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Under the Sign of Saturn: Essays (Penguin Modern Classics) [Paperback]

Susan Sontag

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Book Description

2 July 2009 Penguin Modern Classics
Susan Sontag's third essay collection brings together her most important critical writing from 1972 to 1980. In these provocative and hugely influential works she explores some of the most controversial artists and thinkers of our time, including her now-famous polemic against Hitler's favourite film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl, and the cult of fascist art, as well as a dazzling analysis of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Hitler, a Film from Germany. There are also highly personal and powerful explorations of death, art, language, history, the imagination and writing itself.

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'No one has written more passionately about Antonin Artaud...Nor has anyone before Sontag taken the pains to demolish so thoroughly Hitler's favourite moveimaker, Leni Riefenstahl. This is one of the crack essays in the book.' Chicago Tribune

About the Author

Susan Sontag was born in Manhattan in 1933 and studied at the universities of Chicago, Harvard and Oxford. She is the author of four novels, a collection of stories, several plays, and six books of essays, among them Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. Her books are translated into thirty-two languages. In 2001 she was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for the body of her work, and in 2003 she received the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. She died in December 2004.

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it 27 Oct 1999
By Krys Kieslowski - Published on Amazon.com
Susan Sontag is "highbrow." Her essays have scope and intellectual ambition, which readers who have an allergy to these qualities may find "pretentious." She can almost mercilessly point out when something is derivative, weakly conceived, or a sell-out. She has a commitment to cinema as High Art; she takes the contemporary novel to task for being complacent and reactionary; she has a particularly sharp eye for intellectual fraud. Readers who are only interested in marching under one banner or another, or come equipped with biases or blind spots they are proud of, will probably find her annoying.
Sontag may be guilty of "neglecting to take into consideration" entertainment or commercial value, but I'm not sure why it necessarily is a requirement for her to take these things into consideration, since so many others are happily doing so. The fact that a film enjoyed great commercial value does not necessarily exempt it from being an example of "fascist aesthetics"; it simply may mean that it was a fantastically successful example of fascist aesthetics. Sontag was writing at a time when many used the word "fascism" in a very kneejerk way, as though it was this mysterious bad thing, an unknowable plague. Sontag doesn't allow herself such a simplistic attitude. She shows that in fact fascism has many attractive aspects, which is why its aesthetic still turns up everywhere, from Michael Jackson videos to Pink Floyd's The Wall to the WWF. I'm not sure she necessarily thinks this a bad thing; Americans, as we always like to remind the world, are free to enjoy whatever we enjoy, but at least we should not be dishonest about giving things their true names.
The judgement that this writer is a product of "1960s anti-establisment, feminist movement that views anything organized or male-oriented as fascist" is just a inaccurate, vague generalization whose purpose is to dismiss Sontag without having really read or thought about what she is saying. Sontag has skewered "anti-establishment types" and various feminists with the same lack of mercy she dispenses to Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer. Nobody's obligated to read Sontag or like the kind of criticism she practices. But for anyone really interested in cinema, art, theater, the novel, and related subjects, she's essential.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Self-analysis 20 Nov 2004
By Mary E. Sibley - Published on Amazon.com
This volume has been reread by me more than once. Sontag explains that her piece on Paul Goodman is being written in a small room in Paris. The author states she was not a friend of Goodman, although several of their worlds coincided with each other. She admired Goodman's work immensely. She describes his voice as cranky, egotistical, American. She finds him comparable, a unique voice, to D.H. Lawrence. Goodman wrote poetry, plays, novels, and social criticism. After the publication of GROWING UP ABSURD in 1960 Goodman was no longer an obscure writer. Sontag complains that he was often taken for granted, even by his admirers. She deems his amateurism identical with his genius.

Susan Sontag asserts that Antonin Artaud failed in his work and his life. His work consisted of a vast collection of fragments. Artaud described intellectual distress. He considered consciousness as process. A leading theme was the link between suffering and writing. All of Artaud's writing was in the first person. He welcomed Surrealism. Artaud's idea of revolution diverged from the Surrealists. He started in poetry. By 1926 in his search for the total art form, Artaud was doing theatrical work. Sontag holds that Artaud offers the greatest quantity of suffering in literature.

