The writer reflects on her bout with cancer, the fundamentals of love, and her “desert childhood”
by Jonathan Cott
The only possible metaphor one may conceive of for the life of the mind,” wrote the late 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 is an exemplary witness to the fact that living a thinking life and thinking about the life one is living can be complementary and energizing activities. Since the 1966 publication of Against Interpretation — her first collection of essay, which included the brilliant ”Notes on ‘Camp”’ and ”On Style” and which ranged joyously and unpatronizingly from the Supremes to Simone Weil, from films like The Incredible Shrinking Man to Muriel — Sontag has continued to be drawn to both ”popular” and ”high” cultures and to write about subjects as diverse as pornography and photography, the aesthetics of silence and the aesthetics of fascism. In doing so, moreover, she has been continually examining and testing out her notion that supposed oppositions like thinking and feeling, consciousness and sensuousness, morality and aesthetics can 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 ”On Style,” for example, Sontag wrote: ”To call Leni Riefenstabl’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.”
Exactly 10 years later, in the New York Review of Books, 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 has explained, she later wished to investigate ”the content implicit in certain ideas of form.”
A ”besotted aesthete” and ”obsessed moralist” (as the recently described herself), Sontag has — in her essays (“Styles of Radical Will”), novels (“The Benefactor” and “Death Kit”), and films (“Duet for Cannibals,” “Brother Carl” and “Promised Lands,” a documentary about Israel) — persistently rejected and worked against ”comfortable” and ”received” positions, attitudes and opinions. As she stated in an interview: ”We live in a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.”
And her three most recent publications — “On Photography” (a long, dialectical essay, surprisingly a best seller), Illness as Metaphor (a book that elucidates and exorcises tuberculosis and cancer as metaphors, written as a result of having been operated on for cancer several years ago) and I, etcetera (eight adventurous works of fiction that explore and extend her concerns in a variety of voices) — have confirmed Sontag’s position as one of our most unpredictable and enlightening writers, whose modes of thinking and feeling have been a model and inspiration for many people.
Born in Arizona and raised in California, Sontag was educated at the University of Chicago, which she entered when she was 15, and at Harvard. I met her in 1963 when she was teaching, and I was studying, at Columbia University, I saw her again in 1966 in Berkeley, where she had been invited to lecture; I invited Sontag and filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who had just released his dazzling Scorpio Rising, onto an informal, late-night radio program that I was producing for KPFA. A couple of years later, I saw her in London during a press screening of her first film, Duct for Cannibals. Having run into each other for 15 years, we decided, early in 1978, to do a ”formal” interview.
Since her bout with cancer, she has been in good spirits, good health, and has been busier than ever. The following interview began in June 1978 in Paris, where Susan lives half of the year, and continued in November of last year in New York City, where she lives the other half, surrounded by a library of 8,000 books (”my own retrieval system,” as she calls it).
When you found out you had cancer a few years ago, you immediately started thinking about your illness. I’m reminded of something Nietzsche once wrote: ”For a psychologist there are few questions that are as attractive as that concerning the relation of health and philosophy, and if he should himself become ill, he will bring all of his scientific curiosity into his illness.” Is this the way you began to think about Illness as Metaphor?
Well, it’s certainly true that the fact that I got sick made me think about sickness. Everything that happens to me is something I think about. I’m sure that this experience will turn up in my fiction — very transposed. But as far as that side of me that writes essays, what occurred to me to ask was not, What am I experiencing? but rather, What really goes on in the world of the sick? What are the ideas that people have? I was examining my own ideas because I had a lot of the fantasies about illness, and about cancer in particular. I’d never given the question of illness any serious consideration. So if you don’t think about things, you’re likely to be the vehicle of the going clichés, even of the more enlightened ones.
The fact of being ill, however, and thinking about it in the way you’ve done would seem to demand a sense of distance.
On the contrary, it would have been an enormous effort for me to not think about it. The really enormous effort was to get out of that period when I was so ill that I couldn’t work at all. The greatest effort is to be really where you are, contemporary with yourself, in your life, giving full attention to the world. That’s what a writer does. I’m against the solipsistic idea that you find it all in your head. You don’t.
For about a year and a half I was going to a hospital three times a week, I was hearing this language, I was seeing the people who are victims of these stupid ideas. Illness as Metaphor and the essay I wrote about the Vietnam War are perhaps the only two instances in my life when I knew that what I was writing was not only true but actually helpful to people in a very immediate, practical way. I know people who have sought proper medical treatment because of reading it — people who weren’t getting anything other than some kind of psychiatric treatment and are now getting chemotherapy.
Following Nietzsche’s idea that ”in some it is their deprivations that philosophize; in others, their riches and strengths,” it seems interesting that while suffering from your illness you produced something very rich and strong.
I thought that when this started. . .well, of course, I was told it was likely that I’d be dead very soon, so I was facing not only an illness and painful operations, but also what I thought might be death in the next year or two. And besides feeling the physical pain, I was terribly frightened. I was experiencing the most acute kind of animal panic. But I also experienced moments of elation. A tremendous intensity. I felt as if I had embarked on a great adventure. It was the adventure of being ill and probably dying. And, I don’t want to say it was a positive experience, because that sounds cheap, but of course it did have a positive side.
So it wasn’t out of a sense of deprivation that you thought about these things?
No, because it was two weeks after I was told I had cancer that I cleaned out those ideas. The first thing I thought was: What did I do to deserve this? I’ve led the wrong life. I’ve been too repressed. Yes, I suffered a great grief five years ago and this must be the result of that intense depression.
