inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #26 of 62: Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Thu 16 Sep 04 09:35

Oh, boy. Now I'll have to dig out my ancient screed about what is the 
dumbest sentence from Kael I ever read. I've got it around here somewhere. 
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #27 of 62: Gary Lambert (almanac) Thu 16 Sep 04 09:43

Oh, yeah, I remember that sentence and that screed!
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #28 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Thu 16 Sep 04 11:05
    <scribbled by wjamesau Thu 16 Sep 04 11:10>
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #29 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Thu 16 Sep 04 11:09
> or Sontag about 9/11 

Well, since you asked... :)

I think you totally let Sontag off the hook, there.  I'm not 
sure if you've read her infamous New Yorker essay on 9/11 since 
it was first published-- which, as it happens, was almost exactly 
three years ago, on September 17th, 2001:

I have, and in a larger sense, much of my own personal reaction 
to September 11th intellectually involved the questions "Is this
right?  What do I think of it now?"  I'm a mild fan of Sontag's 
non-fiction essays, and like other figures on the left I admired 
up until 9/11, like Chomsky, part of my journey after the terror 
attacks was to try and gain enough context to understand what 
they said about 9/11, and why they did.  All the assumptions 
on foreign policy I took for granted I was forced to re-examine-- 
to "walk back the cat" as they say in intelligence circles.

Shortly after 9/11, I was prone to agree with your assessment of
her New Yorker essay (if I'm reading you right):  mostly correct,
but emotionally tone deaf, lacking empathy.  I still agree with
the latter part of that statement.  The former part, however, is
totally, patently wrong.  

Sontag was not mostly correct.  It is simply wrong, for example, 
that 9/11 was "undertaken as a consequence of specific American 
alliances and actions".  9/11 was undertaken because of bin Laden's
objection to infidel soldiers (particularly female soldiers) being
stationed in the Holy Land, and his adherence to a jihadist ideology
codified by Sayyid Qutb, Zawahiri's lodestone, a man who envisioned 
a Muslim utopia with a reestablished caliphate eradicated of the
foul influence of democracy, modernism, secularism, and above
all (always above all) of Jews.  

It is simply wrong, for example, that the "ongoing American bombing 
of Iraq" was any kind of grievance bin Laden was responding to, and
even though Sontag seems to think it's a horrible thing that most
Americans weren't aware of, *she* doesn't seem to be aware that 
this bombing was done to prevent Saddam's further predations of 
the Shiites, to the South, and the Kurds, to the North.  (And 
that this bombing led directly to the first genuine, non-Israeli 
democracy in the Middle East, in Kurdistan.)

It is simply wrong, for example, on a purely technical level, 
that precision bombing by "those who kill from beyond the range 
of retaliation" is cowardly, because it totally ignores the high
risks inherent in flying instruments-only missions from the decks
of aircraft carriers.  On a moral level, impugning the courage
of combat pilots is also wrong and disingenuous on Sontag's part,
for only a few years earlier, Sontag was enjoining the US and
her allies to commit that very same military action to stop the 
ethnic cleansing in Sarajevo and Kosovo.  Did she also think 
bomber pilots were cowardly then?

Above all, she is wrong to say that 9/11 was not an "attack on
'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world'".
I'd encourage everyone to read Paul Berman's *Terror and Liberalism*
for he makes the compelling case that 9/11 was indeed just that,
far better than I could here.  (And here, perhaps Sontag backpedaled
somewhat, because later on, she did make some noises about Islamist
extremism-- but certainly not enough, by my lights.)  

Now, she was right to say that there was a lot of infantilizing 
and stupid psychotherapy coming out of our leaders after the 
attacks, not just from the Bush administration, though they tended 
to be a prime generator of both.  However, where she is wrong-- where
she is utterly wrong-- is to demand "A few shreds of historical
awareness [which] might help us understand what has just happened, and
what may continue to happen", when it is quite clear she doesn't
have any of those shreds, herself.  

And that's what strikes me about her 9/11 essay, three years later:  
when she wrote it, it is quite clear that she was not even minimally 
informed to speak on the subject, but she went right ahead and did so 
anyway, with an ex cathedra tone of voice that totally belies her 
rank ignorance on Middle Eastern foreign policy or the true ambition 
and reach of jihadist ideology.   And so I have to wonder why.  What 
makes her so sure about subjects she has so little basic awareness 
of?  And I also have to wonder what other stumbles she's made in the 
past, covered over by her prestige and the authority of her persona.  
Is she really as smart as she thinks she is on every subject she 
presumes to speak on, or has there been a lot less substance there 
than I've always assumed?  

