Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Thu 16 Sep 04 09:35
Oh, boy. Now I'll have to dig out my ancient screed about what is the dumbest sentence from Kael I ever read. I've got it around here somewhere.
Gary Lambert (almanac) Thu 16 Sep 04 09:43
Oh, yeah, I remember that sentence and that screed!
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Thu 16 Sep 04 11:05
<scribbled by wjamesau Thu 16 Sep 04 11:10>
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Thu 16 Sep 04 11:09
> or Sontag about 9/11 Well, since you asked... :) I think you totally let Sontag off the hook, there. I'm not sure if you've read her infamous New Yorker essay on 9/11 since it was first published-- which, as it happens, was almost exactly three years ago, on September 17th, 2001: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/content/?010924ta_talk_wtc I have, and in a larger sense, much of my own personal reaction to September 11th intellectually involved the questions "Is this right? What do I think of it now?" I'm a mild fan of Sontag's non-fiction essays, and like other figures on the left I admired up until 9/11, like Chomsky, part of my journey after the terror attacks was to try and gain enough context to understand what they said about 9/11, and why they did. All the assumptions on foreign policy I took for granted I was forced to re-examine-- to "walk back the cat" as they say in intelligence circles. Shortly after 9/11, I was prone to agree with your assessment of her New Yorker essay (if I'm reading you right): mostly correct, but emotionally tone deaf, lacking empathy. I still agree with the latter part of that statement. The former part, however, is totally, patently wrong. Sontag was not mostly correct. It is simply wrong, for example, that 9/11 was "undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions". 9/11 was undertaken because of bin Laden's objection to infidel soldiers (particularly female soldiers) being stationed in the Holy Land, and his adherence to a jihadist ideology codified by Sayyid Qutb, Zawahiri's lodestone, a man who envisioned a Muslim utopia with a reestablished caliphate eradicated of the foul influence of democracy, modernism, secularism, and above all (always above all) of Jews. It is simply wrong, for example, that the "ongoing American bombing of Iraq" was any kind of grievance bin Laden was responding to, and even though Sontag seems to think it's a horrible thing that most Americans weren't aware of, *she* doesn't seem to be aware that this bombing was done to prevent Saddam's further predations of the Shiites, to the South, and the Kurds, to the North. (And that this bombing led directly to the first genuine, non-Israeli democracy in the Middle East, in Kurdistan.) It is simply wrong, for example, on a purely technical level, that precision bombing by "those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation" is cowardly, because it totally ignores the high risks inherent in flying instruments-only missions from the decks of aircraft carriers. On a moral level, impugning the courage of combat pilots is also wrong and disingenuous on Sontag's part, for only a few years earlier, Sontag was enjoining the US and her allies to commit that very same military action to stop the ethnic cleansing in Sarajevo and Kosovo. Did she also think bomber pilots were cowardly then? Above all, she is wrong to say that 9/11 was not an "attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world'". I'd encourage everyone to read Paul Berman's *Terror and Liberalism* for he makes the compelling case that 9/11 was indeed just that, far better than I could here. (And here, perhaps Sontag backpedaled somewhat, because later on, she did make some noises about Islamist extremism-- but certainly not enough, by my lights.) Now, she was right to say that there was a lot of infantilizing and stupid psychotherapy coming out of our leaders after the attacks, not just from the Bush administration, though they tended to be a prime generator of both. However, where she is wrong-- where she is utterly wrong-- is to demand "A few shreds of historical awareness [which] might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen", when it is quite clear she doesn't have any of those shreds, herself. And that's what strikes me about her 9/11 essay, three years later: when she wrote it, it is quite clear that she was not even minimally informed to speak on the subject, but she went right ahead and did so anyway, with an ex cathedra tone of voice that totally belies her rank ignorance on Middle Eastern foreign policy or the true ambition and reach of jihadist ideology. And so I have to wonder why. What makes her so sure about subjects she has so little basic awareness of? And I also have to wonder what other stumbles she's made in the past, covered over by her prestige and the authority of her persona. Is she really as smart as she thinks she is on every subject she presumes to speak on, or has there been a lot less substance there than I've always assumed? Up until three years ago, that is.
Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Thu 16 Sep 04 21:08
Oh, God, the 9/11 essay. Yes, it's infelicitous, but reading it once again (for the thousandth time), I'm still ready to defend it. Up to a point. I don't think it's wrong, for example, to argue that 9/11 was an attack "undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions." Our presence in the Middle East, having largely to do with our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and specifically the presence of our soldiers in Saudi Arabia, clearly had something to do with the attack. I haven't read Berman's book, so I can't respond to his line on jihadism. And, yes, we all know more about this movement now than we did three years ago. But I can say -- and I think Sontag would say -- that while the jihadists are wild-eyed loonies, their movement wouldn't have attracted the support it has if our country were widely perceived across the Middle East as a benign, helpful presence. I don't want to be perceived as defending the jihadists in any way, since they pretty much stand for everything I despise (and Sontag despises), but I don't think it's supporting them to say that we created the culture in which they could -- to use an inappropriate term -- flower. That, at least, is how I interpret Sontag's remarks about American alliances and actions. We aren't hated through a large part of the world simply because those people are fundamentalist nuts. The fundamentalist nuts are the most pathological expression of a sentiment that may not be pathological in itself. The whole "coward" argument was about the immediate attempt to brand the 9/11 attackers as cowards. Sontag may have expressed herself badly, but I don't disagree with her. The bombers may have been evil -- they *were* evil -- but they weren't cowards. I think that essay is really a response to something else, though. Sontag said that when 9/11 occurred, she was in Berlin, and she spent the next 48 hours holed up in a room with CNN. Sontag doesn't watch TV. Neither do I, so I know where she was coming from. If you're not used to TV, then when you're exposed to it -- as I am whenever I visit my mother in Louisiana, who always has the TV going -- you're astonished by the uninterrupted idiocy most Americans take for granted. (Karen Black in "Five Easy Pieces": "But there's lotsa good things on TV!") If you don't see TV every day (and I realize I'm one of the very rare people who don't, and it isn't snobbery, it's fear of yet another way to waste time), then when you're exposed to it, that voice of the announcer droning on and on at you at a level far beneath your intelligence and the intelligence of everyone you know is truly startling and upsetting. *This* is the level discourse occurs on in this country? It's late here, I'm writing fast, and I hope I'm not expressing myself in a way that's completely offensive to everybody out there, but Sontag was reacting to the idiocy of a kind of discourse she usually doesn't have to suffer. That essay is a genuine reaction of outraged astonishment. And on that level she was right.
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Fri 17 Sep 04 02:55
Sorry, Craig, but I'm going to press you more on this, because this is too crucial an issue. You're arguing that Sontag was primarily reacting to televised idiocy-- and I certainly agree to a certain extent; no one tells me to respond to 9/11 by going shopping, and escapes that malediction-- but you haven't made clear how Sontag returned that idiocy with anything like informed nuance. To wit: > Our presence in the Middle East, having largely to do with > our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and specifically the > presence of our soldiers in Saudi Arabia, clearly had something > to do with the attack. You (and Sontag) missed a crucial pointed I just mentioned: in fact, bin Laden's specific objection to our soldiers' presence in Saudi Arabia was that some of them were *women*. (And also Jews and Christians.) Shortly after 9/11, NYT terrorism expert Judith Miller fingered bin Laden's misogyny against US female soldiers as his motivating force, and that was the first inkling I had that something much deeper than "our foreign policy" was the irritant here. (And that misogyny is echoed in Mohammed Atta's suicide note, which, again, says nothing about US foreign policy, but drips with rage at women.) If the American contingent in Saudi Arabia were somehow comprised only of Muslim men, bin Laden would have no grievance, no galvanizing issue, and certainly much less sympathy in the Muslim world. But the thing is, America has a military where men and women of all faiths (or none) are free to serve, and herein lies the conflict's source. It is not the alliance per se that is the motivating cause. > their movement wouldn't have attracted the support it has > if our country were widely perceived across the Middle East > as a benign, helpful presence Here again, I think that claim is confounded or at least muddied by the facts. In 2000, for example, President Clinton arrived in entourage with Arafat to the Palestinian territories, where he was greeted by throngs waving American flags. Clinton was pushing for an Israeli peace with Palestine, as he had from the beginning of his administration, all the way up into his lame duck period. *At the same time*, Al Qaeda was pushing its 9/11 plans forward (they were conceived in the mid-90s), and despite this upsurge of Middle Eastern goodwill toward the US because of Clinton's efforts, there is not a scintilla of evidence that Al Qaeda postponed its bloody operations in the slightest. Why, on your and Sontag's view? > The fundamentalist nuts are the most pathological expression > of a sentiment that may not be pathological in itself. Again, I enjoin you to read Berman's book, or almost as good, Lawrence