Two Fierce Women, or, Cliff Shrugged
I. SUSAN SONTAG
In Phillip Lopate’s wonderfully illuminating, critical but warm new book, Notes on Sontag, there is a quote that speaks for me: “As one thoughtful writer friend put it, ‘I feel as if I have one brain and she has two.’”
Unlike, say, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag is not a writer I wish I could’ve gotten to know personally. For one thing, that tall, beautiful, brilliant, supremely haughty essayist/novelist most likely wouldn’t have given me the time of day. That attitude came across to an extent in those powerful essays. She could indeed make an intelligent reader feel dumb, and as Lopate explains, she did it partly on purpose — referring to obscure things and people as if everyone ought to know what or who they were, and if you didn’t, she couldn’t be bothered to explain.
If you are seriously (and quite understandably) put off by that kind of thing, then I can’t recommend her essay collections. (I can’t recommend her novels cuz I ain’t read ‘em.) But if you like looking at things in ways you might not have thought of yourself, and don’t mind doing it with the help of a larger-than-life snob; if you’re a note-taker; if you have a slight masochastic streak — in other words, if you’re like me — you might dig these three collections by Sontag:
– Against Interpretation (1966)
– Styles of Radical Will (1969)
– Under the Sign of Saturn (1980)
And I can’t recommend Lopate’s book highly enough.
II. AYN RAND
People seem to fall into one of two categories when it comes to Rand: there are the passionate embracers of her ideas, and there are the possibly even more passionate haters of her and all she stood for.
I have a foot in each camp. What I don’t like: the appalling flatness of some of her characters (most of all John Galt from Atlas Shrugged); her nonfunctioning descriptions and similes; her near-total absence of compassion; and her absolute lack of humor. (And if you come to Rand looking for irony, somebody gave you bad directions.) What I applaud: her narrative sweep and drive (especially in Shrugged); her championing of the individual; and her opposition to group-think, particularly when the result is defeatism — the attitude whose unspoken message is, What makes you think you can accomplish anything? You’re no better than me.
What’s your take?