Then I asked one of my doctors: ”What do you think about the psychological side of cancer in terms of what causes it?” And he said to me, ”Well, people say a lot of funny things about diseases.” I mean, he just dismissed it absolutely. So I began to think about TB; the argument of the thing fell into place. I have the same propensities to feel guilty that everybody has, probably more than average. But I don’t like it. Nietzsche was right about guilt. It’s awful; I’d rather feel ashamed. That seems more objective and has to do with one’s personal sense of honor, but people do feel guilty about being ill.
I like to feel responsible, you understand. Whenever I find myself in a mess in my personal life, I’d rather say, ”Well, I chose to fall in love with this person, who turned out to be a bastard.” I don’t like blaming other people, because it’s so much easier to change oneself than other people.
I don’t think it makes much sense to worry about what made you ill. What does make sense is to be as rational as you can in seeking the right kind of treatment.
Job didn’t feel guilty; he felt stubborn and angry.
I felt extremely stubborn. But I didn’t feel angry, because there was nobody to feel angry at. You can’t feel angry at nature. You can’t feel angry at biology. We’re all going to die — that’s a very difficult thing to take in — and we all experience this process.
It feels as if there’s this person — in your head, mainly — trapped in this physiological stock that only survives 70 to 80 years, normally, in any decent condition. It starts deteriorating at a certain point, and then for half of your life, if not more, you watch this material begin to fray. And there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re trapped inside it; and when it goes, you go.
What about all the philosophical and quasimystical attempts to overcome that duality? Right now, you’ve been speaking from an experiential, common-sense point of view.
I think the sense of a self trapped in something is impossible to get over. That’s the origin of all dualisms — Platonic, Cartesian or whatever. There’s no way that we can be conscious and not feel ”I am in my body.”
Of course, you can try to come to terms with death, try to shift the axis of your activities ro things that are less body-dependent as you get older: your body neither is as attractive to other people nor does it function in the way that is pleasurable to you. But it also should be said that a lot of our ideas about what we can do at different ages and what age means are so arbitrary — as arbitrary as sexual stereotypes. People say all the time: ”Oh, I can’t do that. I’m 60. I’m too old.” Or ”I can’t do that. I’m 20. I’m too young.” Why? Who says so?
I think that the old-young polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people. The values associated with youth and with masculinity are considered to be the human norms, and anything else is taken to be at least less worthwhile or inferior. Old people have a terrific sense of inferiority. They’re embarrassed to be old.
Do you think the health-illness opposition relates at all to that between male and female or youth and old age?
Anytime you have an extreme experience, you feel a certain kind of solidarity with other people who have that experience. There’s a world of bravery and gallantry that is so inspiring, but I also know some people who are ill who are extremely exhibitionistic and who can be sadistic, using their illness to dominate and to exploit others.
The Goncourt brothers said: ”Sickness sensitizes man for observation, like a photographic plate.” When applied to both On Photography and Illness as Metaphor, this becomes extremely ironic and fascinating.
It is fascinating. People in this culture have decided that sickness is laden with all kinds of spiritual values. And that’s because they don’t have any other means to prod or extract something from themselves. Everything in this society — in the way we live — conspires to eliminate all but the most banal level of feelings, there’s no sense of the sacred or of transcendence. Today we don’t have much. The two things spiritual values have become attached to, since the collapse of religious faith, are art and illness.
In Illness as Metaphor, you wrote: ”Theories that diseases are caused by mental states and can be cured by willpower are always an index of how much is not understood about the physical terrain of a disease.” Don’t you think that Christian Scientists might agree with this statement while denying — probably just because they don’t accept — the ”physical terrain”?
No, I don’t think they’d agree with it, because Christian Science is just another version of the same thing. Starting in the 18th century with people like Mesmer in France, you have the birth of a kind of modern spiritualism — all kinds of movements, some of which called themselves religions, some of which called themselves forms of medical practice. These movements denied the existence of illness and said that, essentially, it’s all in your head. Or that it was something spiritual (Mesmer talked about fluids). Mesmerism, Christian Science or the psychological theories of disease all convert disease into something mental and immaterial.
What about the notion that one is somehow responsible for one’s disease — the kind of argument you hear from some est disciples?
There are such things as microbes and viruses and genetic weaknesses. I think this is a kind of demagogic idea in this society, an idea that is taking people away, or distracting them, from areas in which they really could take responsibility. And I’m very impressed by the fact that all these ways of thinking are so antiintellectual. One of the notions of est is that you must not say but. You’re supposed to eliminate qualifiers of that kind from your discourse. But the very nature of thinking is but. Things are complicated. It’s and, but, either — it’s all those things. Those are tricks that are the equivalent of lobotomizing people, and I think essentially they’re ways for people to become more selfish and egotistic.
I’m assuming that there is a physical basis for disease. Obviously, this wouldn’t convince a Christian Scientist who says, ”I just don’t believe that disease or death is real.” Such notions flourish about a particular disease when medicine or science can’t give a convincing account of what causes it and, more important, can’t furnish effective means of treatment.
Tuberculosis is particularly interesting because its cause was discovered in 1882, but the cure only in 1944. The myths and fantasies about TB — The Magic Mountain‘s it’s-just-love-deferred, or Kafka’s it’s-really-my-mental-illness-connecting-itself-into-a-physical – thing — started to vanish when almost no one died of TB anymore. And if people discover what causes cancer but don’t find the cure for it, then the myths about cancer will go on.
