The Nudnik File

Nudnik - n. U.S. colloq. Esp. in Jewish usage: a pestering, nagging, or irritating person

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

I haven't read much of Susan Sontag's work, so its hard for me to judge her overall oeuvre. But from what I have read, it seems to me that she was a fairly standard 1960's "literary artist". Her politics were very clearly on display in her piece in the New Yorker after the attacks of 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 America bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue) whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.
Roger Kimball pens an obituary in the New Criterion blog Armavirumque, looking at her work.
There can be no doubt that Susan Sontag, the doyenne of (to use Tom Wolfe's apposite coinage) radical chic, commanded rare celebrity throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Accordingly, her influence in those decades and beyond was great. The question is, was it a beneficent or a baneful influence? Sontag has been celebrated as a towering intellectual. In fact, though, what she offered were not so much arguments or insights as the simulacra of arguments and the mood or emotion of insights.
Most offensive, although perfectly in-line with leftist artistic opinions, were her statements regarding Cuba and Vietnam.
[A]fter ten years, she writes, "the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression and bureaucratization"; even better perhaps, is this passing remark delivered in parentheses: "No Cuban writer has been or is in jail, or is failing to get his work published."
Sontag concocted a similar fairy tale when she went to Vietnam in 1968 courtesy of the North Vietnamese government. Her long essay "Trip to Hanoi" (1968) is another classic in the literature of political mendacity. Connoisseurs of the genre will especially savor Sontag's observation that the real problem for the North Vietnamese is that they "aren't good enough haters." Their fondness for Americans, she explains, keeps getting in the way of the war effort.

Nudnikette adds:
To be fair, Kimball goes a little too far. Sontag did draw heavily on French ideas, but so did the entire intellectual establishment of the past 50 years. She did mold herself in that 'public intellectual' fashion of the French, most notably Barthes and Derrida (whom Kimball eulogized just as devastatingly and again more than somewhat unfairly). But she wasn't a trivial presence. Although I agree that her literary style was poor, her observations were often acute. Sontag's essays on photography - the first book not the 2nd - are illuminating. It is her politics that are truly the issue, contemptible and morally skewed. She wasn't the first auteur to side with odious ideologies - it is a sin too popular by far - and she will not be the last. So maybe there is a point in divorcing her better production from her politics, to save a few insightful thoughts?
|| Nudnik 11:30 AM
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