From previously unpublished excerpts of a 1978 interview with Susan Sontag by Jonathan Cott. An edited version of the interview appeared in the October 4, 1979, issue of Rolling Stone. Susan Sontag: The Complete “Rolling Stone” Interview will be published in October by Yale University Press.
jonathan cott: For a lot of people who know your name and love your work, you have a special mystique. There are particularly a great number of women I know who admire you enormously.
susan sontag: But what you call mystique used to be called reputation.
cott: I think in your case it’s reputation and mystique, because you’re not a public celebrity who gossips in the media about whom you’re going out with.
sontag: Well, what serious writer ever did?
cott: I could go through a list.
sontag: But those people have destroyed themselves as writers. I think it’s death to one’s work to do that. Surely the work of writers such as Hemingway or Truman Capote would be on a higher level if they hadn’t been public figures. There is a choice between the work and the life. It’s not just a question of whether you’re going to give interviews or talk about yourself; it’s a question of how much you live in society, in that vulgar sense of society, and of having a lot of silly times that seem glamorous to you and to other people.
cott: But think of the Goncourt brothers, who wouldn’t have written what they did unless they frequented parties almost every night in Paris during the Second Empire. In a way, they were extraordinarily brilliant and high-class gossip types.
sontag: But they were also social historians using both the novel and documentary forms. Even Balzac did that. The problem, however, is a little different in the twentieth century, since the opportunities are so much greater. Somebody once asked Picasso why he never traveled abroad. He went from Spain to Paris and then moved to the south of France, but he never went anywhere. And he said: I travel in my head. I do think there are those choices, and perhaps you don’t feel them so much when you’re young — and probably you shouldn’t — but later on, if you want to go beyond something that is simply good or promising to the real fulfillment and risk-taking of a big body of work, you have to stay home.
cott: In the mid-1970s, you, along with many other writers, were asked to draw a self-portrait that was later included in a book, Self-Portrait: Book People Picture Themselves. And for yours, you simply drew a Jewish star, above which you wrote a Confucian saying: “Each of us is meant to rescue the world.” One could half-jokingly say that you were adhering to the religious prohibition against drawing the human image.
sontag: Yes, I was asked to draw myself, and I did it in thirty seconds — and if I had thought about it I would have been paralyzed. I didn’t want to represent myself. I published a book of stories called I, etcetera, and in fact a couple of the stories are autobiographical, but I’m putting the I in quotation marks. The point of my work is not to express me. I can lend myself to a work.
cott: That reminds me of the statement by Montaigne that Godard quotes in his film Vivre sa vie: “Lend yourself to others but give yourself to yourself.”
sontag: Yes, I can lend myself. If something that actually happens to a character I’m writing about seems to fit perfectly, I might as well use it rather than making up something entirely different, but I don’t think I’m representing myself. I’m fascinated by what is the not me, and I’m drawn to understand it. I want to get away from solipsism, which is the great temptation of the modern sensibility — to think that it’s all in your head.
cott: It seems to me that every story in I, etcetera differs one from the other.
sontag: There are eight stories in I, etcetera, and to me they are eight different ways of doing something. I think that today everything is a leap, a risk, a danger, and that’s the excitement and intensity of it — to try to stretch and transcend oneself. And in order to have the kind of concentration that’s necessary to do this, one does have to work, not in innocence, but in a state of intense interiorness that can be diffused or dissipated if you lend yourself too much to what people want you to do and be, or if you’re in too much contact with what people think you’re doing and with what they write about you.
cott: At the climactic moment of your film Brother Carl, the title character miraculously gets a mute girl to talk, and in your introduction to your screenplay for the film you write: “The only interesting action in life is a miracle or the failure to perform a miracle; and miracles are the only subject of profound interest left for art.” Do you actually believe in miracles?
sontag: I think that there are extraordinary things that happen and that can change everything, that an action can be the equivalent of the epiphany of consciousness, and that something can happen that doesn’t seem warranted — though I don’t mean that it can’t be explained, because everything can be explained after the fact. There’s no event that happens that’s not in some sequence of events, but there are things that aren’t what you’d expect, and it’s as if they open up a gap in which a more intense or creative or daring action can take place, and those seeming breaks in the continuities of things are like epiphanies. It’s also like a new beginning, but like every other idea it can be cheapened and debased beyond recognition.
There’s a reason why traditional religious wisdom has been esoteric and often requires a kind of initiation, because it’s not for just anybody. The nature of modern communication systems is that anything can be said, any context is equivalent to any other context, so that things can be placed in many different contexts at the same time, like photography. But there’s something profoundly compromising about that situation. Of course, it allows for a liberty of action and consciousness that people have never had before. But it means that you can’t keep original or profound meanings intact because inevitably they’re disappointed, adulterated, transformed, and transmuted. So when you launch an idea for a fantasy or a theme or an image to the world, it has this tremendous career that you can’t possibly control or limit. You want to share things with other people, but on the other hand you don’t want to just feed the machine that needs millions of fantasies and objects and products and opinions to be fed into it every day in order to keep on going. And that’s perhaps a reason one is tempted to be silent sometimes.