Susan Sontag’s Jewish World

A theme of The Culture of Critique is that Jewish intellectual movements created a fundamentally Jewish intellectual and social world whose members promoted each other and socialized with each other. People outside that world didn’t matter. They could be subject to mobbing-type attacks or simply ignored.

The New York Intellectuals spent their careers entirely within a Jewish social and intellectual milieu. When Rubenfeld (1997, 97) lists people [Clement] Greenberg invited to social occasions at his apartment in New York, the only gentile mentioned is artist William de Kooning. Revealingly, Michael Wrezin (1994, 33) refers to Dwight Macdonald, another Trotskyist contributor to [Partisan Review, the flagship journal of the New York Intellectuals], as “a distinguished goy among the Partisanskies.” Another non-Jew was writer James T. Farrell, but his diary records a virtually all-Jewish social milieu in which a large part of his life was spent in virtual non-stop social interaction with other New York Intellectuals (Cooney 1986, 248). Indeed, [Norman] Podhoretz (1967, 246–248) refers to the New York Intellectuals as a “family” who, when they attended a party, arrived at the same time and socialized among their ingroup. (CoCChapter 6, pp. 220-221)

A discussion in the Forward of a recent biography of Susan Sontag is a nice illustration of this phenomenon (Susan Sontag’s Not-So-Secret and Not-Always-So-Jewish History: Biographer Demonstrates Author’s Persistent Charms). 

Very soon, Sontag would draw inspiration from a series of Jewish mentors and friends, or as Schreiber puts it, the “dominant, exotic European-Jewish father figure to whom Sontag was attracted throughout her career.” These include the political philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss and the sociologist Philip Rieff with whom she studied at the University of Chicago— she married Rieff at age 17. At Harvard, Sontag was taught by another sociologist, Jacob Taubes; his wife Susan’s fascination with the French Jewish philosopher Simone Weil inspired one of Sontag’s ardent campaigns to get the American reading public to heed hitherto overlooked writers and thinkers. Her publicization of “the achievements of such authors as Walter Benjamin [of the Frankfurt School], Elias Canetti, Paul Goodman, and Leonid Tsypkin, who wrote the novel “Summer in Baden Baden,” are among Sontag’s most sympathetic labors.

While respectful of literary elders, Sontag had an ironic attitude toward a few “dominant, exotic European-Jewish father figures” such as French Jewish philosopher Jean Wahl, whom she met in Paris in 1958. The septuagenarian Wahl, who had escaped from Drancy internment camp during the Nazi occupation, was mocked by Sontag for having “three holes in his pants through which his underpants were visible.” By the time she moved to New York in 1959, her Jewish influences were her contemporaries, often gay writers including the novelist Alfred Chester, poet Richard Howard and film critic Elliott Stein. The last-mentioned apparently inspired Sontag to write her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” which, if necessarily of its time, still has value as a cultural artefact today.

In other words, she lived her life in an entirely Jewish milieu and did her fair share of ingroup promoting — ethnic nepotism/networking by any other name. But it was also a very elite milieu — the University of Chicago, Harvard, Columbia, famous writers and philosophers. What she said mattered because she was published in elite magazines and by elite publishers.

However, she had her critics, but the entire conversation was among Jews.

As Sontag’s celebrity grew, she became the target for vehement naysayers, including the critic Robert Brustein who in 1971 termed her a “fairy princess of the kingdom of cultural schizophrenia.” Another critic, Philip Rahv, loathed her francophilia — and Irving Howe felt that her main skill was in public relations as a fabricator of “skilfully rebuilt versions of aesthetic notions long familiar and discarded,” whose readers “have discarded or not acquired intellectual literacy.” Which amounts to saying that she was what the French call, without pejorative meaning, a vulgarisateur, someone who popularizes things, surely a noble task for literary journalists.

In the end, little of her work is of lasting significance, even in Jewish intellectual circles.

These putdowns aside, Sontag’s output could be uneven, especially as a filmmaker and playwright. Yet some of her work still resonates today. “Promised Lands,” with its focus on mystical life in a war-torn land, may have ultimately led to her being awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 2001, even if it was not welcomed in Israel in the aftermath of the tragic conflict. Film reviewer Stanley Kauffmann saw “Promised Lands” as “Hegelian” in not displaying a “struggle between truth and falsehood but between two opposing, partial truths.” In doing so, Sontag relied on filmed testimony on Arab anti-Semitism by Israeli physicist and politician Yuval Ne’eman, and writer Yoram Kaniuk, an advocate of Palestinian rights.

In any case, her legacy will be determined by how it is appraised by other Jewish writers. As the above paragraph indicates, an issue will be whether she treated Israel fairly.

There’s no mention here of her 1967 Partisan Review comment:

If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far. … The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world [once suspects that in the back of her mind is indictment for negative attitudes about Jews]. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.[26] [Italics in original]

However, the above comment is mentioned on Sontag’s Wikipedia page (along with a lot of other names of elite Jews with whom she was associated). Her hostility toward the West is doubtless a positive factor in her evaluation by the literary establishment.

The fundamental problem is not that so many Jews, like Sontag, do not identify with the West and have animosity toward it. We shouldn’t really expect anything else given the ancient hostility between Jews and non-Jews in Europe, any more than we would expect the Roma or African Americans to identify with the West or to have positive attitudes toward it.

The problem is that Jews, unlike those groups, are an intellectual/academic/media/political/financial elite. What they think matters. Susan Sontag was part of that very critical problem. Her works may not have any lasting significance for anyone, but she was a major figure on the anti-White intellectual left at a time when Jews ascended the heights of intellectual high ground in America and the West, resulting in a mindset that undermined the confidence of traditional, ethnically European Western elites. With disastrous consequences for Europeans.

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