In your book, the TB metaphor gets away with murder, being extremely rich and suggestive. You point out, for instance, that the metaphor’s romanticization exemplified the promotion of the self as an image, that the literary and erotic attitudes known as ”romantic agony” are derived from it and that it ”refined” and made more creative, and even fashionable, those afflicted with the disease. Whereas the cancer metaphor doen’t get away with murder, it is murder.
Cancer really is only a metaphor for evil, but one that has an enormous allure. So often when people talk about what they really hate or fear or want to combat — as if they don’t know how to express a sense of evil — a metaphor is the most available and attractive way of expressing a sense of disaster, of what is to be repudiated.
By the way, there’s one metaphor that I left out of the book. In the modern period, the things attributed to TB have been split off — the positive, romantic things being assigned to mental illness and all the negative things to cancer. But there is an intermediate metaphor, one that had a career as interesting as that of TB, and that is syphilis, because syphilis did have a positive side. Syphilis was not only something laden with a sense of guilt because of its association with illicit sexual activity and because it was so feared and so highly moralized. It was also attached to mental illness. It is, in a way, the missing link between TB and what happened in the split: mental illness on one side and cancer on the other.
In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, somebody who acted very strangely and seemed to have attacks of euphoria was thought to have syphilis. You get that in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus — the idea that syphilis is the price paid to be a genius. It does take on some of the same qualities once assigned to TB. Syphilis brings on madness and suffering and eventual death, but between the beginning and of it. But they had those exalted mental states that were part of, or produced, genius. But, of course, that was as much a result of the fact that they were geniuses as the fact that they had syphilis.
What about leukemia?
Leukemia is the only part of the cancer metaphor pulling toward romantic values. It is the one form of cancer — just the most well-known one — that isn’t associated with the tumor. There’s no operation you can perform for it. And there’s not this idea of mutilation and amputation that’s connected with the fear of cancer.
You emphasized the romantic function of madness. Yet I think that during the past few years, this particular notion of madness seems to have lost a lot of its glamorous cachet.
Don’t you think Laingian ideas are accepted by a lot of people? That the mad person knows something we don’t?
I suppose it’s just that the Seventies Zeitgeist tends to be embarrassed about, or even derogatory toward, a lot of the notions that flourished a decade ago.
Let’s talk about this decade-mongering, because I feel that there’s something terrible about making the Fifties and Sixties and Seventies into major constructs. They’re myths. Now we have to invent some new concept for the Eighties, and I’m very curious to find out what people are going to invent. It’s so ideological, this decade talk.
The idea is that everything that was hoped for and attempted in the Sixties basically hasn’t worked and couldn’t work out. But who says it won’t work? Who says there’s something wrong with people dropping out? I think the world should be safe for marginal people. One of the nice things that happened was that a lot of people chose to be marginal and other people didn’t seem to mind. I don’t think of myself as marginal in that I don’t particularly want to sit on the sidewalk and take drugs, because I’m too restless and I don’t want to calm my restlessness. On the contrary, I’d like to have more energy and be more mobile. But part of my efforts are to keep myself marginal — to destroy what I’ve done or to try something else. As soon as I see one thing is working, I don’t want to do that anymore.
We have to allow not only for marginal people and states of consciousness, but also for the unusual or the deviant. I’m all for deviants. There’s no reason for people on this planet to live at a subsistence level. Instead of becoming more and more bureaucratic, standardized, oppressive and authoritarian, why don’t we allow more and more people to be free?
We want to be free to make new choices: you can’t have everything, so you have to make choices. Americans tend to think that everything is possible, and that’s something I like a lot about them [laughing]. I know I’m very American, in that respect, because I like to think I have as many options as possible.
What is essentially different in the Seventies is that there isn’t the illusion that a lot of people think the same as you do. I mean, one is restored to one’s position as a freelance person, but I don’t feel that I’ve changed what I think. All throughout the Sixties, I was horrified by the anti-intellectualism of the movement and of the hippies and of the bright-thinking people that I stood shoulder to shoulder with in various political situations. I couldn’t stand how anti-intellectualism they were. I think people are still very anti-intellectualism.
Someone once told me that you used to read a book a day.
I read an enormous amount and, in large part, quite mindlessly. I love to read the way people love to watch television; I kind of nod out over it. I don’t know how intellectual I am. I have these interests, but I also go to CBGB’s and do other things like that.
I really believe in history; that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly one: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period. We’re still essentially dealing with expectations and feelings formulated at that time. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.
How, specifically, do you see Patti Smith’s connection to Nietzsche?
In the way she talks, the way she comes on, what she’s trying to do, the kind of person she is. That’s part of where we are culturally. But where we are culturally has these roots. As I said, the main reason I read is that I enjoy it. There’s no incompatibility between observing the world and being tuned into an electronic, multimedia, multitracked, McLuthanite world and enjoy what can be enjoyed about rock & roll. Rock & roll really changed my life.
What rock & roll?
You’ll laugh, it was Bill Haley and the Comets. I really had a revelation, and I can’t tell you how utterly cut off I was from popular music because, being a child in the Forties, the only thing I ever heard were crooners, and I loathed them. And then I heared Johnnie Ray singing ”Cry.” I heard it on the jukebox and something happened to my skin. Several years later there was Bill Haley, and then I went to England in 1957 as a student and heard some of those early groups, who were influenced by Chuck Berry. It was the beginnings of what would lead to the Beatles.
