Style and Radical Will

An Interview with Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag is one of the best-known essayists in contemporary literature. Her collections of essays, like On Photography, Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will and Illness as Metaphor, have been enormously influential in shaping and questioning our thinking about subjects as diverse as pornography, aesthetics, disease, Fascism, film theory and silence. In addition to her essays, Ms Sontag has published three collections of fiction, The Benefactor, Death Kit and I, etcetera, and has written three filmscripts, Duet for Cannibals, Brother Carl and Promised Lands. Recently she has been writing fiction of a more directly autobiographical character. Susan Sontag was in Winnipeg in November, 1987 as part of the “Distinguished Lecture Series” organized by the Winnipeg Art Gallery. She spoke with Robert Enright the morning after her lecture.

Border Crossings: What is it that compels you to choose a particular theme or idea to write about?

Susan Sontag: I can’t really answer that question, except to say it’s an intuition about what seems to lead to other things, about what seems fruitful. But I can answer perhaps a related question, which is why some things get written and some things don’t. It’s a common experience for me to be extremely interested in something—interest is a cool word to describe a process that is, in fact, very heated—and yet feel that I don’t have anything in particular to say about it. It just is something that fascinates me. For instance, contemporary architecture and the history of architecture generally is a very hot interest of mine. I look at buildings all the time, I think about buildings, I know a fair amount about the history of architecture. And I don’t think I have anything particularly interesting to say about it. But I’m obsessed, so that just remains an obsession. I mean, I look out the window of this hotel and I see these new dinky buildings of a very familiar kind, and I get somebody to take me over to Portage Avenue and I wander around and have my familiar thoughts about these new movements in architecture. Or, I’m taken over to see St. Boniface and what the architect has done in setting the new church in the ruins of the old. But there’s nothing I can do with it: buildings and how they’re made, what people think about them and how cities are changing—those things just haunt me. Whereas, when I started to get interested in photography, really obsessed with photographs, I thought I had something to say that hadn’t been said.

Is it something that seems to take you over, and then you have to go through what you describe as the hydraulic function of getting that obsession down on paper?

Yes, but I have many more interests and obsessions than I could possibly write. If I only tried to take care of these I would be in some kind of never-ending cycle, so it’s almost a comical relationship to my own enthusiasms. I try to keep them at bay or I just surrender to them, or I carry them like a bunch of squalling children. I sometimes do feel like the woman who had too many children, but there’s nothing to be done about it, it’s just the way I’m made.

You talk like an autodidact when you refer to your interest in architecture. Do you ever systematically sit down and study a subject?

No, I think I am an autodidact. I wouldn’t call what I do systematic, but I haunt book stores and buy books compulsively. So when I’m interested in something, I start collecting books and picking up information and leads and tips, often in scholarly magazines. I become avid or greedy to amass some kind of documentation or archive, mainly in the form of books, which I then read. I had a terrible public-school education, and I had a very good university education. But what I studied in school is just one corner of what I’m interested in.

It strikes me that a good number of Americans, not just of your generation, but of other generations as well, have been obsessed by European culture. I wonder about the reason for this profound relationship between American and European culture. Robert Motherwell has it as well: he will quote Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the whole tradition of French poetry in which he seems as well versed as a French scholar. What’s the fascination?

Well, first of all I think people like Motherwell and myself are very much in the minority. We’re not typical; we’re a visible, articulate minority. I think the vast majority of intellectuals, if you want to call them that—creative people, artists, people involved in the world of culture, the arts and ideas—are not particularly interested in the past and are not particularly interested in Europe. People like Motherwell and myself are unusual in that we are completely American in background, but were drawn to European culture at an early age. The reason that I’d give, and I bet that Motherwell would give it too, is that European culture is a much broader and deeper experience, and that the kind of culture that has been produced here in North America is much more limited. Insofar as it has any depth, it can mostly be referred back to Europe and to cut yourself off from that is to forget the past. And what can I say, it’s better. I make it sound crude but ultimately I guess my feelings are very simple: there are more great books, there are more great paintings, there are more great ideas. A lot of Americans, I imagine Canadians might say this too, think, ‘Well, I don’t want to know all about that, I want to be original, I don’t want to be burdened with the past.’ While this rejection of the past, which is characteristic of settler countries like the United States, Canada and Australia, is understandable, it’s also an act of conscious cultural impoverishment. On the other side, even though Europeans claim to admire it very much, I think they admire American culture in a condescending way. They like American barbarism. I’m not so fond of American barbarism.

