Suddenly Sontag


Puja Sen in Muse India:

On 30 April 1979, feminists, writers and other New York intellectuals gathered at Town Hall to attend what turned out to be an explosive and combative event starring Germaine Greer, Norman Mailer, Jill Johnston, Jaqueline Cellabos and Diana Trilling. A documentary by D A Pennebaker, Town Bloody Hall records the evening complete with Mailer's characteristic pugilism, Greer's fiery rhetoric, Johnston and two women rolling, hugging and kissing on the floor of the stage, and loud heckling by the audience. The topic under discussion was women's liberation.

At the height of 'second-wave' feminism, one of the questions (not a new one) that took precedence was how the role and representation of women in popular culture squared to a feminist analysis of it. Greer begins her speech in this way:

I'm afraid I'm going to talk in a very different way possibly than you expected. I do not represent any organization in this country and I dare say the most powerful representation I can make is of myself as a writer for better or worse. I'm also a feminist and for me the significance of this moment is that I'm having to confront one of the most powerful figures in my own imagination, the being I think most privileged in male elitist society – namely the masculine artist, the pinnacle of the masculine elite.

The camera focuses on Mailer at this point, as he breaks into a grin and the audience laughs. “Bred as I have been and educated as I have been,” Greer continues, “most of my life has been most powerfully influenced by the culture for which he stands, so that I'm caught in a basic conflict between inculcated cultural values and my own deep conception of an injustice.”

This in some way goes to the heart of the question of representation in art and politics. Can culture be explained through the lens of gender? Are women, and men, writers confronted with the spectre of the 'masculine artist'? The answer is, obviously, yes, but it is so among other things. If we know gender to be one of the organizing principles of the world, along with caste, class and race, then it is inevitable that the production of culture should be a reflection of that.

As the evening in Town Bloody Hall proceeds, we see sitting amongst other feminist stalwarts such as Betty Freidan and Cynthia Oznick, Susan Sontag who asks Norman Mailer why he referred to Diana Trilling as a 'lady literary critic', the kind of question that has been significant in radical feminist debates on writing: “It seems like gallantry to you but it, it doesn't feel right to us. It's a little better to be called a woman writer. I don't know why but, you know, words count. We're all writers, we know that.”

Susan Sontag, the extraordinary writer and surveyor of culture, (“culture conserver” she called herself) was searching for a “new sensibility” all through the 1960s and 70s, mining art, films and literature to detect shifts in taste. In her essay for the New York Review of Books'Fascinating Fascism' published in 1975, just about three decades after the second world war, she writes of the gradual rehabilitation of Leni Riefenstahl — famous for the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will — into the critical canon, as a filmmaker who could now be judged for the beauty of her visual style and technical prowess alone, and not for the social reality it served:

Riefenstahl's current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful—as a film maker and, now, as a photographer—do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst. The force of her work is precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas. What is interesting is that this was once seen so much more clearly than it seems to be now.

Sontag's breathtaking clarity, lucid prose and rigour of thought made her the standard bearer in American intellectual life in the post Eisenhower era, of the search for aesthetic shifts in taste.

More here.