content’ has—let us even assume, against her intentions—come to play a purely formal role.”

And, you continue: “A work of art, so far as it is a work of art, cannot—whatever the artist’s personal intention—advocate anything at all.”

Yet, in The New York Review in February 1975, you seem to be denying that earlier critical evaluation of Riefenstahl’s work, where you refer to Triumph of the Will as “…the most successfully, most purely propagandists film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda.”

I assume, in the context of these very separate approaches to evaluating Riefenstahl, that there has been a change of large dimensions in your approach to criticism. Do you agree with me? Or do you see a continuity between these two essays which you could perhaps clarify here?

SONTAG: A continuity, to be sure, in that both statements illustrate the richness of the form-content distinction, as long as one is careful always to use it against itself. My point in 1965 was about the formal implications of content, while the recent essay examines the content implicit in certain ideas of form. One of the main assertions of “On Style” is that the formalist and the historicist approaches are not in competition with each other, but are complementary—and equally indispensable. That’s where Riefenstahl comes in. Because her work speaks for values that have received an official seal of disapproval, it offers a vivid test of the exchanges between form and content. Knowing that Triumph of the Will and Olympiad might be considered exceptions to the general argument I was making about the ways in which content functions as form, it seemed necessary to point out that even those films also illustrate the process whereby—as in any other bold and complex work of art—content functions as form. I wasn’t discussing the complementary process, how form functions as content. When I set out, early this year, to treat Riefenstahl’s work at some length, and with that approach, I arrived at an analysis that was simply more interesting, as well as more concrete—and that rather overwhelms the summary as well as formalist use I had made of her work in 1965. The paragraph about Riefenstahl in “On Style” is correct—as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far. While it is true that her films in some sense “transcend” the propaganda for which they are the vehicle, their specific qualities show how their aestheticizing conception is itself identical with a certain brand of propaganda.

I’m still working with the thesis about the relation of art to the moral sense that is advanced in “On Style.” But my understanding of the moral services that works of art perform is less abstract than it was in 1965. And I know more about totalitarianism and about the aesthetics with which it is compatible, which it actually generates, than I did then. One of the experiences that made me more interested in the, so to speak, “contentual” implications of form (without lessening my interest in the formal implications of content) was seeing—three years after I wrote “On Style”—several of the mass spectacle films made in China in the 1960s. One film led to another, inside my head—from The East Is Red to, say, Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, Walt Disney’s Fantasia, the choreographed patterning of bodies as objects in Busby Berkeley musicals, Kubrick’s 2001. What these films exemplify is a major form of the modern aesthetic imagination which—as I’ve learned since the Riefenstahl essay was published—Siegfried Kracauer had explored as early as 1927, in an essay called “The Mass Ornament,” and Walter Benjamin had summed up a few years later, when he described fascism as an aestheticization of political life.

It’s not enough to say that an aesthetics is, or eventually becomes, a politics. What aesthetics? What politics? The key to understanding “fascist aesthetics,” I think, is seeing that a “communist aesthetics” is probably a contradiction in terms. Hence, the mediocrity and staleness of the art promoted in communist countries. And when official art in the Soviet Union and China isn’t resolutely old-fashioned, it is, objectively, fascist. Unlike the ideal communist society, which is totally didactic—turning every institution into a school—the fascist ideal is to mobilize everybody into a kind of national gesamtkunstwerk: making the whole society into a theatre. This is the most far-reaching way in which aesthetics becomes a politics. It becomes a politics of the lie. As Nietzsche said, “To experience a thing as beautiful means: to experience it necessarily wrongly.” In the 19th century, ideologues of provocation and transvaluation like Nietzsche and Wilde expounded on “the aesthetic view of the world,” one of whose superiorities was that it was supposed to be the most generous and large-spirited view, a form of civility, beyond politics. The evolution of fascism in the 20th century has taught us that they were wrong. As it turns out, “the aesthetic view of the world” is extremely hospitable to many of the uncivilized ideas and dissociated yearnings that were made explicit in fascism, and which also have great currency in our consumer culture. Yet it is clear—China has made it very clear—that the moralism of serious communist societies not only wipes out the autonomy of the aesthetic, but makes it impossible to produce art (in the modern sense) at all. A six-week trip to China in 1973 convinced me—if I needed convincing—that the autonomy of the aesthetic is something to be protected, and cherished, as indispensable nourishment to intelligence. But a decade-long residence in the 1960s, with its inexorable conversion of moral and political radicalisms into “style,” has convinced me of the perils of over- generalizing the aesthetic view of the world.