It’s interesting to hear you use the word, burden, because when you talked in your lecture last night about the traumatic relationship that you personally have with American culture, I got the sense that you wanted to unburden yourself of American Messianism, which seems to be a political agenda the United States has set for itself.

Well, I hate nationalisms. I especially hate great power nationalisms. I suppose I have more sympathy for the nationalisms that arise in small countries because they are trying to preserve something that’s always threatened. I feel more sympathetic, for example, towards Polish nationalism than I do towards Russian, or to Canadian than to American nationalism. But, by and large, I hate the aggressiveness of the nation-state posture and so I’m a very critical citizen of my own country. There was a question asked last night which amused me very much and I have had a lot of afterthoughts about it, what the French call l’esprit de I’escalier, the kind of thing you think when you’re going down the stairs after you’ve left the party, the smart thing you thought you should have said. I spoke at one moment of a symbiotic relationship between Canadian and American culture, and somebody smartly asked me from the audience, ‘What’s so symbiotic about it?’, and then I launched into a very pious and sincere expression of my desire that the liberal part of Canadian political culture could have an influence on helping the left-liberal alternative in the United States perhaps be reborn. It’s been so defeated and humiliated and rendered virtually invisible in recent years, and I meant what I said and I think this is a possibility. But I suppose the smart, clever and unfortunately true answer is that there’s already a symbiosis, which is that Canada is supposed to supply the United States with its paper and the United States is supposed to supply Canada with its brain-washing, lobotomizing culture. I turned on the television this morning—I hate television but I forced myself to imbibe a few minutes of this noxious drug—just to see if it looked any different from the kind of television I would see at a Holiday Inn anywhere in the United States. I have to say, it doesn’t look different. And that’s a very peculiar problem for Canada, to be a different country and yet have this electronic ideology machine, this brainwashing machine in every household, making Canadian consciousness like American consciousness, filling Canada with all of this mental slop.

Do you find yourself out of time, in a sense? You reject television, the dominant technology of the age; you also have a certain unease about American culture and the implications of its activity and power in the world. Do you wish you were “other”, in a sense?

Well, I wish it were other, I don’t wish I were other. But of course, I don’t think I’m unique. If I thought that, I would be even more pessimistic than I am. Every society is a very complicated collection of forces and resistances. I think that there are leading tendencies in American society which are very corrupting, and they are embodied in a very pure and visible form in television. Of course, television is not simply the creator; it’s as much the symptom or the evidence. But the unbridled, naked materialism and cynicism and appetite for cruelty and violence in the United States is very disturbing. It’s the acceptance of vulgar and anti-idealistic values. I’m not trying to idealize the past or say that it’s so much better elsewhere, but I think that when you get a society which doesn’t even have any decent hypocrisies anymore, in which people are so shameless about their meanness and their selfishness and their avidity and their willingness to judge almost everything by criteria of material gain, then you are certainly on the way toward a society in decline. A society can’t operate, I think, so cynically and continue to prosper. It can’t teach its citizens to be so selfish and call that individualism. I don’t feel that I’m out of step, I think I am part of a number of people who are extremely uneasy. I think most people, maybe the majority of people, would actually agree with what I say. That is to say, they would admit to having the same unease or the same worries. I think my feelings are normal feelings. The only difference between me and most people is that I don’t stowaway my discontent. I don’t say, ‘Well, that’s the way it is; it is terrible but what can you do about it? It’s a jungle out there, you have to live according to the laws of the jungle; I want to have a decent life, I don’t want to be smashed, I have to play by the rules that exist. If the rules are corrupt rules, then I have to play by the corrupt rules.’ I have forged for myself a position, and again it’s not unique, whereby I’m willing to criticize and act as if things could be changed, whereas most people don’t feel things can be, and therefore they just swallow their discontent and that makes them even more cynical.

