Critical Company

Av | 2. april 2010

My memory is not good. I wish I was one of those people who could read a book or see a movie, and instantly remember every plot point, large or small, or who only have to hear a song once to be able to recite the lyrics perfectly. I know people who can, but I’m not one of them. Ask me about a movie a week after I saw it, and regardless of whether the movie was worth the effort or not, I’ll probably be unable to tell you anything other than what kind of an experience it was. So, I write to remember, and it works. That is also why I think I understand what Craig Seligman means when he says, in his fine book Sontag & Kael (2004), about culture critics Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, that their criticism was often so good that he didn’t even feel like he needed to see the works they critiqued (“I know they’re great. But will they really rival the high that reading Sontag or Kael on them brings me?” (p. 173). To me, every critic should set out to write something that will stay in my memory longer than the book, album or movie she’s writing about.

I have to admit that my familiarity with the works of Susan Sontag, influential essayist and culture critic, and Pauline Kael, for decades a movie critic at the New Yorker, is relatively scarce; of Sontag I’ve read only On Photography (1977), Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), and the essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” from the collection Against Interpretation (1966); of Kael practically nothing. I only know them as touchstones in the history of modern criticism. But after a couple of days in the company of Craig Seligman, I’m tempted to ask, only half-joking, if reading their own work can ever give me the same thrill that reading his critique of them did. He succeeded in fulfilling two of the prime responsibilities of a critic; not only to make a case for whether a cultural product is worthy or not, but also to transcend the subject of criticism itself, which makes it a work of art.

There are lots of things to admire in this book, not least of which is the sheer audacity of the project. Let there be no doubt that what he does here is criticism, and one of a particularly tricky kind. He is, basically, critiquing critics. Sure, it’s Kael that’s in his heart, but that doesn’t mean that Sontag hasn’t also gotten under his skin . The most refreshing thing about this book, however, is with what seeming effortlessness it proves that intellectual honesty and curiosity can go a long way to level what may at first look like an uneven playing field. If Seligman is playing, lovingly and knowingly, with Kael, he’s struggling, battling even, with Sontag. There’s a clash of sensibilities at display, but it serves him well that he admits it. and that he doesn’t let it get in the way of his argument.

What makes Kael the heroine and Sontag the villain of the story, something Seligman regrets but doesn’t deny (p. 1), is his obvious sympathy for Kael’s skepticism toward overthinking things. Let’s start with a quote about Kael (p.15), that at the same time is indicative of how the book’s elegance will make you feel like you have reached your own conclusions, even when what you’ve really done is been given well-written discussion material:

«She said, ‘I only think with a pencil in my hand’. It was just a small joke, but it got at something. You sit down to review a work you’re not sure about your response to, and by the time you get up from your desk, you kn0w what you think. It isn’t a matter of taking a stand and then coming up with an argument to defend it; the argument is more organic than that. As you connect your thoughts – as you try to make them coherent by the simple method of fixing your sentences, making the words flow, correcting imprecisions – an argument emerges. There may be beautiful vacant writing, but I can’t cite any beautiful vacant criticism. What I can cite, is a lot of bad critical prose that thinks it can get away with its mediocrity by virtue of the (ostensibly) excellent thought behind it.»

To me, this is first and foremost a call for open-mindedness, and for respecting the sometimes seductive power of words. If you don’t watch your words carefully, they will lead you astray and invite misreadings. And if you come to the evaluation of a work of art with a fixed set of things to watch for, looking for a worldview or an aesthetic preference to be confirmed, you will inevitably diminish it. I try to live by this advice already, but I don’t always succeed, either because I can’t find the words, or because I’m pursuing an argument that I may find appealing, but that I don’t have the courage to discard when it doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. Seligman, and by extension Kael, doesn’t say you shouldn’t think, only that conceptualized overthinking will exclude and obfuscate more than it illuminates, because it entails a stale narrow-mindedness.

I have committed this sin repeatedly myself, and it doesn’t always and only happen in the writing process itself. Among other things, it should make an even stronger case for why you should avoid reading other people’s reviews until you’ve written your own. It’s not so much the fear of plagiarism of phrase as the plagiarism of thought that is the problem. If you rob yourself of the opportunity to view a movie through your own lens, you rob the movie of a new perspective at the same time. Granted, those of us who are neither professional critics nor confident enough in our tastes to be totally independent may actually be helped both intellectually and stylistically by reading other critics (per Seligman’s notion that a good piece of criticism can be just as enligthening as the work itself), but it doesn’t add anything else to the conversation. Thus, I owe my favorite critic, Dana Stevens of Slate, both a thank you and an apology. Thanks for convincing me that despising Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (review in Norwegian) doesn’t make me a bad person, or for paving the way for my panning of the well-meaning but dreadful Australia (review in Norwegian). But my apologies for how, at least in my own opinion, I was unable to develop her argument any further in any interesting way, paying back my intellectual debt.

