A. O. Scott on Sontag

against by sontag2

“Susan Sontag alone on a bed. N.Y.C. 1965.” Photograph by Diane Arbus.

The credit on this piece says “A.O. Scott is a chief film critic at The Times and the author of ‘Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.’” I read him frequently. (Strictly as a side note, I’m intrigued that The Times calls him “a” chief film critic at that newspaper. Generally, can there be more than one “chief”?) His engaging essay about Sontag’s writings helps me understand my early infatuation with her “Notes on Camp.”

against by sontag

In the chapter of “Against Interpretation” called “Camus’ Notebooks” — originally published in The New York Review of Books — Sontag divides great writers into “husbands” and “lovers”…

[Quoting from Sontag:] Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness. Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover — moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality — that they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling. In the same way, readers put up with unintelligibility, obsessiveness, painful truths, lies, bad grammar — if, in compensation, the writer allows them to savor rare emotions and dangerous sensations. [End of Quote from Sontag]

The sexual politics of this formulation are quite something. Reading is female, writing male. The lady reader exists to be seduced or provided for, ravished or served, by a man who is either a scamp or a solid citizen. Camus, in spite of his movie-star good looks (like Sontag, he photographed well), is condemned to husband status. He’s the guy the reader will settle for, who won’t ask too many questions when she returns from her flings with Kafka, Céline or Gide. He’s also the one who, more than any of
them, inspires love.

(A. O. Scott, “How Susan Sontag Taught Me To Think,” NYTimes, 10-8-19)

(c) 2019 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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1 Response to A. O. Scott on Sontag

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    “The sexual politics of this formulation are quite something. Reading is female, writing male.” That’s NOT what she said. She said, “Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband…” She didn’t even say all writers fall into one or the other camp, but “some” and “other”. Talk about taking a metaphor literally, and then extrapolating from it so that even the reader is gendered. Either I’m overestimating Sontag here, or she had a mind like a steel trap and I need to reevaluate my former respect for her.


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