Sunday, February 3, 2013

Critics, Artists, Idols, Fans: Camille Paglia's Intestinal Flora and Joseph Cornell's Cultural Detritus

In her brief heydey of the early 90s, my teenage idol Camille Paglia called out her teenage idol, Susan Sontag (“Notes on Camp” was published when Ms. P was 17, my age when my life was changed by Sexual Personae), for her failure to maintain her visibility and public centrality of the 60s. One can now say exactly the same thing about Paglia, although her seemingly wilful withdrawal from relevance has been less mandarin (the accusation she levelled against Sontag) than schoolmarmish. In fact, Paglia's failure has been far more conspicuous and embarrassing than Sontag's, since she herself gave us the terms by which to measure it, boasting prematurely in the first volume of Sexual Personae that its two volumes made it the longest book ever written by a woman... only for the second volume, on sports and pop culture, to never materialize.

Instead of that volume, we got two collections of provocative articles, plus a BFI monograph on Hitchcock's The Birds, in the 90s; in the new millennium, we've been gifted with one slender volume in each decade to date, the first on poetry, the most recent on the visual arts. Meanwhile Paglia has stuck industriously to her teaching gig at the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts (now University of the Arts) to which she once attributed the maintenance of her intellectual acumen (she's a real teacher, not like those celebrity academics and conference schmoozers) and, until recently, produced a rambling column for that illustrates Paglia's decline from the late 90s to the late 00s, as steep as her previous decline from the early to late 90s. To use a Paglian analogy, Paglia's falling-off as a critic after Sexual Personae – composed in the 70s and 80s – is as striking as the difference between Lauren Bacall's glowing, fresh-faced appearance in To Have or Have Not, her breathtaking debut, and every movie afterwards, when the 19-year-old's baby fat melted away, leaving only the hard, prematurely matronly mask.  

As with To Have or Have Not, Sexual Personae has taken Paglia a long way, and she's as deserving a star as Bacall. And yet it gets worse, though not quite as bad, just yet, as Crawford and Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? By the way, how do you like this for a coincidence of the kind which Google can magically call up: Who's Afraid of Bette Davis? was released on October 26, 1962, 13 days after Whatever Happened to Martha's Baby?, Edward Albee's similarly-named play, also a bit of camp Grand Guignol about a couple of old hags tearing each other apart, opened on Broadway. Stuff like that makes me think that maybe there really is meaning and order in the universe. And that God is a drag queen.

My Little Monet

Miss P's latest, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars, hopefully bears a subtitle reminiscent of Sexual Personae's Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, but its poverty of ideas, imagination, and language is accurately represented by its thuddingly stupid title. Glittering images? Really? That's the best description of Western art that Paglia could come up with? (And although it doesn't say so in the subtitle, it's all Western art inside.) Because for me it conjures up not Bernini and Monet so much as Barbie and My Little Pony.

The title may be representative of the book's problems, but it's also the least of them. Pagsy trumpets in the polemical-as-usual Introduction, “This book is an attempt to reach a general audience for whom art is not a daily presence.” Well, goody gum-drops, but in fact Glittering Images (really?!??) can't decide whether it wants to be Art History for Dummies or revisionist in the manner of SP. So we get a really dull tour of the obligatory (Laocoon, The Death of Marat, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon), but major artists are often represented by lesser-known works, and some choices, like Donatello's Mary Magdalene, are downright strange – though the Christian denial of the flesh here is interesting if you've already read Paglia's scintillating commentary on the pagan beauty-worship of the same artist's David in SP. Never was there a starker representation of Christian spirituality=ugliness (denial of the flesh and world) and classical spirituality=beauty (physical beauty as divine) than in the juxtaposition of these two sculptures.

In making her selections for GI, no doubt Paglia went through a dilemma comparable to that of the critics who have to come up with 10 Greatest Movies lists for the Sight & Sound poll and can only produce a mish-mash of consensus masterpieces, personal favourites, and perverse selections that they hope to bring to wider attention. The book's lack of a unifying purpose or thesis could be forgiven if the individual essays were brilliant; unfortunately, they're barely diverting. The prose and thought of GI (the title's sugary-pop-song-like adjective-noun combination is picked up in the chapter titles: “Living Letters,” “Solitary Watcher,” “Satin Knights” – that pointless “Knights in White Satin” reference is worthy of an academic conference paper title – “Swirling Line,” “Melting Color,” and on and on) bring together the weaknesses of Paglia's later works, Break, Blow, Burn and The Birds, without their relative strengths. GI has the same gift-booky format as B, B, B: Paglia writes short appreciations/close readings of great poems/artworks with said poems or paintings reproduced for handy reader reference. But whereas in Break, Blow, Burn, she really did produce close readings, if nothing else, the chattier essays in GI often seem to talk about everything but the images. Is it possible that the image-worshiping Paglia is actually much better at reading literature than she is at reading visual artworks?

