Provocateurs of Sense

By Matthew Cheney

A good critic—we cannot help seeing, when we look back at any other age—is a much rarer thing than a good poet or a good novelist. Unless you are one critic in a hundred thousand, the future will quote you only as an example of the normal error of the past, what everybody was foolish enough to believe then. Critics are discarded like calendars; yet, for their year, with what trust the world regards them!

Art is long, and critics are the insects of a day.

—Randall Jarrell
"Poets, Critics, and Readers" (1959)

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I've been thinking about criticism recently—actually, as someone who writes book reviews, I think about it a lot, but recently I've been thinking more about the art (and paradoxes) of it than the utility, because I read Craig Seligman's Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me, a personal and informal meditation on the writings and careers of Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, two of the most influential American critics of the twentieth century.

Kael and Sontag may not be the first writers you think to compare: Kael, the longtime movie reviewer for The New Yorker, appears at first glance to be the exact opposite of the more obviously highbrow Sontag. Kael's writing is jazzy and often colloquial; Sontag's essays are cold and exact, and some of her best sentences feel ostentatious in their artfulness even as their art astounds. Sontag, after dabbling with reviewing early in her career, mostly wrote about work she adored and respected; the vast majority of Kael's writing consisted of weekly reviews, and many (if not most) of her reviews were bitingly negative. Sontag wrote about novels, films, philosophy, photography, politics, illness; Kael wrote about movies. Kael championed the "trashy" aspects of movies and called any number of art films "Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties"—she liked Renoir and Godard, yes, but also Jaws and The Empire Strikes Back; Sontag wrote some thoughtful appreciations of popular culture early in her career, but eventually decided to write mainly about the highest of High Art.

But the wonder of Seligman's book is that he is able to think about the two writers together, to discover their commonalities without ignoring their differences, to celebrate their achievements without blinding himself to their faults. He finds Sontag particularly difficult, and the book's first two sentences are, "I didn't want to write a book with a hero and a villain, but Sontag kept making it hard for me. She is not a likable writer—but then she doesn't intend to be." Plenty of people would say that Pauline Kael wasn't particularly likable, either. (She says in the introduction to the retrospective anthology of her work, For Keeps, "The most unlikely men—and women, too—suddenly turned macho around me: they didn't all offer to butt heads, as Norman Mailer did, but many confronted me angrily, and my escorts often had to calm them down.") But Seligman was friends with her for many years, and there is, indeed, a stronger sense of personality in the voice of her prose than in Sontag's. It's the struggle to reconcile the two writers that makes this book so interesting; Seligman is trying to learn to like Sontag more without losing any of his love for Kael. It is, in a sense, a book about achieving a polygamy of intellectual joy.

Since reading Seligman's book, I've gone back and pored through various books by both writers. Neither was new to me—I first remember noting Kael's name when I was fifteen and read her review of Dances with Wolves in the New Yorker: "This epic was made by a bland megalomaniac [Kevin Costner]. (The Indians should have named him Plays with Camera.)" Sontag I first noted in high school when I discovered her first collection of essays, Against Interpretation, at a library. To someone tired of English teachers' exegeses of the color symbolism in The Great Gatsby, the title was alluring, even if I couldn't understand most of what I read inside. (Who were Robbe-Grillet, Rilke, Gide, Benjamin, Ozu—names dropped like confetti into the paragraphs? What did that bizarre last sentence mean: "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art"?)

The excitement of reading both writers comes from their confidence and passion—both found ways to complement the analytical task of interpretation with a passionate and, yes, erotic desire for the ecstasy of art. The confidence took different forms; Kael's confidence was in her immediate reactions to the movies she saw (she was famous, or infamous, for thinking it ridiculous to see a movie more than once), while Sontag's confidence certainly showed itself in her opinions, but also in the way she let her ideas develop. Again and again, she returned to things she had written previously and either changed the direction of her thought or made it more complex. The most obvious example of this is her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others, which was written as a way of rethinking some of the ideas from the essays she collected in On Photography. "Is this true?" she wonders about one of her previous statements. "I thought it was when I wrote it. I'm not so sure now."

Sontag's willingness to reexamine her ideas—indeed, her obsession with doing so—makes the progression of her writings more interesting than Kael's, because Kael's progression was a sort of ossification. It takes a particular type of genius to be able to write weekly reviews for thirty years without devolving into tics, cant, and blather, and Kael's reviews late in her career were still better than most such writings, but the culture at large and the culture of filmmaking had changed drastically from when she had written her best work, and so with fewer and fewer ambitious or fulfilling movies to review, her tendency toward hyperbole increased, and her judgments at times seemed almost arbitrary. She recognized much of what had happened herself, and said, after she retired, "Of the collections of my articles and reviews, the best are, I think, Deeper into Movies (1973), Reeling (1976), and When the Lights Go Down (1980), because that's when the movies seemed to be about things that mattered." A look at Deeper Into Movies shows the rich material Kael had to draw from: between March 27, 1971, and March 25, 1972 (with time off in June, August, and September), Kael reviewed The Conformist, The Andromeda Strain, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Klute, Carnal Knowledge, The Last Picture Show, The French Connection, Fiddler on the Roof, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, Diamonds are Forever, Straw Dogs, Roman Polanski's Macbeth, Cabaret, The Godfather, and The Sorrow and the Pity. During her lifetime Kael watched the medium she loved blossom--becoming rich and diverse, filled with the best of both art and trash--and then wither under the ever-greedier control of media conglomerates. Late in life she said, "A few movies made inordinate amounts of money, and everything we hoped for from movies went kerplooie." (Kerplooie certainly seems to be the best word for what happened to movies in the 1980s.) It was the hope for greatness in what she saw that propelled Kael, and as that hope grew dimmer and dimmer, her judgments metamorphosed from admonitions to do better into lashings out against a world of perpetual disappointment.

