(the first part of the conversation is on the link)
What struck me, reading from this side of the world, is how you portrayed her life almost as a story of an American century. It is the whole arch, from the mid-war period or even before the First World War, with her grandma and mother, and what is interesting, it begins with the Armenian genocide. So I was wondering about this editorial or almost directorial approach to the material that you had. For the people who haven’t read the book, what would you say, what was the story that you wanted to tell about Sontag?
Well, so you’re right, it is about the American century. It’s about the most famous intellectual in the country at the height of its imperial power. So, when you talk about Danilo Kiš, who cares about Danilo Kiš in America? Well, it’s important because Danilo Kiš is gonna get read all over the world because he’s read in English. Like this book about Clarice Lispector. Clarice is a great genius, she’s read all over the world because I published her in English….not because I published her in German, or French, or Chinese. So a lot of Sontag’s cultural power reflected the power of the United States, the prestige of its language and its culture and even its armies, you know, like in Bosnia or in Kosovo. Her involvement, people noticed that in Washington. They needed to have that consensus among the left in order to intervene. So, that’s part of the story definitely. I’ve written a book about a Brazilian, and I really wanted to write about what it meant to be an American writer. Especially as I’ve lived now half of my life in Europe and this symbolism of Sontag as an intellectual, that’ s part of me.
You asked me what do I say to people who haven’t read her, I mean she’s just the most interesting person in the world. She real is. She is so fascinating and she’s really inspiring, she’s really a hero, she’s also in some ways a monster, she’s everything human times a hundred. So, when she has good sides of people, she has a hundred times good sides of people, when she has bad sides of people, she has a hundred times more. But she’s always fascinating. She is like someone in a novel. Or an opera. She’s not just a writer sitting in her country house writing her book on her computer. She was this figure that fascinated generations of people. She made such an impact. It wasn’t just like a writer who was interesting. It was a lot more than that. She got under people’s skin.
There is one thing that is extremely American about her and that is that she wanted to be a European intellectual.
It’s very colonial. I mean Americans are fascinated by Europe, just like Europeans are fascinated by America. And neither understand each other because it’s too different. She’s extremely American and her career and her life wouldn’t have been possible even in Paris. Or in London. No, she belonged to a moment. France has a role for the public intellectual. So you have Jean Paul Sartre or even Bernard Pivot, these people that are on television and they are talking about Immanuel Kant. But, this is not America. It’s like asking Americans to have three arms. It’s just impossible. It’s unthinkable. She’s the only one who ever managed to become….you know, to be on the cover of Vanity Fair. Writing these essays about Alain Robbe-Grillet, or whatever, it never happened again. It never happened before either.
It never happened to a woman or it never happened to anybody? Why do you think that it happened with her?
Never. No man neither. We have famous writers, we have famous poets who won the Nobel Prize or whatever but that’s not the same thing as the degree of fame that she had. This was really fascinating and I think why it happened to her…first of all she was very beautiful as a young woman. She wrote these incredibly sexy essays that are sexy in a different way that’s not sex. She promised people when they read her and they read what she told them to read, that you would have the key to modern culture. That’s one of the things. And it’s true. I mean, the stuff I read for this book was fascinating. What you learn reading through her. If you’re like a kid in Chicago and you live in some boring middle-class family and you wanna know everything, you wanna know what are the great films, what are the books to read, what are the places to go, the person who told you that was Susan Sontag. And she had this incredible aura of authority that really fascinated people and part of her aggression, why it was so attractive to people…cause don’t forget that that sort of monstrousness was very attractive. I mean it was even sexually attractive to people cause she was so grand in a way that a great diva can be grand. And so she held out that promise to people. That’s A.
B, it’s related but it’s not quite related, she comes of age when she publishes Notes on Camp, 1964, she published it into a culture that’s about to explode, with three great liberations movements which are feminism, black liberation and gay liberation. And she comes to symbolize this perfectly learned woman, she talks like a European philosopher but she looks like a Hollywood actress. So, I mean, again, this is totally unthinkable in America. There she is and she’s part of this movement of freedom that starts with Kennedy and then it ends with Vietnam. And so she becomes a symbol and an aspiration for the whole generation.
