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THIS IS one of the most celebrated essays in modern critical history. Reading it is like discovering a new continent.

Sontag's notes are for Oscar Wilde, and are interspersed with quotations from that camp genius. Sontag defines camp as, among other things: one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon disengaged, depoliticized - or at least apolitical androgynous reeking of self-love effacing nature Old Flash Gordon comics, 1920s women's clothes belong to the "canon of camp"; Greta Garbo and Jayne Mansfield are camp, and so are the cast-iron orchid stalks that frame the entrances to the Paris metro. Camp is often bad or decorative art, and is best defined through lists of often very amusing examples - the speeches of Charles de Gaulle, certain turn-of-the-century postcards.

This essay deluges the reader with things that are "old-fashioned, out-of-date, demode". Old bakelite phones, the sort you get in black and white movies, would be one example, feather boas another. There is a junky eeriness about camp. It comes back at us like those movies with the phones in them, and those smooth, sculpted black cars driven by smokers in suits.

Camp lets us glimpse the terrible void at the heart of style. Maybe it's self-protective and a form of revenge? Down with romantic authenticity, it says. Nature and earnestness, Wilde's twin targets, are frauds. Camp is self-consciously self-conscious: like listening to dialogue that is all monologue. It could, as non-campers like Jasper and McMoon would say, get severely on your tits. Which is perhaps why Sontag writes her essay in numbered notes. In this way, she both reins her subject in and suggests its plenitude.

For Sontag, the "great serious idol" of camp taste is Greta Garbo. Her "incompetence" as an actress enhances her beauty. She is "always herself". This recalls a remark of Jean Cocteau's which haunted Sartre: "Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo." Perhaps camp is a form of alienation? A type of passive existentialism?

Sontag's point number 36 is that there are other creative sensibilities beside the seriousness - both tragic and comic - of high culture and of the "high style of evaluating people". One cheats oneself as a human being if one only has respect for the style of high culture, "what- ever else one may do or feel on the sly".

To define camp more closely, Sontag discusses the kind of sensibility whose trademark is "anguish, cruelty, derangement" - Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud are her examples. Camp, she says, is third among the "great creative sensibilities": thesensibility of "failed seriousness, of the theatricalisation of experience". It incarnates a victory of style over content, aesthetics over morality, irony over tragedy. It puts the world in quotation marks, and is strangely philosophical because it saturates everything with thought and irony. Auden's question in "Mountains": "Am I/To see in the Lake District then,/Another bourgeois invention like the piano?" is a brilliant piece of camp. It comes out of his early Marxism and out of Wilde's habit of seeing nature as culture. Ever since Turner and the Impressionists, Wilde remarks, London's sunsets have improved remarkably. And there is a poem by Elizabeth Bishop in which fireflies are seen rising "like the bubbles in champagne".

Which tells us that camp has a lot to do with leisure and consumption. Watching an old movie on a wet afternoon, we are watching ourselves watch an old movie on a wet afternoon, and we know that we have entered the dusty hell - or is it heaven? - of pastconsumption. But all is not lost: Sontag's point is that camp taste "transcends the nausea of the replica".

This is the critic as poet: what wit, what sensuous intelligence! How we love being told that camp is the answer to the problem of how to be "a dandy in the age of mass culture". The new-style dandy "appreciates vulgarity" and understands that this sensibility is "the good taste of bad taste". Which is a way of theorising about why we watch Blind Date and why Dame Edna is so subversive and popular. Is the concept of celebrity part of the rhetoric of a camp sensibility? Where are the lengthy critical studies called Camp and Shopping in the Age of Mass Culture, The Semiotics of Camp, Late Bourgeois Camp?

Maybe we also need a word of warning. I recall an article in a gay journal some years back which argued that camp is in practice highly conservative, that it accepts the status quo in a passive fashion by sanctifying things- as-they-are. So is there sucha thing as Radical Camp? Elizabeth Bishop, at moments in her poetry - the way she links colonialism and consumerism, for example - is one answer to that. So is the presiding genius of Sontag's essay, Oscar Wilde. When the cultural history of republican radicalism in these islands is written, dear Oscar will be there, garlanded with lilies.

Yes, lilies belong in the list, and so - at least among men - does the word "dear". As in "Time for a drink, dear boy."

Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility - unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it - that goes by the cult name of "Camp".

A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about; but there are special reasons why Camp, in particular, has never been discussed. It is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such.

Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric - something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.

Apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood's The World in the Evening (1954), it has hardly broken into print. To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it. If the betrayal can be defended, it will be for the edification it provides, or the dignity of the conflict it resolves. For myself, I plead the goal of self-edification, and the goad of a sharp conflict in my own sensibility. I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For no one who whole-heartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyse it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

Susan Sontag: `Notes on Camp' (1964)

Next week: The opening paragraph