For some reason the essays in GI go after a shapeless, junk-pile accumulation of facts – bits of historical context, gossip, and tangential “fun facts” like the history of the yacht that the daughter of the guy in the painting is “cavorting aboard” in a photo taken by the same guy who took a photo of the guy dancing the tango, which it sort of looks like he's doing in the painting (I shit you not). This accretive style worked in The Birds, since Hollywood movie fandom can support a gossipy approach in which every detail is precious. Moreover, in that book, Paglia was still paying close attention to the details of the movie itself; in GI, in contrast, she seems bored to death by the artworks, which are accorded about half the essays' pages, or less. I agree with the blogger, a fellow Paglia fan, whose review I found on some scary right-wing website, who said that at times the essays remind him of Wikipedia, only I'd say they're like a Wikipedia entry crossed with the book review of a diligent high school student who's spent more time on the research than the writing.

Like her former mentor at Yale, Harold Bloom, and at exactly the same age (mid-60s, which for Bloom was in the mid-90s, the time of the publication of The Western Canon), Paglia seems to have completely forgotten that paragraphs are supposed to have topics. Sentence follows sentence without progress of either sense or cadence, and at times the prose is so lazy it reads like a bad translation. There's no excuse whatsoever for a construction like “tension is felt from the unnaturally compressed space.” What's wrong with “the unnaturally compressed space creates a feeling of tension”? Not good enough for her? (Incidentally, Sexual Personae is such an influence on my prose that I can't put two words in a row without thinking about Paglia. Thanks to her and that other thorn in my side, my other teenage idol, Morrissey, I bleed alliteration and assonance. My style of criticism also owes everything to SP, in case you hadn't noticed.)

Also like Bloom since the mid-90s, Paglia's decided she's too good for not only footnotes but even a bibliography, which is a shame because it makes Paglia's various historical and biographical tidbits seem about as trustworthy as Wikipedia (we may be in the age of too much information, but at least all of it's uncertain), and also because the bibliography of Sexual Personae was a treasure trove of the classics of 20th century criticism, such as Kenneth Clark's stylish The Nude, Arnold Hauser's two-volume The Social History of Art (to date I've only flipped through it, though I've owned it for nearly 20 years), the tomes of Kenneth Burke (way too dense for me), and Leslie Fiedler's marvellous Love and Death in the American Novel, which has influenced my thinking about the novel and film almost as much as Sexual Personae influenced my thinking about life. It goes without saying that Glittering Images is not in the league of any of these works, and the reason is that Paglia has no story to tell – about the representation of the nude body in Western art or the secret triumph of romance over the realism in the novel. No thesis; no argument; no story. She told her story in SP; here she points and says, “Lookit – art is neat! And did you know that in the 1920s people liked to tango?”

Tangoing Art Deco Doctors and Soap Opera Brain Tumours

That section on the tango that I keep mocking is from what may be my favourite chapter, on Tamara de Lempicka's Portrait of Doctor Boucard, where Paglia makes a persuasive case for her personal candidate for The Only Female Artist Allowed to Exist, in place of feminist favourite Frida Kahlo, preferring Lempicka's “Garbo cheekbones” and “naked ambition” to Kahlo's “ailments, accidents, and surgeries.” It's clear that for Pagsy, Lempicka is the Madonna to Kahlo's Courtney Love, whom Pagsy's bashed in the past, even though unlike Mads, who thought Pags was a creepy stalker, Love read Sexual Personae and was influenced by it – and is much more of a companion to Paglia as a provocative 90s female celebrity.