You insist on her willing it against the odds. She does seem like a force of nature.
But there’s a limit to the will, this is what you see with her sicknesses. This is why her writing on illness is so interesting, she believes that she can will her way to health. And she does, up to a certain point. I mean we know, we all know stories of people who give up on life and they die. I really do think she willed her way to live. She wanted to survive, but then there’s a limit to that. You can do that maybe once or twice but you can’t do it forever cause actually you’re gonna die. So I think when you’re talking about will you’re talking about something that is very real except to the end of it there are certain things you can’t escape.
Maybe I should ask you also about this dichotomy between her will and the body, which is not only the physical body in the sense of sickness but also her sexuality, her emotions.
It’s all the same question. The big biographical question is how does somebody, who wants so badly to escape who she is, become this person and I think it’s the same will. I think it’s a very creative force. You know in India you have this wheel that creates and destroys at the same time, I think that desire took her from being this middle-class girl in America, in the middle of nowhere, to being the most famous intellectual in America and the symbol of culture and civilization all across the whole world. She wasn’t meant to be that. She wanted to be that and she became that. On the other hand, you know, she wanted a lot of things that she didn’t get. And I think the will is a force for creativity, as well as for destruction. So, which one wins in the end? I think her creativity won, as here we are talking about her, she’s been dead for fifteen years, almost sixteen.
The main conflict in her that you find, the way I understood it, is actually not in the Notes on Camp or to a certain degree in On Photography, but in Against Interpretation, which is: what is the difference between the mediated and the non-mediated self?
So, this is to me also kind of the same question because she is, she calls herself Miss Librarian, she’s the girl that, when she’s 14, has read Proust and Hegel and everything else. She’s the perfect student. And she realizes, as she grows older, that there’s a way to experience art that’s not just through reading and through studying. But it’s actually much more related to the way we experience music, the way we experience sex, the way we experience smells and food, you know it’s a sensual experience. Not an intellectual experience. And she realizes that actually these can be brought together. And this is also why she’s such a liberationist figure.
If you come from that generation. Who were the two great figures in culture? Freud on the one hand and Marx on the other. So, they both explain everything. And they’re extremely intricate. These are very complicated systems that are absolutely thrilling. When you read about them and you think, oh my god if I read all Freud I’m gonna understand everything from sex to culture to war to death to my mother, you know everything. But they are very intellectual systems and they are difficult and they’re not really logical in a certain way. And you have to go along with them up to a certain point in a way that you have to go on with religion too. And she realizes, with this perfect classical education, that in fact, you can experience a painting the way you can experience sex. Just through your body. And this was a very, very liberationist idea at the time because people felt that those systems were incomplete and they were missing that element of sensuality. So it’s another reason she becomes such a powerful figure for people’s imaginations. She promises to get out of that and to show you.
But at the same time, she is very divided within herself...
That’s only if she was divided in herself cause she’d figured that out. Because a lot of people who like sex or food don’t think about it, they just like it. I think that you have to come from another direction to understand how it can be brought together. And she did.
Did you ask yourself, while reading her journals and digging through her computer, who is the real Susan? The one who writes to herself or the one who writes to others?
I think everybody has different parts. I don’t think you have to choose. I think that’s what she’s saying about sensuality vs. intellectual experience, you don’t have to choose. And I didn’t choose.
It’s true, what you’re asking about going through her stuff, it’s very personal. I think the public Sontag was very much a real thing. But in a way I compare her to a diva or an actress or something in a certain way. Performance is real too. Performance of a singer or of an actress or somebody who’s public, that’s real. It’s just a different kind of reality, maybe.
You brought about this really three-dimensional character and you want to discuss with her. You go into polemics with her throughout the book.