I would still argue that a work of art, qua work of art, cannot advocate anything. But since no work of art is in fact only a work of art, it’s often more complicated than that. In “On Style” I was trying to recast the truths expressed in Wilde’s calculatedly outrageous Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray and Ortega y Gasset’s more sober overstatement of the same polemic against philistinism in The Dehumanization of Art—by not tacitly separating or actually opposing—as Wilde and Ortega do—aesthetic and moral response. Ten years after “On Style,” this is still the position I write from. But I have more historical flesh on my bones now. Though I continue to be as besotted an aesthete and as obsessed a moralist as I ever was, I’ve come to appreciate the limitations—and the indiscretion—of generalizing either the aesthete’s or the moralist’s view of the world without a much denser notion of historical context. Since you’ve been quoting me to myself, let me quote myself back to you. I say in that essay of 1965 that “awareness of style as a problematic and isolable element in a work of art has emerged in the audience for art only at certain historical moments—as a front behind which other issues, ultimately ethical and political, are being debated.” The essays I’ve been writing recently are attempts to take that point further, to make it concrete—as it applies to my own work, as well as to that of others.

M.B.: In response to Adrienne Rich’s criticism of your essay (The New York Review, March 20, 1975), you state: “Most of history, alas, is ‘patriarchial history.’ So distinctions will have to be made, and it is not possible to keep the feminist thread running through the explanations all the time.” I would like to ask you to address the interesting question of distinctions. They are certainly important, often glossed over with “patriarchy” used as an explanation, which, as you suggest, explains less the more it is used. I would also agree that certain works lend themselves more readily to feminist criticism than others. You say, in response to Rich, “…if the point is to have meaning some of the time, it can’t be made all the time.” What would be the times when that point should be made? And are there certain events, or “movements,” or works of art that are more reasonable subjects for feminist criticism? When is it misapplied? When is it appropriate? Or is there a better way that feminist goals can be critically served?

SONTAG: I want armies of women and men to be pointing out the omnipresence of sexist stereotypes in the language, behavior, and imagery of our society. If that’s what you mean by feminist criticism, then whenever it’s practiced—and however coarsely—it’s always of some value. But I’d like to see a few platoons of intellectuals who are also feminists doing their bit in the war against misogyny in their own way, letting the feminist implications be residual or implicit in their work, without risking being charged by their sisters with desertion. I don’t like party lines. They make for intellectual monotony and bad prose. Let me put it very simply, though not—I hope—too plaintively. There are many intellectual tasks, and different levels of discourse. If there is a question of appropriateness, it’s not because some events or works of art are more “reasonable” targets, but because people who reason in public have—and ought to exercise—options about how many and how complex are the points they want to make. And where, in what form, and to what audience they make them. Rich complained that I had failed to say that Nazi Germany was, after all, the culmination of a sexist and patriarchal society. She was assuming, of course, that the values of Riefenstahl’s films were Nazi values. So was I. That’s why I wanted to discuss the question: in what sense does Riefenstahl’s work embody Nazi values? Why are these films—and The Last of the Nuba—interesting and persuasive? I think it was permissible to assume that the audience for whom I wrote my essay is aware of the derogation of women not only in Nazi ideology, so explicitly proclaimed in the documents of the Nazi era, but in the main tradition of German letters and thought from Luther to Nietzsche to Freud and Jung.

It’s not the appropriateness of feminist criticism which needs to be rethought, but its level—its demands for intellectual simplicity, advanced in the name of ethical solidarity. These demands have convinced many women that it is undemocratic to raise questions about “quality”—the quality of feminist discourse, if it is sufficiently militant, and the quality of works of art, if these are sufficiently warm-hearted and self-revealing. Hatred of the intellect is one of the recurrent themes of modernist protest in art and in morals. Though it is actually quite inimical to effective political action, it seems like a political statement. Both avant-garde art and feminism have made large use of, and sometimes seem to be parodies of, the languages of failed political movements. As advanced art, in the 1910s, inherited the rhetoric of Anarchism (and baptised it Futurism), feminism, in the late 1960s, inherited another political rhetoric on the wane, that of gauchisme. One common denominator of New Left polemics was its zeal for pitting hierarchy against equality, theory against practice, intellect (cold) against feeling (warm). Feminists have tended to perpetuate these philistine characterizations of hierarchy, theory, and intellect. What was denounced in the 1960s as bourgeois, repressive, and elitist was discovered to be phallocratic, too. That kind of second-hand militancy may appear to serve feminist goals in the short run. But it means a surrender to callow notions of art and of thought and the encouragement of a genuinely repressive moralism.

