Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me
If I can avoid it, I’d prefer not to describe myself as confused. Yet there are vast realms of human endeavor that leave me befuddled.
Which brings me to this short, dense love note to two of the 20th Century’s more accomplished writers. When I stumbled across it in a bargain bin my excitement was palpable. Another shortcut, I thought. Finally someone would explain to me, in plain English, what the fuss was when it came to these two scriveners.
My hopes may have been too high. Or, perhaps more accurately, I just need to face facts and accept that I’m not smart enough to understand what these two are saying. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–knowing one’s limits is important.
Here we have Susan Sontag, critic, novelist and intimidating intellectual, about whom I’ve written before. In the other corner (there was, evidently, no small degree of antagonism between these two), is Pauline Kael, long-time movie reviewer at The New Yorker.
Our author intends to put their work “side by side” and “illuminate the work of each.” (p. 2) That’s a big enough task with like things, tarts and pies for instance. For me, it starts getting tougher when the categories proliferate. Where’s the common ground between Renaissance and Abstract Expressionist paintings, let alone sculpture and photography?
It’s exponentially harder to make comparisons when one of your subjects focuses almost exclusively on one medium and the other builds grand interpretive frameworks. In the end, Seligman’s bias may be what’s common. “I revere Sontag. I love Kael.” he tells us (p. 2) before correcting the tense of the verb in the last sentence.
Seligman states at the outset that he was privileged enough to have met Kael at a formative age and developed a friendship with her that lasted the rest of her life. Yet despite having more than one opportunity to meet Sontag he avoided doing so. (I’m presuming that, because Sontag had died by the time this book was named a Notable Book of the year by The New York Times Book Review in 2004, that their paths never did cross.)
The reason is one I can sympathize with, although he never uses this word: intimidation. What Seligman says is, “Her voice doesn’t draw me as Kael’s voice did; in fact, it frequently puts me off.” (also p. 2) That’s hardly an unusual response. Sontag terrifies me and I don’t scare easily.
I’ll also add that Sontag’s sheer presence could be disquieting. For many years I lived in an apartment complex in which Sontag owned a penthouse flat. She had the misfortune to have bought in the building that became the site of the complex’s rooftop sundeck.
All summer long those of us too poor for an excursion to anywhere but Tar Beach rode to Sontag’s floor and trooped up the last flight of steps to the roof. More than once the door to Penthouse B flew open framing a diminishing figure radiating fierce displeasure under a mantle of graying hair with an unmistakable white streak. Even as her body started to fail Sontag was a presence to be reckoned with.
If you’ve been following the citations you’ll notice that I’ve only gotten to page two and if you were wise you’d be wondering how long this might take. Rest easy, there may not be many more quotes and I’ve no plans to run long. Surprisingly, I find myself in a more reflective place with these writers.
In part that’s because I’ve no business tussling with either, an odd statement considering I’ve never actually read anything by Pauline Kael. Sadly, movies never caught my imagination the way they did for so many others. I can understand the allure intellectually, but the reality doesn’t work for me. I seem unable to get past being pissed off at paying to sit in the dark, with strangers, watching what will ultimately be available in my living room.
Seligman, though, is a moviegoer. In an autobiographical reference he manages to tell us both where he went to grad school and that he spent many of his non-reading awake hours watching films. So besotted was he with Kael that long before he met her he’d make it a point of seeing the films she reviewed (or, in an alternative timing, reading her reviews of films just seen).
Maybe that shared love lies behind their friendship and his ardor of her criticism. He demonstrates no such love for Sontag although he repeatedly refers to her fierce intelligence. Impressionistically, he spends an awful lot of time cowering at the mere prospect of it while also donning his white hat and defending her against those who would not understand her.
Those moments were actually illuminating and fun. Hilton Kramer, a critic I’ve always had an easier time with, is particularly singled out as a Sontag nemesis. Andrew Sarris and Stanley Kaufmann are likewise addressed to defend Kael.
Strangely, neither of these writers needs defending. At least not based on the quotes that appear interwoven through the text and my own limited experience with Sontag. I found Seligman fair to his subjects. He never, for example, flinches from talking about how, in seeking to be as clear as possible in expressing herself, Sontag’s sentences lie heavy on the page.
I’m a lot more certain now about why Sontag intimidates me and I feel less alone. But I still don’t think I comprehend her well enough to understand, let alone revere, her. I couldn’t help wondering if a certain Jewish-American intellectualism was what Seligman found in common with these thinkers. (The title of the other work I’ve found attributed to him suggest he shares such an outlook.) Reading Sontag, in particular, always reminds me of reading manuscripts from the Frankfurt Schoolin exile.
In the end, though, that’s small beer. If I have any criticism about the book at all, it’s that at times I felt like I was reading an extended graduate seminar paper, absent the footnotes and other academic accoutrements. I’ve sat in seminars with less certain outcomes. And I feel better now about how I relate to Susan Sontag, which is no small victory.