Interviewing Susan Sontag for 'Rolling Stone'

Rolling Stone writer and author Jonathan Cott recounts his relationship with essayist and political activist Susan Sontag, and how their friendship lead to a memorable 1979 'Rolling Stone' interview.

Susan Sontag, 1974

In the second volume of her journals and notebooks, Susan Sontag declared: "Being intelligent isn’t, for me, like doing something ‘better.’ It’s the only way I exist..."

Photo by Jill Krementz

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Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (Yale University Press, 2013), profiles one of the most internationally renowned and controversial intellectuals of the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1979, Jonathan Cott, a founding contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine interviewed Sontag, first in Paris and later in New York. More than three decades have passed, and Cott has now printed the 12-hour interview in its entirety. The following excerpt from the Preface, details how the Susan Sontag interview came to be.

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 “The only possible metaphor one may conceive of for the life of the mind,” wrote the political scientist Hannah Arendt, “is the sensation of being alive. Without the breath of life, the human body is a corpse; without thinking, the human mind is dead.” Susan Sontag agreed. In the second volume of her journals and notebooks (As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh), she declared: “Being intelligent isn’t, for me, like doing something ‘better.’ It’s the only way I exist. ... I know I’m afraid of passivity (and dependence). Using my mind, something makes me feel active (autonomous). That’s good.”

Essayist, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, and political activist, Sontag, who was born in 1933 and died in 2004, was an exemplary witness to the fact that living a thinking life and thinking about the life one was living could be complementary and life-enhancing activities. Ever since the 1966 publication of Against Interpretation—her first collection of essays that ranged joyously and unpatronizingly from the Supremes to Simone Weil, and from films like The Incredible Shrinking Man to Muriel—Sontag never wavered in her loyalties to both “popular” and “high” culture. As she remarked in the preface to the thirtieth-anniversary republication of her book, “If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then—of course—I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?”

A proponent of an “erotics of art,” she shared with the French writer Roland Barthes not only what he called “the pleasure of the text” but also what she described as his “vision of the life of the mind as a life of desire, of full intelligence and pleasure.” In this regard, she was following in the footsteps of William Wordsworth, who, in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” defined the poet’s role as that of “giving immediate pleasure to a human Being”—an undertaking that he took to be “an acknowledgement of the beauty of the universe” and “an homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man”—and insisted that turning that principle into reality was “a task light and easy to him who looks at the world in the spirit of love.”

“What makes me feel strong?” Sontag asked herself in one of her journal entries, giving as her answer: “Being in love and work,” and affirming her fealty to “the hot exaltations of the mind.” Clearly, for Sontag, loving, desiring, and thinking were, at their root, essentially coterminous activities. In her fascinating book Eros the Bittersweet, the poet and classicist Anne Carson—a writer whom Sontag greatly admired—proposed that “there would seem to be some resemblance between the way Eros acts in the mind of a lover and the way knowing acts in the mind of a thinker,” and Carson added: “When the mind reaches out to know, the space of desire opens”—a sentiment echoed by Susan Sontag in her essay on Roland Barthes when she remarked that “writing is an embrace, a being embraced; every idea is an idea reaching out.”

In a 1987 symposium sponsored by PEN American Center that was devoted to the work of Henry James, Sontag expanded on Anne Carson’s notion of the indissoluble connection between desiring and knowing. Rejecting the criticisms often made about James’s arid and abstract vocabulary, Sontag countered: “His vocabulary is in fact one of munificence, of plenitude, of desire, of jubilation, of ecstasy. In James’s world, there is always more—more text, more consciousness, more space, more complexity in space, more food for consciousness to gnaw on. He installs a principle of desire in the novel, which seems to me new. It is epistemological desire, the desire to know, which is like carnal desire, and often mimics or doubles carnal desire.” In her journals, Sontag describes the “life of the mind” with the following words: “avidity, appetite, craving, longing, yearning, insatiability, rapture, inclination”; and it is not difficult to imagine that Sontag might have felt that Anne Carson was in fact speaking for both of them when she confessed that “falling in love and coming to know make me feel genuinely alive.”

