Notes Home From Camp, By Susan Sontag -The Toast

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Home: The Toast

sontag1Dear Mother, and to a lesser extent Father,

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 name of Camp Kenwood at Winnipesaukee‎.

To snare a sensibility in words, especially one that is alive and powerful and swarming with first-summer city kids, one must be tentative and nimble. The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility. It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp Kenwood. How can a piece of writing capture the spirit of summer camp? How can, to put it in terms you will understand, an indoor kid write about the most wholly outdoors of activities, namely Camp?

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. There is pudding with almost every meal (rice pudding at breakfast). We are not permitted to leave the table without cleaning our pudding cups and singing our respective cabin’s anthem with the greatest show of enthusiasm one can muster at six-thirty AM in New Hampshire. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Mother, I have been changing my socks nightly, I can assure you. Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures. This is why I refuse to consider my one-woman performance of Death Comes For The Archbishop at last Friday night’s talent show a failure — I was able to wrest a certain sweet dignity from it, and in that sense I was a success.

Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” I am making friends here, and no longer wish to come home; several of the girls in Bunk Seven have tastes and interests not altogether foreign to my own. They understand the polyphonic voice and are not altogether lost to my theories on Heidegger. Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling. In this respect it is altogether unlike P.S. 119. My camp friends tell me they will write to me during the school year. I wonder.

The way we live now is as follows: reveille at six, breakfast at six-fifteen, morning activity time from seven to nine-thirty, free swim from nine-thirty to ten, bunk inspection from ten to ten-thirty, free play from ten-thirty to noon, lunch at noon, ropes course or guided hikes at one, quiet time from three to four, arts and crafts hour until five (“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art,” Mr. Kittridge, the craft director, is fond of reminding us), dinner at five-thirty, evening entertainment (skits, singalongs, etcetera) from six-thirty til eight, lights out at nine-thirty.

Not only is there a Camp vision, a Camp way of looking at things; Camp is as well a quality discoverable in objects and the behavior of persons. There are Camp and Non-Camp ways of behaving. Crying over a letter from home is distinctly Non-Camp. Sharing any baked goods found in a care package is Camp. Jumping the Bridge portion of the ropes course without a harness is Camp. Not having a date to the talent show is Not Camp. There are “campy” movies, clothes (thank you for sending me another pair of denim shorts; my usual severe all-black ensemble has served only to make me an object of fun and I have not had occasion to wear my cape even once), furniture, popular songs (have you heard the one about the little lady from Nantucket?), novels, people, buildings (particularly the Game Equipment Hut)…This distinction is important. True, the Camp eye has the power to transform experience. But not everything can be seen as Camp. My bunkmate Rachel, for example. She is hopeless, and I hate her. I wish very much I were bunkmates with Denise, who brought seven different colors of lipgloss with her and is the most popular girl in the cabin.

Random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp:

Amateur astronomy
Having a crush on Terrance, the goyishe swimming instructor
Cutting out the sides of your camp t-shirt and then tying up the cut ends into little ribbons such that part of your midsection is visible to the naked eye
Athletic socks (no frills)
Getting a sunburn on your first day
Capture the Flag (the actual capturing of the flag is of little importance)
Bellini’s operas
Visconti’s direction of Salome and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
the old Flash Gordon comics
Running out of batteries for your flashlight because you stayed up so late talking to the other girls after Counselor Debbie snuck out to visit her boyfriend across the lake
Swan Lake

I have no pictures to send you. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures. You will have to take me at my word when I say I am getting plenty of sun and fresh air and have successfully completed the swim test.

I have not yet jumped off onto the Blob. I have yet to see a convincing argument for making the leap. Time, that old tattle-tale, will tell.

Your daughter, Susan Sontag

P.S. The end-of-summer bus arrives at the station at 7 PM next Tuesday night. Please don’t embarrass me in front of my friends.

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