You know, I think rock & roll is the reason I got divorced. I think it was Bill Haley and the Comets and Chuck Berry [laughing] that made me decide that I had to get a divorce and leave the academic world.
At that time, the late Fifties, I lived in a totally intellectual world. I didn’t know one single person I could share this with. I didn’t talk about it. People say a lot of stupid things about the Fifties, but it is true that there was this total separation between the people who were tuned into the popular culture and those who were involved in high culture. There was nobody I ever met who was interested in both, and I always was.
In your essay on Leni Riefenstahl and the nature of fascist art, you wrote, ”Riefenstahl’s films express longings whose romantic ideal is expressed in youth /rock culture, primal therapy, Laing’s anti-psychology, Third World camp following, and belief in gurus and the occult.” That covers a lot of territory, and it seems to me that in other contexts you’ve been sympathetic to a number of aspects of the romantic ideal.
It seems to be quite convincing to argue that Buddhism is the highest spiritual moment of humanity. It seems clear to me that rock & roll is the greatest movement of popular music that’s ever existed. But it’s something else to talk about the way in which interest in Buddhism occurs in our society. It’s one thing to listen to punk rock as music, and another to understand the whole S&M-necrophilia-Grand Guignol-Night of the Living Dead-Texas Chain-Saw Massacre sensibility that feeds into that. On the one hand, you’re talking about the cultural situation and the implses people are getting from it, and on the other, you’re talking about what the thing is.
I’m certainly not going to give up on rock & roll. I’m not going to say that because kids are walking around in their vampire makeup or wearing swastikas, this music is no good. That’s easy to say. No more do I want to give up on my admiration for Buddhism because of what’s happened to it in California.
Now, I think there is a fascist cultural impulse. A lot of the activities of the New Left, for example, were very disturbing. it was a thing one didn’t want to say too loudly in public in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the principal effort was to stop the American war in Vietnam. But some of the activities of the New Left were very far from democratic socialism and were deeply anti-intellectual, which I think of as part of the fascist impulse. They were also anticultural and full of resentment and brutality, reflecting a kind of nihilism. Of course, our society is based on nihilism: television is nihilism. I mean, nihilism isn’t some modernist invention of avant-garde artists, it’s at the very heart of our culture.
But, you see, one has to keep on explaining endlessly that this is not to say that the New Left is fascist, which all kinds of conservatives and reactionaries are prone to assert now. We’re talking about processes, not just objects: it’s really the nature of our situation to be extremely complicated, and you have to keep directing your attention to what is contradictory and try to sort these things out, try to purify them.
In your essay ”On Style,” you wrote: ”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.” What is your attitude toward metaphors generally?
Ever since I began to think, I realized that I could understand things theoretically by seeing their implications and the underlying metaphor or paradigm. When, at 14 or 15, I first bean to read philosophy, I remember that I’d be struck by the metaphors. And I’d think that if you used another metaphor, it would come out differently.
Metaphors are central to thinking, but it’s like a kind of agnosticism: as you use them, you shouldn’t believe them; you should know that they’re a necessary fiction, or perhaps not a necessary fiction. You can say something is like something else, okay, then that’s clean, because it’s very clear what the differences are. But when you say, for example, that illness is a curse, it’s a way of stopping your thinking and freezing you into certain attitudes. The intellectual project is inevitably involved with constructing new metaphors, because you have to use them to think, but at least you should be critical and skeptical of the ones you’ve inherited: unclogging your thought, letting in air, opening things out.
Nietzsche once wrote that truth is only the solidification of old metaphors.
But that’s the truth in a very ironic sense. Take the question of women. The truth about women is that the whole system of patriarchal values, or whatever you want to call it, is false and oppressive. The truth is that that is false. The basic view is that women are better than children and less than men. They’re grown-up children with the charm and attractiveness of children.
Cries and Whispers is the world women have been assigned to — to use Ingmar Bergman’s film title — not that of dialectical thinking.
In our culture, they’ve been assigned the world of feeling, because what men are supposed to take care of is action and strength and executive ability and capacity for detachment and all of that, so women are the repositories of feeling and sensitivity. The arts in our society are conceived of as basically feminine activities; certainly they weren’t in the past. That’s because men didn’t define themselves so much in terms of the repression of women.
One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling… which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment. We have more or less the same bodies, but very different kinds of thoughts. I believe that we think much more with the instruments provided by our culture than we do with our bodies, and hence the much greater diversity of thought in the world. Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.
In one of his poems, Baudelaire wrote: ”Agile you move, O my mind, and as a strong swimmer/Swoons on the wavy sea, gaily you cleave! The unfathomable vastness with ineffable, male, voluptuous joy.” Here, the poet connected thinking and feeling with a specifically ”male” type of consciousness and sexuality.
Recently, however, I came across an interview with a French writer named Hélène Cixous, in which, using another swimming image, she said: ”To claim that writing doesn’t betray sex differences is to regard it simply as a manufactured object. From the moment you admit that it springs from the entire body you have to admit that it transcribes a whole system of impulses, entirely different approaches to emotional expenditure and pleasure….