In all of her endeavors, Sontag attempted to challenge and upend stereotypical categories such as male/female and young/old that induced people to live constrained and risk-averse lives; and she continually examined and tested out her notion that supposed polarities such as thinking and feeling, form and content, ethics and aesthetics, and consciousness and sensuousness could in fact simply be looked at as aspects of each other—much like the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one’s touch, provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving.

In her 1965 essay “On Style,” for example, Sontag wrote: “To call Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympiad masterpieces is not to gloss over Nazi propaganda with aesthetic lenience. The Nazi propaganda is there. But something else is there too… the complex movements of intelligence and grace and sensuousness.” A decade later, in her essay “Fascinating Fascism,” she reversed the pile, commenting that Triumph of the Will was “the most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda.” Where she once focused on the “formal implications of content,” Sontag would explain, she later wished to investigate “the content implicit in certain ideas of form.”

Describing herself as both a “besotted aesthete” and an “obsessed moralist,” Sontag might well have concurred with Wordsworth’s notion that “we have no sympathy but what is propagated by pleasure” and that “wherever we sympathize with pain it will be found that the sympathy is produced and carried on by subtle combinations with pleasure.” So it is not surprising that while Sontag fully embraced the pleasures of what she called “a pluralistic, polymorphous culture,” she never ceased from “regarding the pain of others”—the title she gave to the last book she wrote before her death—nor from attempting to ameliorate it.

In 1968 she traveled to Hanoi at the invitation of the North Vietnamese government as part of a delegation of American antiwar activists, an experience that, as she wrote in her journals, “made me re-appraise my identity, the forms of my consciousness, the psychic forms of my culture, the meaning of ‘sincerity,’ language, moral decision, psychological expressiveness.” Two decades later, in the early 1990s, she visited the battered city of Sarajevo on nine separate occasions, bearing witness to the sufferings of its 380,000 residents who were then living under constant siege. On her second visit, in July 1993, she met a Sarajevo-born theater producer who invited her to direct a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with some of the city’s most accomplished professional actors; and the sounds of sniper fire and the blasts of mortar shells provided a backdrop to both the rehearsals and the performances that were attended by government officials, surgeons from the city’s main hospital, and soldiers from the front, as well as many disabled and grieving Sarajevans. “Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists,” she wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others, “who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.” And as she once declared, “There is no possibility of true culture without altruism.”

I first met Susan Sontag in the early 1960s when she was teaching, and I was studying, at Columbia University. For three years, I was both a contributor to and one of the editors of the literary supplement to the Columbia Spectator—Columbia College’s daily newspaper—for which, in 1961, she had written an essay about Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death that she would later include in Against Interpretation. After reading that essay, I brazenly decided to stop by her office one afternoon to tell her how much I had admired it; and after that first meeting, we met up for coffee on several occasions.

After graduating from Columbia College in 1964, I moved to Berkeley to study English literature at the University of California and immediately found myself in the midst of a great new American social, cultural, and political awakening. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” William Wordsworth had written two centuries earlier at the outset of the French Revolution. Now, once again, people were experiencing a true dramatization of life, and no matter where you went, it seemed as if “there was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air,” as Bob Dylan sang in “Tangled Up in Blue.” Reflecting on those days some thirty years later in her preface to the republication of Against Interpretation, Sontag wrote: “How marvelous it all does seem, in retrospect. How one wishes some of its boldness, its optimism, its disdain for commerce had survived. The two poles of distinctively modern sentiment are nostalgia and utopia. Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of the time now labeled the sixties was that there was so little nostalgia. In that sense, it was indeed a utopian moment.”

One afternoon in 1966 I serendipitously ran into Susan on the Berkeley campus. She informed me that she had been invited by the university to give a lecture, and I told her that I had just started producing and hosting a freeform, late-night radio program for KPFA; mentioned that I and my friend Tom Luddy—who was soon to become the curator for the Pacific Film Archive—were going to be interviewing the filmmaker Kenneth Anger about his movie Scorpio Rising later that night; and asked whether she might like to come by to join the conversation, which she did. (In her journals, Susan would include Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome in her list of “Best Films.”)