R.B.: In 1967 you wrote a stunning essay on Bergman’s Persona, included in Styles of Radical Will. Now Bergman has come under heavy fire from a number of quarters, some critics complaining that he is a technically reactionary force in world cinema, that his camera-dynamics are relatively old-fashioned; other critics complaining that he really detests mature women, no matter what he claims to feel, and that his films regularly project ‘negative’ images of women which promise no useful encouragement to people in need of positive identity images. I ask you to address Bergman and his work here because attacks on Bergman amply describe the kind of approaches routinely taken by many people in academic life and especially by a new generation of feminist critics. What, in particular, of approaches such as those which indict Bergman in the terms described above: as a reactionary artist, both aesthetically and politically?

SONTAG: I am extremely reluctant to attack anyone as a “reactionary artist.” That’s the weapon of repressive and ignorant officialdom in you-know-which countries, where “reactionary” is also associated with a kind of pessimistic content or (using the phrase you cite), with not providing “positive images.” Being very attached to the benefits of pluralism in the arts and of factionalism in politics, I’ve grown allergic to the words “reactionary” and “progressive.” Such judgments always support ideological conformity, encourage intolerance—even if they aren’t originally formulated to do that. As for Bergman, I’d say that anyone who reduces his work to its neo-Strindbergian views of women has jettisoned the idea of art and of complex standards of judgment. (If correctness of attitude counted most, Alexander Room’s Bed and Sofa, full of appealing feminist intuitions, would be a greater film than Pudovkin’s macho epic Storm Over Asia.)

The harsh indictment of Bergman simply inverts the slack standards that prevail in much of feminist criticism. To those critics who rate films according to whether they make moral reparations, it must seem snobbish to cavil about the low quality of most recent movies made by women which do convey positive images. And what’s happening when an attack on someone for not supplying “useful encouragement to people” is bolstered by calling him “technically reactionary” and “old-fashioned”? (Presumably, this is how these critics hope to show they are not behaving like stodgy cultural commissars.) I wouldn’t call Bergman old-fashioned. But, despite some brilliant narrative inventions in his two best films, The Silence and Persona, his work doesn’t suggest any fruitful development. He is an obsessional artist, the worst kind to imitate. Like Stein and Bacon and Jancsco, Bergman is one of those oppressively memorable geniuses of the artistic dead-end, who go very far with a limited material—refining it when they are inspired, repeating it and parodying themselves when they aren’t.

R.B.: Your own view of art, and of particular works of art, has always stressed the indissoluble relation between form and content, a relation to which other critics have paid lip service while persistently violating its premise. In this way you have been able to preserve respect for a given artist’s sentiment of being, his particular attachment to the object world and to his own appointed place in it, and for those principles of style or form which enable him to structure and evoke that sentiment. Now many people have observed the “scandalous” fact that the sentiment of being for most great writers has been decidedly conservative, even reactionary, that their attachment to the given has been ever so much more passionate than their feeling for things yet to be. Is there something about works of art which almost demands that their creators have a preservative or reactionary relation to the world in which they live? That they be, in fact, conservative even when “committed” to this or that “radical” policy?

SONTAG: “Reactionary,” again! This feels like another version of the same question, so I’ll try to answer in a different way. I doubt that there is anything more “conservative” or “reactionary” about artists than there is about people. And why shouldn’t people be naturally conservative? That the past necessarily weighs more on the axis of human consciousness is perhaps a greater liability to the individual than to society, but how could it be otherwise? Where is the scandal? To be scandalized by the normal is always demagogic. And it is only normal that we are aware of ourselves as persons in an historical continuum, with indefinite thicknesses of past behind us, the present a razor’s edge, and the future—well, problematic is one damp word for it. Dividing time into Past, Present & Future suggests that reality is distributed equally among three parts, but in fact the past is the most real of all. The future is, inevitably, an accumulation of loss, and dying is something we do all our lives. If artists are memory specialists, professional curators of consciousness, they are only practicing—willfully, obsessionally—a prototypical devoutness. There is a tilt in the very experience of living which always gives memory an advantage over amnesia.

To reproach artists for having an insufficiently radical relation to the world has to be a complaint about art as such. And to reproach art is, in more than one way, like reproaching consciousness itself for being a burden. For consciousness can be conscious of itself, as Hegelians quaintly say, only through its sense of the past. And art is the most general condition of The Past in the present. To become “past” is, in one version, to become “art.” (The arts that most literally illustrate this mutation are architecture and photography.) The pathos that all works of art reek of comes from their historicity. From the way they are overtaken by physical decay and stylistic obsolescence. And from whatever is mysterious, partly (and forever) veiled about them. And simply from our awareness, with each work, that no one would or could ever do exactly that again. Perhaps no work of art is art. It can only become art, when it is part of the past. In this normative sense, a “contemporary” work of art would be a contradiction—except so far as we can, in the present, assimilate the present to the past.

