Renata Adler and Susan Sontag, two of the finest and, in different ways, most influential writers of our time, have published, within weeks of each other, collections of their writing over the past 20 years. Taken together, the books provide a fascinating tour of the cultural landscape across these crucial decades. And in their differences, they tell us something about cultural commitment–how substantially its possibility has altered over time, and how it might still be possible.
Sontag needs no introduction but, these days, she may require some defending. As perhaps America’s highest-profile intellectual–caught between the rock of icon and the hard place of legend–she’s also one of the easiest targets, and for many, she is most familiar as the object of scorn in Kevin Costner’s infamous Bull Durham speech. Amid a litany of convictions, Costner proclaims, “I believe that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent overrated crap!” Never mind that the speech’s own pretensions are belied by blithe ignorance–at that time, Sontag’s two early “novels,” far from being overrated, were unknown and out of print, and her reputation rested entirely on her essays. The point was only to enlist Sontag as a brand name, and to slam it. For 40 years, Sontag has been the paragon of intellect in a culture virtually defined by anti-intellectualism, and–aware of that position as she is–she still has managed to reserve, largely without hysteria, her integrity, and most of her dignity.
Where the Stress Falls, her latest collection, brings together essays written between 1983 and 2001–nearly half her writing life to date, and in a period during which, Bull Durham aside, she has willfully reinvented herself as a novelist, moving away from the essay form. Unmistakably, these pieces mark a difference in texture, aspiration and quality from her earlier collections, Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will and Under the Sign of Saturn. Some of the essays in those books were occasional pieces, but most were lengthier forays, ripened and rigorously worked through, meaning to convey, in sum, a highly distinctive vanguard sensibility. They include, for instance, the essay that introduced the concept of camp even to the masses who never read it, several pieces on writers unknown in America who’ve since become semi-canonical largely thanks to Sontag’s interventions (such as Elias Canetti or Cesare Pavese), and a definitive treatment of fascist art.
Her new book does not seem to represent a decline in activity, by any means. It restores, in several fell swoops, the reputations of many unjustly neglected writers–like Machado de Assis or Glenway Wescott–and it reflects, among other things, on her journey to war-torn Sarajevo in the early ’90s to direct Waiting for Godot (in an essay parallel to her earlier “Trip to Hanoi”). On this evidence it seems clear that Sontag is every bit as engaged as she ever was. What’s changed most emphatically, perhaps, is the level of ambition to chronicle that engagement in writing. Nearly without exception, the pieces collected here are short, occasional, breezily aphoristic, even a bit superficial–without ever being completely shallow. The earnest Sontag, who wanted to teach us to think anew, whose lesson was that pleasure and rigor need not be opposites, has produced a book where even the brilliance seems casual.
The best example is also perhaps the best-known, most anthologized essay in the book, “A Century of Cinema.” Like much in the book, it’s doom talk–and another piece, reflecting the same feeling, is subtitled, “One More Elegy.” Perhaps to Sontag’s regret (she often expresses regret concerning the influence of her work), it prompted waves of reflection on the death of cinema. Still, the grimly elegiac tone dominates undeniably, though its clash with a concurrent breeziness creates odd ripple effects.
Film seems now, we are told, “a decadent art,” and on that assumption, we are treated to a thumbnail sketch of movie history that could have been gleaned from the basest textbook, and is so free of nuance as to court outright error. The Hollywood system, we’re told, for instance, dating from 1930 to 1955, laid waste to the career of Erich von Stroheim; maybe so, but since Stroheim made his last film in 1929, the chronology seems a bit off.
It’s a slumming cognoscenti’s version of film history that seems intended for people who’ve never seen a movie, and it’s hard to know what could be gained, to the end Sontag calls for (of “resurrecting” cinephilia) by sketching so broadly.
In fact, the essay echoes the kind of conviction Sontag’s work has always reflected. Something is endangered and must be saved–like “high seriousness,” her term of greatest affirmation, albeit quirkily defined to include phenomena such as camp. Or, something–like “interpretation,” in the title essay of her first book–is flourishing, and must be squelched. Typically, as in the “Cinema” essay, these pieces end with calls to arms–“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”–so what seems to have changed, in the new book, is not the terms of address, exactly, but her conception of her audience.