In 1967 I moved to London to become Rolling Stone magazine’s first European editor, and I continued to work and write for the magazine when I returned to New York City in 1970. Susan and I had a number of friends in common; and over the next several years, both in New York and Europe, we would occasionally find ourselves together at the same dinner parties, film screenings, concerts (both rock and classical), and human rights events. I had always wanted to interview Susan for Rolling Stone but had felt reticent about broaching the subject with her. In February 1978, however, I thought that it might be the right time. Her acclaimed book On Photography had been published the previous year, and two of her other books were about to appear: I, etcetera—a collection of eight short stories that she once described as “a series of adventures with the first person”—and Illness as Metaphor. Susan had undergone surgery and treatment for breast cancer between 1974 and 1977, and her experiences as a cancer patient had been the catalyst for her writing that book. So when I finally decided to ask her whether she might consider doing an interview, and suggested that we use those three books as a starting point for our conversation, she unhesitatingly agreed.

There are some writers who feel that taking part in an interview is an experience not unlike that of—as the poet Kenneth Rexroth once remarked after attending a particularly noxious cocktail party—“sticking one’s tongue on the third rail before dinner.” Italo Calvino was one such person. In his short text “Thoughts Before an Interview,” he complained: “Every morning I tell myself: today has to be productive, and then something happens that prevents me from writing. Today . . . what is there that I have to do today? Oh yes, they are supposed to come interview me. …God help me!” More resistant by far, however, was the Nobel Prize laureate J. M. Coetzee, who, in the middle of an interview with David Attwell, announced: “If I had any foresight, I would have nothing to do with journalists from the start. An interview is nine times out of ten an exchange with a complete stranger, yet a stranger permitted by the conventions of the genre to cross the boundaries of what is proper in conversation between strangers. …To me, on the other hand, truth is related to silence, to reflection, to the practice of writing. Speech is not a fount of truth but a pale and provisional version of writing. And the rapier of surprise wielded by the magistrate or the interviewer is not an instrument of the truth but, on the contrary, a weapon, a sign of the inherently confrontational nature of the transaction.”

Susan Sontag saw things differently. “I like the interview form,” she once told me, “and I like it because I like conversation, I like dialogue, and I know that a lot of my thinking is the product of conversation. In a way, the hardest thing about writing is that you’re alone and have to set up a conversation with yourself, which is a fundamentally unnatural activity. I like talking to people—it’s what makes me not a recluse—and conversation gives me a chance to know what I think. I don’t want to know about the audience because it’s an abstraction, but I certainly want to know what any individual thinks, and that requires a face-to-face meeting.”

In one of her journal entries from 1965, Susan avowed: “To give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” Thirteen years later, on a sunny afternoon in mid-June, I arrived at Susan’s Paris apartment in the 16th Arrondissement. She and I sat down on two couches in the living room, I placed my cassette tape recorder on the table between them; and 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.

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed—the pianist Glenn Gould is the one other exception—Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning”—as she once described Henry James’s writing style—with which she framed and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings with parenthetical remarks and qualifying words (“sometimes,” “occasionally,” “usually,” “for the most part,” “in almost all cases”), the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours—an inebriation with the spoken word. “I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue,” she once remarked in her journals, and added: “For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.”

But after talking for three hours, Susan told me that she needed to get some rest before going out that night for dinner. I knew that I had already recorded enough material for my Rolling Stone interview. To my surprise, however, she informed me that she would soon be moving back to her apartment in New York City for six months; and that since there were still a number of other subjects that she wanted to talk to me about, she asked if I wouldn’t mind if we continued and completed our conversation back in New York.

Five months later, on a chilly afternoon in November, I arrived at the spacious penthouse apartment overlooking the Hudson River on Riverside Drive and 106th Street where she lived, surrounded by her library of eight thousand books that she referred to as “my own retrieval system” and “my archive of longing.” And in that consecrated spot, she and I sat and talked until late in the evening.

In October 1979, Rolling Stone magazine published one-third of my interview with Susan Sontag. Now, for the first time, I am able to present in its entirety the conversation that I was privileged to engage in thirty-five years ago, both in Paris and New York, with the remarkable and inspiring person whose intellectual credo—as I have always thought of it—seems to me to have been most movingly expressed in a short text that she wrote in 1996 entitled “A Letter to Borges”:

You said that we owe literature almost everything we are and what we have been. If books disappear, history will disappear, and human beings will also disappear. I am sure you are right. Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the “real” everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.

Reprinted with permission from Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott and published by Yale University Press, 2013.