Wright's New Yorker story on the vicious trajectory at work: http://www.newyorker.com/printable/?fact/020916fa_fact2 Qutb was a visiting professor in America in the 1950s, when the US had little presence in the Middle East, and he decided that America was the enemy to Islam basically because it promoted secularism, sexuality, and the freedom of women. He was the lead intellectual of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which Zawahiri subseqently joined, going on to participate in the assassination of Sadat (for the crime of making peace with the Jews), later becaming the intellectual guide for bin Laden, focusing his wealth and religious zeal into a full advocacy of Qtub's jihadist philosophy. (Which culminates in the religious theocracy of a caliphate laid out across the Muslim world, which in recent times had its purest expression in the Taliban.) So Craig: where, in all their murderous hatred for women, Jews, an open society, democracy, separation of church and state, shi'ites, sufis, homosexuals, Americans, Christians, Middle Eastern peacemakers, pagans, do you find an expression of a non-pathological sentiment? What can you possibly mean by that? And let me add that I'm not claiming any particular expertise on this subject-- not at all. Everything I write here is based on my own labored, amatuerish research efforts to try and understand what happened on 9/11, based on the work of people far, far, far more knowledgeable than me. (And in this effort, Sontag was singularly unhelpful.) The thing is, none of it is really a secret, and anyone with a minimum level of knowledge of Islamic extremism would know about all this, and probably wouldn't let the explanation lie with a a blithe "specific American alliances and actions". And, of course, I was almost totally ignorant of all this, at the time. But then, I wasn't asked to write an essay on the subject for the New Yorker.
Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Fri 17 Sep 04 08:00
Somewhat more soberly, the next morning. Oh, I'm sorry, W.J.A., that you posted before I had a chance to add a note this morning. Which is: given everything I already said, I agree that Sontag's ex cathedra tone is often infuriating, and it mars much of her political writing (though not "Regarding the Pain of Others" and the essay on the Abu Ghraib photographs). People on the left have a tendency to refer to contrasting views with dismissive disgust, and whatever moral justification there may be for that tone, it's certainly useless for the purpose of bringing anybody over to our side, which it would seem to me is the point of most political discussion. I'm probably as bad as anybody about it, but since I don't really write about politics (except indirectly) I'm seldom guilty of doing it in print. Sontag's essay didn't make any converts. (Though, on the other hand, it must have had something going for it, since three years later we're still butting heads over it.) And nobody writing in the week after 9/11, with the exception of a handful of true experts, knew as much about Al Quaeda as we do now. It's fair -- it's essential -- for writers and intellectuals to weigh in on major events, and Sontag, whatever her gaps, was, I'll wager, as informed on the general situation as most of the contributors to that Talk of the Town section. But I don't think I'll back off from my position about extremist movements. If you're going to direct me to Berman, let me direct you to Michael Klare's new book, "Blood and Oil" (which -- full disclosure -- I had a hand in editing.) Klare's point, basically, is no surprise: we're up to our asses in the Middle East, because we need their oil. My point about Al Quaeda had nothing to do with the politics of Al Quaeda. If, by some act of magic, we could wield our military power in the Middle East through an army of Muslim men, maybe that would placate bin Laden. (I'm not convinced, but let's just suppose.) But it wouldn't be the end of extremist movements in the Middle East, because nationalism is always going to be a response to an occupying force, and it's going to be a very nasty response when an occupying force is seen as a malignant presence. I can't really see why any man-or-woman-in-the-street (Israelis, Iraquis, and Afghanis excepted) should be thrilled about the presence of our troops there. I'm happy to keep arguing this, but I fear it's taking us away from the two writers at the core of our discussion.
Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Sat 18 Sep 04 02:01
I'm staying out of this particular thread, since history shows that I will quickly descend into incivility toward wjamesau, and this is not the place for it. In any case, I'd rather this return to the subject of the book and the subjects of the book, so I dug out my nearly four-year-old post about Kael making a booboo: > After suggesting that Mankiewicz put little digs at Welles in the script, > she says, "And it wasn't just the writer who played games on him. There's > the scene of Welles eating in the newspaper office, which was obviously > caught by the camera crew, and which, to be a "good sport," he had to > use. > > Yes, Pauline, Welles was sitting in full makeup on a "hot" set, under hot > (in the other sense) lights, munching a ham sandwich, not realizing that > the crew had snuck in and surrounded and had started rolling camera while > he ate. > I will confess that I read right past that initially -- I can't remember if I read this in the New Yorker or in the book -- but it was pointed out by others during the original flap, I think. I became aware of it from something my buddy David Ehrenstein wrote -- probably a review of "For Keeps." We all make factual errors -- I misidentified the main character in Bright Young Things last week, and I'm still cringing -- but this seems a deeper sort of error to me.