Sontag, too, seemed to become disappointed by the late 1970s, both aesthetically and politically. In a 1979 essay about Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Hitler, A Film from Germany she said, "In the era of cinema's unprecedented mediocrity, his masterpiece has something of the character of a posthumous event." It may be, though, that Sontag was always disappointed, despite the enthusiasms she claimed. Seligman suggests that is what made her, as well as Kael, a great critic, and he quotes Sontag's rejection of the term as a label for herself: "I really do think an important job of the critic is to savage this, to say this is garbage, this is terrible, this is pernicious." Seligman calls Sontag "a naysayer in spite of herself," and says,

For a critic to address only what she loves is as skewed as it is for her to confront only what she hates. Demolition is probably the primary critical task; to be the bad conscience of one's time, as Nietzsche charged the philosopher, has now become the critic's responsibility. In any age, and especially in an age driven by hype and wholly given over to, in Sontag's phrase, "mercantile values," somebody has to say no.

Many people dislike the critic's demolition duties, and any discussion of books, and of book reviewing, these days seems inevitably to collapse into pleas for the abolition of negative reviews, claiming that they cause readers to go off and get their jollies from their Xbox, or that they hurt writers' feelings, or that they just aren't "professional." Sontag disavowed the term "critic," and some people draw distinctions between "reviewers" and "critics," though it seems to me that a reviewer who creates a coherent body of work, as Kael did, is, at the very least, a type of critic, and a valuable one.

Criticism at its best creates a way of seeing, a lens through which to measure the experience of art. We value the critics whose sensibilities most provoke us, and whose ideas have the strength to prompt us to think. I often grow suspicious if I find myself continually in agreement with a critic I particularly like, because I wonder if I am giving in to the force of their personality and surrendering my own capacity for thought. I feel no obligation, for instance, to agree with Pauline Kael all the time, or even most of the time. A worthwhile critic is not one who demands agreement, but one who demands consideration. Kael loathed just about everything Stanley Kubrick directed, and though I find Kubrick's work to be some of the most consistently interesting of any American director, I still find what Kael wrote about watching a Kubrick film to be more thought-provoking than hundreds of fawning appreciations.

Except for six months in 1979, Pauline Kael did not have much to do with the actual making of movies. Susan Sontag, though, produced novels, short stories, films, and plays throughout her life. Her influence as an essayist was far greater than her influence as any other sort of artist, and I expect that the work of hers that will endure most powerfully will be the essays, but her engagement with various types of art must have had a valuable effect on those essays, allowing her to apply her incisive intelligence to the ideas and structures themselves as objects, while also maintaining an empathy for what it means to surrender to the vision and emotion that fuels creative work. I don't mean to trivialize the stories, novels, and plays—some are excellent—but her nonfiction at its best was simply some of the best of its time, while the best of her other work was merely good or very good. Seligman compares the two approaches:

Kael flourished with a consistency unmatched by any American writer since Henry James. Sontag's work is the opposite: a jumbled landscape of peaks and valleys. There's no more unity to it than there is to the world. It's amazing that a writer as self-conscious as she is has the nerve to be seen so often at less than her best. But Sontag is amazing, and her fearlessness is half of her genius. She isn't afraid of anything, and she certainly isn't afraid of making a fool of herself.

Such fearlessness is rare, though it has thrived at certain times—think of all the writers in the eighteenth century who wrote in every genre of the day and created new ones just so they'd have a frontier to challenge them. There is a virtue to both approaches: Kael allied herself with the audience, not the makers of what the audience showed up to see, and she tried to be not only the ideal audience member, but a demanding one, the one who was hard to please but worth pleasing. Sontag allied herself with an idea of Culture, an abstraction beyond any artist or work of art, a realm of absolutes that could never be reached, but that she could try to delineate by drawing on her vast experience of reading and writing, of seeing and making. Both writers were, more than anything else, passionate about sensual experience.

"Sontag and Kael deal in ideas," Seligman says, "but I don't reread them for their ideas, which I've assimilated about as well as I'm ever going to. I reread them—and reread and reread them—for what's left over after their ideas. I don't know what else but art that could be." Kael said something similar in her last collection, Movie Love, with words she chose to be the final ones in the retrospective For Keeps:

Our emotions rise to meet the force coming from the screen, and they go on rising throughout our movie-going lives. When this happens in a popular art form—when it's an art experience that we discover for ourselves—it is sometimes disparaged as fannishness. But there's something there that goes deeper than connoisseurship or taste. It's a fusion of art and love.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Read more of his columns in our archives.