The Lempicka chapter woke me up a little because for the first time in the book Paglia was making an original argument instead of throwing facts at the page to see what sticks. Or seemingly original, though it's clear that she was turned on to Lempicka by “Laura Claridge's riveting 1999 biography,” as she calls it. Portrait of Doctor Boucard, with its Art Deco melodrama and gaudinessinitially looks out of place among the consensus masterpieces, but as soon as Paglia mentions Mannerism and especially Bronzino it all makes sense.

The portrait is in the tradition of representations of scientists like Vermeer's Astronomer, but unlike that rapt, contemplative being, Lempicka's Boucard is an Adolphe Menjou society type who looks out of place in the lab and as though he barely has time to glance at his microscope. Paglia sees Boucard's twisty torso as a “forceful positioning” and compares it to the cavalryman in Gericault's Officer of the Chasseurs Commanding a Charge, but I see Beardsley's flighty creature of fashion, who shares not only the doctor's angular, distracted stance but also his enormous shoulder pads, which androgynizes Beardsley's woman as the fanciful flowing “lab coat” androgynizes the Boucard of Lempicka's portrait, even as it anticipates the iconic trenchcoat of Bogie's hardboiled detective.

Boucard is also a soap opera doctor, like George Brent in Dark Victory, who falls in love with his patient, Bette Davis, a wild, spoiled rich girl who discovers she's dying of a brain tumour. What does the image say about science – if anything? The doctor as hero as dashing figure of idealized masculinity (blending assertion and suave passivity) out of a Hollywood movie or magazine ad? And speaking of the accomplishments of Boucard's profession that brought new prestige to the medical profession in the 20th century, the Lempicka chapter also contains the single most hilariously self-parodic, po-faced sentence in the book: “Boucard was a biochemist who had become a millionaire through his development and marketing of Lacteol, one of the first probiotics, which restored intestinal floral to patients with severe diarrhea.”


George Lucas's Vulgar Aestheticism

Paglia starts off the book, in the intro, by talking about the disastrous state of the fine arts, and that theme is what gives it any shape it has, although it only comes into play towards the end. The way Paglia has told things, Jackson Pollock was the last artist to be widely perceived as a genius, an attitude of the public towards art that died with his premature death. The Pop artists who followed, by necessarily embracing popular culture, put an end to traditional fine art. In the postmodern art world, there are no central figures or styles; there is only pluralism. Although Paglia does her earnest best to make the general reader (me) understand Conceptual, Minimalist, and performance art, flooding the essays with the names of artists and descriptions of works, I came away thinking that postmodern art is a lot like postmodern science, i.e. quantum physics: the artists are all working out their highly cerebral and insular art problems in their art, whether they set it in the landscape or street or interact with the audience or not, and no non-artist cares about or can understand what they're doing.

All of which leads up to Paglia's “controversial” final-chapter nomination of George Lucas as the greatest artist of our time. Not just our greatest visual artist, mind you, but our greatest artist, period. And while this appears to be based on his entire Star Wars franchise, Paglia courts ridicule (to borrow her phrase about Lennon and Ono's Bed-In interviews) by illustrating the chapter with an admittedly extremely Paglian image of the volcano planet from Revenge of the Sith, a movie that nobody went to see except hardcore Star Wars geeks.

The basis of her nomination is, it appears, Lucas's “pioneering boldness and world impact,” this boldness a matter of embracing technology... like Ingrid Bergman and Bob Dylan. Yes, because using CGI in films is exactly like using an electric guitar in popular music, and Ingrid Bergman (whose Persona was one of the main inspirations for Paglia's concept of “sexual personae”) is a great filmmaker because... he made films, not because of his subject matter or style. Paglia spits out information about Lucas's technological accomplishments like nails, and what she has discovered about his detailed attention to what we now, in the Fandom Era, call “world-building” is indeed impressive: Lucas comes off as a genuine craftsman as well as computerized special-effects visionary. I say “visionary” because as of this moment, and for better of worse, CGI has taken over film, in the sense that the mass audience is only interested in CGI spectacles; but this too shall pass, like all pop crazes.

Paglia reports in the chapter that Lucas isn't interested in either dialogue or plot, and that may be exactly the problem with the Star Wars prequels. It's fine to be essentially an abstract filmmaker whose overwhelming focus is the visuals, but the mass audience, including myself as a child, originally fell in love with the characters of the franchise – charmingly acted, imaginatively updated archetypes. Film acting itself is more about what can be communicated without words, but that requires a director who is interested in working on, and capturing, performances. And there's no way to care about what happens to the characters in a film without plot. Although I haven't seen them due to the little bit I've read about them, based on that little bit it seems likely that Lucas's Star Wars prequels will go down in history as kitsch spectacles of frequent great beauty due to the enormous craftsmanship of the ILM team, that were however sunk as works of even popular filmmaking by the billionaire-genius's self-indulgence.