Up until three years ago, that is.
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #30 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Thu 16 Sep 04 21:08
Oh, God, the 9/11 essay. Yes, it's infelicitous, but reading it once
again (for the thousandth time), I'm still ready to defend it. Up to a

I don't think it's wrong, for example, to argue that 9/11 was an
attack  "undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and
actions." Our presence in the Middle East, having largely to do with
our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and specifically the presence of
our soldiers in Saudi Arabia, clearly had something to do with the
attack. I haven't read Berman's book, so I can't respond to his line on
jihadism. And, yes, we all know more about this movement now than we
did three years ago. But I can say -- and I think Sontag would say --
that while the jihadists are wild-eyed loonies, their movement wouldn't
have attracted the support it has if our country were widely perceived
across the Middle East as a benign, helpful presence. I don't want to
be perceived as defending the jihadists in any way, since they pretty
much stand for everything I despise (and Sontag despises), but I don't
think it's supporting them to say that we created the culture in which
they could -- to use an inappropriate term -- flower. That, at least,
is how I interpret Sontag's remarks about American alliances and
actions. We aren't hated through a large part of the world simply
because those people are fundamentalist nuts. The fundamentalist nuts
are the most pathological expression of a sentiment that may not be
pathological in itself.

The whole "coward" argument was about the immediate attempt to brand
the 9/11 attackers as cowards. Sontag may have expressed herself badly,
but I don't disagree with her. The bombers may have been evil -- they
*were* evil -- but they weren't cowards.

I think that essay is really a response to something else, though.
Sontag said that when 9/11 occurred, she was in Berlin, and she spent
the next 48 hours holed up in a room with CNN. Sontag doesn't watch TV.
Neither do I, so I know where she was coming from. If you're not used
to TV, then when you're exposed to it -- as I am whenever I visit my
mother in Louisiana, who always has the TV going -- you're astonished
by the uninterrupted idiocy most Americans take for granted. (Karen
Black in "Five Easy Pieces": "But there's lotsa good things on TV!") If
you don't see TV every day (and I realize I'm one of the very rare
people who don't, and it isn't snobbery, it's fear of yet another way
to waste time), then when you're exposed to it, that voice of the
announcer droning on and on at you at a level far beneath your
intelligence and the intelligence of everyone you know is truly
startling and upsetting. *This* is the level discourse occurs on in
this country? It's late here, I'm writing fast, and I hope I'm not
expressing myself in a way that's completely offensive to everybody out
there, but Sontag was reacting to the idiocy of a kind of discourse
she usually doesn't have to suffer. That essay is a genuine reaction of
outraged astonishment. And on that level she was right.
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #31 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Fri 17 Sep 04 02:55
Sorry, Craig, but I'm going to press you more on this, because 
this is too crucial an issue.  You're arguing that Sontag was 
primarily reacting to televised idiocy-- and I certainly agree 
to a certain extent; no one tells me to respond to 9/11 by 
going shopping, and escapes that malediction--  but you haven't 
made clear how Sontag returned that idiocy with anything like 
informed nuance.  To wit:

> Our presence in the Middle East, having largely to do with
> our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and specifically the 
> presence of our soldiers in Saudi Arabia, clearly had something 
> to do with the attack.

You (and Sontag) missed a crucial pointed I just mentioned:  in 
fact, bin Laden's specific objection to our soldiers' presence 
in Saudi Arabia was that some of them were *women*.  (And also
Jews and Christians.)  Shortly after 9/11, NYT terrorism expert 
Judith Miller fingered bin Laden's misogyny against US female
soldiers as his motivating force, and that was the first inkling
I had that something much deeper than "our foreign policy" was 
the irritant here.  (And that misogyny is echoed in Mohammed Atta's
suicide note, which, again, says nothing about US foreign policy,
but drips with rage at women.)  If the American contingent in
Saudi Arabia were somehow comprised only of Muslim men, bin Laden
would have no grievance, no galvanizing issue, and certainly
much less sympathy in the Muslim world.  But the thing is, 
America has a military where men and women of all faiths (or 
none) are free to serve, and herein lies the conflict's source.  
It is not the alliance per se that is the motivating cause.  

> their movement wouldn't have attracted the support it has 
> if our country were widely perceived across the Middle East 
> as a benign, helpful presence

Here again, I think that claim is confounded or at least muddied
by the facts.  In 2000, for example, President Clinton arrived 
in entourage with Arafat to the Palestinian territories, where
he was greeted by throngs waving American flags.  Clinton was
pushing for an Israeli peace with Palestine, as he had from the
beginning of his administration, all the way up into his lame
duck period.  *At the same time*, Al Qaeda was pushing its 9/11
plans forward (they were conceived in the mid-90s), and despite
this upsurge of Middle Eastern goodwill toward the US because
of Clinton's efforts, there is not a scintilla of evidence that 
Al Qaeda postponed its bloody operations in the slightest.  Why,
on your and Sontag's view?

