Thursday, April 13, 2000

The Foreigner: Susan Sontag Interviewed

First appeared in Atlantic Unbound, 4/13/2000

Susan Sontag -- whose new novel, In America, has just been published -- doesn't feel at home in New York, or anywhere else. And that's the way she likes it

By the late seventies, books such as Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), and On Photography (1977) had established Susan Sontag as an essayist whose concerns stretched from high culture to low before it was fashionable for writers to have this kind of range. Sontag wrote on subjects like film, photography, pornography, and camp with the same zeal she brought to the great European writers whom she helped introduce to American readers. The title essay of her collection Under the Sign of Saturn (1980) is about the German critic Walter Benjamin, and it is no wonder he had special meaning for her. In Benjamin's work many of the contrasting cultural and political concerns of his day -- any one of which would have sufficed for a lifetime's preoccupation by more narrowly focused thinkers -- flourished side by side. Similarly, in Sontag's essays there is an inclusiveness that may be the closest thing to intellectual unity we should hope for in our multi-dimensional culture. As Sontag says in the following interview, she does not like to exclude.

Having written two novels -- The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967) -- in the 1960s, in the 1990s Sontag turned from essays back to her first love. Her novel The Volcano Lover was published in 1992, and In America came out last month. Sontag's novels and essays cover many of the same themes, including theater, collecting, illness, memory, and social injustice, but the novels give her more room to roam than did the essays, with less need to exclude. In the novels she moves through love affairs, lava storms, revolutions and restorations, the Shakespearean stage, and transatlantic steerage. The Volcano Lover is set in eighteenth-century Naples, under the shadow of Vesuvius and the French Revolution. The venues of In America range from a nineteenth-century California commune composed of Polish ÈmigrÈs, to the mind of famed actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes. Snatches of Sontag's voice as essayist resurface in the narrative voices of these novels, teasing apart the meaning of events. Whether writing as an essayist or a novelist, Susan Sontag is the best of literary company.

Harvey Blume had a chance to talk with Susan Sontag on her recent visit to Boston.

HB: Over the years, you have given the word "intellectual" a good name. You have shown that it's possible to be an intellectual in this culture without being an academic.

SS: And I'm very proud of that. But I'm always being introduced with "You are so bookish, you are what most people think an intellectual is." I could live until I'm 200 years old and I'd still be introduced that way. It drives me nuts that I have to constantly deal with what I represent as opposed to what I actually have written. I mean, I've lived my whole life convulsed with various admirations, but I would admire people for their work.

Let's take a really outlandish but perfectly true example. I worshipped T. S. Eliot when I was a teenager at the University of Chicago. I'm of that generation for which Eliot was God. But I worshipped the work, I worshipped the ideas. If anything, that person, if I ever thought about him, was slightly embarrassing. And I didn't think, what does this work "represent"? That's another barrier, another kind of mediation. I was just convinced by some of the ideas, one of them being (it's probably no accident I bring up Eliot) that essentially the work isn't about you; it's impersonal.

I spend a good part of my public conversation dealing with people's ideas about what I represent, as opposed to what I espouse or what the work is worth. In the end, we come back to "intellectual" and "smart." If I were a man, would people always be talking about me being an intellectual or being so smart? I don't think they would.

HB: There's not always an obvious split between the work and the writer, is there? Sometimes the personality of the writer emerges from the work and becomes a force in its own right. I'm thinking of the way Walter Benjamin emerges as a personality in "Under the Sign of Saturn," your essay about him.

SS: Yes, and that's when I realized I should stop writing essays. I thought, I better quit, this isn't an essay anymore, this is a portrait. I'm writing about a certain temperament, the melancholic, and since I'm not really dealing with ideas, I should go back to fiction.

HB: In your essay "One Culture and the New Sensibility" you say, "Literary men, feeling that the status of humanity itself was being challenged by the new science and the new technology, abhorred and deplored the change. But the literary men ... are inevitably on the defensive. They know that the scientific culture, the coming of the machine, cannot be stopped." That was written more than thirty years ago, but it applies pretty well to current debates about the Internet.

SS: What strikes me now is not that technology can't be stopped, but that capitalism can't be stopped. I'm stunned by what I call the total takeover of capitalism. Mercantilist values and motives now seem absolutely self-evident to people. I don't mean to say people weren't previously interested in their own prosperity or material advances, but they did understand that there were some zones of activity where materialist criteria didn't apply. Or that you could have a conflict: you're going to be very well paid for something you think is shoddy or unworthy, and you might actually not do it! I think more and more people don't even understand why in the world you wouldn't do anything to make a buck, and why everything isn't about property.

HB: Technology extends capitalism. With eBay, the market reaches into your closets.

SS: I don't have a problem with technological culture. I have a problem with capitalism. I use a word processor. It's the greatest typewriter ever invented. I don't use the Net. So far, the information I get through books and magazines suffices, but anytime I feel that some online magazine -- which may very well be this one -- is something I want, I'll stay with it. And listen, the digital world produces art on a very high level. For me by far the most interesting work in photography could not be done without digital manipulation. And there's some video I like, too, though I think some of it is very thin. You want more density.

HB: I think depth is not so easy to obtain in digital media.

SS: It's as if the work isn't expecting to get your full attention. I know lots of people who have two television sets in the room; they'll have two pictures on and keep switching the sound. So one thing that's happening with the new technology is the stretching and layering of attention.

