Category Archives: Intellectual

INTELLECTUAL HEROES

In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety of manifestation, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.

I am reading A Long Saturday (University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silence as a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could have been so consistently rewarding.

I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturday warrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.

It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.

He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’

Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough not to meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.

When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’

Yes, I expect this is the voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.

All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.

Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.

Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.

This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.

We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they do give us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether you are enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.

One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauung clouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?

The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacy of reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spent or Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear his voice in the process of my deciphering his meaning.

People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes to creative loves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.

As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steiner has inspired. This is what heroes do.

SUSAN SONTAG REVIEW

The following review was published in Australian Book Review, March 2015 issue.

ABR has grown in recent years and is well worth a look – both the print version and the on-line version. I’ve just joined the board of ABR, and as a trenchant non-board, non-meeting sort of person, this act says volumes about the publication.

 

SUSAN SONTAG. A Biography. Daniel Schreiber. Trans from German: David Dollenmayer. Northwestern U Press, Evanston, Illinois. $62.95 cloth, 280 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8101-2583-4.

Susan Sontag. Jerome Boyd Maunsell. Critical Lives Series. Reaktion Books. London. $29.99 pb, 214 pp. ISBN: 978 1 78023 288 1

Susan Sontag

At the age of eight I wanted to be a novelist. By the age of eighteen, having fallen in love with an intellectual, I aspired to be a novelist with sturdy intellectual credentials. There was much work to be done. My beloved set me a course of essential reading, including Susan Sontag’s first two essay collections and her two early novels.

The intellectual lover moved on as youthful lovers do, but Sontag remained: a reliable and enduring guide through my formative years. And while she was not my only guide, she was the most compelling, the most provocative and, indubitably, the most beautiful.

Her essays revealed who I should be reading, whose films I should be seeing, whose art I should be viewing. Sontag alerted me to the style of camp, the power of metaphor, to the complex meanings of photography and pornography. There was a moral imperative operating here – to not know was to be intellectually negligent – and an urgency too: her enthusiasms, the ideas that captivated her and the people she admired, were essential to an intellectual in the making. Sontag introduced me to Walter Benjamin, Borges, Simone Weil, Artaud, Barthes, Elias Canetti and many other luminaries. She shaped my understanding of the films of Godard and Bergman. It was Sontag who had me lining up for hours outside a San Francisco theatre, under assault from neo-Nazis, in order to see a one-off screening of Syberberg’s seven-hour marathon, Our Hitler. A Film from Germany.

The first three essay collections, Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969) and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), contain many pieces that still pack a punch today. In contrast, the two early novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967) were always a struggle. At my first attempts, and with the blindness of the acolyte, I believed my failure to appreciate them was indeed my failure, and not the fault of the work; back in those days, Susan, my Susan, was infallible. That the novels were bad – which they are – simply was not an option.

Sontag’s intellect was voracious, her passion for life was insatiable. She wrote essays, monographs, fiction, she directed plays and films, she was a political activist, she was president of PEN, she travelled extensively, she had many friends and lovers.

From the beginning she was the sort of writer to go against mainstream ideas. In the 1960s, when most intellectuals were narrowly focussed on high culture, she argued the case for popular culture. By the 1990s, when pop culture was thriving and high culture was languishing at the university gates, she took up the banner for high culture. In an interview with Allan Gregg conducted in the late 1990s she said that the role of the writer is to be ‘somewhat adversarial’.

Sontag was forceful, she was eloquent and, yes, she was adversarial. Such characteristics inspire strong responses – accolades as well as criticism. But the qualities which produce exciting, contentious, courageous work are unlikely to emerge from a sweet, gentle, empathic nature. As Yeats suggested: it’s ‘perfection of the life, or of the work’. Some of the responses to Sontag have garnered considerable notoriety, such as Camille Paglia’s diatribe, ‘Sontag Bloody Sontag’ (Vamps and Tramps, 1994), and Terry Castles’ wry, disarmingly honest yet appreciative essay, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (LRB 17/3/2005). A particularly informative and well-received essay about Sontag’s life and work is Joan Acocella’s ‘The Hunger Artist’ published in The New Yorker of 6/3/2000, while a staggeringly mean-spirited essay has come from Elliot Weinberger in his review of At the Same Time, Sontag’s posthumous collection (NYRB, 16/8/2007).