R.B.: And yet I think you’d agree that a great many contemporary liberationists, radicals of various kinds, have demanded that works of art be new, that they cut loose from the inherited props and furnishings of the familiar material world. And this cutting loose is precisely what most artists of genuine stature have been unable to manage, despite their personal commitment to programs espoused by radicals.

SONTAG: Cutting oneself loose from the inherited props and furniture of the world, as you put it—wouldn’t that be like peeling off one’s own skin? And doesn’t demanding that artists throw away their toys—that is, the world—mean wanting them not to be artists any more? Such a talent for jettisoning everything has to be extremely rare. And its promised benefits have yet to be demonstrated. The clean sweep being proposed as a goal for radical therapy as well as art (and, by extension, for politics) suggests that “liberation” can be very confining. That is, it seems regressive in relation to the full range of our possibilities—among which civilization tries, to almost everyone’s dissatisfaction, to arbitrate. The price we would pay for liberation in that undialectical sense is at least as steep as the price we’ve been paying for civilization. If we are indeed going to be forced to choose between defensive fantasies of liberation and ruling corruptions of civilization, let’s work fast to soften the harshness of that choice. It’s sobering to realize that both options seemed just as morally defective a century ago when Henry James made his prescient, melancholy analysis of our post-1960s cultural dilemmas in The Princess Casamassima, with imaginary London anarchists anticipating American New Left and counter-cultural ideologues.

You seem to be talking about a politicized version of the classic modernist demand on Art (Making It New), but then the only difference between the Poundian demand and the more recent imperatives is a radical politics, and I’m not sure that the language in which this politics is declared should be taken at face value. Question the self-designated radicals who appear to be calling for a cultural tabula rasa, and I think you’d find that they are seldom as modernist as their rhetoric would imply. The way you’ve formulated their protest seems to me to confuse a moralistic political radicalism (assumed to be a Good Thing) with an amoral revolt against the inherited past that is in full complicity with the status quo. Much of radical dissent is animated by a kind of restorationism—the wish to reconstitute communal pleasures and civic virtues that have been wiped out to make possible the very real tabula rasa of our consumer society. A radical in the sense you describe would be Andy Warhol, the dandy prince and ideally passive avatar of an economy in which everything of the past is scheduled to be traded in for newer goods.

R.B.: In 1966 Philip Rieff published an important book entitled The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud. What do you make of this:

“Never before has there been such a general shifting of sides as now among intellectuals in the United States and England. Many have gone over to the enemy without realizing that they, self-considered the cultural elite, have actually become spokesmen for what Freud called the instinctual [mass].”

Insofar as some of your own work in the mid ‘60s attempted to legitimate an easier relation between popular culture and the elite that Rieff describes, would you say that you had “gone over to the enemy”?

SONTAG: [Laughter]

R.B.: What?

SONTAG: Of course I wouldn’t say that.

R.B.: Do you think it is useful to draw a distinction between “the cultural elite” and “the instinctual mass”?

SONTAG: No. I think the distinction is a vulgar one. By ignoring the difference between the descriptive and prescriptive senses of culture, it can’t give a properly specific meaning to either. There are several senses in which “culture” doesn’t equal “elite.” (Anyway, there are elites—not one, but many.) And I don’t think that “instinctual” and “mass” go together—even if Le Bon and Freud did say so. The distinction suggests a contempt for the instincts, a facile pessimism about people, and a lack of passion for the arts (as distinct from ideas) that is not confirmed by my own instincts, pessimism, passions.

Intellectuals who want to defend our poor sick culture should resist the all-too-understandable temptation to fume about the unlettered masses and accuse other intellectuals of joining the enemy. If I’m leery of talking about a “cultural elite,” it’s not because I don’t care about culture but because I think the notion is virtually unusable and should be retired. For instance, it doesn’t explain anything about the cultural mix I was writing about in the mid ‘60s—a particularly vivid moment in a century-long set of exchanges between different levels of culture, different elites. Early modernists like Rimbaud, Stravinsky, Apollinaire, Joyce, and Eliot had showed how “high culture” could assimilate shards of “low culture.” (The Waste Land, Ulysses, etc. etc.) By the 1960s the popular arts, notably film and rock music, had taken up the abrasive themes and some of the “difficult” techniques (like collage) that had hitherto been the fare of a restricted cultural elite, if you will—the university-educated, museum-going, cosmopolitan audience for the avant-garde or experimental arts. That “low culture” was an important ingredient in the modernist takeover of “high culture;” that the modernist sensibility had created new boundaries for popular culture, and was eventually incorporated into it—these are subjects that nobody who has cared for culture can ignore or should fail to treat with high seriousness. Is trying to understand something—in this instance, a process that had been going on at least since Baudelaire—legitimizing it? It hardly needed me to offer that legitimacy. And the 1960s seems rather late to stop identifying culture with some Masterpiece Theatre of World History and to respond—on the basis of contemporary experience, and moved by pleasure rather than resentment—to how complex the destiny of “high culture” has become since Matthew Arnold whistled in the dark on Dover Beach. The notion of culture implied by Rieff’s distinction seems to me awfully middlebrow, and plausible only to someone who has never been really immersed in or gotten intense pleasure from contemporary poetry and music and painting. Does culture here mean art? (And what art?) Does it mean thought? They’re not the same, and culture isn’t exactly synonymous with either. Toryish labels like cultural elite and instinctual mass do not tell us anything useful about how to protect that endangered species, “high” standards. Diagnoses of cultural sickness made in such general and self-congratulatory terms become a symptom of the problem, not part of the answer.

