Varuca at The Wormhole and some thoughts on Camp

On Saturday afternoon, having seen Varuca perform at The Wormhole the previous night, I reread Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”.

I read a lot of Sontag’s work back in the day — her essay “Under the Sign of Saturn” is about Walter Benjamin, whose work I studied extensively. Ater finishing Songtag’s essay on Saturday, I felt both smarter and dumber. But that’s a post for another day.

A few snippets from three of Sontag’s 58 notes:

8. Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not. […]

9. As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo. […]

10. Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons to to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.

And this:

22. Considered a little less strictly, Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious (when one plays at being camp). An example of the latter: Wilde’s epigrams themselves.

I don’t agree with everything that Sontag says about Camp, and some of her examples seem curiously off. Still, it’s brilliant and challenging stuff.

But what of the world today, when irony pervades so much of our public discourse, especially on social media, and when sometimes it “seems” that every other “word” ends up in quotation marks? Sontag considers Camp as a way “to be a dandy in the age of mass culture,” but the mass culture of 1964 is obviously different from that of today.

Years ago, wandering along the river in Budapest one night on our way to a hostel, a friend and I popped into Capella Cafe, where we saw a drag show that embodied Camp. Typical American drag involves performers who take significant steps actually to appear as women and who lip-sync to pop songs. The performances can have Camp elements — some intentional, some not — but ultimately such drag shows rely heavily on mimicry. (“Mimesis” would be too generous a word.) The show at Capella that night bore only superficial resemblance to average American drag. The performers actually sang and didn’t seem to be trying to look like women at all, but stylized versions of men dressed as women. Varuca would have fit right in.

On Friday night, Varuca sang her beautiful original songs (maybe too beautiful for Camp), played the keys masterfully (can one play the piano too well?), and chatted warmly (maybe too warmly) with the (mostly) young crowd. It was a beautiful American debut, one that retained the transgressiveness of Camp.

I took some photos and shot a video of the final song, which is obviously disrupted halfway through as dancers take to the stage.

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