> The fundamentalist nuts are the most pathological expression 
> of a sentiment that may not be pathological in itself.

Again, I enjoin you to read Berman's book, or almost as good,
Lawrence Wright's New Yorker story on the vicious trajectory
at work:

Qutb was a visiting professor in America in the 1950s, when the 
US had little presence in the Middle East, and he decided that 
America was the enemy to Islam basically because it promoted 
secularism, sexuality, and the freedom of women.  He was the 
lead intellectual of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which Zawahiri 
subseqently joined, going on to participate in the assassination 
of Sadat (for the crime of making peace with the Jews), later 
becaming the intellectual guide for bin Laden, focusing his 
wealth and religious zeal into a full advocacy of Qtub's jihadist 
philosophy.   (Which culminates in the religious theocracy of a 
caliphate laid out across the Muslim world, which in recent times 
had its purest expression in the Taliban.)

So Craig: where, in all their murderous hatred for women, 
Jews, an open society, democracy, separation of church and
state, shi'ites, sufis, homosexuals, Americans, Christians, 
Middle Eastern peacemakers, pagans, do you find an expression 
of a non-pathological sentiment?  What can you possibly mean 
by that?

And let me add that I'm not claiming any particular expertise on 
this subject-- not at all.  Everything I write here is based on 
my own labored, amatuerish research efforts to try and understand 
what happened on 9/11, based on the work of people far, far, far 
more knowledgeable than me.  (And in this effort, Sontag was
singularly unhelpful.)  The thing is, none of it is really a 
secret, and anyone with a minimum level of knowledge of Islamic
extremism would know about all this, and probably wouldn't let
the explanation lie with a a blithe "specific American alliances 
and actions".  And, of course, I was almost totally ignorant of 
all this, at the time.  

But then, I wasn't asked to write an essay on the subject for the 
New Yorker.  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #32 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Fri 17 Sep 04 08:00
Somewhat more soberly, the next morning.

Oh, I'm sorry, W.J.A., that you posted before I had a chance to add a
note this morning. Which is: given everything I already said, I agree
that Sontag's ex cathedra tone is often infuriating, and it mars much
of her political writing (though not "Regarding the Pain of Others" and
the essay on the Abu Ghraib photographs). People on the left have a
tendency to refer to contrasting views with dismissive disgust, and
whatever moral justification there may be for that tone, it's certainly
useless for the purpose of bringing anybody over to our side, which it
would seem to me is the point of most political discussion. I'm
probably as bad as anybody about it, but since I don't really write
about politics (except indirectly) I'm seldom guilty of doing it in
print. Sontag's essay didn't make any converts. (Though, on the other
hand, it must have had something going for it, since three years later
we're still butting heads over it.)

And nobody writing in the week after 9/11, with the exception of a
handful of true experts, knew as much about Al Quaeda as we do now.
It's fair -- it's essential -- for writers and intellectuals to weigh
in on major events, and Sontag, whatever her gaps, was, I'll wager, as
informed on the general situation as most of the contributors to that
Talk of the Town section.

But I don't think I'll back off from my position about extremist
movements. If you're going to direct me to Berman, let me direct you to
Michael Klare's new book, "Blood and Oil" (which -- full disclosure --
I had a hand in editing.) Klare's point, basically, is no surprise:
we're up to our asses in the Middle East, because we need their oil. 

My point about Al Quaeda had nothing to do with the politics of Al
Quaeda. If, by some act of magic, we could wield our military power in
the Middle East through an army of Muslim men, maybe that would placate
bin Laden. (I'm not convinced, but let's just suppose.) But it
wouldn't be the end of extremist movements in the Middle East, because
nationalism is always going to be a response to an occupying force, and
it's going to be a very nasty response when an occupying force is seen
as a malignant presence. I can't really see why any
man-or-woman-in-the-street (Israelis, Iraquis, and Afghanis excepted)
should be thrilled about the presence of our troops there.

I'm happy to keep arguing this, but I fear it's taking us away from
the two writers at the core of our discussion.
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #33 of 62: Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Sat 18 Sep 04 02:01

I'm staying out of this particular thread, since history shows that I will 
quickly descend into incivility toward wjamesau, and this is not the place 
for it. 

In any case, I'd rather this return to the subject of the book and the 
subjects of the book, so I dug out my nearly four-year-old post about 
Kael making a booboo: 

>  After suggesting that Mankiewicz put little digs at Welles in the 
>  she says, "And it wasn't just the writer who played games on him. 
>  the scene of Welles eating in the newspaper office, which was obviously
>  caught by the camera crew, and which, to be a "good sport," he had to
>  use. 
>  Yes, Pauline, Welles was sitting in full makeup on a "hot" set, under 
>  (in the other sense) lights, munching a ham sandwich, not realizing 
>  the crew had snuck in and surrounded and had started rolling camera 
>  he ate. 

