Published in its entirety for the first time, a candid conversation with Susan Sontag at the height of her brilliant career “One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling, which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment . . . and I don’t believe it’s true. . . . I have the impression that thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking.” Susan Sontag, one of the most internationally renowned and controversial intellectuals of the latter half of the twentieth century, still provokes. In 1978 Jonathan Cott, a founding contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine, interviewed Sontag first in Paris and later in New York. Only a third of their twelve hours of discussion ever made it to print. Now, more than three decades later, Yale University Press is proud to publish the entire transcript of Sontag’s remarkable conversation, accompanied by Cott’s preface and recollections.
Sontag’s musings and observations reveal the passionate engagement and breadth of her critical intelligence and curiosities at a moment when she was at the peak of her powers. Nearly a decade after her death, these hours of conversation offer a revelatory and indispensable look at the self-described "besotted aesthete" and "obsessed moralist." “I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. . . .We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.” “There’s no incompatibility between observing the world and being tuned into this electronic, multimedia, multi-tracked, McLuhanite world and enjoying what can be enjoyed. I love rock and roll. Rock and roll changed my life. . . .You know, to tell you the truth, I think rock and roll is the reason I got divorced. I think it was Bill Haley and the Comets and Chuck Berry that made me decide that I had to get a divorce and leave the academic world and start a new life.”
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About the Author
Jonathan Cott is the author of numerous books, including most recently, Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He lives in New York City. Susan Sontag (1933–2004) was the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, On Photography, and Illness as Metaphor, and of four novels, including In America, which won the National Book Award.
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The Complete Rolling Stone Interview
By Jonathan Cott
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Jonathan Cott
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The Complete Rolling Stone Interview with Susan Sontag
When you found out that you had cancer four years ago, you immediately started thinking about your illness. I'm reminded of something Nietzsche once wrote: "For a psychologist, there are few questions that are as attractive as that concerning the relation of health and philosophy, and if he should himself become ill, he will bring all of his scientific curiosity into his illness." Is this the way you began to think about Illness as Metaphor?
Well, it's certainly true that the fact that I got sick made me think about sickness. Everything that happens to me is something I think about. Thinking is one of the things I do. If I'd been in an airplane crash and been the only survivor, I might very well have gotten interested in the history of aviation. I'm sure that this experience of the past two and a half years will turn up in my fiction, though very transposed. But as far as that side of me that writes essays, what occurred to me to ask was not, What am I experiencing? but rather, What really goes on in the world of the sick? What are the ideas that people have? I was examining my own ideas because I myself had a lot of the fantasies about illness, and about cancer in particular. I'd never given the question of illness any serious consideration. So if you don't think about things, you're likely to be the vehicle of the going clichés, even of the more enlightened ones.
It isn't as if I'd set myself a task—"Well, now that I'm sick I'm going to think about it"—I just was thinking about it. You're lying in the hospital bed and the doctor comes in and they have this kind of talk ... and you listen to it and you start to think about what they're saying to you and what it means and what kind of information you're getting and how you should evaluate it. But then you also think, How strange that people talk like this, and you realize that they do so because of the whole set of beliefs that exist in the world of the ill. So you could say that I was "philosophizing" about this—though I don't like to use such a pretentious word because I have too much admiration for philosophy. But to use it in a more general sense, one can philosophize about anything. I mean, if you fall in love, you start to think about what love is, if in fact you have the temperament to reflect about it.
A friend of mine, who's a Proust specialist, discovered that his wife was having an affair. He was horribly jealous and wounded, and he told me that he then began to read Proust on jealousy in quite another spirit and began to think about the nature of jealousy and to push those ideas further. And in doing so, he developed a whole other relationship to the texts of Proust and to his own experience. He was really suffering—there was nothing inauthentic about his suffering, and there was certainly no flight from his experience in the fact that he began to think about jealousy in the way that he did—but up to that point he'd never experienced profound sexual jealousy. When he'd previously read about it in Proust, he'd done so in the way one reads anything that's not part of your experience—you don't really connect to it until it is.
I'm not sure that if I were feeling morbidly jealous I'd want to be reading about jealousy at that point. And, similarly, it would seem to me that the fact of being ill and thinking about it in the way you've done must have somehow required an enormous effort and perhaps even necessitated a great deal of detachment on your part.
