Throughout her life, the leading public intellectual refused to behave like a pleasing secondary beingby Lisa Appignanesi / August 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
In 1997, Susan Sontag, arguably America’s leading public intellectual, answered some questions for a French literary magazine. Sontag, as ever forthright, said that she was partial to the independent, non-specialist intellectual who was committed to the importance of the life of the mind, who had “certain standards of probity and responsibility” and strengthened “scepticism about received opinion.” At the same time, she took aim at the mass media and “the ideology of so-called cultural democracy: the hatred of excellence, achievement as ‘elitist,’ exclusionary.”
When the interview was published, Sontag’s place as a provocative, sometimes jarring, writer had already been evident for over 30 years. From her very first essays for Partisan Review and the New York Review of Books—with Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers, her great supporters, at the helm—Sontag’s verbal style and wit were evident. She could turn a declarative sentence like no one else, giving an irrepressible aphoristic drive to her thoughts.
Her groundbreaking 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” collected two years later in Against Interpretation, set out to “snare a sensibility in words.” That work mapped the camp way of being that increasingly permeated the times: an emphasis on a certain aestheticism, a preference for the androgynous as well as exaggerated and, at least at first, an innocently transgressive air.
On the essay’s opening page, Sontag declares: “To patronise the faculty of taste is to patronise oneself. For taste governs every free—as opposed to rote—human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion—and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas… Taste has no system and no proofs.”
Sontag’s own taste—her passion for heavyweight European writers and theorists—helped to shape a generation, perhaps even two. She had no trouble with the grand universalising tone adopted by male intellectuals. Thrusting aside any existing canon, she ranged high and low in a way unheard of at the time and set the trend for postmodern eclecticism. Her reference points stretched from Dostoyevsky to the Doors, from Simone Weil and Claude Lévi-Strauss to so-called happenings and film. In the title essay of Against Interpretation, she demands that the…