Are You Trying to Seduce Me, Ms. Sontag and Ms. Kael?

How two women authors molded two male writers they never knew

Photo by Anie LeibovitzSusan Sontag, the North Hollywood High School graduate who made the jump to New York and went on to assume that unlikeliest of American roles—a glamorous public intellectual—died Dec. 28 at 71, leaving behind four novels (two severe avant-garde puzzlers and two richly narrated best-sellers), three plays, a book of short stories, and six books of essays, among them Against Interpretation and Where the Stress Falls, that will doubtless be her lasting legacy. She was one of the dwindling number of American intellectuals who cared about European culture, tirelessly combing the continent for artists Americans needed to attend to (she was instrumental in developing an audience for everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Elias Canetti, Roland Barthes and W.S. Sebald). In "Notes on 'CAMP,'" she helped break down the wall between high and pop culture that's become a hallmark of postmodernism (a breakdown she quickly regretted). In "What's Happening in America," she infamously lacerated the United States as a country founded on genocide and populated by materialistic yahoos, earning her the ceaseless wrath of cultural conservatives. In the late '60s, she briefly flirted with Ho Chi Minh-style Communism before becoming a sustained and effective advocate for human rights in totalitarian regimes worldwide. She took on Norman Mailer regarding cancer (Illness as Metaphor); directed a production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the height of the Balkan conflict; wrote one of the more memorable pieces of fiction about AIDS ("The Way We Live Now"); and got herself in big trouble in the days after 9/11 when she wrote that it wasn't the terrorists who were cowards, but us, who use our technological mastery to "kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky." Her elegant if often reckless handprints are stamped everywhere in the past 40 years of this nation's smeary cultural life. She was also beautiful and knew it, her succession of book-jacket photos steadily building the reputation of a writer whose looks were every bit as cool, seductive and forbidding as her prose.

I read her in college, as I've discovered lots of young guys did, charged (sexually, intellectually: it was pretty much the same thing then) by her demanding mind, vowing to become worthy of a writer who flattered you by assuming you could keep up with her impossible range of allusions, her steady courageous gaze into the abysses opened by the modernist masters she obsessed over: Beckett, Ingmar Bergman, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin. At the same time, though, I started reading another California writer who moved to New York City, Pauline Kael, whose charge was just as intense but considerably less forbidding and certainly more fun. Kael, the film critic for The New Yorker from the mid-'60s until 1991, wrote movie reviews whose whole-self, whole-body responsiveness to what was on the screen (I Lost It at the Movies was only one of her suggestive book titles) not only increased my pleasure in watching a movie, but they also basically taught me how to look. (I've discovered a lot of other guys—and women, too—who've had exactly the same response to being educated by her: in film critic quarters, there's even a name for them: they're called Paulettes.) Although she was learned in philosophy, literature and classical music, she loved the insouciant trashiness of American pop culture (which was why she caught on to the sensibility of Godard's early movies so quickly) and developed a style that simulated the sensory rush she felt at the movies. Her muscular prose sometimes resembles the all-over paintings of Jackson Pollock: everything she knows and feels, you come to think, she splatters brilliantly on the page. Kael died the same week that 9/11 happened and never got the cultural eulogizing I think she deserved.

Now, Craig Seligman comes along with a book proposing he had almost exactly the same intellectual enthusiasms and influences that I did, which made reading his Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me at first a weirdly dj vu sort of experience, then made me envious he got to the subject first, and finally grateful that someone could not only elucidate both writers' careers so judiciously but also explore how and why two writers so "opposite" in sensibility and in style could be attractive to the same mind.

Not that Seligman is equally open to Sontag and Kael. As anyone who's read them knows, Kael is effervescent, creamily warming up to movies she loves while caviling delightfully and bitchily at things she can't stand. Sontag is icy, formal, ever careful, cultivating a stylistic impersonality so idiosyncratic that it becomes personal itself and, in its way, sexy. At the outset, Seligman admits that Sontag's "not a likeable writer," that her cultural elitism and forays into radical politics leave a bad aftertaste, that her silence about being gay (especially during the first years of the AIDS crisis) denote a woman whose personal nobility comes up way short of the severe moral standards implied in her work. Still, Seligman "reveres" Sontag, and more than half of the book tries to demonstrate why: Sontag's austere genius is fearless, her endlessly inquisitive mind ranged over a daunting number of fields (film, photography, literature, drama, literary criticism), all of which she's made lasting contributions to.

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