I will confess that I read right past that initially -- I can't remember 
if I read this in the New Yorker or in the book -- but it was pointed out 
by others during the original flap, I think. I became aware of it from 
something my buddy David Ehrenstein wrote -- probably a review of  "For 

We all make factual errors -- I misidentified the main character in Bright 
Young Things last week, and I'm still cringing -- but this seems a deeper 
sort of error to me. 
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #34 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Sat 18 Sep 04 02:12
Craig, your last point seems to have shifted us into discussing 
the US presence in Iraq, and if we're going to stay on what 
Sontag said right after 9/11, then that is going pretty far 
afield.  I'd prefer to maintain the focus on that particular 
New Yorker essay, if that's cool with you, because I do think 
it yields a salient point about Sontag.  

To put it simply:  her New Yorker essay reveals that she had 
not the foggiest idea of Middle Eastern policy or Islamic 
extremism, but she took it on herself to write as if she did.  
It doesn't do for you to say that she was at least as "informed 
on the general situation as most of the contributors to that 
Talk of the Town section"-- because unlike her, none of the 
other contributors made any declamatory, authoritative statements 
about Middle Eastern policy.  Not Updike, not Franzen, not Roger 
Angell, not Aharon Appelfeld, not Rebecca Mead, not Amitav Ghosh, 
not Donald Antrim, and only glancingly-- and far more ambivalently-- 
by Denis Johnson.  (Who first speaks of his travels in the Muslim 
and Third World, where he's learned "that to be an American sometimes 
means to be wondrously celebrated, to excite a deep, instantaneous 
loyalty in complete strangers.")  So many horrible, wonderful things 
happened on that day, and these writers spoke on them.  Only Sontag 
went off on a tangent she was patently unqualified to take, at the
most inopportune time, for the most inexplicable reasons.  Why? 

So this is *not* just a political loggerhead, because if we get
to a point where we agree that Sontag was simply uninformed here,
then that should impact the whole tenor of your analysis of her.  
It was not only a matter of her running roughshod over people's 
tender emotions, after 9/11, which we all agree she did.  More 
than that, she blathered on about a subject she was patently 
unfamiliar with, apparently never even bothering to pick up the 
phone (what, she's not in the same social circle as people like 
Judith Miller and Lawrence Wright?) and realize how simplistic 
and inchoate her little piece really was.  And that should force
us to look at her whole corpus in a different light.  I've only 
read a handful of her essays, and I can't say much beyond them,
so I'm asking you:  Is it possible that she's gotten away with 
this kind of intellectual flimflam in the past, fixing her force 
of personality on other subjects that were well above her pay grade?

Of course, to get to that point, you need first be convinced 
that there's very little that's recoverable from her 9/11 essay.
And here, it could be that your own politics are coming into
play, and coloring your analysis, and preventing you from going
to that place.  So maybe one more shot at hopefully directing
you in that direction, if I can presume:

> because nationalism is always going to be a response to an 
> occupying force

See, the thing is, not Al Qaeda nor any major Islamic extremist
group is nationalistic.  Al Qaeda doesn't want Saudi Arabia
free of US troops, only in that it gains them a caliphate.  
Hamas doesn't want Israeli troops out of Palestine, only in
that it expedites the entire annihilation of Israel.  I'll 
be happy to take a look at Klare's book when I can, but I'm
highly skeptical that it's the bulwark to Sontag's "alliances" 
claim that you think it to be.  Does it acknowledge the fact 
that the US only gets a fourth of its oil from the Middle East, 
while the EU and Japan gets *three-fourths* of its oil from the 
region, with India and China right behind?  (So even if, by some 
magic wand's wave, the US no longer depended on OPEC oil, the 
rest of the world still would, and so the region would still 
be a place of enormous instability that would still threaten 
to plunge the entire global economy into chaos, along with any 
inevitable violence and internecine chaos that would surely 
follow from it.)

Again, Craig, I'm not asking questions like this to shift 
this topic into politics, but to emphasize just how richly
ill-equipped Sontag was then.  (Or as the saying goes, "That's 
not right.  That's not even wrong.")  If you can't field adequate 
answers to them, then I suspect Sontag can't either-- and again,
that implies a deeper flaw in her overall critical faculties 
than you acknowledged in her book.  But let the questions lie,
if you prefer.  

