I'm with Wolfie
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 8 August 2018
The book contains two essays by Sontag, both published in the mid 1960s.
The first, "Notes on ‘Camp’", is exactly as the title says and consists, to a significant extent, of identifying what is and is not Camp by means of the 4S test (Susan Sontag Says So).
A lot of it I got, quite a bit of it I found incomprehensible and quite a bit of it I disagreed with.
SS tells us that:
"....the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration." - yes, I'm with that;
"It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater." - and I'm with that, although I would have preferred “theatre”;
"Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine …" - I don't get that but, unlike SS, I am not bisexual [as far as I know];
"Considered a little less strictly, Camp is either completely naïve or else wholly conscious...." - no idea what that means;
"The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious’." - yes, I think I get that.
When we get around to what is and isn’t Camp under the 4S test, we have:
“….concoctions of Tin Pan Alley and Liverpool [are Camp], but not jazz.” – is she really saying that The Beatles, The Searchers, Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas, The Mersey Beats, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Gerry And The Pacemakers are Camp? - okay, forget Billy J – Outrageous! Disgraceful! Sacrilegious! – Now, if she had said that Freddie And The Dreamers and Herman’s Hermits (fka: Herman And The Hermits) were Camp, I would have been with her all the way but, as any sentient being knows, these were not Liverpool bands but were in fact Manchester bands;
“The corny flamboyant femaleness of Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Jane Russell, Virginia Mayo [is Camp]” – as regards the first three, I think she is dead wrong (but, unlike her, I am not bisexual, as far as I know), to me, in the early 1960s, as a sweaty, smelly, hormonal, pubescent schoolboy, they were icons of perfect, desirable womanhood; I cannot comment on the fourth one because it is outside my experience – when we cannot be bothered to make our own, we fall back on Hellmann’s;
“The public manner and rhetoric of de Gaulle, often, are pure Camp.” – Zut allors! What would les gernouilles vrais have to say about that?
She does, however, miss out on the man who was, for me, the apogee, the epitome, the very essence of Camp – Kenneth Williams – and her Ameircanichality cannot be used to excuse her as, in her essay, she references both The Goon Show and The Temperance Seven, who occupied the same time and place as KW; and talking of the essence of Camp, she makes no mention of Camp Coffee (this qualifies because it meets the 4S test, it is Camp and it is unnatural).
Towards the end of the essay, we get into some dark territory with:
“The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility [propaganda] are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.”
“Needless to say, the propaganda operates in exactly the opposite direction. The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense.”
SS outperforms even our own, beloved Labour Party, managing to display a contemptuous and patronising attitude towards Jews and gays and to display anti-Semitism and homophobia twice in two paragraphs.
The second essay, titled “One Culture and the New Sensibility”, is about: “….a purported chasm which opened up some two centuries ago, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, between ‘two cultures’, the literary-artistic and the scientific.”, about which it goes on, and on, and on….
Fortuitously, I lost the will to read it before I lost the will to live and, sadly, ended up with a big, rare DNF.
Tom Wolfe once dismissed Sontag as "just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering to the podium encumbered by her prose style, which had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review”. – this was a general comment about SS, not specific to “Notes on Camp”, but, if you are looking for anyone with a deep and meaningful relationship with Camp, Wolfe must be right up there, posing around Manhattan in his white homburg, white tie, white suit and two-tone shoes.
I’m with Wolfie.
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