Yeah, and this is why I think this book was probably the most reviewed, somebody told me this. Someone said that it was the most reviewed book in the US published in 2019. The reason is people love talking, they love arguing with her. And I want to have my voice be strong enough that people can argue with me, too. Because arguing is what intellectuals do. And it’s what keeps people’s work alive. I mean, Freud was kept alive, in large part, through his opponents. Because the real bodies of work that are stimulating to people, it’s not necessarily the thing you agree with. It’s also the thing you agree with 50% or 40%. So, I was proud of that. Some people loved it, some people hated it and I thought that was great. I thought that if I had written a book about Susan Sontag that was totally not controversial, that it would be a total disservice to her. It would be almost a betrayal of her. So, argue about it.
I understand that you are probably very happy with what you created and how it lives in the world. So I can’t avoid asking you about the Pulitzer Prize. What does it mean for you?
It’s fabulous. It`s 100% good. I am not a different person but I can tell you that it does make my life easier because being a writer is a very hard life. And having recognition and having support and having readers. I have definitely been on the other side of that. I have been rejected as much as any other writer, any other artist. It’s something you have to get through. And so you dream that someday people are gonna like your book enough to even notice it. It’s funny. I think it probably changes other people, how they look at me, rather than how I look at myself. For me, it just makes my life easier.
You’re a polyglot and you spend a lot of time in Europe. You edited Clarice Lispector, you translate from Portuguese and Spanish so I was wondering, how does it factor in your life as a writer? I have a feeling that the idea of an intellectual has changed profoundly in this century.
I wonder if that’s true. I think that intellectuals are always, sort of, out of place in a way. And I think it’s a good thing to be a little bit out of place. And that’s why I like being gay, for example. I like not being part of the majority, I like standing outside the thing. That’s the great gift of being gay or being some sort of minority, is that you’re a part of the society but you’re also still looking at it from a slightly different angle. And if you’re lucky you can develop that into a perspective that other people find interesting. Clarice did that as a Jewish woman. But do I feel like out of place? I mean, I’ve chosen to be out of place. I could live in New York and the thing I love about New York is the same reason I don’t live there: it’s that I fit in too well. I know everybody, when I see them, I know exactly what they’re thinking and where they went to school. I know who they’re dating. It’s like a Google Glass, remember that? I like being a little bit out of place. I’m not uncomfortable in Europe. But I’m still a foreigner.
I’ve always just done what I wanted to do. I wrote about Clarice Lispector, nobody had even heard of her. And that book took me years to write. I published, I think twelve volumes of her writings in English and then in all these other languages over the world. I feel like that’s one thing that artists and intellectuals can do, Sontag did it, expand people’s idea of what is interesting and what is worth paying attention to. Whether that’s other books or whether it’s other places or political causes. Now my thing is vegetarianism. It’s always been my thing. I’m a fanatic vegetarian. And I’m getting more and more obnoxious as I grow older. Especially, coronavirus, it’s because people eat animals. If they didn’t eat animals, we wouldn’t wear a mask. It’s pretty simple. The Amazon wouldn’t be destroyed. The atmosphere wouldn’t be getting destroyed. That’s something that makes people very uncomfortable.
Do you think that it’s a part of the job of an intellectual to be generous towards those who are not in the spotlight enough?
Yeah, partially. And that can take all these different forms, it can take the form of advocating a writer, it can take the form of resisting racial terrorism in Bosnia, it can take the form of expanding sympathy by writing about characters that weren’t written about so…You know, this is why I venerate the great black writers, I’m talking about my language, or gay writers who put gay lives into books, who helped people understand other people, in general. That’s the role of the writer and so it takes many forms. I am now talking about vegetarianism, I mean I would like to find a way to expand that sympathy to animals and to reject unnecessary cruelty. And I will die before this wins but it will win. Because it’s wrong to torture and kill animals. Just because people do it in their culture, doesn’t make it not wrong.
I think you’re not a writer if you’re not an idealist. And being an idealist is very disappointing. You know you’re gonna get screwed someday. You are gonna be disappointed because the world is a terrible place but I think you have to write from some degree of hope. But it’s not the hope that people think. It’s not like passing a new law. It’s not that sort of thing. It’s more…it’s the hope of expanding the human imagination.
And humanity, probably, the humanness of us all.
Yes! Yes, this is the task of literature and that’s why Sontag was ready to die for it.
Photo: Eve.b.i; Wikipedia.