SONTAG & KAEL: Opposites Attract Me

By Craig Seligman. Counterpoint. 244 pp. $23

It's hard to imagine how Craig Seligman managed to convince a commercial publisher to bring out Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me -- a dense, meta-level work of criticism by one critic about two other critics. The second thing out of his mouth must have been the assurance "It won't really be about just criticism," and the strength of this delightful little book is that it is about much more than its title suggests. It is about the way people experience and understand art and culture; it is about criticism not just as practiced by professional critics, but as lived by all of us who try to make sense of art; and it delves deeply into the ever-tortuous way in which the rhetoric of populism threads through American culture.

Seligman, a veteran New York critic and editor, announces from the beginning that he wants to treat the late Pauline Kael, the acerbic movie critic of the New Yorker, and Susan Sontag, the Olympian leftist intellectual, as roughly equal poles of American critical genius. But he admits up front that he cannot approach his subject dispassionately: "I revere Sontag. I love Kael." And that's pretty much how his book proceeds, as an erudite appreciation of Sontag and a swoony love-fest for Kael. Halfway through, he takes the temperature of his book, and, with admirable honesty, tells the reader: "Someone who read an early manuscript of the book you're holding said, 'Even when you criticize Kael, you cast her in a golden light, but you never give Sontag the benefit of the doubt.' " Lucky Seligman to have such perceptive friends to read his manuscript.

He is very hard on Sontag, but it is judicious criticism. He has read widely in her work, not just the essays that have been collected but many that she may wish had fallen by the wayside. Where others lash her for her inconsistency, Seligman finds admirable evidence of a contrarian nature and a mind willing to live inside ideas long enough to find their flaws. Does she contradict herself? Fine, she contradicts herself. She is a critic of culture, and as culture changes, she changes. If he is ultimately cold to Sontag, it is because he finds her prose aloof and her demands on herself and the reader too severe; he has worshipped in this Puritan temple and found the regimen admirable but daunting.

Kael, on the other hand, is presented as a limitless font of perfect prose, confident judgment and populist wisdom. Seligman is unashamedly a Paulette. He was a friend, an admirer, an acolyte, a doer of favors, and he sat on her bed as she lay dying. Sontag, on the other hand, he has never met. (And who could blame him, given how certain he is that she is cold, brusque and brutal in argument?) His defense of Sontag is an intellectual effort at sympathy, a willing of his mind into hers; when he defends Kael -- against charges of anti-Semitism (after she lambasted the film "Shoah") or homophobia (which dogged her in later life) -- it is with the tenacious fury of a trial lawyer. It is a line-by-line defense, adjective by adjective.

In the process of sketching both careers, Seligman also lays out the landscape inhabited by every American critic, and by extension, every American who is critical about art. We live torn between a dutiful obligation to difficult art and an impish love of our native trash, and so we are continually perplexed by the same questions: Must one step outside one's identity to get a proper sense of cultural life? Does that mean disassociating oneself from the commercial, the vulgar, the pervasive kitsch of America? Are we deep because we're shallow? And if we're just shallow, is it the critic's duty to fight this? Not surprisingly, for Seligman, Kael came up with the right answers to all of these questions, leading the reader with a light, witty hand on the reins, while balancing a love of the gritty American vulgate with a straight-shootin' mind that penetrated questions as least as deeply as Sontag, with her chiseled, Apollonian prose, ever did.

Seligman is so good at reading and understanding other critics that it's surprising he hasn't tamed his own most noticeable critical tic: When he is on the shakiest ground, his language approaches hyperbole, and he is given to high-handed, impatient dismissal -- such as "Oh, horseshit," when brushing aside a perfectly valid complaint about Kael's shifting use of "art" as an honorific and its relation to kitsch. His defense of her supposed anti-Semitism and homophobia is strained, but ultimately convincing. He earns her an acquittal on the precise charges, but he can't get her off on a bigger one: She wasn't prejudiced, she was just mean. At least, in print. Defending her review of the 1961 film "A Taste of Honey," he goes so far as to say that "she isn't making a pronouncement about gay men; she's referring to a specific weakling, and she never had room in her heart for weaklings."

Sontag may be an elitist and a snob, but she definitely has room in her heart for weaklings. To absolve Kael of being petty, however, Seligman must use the perfectly valid defense that genius has its prerogatives. And criticism, as he argues, is essentially blood sport. There are rules, and there is honor, but a nice critic is a dull critic.

Fair enough. Seligman's very good book isn't flawed by its prejudice for Kael; rather, it's rendered more human. The love shines through. And the book should be required reading for anyone entering the critical trade. If there is a flaw here, it is a small sin of omission. Artists, and critics, are not responsible for their imitators; but a book about Kael and Sontag shouldn't dodge the issue of influence. Kael was a delight to read, but the Kael style -- the bitchiness, the unrelenting certainty of opinion -- has been a malign force in American arts criticism, which all too often burbles along as a stream of witty one-liners and provocative pronouncements. You might think that the ideal American critic would think like Sontag and write like Kael, but in fact writing like Kael is sufficient and generally preferable (and, of course, it's not possible to separate thinking and writing style). And Sontag's lack of influence, her unseemly trashing by the right, has made her our authentic Cassandra. Sontag and Kael may represent poles of an argument about art and style, but we must not lose sight of our need for less Kael and more Sontag.

When Sontag warned us, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, that while we should grieve together, we must not be stupid together, she was warning us against making the kind of movie Kael's detractors accused her of loving. Do not go to war in the name of narrative simplicity, do not be bloodthirsty, do not seek revenge. Sontag was right, clear-headed and prescient. Kael was never the political animal that Sontag is, and thus she was never as heroically right about anything as Sontag. At the end of this book, it's tempting to imagine another critical voice, Dr. Johnson, getting to the heart of the matter. Kael was a talent; Sontag is a genius. And there's an end on it. *

Philip Kennicott is culture critic of The Washington Post.