The Final Book of the Last Intellectual

March 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Where the Stress Falls (Sontag, Susan)

Intellectuals have the Sisyphean task of continuing to embody (and defend) a standard of mental life and of discourse, other than the nihilistic one propagated by the mass media.”
Susan Sontag, Where the Stress Falls

The word ‘intellectual’ can be traced back to the 17th century. It originates from the Latin stem intelligere meaning to understand and discern. An intellectual was a critical discriminator: between right and wrong, true and false, good and bad. It was to intellectuals that people would turn, when faced with ambiguity in matters of ethics or aesthetics. They had a moral responsibility to be knowledgeable and brutally honest. They were respected in those days, as much for their erudition as for their personal integrity and commitment to the truth.

Nowadays, of course, the word is almost exclusively used in a derogatory sense. It stands for not one but a whole range of abuses. When the word is used to describe a book or a movie, it is a synonym for ‘slow’, ‘boring’, or ‘bewildering’. When a person is called an ‘intellectual’ today, he may be being accused of many things – being naive, weird, impractical, stupid, pretentious, indecisive, weak, unpatriotic, sanctimonious, smug, pompous, arrogant, snobbish, vain, or  supercilious.   

This dramatic volte-face in meaning took place in the 20th century, when the twin tsunamis of consumerism and the democratization of  taste engulfed and submerged the western world. The paying consumer today doesn’t care much for things that need effort or attention to detail; he is too busy to indulge in them personally, and is willing to pay good money for the right opinion to hold. The careful sifting of evidence, the painstaking research, the years of hard work – the process, in short – is not in fashion; the well-packaged expert opinion – the end product – is in hot demand.

At the same time, the twentieth century challenged all traditional sources of authority – age, sex, race, social class or educational pedigree. While this has had several positive political and social ramifications, there have been a few unintended side-effects as well. Having, with good reason, rejected all authority other than their collective self, the public proceeded to reject the moral and cultural values of previous generations and then, to reject all criticism of themselves. A clutch of self-styled ‘experts’ emerged to fill the resultant vacuum, each of them striving to gain public approval for himself through self-promotion, populism and flattery . If all men are equal, the reasoning went, I can be as much of an expert on a subject as the next man – and may the public, and the free market, be the judges of my claim to expertise.

When popularity becomes the only yardstick by which expertise may be measured, experts who are prepared to take unpopular positions fall out of favor. But that, precisely, was what the intellectual used to be respected for –  the ability to question popular opinion, to contradict conventional wisdom without fear, to give direction to the misguided and lost. Now, dissidents and naysayers are faced with public wrath at worst and scornful indifference at best. Today, more than ever before, it takes great personal courage to take contrarian positions, to reveal to these newly self-crowned  emperors of the world the embarrassing truth about the unsuitability of their attire.

And this is where Susan Sontag commands my respect. An accurately self-described “pugnacious aesthete and a barely-closeted moralist“, Sontag was one of the few people of her generation to earn the right to be called an intellectual; as an Europhilic and multi-lingual American, she was still more of a rara avis. Her most potent weapon, unfashionably so, was the essay, even if it wasn’t the one of her choice – I believe she thought of herself primarily as a reader (“…to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.“) Having stormed into the limelight in 1966 with her collection of essays, Against Interpretation, she reigned as the unquestioned queen of her genre for decades, avidly read around the world in Granta, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. This was the last collection of essays that she published while alive, and it is obvious that age and cancer had neither blunted her acuity nor withered her wit.

The book has three parts – one set of essays on reading, another on ‘seeing’, and the third on assorted subjects, including feminism, Yugoslavia, and intellectualism. Who is a true aesthete, she asks throughout the book – one who reduces the set of what can be considered beautiful by a restrictive set of formal rules, or one who is able to see – and help others see – beauty in a large number of things? Ruling in favour of the latter, she then demonstrates the truth in the statement by writing with authority and verve on so many subjects – photography, garden art, medieval Dutch paintings, modern art, cinema, ballet, modern dance forms, Japanese puppet shows (bunraku) and opera. Her analysis of these topics was highly instructive for a layman like me, and while the section on reading was the one that resonated most with my own interests, there was much to learn for me there as well. Sontag peppers her essays in this section with the works of writers she admires, dissecting them to illustrate her many points about reading and writing. I had never previously heard of many of these writers  – Glenway Wescott, Elizabeth Hardwick, Machado de Assis, Adam Zagajewski, Robert Walser, Danilo Kis, Witold Gombrowicz and Juan Rulfo (two Americans, a Brazilian, two Poles, a Scot, a Serb, and a Mexican). She also discusses authors that I had always wanted to read (Ford Madox Ford, Josef Brodsky, WG Sebald), and then, finally, two (only two!) whose works I am familiar with – Roland Barthes and Jorge Luis Borges. Reading Sontag on Barthes, in particular, was exhilarating, and vertiginious – I am conscious that I am now writing about my thoughts when I read Sontag’s writings about what she feels about a writer (Roland Barthes) who mostly wrote about the art of writing – it is like I am stepping between two mirrors, the one called Reading, the other Writing.

Susan Sontag was possibly the last of her kind – the American Intellectual. As someone who made it her lifelong business to be aware of and interested in all cultural and moral questions everywhere, she realized that the biggest moral question of our times is the obsolescence of intellectualism itself. When asked about the relevance and role of intellectuals in today’s world, she had this to say:

“There are two tasks for intellectuals …one task, educational, is to promote dialogue, support the right of a multiplicity of voices to be heard, strengthen scepticism about received opinion… the other task is adversarial. There has been a daunting shift in moral attitudes …its hallmark is the discrediting of all idealisms…of high standards of all kinds, cultural as well as moral.”

To keep the standards of civilization high, to confront and confound the forces of ignorance and brutality that question the need for standards, that is what the world needs intellectuals like Susan Sontag for.

Reflections on Reading and Writing (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane, still photograph courtesy


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