Daniel Schreiber’s biography, originally published in German in 2007, is, to my knowledge, the first book-length study to have appeared after Sontag’s death in December 2004. During the writing of his book, Schreiber was aware that David Rieff, Sontag’s son, planned to publish his mother’s journals. The first volume of these, Reborn, was not to appear until 2009 and Rieff refused Schreiber’s request to view the diaries prior to publication. Rieff’s own deeply personal and anguished memoir of his mother’s last illness and death, Swimming in a Sea of Death, was not published until 2008, and Rieff himself granted only one interview to Schreiber. Annie Leibovitz, Sontag’s partner for the last fifteen years of her life, refused Schreiber an interview. To write a biography without input from major players and source material is a risky exercise. In Schreiber’s case, he has failed to pull it off. His is an irritating, amateurish, tepid biography that provides a pedestrian overview of Sontag’s work and fails to illuminate the woman herself.

A good deal of Schreiber’s material is drawn from interviews with Sontag ‘friends’ – Stephen Koch, Richard Howard, Steve Wasserman, Wendy Lesser among others. The nature of these friendships, their duration and dynamic, is given little or no explanation in the text. This, combined with the absence of an acknowledgements section, leaves the reader unable to judge both the worth and integrity of this source material. Sontag valued friendship; at the same time, she was quick to judge and would sever relations with friends if they disappointed her. Enduring friendship was not one of her strong suits, so when ‘friends’ provide so much information we need to know something about them. (An entertaining account of friendship Sontag-style is given by Terry Castles in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ – an essay which, incidentally, includes no mention of any sexual connection between these two alpha females. Yet Schreiber refers to Castles as ‘Sontag’s later lover’ (p.93), referencing an interview he conducted with Castles. Terry Castles has never been coy in print. If she and Sontag had dallied, not to have included this titbit in her essay but conveyed it to Schreiber for his book strikes me as very out-of-character.)

The published sources Schreiber uses are commonly known to Sontag followers, the book lacks a proper index, it contains no images. I did not learn anything new, and was constantly frustrated by what had been left out.

Jerome Boyd Maunsell’s short biography covers both the life and the work and integrates the two effectively. Maunsell draws judiciously on the journals as well as Sontag’s body of work. He also makes relevant use of Rieff’s memoir, as well as Sempre Susan (2011), a memoir written by Sigrid Nunez, an early girlfriend of Reiff’s, who lived with him and Sontag in the 1970s. Maunsell’s book is highly readable, and, to date, is the best of the biographical writings.

Susan Sontag was a brilliant and original essayist who wanted her reputation to rest on her fiction. She wrote four novels and published a volume of short stories. Of the novels, three of them, including her last, In America (2000), make for poor reading; only the third, The Volcano Lover, an historical romance shaped around the collector and diplomat, William Hamilton, his beautiful young second wife Emma, and Lord Nelson of the Admiralty, displays the fine focus, the sense of continuity and cohesion, and an intense interest in character that marks good fiction. There’s a tragic dimension to the brilliant essayist who wanted to be recognised as a brilliant novelist.

Susan Sontag did not suffer fools gladly, indeed, she did not suffer them at all. She was impatient with slowness, stupidity and those who held opinions which differed from her own. Deification often occurs when an esteemed person dies, when the person enters what Janet Malcolm calls ‘the ranks of the illustrious, unmortifiable dead’. This has not happened in the case of Sontag, perhaps because deification occurred during her life. But now that she can no longer speak for herself (except in the painfully personal diaries – which make her an even easier target to would-be detractors), people are not holding back.

Only the mediocre person is always at their best, as Somerset Maugham self-consciously said. I have recently re-read Sontag’s essays and monographs. I didn’t agree with everything she wrote nor was I bowled over by all her choices of topic, but I was stimulated and invigorated by the originality of her ideas, by the exactitude of her expression, by the breadth of her knowledge. And grateful too: her work remains a rare pleasure.