In writing, femininity produces a much greater impression of continuity than masculinity does. It’s as though women had the faculty of remaining below the surface, coming up for air only at very rare intervals. So obviously, the result is a text that leaves the reader very winded. But for me, that’s completely in accord with feminine sensuality.’‘
Cixous began as a professor of English literature at the University of Paris, wrote a book on James Joyce, and now she’s thought of as one of the leading women writers in France. Obviously, she considers herself to be a feminist. But I have to say that her statement doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a fascinating contrast between Cixous and Baudelaire, but I think those images will yield anything you want them to. Baudelaire, after all, was the person who said that woman is natural, therefore abominable, and who had a very classic kind of 19th-century misogyny — the kind you find in Freud, i.e., women are nature and men are culture, as though women are this kind of slime that drags you down, and the spirit is always trying to escape from the flesh.
It’s interesting that both of these French authors conceive of writing in terms of sensual experience — one from a misogynist, the other from a feminist, point of view.
I’m very unhappy at the idea of labeling these things in sexual terms, so that, in fact, you’d have to say that Joyce is a feminine writer or working out of a feminine sexuality. I certainly think that there’s some difference, not a lot, between masculine and feminine sensuality — obviously, a difference that everything in our culture conspires to make even bigger. But I don’t see any reason why a woman can’t write anything that a man writes, and vice versa.
And if pushed to it, I’d even say writing is making objects. I’m comfortable with the analogies Plato and Aristotle used when they compared the poet to the carpenter.
For a certain group of feminist writers and people who talk about these things, Hannah Arendt would be considered a male-identified intellectual: she happens to be a woman, but she’s playing the man’s game that starts with Plato and Aristotle and continues with Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill. She’s the first woman political philosopher, but her game — its rules, discourse, references — is that of the tradition established with Plato’s Republic. She never asked herself: ”Since I’m a woman, shouldn’t I be approaching these questions differently?” And I don’t think she should have. If I’m going to play chess, I don’t think I should play it differently because I’m a woman.
I think it’s very oppressive to be asked to conform to a stereotype, exactly as a black writer might be asked to express only black consciousness. I don’t want to be ”ghettoized” any more than some black writers I know want to be ghettoized.
Before, however, you said that ill people have an attunement with one another. Also the old. You did talk about male-female polarity as a kind of prison, so why shouldn’t a woman, who felt she has been in that prison, wish to align herself with a certain kind of feminism?
I’m not against her doing it, but I would be sorry to see writing start to be sexually segregated.
A feminist response to this might be that you act as if the revolution had already been won.
I don’t believe that the revolution has been won, but I think it’s useful for women to participate in traditional structures and enterprises, and to demonstrate that they’re competent and that they can be airline pilots and bank executives and generals. It’s good that women stake out their claims in these occupations. The attempt to set up a separate culture is a way of not seeking power; and 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?
I think that women should be proud of and identify with women who do things at a very high level of excellence, and not criticize women for not expressing a feminine sensibility or a feminine sense of sensuality. It would be nice if men would be more feminine and women more masculine. To me, that would be a more attractive world.
When you write, do you feel like a woman, a man or just disembodied?
I find writing very desexualizing, which is one of its limitations. I don’t eat, or I eat very irregularly and badly and skip meals; and I try to sleep as little as possible. My back hurts, my fingers hurt, I get headaches. And it even cuts sexual desire. I find that if I’m very interested in someone sexually and then embark on a writing project, there’s pretty much a period of abstinence or chastity, because I want all my energy to go into the writing. But that’s the kind of writer I am; I’m totally undisciplined, and I just do it in long, obsessional stretches.
I’d like to learn how to write in a way that’s less punishing to my body, and I’m beginning to do that. First of all, although I’m not in the same state of medical emergency that I was until recently — according to my doctors, there’s considerable optimism now — I still feel fragile, and I still worry about getting in bad shape physically in a way that I didn’t before.
I’ve also thought that changing the way I write would probably be a very good thing for the writing. I try to imagine, for instance, what it would be like to write and feel really comfortable. I tend to write first drafts lying on a bed, stretched out. then, as soon as I have something to type out, I go to a desk and a wooden chair and from then on it’s all at the typewriter. How do you write?
At a desk with a fairly hard chair and lots of things scattered around.
But don’t you think you’d write differently all naked, wrapped in velvet?
One thing I’ve become aware of is that I tend to repress images in my writing. it seems that what was perishable in a lot of writing was precisely its adornment and that the style for eternity was an unadorned one.
Somebody says: ”The road is straight.” Okay, then: ”The road is straight as a string.” There’s such a profound part of me that feels that ”the road is straight” is all you need to say and all you should say.
Don’t you think that the nervous system in some way determines one’s writing style and that it’s not just a matter of changing one’s garments?
I think that there are things stronger than the nervous system. My nervous system is certainly different from the way it was twenty years ago, however. I’ve taken a very modest amount of psychedelic drugs throughout my adult life. Smoking grass — something I’ve done in a very modest amount — changed my nervous system. For instance, it helped me relax. That’s a dumb thing to say, but it’s true. I never really relaxed in the way that I do now before I smoked grass, and I smoked grass for the first time when I was about 22. I don’t have to smoke grass to relax in that way, but I got in contact with the part of me that could relax. I didn’t know you were supposed to relax or that it was any good or anything would come of it [laughing].
I was a terribly restless child, and I was so irritated with being a child that I was just busy all the time. I was writing up a storm by the time I was eight or nine years old. And when I started to smoke grass, simply the fact that these drugs stupefied you allowed me to know something about what it was like to hibernate a little bit now and then. And that was a lesson that my nervous system learned. But it didn’t change my style. That’s why I say that things like writing come from something much stronger.