On the contrary, it would have been an enormous effort for me to not think about it. The easiest thing in the world is to think about what's happening to you. Here you are in a hospital thinking you're going to die, and it would have required an enormous effort of detachment for me to not think about it. The really enormous effort of detachment was to get out of the period when I was so ill that I couldn't work at all and go back to finish my photography book [On Photography]. That drove me wild. When I finally could work, which was about six or seven months after the cancer was diagnosed, I hadn't yet finished the photography essays, even though that book was already done in my head and all the effort left was to execute it and write it out properly and carefully and in an attractive and vivid way—but it drove me crazy to be writing about something I wasn't connected to at that moment. I only wanted to write Illness as Metaphor, because all of the ideas for that book came to me very quickly in the first month or two after I got ill, and I really had to force myself to turn my attention to the photography book.
Look, what I want is to be fully present in my life—to be really where you are, contemporary with yourself in your life, giving full attention to the world, which includes you. You are not the world, the world is not identical to you, but you're in it and paying attention to it. That's what a writer does—a writer pays attention to the world. Because I'm very against this solipsistic notion that you find it all in your head. You don't, there really is a world that's there whether you're in it or not. And if you have a tremendous experience, to me it's much easier to connect your writing to what is actually happening to you rather than to try to retreat from it by becoming involved in something else, because then you're just splitting yourself into two parts. People said I must have been detached to write Illness as Metaphor, but I wasn't detached at all.
Might "distant" be a more accurate word? I've noticed that it's a word that comes up quite often in your writings in different contexts, such as when you remark in your essay "On Style" that "all works of art are founded on a certain distance from the lived reality which is represented.... It is the degree and manipulating of this distance, the conventions of distance, which constitute the style of the work."
No, not distant. Maybe you know more about what I did than I do ... and I'm not being ironic, because it's very possible I don't fully understand this process. But I didn't feel distant at all. Writing is not usually enjoyable for me. It's often very tiresome and tedious because I go through so many drafts when I write. And despite the fact that I had to wait a year to begin work on Illness as Metaphor, it was one of the few things that I wrote fairly quickly and with pleasure because I could connect with all the things that were happening every day in my life.
For about a year and a half I was going to the hospital three times a week, I was hearing this language, I was seeing the people who are victims of these stupid ideas. Illness as Metaphor and the essay I wrote about the Vietnam War are perhaps the only two instances in my life when I knew that what I was writing was not only true but actually useful and helpful to people in a very immediate, practical way. I don't know if my book on photography is useful to anybody except in the most general sense that it adds to people's consciousness and makes things more complicated, which I think is always good. But I know people who have sought proper medical treatment because of reading Illness as Metaphor—people who weren't getting anything other than some kind of psychiatric treatment and who are now getting chemotherapy because of it. That's not the only reason I wrote it—I wrote it because I feel that what I said was true—but it's a great pleasure to write something that can be useful to people.
Following Nietzsche's idea that "in some it is their deprivations that philosophize, in others their riches and strengths," it seems interesting that while suffering from your illness, your "deprivations" didn't result in a philosophically "ill" work. In fact you produced something very rich and strong.
I thought that when this started ... well, of course, I was told it was likely that I'd be dead very soon, so I was facing not only an illness and painful operations, but also what I thought might be death in the next year or two. And besides feeling the dread and the terror, as well as the physical pain, I was terribly frightened. I was experiencing the most acute kind of animal panic. But I also experienced moments of elation, of tremendous intensity. I felt as if something fantastic was happening, as if I had embarked on a great adventure—it was the adventure of being ill and probably dying, and it is something extraordinary to become willing to die. I don't want to say it was a positive experience, because that sounds cheap, but of course it did have a positive side.
So your experience didn't at all "cancerize" your thought processes, so to speak.
No, because it was two weeks after I was told I had cancer that I cleaned out those ideas. The first thing I thought was: What did I do to deserve this? I've led the wrong life, I've been too repressed. Yes, I suffered a great grief five years ago and this must be the result of that intense depression.
Then I asked one of my doctors: "What do you think about the psychological side of cancer in terms of what causes it?" And he said to me, "Well, people have said a lot of funny things about diseases throughout the ages, and of course they never turned out to be true." I mean, he just dismissed it absolutely. So I then began to think about TB, and the argument of the book fell into place. And I decided that I was not going to be culpabilized. I have the same tendencies to feel guilty that everybody has, probably more than average, but I don't like it. Nietzsche was right about guilt, it's awful. I'd rather feel ashamed. That seems more objective and has to do with one's personal sense of honor.
In your essay about your trip to Vietnam, you write about the differences between shame and guilt cultures.