Though I do want to take last issue with this:

> People on the left have a tendency to refer to contrasting 
> views with dismissive disgust... it's certainly useless for 
> the purpose of bringing anybody over to our side

Because I don't know what side you think Sontag is on, here.
My own objection has nothing to do with the left-right axis-- 
it has everything to do with Sontag not knowing what the hell 
she's talking about.  (And on the subject of 9/11, the left-
right axis is rather irrelevant, in any case.  Another prominent
American agrees with Sontag that 9/11 happened as a consequence
of our actions and alliances in the Middle East-- and his name 
is Pat Buchanan.)  In that regard, it's interesting that it
was another leftish iconoclast who ran with Sontag's phrase
from the 80s, when she called communism "fascism with a human
face".  Recognizing a through line between the Iranian *fatwa* 
against Rushdie and the September 11th attacks, Christopher
Hitchens called it "fascism with an Islamic face".  He's done
a far better job at bringing people over to our side, if by
"our side" you mean a robust defense of liberalism.  (And he's
an arrogant beast, too.)  The difference is Hitchens has the
CV to make his argument stick, and he's not just noodling
around in the liner notes of the Sunday Times.  And with all
respect to you, Craig-- because there's a lot that's great
about your book, and I'm glad I read it-- I think you'd be
more convincing, too, if you acknowledged that Sontag was a 
lot less informed than she thought she was, when she fired
off that ToTT blurb to Remnick.
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #35 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Sat 18 Sep 04 14:00
OK, I agree that Sontag wasn't as informed on 9/11 as any of us now
are about Al Quaeda and other manifestations of fundamentalist Islamic
extremism. I've already acknowledged my discomfort with her 9/11 piece,
but I certainly don't feel that it calls all her work into question,
any more than "Fear of Movies," a work whose tone makes me
uncomfortable (and some of whose judgments I disagree with), calls all
of Kael's work into question.

As for that sentence from "Raising Kane" you mention, Andy: this is
one thing I really wish I'd been able to ask Kael about. If I'm not
mistaken, both John Gregory Dunne and Andrew Sarris bring it up against
her. (And if I'm misremembering, my apologies to both of them.) What
bugs me about it, though, is not that it's a blooper but that it's such
an obvious, red-flag blooper that I wonder if there wasn't something
more behind it. What I mean is: you don't have to know much about the
movies to know how unlikely the scenario Kael lays out is. This is
something even I picked up on, and my technical knowledge of
moviemaking is practically zilch. Kael was very smart and very
informed, and she knew this wasn't the way things happened on the set.
But in researching "Raising Kane," she talked to a lot of the film's
original crew members. So I wonder if the sentence didn't grow out of
an anecdote she picked up during those interviews.

You may feel that I'm just explaining away a mistake of Kael's out of
loyalty to her. Maybe so. But that sentence would have been read and
re-read by Kael, and by a lot of other people (including The New
Yorker's fact checkers, who also aren't infallible), before it went
into print, and it's so counter to the way we know films are (or at
least were) made that I can't help feeling there must have been some
reason for it to be there. We'll never know. I certainly *don't* think
Kael was beyond making mistakes, but this is such a peculiarly gross
one that it strikes me as uncharacteristic and, thus, weird.

Of course she, like Sontag, writes in a tone that doesn't seem to
brook argument. I'm sure there are other mistakes in her work, though
not enough, I think, to seriously deface it. Dunne (I just checked)
uses this instance to argue, "It is this implacable ignorance of the
mechanics of filmmaking that prevails in all of Kael's books," but I
don't buy that at all.
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #36 of 62: Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Mon 20 Sep 04 13:48

Craig, you make reference somewhere back there to negative reaction from
some Sontag-lovers, as well as Kael's daughter's assertion that Pauline
would have hated the book (which does strike me as, well, probably a good
thing, since a book that doesn't rattle its subject is probably a book
that doesn't get beneath the surface). (I hope I'm not mischaracterizing

Can you tell us what sort of criticism you've received? And what you think 
the best and the worst of it has been? (Best, in the sense of "Yes, I wish 
I *hadn't* done it that way, now that you've pointed it out.") 
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #37 of 62: Paulina Borsook (loris) Mon 20 Sep 04 16:48
wrt to ms sontag, my experience of her is that she may
not be that great on the current-events commentary,
but IS great on synthesizing/reflecting/articulating
Big Ideas.  'illness as metaphor' --- you cant do
better than that.
also, with both writers, the joy is in
- watching how their minds work.
it's less about whether you -agree- or not.

and oh, i did like sontag's 'volcano lover',
but found her more recenr novel unreadable
(wasnt that the one that has some cloud of
plagiarism hanging over it?)

what i think is true of both is that they write/were
writing at a time when ideas mattered/that it made
sense in a way to be a public intellectual.

i am not sure i can think of anyone writing
today who has that sort of impact.
meaning, we have ideologues and spokesmodels
and all.

but i didnt read sontag in the 60s because
she was a lefty. i read her because
she had really interesting things to
say about art and culture... she wasnt
influencing me to be more activist.
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #38 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Mon 20 Sep 04 21:33
You first, Paulina. Yes, yes, yes. That's why we fall in love with all
the writers we fall in love with: the kick of watching their minds
work. It's true for poets, novelists, critics. And so, yeah, agreement
isn't the point; the point is the fascination of the chase you're being
led on. (And I'm a big fan of "The Volcano Lover," too.)

And, Andy, thanks for asking. It's a weird experience, after having
written reviews for years, to get reviewed, but (for the most part) not
as bad as I'd feared. I wanted to write a book that people would argue
about, and if the reviews are any indication, I did. I've gotten more
coverage than I ever expected, and it's truly run the gamut. The good
reviews couldn't have been better (one actually used the word
"pivotal"), and the bad ones have been truly scathing. There haven't
been a lot -- I'm happy to say -- in the middle.

My biggest disappointment is that they've been so short. Most
publications simply don't give book reviewers the space to develop an
argument, so they can hardly respond to the arguments I try to get
going. I wrote the book, after all, to start a conversation (which is
one reason I'm grateful to be here, now -- though I must say you've all
been remarkably polite.) 

Of course, the negative reviews are stupid, and the positive ones are
very, very smart.

Writers usually don't like it when reviewers grind axes, but I knew
that Sontag and Kael elicit such strong reactions that they would enter
into what anybody wrote about the book. The reviewers seem to be
fairly evenly divided between those who can't stand Sontag and those
who can't stand Kael; not a lot of them have had my reaction of
bouncing back and forth between them (so I'm taken to task by both

Some reviewers can't stand my tone, like the patronizing critic who
called S&K an "eager, confiding" book. He left out "Jewish." Not that I
think he's anti-Semitic, but his Waspy distaste for my writing reminds
me of Renata Adler's aversion to Kael: all that emotion in criticism
really isn't the kind of thing that … it isn't the way *we* usually go
about … well, I mean, really, darling.

But now I'm grinding my own axe.
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #39 of 62: Paulina Borsook (loris) Tue 21 Sep 04 09:57
craig, i -havent- read the book. i had barely heard of it ---
and am now away from home housesitting for friends with
death in the family --- a way of saying i cant get to it soon!

but i have a question for you: how much of the
'brainy jewish girl' issue do you raise in the book?

i guess my reaction to both of them is 'hey, two of us
are influencing culture in real ways --- right on, sister!'
just as with advent of monica lewinsky, i felt
'wow, we know even have a geopolitical -bimbo- of
our own! too kewl!'
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #40 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Tue 21 Sep 04 14:31
And while we're back on Kael, Craig, I was wondering if you 
could speak a little on the evolution of her trademark "you".  
(I.E., "You really feel worked over by Eastwood in this movie.")  
I've only read her New Yorker reviews, so I'm curious if this was
a device she started at KPFA, perhaps, as a way of sounding more
conversational on the radio.  Did she understand how brilliant
and bullying it was, to sort of preemptively co-opt the reader's
response to a film they haven't even watched yet?  And did she
develop an ethics of employing the "you", as in, not telling "you" 
how to respond, when her own response was fairly peculiar to her?
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #41 of 62: Paulina Borsook (loris) Tue 21 Sep 04 15:35
waggy james, lots of folks use 'you'. bullying,
i wouldnt call it. clearly a rhetorical trope...
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #42 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Tue 21 Sep 04 16:51
Paulina: I don't really raise the brainy-Jewish-girl issue much beyond
pointing out that they were both Jewish, both brainy, and both girls.
Judaism is a famously studious culture, and it's hardly an original
observation of mine to observe that once it was secularized it remained
no less studious. If I weren't studying Sontag and Kael I'd no doubt
be studying the Talmud.

But Kael was an atheist and Sontag doesn't talk about her spiritual

James, I have to agree with Paulina that the "you" wasn't that big a
deal, although a lot of Kael's antagonists treated it as one. I use
"you" all the time, and when I'm not using "you" I'm often using "we,"
which she was also blasted for, and I don't really see how either usage
forces anybody into anything -- they're just a way of not saying
"one," which sounds too formal, although I also use "one" when the
context seems right, as did Kael.

I was amused when I first started reading C. S. Lewis's criticism,
familiar as I was with all those attacks on Kael, to find how often he
uses "you." And nobody, as far as I know, thought he was being pushy.

