Susan Sontag wasn’t terribly fond of decade talk – you know, the ’50s this, the ’60s that, the ’70s something else and don’t even ask about the ’80s etc. That sort of thing. “There’s something terrible about making the fifties and sixties and seventies into major constructs,” she says. “They’re myths … It’s so ideological, this decade talk.”
But you also find this in the first complete unexpurgated version of her 1979 interview with Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone magazine, now published in its entirety for the first time by Yale University Press. “What is essentially different in the seventies is that there isn’t the illusion that a lot of people think the same as you do. I mean, one is restored to one’s position as a freelance person.”
And God knows Susan Sontag was nothing if not a “freelance person” right from the time her essays first began to turn American intellectual life upside down, beginning with the publication of her first collection “Against Interpretation” in January 1966.
Among critics, something remarkable was being born in the 1970s and Sontag was the most important of its founding mothers – that one’s unfettered status as a “freelance person” untainted by the commonplace anti-intellectualism of the ’60s meant that a wonderful era of intellectual polymaths without portfolio was born.
A critic – indeed a very great critic – could have the “credential” of being a passionate lifelong “learner” rather than the more authorized sort who might be a distinguished “expert” at the same time as a self-evident hopeless academic pedant.
Enter James Wolcott, a great American critic and “sophomore year dropout” who arrived “in New York in 1972 with a letter of recommendation [to the Village Voice] from Norman Mailer” and proceeded immediately to evince “poise and confidence … to the point of [being] obnoxious. I was such a precocious snot, quick-drawing my cap pistol as the new gunslinger in town but being young and full of myself was a novelty for me, being otherwise so old-souled, solitary and repressively armored.”
Mailer’s gift to The Voice (Wolcott had sent Mailer a rather brilliant sample of his work which – surprise, surprise – praised Norman Mailer) may well have turned out to be the least ambiguous gift of Mailer’s final decades.
Wolcott’s “Critical Mass” is the book some of us have, quite literally, been waiting four decades for – a huge (nearly 500 pages) Wolcott omnibus that is subtitled “Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades and Hurrahs.” It is as antic and irrepressibly readable – indeed delightful – as any essay collection likely to be published this year by the sort of wildly eclectic and passionate polymathic learner one could be beginning in the decade after Sontag published “Against Interpretation,” a collection that dealt with, among other things, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, George Lukacs, Marat/Sade/ Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Jack Smith, Norman O. Brown and, most famously of all, “camp” with the classic essay “Notes on Camp” which let us in on what Max Beerbohm’s “Zuleika Dobson,” Tiffany lamps, “Swan Lake,” “King Kong,” old Flash Gordon comics and “stag movies seen without lust” have in common.
In an intellectual world joyously traveling downtown, Wolcott began writing hilariously and wonderfully about television and rock and roll at The Voice (most memorably Patti Smith, a Sontag favorite too of course), then hooking up with Tina Brown to move to the New Yorker and ultimately Vanity Fair where, as a 63-year-old veteran, he blogs and appears monthly after a career of freelancing the hell out of all the more estimable forums in American letters, from the New Republic, New York Review of Books, and Atlantic Monthly to Esquire, Harper’s, the London Review of Books and, yes, Texas Monthly, for whom he was a licensed film critic.
One finds, in both Wolcott’s great omnibus “Critical Mass” and the first complete publication of Sontag’s 1979 interview for Rolling Stone, a merrily similar kind of “freelancer’s” credo, in which passionate polymathic learners pass on the electrical charge of discovery that is a credential many “experts” can no longer begin to fake. (They lost it when their learner’s permits were exchanged for chauffeur’s licenses.)
Says Wolcott in the introduction to “Critical Mass,” “there’s solace in knowing that I learned and stole from the best and there’s still more to learn. One of the upsides to being a college dropout is that it’s made me feel like a student ever since, forever feeding my head to fill the gap of an incomplete education. For a writer, there’s no better hunger to have.”
Sontag, whose essay on Elias Canetti was memorably besotted with Canetti’s desire to know everything, admits in her Rolling Stone interview, “I just take it all in and let it cook somewhere. I’m much more ignorant than most people think. If you would ask me to explain what structuralism or semiology mean, I couldn’t tell you. I could recall an image in a sentence of Barthes or get a sense of things but I can’t crank it out. So I have these interests but I also go to CBGB and do things like that.”
Such knowledge, in the knowledge factories of Academe, may be anathema among its more responsible citizens but if you add it to her extraordinary intellectual integrity, honesty and awe-inspiring passion for thinking with clarity and freshness about every one of her “interests” it’s why she has, without question, become the representative intellectual of her era.
She reports that, in the ’50s she was utterly alone, in an academic environment, in loving rock and roll. In 2013, the Library of America book of her essays of the 1960s and 1970s surprises absolutely no one in the great publishing series that houses the classic American essays of Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Henry James and Edmund Wilson. Let the scoffers harrumph in thunder, the rest of us can nod vigorously at her presence among true peers.
As for Wolcott – whose book is irreplaceable on everyone from Johnny Carson to Kingsley Amis to Jerry Lewis (his Lewis essay is called “The Last Tuxedo Standing”) to Patti Smith to The Sex Pistols to Woody Allen to John Updike and Richard Ford – we have, for certain, a volume that is one of the riotously entertaining masterpieces of American intellectual chutzpah, the Yiddish word classically defined by the courtroom defendant who’d killed his parents and pleaded to the judge for mercy on the grounds he was an orphan.
Read James Wolcott’s essay on a conference convened by the great academic little magazine Salmagundi, where “the Intellectual Killer Elite” include Leslie Fiedler, George Steiner, Christopher Lasch, Stanley Kauffmann, Dwight Macdonald, John Lukacs and, yes, Susan Sontag (who observes back in 1980 “I’ve spent my all my life being the only woman on the panel.”)
Chutzpah of the Gods, I say. Let those who will call it obnoxious. If Prometheus had ever been known to smile, that’s what I think he’d do in response.
Jeff Simon is The News’ Arts and Books editor.
By James Wolcott
491 pages, $30
Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview
By Jonathan Cott
Yale University Press
144 pages, $26
Essays of the 1960s and 1970s
By Susan Sontag
Library of America
875 pages, $40