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Under the Sign of Saturn: Essays
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 1999
Susan Sontag is "highbrow." Her essays have scope and intellectual ambition, which readers who have an allergy to these qualities may find "pretentious." She can almost mercilessly point out when something is derivative, weakly conceived, or a sell-out. She has a commitment to cinema as High Art; she takes the contemporary novel to task for being complacent and reactionary; she has a particularly sharp eye for intellectual fraud. Readers who are only interested in marching under one banner or another, or come equipped with biases or blind spots they are proud of, will probably find her annoying.
Sontag may be guilty of "neglecting to take into consideration" entertainment or commercial value, but I'm not sure why it necessarily is a requirement for her to take these things into consideration, since so many others are happily doing so. The fact that a film enjoyed great commercial value does not necessarily exempt it from being an example of "fascist aesthetics"; it simply may mean that it was a fantastically successful example of fascist aesthetics. Sontag was writing at a time when many used the word "fascism" in a very kneejerk way, as though it was this mysterious bad thing, an unknowable plague. Sontag doesn't allow herself such a simplistic attitude. She shows that in fact fascism has many attractive aspects, which is why its aesthetic still turns up everywhere, from Michael Jackson videos to Pink Floyd's The Wall to the WWF. I'm not sure she necessarily thinks this a bad thing; Americans, as we always like to remind the world, are free to enjoy whatever we enjoy, but at least we should not be dishonest about giving things their true names.
The judgement that this writer is a product of "1960s anti-establisment, feminist movement that views anything organized or male-oriented as fascist" is just a inaccurate, vague generalization whose purpose is to dismiss Sontag without having really read or thought about what she is saying. Sontag has skewered "anti-establishment types" and various feminists with the same lack of mercy she dispenses to Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer. Nobody's obligated to read Sontag or like the kind of criticism she practices. But for anyone really interested in cinema, art, theater, the novel, and related subjects, she's essential.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 20, 2004
This volume has been reread by me more than once. Sontag explains that her piece on Paul Goodman is being written in a small room in Paris. The author states she was not a friend of Goodman, although several of their worlds coincided with each other. She admired Goodman's work immensely. She describes his voice as cranky, egotistical, American. She finds him comparable, a unique voice, to D.H. Lawrence. Goodman wrote poetry, plays, novels, and social criticism. After the publication of GROWING UP ABSURD in 1960 Goodman was no longer an obscure writer. Sontag complains that he was often taken for granted, even by his admirers. She deems his amateurism identical with his genius.

Susan Sontag asserts that Antonin Artaud failed in his work and his life. His work consisted of a vast collection of fragments. Artaud described intellectual distress. He considered consciousness as process. A leading theme was the link between suffering and writing. All of Artaud's writing was in the first person. He welcomed Surrealism. Artaud's idea of revolution diverged from the Surrealists. He started in poetry. By 1926 in his search for the total art form, Artaud was doing theatrical work. Sontag holds that Artaud offers the greatest quantity of suffering in literature.

The author produces a devastating analysis of the pretensions of Leni Riefenstahl. Sontag's discussion of Alpine movie epics is engaging. Riefenstahl is identified with the Nazi era. Sontag contends that her pbotography book, THE LAST OF THE NUBA, completed thirty years after that era continued to exemplify Nazi ideology.

Walter Benjamin is the subject of the title essay. Benjamin found Saturnine elements in Baudelaire, Proust, Karl Kraus, and even Goethe. To him, subject to melancholy, solitutde appeared to be the fit state of man. Benjamin collected emblem books. His relations with others were complex, veiled. Benjamin felt an affinity to the baroque and the Surreal. He had a microscopic gaze. Benjamin was a wanderer and a collector. By miniaturizing things they became portable. Benjamin wrote that the melancholic permits himself the pleasure of allegory. His characteristic form was the essay.

The piece on Elias Canetti stresses the writer's acquisition of languages. German became the language of his mind. As a child he had spoken Ladino. He had a taste for fanciful blends of knowledge. Canetti was rather close to Freud in technique and interests, but not Freudian. Sontag describes CROWDS AND POWER as an eccentric book.