What I’m trying to say is that one writes out of many things. You write out of what you admire. But you can and do exhaust influences. When I was 16 years old, my passions were Gerard Manley Hopkins and Djuna Barnes, among others. What I want to do is get away from whatever I learned from those two writers.
What was the first book that — vocational interest aside — really thrilled you?
The first book was Madame Curie by her daughter. I must have been seven or eight years old when I read it; I was reading when I was three. The first novel that affected me was Les Misérables. I sobbed and wailed and thought they were the greatest things.
Then much later, when I was about 13, it was Mann and Joyce and Eliot and Kafka and Gide — mostly Europeans. I didn’t discover American literature until much later. I discovered a lot of writers in the Modern Library editions, which were sold in a Hallmark-card store, and I used to save up my allowance and would buy them all. I even bought real lemons like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations [laughing]. I thought everything in the Modern Library must be great.
Most people have a very nearsighted and conventional view of American fiction and poetry and tend to forget about the writings of Mina Loy, Link Gillespie, Harry Crosby, Paul Goodman and Laura Riding, for example.
Well, you’ve mentioned two people who have been models for me. Goodman’s Johnson stories — one of the major accomplishments of 20th-century American literature — and Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories really set a standard of writing. Almost nobody knows about this work and nobody’s doing anything as good now.
When I started writing in the early Sixties, I was defending the ”modern,” particularly in literature, because the prevailing approach was very philistine. And for about 10 years, the views I espoused became more and more common. But during the past five years, it’s not as if people have gone back to the position they had before; it’s worse. Before, they didn’t like this stuff because they were ignorant. They didn’t even know about it. Now they don’t like it because they think they know something about it and feel superior to it. So you have to defend Schönberg or Joyce or Merce Cunningham.
There’s a meanspiritedness regarding high-modern art now that’s so discouraging that I don’t even feel like entering the fray in the essay form. I thought that by the end of the Sixties, the battle had been won, but it was a very transient victory. You could say that the reason for this is that people have had enough, that they need to rest awhile. But I wonder, I wonder: Why should they be allowed to rest?
Speaking about influential books, I’ve often thought that, in their different ways, Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno are both about illness and love — almost as if the latter were an ambiguous, graceful and ironic commentary on and antidote to the weight and portentousness of the former. Now, you’ve just written about illness, but, unlike Stendhal, you haven’t yet written about love.
It takes courage to write about love, because you seem to be writing about yourself and then one feels embarrassed, as if people will know something about you that you don’t want them to know. Even if I’m not writing about myself, people will take it that that’s what I’m doing, so I’m shy about it. But I’ve been taking notes on an essay on love for many years. It’s an old, old passion.
It’s interesting that you mention shyness, since you seem much more open verbally than you used to be. When I reread your essay ”Trip to Hanoi,” I came across the lines: ”I long for someone to be indiscreet here, to talk about his personal life, his emotions. To be carried away by ‘feeling.”’ And in the second part of the essay you begin to comprehend North Vietnam as if it were a previously opaque work of art that had now become transparent to you. And you understood it better as a work of art.
The reason why I waited until the second part of the essay to write what I did was that I felt it was important to acknowledge that the Vietnamese are different from us. I don’t like this liberal family-of-man idea that we’re really all the same. I think there really are cultural differences, and it’s very important to be sensitive to those things. It seemed like learning a kind of respect for the world. The world is complicated; it can’t all be reduced to the way you think it should be.
You mentioned in the essay that you had just recently visited Cuba, and the Cubans were much more like us — manic, intimate, talkative — and that the Vietnamese were much more formal, measured and controlled. To me, it seemed as if you were describing the difference between a film by, say, Pagnol or Renoir and one by Bresson. If these two societies were movies, you would probably have accepted both immediately.
Absolutely right, you’re on to something that’s very essential to me. Of course, I’m much more provincial in my life than in the way I understand what is represented as art. I really do like intimacy — intimacy of a Jewish kind, to put it in a code way. I like people who talk a lot, who talk about themselves, who are warm and physically demonstrative.
I don’t have to live in a Bresson or a Pagnol film, and I do have to live in my life. When I’m thinking about films or anything else, I’m thinking about the world, and then I’m perfectly comfortable with the idea that there should be some people doing it like this and other people doing it like that.
When you think about love as a subject, and also a feeling, do you do so in the open way you appreciate films, or the reticent and slightly more narrow way you say you live your life?
The real change for me was that Vietnam essay, because that’s the first time I ever wrote about myself at all — even though very timidly — and I did it as a conscious sacrifice. I thought, I don’t want to write about myself, I just want to write about them. But when I realized that the best way that I could write about them was to include myself, then it was like a sacrifice. And it changed me. I realized I could have a certain freedom as a writer, which I never thought I even wanted, and I have gingerly begun to explore that freedom in some of my stories that are autobiographical.
Writing about the immolation of Norman Morrison, you suggest that the Vietnamese viewed it, not in terms of practical efficacy, but in terms of the ”moral success of his deed, its completeness as an act of self-transcendence.” Strangely, that’s what you were writing about in your essay on the aesthetics of silence, and I felt that in your Vietnam essay, art and life were somehow coming together a bit.
Well, I think they are. And in my illness book, they come together in a certain way because it’s a product of a very passionate experience. The place where I hope they come together most is in my fiction. And when I had to proofread the stories from I, etcetera, I was struck by the fact that they seemed to me as a reader, not as the writer of them, to have a theme in common — which is the search for self-transcendence, the enterprise of trying to become a different or a better or a nobler or a more moral person.
