What is it with female academics that turned them into gushing, trembling, insecure groupies whenever the late Susan Sontag showed up on their campus to give a lecture?

Last year, I posted on Stanford English professor Terry Castle’s essay in the London Review of Books about Sontag’s visits to her campus. Castle would go ga-ga when Sontag’s plane landed, cutting the classes she was paid to teach and leaving her students in the lurch in order to become Sontag’s slavish chauffeur/tour guide/restaurant check-picker-upper/amanuensis, all the while listening to Sontag diss the very professoriate to which Castle belonged. Frankly, my sympathies were with Sontag. Love her or hate her, Sontag was a professional who met her deadlines and kept her commitments–unlike the flighty, class-canceling Castle. Castle professed to be Deeply Hurt that despite all the fawning, Sontag had never visited her apartment, which was ostentatiously decorated with…books by Susan Sontag.

Now we have another English professor relating a bad case of the disillusioned goo-goos over a Sontag visit not long before Sontag’s death of cancer last year: Dana Heller, writing in the Common Review. Unlike Castle, Heller evidently was, and seems still to be, so intimidated by–and enamored of–Sontag that she’s too embarrassed to this day to reveal the name of the university where she teaches (Google and Amazon say it’s Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va., which I guess is no Stanford, although it does seem to have a pretty good science program).

Heller got her knickers into such a mighty twist at the news that the great Sontag had deigned to put in an appearance at the “third-tier” (Heller?s words, not mine) Old Dominion that she sent her graduate students into a frenzy of idolatrous research into Sontag’s entire literary oeuvre, apparently for fear that they would embarrass their prof by looking too rustic when the Great One graced their campus:

They had, to their credit, spent considerable time getting in shape for this event, bulking up on Sontag’s early essays, spinning mental timelines of her major position shifts on culture and politics, and sculpting their own urbane opinions on moral and aesthetic matters that they knew would matter . . . to Sontag. I could have sworn that a few of them even began to imitate Sontag’s heavy-handed style in their own fledgling essays and short stories, with predictably hilarious results. But who could fault them for succumbing to her influence?

‘Hilarious’? I guess Heller doesn’t think much of her own students.

In fact, the poor students, obviously egged on by the panic-stricken Heller, became so intimidated at the prospect of Sontag that by the time she actually got there, they were struck dumb and forgot all the clever apercus with which Heller had prepped them:  

My well-rehearsed apprentices, perhaps shaken by the visible signs of her illness or unnerved by her evasive response to the research assistant, went uncharacteristically mute. When pointedly asked if they had any questions for Ms. Sontag, they simply froze, stared idly down at the table or across the room as if concentrating on some distant, shiny object, and clammed up. My heart sank. As their teacher, my worst fear was that Sontag would see them not as imbecilic, but, even worse, as boring. I searched their faces, but none would return eye contact.

So Heller decided to step into the breach and demonstrate to Sontag that even if her students were dummies, she was one smart prof:

Unable to stand it any longer, and cognizant of my duty to set the example, I took the floor. ‘I have a question, actually.? Sontag fixed her famous blas’ gaze upon me.

I began by introducing myself as the director of the humanities graduate program, gesturing around the table to indicate that the tongue-tied spectators were my charges. Sontag raised one eyebrow. ‘Humanities?’ she asked incredulously. ‘What is that supposed to mean?’ Right then, at least viscerally, I knew that I had been singled out as prey.

‘What does it mean?’ I returned, mentally noting the initial rush of adrenaline through my bloodstream. Well, it’s an interdisciplinary liberal arts program that started back in the 70s, I blabbered, with no particular direction in mind, and with the vaguest sense that she had intended the question to be rhetorical anyway. But no matter, for I could see that I had already blown it with Sontag, which meant that I would have to come up with something pretty impressive if I hoped to salvage my credibility with her before appetizers were served….

Is it true, as witnesses would later swear, that as I rambled on about the revised reading lists for core courses, Sontag appeared to recoil slightly, as if fearful that she would be contaminated by my formidable tediousness, and that I, as if compensating for the distance she sought to place between us, leaned intently toward her?

Yes, it’s probably true. So Heller decided it was time to demonstrate to Sontag exactly how clever and literarily savvy she was. She asked Sontag if she had taken the title for her “Alice in Bed”–a 1993  play about Alice James, the sister of Henry and William who spent many years fighting a debilitating form of cancer, just as Sontag had–from a 1983 novel by the same name by one Catherine Schine whose feminist-allegorical plot concerned a woman who was confined to her bed–get it?–but still managed to think great thoughts.

Here is what Sontag said–and dontcha just love her, even if she was something of a lefty?:

‘I am stunned, utterly stunned that you would ask such a stupid question that no one who knew even the least bit about the life of Alice James would ask.’

There was something else on Sontag’s mind. Urgently, she asked me, ‘Do you know who Alice James is?’

And here is Sontag’s final zinger, which apparently lives on in the campus lore at Old Dominion:

‘If you?re so taken with her,’ Sontag said, ‘perhaps you should have invited Cathleen Schine to be the speaker at your festival.’

Hah! Here is what I see as Sontag’s problem with Heller: she could spot from a mile away that she, Sontag, was a genuine intellectual, whereas Heller wasn’t–and thus Heller felt the need to turn Old Dominion’s grad students into her personal “apprenctices” and to show off in front of a university guest.

Heller is supposedly an English professor, but like many an English professor nowadays, she devotes precious little energy to the works of English literature that are supposed to be her specialty. Instead, like many of her confreres, she’s into “cultural studies”–that amateurish mishmash of Marxism and pop sociology in which humanities scholars untrained in the social sciences make portentous, jargon-filled, and painfully obvious observations about TV shows, advertising, and other flotsam of the popular scene.

Here, according to Amazon, is Dana Heller’s list of published works:

Her previous books are The Feminization of Quest Romance: Radical Departures, Family Plots: The De-Oedipalization of Popular Culture, and Cross Purposes: Lesbians, Feminists, and the Limits of Alliance.

And here is Amazon’s description of Heller’s latest, typically themed book, “The Selling of 9/11 : How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity”:

From American flag decals and replicas of the World Trade Center to an emotionally fueled advertising campaign for The New York Times, the marketing and commodification of September 11 reveals the contradictory processes by which consumers in the U.S. (and around the world) communicate and construct national identity through cultural and symbolic goods.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall listening to Heller’s description to Sontag of what she was passing off as study of the “humanities” at Old Dominion. No wonder Sontag radiated contempt. Sontag was, as Heller herself notes, “one of the last great defenders of high seriousness.” Sontag got her education at the University of Chicago and Harvard, back in the old days, when studying the “humanities” meant steeping yourself in the great philosophers and the monumental works of literature.

Heller remains obviously stung to this day by Sontag’s public humiliation of her, for she devotes a not-insubstantial portion of her essay to informing us how terrible Sontag looked (hey, she was only dying!) and speculating that Sontag really did steal the title of “Alice in Bed” from Schine, all of whose works, by the way, are out of print, unlike Sontag’s. Yeah, maybe Sontag did.

My advice to humanities grad students at Old Dominion: transfer, transfer, transfer.