Well, obviously there is some overlap—one can feel ashamed of oneself because one hasn't met a certain standard. But people do feel guilty about being ill. I personally like to feel responsible. Whenever I find myself in a mess in my personal life, like being involved with the wrong person, or with my back to the wall in some way—the kind of things that happen to everybody—I always prefer to take responsibility myself rather than to say it's the other person's fault. I hate seeing myself as a victim. I'd rather say, Well, I chose to fall in love with this person who turned out to be a bastard. It was my choice, and I don't like blaming other people because it's so much easier to change oneself than to change other people. So it isn't that I don't like to take responsibility, but in my view, when you do get sick and have a drastic illness, it's like being hit by a car, and I don't think it makes much sense to worry about what made you ill. What does make sense is to be as rational as you can in seeking the right kind of treatment and to really want to live. There's no doubt that if you don't want to live you can be in complicity with the illness.
Job didn't feel guilty—he felt stubborn and angry.
I felt extremely stubborn. But I didn't feel angry, because there was nobody to feel angry at. You can't feel angry at nature. You can't feel angry at biology. We're all going to die—that's a very difficult thing to take in—and we all experience this process. It feels as if there's this person— in your head, mainly—trapped in this physiological stock that can only survive seventy- or eighty-plus years normally, in any kind of decent condition. It starts deteriorating at a certain point, and then for half of your life, if not more, you watch this material begin to fray. And there's nothing you can do about it. You're trapped inside it, and when it goes, you go. We all have that experience of ourselves. You ask people who are sixty or seventy years old, if you know them well, how old they feel, and they'll tell you they feel like they're fourteen ... and then they look in the mirror and see this old face, and so they feel like a fourteen-year-old trapped in an old body! You are trapped in this perishable stuff. It's not only that it eventually gives out like a machine that's only designed to last so long, but it slowly deteriorates, and as the years go by you can see that it functions less well, the skin doesn't look so pretty, certain things come unhinged, and that's a very sad experience.
As Shakespeare put it: "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
Yes. Charles de Gaulle said old age is a shipwreck, and it's true.
What about all the philosophical and quasi-mystical attempts to overcome that duality? Right now, you've been speaking from an experiential, commonsense point of view.
I think the sense of oneself as a self trapped in something is impossible to get over. That's the origin of all dualisms—Platonic, Cartesian, or whatever. Even though we know it can't stand up to any kind of scientific analysis, there's no way we can be conscious and not have a sense of "I am in my body." Of course, you can try to come to terms with death and try to shift the axis of your activities to things that are less body-dependent as you get older, but your body neither is as attractive to other people nor does it function in the way that is pleasurable to you because it's frailer and somewhat deteriorating.
The traditional trajectory of a human life is that it would be more physical in the early part and more contemplative in the later part. But one has to remember that that's an option that's barely available, much less supported by society. And it also should be said that a lot of our ideas about what we can do at different ages and what age means are so arbitrary—as arbitrary as sexual stereotypes. I think that the young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people. The values associated with youth and with masculinity are considered to be the human norms, and anything else is taken to be at least less worthwhile or inferior. Old people have a terrific sense of inferiority. They're embarrassed to be old.
What you can do when you're young and what you can do when you're old is as arbitrary and without much basis as what you can do if you're a woman or what you can do if you're a man. People say all the time: "Oh, I can't do that. I'm sixty. I'm too old." Or "I can't do that. I'm twenty. I'm too young." Why? Who says so? In life you want to keep as many options open as possible, but of course you want to be able to be free to make real choices. I mean, I don't think you can have everything, and you need to make choices. Americans tend to think that anything is possible, and that's something I like about Americans [laughing], and in that respect I feel very American, but there does come a point when you have to acknowledge that you're no longer postponing something and that you really have made a choice.
And regarding those sexual stereotypes: the other night I was in a situation with David [Sontag's son David Rieff] when we went out to Vincennes University, where I was invited to attend a seminar, and then after the seminar, four people plus David and myself went out to have coffee. And it so happened that the four people from the seminar were all women. We sat down at the table, and one of the women said, in French, to David, "Oh, you poor guy, having to sit with five women!" And everybody laughed. And then I said to these women, who were all teachers at Vincennes, "Do you realize what you're saying and what a low opinion you have of yourselves?" I mean, can you imagine a situation in which a woman would sit down with five men and a man would say, "Oh, you poor thing, you have to sit with five men and we don't have another woman for you." She'd be honored.
I wonder what David thought of that remark.
I'm sure that if he had been asked about it, he probably would have just said, What else is new? [laughing] But in fact I know that he was overwhelmed by those women's lack of self-esteem, by the misogyny of women. And don't forget that these were professional women who probably would have called themselves feminists, and yet what they were expressing was quite involuntary.
Excerpted from Susan Sontag by Jonathan Cott. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Cott. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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The Complete Rolling Stone Interview with Susan Sontag.................... 1