75 at 75: Siri Hustvedt on Susan Sontag
A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Siri Hustvedt writes about Susan Sontag’s lecture “On Classical Pornography.” It was recorded live at 92Y on November 2, 1964.
Posted on Mar 6, 2014
I didn’t know Susan Sontag well. We were acquaintances who talked at a few dinners in New York over the years. Although her conversational style veered toward pronouncement, which sometimes left her interlocutor (me) in the odd position of searching for a way back to dialogue, I liked her, and I admired her as a woman who appeared immune to what remains a constant problem for intellectual women: the articulation of powerful opinions, attractive in a man, is perceived as aggressive, dominating and unseemly in a woman. Indeed, Sontag was repeatedly attacked while she was alive, and reading through the variously smug, vindictive and laudatory assessments of her work and life after her death, I noticed that no one forgot that this particular thinker was female. (Her physical appearance is continually described.) As Simone de Beauvoir made clear in The Second Sex, woman does not occupy the universal position of person. She is always other to man.
In 1964, Sontag was thirty-one years old, a young woman who had made a big stir with Notes on Camp. When she began to speak on the 92Y recording, I remembered her voice. She was much older when I knew her, but her voice sounded the same to me. Her delivery of the lecture surprised me a little, however. Her tone is low, calm, academic, qualifying. There is little humor and no rhetorical flights. She is not reading her text, but my guess is she is sticking close to it, and she wants to make sure that each of her points is clearly understood by her audience. She emphasizes that her adjective “classical” for pornography is something of a joke and that her definition of porn is unconventional: as a literary form it must embody the idea that lustful acts are inherently immoral. Unlike the erotic texts of China and India that celebrate sexual joy, pornography pits virtue against vice in an ethical struggle. In 1964, pornography occupied a different place in the culture than it does today. What was then called “smut” is now widely available to anyone who can type out a few words on a computer keyboard. The pornography trials of literary works—Howl (1957), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1959) and Tropic of Cancer (1962)—were not remote, and Sontag is on a mission to defend literature from censorship. Although she does not dwell on this, it is the subtext of her lecture.
Like comedy, she argues, pornography partakes of necessary distance: its readers do not enter the internal reality of the characters. The flayed, abused, pierced and violated victims of Sade don’t really suffer. They are creatures of endless repetition—more machine than human. The form creates a democratization of the text’s landscape, in which human beings and things mingle without defined borders in an abstract, unfeeling world. With these points clearly in mind, Sontag moves her listeners into modern artistic territory. In its indifferent mingling of objects and humans, its leveling of all in its sight, Surrealism is like pornography, as is the New Novel, Robbe-Grillet, in particular. The writer’s descriptions of spaces and rooms and things and people have no emotional hierarchy. His is a world of the dead gaze in which all seen objects are equal. The link between pornographic qualities and modernism is followed by a sharp turn—Sontag’s defense of the role of “shock” in human life and in literature. Every important human experience in life and literature, she tells us, involves shock. This does not follow logically from her earlier points about distance and detachment. She has leapt through the frozen wall of pornography, surrealism and the nouveau roman into shock a little too quickly. After this jump, she critiques realism, which, she maintains, can create a “false intimacy” with the reader, an immediate, reassuring sympathy that leaves out mystery, transcendence, otherness, and what D.H. Lawrence called the “it”—that which escapes explication.
Sontag believes that violence, sexuality, absurdity and extreme states of human experience can be a corrective for the pervasive psychological and moral narrowness of American life. Her argument wobbles near the end, but the force of what she wants to say remains significant. We may have broadened our tolerance for explicit depictions of copulation, sadistic and otherwise, in books (and movies), but demanding works of fiction that refuse to pander to cultural norms, that balk at shallow media myths that purport to describe American life, fiction that resists the numbingly stupid, prescriptive and popular ideas about what a novel is supposed to be, deserve to be defended. Susan Sontag was a defender of the difficult, the intellectual, the strange, the new, and I, for one, salute that effort.
Siri Hustvedt’s new novel is The Blazing World.