I’d like to get back to your stories later. But to return to the idea of reticence versus openess….
It’s so complicated because I do have — and I don’t know whether it’s any good as an idea — but I do have in my head an idea about being a child and being an adult. I turn those notions around and around, and sometimes I think, there’s no difference, this is a completely artificial distinction. We shouldn’t try to impose any idea about what we should do that depends on whether we feel something is childlike or adultlike. And I have fantasies about childhood — not the childhood that I personally had but the values represented in the child’s innocence and vulnerability and sensitivity to things, and I think, how terrible that we don’t preserve those qualities as adults.
So I have all these notions, along with completely contradictory ones that I’m always wrestling with. In fact, just this morning, when I was at the hospital, a friend came with me and somehow our conversation, while I was waiting to be seen by the doctor, turned precisely on this theme. I was saying, ”Well, I’m an adult. I should behave like this.” And my idea of adult behavior, in that context, was that I should be independent and shouldn’t be afraid. So adulthood represented very positive values — nothing like the romantic loss of imagination or the sense of drying up or petrifying.
I’m trying to say that I think our ideas of love are terribly bound up in our ambivalence about these two conditions — childhood and adulthood. And, I think that, for many people, love signifies a return to values that are represented by childhood. I mean, love is sensuality and play and irresponsibility and hedonism and being silly, and it gets to be thought of in terms of dependence and becoming weaker and getting into some kind of emotional slavery and treating the loved one as some kind of parent figure or sibling. You reproduce a part of what you were as a child when you weren’t free and were completely dependent on your parents.
We ask everything of love. We ask it to be anarchic. We ask it to be the glue that holds the family together, that allows society to be orderly and allows all kinds of material processes to be transmitted from one generation to another.
Why do people want to be in love? That’s really interesting. Partly, they want to be in love the way you want to go on a roller coaster again — even knowing you’re going to have your heart broken. What fascinates me about love is what it has to do with all the cultural expectations and the values that have been put into it.
I’ve always been amazed by the people who say, ”I fell in love and I had this affair.” And then a lot of stuff is described and you ask, ”How long did it last?” And the person will then say, ”A week.” I’ve never been in love for less than a couple of years. I’ve been in love very few times in my life, but whenever I’ve been in love, it’s something that’s gone on and on and ended up — usually, of course — in some disaster. But I don’t know what it means to be in love for a week.
When I say I’ve been in love, that means that I’ve actually had a whole life with that person; we’ve lived together, we’ve been lovers, we’ve traveled, we’ve done things. I’ve never been in love with anybody I haven’t slept with, but I know lots of people who say they’ve been in love with someone they haven’t slept with. To me, what they’re saying is: ”I was attracted to somebody, I had a fantasy, and in a week the fantasy was over.” But I know I’m wrong, because it’s just a limit on my own imagination.
What about platonic love?
Of course, I have loved people passionately whom I wouldn’t have slept with for anything, but I think that’s something else. That’s friendship-love, which can be a tremendously passionate emotion, but it certainly doesn’t mean you want to take off your clothes with that person.
Certain friendships can be erotic.
Oh, I think friendship is very erotic, but it isn’t necessarily sexual. I think all my relationships are erotic: I can’t imagine being fond of somebody I don’t want to touch or hug, so therefore there’s always an erotic aspect to some extent. But, I don’t know, maybe I’m again speaking out of my own sexuality, but I’m not attracted to that many people.
What about Stendhal’s notion of love?
I’m fascinated by Love, because it’s one of the few books that we have on the subject, but I think he was so much involved with who people were —… you know, this was the countess of such and such and here she was in her clothes and there she was in her drawing room and there she was with her husband and there with the ambassador, etcetera. Don’t you feel you’re turned on by people who are famous?
Not really, because I’m more attracted to people who are childlike, and anyone can be like that.
A famous person is always eager to tell you how he or she is really a vulnerable little child, haven’t you noticed [laughing]? They’re so tired of being treated as formidable that they’ll tell you quicker than anybody else.
You don’t do that, and you’re certainly formidable.
Yes, I do. But we don’t know each other in that way. With people I want to get close to, I immediately try to explain that I’m just like a child. One does want to stop talking sometimes, and if you’re well known, people expect you to be performing or talking all the time or displaying your personality. I meet a lot of people who know who I am before I know who they are. So if a person interests me as a friend or lover or companion or pal, I want to introduce them to a creatural, silent person whom that other person doesn’t feel nervous about. I like the silence that’s transparent so that another person can see behind it.
I also don’t want to do the thing that I notice some people do — particularly smart people — and this is just to completely split off, so that they say, ”Well, don’t pay any attention to these books I write… it’s just little me.” I would rather talk about what interests me.
Paul Goodman used to write about boys he was attracted to who weren’t interested in his concerns at all.
I wish I could feel that… but there’s that famous problem of breakfast.
What problem is that?
The problem about what you do the next morning. What do you talk about? I mean, you have this revelation: you’ve spent the night with somebody, you’re having breakfast together, and you realize that this person is only interesting to you sexually and that neither of you has anything in common. What do you do?
I try to avoid those kinds of nights and mornings.
As a man, you’ve been told that that’s part of male sexuality, that it’s okay to have a relationship that is purely sexual. But women aren’t told that. If I find myself at breakfast with an idiot, I feel embarrassed. I feel — and that’s part of the feminine condition — that I’ve been exploitative. And then I feel, ”Well, men do that with women and they don’t feel embarrassed.” But I do; I feel as if I’m slumming. Male sexuality has been built on slumming.
