Penguin Modern number 29 is Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”, which is comprised of the title essay alongside ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’. These two essays, both of which can be found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), are heralded in the book’s blurb as ‘the first works of criticism to break down the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, and made Susan Sontag a literary sensation.’
To date, I have only read two of Sontag’s other essays, collected together in Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors, and read for an Illness Narratives class during my Master’s degree. The essays were interesting enough, but I did feel as though they were rather too brief in places.
In ‘Notes on Camp’, Sontag essentially talks about our concept of what is ‘camp’. She believes ‘Camp’ to be a demonstration of artifice, something ‘silly’ and ‘extravagant’. Near to the beginning of the essay, she writes: ‘One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas’. Of course – and this is something which Sontag strangely does not consider at all in her essay – taste is entirely subjective. This put me off on the wrong footing with Sontag’s work. Throughout, I must admit that I found her brand of essayism a touch pretentious.
‘Notes on Camp’ feels quite fragmented to read. It is as though Sontag randomly jotted down a lot of quotes and thoughts, and did not bother to sort them into any order, or even to categorise them coherently. It very much feels like a series of notes which could perhaps have done with a little revising. Oscar Wilde quotes are shoved in at random, and not commented upon for the most part. I found it quite bizarre in places. Sontag believes, for instance, that ‘many of the works of Jean Cocteau are Camp, but not those of Andre Gide; the operas of Richard Strauss, but not those of Wagner; concoctions of Tin Pan Alley and Liverpool, but not jazz’. Never does she explain how or why she has come to these strange conclusions. When she does occasionally give reasoning for a point which she makes, I found it quite odd, and did not appreciate the occasional prejudices which come to light in her writing.
In the second essay, Sontag proposes that there exist “two cultures”: the literary-artistic and the scientific. She goes on to write: ‘According to this diagnosis, any intelligent and articulate modern person is likely to inhabit one culture to the exclusion of the other. He will be concerned with different documents, different techniques, different problems; he will speak a different language. Most important, the type of effort required for the mastery of these two cultures will differ vastly. For the literary-artistic culture is understood as a general culture. It is addressed to man insofar as he is man… The scientific culture, in contrast, is a culture for specialists; it is founded on remembering and is set down in ways that require complete dedication of the effort to comprehend.’ In this essay, which is slightly more coherent than the first, and more traditional in its structure, Sontag also talks about the progression of art.
I always feel as though I should enjoy Sontag’s work more than I do. However, Notes on “Camp” has cemented that I am not a great fan of her essayism. The collection shows its age rather; perhaps it is just a product of its time, but it is not one which I particularly enjoyed, or took much from. Sontag writes with a sort of knowing superiority, and I did not find her arguments here to be particularly measured, or compelling. Her tone feels final and definite, as though her answers are the only correct ones. I prefer the essayists I read to be more open in their conclusions, allowing inclusion, something which Sontag does not seem to concern herself with.