"Later Essays by Susan Sontag," Library of America, 876 pages, $45.
“Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender and Feminism," by Camille Paglia, Pantheon, 315 pages, $26.95.
If American literature and American feminism alike never quite succeeded in becoming the equivalent of restoration comedy, you can’t blame Camille Paglia. She certainly seemed to try.
There was a period in the '90s when she was almost literally stalking Susan Sontag at events only to have Sontag, when push inevitably came to shove, tell a TV interviewer that she’d never heard of her.
Among the things Paglia thought were at stake in The Feud That Never Was, was Sontag’s identity as a lesbian which Sontag never thought merited discussion, even though her long life partner was photographer Annie Leibovitz.
The trouble with the nonexistent literary “feud” Paglia desperately wanted is that Sontag wanted no part of it. If you look at the Library of America’s wonderful second and final volume of Sontag’s essays, they share few if any of the concerns which Paglia trumpeted at the pop cultural volume level of Metallica and The Who. Sontag’s great later period essays on Syberberg’s “Our Hitler,” Leni Riefenstahl, Elias Canetti, AIDS and Its Metaphors, Roland Barthes, Robert Mapplethorpe, Joseph Brodsky, and wars and rumors of wars are included along with “Regarding the Pain of Others.” She died in 2004 at the age of 71 after illness had obviously affected her purview.
A palpable irony now is that Paglia, in her newest essay collection, is probably worthy of two or three times the attention she used to get with her paramilitary assaults and intellectual fusillades into the pop cultural night. Now that she is 70, she is one of the most fascinating (and individualistic) writers on feminism and gender extant. If she shares a subject or two with Sontag, it’s significantly Mapplethorpe, and she’ll discuss mostly his Patti Smith photo for her LP “Horses” which is an artful photo against a white wall of “rumpled, tattered, unkempt, hirsute Smith” as she “defies the rules of femininity. Soulful, haggard, emaciated yet raffish, swaggering and seductive, she is mad saint, ephebe, dandy, troubador, a complex woman alone and outward bound for culture wars.” Or, what Paglia herself might want to see in the mirror.