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Notes on "Notes on Camp": The Persistence of an Aesthetic

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

A couple of weeks ago I caught the final show in John Waters' Christmas Tour, which ended at B.B. King's. He was vastly entertaining. Afterwards, he made his way to the bar area and greeted a few of the diehards who opted to hang around (it was after midnight), of which I was one. A fun experience.

In connection with this event, I was talking to my young companions (a good fifteen years younger, as it happens) about the concept of Camp, and mentioned Susan Sontag's famous 1964 essay. Not very surprisingly, neither of my friends had ever heard of it, a circumstance for which mere youth is not the full explanation. Now, in 2010, it suddenly popped into my head to give it a look. Now that was a terrific idea.

The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this.... etc.

1. It's the best-written thing I've read in months. Months.

2. The astonishing variety of references in the essay are a clue to a problem that was never much of a problem anyway. That is, since Sontag later became a symbol of a certain kind of highly refined left-wing thinker and aesthete (nothing of the kind ever really happened to Pauline Kael, for instance, despite her quasi-apocryphal "Nixon" remark), to what extent was Sontag occupying a necessary role in society, one that someone else might just as well have occupied, and to what extent was she an original?

It's safe to say that Sontag was really very original indeed. The references show the wide range of her intellect, curiosity, and perhaps most important, pleasures, and that sort of thing is not readily reproducable. Sontag forged a path that led to a place only she could have reached.

3. Is there anything that any hipster has ever done, anywhere, that would have surprised Sontag? I doubt it. This is the reason there is no "Notes on Hipsterism." There isn't any point, Sontag had already gotten there.

4. This doesn't make her infallible. I think punk might have perplexed her a bit, or even maybe Devo or Kraftwerk. The article coincides with the arrival of the Stones and the Beatles, so she could not have ventured any thoughts on rock or used rock bands as examples (jazz seems to occupy that slot in her cosmology). Does anyone know if she ever had any serious "take" on rock music?

5. Sontag seems to have been the first and possibly most perfect example of a type that is relatively common nowadays, the intellectual who enjoys high and low culture with equal avidity. Sontag is more "perfect" because her choices include opera, high art, and the entire gamut of high modernism. Her latterday incarnations are far, far less likely to know Richard Strauss and Jean Genet, although they probably enjoy Jane Austen and chop-socky movies about equally.

6. The essay has not dated in any material way.


Firstly, Martin, I agree that Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” is a great essay. Secondly, I’ve noticed lately that your “Squib Report” sometimes has only the most tenuous connection to anything going on at The New Yorker. Shouldn’t you be trying for some sort of tie-in or has Emdashes broadened its mandate to encompass any sort of literary musing? Thirdly, while Pauline Kael may not have been “a certain kind of highly refined left wing thinker and aesthete” (Kael would’ve snorted over that one), her writing, purely as writing, in comparison with Sontag’s, is by far the more stylish and vivid, warmer, more pleasurable to read, funnier, fresher and more natural. Craig Seligman, in his “Sontag & Kael,” says, “Kael could write circles around Sontag (and her style has been a far wider influence on younger critics).”

Thanks, driedchar, for the thoughtful note, as all your comments are. The short answer is no, I shouldn’t be trying for some sort of tie-in. Emdashes has always trafficked in all manner of not-strictly-NYer-related material, including heavy emphasis on the likes of Ricky Gervais and Sean Wilsey in years past. The Squib Report signifies posts about TNY’s past but it’s also the only rubric in which only I contribute, so sometimes I use it for other reasons.

On Kael versus Sontag, I’m not sure I agree. Kael had several advantages over Sontag, which is not to say she didn’t exploit them to the hilt. Among them are, subject matter is a mass medium; weekly appearances in a periodical of high circulation; and a highly zingy and vernacular style. The challenge for Kael was not to squander those advantages; in other words to keep the signal-to-noise ratio as high as possible. Given that The New Yorker would have accommodated many of her requests for more space, she could have used her vernacular style to pad out every review an extra page with her tumultuous and emotional (in a good sense) style. One important brief in Kael’s case is that she was even better when she was actually engaging in argument, and not merely expressing some emotional response. To me, that’s one of the hallmarks of a terrific writer, and Kael met it in spades. But I don’t think it’s true that she wrote circles around Sontag. I prefer Kael too, but Sontag never wrote about Demme’s “Something Wild” either, that I know of. That’s the kind of thing that gives you a “far wider influence.” It’s a bit like comparing Madonna and the Talking Heads. Fair to say that both were terrific writers.

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