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Sat 18 Sep 04 02:12
Craig, your last point seems to have shifted us into discussing the US presence in Iraq, and if we're going to stay on what Sontag said right after 9/11, then that is going pretty far afield. I'd prefer to maintain the focus on that particular New Yorker essay, if that's cool with you, because I do think it yields a salient point about Sontag. To put it simply: her New Yorker essay reveals that she had not the foggiest idea of Middle Eastern policy or Islamic extremism, but she took it on herself to write as if she did. It doesn't do for you to say that she was at least as "informed on the general situation as most of the contributors to that Talk of the Town section"-- because unlike her, none of the other contributors made any declamatory, authoritative statements about Middle Eastern policy. Not Updike, not Franzen, not Roger Angell, not Aharon Appelfeld, not Rebecca Mead, not Amitav Ghosh, not Donald Antrim, and only glancingly-- and far more ambivalently-- by Denis Johnson. (Who first speaks of his travels in the Muslim and Third World, where he's learned "that to be an American sometimes means to be wondrously celebrated, to excite a deep, instantaneous loyalty in complete strangers.") So many horrible, wonderful things happened on that day, and these writers spoke on them. Only Sontag went off on a tangent she was patently unqualified to take, at the most inopportune time, for the most inexplicable reasons. Why? So this is *not* just a political loggerhead, because if we get to a point where we agree that Sontag was simply uninformed here, then that should impact the whole tenor of your analysis of her. It was not only a matter of her running roughshod over people's tender emotions, after 9/11, which we all agree she did. More than that, she blathered on about a subject she was patently unfamiliar with, apparently never even bothering to pick up the phone (what, she's not in the same social circle as people like Judith Miller and Lawrence Wright?) and realize how simplistic and inchoate her little piece really was. And that should force us to look at her whole corpus in a different light. I've only read a handful of her essays, and I can't say much beyond them, so I'm asking you: Is it possible that she's gotten away with this kind of intellectual flimflam in the past, fixing her force of personality on other subjects that were well above her pay grade? Of course, to get to that point, you need first be convinced that there's very little that's recoverable from her 9/11 essay. And here, it could be that your own politics are coming into play, and coloring your analysis, and preventing you from going to that place. So maybe one more shot at hopefully directing you in that direction, if I can presume: > because nationalism is always going to be a response to an > occupying force See, the thing is, not Al Qaeda nor any major Islamic extremist group is nationalistic. Al Qaeda doesn't want Saudi Arabia free of US troops, only in that it gains them a caliphate. Hamas doesn't want Israeli troops out of Palestine, only in that it expedites the entire annihilation of Israel. I'll be happy to take a look at Klare's book when I can, but I'm highly skeptical that it's the bulwark to Sontag's "alliances" claim that you think it to be. Does it acknowledge the fact that the US only gets a fourth of its oil from the Middle East, while the EU and Japan gets *three-fourths* of its oil from the region, with India and China right behind? (So even if, by some magic wand's wave, the US no longer depended on OPEC oil, the rest of the world still would, and so the region would still be a place of enormous instability that would still threaten to plunge the entire global economy into chaos, along with any inevitable violence and internecine chaos that would surely follow from it.) Again, Craig, I'm not asking questions like this to shift this topic into politics, but to emphasize just how richly ill-equipped Sontag was then. (Or as the saying goes, "That's not right. That's not even wrong.") If you can't field adequate answers to them, then I suspect Sontag can't either-- and again, that implies a deeper flaw in her overall critical faculties than you acknowledged in her book. But let the questions lie, if you prefer. Though I do want to take last issue with this: > People on the left have a tendency to refer to contrasting > views with dismissive disgust... it's certainly useless for > the purpose of bringing anybody over to our side Because I don't know what side you think Sontag is on, here. My own objection has nothing to do with the left-right axis-- it has everything to do with Sontag not knowing what the hell she's talking about. (And on the subject of 9/11, the left- right axis is rather irrelevant, in any case. Another prominent American agrees with Sontag that 9/11 happened as a consequence of our actions and alliances in the Middle East-- and his name is Pat Buchanan.) In that regard, it's interesting that it was another leftish iconoclast who ran with Sontag's phrase from the 80s, when she called communism "fascism with a human face". Recognizing a through line between the Iranian *fatwa* against Rushdie and the September 11th attacks, Christopher Hitchens called it "fascism with an Islamic face". He's done a far better job at bringing people over to our side, if by "our side" you mean a robust defense of liberalism. (And he's an arrogant beast, too.) The difference is Hitchens has the CV to make his argument stick, and he's not just noodling around in the liner notes of the Sunday Times. And with all respect to you, Craig-- because there's a lot that's great about your book, and I'm glad I read it-- I think you'd be more convincing, too, if you acknowledged that Sontag was a lot less informed than she thought she was, when she fired off that ToTT blurb to Remnick.
Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Sat 18 Sep 04 14:00
OK, I agree that Sontag wasn't as informed on 9/11 as any of us now are about Al Quaeda and other manifestations of fundamentalist Islamic extremism. I've already acknowledged my discomfort with her 9/11 piece, but I certainly don't feel that it calls all her work into question, any more than "Fear of Movies," a work whose tone makes me uncomfortable (and some of whose judgments I disagree with), calls all of Kael's work into question. As for that sentence from "Raising Kane" you mention, Andy: this is one thing I really wish I'd been able to ask Kael about. If I'm not mistaken, both John Gregory Dunne and Andrew Sarris bring it up against her. (And if I'm misremembering, my apologies to both of them.) What bugs me about it, though, is not that it's a blooper but that it's such an obvious, red-flag blooper that I wonder if there wasn't something more behind it. What I mean is: you don't have to know much about the movies to know how unlikely the scenario Kael lays out is. This is something even I picked up on, and my technical knowledge of moviemaking is practically zilch. Kael was very smart and very informed, and she knew this wasn't the way things happened on the set. But in researching "Raising Kane," she talked to a lot of the film's original crew members. So I wonder if the sentence didn't grow out of an anecdote she picked up during those interviews. You may feel that I'm just explaining away a mistake of Kael's out of loyalty to her. Maybe so. But that sentence would have been read and re-read by Kael, and by a lot of other people (including The New Yorker's fact checkers, who also aren't infallible), before it went into print, and it's so counter to the way we know films are (or at least were) made that I can't help feeling there must have been some reason for it to be there. We'll never know. I certainly *don't* think Kael was beyond making mistakes, but this is such a peculiarly gross one that it strikes me as uncharacteristic and, thus, weird. Of course she, like Sontag, writes in a tone that doesn't seem to brook argument. I'm sure there are other mistakes in her work, though not enough, I think, to seriously deface it. Dunne (I just checked) uses this instance to argue, "It is this implacable ignorance of the mechanics of filmmaking that prevails in all of Kael's books," but I don't buy that at all.
Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Mon 20 Sep 04 13:48
Craig, you make reference somewhere back there to negative reaction from some Sontag-lovers, as well as Kael's daughter's assertion that Pauline would have hated the book (which does strike me as, well, probably a good thing, since a book that doesn't rattle its subject is probably a book that doesn't get beneath the surface). (I hope I'm not mischaracterizing that.) Can you tell us what sort of criticism you've received? And what you think the best and the worst of it has been? (Best, in the sense of "Yes, I wish I *hadn't* done it that way, now that you've pointed it out.")
Paulina Borsook (loris) Mon 20 Sep 04 16:48
wrt to ms sontag, my experience of her is that she may not be that great on the current-events commentary, but IS great on synthesizing/reflecting/articulating Big Ideas. 'illness as metaphor' --- you cant do better than that. also, with both writers, the joy is in - watching how their minds work. it's less about whether you -agree- or not. and oh, i did like sontag's 'volcano lover', but found her more recenr novel unreadable (wasnt that the one that has some cloud of plagiarism hanging over it?) what i think is true of both is that they write/were writing at a time when ideas mattered/that it made sense in a way to be a public intellectual. i am not sure i can think of anyone writing today who has that sort of impact. meaning, we have ideologues and spokesmodels and all. but i didnt read sontag in the 60s because she was a lefty. i read her because she had really interesting things to say about art and culture... she wasnt influencing me to be more activist.
Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Mon 20 Sep 04 21:33
You first, Paulina. Yes, yes, yes. That's why we fall in love with all the writers we fall in love with: the kick of watching their minds work. It's true for poets, novelists, critics. And so, yeah, agreement isn't the point; the point is the fascination of the chase you're being led on. (And I'm a big fan of "The Volcano Lover," too.) And, Andy, thanks for asking. It's a weird experience, after having written reviews for years, to get reviewed, but (for the most part) not as bad as I'd feared. I wanted to write a book that people would argue about, and if the reviews are any indication, I did. I've gotten more coverage than I ever expected, and it's truly run the gamut. The good reviews couldn't have been better (one actually used the word "pivotal"), and the bad ones have been truly scathing. There haven't been a lot -- I'm happy to say -- in the middle. My biggest disappointment is that they've been so short. Most publications simply don't give book reviewers the space to develop an argument, so they can hardly respond to the arguments I try to get going. I wrote the book, after all, to start a conversation (which is one reason I'm grateful to be here, now -- though I must say you've all been remarkably polite.) Of course, the negative reviews are stupid, and the positive ones are very, very smart. Writers usually don't like it when reviewers grind axes, but I knew that Sontag and Kael elicit such strong reactions that they would enter into what anybody wrote about the book. The reviewers seem to be fairly evenly divided between those who can't stand Sontag and those who can't stand Kael; not a lot of them have had my reaction of bouncing back and forth between them (so I'm taken to task by both sides). Some reviewers can't stand my tone, like the patronizing critic who called S&K an "eager, confiding" book. He left out "Jewish." Not that I think he's anti-Semitic, but his Waspy distaste for my writing reminds me of Renata Adler's aversion to Kael: all that emotion in criticism really isn't the kind of thing that it isn't the way *we* usually go about well, I mean, really, darling. But now I'm grinding my own axe.
Paulina Borsook (loris) Tue 21 Sep 04 09:57
craig, i -havent- read the book. i had barely heard of it --- and am now away from home housesitting for friends with death in the family --- a way of saying i cant get to it soon! but i have a question for you: how much of the 'brainy jewish girl' issue do you raise in the book? i guess my reaction to both of them is 'hey, two of us are influencing culture in real ways --- right on, sister!' just as with advent of monica lewinsky, i felt 'wow, we know even have a geopolitical -bimbo- of our own! too kewl!'
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Tue 21 Sep 04 14:31
And while we're back on Kael, Craig, I was wondering if you could speak a little on the evolution of her trademark "you". (I.E., "You really feel worked over by Eastwood in this movie.") I've only read her New Yorker reviews, so I'm curious if this was a device she started at KPFA, perhaps, as a way of sounding more conversational on the radio. Did she understand how brilliant and bullying it was, to sort of preemptively co-opt the reader's response to a film they haven't even watched yet? And did she develop an ethics of employing the "you", as in, not telling "you" how to respond, when her own response was fairly peculiar to her?
Paulina Borsook (loris) Tue 21 Sep 04 15:35
waggy james, lots of folks use 'you'. bullying, i wouldnt call it. clearly a rhetorical trope...
Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Tue 21 Sep 04 16:51
Paulina: I don't really raise the brainy-Jewish-girl issue much beyond pointing out that they were both Jewish, both brainy, and both girls. Judaism is a famously studious culture, and it's hardly an original observation of mine to observe that once it was secularized it remained no less studious. If I weren't studying Sontag and Kael I'd no doubt be studying the Talmud. But Kael was an atheist and Sontag doesn't talk about her spiritual beliefs. James, I have to agree with Paulina that the "you" wasn't that big a deal, although a lot of Kael's antagonists treated it as one. I use "you" all the time, and when I'm not using "you" I'm often using "we," which she was also blasted for, and I don't really see how either usage forces anybody into anything -- they're just a way of not saying "one," which sounds too formal, although I also use "one" when the context seems right, as did Kael. I was amused when I first started reading C. S. Lewis's criticism, familiar as I was with all those attacks on Kael, to find how often he uses "you." And nobody, as far as I know, thought he was being pushy. Not that Kael wasn't bullying -- or, to put it more politely, rhetorically fierce -- but I never had the problem with that aspect of her that her detractors did. I never felt like I couldn't say (as I was reading her, or talking to her), "Pauline, that's crazy! And wrong!" But clearly a lot of readers did.
Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Tue 21 Sep 04 17:26
As long as we're on Jewishness... The New Yorker dealt really...*weirdly*...with Kael re her Shoah review. I agreed with almost all her points. In fact, I *think* I was damned near the only critic in the country *besides* Kael who wrote negatively about the film (and I had been a critic slightly less than six months at the time). There was a lot of pressure around that film -- not just kowtowing to the usual, often correct, sensitivities -- but emanating directly from Lanzmann, who not so subtly implied that it would be anti-Semitic not to it. (He's not the first to play this sort of card: It's well I remember Sir Dickie 'Attonmyhead thanking all lovers of nonviolence for supporting the wretched Gandhi, with the unspoken implication that NOT supporting it meant you were a red-meat-eating barbarian.) Given that even writers I hold in the highest respect, like Hoberman, tore her a new orifice over that piece, I know I took some comfort in it. (It was also an inadvertent relief to me that her piece was delayed until I had already filed mine with my editor, since otherwise it might have looked like I had just condensed, rewritten, and added some different specifics to hers.) You mention her anger at Shawn over the piece being held. Did she maintain that later? Did it do permanent damage to her relationship with the New Yorker?
Paulina Borsook (loris) Tue 21 Sep 04 17:50
craig, forgive me if you discuss this in yr book, but istr the horrid norman mailer once saying something like 'susan sontag is the only woman who is a Intellectual', or something like that. i do think there something about her, and her appearance on the scene, at that time an place, where she -could- be taken seriously. just trying to think if i can recall any other belle-lettrist/critic sans portfolio who worked as a generalist as sontag did. perhaps others veered more off into journalism. or feminism. or were more academic/theoretical (joan didion and hannah arendt come to mind. and in a weird way, ellen willis).
Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Tue 21 Sep 04 21:28
If you think "Gandhi" was wretched anybody gay can probably remember the pressure they were under to appreciate "Making Love," one of the few cultural artifacts that's ever made me be embarrassed to be a homosexual. Pauline wasn't crazy enough to write about it, but she did make a reference to it once, somewhere, as "ineffable," although I think it's all too effable myself. She already had a terrible relationship with Shawn before the "Shoah" review. He was relieved when she went off to Hollywood and, from what I've heard, chagrined that she returned. Kael wasn't made for The New Yorker, and her sensibility (as a writer, not a viewer) didn't gibe with Shawn's at all. (His taste in film, I believe, was fairly hip, though he couldn't stand the sight of blood.) They were constantly battling over issues of taste; Pauline had one of the great blue mouths of the century, and she certainly couldn't exercise that talent in Shawn's New Yorker. But, of course, she was there because he recognized her talent. She drove him crazy (and vice versa), but he knew how much she added to the magazine. And although Shawn was piously and quite sincerely uncommercial, he can't have been unaware of how many magazines she sold. I don't know what it was that allowed Sontag to fill that special place she managed to fill in the culture, but she's filled it so perfectly for so long that I think we've almost come to believe that it's a position, like Chief Justice, and that when she steps down somebody else will take her place. But she's, in her own peculiar way, as sui generis as Kael. Certainly the combination of great beauty and brilliant talent fired the public imagination, but, as I say in the book, she'd have achieved what she achieved even if her face were frightening. Though she might not have been the subject of so many photographs.
Paulina Borsook (loris) Tue 21 Sep 04 23:31
i have wondered how much sontag's beauty aided her career --- as with mary maccarthy (whose stuff i also like)...
David Wilson (dlwilson) Wed 22 Sep 04 13:32
I'd like to return to Jewishness in relation to cultural criticism. The usual concepts that have been mentioned--"brainy", talmudic reasoning, inquisitiveness--are certainly there, but superficial. I would argue that in assimilating and confronting modern western society, Jews had a unique "outsider" position that gave some of them a perspective to evaluate and critique the cultures that they found themselves as citizens. Marx, Freud, Levi-Strauss are the big three who universialized the human condition and build comprehensive theories that have become the canon of Western philosophy and social science. Lessor lights are Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Joseph Roth, and yes, Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag. My question then is : Why do so many Jews go in for cultural criticism and especially film criticism? What is the setting in which Kael and Sontag operate in and why are they so influential?