It seems to me you want to use your writing as a kind of ethical corrective. Do you see the act of writing as essentially being a moral obligation?

I think to be serious is already to be in opposition to this society. I don’t think of my writing as propagandistic, if that’s what you’re asking, although a lot of my public activity is propagandistic. If I give a lecture, I become a preacher, a teacher/preacher, and that’s part of my nature. But of course, I’m not such an up-front, all-out preacher/teacher in my writing. I think that’s more something for public speaking and for conversation. Real literature isn’t propagandistic in a direct sense, but real literature always has some ethical meaning, if only because it has a concern for truth, a certain level of regard which is serious, which embodies considerations of honour as opposed to material gain. You are making a statement which is an ethical statement or even a political one. But I think the most important thing is to exemplify the values and to act them out rather than to preach them, and certainly not in writing where it can become very cheap. You have to be very careful in this society because everything good can be turned into a commodity and put up for sale, just another object floating by in this phantasmagoria of consumerism.

Your essays seem to accept implicitly that there are inherent ambiguities in “Modernist Culture.” Are the essays then in some senses tracks or grids for describing what is almost an irreconcilable condition?

Well, the point I always come to in the essays is to say it’s very complicated. That’s what makes the essays hard to write. Oscar Wilde said that the nature of truth in art is that its opposite is also true. And I think it’s not only true of art, I think that’s the nature of truth. People misunderstand this paradoxical or complicated nature in thinking it means everything is relative, that there is no truth, but there are truths. But it’s like there’s a network, a family of truths in which there is a lot of opposition and contradiction and even paradox. You have to hold a certain complexity in your mind to get close to something close to the truth. But again, people have that experience in their lives, they just don’t have the courage to apply what they already know. If you know another human being, you know that that person is complicated and can’t be reduced to just one thing. I guess in a way I could be reduced to saying I’m a pluralist, except I think it’s much more complicated than being a pluralist. Pluralist sounds like a very weak position in which you’re tolerant of a lot of different views, and I mean something stronger than that, I mean some kind of active attempt to really see things in as complicated a way as possible.

You’re certainly not a secular Manichean, though. I mean, you don’t want to reduce the world to a place that is black and white with no shades in between. It is a question of seeing the entire spectrum of tonality within that black/white framework?

No, because I think you can’t see the whole spectrum. I still think you have to pick out certain leading themes or notions, and recognize that not everything is on the same level. It is like a kind of architectural analysis: there are supporting beams, there are walls, there are floors, there are different elements of the architecture, some of which are essential and some of which are decorative. I don’t think it’s simply a question of taking everything in, because then you wouldn’t be able to understand anything. I think you have to understand that a structure has forces and resistances and counterforces. There is also something important in trying to understand the assumptions you’re making. If you criticize something, you criticize it from a certain point of view, and often it’s very revealing to try to understand what you’re assuming when you say something is good or bad. The other reason why I wouldn’t want to simply say it’s a question of pluralism is that I do come to judgement, if you want to use so grand a sounding phrase.

It sounds biblical.

It is biblical, yes. There are things which I’m willing to say are awful, or things which I’m willing to say are wonderful and should be supported. I suppose another idea that’s important to me is the romantic cliché that encourages people to separate their intellect from their feelings. It’s very misleading because feelings are a form of intelligence, and intelligence has a lot of feeling in it, and when people try to oppose these because they think they should or they’re supposed to, they impoverish their ability to understand.

That Cartesian thing is a trap, isn’t it? To say that ‘you think, therefore you are’ is to leave out ‘I feel, therefore I am.’ We find ourselves wrapped up in mind if we accept that argument.

But you could say, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ if you had a proper understanding of what thinking was. So much of thinking is a reflection of temperament. What you actually think, what you can think, has a lot to do with choices that are made by your temperament and your sensibility. It’s not as if it were some detached mental operation that has nothing to do with who you are as a feeling person, as somebody full of fears or hopes or anxieties.

Do you feel the need to distance yourself from the ideas in your essays? Is there some sort of objective stance necessary to get the thing down?