But I see the empowering aspect. I can see it empowering patients who can now access medical information for themselves. I have twice been a cancer patient, once in the late seventies and now again. The difference between how much patients know about their cancers is night and day. Personally, I'm a different case -- I'm a frustrated doctor. My earliest idea of how I wanted to spend my life was to be a physician, so I'm good at assimilating medical information. In the late seventies, when I had cancer for the first time, I was very curious and read medical books and asked a lot of questions, to the great annoyance of some of my physicians.

And I remember sitting day after day, month after month, getting chemotherapy. There were five, ten, fifteen people in the room and day after day I was with them. I'm talkative, curious, and I would ask what drugs they were taking -- this was before I even knew I was going to write Illness as Metaphor. Nobody knew the names of their drugs. I knew the names of my drugs. They were polysyllabic words, but it's not rocket science. "Chemotherapy," they'd say. But what particular chemotherapy? It's always a cocktail; it's always more than two drugs.

Cut to twenty-two years later, I have a new cancer, I'm back in the hospital in the chemo room, and every single person knows the names of their drugs. Not only that, but they are chatting away about having read a protocol from the University of Indiana, or research from somewhere else, and they give you the Web site. And that's wonderful.

HB: As you observed thirty years ago, it's often literary intellectuals who are the least enthusiastic about the prospects for technology.

SS: The great leap is the Gutenberg leap. Someone was marveling that I moved with so much pleasure to the word processor. And I said, "The leap is from writing by hand to the typewriter. From writing with a typewriter to using a computer is no leap at all." In the same way, the real leap is when books are set in type and they become uniform, reproducible objects. They can then be uniform reproducible objects in some non-paper-based form, and I don't feel in any way threatened by that. I don't need the OED in book form. I'm delighted it's a CD and I can stick it in my computer.

But if you're going to read the poems of Jorie Graham, which are really hard, you can't read them hyperkinetically. Either you don't read Jorie Graham at all, or you read her real slow, and over and over. It's an effort of immersion and decipherment. You can't read The Brothers Karamazov hyperkinetically. Either you're going to get the good of it, or you're not.

I know people who find it hard to watch a movie. They want shorter attention units. And I know other people who listen to Morton Feldman -- hours of music just above the threshold of audibility.
HB: So maybe we're getting more varieties of attention.

SS: I think that's exactly what that essay, "One Culture and the New Sensibility," as I dimly recall it, was about. It was about not having to exclude, which seemed very heretical then. Now, of course, the question is, Does anyone want to listen to Morton Feldman? Are people being rewired so they are kind of jumpy? It's the neurological and the anthropological issues that concern me.

But, in the end, isn't this all a function of prosperity? Will there be eternal prosperity in a small part of the world? Maybe there will, maybe Keynes is obsolete. But suppose there are hard times ahead, and people have real material problems. Don't you think they'll slow down a little? It's almost a function of luxury, this hyperkinetic thing.

HB: You have also been seen as the European connection, showing that an American could be an intellectual the way Europeans were.

SS: And I wanted to do that. I thought that was a useful thing to do, a thing nobody was doing, and I knew how to do it.

HB: In your essays you often presented European writers -- Benjamin, Canetti, Barthes, Artaud -- to Americans. And in the new novel the main character is a Polish actress who comes to America. You maintain the European connection.

SS: It's a question of affinities. When I left this place -- and it actually was this place, Cambridge, Harvard -- I ended up for the better part of a year in Paris. Everything until then was mediated through painting and music and especially books; everything was canonical. It was precisely in Europe that I had more of a confrontation with the modern and the contemporary. It was through films. It was probably Godard. I felt my life was divided into before Godard and after Godard.

Before, I hadn't understood the force of the modern. I just felt the past is bigger than the present and European culture is obviously bigger than American culture. And America has been so much about disburdenment, getting rid of the past. I thought, Why can't one have it all? -- a very American thought, I hasten to add. And wouldn't it be nice to look at these things in a fresh way, and not make the sorts of distinctions that have to do with notions of the canon? Though I was totally a product of the canonical way of thinking, and still am. But we can open up a lot of annexes and branches, can't we? Why choose? Very American.

When I started trying to do fiction, though, I didn't know how to open up. The fiction was mostly taking place in somebody's head. So I thought, I don't want to just be talking about the commotion in someone's head. Why don't I make movies? Then, a story idea came my way, and it started with something visual. In a print shop near the British Museum, in London, I discovered the volcano prints from the book that Sir William Hamilton did. My very first thought -- I don't think I have ever said this publicly -- was that I would propose to FMR (a wonderful art magazine published in Italy which has beautiful art reproductions) that they reproduce the volcano prints and I write some text to accompany them. But then I started to adhere to the real story of Lord Hamilton and his wife, and I realized that if I would locate stories in the past, all sorts of inhibitions would drop away, and I could do epic, polyphonic things. I wouldn't just be inside somebody's head. So there was that novel, The Volcano Lover.

And there was the notion of the foreigner. I have done a novel about English people in southern Italy, a novel about Poles in America, and the next one is going to be about French people in Japan. I say it's a privilege to be a foreigner, it's such an intensifier of experience.

HB: The narrator of In America is a foreigner in the sense that she is foreign to the past; she time travels.

SS: The book begins with her time traveling. I like foreigners. I feel like a foreigner in New York. I like not being too comfortable.

Harvey Blume is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound and The Boston Book Review.

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