M.B.: You state in the famous essay “Notes on Camp,” which you wrote in 1964: “I am as strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can.” You then say, “To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” Could you share with us that dual set of attitudes—sympathy/revulsion—particularly in relation to what you describe as “the corny flamboyance of femaleness” embodied in certain actresses; and go on to relate those attitudes to your own feminist sensibility?

SONTAG: Like the recent essays on photography, “Notes on Camp” grew out of speculations of a rather general order. How “to name a sensibility,” how “to draw its contours, to recount its history”—that was the problem I started from, and then looked for an example, a model. And it seemed more interesting not to pick Sensibility X from among those heaped with ethical or aesthetic laurels, and to evoke instead a sensibility that was exotic and in obvious ways minor, even despised—as the rather quirky notion of a “sensibility” had itself been slighted, in favor of that tidier fiction, an “idea.”

Morbidity was my first choice. I stayed with that for a while, attempting to systematize a long-term fascination with mortuary sculpture, architecture, inscriptions and other such wistful lore that eventually found an unsystematic place in Death Kit and Promised Lands. But the material was too detailed, and cumbersome to describe, so I switched to camp, which had the advantage of being familiar as well as marginal, and could be illustrated in a more rapid and comprehensible way. Camp, I knew, was a sensibility that many people were tuned into, although they might have no name for it. As for myself: by deciding to write “Notes on Camp” instead of “Notes on Death,” I was choosing to humor the part of my seriousness that was being zapped and loosened up and made more sociable by camp wit rather than to fortify the part of my wit that got regularly choked off by seizures of morbidity. Compared to morbidity, camp was hard to pin down. It was, in fact, a rich example of how a sensibility can have divergent meanings, can have a latent content that is more complex than—and often different from—its manifest one.

Which brings me to the question of ambivalence. I’ve dawdled in the culture graveyard, enjoying what camp taste could effect in the way of ironic resurrections, just as I’ve stopped to pay my respects to real death, in real cemeteries, off the country roads and in the cities of three continents. And it is in the nature of such detours that some sights fascinate, while others repel. The theme you single out—the parodistic rendering of women—usually left me cold. But I can’t say that I was simply offended. For I was often amused and, so far as I needed to be, liberated. I think that the camp taste for the theatrically feminine did help undermine the credibility of certain stereotyped femininities—by exaggerating them, by putting them between quotation marks. Making something corny of femaleness is one way of creating distance from the stereotype. Camp’s extremely sentimental relation to beauty is no help to women, but its irony is: ironizing about the sexes is one small step toward depolarizing them. In this sense the diffusion of camp taste in the early ‘60s should probably be credited with a considerable if inadvertent role in the upsurge of feminist consciousness in the late 1960s.

M.B.: What about women like Mae West, an old-style sex queen who didn’t, apparently, strike audiences the way you suggest? Why didn’t she have the effect you describe?

SONTAG: I think she did. Whether or not she started with the oldest of blandishments, her glory was as a new-style sex queen, that is, the impersonator of one. Unlike Sarah Bernhardt’s style, which audiences at a certain moment stopped being able to take straight, Mae West’s was appreciated from the beginning as a sort of parody. Letting oneself, self-consciously, be beguiled by such robust, shrill, vulgar parody is the last step in a century-long evolution—and progressive democratization—of the aestheticism whose broader history and implications are sketched in “Notes on Camp,” but which has had its most knowing reception from the milieu in which the word “camp” appeared some fifty years ago. (Although scholars of slang disagree as much about the origin of “camp” as they do about “O.K.,” I would assume that it derives from camper—which the Oxford French Dictionary translates as “to posture boldly.”) And it was in the 1920s that a kind of deconstruction of the stereotypes of femininity gets underway, a mocking challenge to sexism that complements the moralistic call for justice and reparations to women that had found its voice in the 1890s in, say, Shaw’s essays and George Gissing’s novel, The Odd Women. What I am arguing is that today’s feminist consciousness has a long and complicated history, of which the diffusion of male homosexual taste is a part—including its sometimes witless putdowns of and delirious homage to the “feminine.” Feminists have been less quick at seeing this than some of their opponents—for example, Wyndham Lewis, whose novel-diatribe The Childermass, written in the late ‘20s, contains a long speech about how the naturally feminine and the masculine are being subverted jointly by homosexuals and by suffragettes. (Contemporary homosexuality is denounced as “a branch of the Feminist Revolution.”) And Lewis was not wrong to link them.

