Susan Sontag’s late style

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The philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously distinguished bullshitting from lying.

Because the liar wants to misrepresent how things really are – to mislead or conceal the truth from his audience – he is scrupulous about the accuracy or falsity of his words. The bullshitter, on the other hand, pays no regard to the accuracy of his statements. He speaks without caring whether what he says is true.

A similar distinction may be applied in the case of Susan Sontag’s late style. Her writing isn’t obscurantist, since it’s not designed to prevent the reader from understanding. It just doesn’t take any great pains to be intelligible.

The following sentence is from Sontag’s 2004 introduction to the NYRB edition of Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev:

It was the climate of opinion that made the courageous Romanian-born writer Panaït Istrati (1884-1935) consider withdrawing his truthful report on a sixteen-month stay in the Soviet Union in 1927-1928, Vers une autre flamme (Towards Another Flame), at the behest of the powerful French literary patron, Romain Rolland, which, when he did publish it, was rejected by all his former friends and supporters in the literary world; and that led André Malraux in his capacity as editor at Gallimard to turn down the adversarial biography of Stalin by the Russian-born Boris Souvarine (1895-1984; real name: Boris Lifchitz) as inimical to the cause of the Spanish Republic.

A relative pronoun (the central ‘which’) suddenly appears, and the reader must trawl back through the entire absurdly distended sentence, searching for the correct antecedent amongst various plausible candidates. Next I visited Paris, where my brother lived, and operated a bakery, which is the capital of France. The syntax tells us that Romain Rolland was the published ‘it’; a little thought says otherwise.

In the next example a similar knowledge of context is required to interpret which event, from amongst the foregoing, was ‘the consequence of his having applied to Glavlit’:

And there was more: a memoir of the anarchist movement in pre-First World War France, a novel about the Russian Revolution, a short book of poems, and a historical chronicle of Year II of the Revolution, all confiscated when Serge was finally allowed to leave the USSR in 1936, as the consequence of his having applied to Glavlit, the literary censor, for an exit permit for his manuscripts – these have never been recovered – as well as a great deal of safely archived but still unpublished material.

That said, the main drawback of Sontag’s Serge essay isn’t the ambiguity of her sentences.

The piece, called ‘Unextinguished’, is a partially realized version of an essay Sontag apparently had planned to write since the early 1980s. It was to concern the attitude of French literary intellectuals, including André Gide, to Stalinism.

The eventual product barely touches on such matters. It contains rather more (though still vague) remarks on the prevailing views within Sontag’s own literary scene.

Serge is presented by Sontag as a noble, clear-eyed and precocious advocate of her own political opinion. (He was ‘right’, she says, but only ‘after the early 1920s.’) The latter attitude (i.e. her own) may fairly be described as rank anti-communism.

She had given vent to such thoughts in 1982, at a pro-Solidarnosc meeting held in New York:

Communism is fascism – successful fascism, if you will. What we have called fascism is rather the form of tyranny that can be overthrown – that has largely failed. I repeat: not only is fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies – especially when their populations are moved to revolt – but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.

Sontag attempts to portray Serge, the one-time committed Bolshevik and loyal servant of the Revolution, as holding such views, or of believing something like them, or of being on a political trajectory with these views as their inevitable destination. Would he too, she ponders, have come to view the Revolution as ‘a tragic illusion, a catastrophe for the Russian people from the beginning… had he lived another decade or more? Probably.’

Maybe so (though speculation about a post-deathbed conversion provides rather a weak basis for understanding someone’s life work).

In any case, the ideas expressed by the late Serge (e.g. that Lenin’s ‘proletarian Jacobinism’ contained the ‘germ’ of Stalinism, that the Cheka foreshadowed the Moscow Trials, that Kronstadt was a ‘needless crime’, leading him ultimately to a kind of Third-campism) were understandably inspired in him by the experience, over several decades, of imprisonment, exile, beatings, the murder of friends and comrades, etc.

No comparable trauma, no years of penury and isolation, preceded the rightward drift of Sontag and the New York liberal intellectuals grouped around DissentThe Nation, Commentary and The New Republic (a movement whose initial stages of ‘de-Marxization’ were traced by Serge Guilbaut in How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art).

Several times, during her essay, Sontag reminds ‘English-language readers’ in ‘the prosperous world’ of how remote their material existence and cultural milieu is from that of Serge’s generation of revolutionary socialists who lived during the first third of the twentieth century.

