More Adventures in Fawning.
Just when we thought we'd reached an apex of sycophancy in James Wood's eulogy to Saul Bellow, we have rival literary "critic" Sven Birkerts going to town in AGNI #61 over how much he adored another departed so-called great, Susan Sontag: "--a ground, a fixture, a kind of due north in the peculiar literary afterworld that many of my peers and I feel we occupy."
Birkerts tells of walking down the aisle of an Amtrak train once, to the Club Car, and there-- golly gee wonderful fantastic!-- sat Susan Sontag. "-- the legendary hair, the skunk-stripe. It was Susan Sontag, riding coach-- Susan Sontag, bent over a stack of student papers!"
Lit- critic dispassionate observer Sven Birkerts was in heavens of ecstasies! But how to behave? "I was almost too excited to approach." (One can see him blocking the aisle pondering the dilemma as wearied business travelers seek to move past the great literary authority-- "Out of my way, you stupe!" Birkerts is oblivious, taking three short steps toward the Great Sontag and three steps back, wringing his hands over the once-in-a-lifetime presence of the Icon. What to do? What to do?!!) At last he forces himself to make "only the most hurried hello." (Sontag, glancing up from her papers, notices the distorted eye-popping face of a crazy man in tweed crawling creepily past her seat. "Hi!" he manages in a squeaky voice as he passes. The Great Sontag returns to her paperwork.)
"My life had been . . . " Birkerts relates, "temporarily 'certified.'"
He tells another tale of seeing Sontag and Joseph Brodsky in the Reggio in New York City. (Brodsky he infamously stalked as a young man; we can believe by Sven's curious description of accidentally stumbling upon them that he might be stalking Sontag in this story; Birkerts eyes following her around corners and down the street.) "The other of these meetings was more charmed still." Meeting? Birkerts stands "freeze-framing" the two Giants huddled at their small table, with "the strongest intuitions of that inner circle, as if the conversation at that table had to be smarter, wittier, more in the know than any other in the city-- "! Golly golly! Wonderful greatness! (The lit-critic stands in the middle of the cafe hand moving vigorously beneath his raincoat while "freeze-framing" his two idols.)
We've hit the abysmal embarrassing bottom of literary criticism. Here is no blaring shouting upsetting riotous call for literary change; no urgency to replace dead art and dead history-- only a desperation to hold onto what had been and is quickly fading away: the obsolescent insular attitudes which have led to lit's decline. Here in AGNI 61 is no answer-- only moldiness. AGNI claims to be on the "frontiers of literature." Birkerts is more accurate when he speaks of an "afterworld" that's passed him by. In truth he and his kind stand on no frontiers, are exploring no new territory. They're hiding in bunkers beneath nunneries, closing their eyes and minds to the rot and corruption of the lit world today, waiting for reports from the Sisters in the safe convent above as to when the world will again be okay. In the meantime they clutch portraits of their dead gods, weeping over the failure of their beliefs, wishing their cherished "legends," "the thinkers and spirits, the last large-scale serious ones"-- their neverland illusions-- could return from their graves to rescue their world of shut-in mediocrity.