Not that Kael wasn't bullying -- or, to put it more politely,
rhetorically fierce -- but I never had the problem with that aspect of
her that her detractors did. I never felt like I couldn't say (as I was
reading her, or talking to her), "Pauline, that's crazy! And wrong!"
But clearly a lot of readers did.
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #43 of 62: Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Tue 21 Sep 04 17:26

As long as we're on Jewishness... 

The New Yorker dealt really...*weirdly*...with Kael re her Shoah review. I
agreed with almost all her points. In fact, I *think* I was damned near
the only critic in the country *besides* Kael who wrote negatively about
the film (and I had been a critic slightly less than six months at the
time). There was a lot of pressure around that film -- not just kowtowing
to the usual, often correct, sensitivities -- but emanating directly from
Lanzmann, who not so subtly implied that it would be anti-Semitic not to
it. (He's not the first to play this sort of card:  It's well I remember
Sir Dickie 'Attonmyhead thanking all lovers of nonviolence for supporting
the wretched Gandhi, with the unspoken implication that NOT supporting it
meant you were a red-meat-eating barbarian.)

Given that even writers I hold in the highest respect, like Hoberman, 
tore her a new orifice over that piece, I know I took some comfort in 
it. (It was also an inadvertent relief to me that her piece was delayed 
until I had already filed mine with my editor, since otherwise it might 
have looked like I had just condensed, rewritten, and added some 
different specifics to hers.) 

You mention her anger at Shawn over the piece being held. Did she 
maintain that later? Did it do permanent damage to her relationship with 
the New Yorker? 
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #44 of 62: Paulina Borsook (loris) Tue 21 Sep 04 17:50
craig, forgive me if you discuss this in yr book,
but istr the horrid norman mailer once saying
something like 'susan sontag is the only woman
who is a Intellectual', or something like that.
i do think there something about her, and her appearance
on the scene, at that time an place, where
she -could- be taken seriously. just trying to
think if i can recall any other belle-lettrist/critic
sans portfolio who worked as a generalist
as sontag did.
perhaps others veered more off into journalism. or feminism.
or were more academic/theoretical (joan didion and
hannah arendt come to mind. and in a weird way,
ellen willis).
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #45 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Tue 21 Sep 04 21:28
If you think "Gandhi" was wretched … anybody gay can probably remember
the pressure they were under to appreciate "Making Love," one of the
few cultural artifacts that's ever made me be embarrassed to be a
homosexual. Pauline wasn't crazy enough to write about it, but she did
make a reference to it once, somewhere, as "ineffable," although I
think it's all too effable myself.

She already had a terrible relationship with Shawn before the "Shoah"
review. He was relieved when she went off to Hollywood and, from what
I've heard, chagrined that she returned. Kael wasn't made for The New
Yorker, and her sensibility (as a writer, not a viewer) didn't gibe
with Shawn's at all. (His taste in film, I believe, was fairly hip,
though he couldn't stand the sight of blood.) They were constantly
battling over issues of taste; Pauline had one of the great blue mouths
of the century, and she certainly couldn't exercise that talent in
Shawn's New Yorker. But, of course, she was there because he recognized
her talent. She drove him crazy (and vice versa), but he knew how much
she added to the magazine. And although Shawn was piously and quite
sincerely uncommercial, he can't have been unaware of how many
magazines she sold.

I don't know what it was that allowed Sontag to fill that special
place she managed to fill in the culture, but she's filled it so
perfectly for so long that I think we've almost come to believe that
it's a position, like Chief Justice, and that when she steps down
somebody else will take her place. But she's, in her own peculiar way,
as sui generis as Kael. Certainly the combination of great beauty and
brilliant talent fired the public imagination, but, as I say in the
book, she'd have achieved what she achieved even if her face were
frightening. Though she might not have been the subject of so many
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #46 of 62: Paulina Borsook (loris) Tue 21 Sep 04 23:31
i have wondered how much sontag's beauty aided her career ---
as with mary maccarthy (whose stuff i also like)...
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #47 of 62: David Wilson (dlwilson) Wed 22 Sep 04 13:32
I'd like to return to Jewishness in relation to cultural criticism. 
The usual concepts that have been mentioned--"brainy", talmudic
reasoning, inquisitiveness--are certainly there, but superficial.

I would argue that in assimilating and confronting modern western
society, Jews had a unique "outsider" position that gave some of them a
perspective to evaluate and critique the cultures that they found
themselves as citizens.  Marx, Freud, Levi-Strauss are the big three
who  universialized the human condition and build comprehensive
theories that have become the canon of Western philosophy and social

Lessor lights are Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Joseph Roth,
and yes, Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag.

