The Unfun Couple

REVIEW: 'Monsters and Maestros: Days & Nights with Susan Sontag & George Steiner' by Robert Boyers

November 12, 2023

In a well-known letter of George Orwell's to Stephen Spender, Orwell tells Spender that before he met him he had put him down as a Communist or Communist sympathizer and "a sort of fashionable successful person," but now that he has met him he has had to change his mind. "Even if when I met you I had not happened to like you, I should still have been bound to change my attitude," Orwell writes, "because when you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas." Orwell concludes: "It is partly for this reason that I don't mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel I ought to, like the Labour M.Ps. who get patted on the back by dukes & are lost forever more."

I have never met either Susan Sontag or George Steiner, though I have attacked both in print. In separate essays, I called Sontag a "savant-idiot," my neologism for someone of considerable learning, brilliance even, who gets all the important things wrong. Steiner I referred to as a consummate mimic, one who does "an incomparable impression of the world's most learned man." These two figures, Susan Sontag and George Steiner, were for me the embodiment of Orwell's remark that "some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them."

George Steiner and Susan Sontag both came into prominence in the 1960s. Sontag did so with her essay "Notes on Camp," published in 1964 in Partisan Review, Steiner not with any single work but with a stock of critical essays and his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Both were critics, though each came to disdain the importance of criticism or the title of critic. Sontag, who wrote four novels and directed a few movies of her own composition, wished to be thought an artist; Steiner, who wrote on a wide variety of subjects and also published novels, doubtless thought himself, outside all conventional boundaries, a profound thinker. For writers of some difficulty, both enjoyed fairly large audiences—Steiner through writing regularly in the New Yorker, Sontag, who was striking-looking with her streak of white hair, through being much photographed in Vogue, the New York Times, and elsewhere.

Neither possessed an admirable prose style. Susan Sontag's English prose reads as if it were a hurried translation from the French. George Steiner specialized in the clotted sentence and the wild connection, an example of the latter being "Antigone draws about herself an ethical solitude, a lucid dryness which seems to prefigure the stringencies of Kant." If you are looking for generosity of spirit, touches of intimacy, the least scintilla of humor, you will discover them in the writing of neither Sontag nor Steiner.

Monsters & Maestros: Days & Nights with Susan Sontag & George Steiner is Robert Boyers's chronicle of his relationships with these two writers, both of whom he admires. Boyers is the founder and longtime editor of Salmagundi, a little magazine published out of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, where he is a professor of English. He came to know Sontag and Steiner through his invitations to them to write for his magazine and to participate in the New York State Summer Writers Institute, which he founded and has directed since 1987.

Boyers's friendships with Sontag and Steiner were never one of equals. Born in 1942, Boyers was 9 years younger than Sontag and 13 years younger than Steiner. Widely published though he is—Monsters & Maestros is his 12th book—Boyers is fully conscious that his literary rank never approached that of either Sontag or Steiner. Sontag and Steiner were also aware of this, for both on more than one occasion treated him like hired help. Sontag once upbraided him for introducing her for a lecture by referring to her by her first name. Steiner, he writes, "regarded me as hopelessly American" and was never above one-upping him. Snobs come in two broad general types, those who put down those beneath them and those who take the put-downs from those above them. Sontag and Steiner qualify for the first type, Boyers for the second.

However monstrous Sontag and Steiner's behavior, to him and to others, Boyers is ever ready to forgive them, for he takes both to be deeply significant writers. Their ultimate significance, as he writes on the final pages of his book, is that they were "committed to disturbing the peace of [their] contemporaries and disturbing the complacencies to which most of us are inured." He ends his book by writing: "Contrary, polarizing, sometimes abrasive, both could seem at times unlovable. And yet how not to love them for the force and intellectual exhilaration they embodied?" Here it seems worth adding, as Boyers reports, that Sontag and Steiner did not especially like each other.

In his introduction, Robert Boyers writes that his "friendships with George Steiner and Susan Sontag were central to my life, and in part I've written this memoir to bear witness to their continuing importance as writers and thinkers." He adds: "Though I had reason to think about their flaws and frailties—I have much to say about them in this book—my admiration for what was best in them rarely faltered. Like them, I was always disposed to promote and celebrate my superiors, and in George and Susan I knew I had found them." But were Susan and George truly superior? Sontag called the "white race … the cancer of human history," idealized the North Vietnamese communists, and claimed that American imperialism was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. As I wrote in my essay on Susan Sontag: "So how, then, could a woman who was so inadequate as a mother, so untrustworthy a friend, so out of touch with the most commonplace realities, have been a penetrating analyst of culture and politics? The short answer is that she wasn't."

Robert Boyers mentions the old joke that George Steiner was "the Jewish Isaiah Berlin"—Berlin was of course himself Jewish—but neglects to add that Berlin called Steiner "that very rare thing, a genuine charlatan." If the title hadn't long ago been taken by a popular television show, Steiner's prose would fall nicely under the rubric of ponderosa. Another sample sentence: "Henry Adams was unacquainted with Julius Langbehn's immensely influential identification of artistic eminence and national destiny in Rembrandt als Erzieher (Rembrandt as Educator), a tract which focuses also on the 'teutonic, titanic' role of Beethoven." Lest you think this sentence chosen for its extreme clottedness, do know that Steiner, as the comedian Milton Berle used to say about his own stock of jokes, had a million of them.

Boyers's attempt to resuscitate Susan Sontag and George Steiner does not finally succeed. Neither critic ever allowed reality to stand in the way of his or her ideas. Both fail the test—passed by all superior writers—of re-readability. That Sontag and Steiner could also be unpleasant people further subtracts from their literary lustre. Ah, Susan, ah, George, how pleased I am to say I never met either of you.

Monsters & Maestros: Days & Nights with Susan Sontag & George Steiner
by Robert Boyers
Mandel Vilar Press, 256 pp., $24.95 (paperback)

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of The Novel, Who Needs It? (Encounter Books).