Paulina Borsook (loris) Wed 22 Sep 04 15:53
and let's not forget our friend mr wittgenstein, nor mr popper. 20th-cenutry intellectual stylesetter if there ever were. and we don t even -talk- about the physicists! [g] michael andre bernsteins' -mindblowing- recent novel 'conspirators', in an indirect way, addresses this... as for jews and film, there has been lots written on this. new art form that came about as jews were busting out of the ghetto and against their society's proscriptions wrt graven images; etc etc.
Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Wed 22 Sep 04 20:19
Jews and cultural criticism: it's a fascinating subject, but I'm out of my league here. I certainly think outsider status has a lot to do with it, and, judging by Sontag's descriptions of growing up, she felt like an outsider. But Kael didn't, as far as I can tell. Is there something specifically Jewish in the work of these two writers? Kael barely identified herself as Jewish; she was contemptuous (in a friendly, ragging way) of believers. I think the highly emotional strain in her writing is pretty Jewish, though -- but if challenged to put my finger on what, precisely, in her emotionalism makes it different from the emotionalism of other cultures, I couldn't. An anecdote: in college, I felt utterly estranged from Jewish culture -- I grew up in a small Southern town with hardly any other Jews and I certainly wasn't a believer myself -- until a Jewish friend of mine said, "Oh, Craig, come off it. You have every classic Jewish neurosis in the book." And as soon as she said it I knew it was true. Something cultural gets passed down. Kael wasn't neurotic (or if she was it wasn't in the classic Jewish ways), yet I don't think anyone would be surprised to learn she was Jewish. On the other hand, Sontag's hallmark is the emotional purity of her writing, which some would call dryness. But -- though it's far more restrained, at least on the surface -- it's no less passionate and, ultimately, no less emotional. I don't think many people would be flabbergasted to learn she's Jewish, either. That's not very helpful, is it?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 23 Sep 04 08:43
Paulina Interesting that you should mention the book "Conspiritors." I'm struggling to get into it. I'm at the beginning and it is tough going. Craig What you wrote in (49) misses my point. Let me try to explain further. Until about 1870, most European Jews did not have full citizenship and the associated rights that go along with that. This was true in spades in the East, but in Western Europe, if you wanted to enter the professions or the world of the arts, you had to convert. This was not an entirely negative experience though. Within the Jewish community there was a complete, fully functioning culture that gave people a moral compass, a set of behavioral etiquettes, spiritual, and artistic expression etc. For the most part, these cultural features where different from the outside civil society and seperated the Jews both physically and, more importantly, psychically from the gentiles. When Jews were granted civil rights, the assimilation process was not always smooth or easy for either side. It was within this context of conflicting worldviews that people like Freud and Marx analyzed Western civilization and developed their theories. Individual Jews like you and me make our accomadations and have "the usual neuroses." And people like Freud analyzed us individually and society in general. Then we try and "make it" in society. Why learn the literature and culture of the wider society and become experts at interpreting it? That's my question in relation to Kael and Sontag and film criticism. I'm aware that film is a "Jewish" business and the social and economic forces that came together to let a group of entrepreneural "shtarkers" to build an industry in Hollywood, and in Germany and France. Whether you are devout or not, Jews come out of this cauldren and try to make sense of the world around them. What is it about Kael and Sontag that moved them to take on the movies, to "get it" and be able to explain "it" to the rest of us? Here are two quotes that have helped me conceptualize the question. The first is from the musician John Zorn: "The Jews are a tribe who continue to believe that if they devote themselves to a place they love and contribute to the society selflessly that they will be embraced and accepted into it. In many cases this has proved to be a fatal error, yet there they go again, stubbornly believing in their own ability and vision." The second quote is from Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. Miller, no philo-semite, amazingly "gets it"--what it is like to be a Jew in the West. "There are people who cannot resist the desire to get into a cage with wild beasts and be mangled. They go in even without revolver or whip. Fear makes them fearless... For the Jew the world is a cage filled with wild beasts. The door is locked and he is there withoud whip or revolver. His courage is so great that he does not even smell the dung in the corner. The spectators applaud but he does not hear. The drama, he thinks, is the world. Standing there alone and helpless, the door locked, he finds that the lions don not understand his language. Not one lion even has ever heard of Spinoza. Spinoza? Why they can't even get their teeth ino him. "Give us meat!" they roar, while he stands there petrified, his ideas frozen, his weltanschaung a trapeze out of reach. A single blow of the lion's paw and his cosmogony is smashed."
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