Moreover, what Paglia calls Lucas's “mission statement,” “Movies are a mass of objects moving across a large surface,” sounds like something Leni Riefenstahl might say. Our current epic CGI filmmakers are Riefenstahl's heirs, and there's as much to deplore philosophically as there is to admire technically. A certain kind of epic wants to get away from the human, and CGI helps in that process – a point made by J. Hoberman in a recent NYRB piece about Jackson's The Hobbit. And although I take Paglia's point about the cross-sections tie-in books' “contribution... to the visual education of children around the world,” when I was going to pick up one of the beautifully-illustrated children's guides for my eight-year-old nephew one Christmas, I put it back on the shelf after reflecting that after all, it's a glorification of war, with exceptionally detailed, realistic weaponry. I accept that children are interested in violence, but I can't put my own authority behind the idea that war is cool; on the contrary.

In the end Paglia convinces that fine art is in a bad state without convincing that pop culture is in a better one. If there are any artists with global impact at the moment, they probably are the CGI epic filmmakers; so if you want to equate global impact with aesthetic significance and vice versa, that's what you're left with. The “death of the artist” staged by Warhol, who tried to keep his own hand (literally and metaphorically) out of his work as much as possible, and continued by postmodern artists through other theories, together with the insular games and shock-value provocations of postmodern artists, have caused the public to lose faith in art and artists. That doesn't, however, mean that anyone other than Star Wars geeks has faith in George Lucas. And the idea of a “greatest artist of our time” was always a myth anyway, albeit one that has currency when art and the public have a healthy relationship with each other. I have no idea who the greatest artist of our era might be; if there is a single one, I have not heard of him or her. I would probably choose David Lynch as the greatest living filmmaker. INLAND EMPIRE is as abstract and plotless as anyone could wish, but it's also all about Laura Dern's performance (conveyed mainly through silent sequences or absurd, fragmented dialogue, though Lynch also does give her a pivotal, theatrical marathon speech), profoundly anchored in the human through the director-actress collaboration, exactly like Bergman's Persona, an exploration of identity that Lynch has been drawing on extensively in his most recent work.

I'll give Pags the benefit of the doubt, though, and assume she made her pronouncement about Lucas because it's more apt to generate interesting debate (about art, pop culture, and technology) than yet another critic saying what amounts to, “Oh, uh, great living filmmakers? Um, David Lynch, he's pretty good. Yeah, him.” Unfortunately, saying that George Lucas is the greatest artist of our time in 2012 is sort of like saying that Walt Disney is the greatest artist of our time in 1942. The only new thing Paglia has brought to the argument, which in itself isn't stupid (although for my own part I do not care), is this “great artists of the technological age embrace technology” crap, or, the “art cannot be good any longer unless it uses the latest technology” position, which is indicative of the actual thought that Paglia has put into the essays in Glittering Images: exactly none.

These Fragments I Have Shored 

Joseph Cornell is not among Paglia's artists, a perhaps surprising omission given his fan-worship of the female stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, which Paglia shares, and his frankly devotional, religious attitude towards them and to other female performers, of which Paglia would approve. Wouldn't it have done more good to acquaint newcomers to art history with a work like Cornell's Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall (1946) than to include Warhol's Marilyn Diptych (1962), which is as familiar to even those with no interest in art whatsoever as the Mona Lisa? But Paglia seems ignorant of Cornell, not even mentioning him in the context of Eleanor Antin or Walter De Maria's boxes, although Cornell was making box art decades earlier.

As detailed in Deborah Solomon's Utopia Parkway – the evocative title comes from the distinctly unromantic street in Queens where Cornell lived for decades with his widowed mother and disabled younger brother – the reclusive, celibate Cornell spent his spare time scavenging flea markets, dime stores, Woolsworths, and second-hand bookstalls for cheap mass-produced objects and images and texts for his extensive dossiers on 19th century ballerinas and opera divas and glamourous Hollywood actresses, which he then brought into odd, graceful, mysterious juxtaposition in his collages and boxes. Besides female performers, other motifs of the boxes over the years included birds, sky charts, hotels, and Cornell, who did not draw or paint, also appropriated images from the paintings of the great masters.