The author produces a devastating analysis of the pretensions of Leni Riefenstahl. Sontag's discussion of Alpine movie epics is engaging. Riefenstahl is identified with the Nazi era. Sontag contends that her pbotography book, THE LAST OF THE NUBA, completed thirty years after that era continued to exemplify Nazi ideology.

Walter Benjamin is the subject of the title essay. Benjamin found Saturnine elements in Baudelaire, Proust, Karl Kraus, and even Goethe. To him, subject to melancholy, solitutde appeared to be the fit state of man. Benjamin collected emblem books. His relations with others were complex, veiled. Benjamin felt an affinity to the baroque and the Surreal. He had a microscopic gaze. Benjamin was a wanderer and a collector. By miniaturizing things they became portable. Benjamin wrote that the melancholic permits himself the pleasure of allegory. His characteristic form was the essay.

The piece on Elias Canetti stresses the writer's acquisition of languages. German became the language of his mind. As a child he had spoken Ladino. He had a taste for fanciful blends of knowledge. Canetti was rather close to Freud in technique and interests, but not Freudian. Sontag describes CROWDS AND POWER as an eccentric book.

The essays in this volume are both serious and lively.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Fine 18 Jun 2006
By Steiner - Published on Amazon.com
Sontag has once again compiled an intelligent collection of essays on widely varying aesthetic topics. Though she begins with a rather artificial and patronizing obituary for the late man of letters Paul Goodman, whose body of work she is evidently less than enthused with, though she feels obliged to compare him to Sartre. The essay rings of false piety.

She moves into an expansive and favorable essay on Antonin Artaud, the great playwright and artist of the avant-garde movement. Sontag reviews the developments of his great career within the context of moralistic philosophic aesthetics, liking him with Nietzsche, then Sade, then Breton.

Yet the most impressive essay in Under the Sign is titled `Fascinating Fascism,' and it is truly fascinating. In it, Sontag overviews the work of filmmaker, actress, and photographer Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi propagandist whose body of work includes the esteemed documentaries Triumph of the Will, and Olympia, the latter about the 1936 Olympic games. Sontag reviews Riefenstahl's book of photography on the Nuba tribe in Sudan, which is apparently breathtaking. Sontag concludes that Reifenstahl, despite her `de-Nazification' and renunciation of her political past is still enamored with a fascist ideal, valuing the masculine strength of the male Nuba and placing their bodies in the foreground, while the women remain vulnerable and tucked away in shadowy corners. The essay is highly provocative.

The title essay is about the great philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin, whom she reviews favorably. This essay provides some interesting tidbits of information that Hannah Arendt neglects to include in her introduction, such as Benjamin's apparent hatred for Heidegger's philosophy.

Also included in this volume is an excellent and terse review of Roland Barthes, and the fine novelist Elias Canetti, whom she holds in great esteem.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Indispensable 23 Nov 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
There are many reasons to read Susan Sontag. Two of them are her brilliant essays on Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti that appear in this volume. Both works suggest as much about Sontag and her intellectual and moral values as they do about Benjamin and Canetti. If you care about twentieth-century European intellectual history, don't miss Sontag on Benjamin and Canetti.
5.0 out of 5 stars Susan kills it, as usual 16 Feb 2012
By jafrank - Published on Amazon.com
Sontag, as ever, manages to craft writings of remarkable intellectual range and depth on pretty much anything she focuses. Under the Sign of Saturn feels a bit darker than some of her other books I've read, in so far is a lot of the essays focus on (both directly and implicity) fascism and its broad appeal and continued resonance in the arts and culture of the post-war era. I think the best thing I can say about these is that even when you have no exposure to the works of people she writes about (I for one don't know the first thing about Antonin Artaud Elias Canetti or Hans Syberberg) she still manages to spin out so many dazzlingly smart observations that they are absolutely worth your time. Sontag makes you passionate about everything she's passionate about. And there seems to be very little that she isn't passionate about
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