Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me
by Craig Seligman
Published by Counterpoint Press
231 pages, 2004
Reviewed by N.P. Thompson
"You can't be a great critic -- you can't even be an interesting critic -- without a talent for provocation," writes Craig Seligman in Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me. I agree with Seligman's statement. Provocation isn't enough, however. His own book, a slight, coy, wisp of a memoir in which he contrasts two formidable literary talents, serves as a case in point. Provocative though his tome may be, it falls far short of being either great or interesting.
Sadder still for an author who boasts such an impressive vita (Seligman has been a contributor to Salon, The New Republic, and Bookforum among others), Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me isn't particularly well edited. In making comparisons, Seligman without exception ends his sentences redundantly, as in "...her critical stands have worn better than her political ones have." And there are purple passages that suggest a parody of Tennessee Williams personae, such as when Seligman (a native Louisianan) opines, "...this was a woman who lived for art. That passion was the barb on the hooks that ... sank into my youthful heart."
Those types of mistakes might easily have been expunged. What cannot be overcome are Seligman's penchant for facile, sweeping declarations and the author's self-appointed posture as a star-struck scold. Reading this book (it's his first), I knew that what really attracts Seligman isn't the opposite nature of his heroines, but having his name in close proximity to theirs.
Although Seligman identifies Susan Sontag as, "a critic I revere, a magnificent critic," he devotes most of his 201 pages to excoriating her stances on politics, pop culture and sexuality. Sontag and Seligman have never met, and it seems unlikely that they ever will, at least not amicably, given the presence of such endearing phrases as "...it's a constant temptation to use Kael as a cudgel to bonk the smirk of self-esteem off Sontag's face," or "the essays collected in Against Interpretation would have made a warthog famous."
It's quite a different story with regard to Seligman and the late film reviewer Pauline Kael. The two were friends for more than 20 years. Accordingly, Seligman lets Kael off the hook. In spite of recounting at length her zealotry for "trash" and "kitsch," which she famously claimed to prefer over serious minded films, Seligman never calls Kael to task for disingenuously backing away from her clarion call of the 1960s. "When we championed trash culture," he quotes her as saying decades later, "we had no idea it would become the only culture." Seligman doesn't challenge her myopia. What, for example, did she imagine would be the logical outcome?
As late as 1988, Kael derided Woody Allen's film Another Woman, in which a philosophy professor (played by Gena Rowlands) finds solace from her malaise, at least in part, through the verses of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo." In her review, Kael raged, "How can you embrace life and leave out all the good vulgar trashiness?" Never mind that by 1988, "vulgar trashiness," as she calls it, had usurped so much of society that the simple act of reading Rilke (or any poet) might be viewed as reverse escapism, a necessary flight for preserving soul and mind from Kael's cherished vulgarity. Before or since Another Woman, how many films have had the nerve to offer up poetry as a potential lifesaver, and how many have been satisfied with trash?
Seligman, oblivious to this contradiction, contents himself with posthumous cheerleading for Kael. "She never dismissed movies lightly," he tells us, when, in fact, she did. Nor did she, Seligman relates, reduce films "to occasions for a display of wit." Even a cursory skim through Kael's 12 volumes of criticism quickly disposes of these flyweight deceptions. Reference her insulting appraisal of John Cassavetes' 1968 masterpiece Faces: "...so crudely conceived ... that the audience practically burns incense."
A longtime fan of her work, Seligman in 1978 moved to New York and landed a secretarial job at The New Yorker just to meet Kael. Meet her he did. "And if you were a writer and you met an articulate 25-year-old who was so enraptured with your work that he could quote it better than you could, wouldn't you think he was a fine young man, too?" Well, put in those unearned chummy tones, I might think he was a parasitic sycophant, an Eve Harrington in male drag.
Seligman writes lumpy, small prose in a gossipy voice. He mistakes smarminess for wit. He composes with a sitcom laugh track in his head. Here is Seligman on the decline of the novel as an art form: "I don't mean there aren't masterpieces yet to be created. Another Pynchon is no doubt enduring a diaper change as I write these words." Or if that doesn't appall you, consider this absurd oversimplification: "...often ambivalence is inescapable in the face of moral and aesthetic problems. That's why they're problems."
In discussing the mid-1960s milieu in which Sontag flourished, Seligman revels in an atrocious fanzine sensibility. "Sex was in the air ... and intellectuals desperately wanted an invitation to the party. Sontag provided it." His heavy breathing continues: "Sontag leads a kind of double life in her essays ... under her aloofness, she harbors a yearning to undress." Furthermore: "If I'm eroticizing Sontag's writing (and I don't deny that I am), it's because I find it so deeply seductive." Finally, Seligman arrives at an incomprehensible metaphor: "...her confessionalism came out of the closet."
Seligman laments that Sontag "...turned her back on pop, and it's our loss." He means it's his loss. ("Sontag on Prince -- that would have been for the ages," he speculates.) In documenting Sontag's shift toward the Matthew Arnold-style humanism she'd once sought to debunk, Seligman notes "she got the horrors at what she saw going on in the culture." Without knowing exactly what this bizarre colloquialism signifies, I can safely venture that Sontag would also "get the horrors" from a mere glance at Seligman's text.
In perambulating over the divide between pop and high culture, (and wishing that Sontag had done more than nod "affably" at the Supremes), Seligman informs us, "Today the young intellectual who's impervious to rock and hip-hop is an anomaly, not least because rock and hip-hop claim some of the best young artists," a statement as top-heavy with relativist smugness and absolutist dishonesty as you're likely to find. First, the young intellectual (or self-styled hipster) whom Seligman hypothesizes will be predictably impervious to jazz and classical music, and second, who are these "best young artists" that rock and hip-hop claim? Seligman neither names anyone nor demonstrates how the flat obviousness of most pop transcends the intricate, subversive pleasures of chamber music, improvised jazz and hybrids thereof.
In the book's most loathsome segment, Seligman berates Sontag for reluctantly owning up to her bisexuality. He asserts,"...for anyone gay, coming out of the closet is a fundamental, the fundamental political act." Seligman makes a huge philosophical mistake here: sexuality isn't inherently political. "I desperately wanted Sontag to declare herself," he pouts, "What good could [her silence] possibly have done her?" Sontag, he insists, "did herself no honor" when she casually, almost parenthetically, confessed to Joan Acocella in The New Yorker: "That I have had girlfriends as well as boyfriends is what? Is something I never thought I was supposed to have to say, since it seems to me the most natural thing in the world."
I completely empathize with Sontag's reticence, with what Seligman mislabels her "unseemliness." It never occurs to him that politicizing one's sexuality would in certain cases cause more harm than good. It also never occurs to Seligman that there is more than one way to be gay. For Sontag and quiet multitudes of women and men who value their privacy, or their ambiguity, over making political statements, Seligman's outmoded, Castro District notion of freedom sounds like taking several steps backward.
Rather than recognize the value of her statement, he deplores Sontag for her deviation from orthodoxy. If Seligman had done a closer read of his own manuscript, he might have discovered that he eventually raises the question that plagues him. "Why do deviations from orthodoxy provoke so much bitterness that the Left winds up shifting its energy ... away from the true threats?" Not surprisingly, he doesn't expound. | August 2004