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Susan Sontag – Notes on Camp

This is not so much a review as some notes on the Notes: “Footnotes on ‘Camp’”, I should really call it. Note the punctuation in the title: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks”, notes Sontag. “To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role”. The inverted commas capture Camp’s fugitive nature, for “to talk about Camp is…to betray it”. Hence her “Notes” are precisely that: nothing so grand as an essay, just 58 bullet points, most of them no longer than a paragraph or two.

Image credit: Penguin

Sontag starts with the premise that Camp stresses artifice and style, or stylization. It is dégagé and apolitical, which is not to say heartless. Indeed, to jump ahead to the closing remarks, “Camp is generous. It…find[s] the success in certain passionate failures”. And “The Ultimate Camp Statement: it’s good because it’s awful”. Of course, many awful things are just awful, and a lot of Camp things are great just because they’re great, not because of any Camp the Redeemer. The point is that Camp lies off the rails of value judgements, beyond the reach of Rhadamanthine pundits.

Sontag pinpoints the turn of the eighteenth century as one of the great Camp boomtimes, and Alexander Pope as the great Camp High Priest. It then, she argues, largely kept its head down until the late nineteenth century, when it was exhumed by the Pre-Raphaelites and Oscar Wilde. Wilde is Sontag’s Camp spirit animal, whose witticisms round off many a paragraph. Indeed, it was Wilde who unwittingly provided the libretto to Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, which appears – specifically Luchino Visconti’s production of it – in Sontag’s arbitrary catalogue of Camp things. Strauss himself recurs as one of Sontag’s Camp icons, while Wagner, for all his absurd over-the-topness, does not: some things can be “’too important’, not marginal enough” to be Camp.

No other reason could explain Sontag’s omission of Byron, whom I would have thought ticked all the Camp boxes. Epicurian, check; epicene, in many ways. Urbane, there was none more; and Sontag insists that Camp, being artificial, is by definition an urban (and first world) phenomenon. Byron’s poetry “dethrone[s] the serious”, as Camp is meant to do; it is exaggerated and amplified, as Camp is meant to be. It also defies the traditional trammels of worth. The question “Is Byron’s Don Juan good or bad?” doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is simply brilliant and enviable.

So we might consider: what English poetry from, say, the last hundred years could reasonably be described as Camp? Maybe parts of Auden, but less than you would think. Wendy Cope is more outright comic than Camp. Dorothy Parker’s poems are arch, clipped, scathing and superb, but smack of an author “wholly conscious”, in Sontag’s words, “when one plays at being campy” – and with such a high percentage of her poems threatening suicide, she does rather lack the requisite Camp joie de vivre. Whisper it, but I might propose Seamus Heaney as one of the great occasional (and highly controlled) masters of Camp: less in his nuggety bog-and-viking poems – often overwritten, and always dead serious – than in his sonnets, where the lines are allowed to stretch like the limbs of a ballerina.

…What would I meet, blood-boltered, on the road?
How deep into the woodpile sat the toad?
What welters through this dark hush on the crops?
Do you remember that pension in Les Landes…

The rhetorical questions are laced with Camp, especially when couching such a hyperbolically Beowulfian compound as “blood-boltered”. The italicized French adds a bit of Camp, as does the bathos and the non-sequitur of the road/toad full-rhyme; while “this dark hush” nibbles at the hammy. The middle two lines also affect a Camply archaic syntax – modern English prose-speech would ask “how deep into the woodpile did the toad sit?”, if we can imagine such a question being asked at all. Instead, Heaney opts for a sentence structure that would spook most contemporary poets, which is one of the reasons why contemporary poetry so often seems to take itself so seriously.

But Notes on ‘Camp’ actually has more to say about other, more popular art forms. It’s a shame that it was first printed in 1964; had she waited but one more year, Sontag would have witnessed a modern icon of Camp strut onto the big time in the gyrating form of Mick Jagger. And one wonders what she would have made of heavy metal, whose British permutations often seem like Camp’s supreme embodiment. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest are invariably at their strongest when at their campest; the opposite is true of (the American) Metallica, whose high points are crushing slabs of irrefutable moral seriousness. Naturally, much of this is down to the bands’ respective lyrics, wardrobes and general attitudes, rather than their instrumentation, though we might question Sontag’s belief that “Concert music…being contentless, is rarely Camp” – an idea that at least begs a definition of “contentless”.

This reader would also have appreciated a fuller exploration of Camp as it relates to gender. Sontag does have a few female totems of Camp, it’s true – “The Cuban pop singer La Lupe” and “the great serious idol of Camp taste, Greta Garbo…[whose] incompetence (at the least, lack of depth) as an actress enhances her beauty.” But it seems to me that she’s talking about acts, performances, about these women’s art, not about their mannerisms. One can dress Camply, one can favour Camp décor; can we picture a woman with, let’s say, Camp gestures and speech traits? When it comes to the tics, is Camp the sole preserve of the male? But maybe it doesn’t matter: maybe we’re just talking about the tics of an iceberg. Sontag sees a bigger picture, in which “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers”.

by Harry Cochrane

Notes on ‘Camp’ is published by Penguin and is available here.