My question then is : Why do so many Jews go in for cultural criticism
and especially film criticism?  What is the setting in which Kael and
Sontag operate in and why are they so influential?
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #48 of 62: Paulina Borsook (loris) Wed 22 Sep 04 15:53
and let's not forget our friend mr wittgenstein, nor mr
popper. 20th-cenutry intellectual stylesetter if there
ever were. and we don t even -talk- about the physicists! [g]

michael andre bernsteins' -mindblowing- recent novel
'conspirators', in an indirect way, addresses this...

as for jews and film, there has been lots written on this.
new art form that came about as jews were busting out
of the ghetto and against their society's proscriptions
wrt graven images; etc etc.
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #49 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Wed 22 Sep 04 20:19
Jews and cultural criticism: it's a fascinating subject, but I'm out
of my league here. I certainly think outsider status has a lot to do
with it, and, judging by Sontag's descriptions of growing up, she felt
like an outsider. But Kael didn't, as far as I can tell.

Is there something specifically Jewish in the work of these two
writers? Kael barely identified herself as Jewish; she was contemptuous
(in a friendly, ragging way) of believers. I think the highly
emotional strain in her writing is pretty Jewish, though -- but if
challenged to put my finger on what, precisely, in her emotionalism
makes it different from the emotionalism of other cultures, I couldn't.

An anecdote: in college, I felt utterly estranged from Jewish culture
-- I grew up in a small Southern town with hardly any other Jews and I
certainly wasn't a believer myself -- until a Jewish friend of mine
said, "Oh, Craig, come off it. You have every classic Jewish neurosis
in the book." And as soon as she said it I knew it was true. Something
cultural gets passed down.

Kael wasn't neurotic (or if she was it wasn't in the classic Jewish
ways), yet I don't think anyone would be surprised to learn she was
Jewish. On the other hand, Sontag's hallmark is the emotional purity of
her writing, which some would call dryness. But -- though it's far
more restrained, at least on the surface -- it's no less passionate
and, ultimately, no less emotional. I don't think many people would be
flabbergasted to learn she's Jewish, either.

That's not very helpful, is it?
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #50 of 62: David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 23 Sep 04 08:43

Interesting that you should mention the book "Conspiritors."  I'm
struggling to get into it.  I'm at the beginning and it is tough going.


What you wrote in (49) misses my point.  Let me try to explain
further.  Until about 1870, most European Jews did not have full
citizenship and the associated rights that go along with that.  This
was true in spades in the East, but in Western Europe, if you wanted to
enter the professions or the world of the arts, you had to convert. 
This was not an entirely negative experience though.  Within the Jewish
community there was a complete, fully functioning culture that gave
people a moral compass, a set of behavioral etiquettes, spiritual, and
artistic expression etc.  For the most part, these cultural features
where different from the outside civil society and seperated the Jews
both physically and, more importantly, psychically from the gentiles. 
When Jews were granted civil rights, the assimilation process was not
always smooth or easy for either side.  It was within this context of
conflicting worldviews that people like Freud and Marx analyzed Western
civilization and developed their theories. Individual Jews like you
and me make our accomadations and have "the usual neuroses."  And
people like Freud analyzed us individually and society in general. 

Then we try and "make it" in society.  Why learn the literature and
culture of the wider society and become experts at interpreting it? 
That's my question in relation to Kael and Sontag and film criticism. 
I'm aware that film is a "Jewish" business and the social and economic
forces that came together to let a group of entrepreneural "shtarkers"
to build an industry in Hollywood, and in Germany and France.

Whether you are devout or not, Jews come out of this cauldren and try
to make sense of the world around them.  What is it about Kael and
Sontag that moved them to take on the movies, to "get it" and be able
to explain "it" to the rest of us?

Here are two quotes that have helped me conceptualize the question. 
The first is from the musician John Zorn:

"The Jews are a tribe who continue to believe that if they devote
themselves to a place they love and contribute to the society
selflessly that they will be embraced and accepted into it.  In many
cases this has proved to be a fatal error, yet there they go again,
stubbornly believing in their own ability and vision."

The second quote is from Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.  Miller, no
philo-semite, amazingly "gets it"--what it is like to be a Jew in the

"There are people who cannot resist the desire to get into a cage with
wild beasts and be mangled.  They go in even without revolver or whip.
 Fear makes them fearless... For the Jew the world is a cage filled
with wild beasts.  The door is locked and he is there withoud whip or
revolver.  His courage is so great that he does not even smell the dung
in the corner.  The spectators applaud but he does not hear.  The
drama, he thinks, is the world.  Standing there alone and helpless, the
door locked, he finds that the lions don not understand his language. 
Not one lion even has ever heard of Spinoza.  Spinoza?  Why they can't
even get their teeth ino him.  "Give us meat!" they roar, while he
stands there petrified, his ideas frozen, his weltanschaung a trapeze
out of reach.  A single blow of the lion's paw and his cosmogony is


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