The essays in this volume are both serious and lively.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 18, 2006
Sontag has once again compiled an intelligent collection of essays on widely varying aesthetic topics. Though she begins with a rather artificial and patronizing obituary for the late man of letters Paul Goodman, whose body of work she is evidently less than enthused with, though she feels obliged to compare him to Sartre. The essay rings of false piety.

She moves into an expansive and favorable essay on Antonin Artaud, the great playwright and artist of the avant-garde movement. Sontag reviews the developments of his great career within the context of moralistic philosophic aesthetics, liking him with Nietzsche, then Sade, then Breton.

Yet the most impressive essay in Under the Sign is titled `Fascinating Fascism,' and it is truly fascinating. In it, Sontag overviews the work of filmmaker, actress, and photographer Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi propagandist whose body of work includes the esteemed documentaries Triumph of the Will, and Olympia, the latter about the 1936 Olympic games. Sontag reviews Riefenstahl's book of photography on the Nuba tribe in Sudan, which is apparently breathtaking. Sontag concludes that Reifenstahl, despite her `de-Nazification' and renunciation of her political past is still enamored with a fascist ideal, valuing the masculine strength of the male Nuba and placing their bodies in the foreground, while the women remain vulnerable and tucked away in shadowy corners. The essay is highly provocative.

The title essay is about the great philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin, whom she reviews favorably. This essay provides some interesting tidbits of information that Hannah Arendt neglects to include in her introduction, such as Benjamin's apparent hatred for Heidegger's philosophy.

Also included in this volume is an excellent and terse review of Roland Barthes, and the fine novelist Elias Canetti, whom she holds in great esteem.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 1999
There are many reasons to read Susan Sontag. Two of them are her brilliant essays on Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti that appear in this volume. Both works suggest as much about Sontag and her intellectual and moral values as they do about Benjamin and Canetti. If you care about twentieth-century European intellectual history, don't miss Sontag on Benjamin and Canetti.
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on February 15, 2012
Sontag, as ever, manages to craft writings of remarkable intellectual range and depth on pretty much anything she focuses. Under the Sign of Saturn feels a bit darker than some of her other books I've read, in so far is a lot of the essays focus on (both directly and implicity) fascism and its broad appeal and continued resonance in the arts and culture of the post-war era. I think the best thing I can say about these is that even when you have no exposure to the works of people she writes about (I for one don't know the first thing about Antonin Artaud Elias Canetti or Hans Syberberg) she still manages to spin out so many dazzlingly smart observations that they are absolutely worth your time. Sontag makes you passionate about everything she's passionate about. And there seems to be very little that she isn't passionate about
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11 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 1999
When Sontag analyzes the film making style of Leni Riefenstahl, she makes numerous references to the use of the "fascist aesthetics." Sontag's book, Under the Sign of Saturn, drones on about the use of this style of filmmaking employed by both fascist and communist regimes. This genre displays a "preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of characteristics pageantry: the massing of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transitions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and congealed, static, 'virile posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death" (New York: Doubleday, 1980, p. 91). To her credit, Sontag goes on to point out that films such as Disney's Fantasia, Berkeley's The Gangs All Here, and Kubrick's 2001 all fit the fascist art form. At least, she admits that not all films that fit this style are made under dictatorial governments. The tone of her attack on this genre of film would lead one believe, that she was a student of Siegfried Kracauer. Someone blindly lumping all film together as commentary on their society and neglecting to take into consideration their entertainment or commercial value. In fairness to Sontag, one must consider when she made her observations of Riefenstahl. In 1980, the United States was still reeling from the affects of the Viet Nam conflict. Susan Sontag is most probably a product of the 1960's anti-establishment, feminist movement that views anything organized or male oriented as fascist. In the 1999, Sontag's self serving opinions and criticisms seem as antiquated prohibition was as solution to public drunkenness.
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