Oh, I don’t feel distant at all. On the contrary, it’s a tremendous effort of inwardness to write anything. But I think there is a distancing from certain kinds of pressures to allow yourself to be able to write. I don’t distance from myself, but writing is very solitary and it demands a lot of courage or nerve.

Is it still hard for you to write, then? Is looking at the blank page still a terrifying act?

I think it’s not only terrifying, it’s harder. It gets harder as you get older. Unlike practically anything else you do, it doesn’t get easy because you have developed certain skills. Because along with the skills which you’ve developed through practice and experience comes greater knowledge of your medium and what other people have done and, usually, higher standards. So that I think it’s actually more difficult to write now than 20 years ago when I was a young writer. Twenty years ago I was so happy to get anything down that pleased me, or that satisfied my standards, and not everything I wrote satisfied my standards, but if I could write something I liked I thought it was fantastic. Now, when I sit down, because I’m so much more experienced and have thought so much more about what writing is, I feel a terrible anguish. Right away I say, ‘Well, it could go this way but it could go that way.’ Before, I didn’t even know that there were other possibilities, I didn’t know I had options. Now I have many more hesitations and I have to conquer those hesitations. Also, I think that when you’re well known, you try to distance yourself from your reputation, from this fantasy that people have about you. While it may be very flattering, it isn’t helpful. In fact, it can be very misleading and distracting, and appeal to your desire to please, which is not the best part of you. You have to distance yourself from all that, and I constantly have the feeling that I’m starting all over again. I’m not even very fond of my work in the past. I feel a considerable distance from my own work after I’ve done it. It becomes quite unreal to me and even somewhat embarrassing.

Orphan the children that you talked about earlier?

Yes, I think I do. Well, I send them out to have lots of foster parents.

Another thing that intrigues me is the question of how personal are the essays. There’s a tradition coming through the 19th century of seeing the essay as a personal form. Clearly, when I think of Illness as Metaphor, I think of it as a very personal essay. Have there been pieces that you’ve written to which you’re extremely close?

Well, I think almost all the essays are very personal, especially the ones of the last ten years, where they were really mental self-portraits of things which obsessed me. But I felt, out of a combination of shyness, modesty and pride, enormous pride, that I shouldn’t mention myself directly, or that I should keep any mention of myself to a minimum. It seemed more elegant and, well, more attractive to me. It was a kind of a pride, as well as timidity, not to bring myself into it, even though I knew there was a considerable autobiographical subtext. Very lately I have begun to write in a more direct and autobiographical way with a feeling of incredible anxiety, as if I’m breaking an enormous taboo. In other words, I’m doing what an awful lot of people do very naturally and think is the most normal thing in the world, which is to say, ‘I did this, I felt that when I was a child, etc.’ Most writers do that; in fact, they begin that way and I’m only discovering it after 25 years or so of writing, discovering it with a sense of glee and almost of naughtiness. I just finished the first directly autobiographical thing I’ve ever done, called “Pilgrimage,” and it’s been accepted by The New Yorker. It’s a memoir of myself at the age of 14, a high school student in southern California being dragged, kicking and screaming, to meet Thomas Mann, who was a very old man and, I suppose, the most famous writer in the world at that time. As a high school student, I was tricked into this meeting by someone who knew that I admired him, that I revered him, that I worshipped him. He was my god and I loved his books. And this person called and arranged for me to meet him, and I didn’t have the courage to refuse to go. So, it’s a portrait of me as this precocious, book-intoxicated, 14-year-old, going to meet Thomas Mann and hating every minute of it. What happened was, in fact, very comical. I was very awkward and he was an incredible stuffed shirt. Even though I worshipped him and I didn’t expect anything of this situation, I remember that I was a little bit disappointed that he was so pompous. He spoke in a very pompous and also extremely simple way. And I thought, ‘Well, is he talking down to me; is this just the way he talks; is it because English is not his native language?’ So “Pilgrimage” is a combination of very funny, self-conscious, embarrassing reflections. It’s not just a Reader’s Digest, “the-most-interesting-encounter-I-ever-had” sort of thing. It’s a portrait of my very unhappy and troubled childhood, and when I was writing it I was really surprised and pleased that finally I had summoned up the courage to write something so directly personal. Of course, I have a tremendous fear of being banal and an unhappy childhood, like an unhappy marriage, is a pretty common experience, and one can just say these very ordinary things and it won’t be so interesting. Anyway, having done this bit of writing, I have to see if I can go on and write some other things about my childhood. And so join a more directly autobiographical tradition that I thought was not available to me.