M.B.: In your excellent essay, “The Pornographic Imagination,” written in 1967 and included in Styles of Radical Will, you describe the heroine of Story of O as a woman who “progresses simultaneously toward her own extinction as a human being and her fulfillment as a sexual being.” You then wonder “how anyone would ascertain whether there exists, truly, empirically, anything in ‘nature’ or human consciousness that supports such a split.” It seems to me that that event (the loss of self in exchange for sexual fulfillment) can be viewed as an allegory of the new feminist awareness of the dilemma that many women are confronting today. That is, in exchange for our “fulfillment as women” (not sexually, but within the confines of cultural expectations) we have often given up our identities as individuals of free will and have willingly participated in our extinction as separate human beings. Assuming that you agree with this, would you be willing to say that there might be more to Story of O than you saw in 1967? Could that book be considered a peculiarly political work whose meaning could be enriched by the feminist perspective?

SONTAG: Though I’d agree that one can extract useful lessons from all sorts of unpromising material, O’s destiny seems to me an unlikely allegory of either feminist awareness or, simply, the age-old subjection of women. My interest in Story of O was, still would be, in its candor about the demonic side of sexual fantasy. The violence of the imagination that it consecrates—and does not at all deplore—cannot be confined within the optimistic and rationalist perceptions of mainstream feminism. Pornography’s form of utopistic thinking is, like most of science fiction, a negative utopia. Since the writers who have insisted on how fierce, disruptive, and antinomian an energy sexuality (potentially, ideally) is, are mostly men, it’s commonly supposed that this form of the imagination must discriminate against women. I don’t think it does, necessarily. (It could discriminate against men, as in Monique Wittig’s celebrations of unfettered sexual energy.)

What distinguishes the work of “the pornographic imagination” from other accounts of the erotic life is that it treats sexuality as an extreme situation. That means that what pornography depicts is, in one obvious sense, quite unrealistic. Sexual energy is not endlessly renewable; sexual acts cannot be tirelessly repeated. But in another sense pornography is rudely accurate about important realities of desire. That voluptuousness does mean surrender, and that sexual surrender pursued imaginatively enough, experienced immoderately enough, does erode pride of individuality and mocks the notion that the will could ever be free—these are truths about sexuality itself and what it may, naturally, become. Because it is such an ascesis to live completely for voluptuousness, only a few women and men ever do pursue pleasure to this terminal extreme. The fantasy of sexual apocalypse is common enough, however—indisputably, a means for intensifying sexual pleasure. And what that tells us about the inhuman, as it were, character of intense pleasure is still being slighted by the humanist “revisionist” Freudianism that most feminists feel comfortable with, which minimizes the intractable powers of unconscious or irrational feeling.

You propose a political view of the book in place of my tentative idea about something “in ‘nature,’ or in human consciousness.” But I would still reaffirm that speculation. There seems to be something inherently defective or self-frustrating in the way the sexual impulse works in human beings—for instance, an essential (i.e. normal), not accidental (i.e. neurotic), link between sexual energy and obsession. It appears likely that the full development of our sexual being does clash with the full development of our consciousness. Instead of supposing that all our sexual discontent is part of a tax sexuality pays for being civilized, it may be more correct to assume that we are, first of all, sick by nature—and that it is our being, to begin with, what Nietzsche called “sick animals,” that makes us civilization-producing animals.

It is the innate incongruence between important achievements in the realms of sexual fulfillment and of individual consciousness that is exacerbated by the enlarged use to which sexuality has been put in modern, secular culture. As the credibility of religious experience has declined, erotic experience has not only gotten an inflated, even grandiose significance, but is itself now subjected to standards of credibility (thereby attaching a whole new sort of anxiety to sexual performance). In particular, the quest for the experience of complete psychic surrender now no longer enclosed within traditional religious forms has become increasingly, and restlessly, attached to the mind-blowing character of the orgasm. The myths of total sexual fulfillment dramatized in Story of O concern that peculiarly modern via negativa. Evidence about the feelings and sexual tastes in our culture before it was wholly secularized, and in other cultures past and present, suggests that voluptuousness was rarely pursued in this way, as the organon to transcend individual consciousness. Perhaps only when sexuality is invested with that ideological burden, as it is now, does it also become a real, and not just a potential, danger to person-hood and to individuation.