Of course, the previous generation of New York intellectuals had included many socialist, anti-Stalinist and Jewish political exiles, or their children, from central and eastern Europe. Those at Partisan Review had been a lifeline for Serge. Thanks in large part to these people, Sontag observes the survival into the 1970s of a ‘pro-Soviet or anti-anti-Communist bias among intellectuals’, including ‘much of the American literary public.’ She goes on to note the difficulty experienced by an individual apostate from this milieu, ‘especially when it may mean having to break with, or be rejected by, a community that supplies a valued part of their identity.’

But the expressed political attitudes of Sontag and her friends (slightly to the left of Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz) didn’t come with professional costs, nor lead to the loss of friends and social contacts. They were accompanied by career success, fame and wealth.

And at all times they followed the prevailing political winds.

Thus in 1967, when Third-Worldism was trendy, Sontag notoriously asserted that ‘the white race is the cancer of human history’. In 1969, Ramparts published her ‘thoughts on the right way (for us) to love the Cuban revolution’. The article began with a rueful acknowledgement that US leftists ‘live in a pre-revolutionary situation’, then commenced a critical discussion of ‘our own too white, death-ridden culture’, before ending on a note of anticipation for the ‘next stage of radicalism in America’. Two decades later, on the other hand, at the dawn of the era of humanitarian imperialism, she declared that ‘Sarajevo is the Spanish Civil War of our time’, comparing herself to Malraux, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Simone Weil. She directed a production of Samuel Beckett’s play in Sarajevo, confiding: ‘It’s not Godot I am waiting for. Like most of the people in Sarajevo, I am waiting for Clinton.’ In 1999 she published an article in the New York Times, seeking to bolster support for NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia. Five years later, when photographs of torture emerged from Abu Ghraib prison, she wrote another article for the Times that criticized the Bush Administration. It received predictable acclaim. In a 2001 interview with Salon, she had clarified her position on the Global War on Terror: ‘I’ll take the American empire any day over the empire of what my pal Chris Hitchens calls “Islamic fascism.”’

There is no sign that Sontag ever devoted serious thought to political questions, nor any evidence that her expressed political beliefs were more sincere than those of her friends Paul Berman and Hitchens. What seems really to have counted to them, as to other members of this social layer, has been career advancement and the fulfilment of private ambitions.

They, speaking generally, have pursued these ends via the following path (with the precise order of steps varying for different individuals): while climbing the greasy pole of academic recognition – competing with peers for citations, tenure, etc. – they have propounded a few radical-sounding though harmless notions. This has brought recognition within the salons and among journalists as someone intellectually fashionable, possessing ‘new’ and ‘radical’ ideas, leading to a contract with Routledge or Verso, then gradual acknowledgement – within either a ‘left-wing’ niche or a broader mainstream audience – as a kind of guru or star, a possessor of unchallenged wisdom with a dedicated apostolic following, the object of fascination at public lectures. This status has then been converted into influential friends and sexual success, as well as hard assets like Manhattan real estate.

Sontag’s late style bears comparison to the linguistic habits and mannerisms of others in her circle and of her ilk, e.g. Hitchens’s pointless verbal showiness and clunky allusions. For the stylistic tics expose a trace of the careerist cynicism – of striving to be recognized as intellectually fashionable without bothering to take ideas very seriously or to consider anything very deeply. The ambiguity generated by Sontag’s bloated syntax betrays her self-satisfaction and a lack of concern for communicating genuine ideas.

But this kind of indulgence isn’t limited to those who, like Sontag, enjoy celebrity and mainstream success. Frankfurt was right to describe bullshit as ‘one of the most salient features of our culture.’ A casual indifference to truth haunts all the favoured thought of the age.

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3 Responses to “Susan Sontag’s late style”

  1. Madam, have you ever heard of a place called Dachau? « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    [...] endured Susan Sontag’s self-serving essay about Victor Serge, I was pleased to read the foreword to Unforgiving Years, written by the novel’s translator [...]

  2. Les quarante-huitards? Postmodernism and French Stalinism « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    [...] By 1948, Truman’s USA was undertaking a ‘de-Marxization of the intelligentisa’. Writers, artists and critics like Bellow, James Burnham and Clement Greenberg were shedding their anti-Stalinist socialism of the 1930s for the more salubrious fit of Cold War liberalism, on the way to full-blown reaction. [...]

  3. A good line | Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] isn’t that it’s unclarifiably obscure or difficult to construe, in the way of much academic bullshit. (G.A. Cohen: ‘For the record, I do not believe that Hegel was a bullshitter, and I am too […]

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