Saturday, July 22, 2006

Susan and Philip

Here's a lovely, but all-too-brief article on the lifelong affinities in the works of Susan Sontag and Philip Rieff. It was actually no surprise for me when both of them announced that we were living with the first generation of genuine Western barbarians at nearly the same time. There was a deep seriousness and even sterness to both scholars that transcended the simplistic political categories that divided them. Sontag was a leftist, and David Rieff, the son of both Sontag and Rieff, has described his father as being "to the right of Attila the Hun". But, that doesn't really get at the truth of it. Rieff was certainly a conservative thinker, and perhaps one of the greatest conservative thinkers that American academia has yet produced. And yet, his strange and aphoristic writing seems to beckon the reader towards a life of patient and slow quasi-rabbinical study of high culture that leads away from all political struggles. Rieff and Sontag were both cultural mandarins, as Margaret Soltan has pointed out, and so shared the same devotions (as the devout), and the same inflections long after their divorce.

Besides, Sontag's work is much more "culturally conservative" than most conservatives would admit, and Rieff's work is less "reactionary" than many on the left claim. It was no joke that he advised us to become 'inactivists' in his last interviews. A large chunk of his book Fellow Teachers deals with the cultural wreckage wrought by scholar/teachers who decided to become activists. And Rieff's style makes it extremely hard to pigeon-hole. Usually, you can puzzle through just what point he's making, but not quite know what his take is on it. He descibes the sacred/cultural world that we have lost, and the abyss we have gained, but you're never quite sure if he thinks we could return, and he says at various points that he wouldn't want to anyway.

Sontag's writing suffers from the same problems as Rieff's; it can be willfully obtuse and frustratingly self-contradictory. At times, one wonders just what she is getting at as well. Overall, I would say that she was the sloppier writer, and that nothing after Against Interpretation was quite as significant as those essays. But, when she was "on", she was one of the best essayists we had, and well worth studying still. I do think that his writing will be more important in the academy, but hers will probably have the wider influence.

Kant once wrote that the genuine savage was not only unmoved by the sublime and the beautiful, but actively offended by it. Watching bored American tourists snarking at the sublime and beautiful art in the Louvre today, I was reminded of that line, and more amused than deeply offended. Both Rieff and Sontag would have been deeply offended: this is their charm and what can frustrate about their writings. But, it's worth the frustration to read their works, preferably together. The article notes the likelihood that someone will one day write an intellectual history of the two frustrating, elegaic and deeply passionate thinkers; let's hope so.

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