R.B.: Philip Rieff writes in Fellow Teachers:

“True criticism is constituted, first, by repeating what is already known. The great teacher is he who, because he carries in himself what is already known, can transfer it to his student; that inwardness is his absolute and irreducible authority. If a student fails to recognize that authority, then he is not a student.”

What do you take Rieff to mean when he speaks of authoritative knowing—it has of course nothing to do with the expertise of the specialist. Would you agree that, according to Rieff’s definition, there are very few students in our institutions of higher learning?

SONTAG: Precious few students, according to that definition—yes. But perhaps still more than enough, since—again following Rieff’s definition—there are probably no professors. The authority of the professoriat being invoked here goes no further back than Wilhelmine Germany. That there are very few “students” (prescriptive sense: devoted, talented lovers of learning) is surely as well known as that there are many more “students” (descriptive sense: bodies in classrooms), liberal arts education having assumed those functions which, precisely, make it harder than it was a generation ago to assign so-called difficult books and to expound complex ideas without backtalk from students. But Rieff does not make his case against mass education more convincing by overstating it. When in Western intellectual history did the college teacher have “an absolute and irreducible authority”? Even in the great ages of faith, which one might suppose well-stocked with models for the pedagogue as dictator, a closer look discloses a reassuring ferment of dissent, of heterodoxy, of questioning what was “already known.” Fiat cannot restore to the office of the teacher (now irrevocably secular, transmitting a plurality of “traditions”) an absolute authority which both the teacher and what is being taught do not have—if they ever did.

The genuine historical pressures to lower the standards for “higher learning” that do exist aren’t weakened by declaring what words ought to mean—defining a teacher as one who teaches authoritatively, a student as one who accepts the authority of the teacher. But perhaps one should take Rieff’s definitions as evidence that the fight to maintain the highest standards really is a lost cause. If the decline of first-rate teaching in universities really is irreversible, as it probably is, then one should expect exactly such a defense of the ancient regime as is projected by these empty definitions of great teacher and great student. Making a virtue of its own historical inappropriateness to the late 20th century, Rieff’s authoritarian theory of the university parallels the authoritarian theory of the bourgeois state advanced in Germany and France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The substance and the sociological moorings of the teacher’s authority having been eroded, only its form remains. Authority itself (“that inwardness”) is made the defining characteristic of the great teacher. Perhaps one only stakes out such a large, truculent claim to authority when one doesn’t, can’t possibly, have it. Even in the Maoist conception of the relation between leaders and masses, the authority of the Great Teacher does not derive, tautologically, from his authority, but from his wisdom—a much- advertised part of which consists in overturning “what is already known.” Though Rieff’s notion of the teacher has more in common with the Maoist pedagogic conception than with the main tradition of Western activity and high culture which he thinks he’s defending—against barbarous students—it is formulated in a fashion more dismissive of independence of thought than Maoism.

To define a teacher primarily in terms of the idea of authority seems to me grossly inadequate to the standards of that elite education for which Rieff is proselytizing. That the definition encourages wishful thinking and licenses personal arrogance is relatively unimportant. What is important is that it leaves out virtually all the teacherly virtues. Wisdom, as I’ve already mentioned. And the Socratic pedagogic eros. Forget about humility—if that is too radical, or it sounds mawkish. But what about skepticism?

A little skepticism about what one “carries” in oneself, if one is well-educated, might be especially useful—to balance the temptations of self-righteousness. As someone who, like Philip Rieff, had the good fortune to do undergraduate work in the most ambitious and the most successful authoritarian program of education ever devised in this country—the Hutchins-era College of the University of Chicago—I remain as much as he, I would think, a partisan of the non-elective curriculum. But I’m aware that all such forms of consensus about “great” books and “perennial” problems, once stabilized, tend to deteriorate eventually into something philistine. The real life of the mind is always at the frontiers of “what is already known.” Those great books don’t only need custodians and transmitters. To stay alive, they also need adversaries. The most interesting ideas, after all, are heresies.

M.B.: I would like to link “The Pornographic Imagination” with your essay on Riefenstahl, where you discuss the aesthetics of totalitarian art. To what extent is Story of O a totalitarian work, or an ironic commentary upon such work? And is there, then, a connection between this tale of total female submission to the doctrines and advantages of others, and Riefenstahl’s work, with its focus on obeisance to an all-powerful leader?