But there’s more. A couple of times, I have dipped my toes into what Seligman is doing with real virtuosity in this book; critiquing critics. My ambition has been to extract some pattern from the critical reception of a work, and then see if it holds up. But even though I didn’t mean to, I feel like these pieces got somewhat seduced by their overall premise, and therefore forgot to really examine whether it held up. I still think I had some good points in my articles about Jonas Brothers’ Lines, Vines and Trying Times, Nick Jonas’ Who I Am (both of which grew from the sense that the artists were being treated with condescension due to their age and/or ambitions) and Tom Ford’s A Single Man, but I should have treated my findings with less certainty. I don’t think Seligman thinks that there’s anything wrong with setting out to prove that other critics have got it wrong, but if that’s your starting point, you need to do two things: First, know the limits to your argument (aka: no straw men). Second; Add something more. Intellectual honesty is important, of course, but I would argue that the second point is actually even more essential. If you have to deal in hyperbole, then at least do so in a way that can give the reader something when they debunk you. The problem with my piece about A Single Man was that I was never quite able to free myself from the straight jacket of other people’s readings (that the movie’s aesthetic was merely a ploy to hide its emptiness), and that I presented that line of criticism as more common than it really was. With regard to the Nick Jonas piece, I think the problem was that I never got around to reviewing his album on its (or my) own terms, save some generalities.

The way I read Seligman, though, the difference between Sontag and Kael is in what part of the quoted scenario they emphasize. While Kael would likely be most interested in what’s put down on paper ‘by the time she gets up from her desk’, Sontag seems to cherish the writing process itself more. This irks Seligman quite a bit, because it is couple with a large dose of arrogance toward the reader, whom she often dismisses is irrelevant, as she is instead writing ‘because there is Literature’. Also, although he concedes that Sontag is a great critic, he sees in her a coolness that is often so detached as to be joyless. Sontag’s an academic first, and she knows and embraces that – again to the point of arrogance – whereas Kael, while a great stylist, is not as interested in the barrier that theory will inevitably erect around a body of work. Seligman shares with us a fantastic quote from Kael (p. 162-63), indicting the critic Siegfried Kracauer for his insistence on bringing the airlessness of strict objectivity into what is essentially a subjective exercise:

«Siegfried Kracauer is the sort of man who can’t say ‘It’s a lovely day’ without first having to establish that it is a day, that the term “day” is meaningless without the dialectical concept of “night”, that both of these terms have no meaning unless there is a world in which day and night alternate, and so forth. By the time he has established an epistemological system to support his right to observe that it’s a lovely day, our day has been spoiled.»

I get the sense that Seligman is on Kael’s side also because she was more inclined to stand with the audience against the film industry and filmmakers (p. 38); insisting that when she didn’t like a movie it was because it could have been so much better, while Sontag’s reflexive (though reflected) elitism often put her on the side of the moralists (even when she didn’t want to), decrying the public’s willingness to give in to such lowly pleasures (though she was, he convincingly argues, not a foe of popular culture). And such it is throughout the book; without treating either of them unfairly. when Kael and Sontag is put side by side, he sides with Kael nearly every time.

On the issue of gayness, my first inclination was to I think he was being a bit too hard on Sontag. She was bisexual, although she never confirmed it publicly, while Kael was straight. As I have said many times, I find it very hard to come down forcefully on one side of the issue of whether famous gay people have a sort of obligation to come out, and it’s the same with Seligman’s issue here. He seems to think that keeping her sexuality private is something of an inconsistency for an otherwise brave political activist like Sontag, since ‘ for anyone gay, coming out of the closet is a fundamental, the fundamental political act’ (p. 103). He chides her, ever the guardian of moral seriousness, for comparing it to an act of indiscretion, of public entertainment, and he goes on: ‘Gay men and women have it so much better today than forty years ago because so many of us have come out’. Ideally, I wouldn’t demand of anyone that they present themselves as someone they’d be uncomfortable with, but at the same time, I sense that that could be because I live in a country (Norway) in which coming out has surpassed the point of political potency and gone on to become a matter of fairly risk-free self-expression (I’m simplifying slightly, and that doesn’t mean we don’t have other problems). I know that such progress progress can be reversed, however, and it could be that Sontag’s responsibility should’ve been to come out.

The problem for Sontag as an artist, though, was that she was attacked as anti-gay on several occasions, as was Kael. Seligman makes a convincing case that the charges against both of them were preposterous, and then he raises a specific point that has generally been symptomatic of the liberal left, and gay activists, for decades: Who got off free while they were concerned about the perceived bigotry of fellow liberals like Kael? He also points out another immediately recognizable issue with gay critics; their humorlessness. It doesn’t always help the cause to attack everything with the same self-righteous fervor, without accounting for context or previous attitudes. That said, I hope I am still allowed to call out comedies featuring gay characters as simply not funny, or even potentially (if not necessarily intentionally) homophobic. Writing off I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry as a one-joke movie does not prove that I don’t have a sense of humor; it proves that I have one. And I really disliked how Brüno made itself immune from any such criticism, even if that makes me one gay in a very small crowd.

But our guy Seligman really never let’s his eyes off the ball. Even in the beautiful and deeply personal closing pages, chronicling the passion with which he read Kael as a young man, and transitioning from there into the story of how they developed a professional and personal friendship, he sets an example for how a critic can use himself constructively in his writing. By making himself an example of the influence Kael has had on a generation of younger critics, he argues for her cultural significance. In short, these pages, actually closer to Sontag than Kael in the respect of using oneself to further a point, contain what I have tried to do myself over and over again. Therefore: Be warned, readers, that I will keep trying to illuminate things about culture through personal experience. But unlike the flexible Seligman, it will most likely be because that may be the only approach I can pull off.

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