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.

| January 2014

  • 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
  • Susan Sontag Book Cover
    “Susan Sontag” by Jonathan Cott is a full account of the 1979 'Rolling Stone' interview between the two writers.
    Cover courtesy Yale University Press

  • Susan Sontag, 1974
  • Susan Sontag Book Cover

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.”

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