SONTAG: I don’t find Story of O ironic, either about totalitarianism or about the Sadean literary tradition of which it is a self-conscious but exquisitely limited modernization. Is it a totalitarian work? The connection that could be drawn between Story of O and the eroticized politics of Nazism seems a fortuitous one — and extraneous to the book and the intentions of the elderly French mandarin (male) who wrote it, pseudonymously—however easily it springs to mind now, especially since the sado-masochistic dramaturgy started going in for Nazi drag. And there is still another difference worth noting, the one between the eroticism of a political event (real or, say, in a film) and the eroticism of a private life (real or fictional). Hitler, when he used sexual metaphors to express the authority of leaders and the obeisance of masses, in characterizing leadership as violation could only compare the masses to a woman. (But “O” is one woman, and the book is about an individual salvation, through the erotic, which is profoundly anti-political, as all forms of mysticism and neo-mysticism are.) Measured against submission and fulfillment in a real erotic situation, the eroticism of Hitler’s notion of leadership (as rape) and of followership (as surrender) is a cheat, a fake.

As there is a difference between an idea, mediated by a metaphor, and an experience (real or fictional), the metaphors used by the modern regimes that have sought to create total ideological consensus have different degrees of closeness to or distance from practical reality. In the communist view of how leaders lead masses, the metaphor is not one of sexual domination but of teachership: the teacher who has authority and the masses who are students of the teacher. Although this metaphor makes Maoist rhetoric very attractive, almost as attractive as Nazi rhetoric is repellent, its result is probably a much more total system of control over minds and bodies. While the eroticized politics of fascism is, after all, a pseudo-eroticism, the pedagogic politics of communism is a real and effective process of teaching.

R.B.: One last question. In 1964, you wrote an essay on science fiction films called “The Imagination of Disaster,” included in Against Interpretation. Have you reflected more about science fiction since—for example, about the idea of intelligence proposed in Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End? Can you make a connection between “the imagination of disaster” and “the pornographic imagination”? And between leaders and followers in fascist aesthetics?

SONTAG: That essay, among others, could be seen as one phase of an argument about modes of authoritarian feeling and perception. (And the argument isn’t only to be found in my essays. For instance, Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl, the two films I made in Sweden, and two recent stories, “Old Complaints Revisited” and “Doctor Jekyll,” are fictional treatments of the private lives of leaders and followers.) Science fiction—about which I hope to write a better essay some day—is full of authoritarian ideas, ideas that have much in common with those developed in other contemporary contexts (like pornography), illustrating typical forms of the authoritarian imagination. Clarke’s fable is one of the abler examples of science fiction’s characteristic polemic on behalf of an authoritarian ideal of intelligence. The romantic protest against the assassin mind, a leading theme of art and thought since the early 19th century, gradually became a self-fulfilling prophecy as, in the 20th century, technocratic, purely instrumental ideas of the mind took over, which made intelligence seem hopelessly inadequate to a social and psychological disorder experienced as more menacing than ever. Science fiction promotes the idea of a superior or “higher” intelligence that will impose order on human affairs and messy emotions and, thereby, end childhood—that is, history. Pornography, like the fascist mass-spectacle, looks to the abolition of mind (in an ideal choreography of bodies, of dominators and the dominated).

We live in a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying. An intelligence which aims at the definitive resolution (that is, suppression) of conflict, which justifies manipulation—always, of course, for other people’s good, as in the argument brilliantly made by Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, which haunts the main tradition of science fiction—is not my normative idea of intelligence. Not surprisingly, contempt for intelligence goes with the contempt for history. And history is, yes, tragic. But I’m not able to support any idea of intelligence which aims at bringing history to an end—substituting for the tragedy that makes civilization at least possible the nightmare or the Good Dream of eternal barbarism.

I am assuming that the defense of civilization implies the defense of an intelligence that is not authoritarian. But all contemporary defenders of civilization must be aware—though I don’t think it helps to say it often—that this civilization, already so far overtaken by barbarism, is at an end, and nothing we do will put it back together again. So in the culture of transition out of which we can try to make sense, fighting off the twin afflictions of hyperaesthesia and passivity, no position can be a comfortable one or should be completely held. Perhaps the most instructive discussion of the questions of intelligence and innocence, civilization and barbarism, responsibility to the truth and responsibility to people’s needs is in the libretto of Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron. Dostoyevsky does not let Jesus answer the Grand Inquisitor’s monologue, although the whole novel is supposed to give us, does give us, the material to construe that answer. But Moses and Aaron do answer each other’s arguments. And although Schoenberg uses both dramaturgy and music to stack the whole opera against the view Aaron represents, and for Moses’ Word, in the actual debate between them he set their arguments at parity. So the debate is unresolved, as it really is, for these questions are fiercely complicated. “Moses” and “Aaron” are both right. And any serious argument about culture—which has to be, finally, an argument about truth—must honor that complexity.

(1975)