Jonathan Cott’s 1979 Rolling Stone interview with Susan Sontag is considered to be a classic of the form. It was long but riveting, theoretical but curiously approachable; it took surprising segues throughout. More than three decades after it first appeared in print, HarperCollins India has published Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, which runs into 140-odd pages, i.e. over 12 hours of conversation.
Sontag was one of the most read essayists of the 20th century. Books like On Photography, Against Interpretation and Illness As Metaphor are taught in college curricula around the world. And although these works are too diverse for there to be a unifying thread, her writing was always marked by a persistent curiosity about the way metaphors functioned. Indeed, as Cott points out in the interview, she had written these lines in an essay called On Style. “To speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of art. Like all discourse about totalities, talk of a style must rely on metaphors. And metaphors mislead.”
The interview covers Sontag’s formative influences, her reading and writing habits, as well as some priceless riffs on the dominant pop cultural tropes of the ’60s and the ’70s, like rock and roll, the Vietnam War, psychedelic drugs and so on. However, what fascinated me even more was how a lot of what she said can be applied to contemporary events that have grabbed the public’s attention.
The transition of former star athlete Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner is one such event. A lot of people would’ve been fascinated to hear what Sontag would say about this. But in a way, she already did, when she spoke about Hélène Cixous’s concept of “écriture feminine” (feminine writing) and the writer Jan Morris. Morris, like Jenner, is a trans woman, born James Morris. She made her name as a travel writer under that name before transitioning in 1972, when she was 46.
Cixous’s theory holds that women should write out of their feelings because the existing intellectual discourse is inherently masculine and brutish. Sontag disagreed and said that both James and Jan Morris had written about some of the greatest cities in the world, but that the latter “wrote like a mother”, indicating that gender came with baggage that was largely cultural rather than biological.
A little later, Cott tells her that her ungendered ways could lead to “a feminist response that (…) you act as if the revolution had already been won”. Sontag replied: “The attempt to set up a separate culture is a way of not seeking power, and I think women have to seek power. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t think the emancipation of women is just a question of having equal rights. It’s a question of having equal power, and how are they going to have that unless they participate in the structures that already exist?” And that is exactly what Caitlyn Jenner is doing right now. Yes, the media coverage around Jenner conforms to stereotypes around women in Hollywood. But to her credit, she has stuck it out and is now speaking up for people like her, people who sometimes wait for decades to fully express themselves. And she’s doing it within the accepted power structures of celebrity and the media.
Then there’s the question of the fragment as an art form. The Facebook era has resulted in the mushrooming of fragmentary online artifacts: the cat photography, the meme, the short, slapstick video. Sontag expresses both the attraction and the frustration of fragments when she tells Cott about the fragment as a literary device (as used by people like Wittgenstein and Nietzsche): “It seems as if the fragment is really the art form of our time, and everybody who has reflected about art and thought has had to deal with this problem. I heard Roland Barthes say recently that his whole effort now is to go beyond the fragment. But can you? (…) The fact that you can distinguish a certain moment as being privileged — and not just because it’s memorable but because it’s changed you — doesn’t mean that it’s a fragment. It could mean that it’s the culmination of everything that’s gone before it.”
The ground realities of 2015 are such that the world is crying out for intellectuals like Sontag. There is surplus shouting everywhere and not nearly enough meaningful whispers. State sanctions are clamping down on critical thinking, even in the most developed nations, the most evolved societies. Sontag’s answer to Cott’s final question (“Do you aim to return to your origins?”) talked about precisely this.
She said: “(…) What disturbs me so much about most places in the world is that the only criticism of society comes from the state itself. I think there should always be freelance people who, however quixotic it may be, are trying to lop off a couple of more heads, trying to destroy hallucination and falsehood and demagogy — and making things more complicated because there’s an in inevitable drift towards making things more simple. But for me, the most awful thing 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.”
Here was a woman brave enough to criticise her country in the hour of its worst crisis, a woman who lived a full life on her own terms, who called out the double standards of modern-day entertainment relentlessly. This interview lays bare the workings of a fascinating mind.