20th-century critics prior to Susan Sontag varied in crucial ways with respect to their IDEAS, nevertheless they tended to share a common SENSIBILITY. According to Sontag, a sensibility is something other than an idea. An idea provides a model or standard to which something secondary to it should conform; it provides a paradigm. SENSIBILITY, however, is quite a bit like a cultivated instinct. It’s a sure touch or automatic impulse to select one thing over another. It happens almost instantaneously, far more quickly than deliberate choice; in other words, it is pre-conscious. And this is the key to Sontag. The male critics prior to her deliberated between right and wrong, high and low, art and kitsch, but they all participated in a common struggle to prefer to “get it right”, to prefer what is best. They all displayed, in various ways, a fundamental concern not to be duped into liking art which was bad or ridiculous or a failure. In other words, all of these guys took for granted “The Importance of Being Earnest” (click the image to the left), and sought before all things to keep Art on a level of HIGH SERIOUSNESS, the sort of attitude evinced by the “no nonsense” poetry and morality of the great English poet William Wordsworth (click the image on the right), author of “Intimations of Immortality” (click). This is the fundamental sensibility or bodily disposition which determines the quality and direction of all their thought. You will have noticed this attitude in certain people around you. They are always uptight and always worried, always on the lookout never to do wrong, never to make a bad choice, never to say the wrong thing, never to appear foolish or uninformed or vulgar or uncool or etc. You know the type. And what Sontag will urge is this, that the bodily disposition, which is this case is always to be upright and correct and serious, is something that one tries to maintain at all times. This is a highly artificial state, mind you, but for many people it becomes second nature. And if you know people like this, you will also know that everything they do becomes a product of this primary disposition. Uptight people lead uptight lives, and make uptight speeches, and wear uptight clothing, and produce uptight art (if they are able to produce such a thing at all).
In Sontag’s work, however, we see a completely contrary position being argued. Rather than high seriousness, a feeling of Enlightened and constant Moral Responsibility, which automatically, in its very body, assumes that life is important business, and art, as well as criticism, if either is to be legitimate, must take life seriously and work hard all the time to achieve something, to engage in work worth doing. In a word, according to this sensibility, all Human activity must yield a profit. For example, I read this long and weird and twisted poem written in Asia Minor almost three thousand years ago. It was full of graphic violence, soldiers betraying their closest friends because of their love for the women they treated as mere trophies of war; and also about their gods, who acted like a bunch of spoiled, hormonal teenagers. Well, that was a total waste of time. But if I learn to read these events as symbols, or a ciphers in a code, then maybe I can get some message out of this which will make me a better person, maybe I can get some positive payoff from what otherwise would have been just a wasted effort. This is not Sensibility per se, but a specific sensibility Sontag rejects.
In place of this, Sontag offers not no Sensibility at all, but rather a contrary sensibility, one which is gratuitous and frivolous and irresponsible. And which produces not serious ideas so much as fascinating objects. For Sontag art is not work, and Enjoyment or Catharsis is not merely something we are allowed to experience for the sake of a great good, whether individual or communal. Rather, ENJOYMENT should be an end unto itself. What Sontag values in Camp sensibility is the positive bodily power not to recoil from unrestrained bodily experience, not to retreat into the lofty and “important” world of Meaning. We love instances of Camp objects because their failure is so obvious when we witness them, we feel utterly emancipated from the terrible responsibility, the almost ineluctable moral urge, to be grownups. Life, in the world of the very best Camp, can be fresh, fun, immediate, forever young. In the best camp we surrender our pride and deliver ourselves to overwhelming emotions of fear, pity, and grief (even though we know better), but most especially we experience PLEASURE. According to the sensibility of High Seriousness, all these feeling exist not to lead us to healthy virtuous action. In Camp, on the other hand, they are purely gratuitous.
By now it should be apparent that the men we read prior to Sontag, in one way or another, each privileged Cognition. The Human Being, for them, is despite everything, fundamentally a rational THINKING creature; it conceives of ideas, or solves problems. Sontag, both in “Against Interpretation” and “Notes On Camp” however, argues just the opposite: The Human is fundamentally a sensitive FEELING creature. To the extent we’re even interested in perfecting ourselves at all, the way to do it is not through produce ever more complex interpretations of reality, but rather by cultivating our sensitivity, or ability to experience the most exquisite pleasures and pains. Again, not because they teach us anything or lead us to act more wisely, but simply because the capacity really to experience Pleasure and Pain is an end unto itself. These emotions, free of Duty as well as Resentment, are the very stuff of the Eternal Joy described by Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. This unregulated feeling is not necessarily “good” for anything. It is simply life lived at its fullest, the only life worth living.
Nietzsche, despite the general availability of his writings, has, for the last century, been interpreted as a dower, gloomy and serious thinker – the kind of squinting, tortured soul that Montaigne found suited not to the study of philosophy but rather grammar. For what it’s worth, Sontag is attempting to present us with a very different version of this highly misunderstood philosopher, one given not to profound ruminations but rather flashes of brilliant insight. This is a Nietzsche who would have agreed with the “dangerous” Victorian critic Walter Pater, who said:
To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.