Though Sontag acknowledges the initial publication of this essay in a German newspaper–a nod, perhaps, to the internationalism she increasingly favors–most of us first read it in The New York Times, which is exactly where it belonged. It’s not surprising that as Sontag becomes ever more concerned with the coarsening of the culture, she should commit herself, more and more, to addressing a general audience. Yet much in the book suggests that she herself knows that audience no longer really exists–and maybe that’s why so often, reading these essays, it’s hard to figure out to whom the author thinks she’s talking, or why.
I’m not sure Renata Adler’s Canaries in the Mineshaft is clearly a superior book, though the pieces it collects are, one by one, definitive–a definitive commentary on Vietnam and Watergate, on Robert Bork’s supreme court nomination, on the Starr Report, on the war in Biafra, on the shootings at Kent State, even on Sesame Street. Yet the range of the book seems oddly more constricted than Sontag’s, the focus far narrower.
Adler’s polemical style is stringently inductive: Bit by bit, she marshals tiny facts, until, quite suddenly, you realize she’s built a monolith out of the atoms. Her style of argumentation–and she’s the best political polemicist in modern journalism–is itself a comment on the practices of her mainstream colleagues, a theme she comes back to in the book over and over.
As an investigative journalist, Adler is distinguished by her preference for the library over the press conference. Nearly every one of these pieces builds a careful argument that produces large, seemingly irrefutable conclusions based almost entirely on primary materials. She “proves”–rhetorically speaking, at least–that the Vietnam War was sustained by kickbacks to Nixon from South Vietnamese officials, that Robert Bork is a scoundrel and a liar, that Linda Tripp was secretly working for Ken Starr’s office, and that Judge John Sirica was a crook. Why, one might wonder, have these staggering claims–for all the local ruffles they may have caused–not shaken the very earth, and been universally embraced? The answer is simple–and extremely troubling.
Again and again, Adler uncovers these smoking guns in what appear to be the last places her journalistic colleagues are inclined to look. She does not engineer covert meetings with mysterious Deep Throats, nor wire herself for sound. She reads. Take the Bork articles–arguably, the ones that had the clearest social effect, contributing to the failure of Bork’s nomination. Where does Adler’s evidence come from? From Bork’s own written opinions, which nobody else troubled to look at. Where does her evidence against Tripp come from? From the Starr report itself, which nobody else troubled to read. (Given its sleazily obstructionist mode of presentation, she argues, how could anyone?) What’s her case against Sirica based on? Mostly, on Sirica’s own autobiography. Since the publication of this book, Adler has produced, for The New Republic, the definitive article on the “Bush vs. Gore” case, proving that the decision was hypocritical, dishonest and contradictory. And where does she discover this? In the opinion itself, which she reads. While her colleagues stumble heedlessly after their soundbites and unnamed sources, Adler reads–brilliantly.
The reason that Adler’s findings are not more widely endorsed as journalism–apart from the intricate structure of her arguments, which don’t lend themselves to soundbites–is precisely that she so often limits herself to primary texts, rather than sneaking around the trenches doing “real” reporting. (And apparently, among many of her colleagues, she’s disliked.) In this sense, Adler’s book is about a basic problem in contemporary journalism–the privileging of secondary sources and journalists’ proclivities over primary evidence–and about a cultural fact it seems to reflect: Namely, that we don’t any longer seem to believe that language reflects character, and therefore, despite all our yammering about character, don’t bother reading what’s written in the public record, or listening to what’s said, beyond obfuscating commentary produced after-the-fact at the behest of journalists, largely to stoke their own reputations. (Would we have assented to the imposition of a leader like Bush the Inarticulate, if we continued to believe that language reflects character?) If this polemical agenda makes Adler’s work seem narrower than Sontag’s project–though this notion may reflect only my own preference for aesthetics over politics–it’s mostly because her book tries to work out these implications so carefully.
Though Adler’s reputation is nowhere in Sontag’s league, of course, the two have much in common. They are of the same generation, they have ranged over many genres (Adler’s two out-of-print novels, as experimental as Sontag’s early fiction and as accessible as her recent fiction, are priceless), they have both been associated with many of the same journals, and they have produced a sustained body of definitive work. What’s on view in these two books, mostly, is the spectacle of two great readers reading, and doing it even if nobody else is doing it, and insisting on talking about it, even if nobody is listening. Though both seem to believe the values they’ve based their life’s work on are passing, they keep reading. As readers ourselves, how can we fail to be grateful?