Cornell shared Warhol's interest in machines, but whereas Warhol saw machines as impersonal, passive recording devices (hence his aspiration to be one), Cornell's machines are interactive and, like Duchamp's masturbatory chocolate grinding machine, productive of pleasure. At present, wed to our innumerable digital devices as we are, I think we see machines in terms more of homely Cornellian amusement than of futuristic Warholian anxiety.

Cornell also beat Warhol to making avant-garde movies, first editing forgotten, discarded films with results like the dreamy, hypnotic Rose Hobart (which incurred the wrath of Dali, who, to the dismay of the nervous and timid Cornell, swore that the American artist had stolen the idea of how to make a surrealist film out of his brain), then collaborating with underground filmmakers who shot footage under his direction. But Cornell's relationship to pop culture, unlike Warhol's, was essentially romantic: Warhol reproduces the experience of being assaulted by garish images of sex, violence, and product, a world in which Liz Taylor, Elvis Presley, and Campbell's Soup (or Jennifer Aniston, Justin Bieber, and iPods) are our intimate familiars whether we like it or not; Cornell, in contrast, is interested not in the big, triumphant brands, but in the discards and detritus of pop culture. Cornell loves pop culture transfigured by the pathos of its own transience. The destiny of pop culture, for Cornell, is the opposite of the destiny of art: to not last, and therefore to inspire a Proustian yearning for the past. Part of his project as an artist is to recover the irrecoverable – like Proust, except that he has projected his personal memories onto impersonal objects and beautiful, glamourous movie stars, who, as the appellation suggests, are as distant as constellations. And this pathos touches Cornell as well, the ultimate collector-fan who lived only through pop culture. Cornell anticipated not only Pop Art but also our internet Age of Fandom and the nostalgic hipster appropriation of the mass culture of their youth.

Cornell, Hipsters, and Twee Aesthetics

Cornell, however, is entirely without self-protective hipster irony; he belongs to the line of pop-loving major American artists with a broad strain of childlike naivety, which includes Warhol and David Lynch. Notably, all three were religious, though none of them Protestants: Warhol was raised Catholic, while Cornell found Christian Science as an adult and Lynch Transcendental Meditation. Lynch's twisted version of American pop culture is his surrealist reimagining of the “innocent” 1950s and early 60s of his youth: like Cornell, he's a fan of “teeners” (Cornell's Lynchian word for “teenagers”). Also like Cornell, he's fascinated by performers (usually but not always female) and performances, and is as much of an obsessive connoisseur of diner pie and coffee or a chocolate milkshake at Big Bob's as Cornell was of Automat pie, soda pop, and luncheon rooms where he watched the drab young waitresses with empathy, desire, and perhaps a wistful sex-crossing identification. (In her chapter on Manet's At the Cafe, Paglia suggests that the artist may empathize with the careworn, dreamy working girl staring into space on the left bottom of the painting.) Unlike Warhol and Lynch, however, Cornell never succeeded in making his own curious personality into a brand, possibly because by the time of the full ascendency of the mass media in the 1960s he was already a Beckettian depressed old man.

I see a continuity between Cornell's sensibility and the anti-ironic “twee” strain of hipsterism that's perhaps been most successful in indie music, where it's epitomized by bands like Animal Collective and of Montreal, the latter of which essentially is the elfin Kevin Barnes, whose pop sensibilities are matched only by the aggressive manic-depression related in his autobiographical lyrics and his Kate Bush-like natural affinity for the theatrical and avant-garde. The nature themes of Animal Collective, which seem like they're on the border between environmentalism and the nerd orientation, made notorious by the internet, “furry,” also rhyme with Cornell's concerns. Cornell stuck to birds – like fellow mother-dominated, candy-munching, reclusive object-maker Norman Bates – but his younger brother Robert, who was afflicted with cerebral palsy, and for whom Cornell felt a twinlike closeness, made drawings of an imaginary world of animal characters that sounds like the children's books envisioned by Jerry Lewis's unbearably twee, infantile, comics-addicted character in Artists and Models (1955), Frank Tashlin's pre-Pop satire of pop-crazed America in the form of one of its most characteristic products, a Martin and Lewis vehicle.

In Artists and Models, Martin and Lewis play bachelor best buddies, an aspiring artist and aspiring writer, who are practically wed to each other and who have an older-younger brother relationship of caretaking and dependency similar to Joseph and Robert's. It's as if the eccentric, unworldly Cornell brothers occupied the same twee fantasy world, of which Robert's was the even more regressive version. After losing his brother Cornell made collages of some of his drawings, which Solomon, in common with the rest of the art world, dismisses as possessing value for Cornell only. The hero of Robert's animal universe was The Mouse King, and in Artists and Models Lewis poses for Dorothy Malone's successful commercial artist as his own mouse character and spends most of the film's climax in a cumbersome, huge-bellied mouse costume, female-identified through his comical “pregnancy” like the archetypal clown. (And that, folks – the symbolic femininity of clowns – I learned from Sexual Personae.) Cornell-like, Lewis's character is stuck in a perpetual adolescence due to his sexual fixation on a fantasy-woman from his comics, the Bat Lady, which leaves him unable to respond to real women.

Solomon, whose psychology is very basic, views Cornell as a tragic figure of thwarted sexuality and independence, and there's little doubt that his was a Jamesian unlived life, though it's hard to say which caused which, his fear of direct experience or his unusually vivid fantasy life. Whichever it was, I find it hard to share Solomon's head-shaking view, even though it's clear that Cornell's depressive tendencies killed him relatively young, a fate he shared with a twee artist of an earlier era, the manic-depressive, nature-loving late Victorian religious poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a celibate like Cornell but unlike Cornell was probably homosexual in orientation. In his early 60s Cornell suffered several losses: his brother died, then his mother, as well as the drug-addicted young waitress who may have been the great love of his life, although they never had a relationship. In a movie melodrama-like conflation of Of Human Bondage and Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, the young woman, together with her boyfriend, robbed the naive older artist of several of his boxes. Far more selfless, or masochistic, than either Leslie Howard or Edward G. Robinson, Cornell reluctantly pressed charges only to turn around and post her bail, and she repented and left the boyfriend only to end up murdered by a mentally ill acquaintance. Bereft of the two family members, brother-twin and mother, with whom he'd merged his identity and shared a home for his entire life, and the fallen woman he'd hoped to rescue in an imaginary Victorian scenario, Cornell shriveled up emotionally and lost his will to live.

Cornell practised what Paglia would call the masochistic feminine art of self-affliction; like the young Morrissey, whose private Catholic iconography of British northern women and androgynous male movie actors was displayed on The Smiths' album and single sleeves, Cornell made himself into a female Victorian invalid, like Henry James's sister Alice. Cornell's difference from constitutionally similar artists like Morrissey, James, Kevin Barnes, or Emily Dickinson, with whom he identified, is that at no point – as far as I can tell at this preliminary stage of familiarity with his work – did he release his aggression, either in his work or in his life. Instead he seems to have renounced it completely – the impossible, for a Paglian like me, even if that renunciation did help to kill him. Cornell seems to have channeled deviant, serial killer-like impulses of obsessive collecting and compulsive arrangement of his materials into an effervescent creativity from which all traces of the impulses' violence have been erased. This is in stark contrast to David Lynch, whose startling habit of examining animal carcasses out of curiosity is in keeping with the obscene violence in his work, which is locked in Manichean battle with his eccentric vision of innocence. As in Henry James, the price in Lynch of imagining innocence is imagining its violation.

To bring us back full circle: Cornell's last major celebrity crush/Muse was Susan Sontag, perhaps because she was the first pop-age female intellectual, posing languidly in publicity photos, radiating celebrity glamour. Since Cornell, as Solomon points out, preferred female celebrities with a touch of androgyny to them, creating Garbo and Bacall “portrait” boxes and turning Hedy Lamarr into a Renaissance pageboy in a collage, it's no wonder that he was so thrilled by Sontag, with her combination of “feminine” flirtatiousness and sensuality, on the one hand, and “masculine” severity and intellect, on the other. Sontag was an icon of that brief, brilliant period when a wide public remained interested in a high culture that was being invigorated by popular culture and that was, itself, part of popular culture, before high culture became so interested in pop culture that it lost interest in itself.

Coda: My Growing List of Men Who Look Like Samuel Beckett or Each Other