Essays: The imagination of disaster & Notes on “camp”

Sontag’s 1965 essay, The Imagination of Disaster, (collected in Against Interpretation) is her look at sci-fi films in the era of worrying about the atomic bomb. The dialogue in these films makes them “wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like ‘Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub,’… and ‘I hope it works!’ are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something that is painful and in deadly earnest.” The films are about disaster, “one of the oldest subjects of art.” And in the films, disaster is always viewed extensively, a question of scale, a matter of “quantity and ingenuity.”

The aesthetics of destruction are the “peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess.” We are “treated to a panorama of melting tanks, flying bodies, crashing walls, awesome craters and fissures in the earth, plummeting spacecraft, colorful deadly rays; and to a symphony of screams, weird electronic signals, the noisiest military hardware going, and the leaden tones of the laconic denizens of alien planets and their subjugated earthlings.”

“The theme of depersonalization (being ‘taken over’)… is a new allegory reflecting the age-old awareness of man that, sane, he is always perilously close to insanity and unreason. But there is something more here than just a recent, popular image which expresses man’s perennial but largely unconscious anxiety about his sanity. The image derives most of its power from a supplementary and historical anxiety, also not experienced consciously by most people, about the depersonalizing conditions of modern urban life.”

“Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”

“The interest of these films, aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naïve and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation.”

The films force us to “think about the unthinkable.”

“In the films it is by means of images and sounds, not words that have to be translated by the imagination, that one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death, and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.”


Notes on “Camp” (1964, also collected in Against Interpretation) is another useful essay as I’m trying to crack what it is about terrible movies that I enjoy so much. Movies are one of the first things she notes as “campy,” calling out Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) as an example.

“One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp is usually less satisfying.”

“In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.”

“The reason a movie like On the Beach, books like Winesburg, Ohio and For Whom the Bell Tolls are bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable, is that they are too dogged and pretentious. They lack fantasy. There is Camp in such bad movies as The Prodigal and Samson and Delilah, the series of Italian color spectacles featuring the super-hero Maciste, numerous Japanese science fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man) because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy—and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.”

“One cheats oneself as a human being if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.”

“One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that ‘sincerity’ is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.”

“Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century’s surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.”

She quotes from Oscar Wilde (father of Camp) throughout the essay, including A Woman of No Importance: “I adore simple pleasures, they are the last refuge of the complex.”

“Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste… The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy… Camp makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.”

“Camp taste is a a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation, not judgement. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism… Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes rather than judges the little triumphs and awkward intensities of character.”

“The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”