Book Review

Notes on ‘Camp’ by Susan Sontag

my past changes shape as my future brightens

Yeah, so I’m back on the bullshit of another one of these little Penguin Moderns, this time it’s the turn of a pair of essays from Susan Sontag.

I’ll be honest, I’m a bit surprised and also a little ashamed that I haven’t read any Susan Sontag in the five plus years I’ve been running this blog. Actually, that’s not true, I did read a Sontag essay on pornography that was included as an appendix in the edition of George Bataille’s Story of the Eye that I read way, way back in Autumn 2014. What a lifetime ago, ey? Click that link and remember that I once had hair. It seems so alien. It is so alien. The past is a messy and complex and transient thing.

Do we change the past as we live into the future? I don’t mean in terms of time travel and altering the planes and streams of reality within which we are living, I mean: does the way we engage with our personal histories alter them? Things become more significant, less significant, as life changes. We cast off friendships and lovers, we become close to people we never expect to, people say things or do things at a later stage that forces you to question and reassess things they had done or said decades before. The past is as ever-changing as the present.

I’ve been drinking again, recently, which has disappointed me. There’s a lot going on for me at the moment, even the good things – of which there are multiple – I’m finding a bit overwhelming. You may have noticed, regular reader, that I haven’t actually been that discursive recently. Occasional readers, you probably have not noticed. But yes, drinking dissolves time, memories slip and I have found, a couple of times when drunk, that I’ve forgotten my age, I’ve forgotten my hairlessness, I’ve forgotten the horrors of the year before the most recent year I’ve had. I’ve remembered why I used to drink all the time when I was depressed, perennially depressed, before, and I suppose that saddens me, as I had hoped that alcoholic distraction was something that I’d had enough of by now. I think I have had enough. I don’t want to be wasted. But I don’t want to feel like all the fucking time I spent waiting for me to die was time that was BEST spent wasted, because it was wasted time. Y’know? As things go better for me now, I suppose, I find myself more critical and more moved and upset by the realisation of what it is – so much time – that I have lost. This, right now, the life I am living now and the future I am making, is the life I want, a life I want, actively something I want want want and that is good but it’s also making me sad.

Because it’s not hard. If you KNOW what you want and you WORK at achieving it and maintaining it, it’s not hard. Life isn’t difficult. One doesn’t have to choose between fulfilment and food, one doesn’t have to make a choice between romance and comfort, between happiness and paying the bills, between travel and selling your soul your soul your soul.

I am learning, late, that life can be what you want it to be. I have other friends who are also in the throes of changing their lives for the future they want and, yes, some of those are following very traditional end-of-the-twenties routes, but plenty of others are not. I am not alone amongst the people I care about to be throwing caution to the wind and heading out of safe, comfortable, predictable London to seek something else elsewhere. I am not alone amongst the people I care about to say, “No, fuck it, the things I care about ARE more important than fucking ‘stability’ or like a pension or a fucking mortgage.” I want to live a life I want to live, because I’ve spent so much time living a life I didn’t. And – the problem with having this long fucking history of anxiety and discomfort and depression and feeling displaced – is that this new feeling of freedom makes me feel feelings that I don’t know how to process.

It’s scary, being overwhelmed by feelings, and being overwhelmed by positivity is as equally disturbing as being overwhelmed with bleak nothingness. If one is inclined towards anxiety, feeling too much, even hope, can cause the kind of nervous twitching and heart palpitations that I am used to needing to crush through the use of booze. Things are happening that I want to happen, but they are changes, big changes, hopefully forever changes. I dunno. This is like 800 words just about me now, that’s too many words, let’s wrap this up.


There are two essays contained in this little book. The first is ‘Notes on “Camp”‘ which is about the idea of – you guessed it!? – camp. Sontag explores what she means by this and what she means that society means by this, and writes about the central conceit of things that are described as camp being their artificiality, their lack of seriousness, their performative exaggeration. This was interesting, but self-consciously written as if notes, and wasn’t quite as startling and engaging a piece as I remember the essay I read by her a few years ago was. The second piece in here, ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’, however, is an absolute corker. Both pieces are from the mid-1960s, however it is this second one that evidences that a lot more. While Sontag writes about Camp using [then] contemporary pop culture references, some of her ideas – especially the section about the links between Homosexuality and Camp – feel conspicuously aged, while the second essay is almost an anthem towards the cultural change of the second half of the 20th century.

Sontag, in this piece, celebrates the democratisation of culture, the way that the barriers between “high” and “low” culture were being eroded, how stupid people attempted the avant garde while great geniuses listen to pop music. This is, rather than the perhaps more predictable snobbish response to the growth of mass culture, a celebration of it, writing about how the purpose of culture is always, ultimately, pleasure, and if that pleasure comes from catharsis or appreciation of form or style, each is equally valid. This second essay is a real fucking belter, and well worth the 80p I spent on the book.

I LOVED the second essay here. I am against intellectual snobbery, I am pro open culture, discarded complexity, catharses at every turn… I live in the world Sontag writes about society moving towards and I fucking love it. I can look back on my life now, happier, and understand the pleasure I took in simple things and understand the validity and the importance of those. I don’t have to hate myself because I’ve enjoyed Michelin-starred dinners but still occasionally eat Heinz Baked Beans. I don’t have to hate myself because I love capitalised Poetry but last month read Kingsley Amis’ Bond novel.

I look back on all the time I spent feeling guilty about the music, the TV, the films, the books, the artworks, the poems, the pet shops that I enjoyed spending time in and it makes me despair.

I no longer feel like my feelings are illegitimate. But I spent so long feeling like they were that this new knowledge is fucking destabilising.

Bye for now.

1 comment on “Notes on ‘Camp’ by Susan Sontag

  1. Pingback: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole – Triumph Of The Now

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: