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Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me Hardcover – May 25, 2004
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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From Publishers Weekly
Though both were Berkeley-educated single mothers, critics Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael could not have been more different on the page. Where Sontags tone was "formal and rather icy," Kaels was "verbal bebop"; where Sontags diction was dense and meticulously worked, Kaels was colloquial and straightforward. Former New Yorker editor Seligman, however, applauds both approaches and exuberantly celebrates his "reverence" for the former writer and "love" for the latter in this engaging book. Writing with a tangible joy that oozes from his first paragraph to his last, Seligman begins his paean to Sontag and Kael by documenting their controversy-filled rise to prominence as writers in the 1960s. A supporterand later a criticof "camp" and a dissector of Leni Riefenstahls fascist aesthetics, Sontag is the more criticized of the two, and Seligman spends a great deal of time justifying her ideological flip-flops and her comparatively unemotional response to 9/11. Kael, on the other hand, is a veritable goddess to Seligman. A late-comer to film criticism, she wrote her first review (of Chaplins Limelight) at age 32 and was decrying screen violence and declaring Orson Welles a monster for the New Yorker by 1968. Replete with emotional asides, textual excerpts and personal anecdotes, Seligmans text often loses its focus. But what his stream-of-consciousness narrative lacks in organization, it more than makes up for in lyrical enthusiasm.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Two resounding critical voices made sense of the creative ferment of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, two opposing forces of high-octane intellect and demanding aesthetics, two outspoken and revolutionary women: Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. Seligman has drunk deeply at the well of both of these seminal and controversial thinkers, but his adoration takes different forms: he loves Kael and reveres Sontag. This crucial difference underlies his bravura inquiry into their ethos and influence, a dazzling performance of close reading in which he so vigorously parses each critic's style, ideas, temperament, politics, and emotional valence it's almost as though he's broadcasting color at a boxing match. And he's no slouch himself when it comes to piquant and exacting language and thought as he analyzes Sontag's mutability, austerity, and iciness versus Kael's puckishness, abundance, and pugnacity. Seligman's brilliant and far-ranging critique of two paradigm-altering critics inspires the reader to think hard about art's place in life and criticism's role in culture, and to renew delight in blazingly bold interpretative writing. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
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Critics who review this book are participating in a real pomo experience: critiquing a critic who is not only criticizing two critics but the critics of those critics as well (follow? no matter). Anyway: read, enjoy, applaud.
The lasting appeal of Kael lay in the way she unapologetically valorized her own eccentricities of judgment and taste. Even when you don't agree with her (which, for me, is often) it is impossible not to listen to her. I think her lasting importance is that she gave people permission to live in their own sensibilities. She had no real agenda, just an abiding love of visual pleasure that verged, at times, on the fetishistic.
The superficial appeal of Sontag was her ability to make intellectual rigor seem glamorous; but more lasting is her ability to make the intellectual life still seem viable (even in an age of mass culture). For Sontag I think intellectual pursuit was a framing device for her life, it was her way of living with dignity in an undignified age.
Like Seligman, I am fond of both of these cultural critics. I actually came into contact with Sontag one evening when she came into a Miami bookstore. I was behind the counter that night, it was late, near closing, the store was empty except for her. She bought three books --all obscure European authors. At the time I knew who she was (from the iconic black and white photographs of her that appeared in various literary periodicals, and from her appearance in ZELIG) but hadn't yet read her many books of essays and her novels that I began reading thereafter. In her brown trenchcoat and with her unkempt silvering hair she looked like a New York version of a slightly mad street woman. She seemed lonely, robbed of her beauty but still possessed of something equally luminous. It seemed an absurd breach of etiquette to charge Susan Sontag money for books. Less than a year after this strange meeting I learned, in a theory class, that she had passed away.
That part of me that is attracted to the always changing pulse of real life is attracted to Pauline Kael; that part of me that is attracted to that rare kind of intellectual rigor that actually does provide nourishment and sustenance is attracted to Sontag. Kael is learned and wise but also giddy and capricious in many of her evaluations (she seems to foreground the ephemerality of judgement and taste as if their ephemerality were the very thing that made them valuable); Sontag is fiercely intellectual and at times it seems that she is doing battle with the corporeal, and, despite the high quality of her intellectual engagment and achievement she seems frustrated that judgments rarely hold up for very long. So for her, criticism was a kind of contest with time and with ones own shifting sense of self. Nonetheless, even if individual judgments came and went, for Sontag the sanctity of the intellectual enterprise itself was never diminished.
I found Seligman's book of value because it allowed me to re-think my own views of two of my favorite essayists. I think if these two share anything (beyond the fact that they both came to prominence in the 1960's: no other decade could have produced both a Sontag and a Kael) it is that they are both at their best when they are in the presence of something (some film perhaps) that captivates them, that enthralls them, that challenges them to re-think and to re-formulate their love of a cherished art form. This and the fact that the only thing that these two loved more than art was writing about it. Of course as far as what kind of art each chose to write about and how they chose to write about it, these two were polar opposites.