One of the books that I have admired a great deal is by John Berger, a tiny book called And our faces, my heart, brief as photos. It’s one of those books that seems very personal at the same time that it looks at history, at art, at specific painters like Caravaggio, at writers and writing. It’s a kind of essay-writing that is appearing more and more often. When you talk about your essays as being mental portraits, are you commenting on your connection with this kind of writing?

Yes. It’s very encouraging and heartwarming for you to speak of Robert Motherwell and now John Berger in connection with me, as if we were some very large tendency. I wish that were true. But, of course, I think we are very much in the minority. You have mentioned two artist/thinkers, though, whom I definitely think of as kindred spirits and members of the same family. I don’t know Motherwell, although I’ve been introduced to him, but John Berger is a friend and I admire him tremendously. He is to me an exemplary figure in his independence, his integrity, his purity as a human being, his utter seriousness and his lyrical gift, his gift for intelligent passion. It’s in his fiction, it’s in his essays, and now it’s in this kind of autobiographical, essayistic, fictional, almost prose-poem form that he’s using. These are open-ended forms which have a great future, I believe. But I do think that we are somewhat in the minority. There are others, of course, and they are mostly European writers. And Berger is English rather than American like Motherwell and myself. He’s somebody who has lived at least half of his life in an isolated, rural community in the south of France on the Swiss border, and he also likes to spend part of his time in Paris. He’s someone who feels that need for a kind of inner expatriation or exile, to get a certain distance from the society that he comes from. I’ve lived a lot of my adult life in France and Italy. And I live most of the time in New York now because I’m so broke. I can’t afford to go back and forth in the way that I used to: the economy got way ahead of me. I’m not making any more money than I was making ten years ago, so I’m a lot poorer. Still, I have the materials in my experience and in the kind of books that I have in my apartment to be more places than just in the United States or in New York. I can be a mental traveller even if I can’t be as much a physical traveller as I once was. And I think that to be a mental traveller is essential for getting the right kind of distance and the right kind of energy, and to separate oneself from these debasing and degrading values that are the main values proposed by our society. You have to get some distance from them if you’re going to do any kind of serious work, or if you’re going to have a life in which you’re fully aware and not just asleep.

Are you disappointed by the fact that you’re better known as an essayist than as a writer of fiction, and that books like Death Kit and The Benefactor have not been as widely accepted as have, say, On Photography and Against Interpretation?

Well, disappointed is perhaps not the right word. It’s a situation I would like to correct. In a sense, the public is never wrong. I believe in the judgement of posterity and even, in a limited sense, in the judgement of a contemporary public. If people have been more interested in my essays than in my fiction, perhaps it’s because, despite what I wanted to do, I’ve put more into my essays than I have into my fiction. Perhaps I haven’t made as extensive an effort over a long enough period of time in my fiction. So I think it’s for me to correct that situation and that’s what I want to do now. I have actually enough uncollected essays that I’ve published in various magazines to make another book. My publisher would like me to do that, but I don’t want to because I think it’s more important to press on with the fiction that I’m writing and the novel that I hope to finish in 1988.

Has the fiction been less personal than the essays, so far?

No, I don’t think so at all. I think it’s been extremely personal. But in case the point has been lost, I intend to make it more personal. And I think I am getting more recognition now. There’s a story of mine that appeared last year in The New Yorker, called “The Way We Live Now,” and it was chosen as the best American story in 1987. It was the lead story in that new collection. I found this out by going to a bookstore last week. They didn’t send me a copy, but such a volume does exist. I was immensely pleased that one of my stories was not only chosen, but was the lead story. But I can’t complain. I hate being a victim, or seeing myself as being treated unjustly. If I feel that there’s some imbalance in the way that my work is regarded, then it’s up to me to supply more material to correct that view. ❚