Susan Sontag Really Did Read Everything There Was to Read

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 5 2013 10:15 AM

The Intellectual

Susan Sontag’s 1978 Rolling Stone interview in all its brilliant, self-assured, ridiculous glory.

Illustration by Greg Ruth.

Illustration by Greg Ruth

In her journal in the mid-1960s, Susan Sontag vowed “to give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” Sontag’s ongoing investment in the development and definition of herself always seemed less like self-obsession than a kind of existential industriousness. Reading through the odds and ends that have been published since her death almost 10 years ago—the two volumes of her journals, in particular—you get the sense of a person who was always working toward an ideal version of herself. The ideal changed in its particulars over time, but the ideal of change remained constant. She’s often a reassuringly pretentious figure in the early diaries, which are themselves a useful reminder that being a pseudo-intellectual is a necessary stage on the way to being a nonpseudo-intellectual, and that the two classifications aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Being an intellectual is often, after all, a matter of getting away with trying to be seen as one.

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

In his introduction to Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, Jonathan Cott—whose 1978 interview with Sontag got chopped down by the magazine to one-third of its length—remembers that journal entry, and writes that “as I listened to her clear, authoritative, and direct responses to my questions, it was obvious that she had attained the conversational goal that she had set for herself many years before.” The idea of this persuasive fluency of speech as something constructed, something striven for and achieved, reveals the extent to which Sontag’s position as one of the most public of 20th-century public intellectuals was one she had always wanted to arrive at. As brilliant an essayist as she was, talking brilliantly was almost as significant a part of her job.

And so the Sontag colloquy shares certain key qualities with the Sontag essay—in particular the magnetic mixture of intellectual self-assurance and relaxed inclusivity. She was a virtuoso of the literary sit-down, working the form into an occasion for informal self-portrait. There’s no one topic that particularly dominates in this 138-page interview, but there are certain themes and preoccupations that assert themselves throughout: the ideal of personal autonomy, the complexities of love and friendship and sexuality, the historical constitution of ideas and behaviors we tend to think of as natural. The interview is from around the time of the publication of Illness as Metaphor, and so there’s a fair amount of talk about mortality, and the personal experience of being a cancer patient which informed that book. “We’re all,” she says at one point, “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.”

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But it’s Sontag the reader who gets most airtime here—which is to say the critic rather than the novelist (although she would probably have argued the distinction could never hold up). There’s always the sense, with Sontag, of reading as a process of acquisition and assimilation, as a kind of territorial expansionism of the self. All those itemized resolutions in the journals, all those lists of things to be read and absorbed; her project was, as she put it, “taking all of knowledge as my province.”  And this is one of the most striking things about her, this conquistadorial spirit brought to bear on a basically democratic sensibility—the famous imperative to be interested in everything. She seems to have read all of Western literature, and to have learned from it everything that might be worth knowing.

This, of course, is exactly the impression you’d be well advised to start giving off if you wanted to make any kind of impact as a public intellectual. But with Sontag, you suspect that she really has read everything—and not in the Harold Bloom way, either, where encyclopedic erudition starts to look like a kind of petrification, where the critic manifests himself as the canon made flesh. Change is, for her, the end of reading; what she prizes in literature is its capacity to bring otherness into the self—the paradoxical way in which books take us outside the limits of ourselves while pushing those limits outward. “It’s exciting to me to subscribe to something that’s foreign to my earlier taste,” she says. “Not in an unfriendly spirit with respect to the earlier work—but just because I need new blood and new nourishment and new inspiration. And because I like what I’m not, I like to try to learn what isn’t me or what I don’t know. I’m curious.”

And that’s one of the more inspiring things about Sontag: the way in which she positions curiosity as not just a primary critical value, but a primary human value. To be curious is, in the most vital sense, to be serious. There’s another wonderful moment, later on, when Cott mentions phoning her to ask about completing the interview, to which she replied that “We should do it soon because I may change too much.” Sontag sees nothing very unusual about this; it’s simply good practice to move on from being the person you’ve already established yourself as being:

I feel I’m changing all the time, and that’s something that’s hard to explain to people, because a writer is generally thought to be someone who’s either engaging in self-expression or else doing work to convince or change people along the lines of his or her views. And I don’t feel that either of those models makes much sense for me. I mean, I write partly in order to change myself so that once I write about something I don’t have to think about it anymore. And when I write, it actually is to get rid of those ideas. That may sound contemptuous of the public, because obviously when I’ve gotten rid of those ideas, I’ve passed them on as things that I believe— and I do believe them when I write them— but I don’t believe them after I’ve written them because I’ve moved on to some other view of things, and it’s become still more complicated ... or perhaps more simple.

Intense seriousness, of course, always has a tendency to verge on the comic. Sontag was the Platonic ideal of the intellectual, and so she could also come across as a not-too-subtle parody of the very idea of such a person. At one point, she tells Cott that the first book that really thrilled her was a biography of Marie Curie by Curie’s daughter Eve, which she recalls reading at age 6. The interviewer is impressed that a child of that age would go in for material of such relative heft. “I started reading when I was 3,” she expands, “and the first novel that affected me was Les Misérables—I cried and sobbed and wailed. When you’re a reading child, you just read the books that are around the house. When I was about 13, it was Mann and Joyce and Eliot and Kafka and Gide—mostly Europeans. I didn’t discover American literature until much later.” What to do with such a claim but both laugh at it and marvel at it? I thought of how my mother likes to remind me of my own alleged precocity by mentioning how she once came across me, age about 5, peering into a Jeffrey Archer blockbuster as though it contained the secret of life. By that age, Sontag would have been rolling up her sleeves and getting into Cervantes.

But this long and largely genial portrait of the (not always quite so genial) intellectual in middle age also amounts to a strong and deeply personal argument about what it means to be cultured—an argument for why a middle-aged intellectual might be something worth being in the first place. Part of what is so appealing about Sontag’s thinking is the absence of any heavy intellectual machinery being brought to bear on whatever topic she happens to be considering; there is rarely very much in the way of dogma to be contended with. But there is a kind of personal dialectic at work in her attitude toward herself, toward her writing and reading and thinking and speaking. “The most awful thing,” as she puts it in the book’s final lines, “would be to feel that I’d agree with the things I’ve already said and written—that is what would make me most uncomfortable because that would mean that I had stopped thinking.”

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Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott. Yale University Press.

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