I think that women, culturally, exercise an inhibiting force on men sexually. No heterosexual man can be as promiscuous as a homosexual man, because he still has to deal with women, who demand a little more than just two and a half minutes someplace.
They might even want breakfast in the morning [laughing].
They might even want breakfast in the morning…. I have a homosexual friend who said to me: ”I feel I’ve repressed my heterosexuality, but I’m so afraid that if I’d start being with women, I wouldn’t have as much sex.” Sex is a habit like anything else, and you can get used to a certain quantity of absolutely impersonal, easily procurable sex that lasts two and a half minutes.
I think the sexual impulse is infinitely malleable. It seems unlikely that people don’t go through periods of general withdrawal from and resurgence of sexual feeling. That incessant pursuit isn’t about sex, it’s about power.
So sex becomes a kind of metaphor.
It becomes terribly loaded. There seems to be a real connection between sex and cruelty. Think of all the ways in which sex is fed by the impulse to be powerful. And it sometimes seems to be a culturally sanctioned way of combating feelings of insecurity, unworthiness or unattractiveness.
One family therapist stated that there are either symmetrical or complementary relationships — the marriage of true minds or the marriage of dependency, so to speak.
By those standards, there must be one percent of one percent of one percent of symmetrical relationships in the world. All these ideas that we have about the family and love and relationships are only a couple hundred years old. You know, people have this terrible metaphor about a relationship working — as if a relationship is a machine. We’re filled with this imagery and these sorts of expectations. I mean, do family therapists talk about the built-in inequalities that are orchestrated by the culture concerning male and female and older and younger persons? What does it mean to have an equal relationship between a man and a woman in this society? Most people would be satisfied with something that is not equal at all. You talked about ”the marriage of true minds,” but one mind is staying home while the other mind is going to the office.
What about women who are in between that? What about yourself?
I was lucky enough to have a child and be married when I was very young. I did it and now I don’t have to do it anymore. But that’s not an example. I chose not to be married anymore, and then I already had a child, so I wasn’t going to miss out on this great experience of being a mother, and then I decided to live a freelance life, which has a lot of insecurities and unpleasantness and anxiety and frustration.
Was this a conscious choice?
No, but I did have the idea that I’d like to have several lives, and it’s very hard to have several lives and then have a husband — at least the kind of marriage that I had, which was incredibly intense; we were together all the time. And you can’t live with someone on a twenty-four-hour-a-day basis, never be separated for years and years and have the same freedom to grow and change and fly off to Hong Kong if you feel like it… it’s irresponsible. That’s why I say that somewhere along the line, one has to choose between the Life and the Project.
You’re a well-known writer, but you seem to have avoided becoming a ”media” celebrity.
There’s a story about Cocteau going to see Proust, who was already working in his cork-lined room. Cocteau brought him some of his early work, and Proust said: ”You clearly could be a great writer, but you must be careful about society. You mustn’t go out, or go out a little, but don’t make it a main part of your life.” I’m not saying that one has to be in a cork-lined room, but I think that one has to have enormous discipline. And the vocation of a writer, like that of a painter, is in some deep way antisocial.
Coming back to what you said before, however, I don’t think sexuality is a metaphor, but an activity that has been invested with all of these spiritual values. There hardly seems to be anything that is purely sexual: it’s overloaded with other forms of affirmation and destruction that you are declaring when you engage in a sexual act. We’ve been instructed that it’s the central or only natural activity of our lives. That’s nonsense. I mean, it’s very hard to imagine what natural sexuality could be. I don’t think it’s available to any of us.
Sexuality is a much bigger, more anarchic thing than one imagines, and that’s why, throughout human history, it’s been the subject of so much regulation. I don’t think people understand why there’s been this problem of repression. I would turn it around and say that the reason most societies have been repressive about sexuality is that people have understood that it can get out of control and can be completely destructive.
Four months after we started this interview, I called you in New York to ask when we could complete it, and you said,” We should do it soon because I may change too much.” That surprised me.
Why? It seems so natural [laughing]. I feel I’m changing all the time, and that’s something that’s hard to explain to people, because a writer is supposed to be either engaging in self-expression or else doing work to convince or change people along the lines of his or her views. And I don’t feel that either of those models makes much sense for me. I mean, I write partly in order to change myself; it’s an instrument I use.
In your story ”Debriefing,” you talk about the desire to ”change your feelings altogether, like getting your blood pumped out and replaced.” And in ”Old Complaints Revisited,” the protagonist says: ”You can’t become other than what you are. Only more or less what you are. You can’t walk over your own feet.” Throughout I, etcetera, characters are trying to become someone else, someone ”other.”
Yes, but not in the sense of a specific other or of the ”opposite,” but rather in the sense of changing your life, of waking up. I hate the feeling that I’m just executing what I already know or have already imagined. I like to not know where I’m going, and at the same time to be quite a way down the road. I don’t like to be at the beginning, but I don’t like to see the end, either.
You like to be in the middle.
Yes, I always feel I’m in the middle, more toward the beginning than the end. I always have the impression that the work is apprentice work, and that if I can just finish it, then afterward I’ll really do something good.
Bach said that when he was performing with a group of instrumentalists, he preferred playing the alto or tenor parts because he could listen to the more individualized soprano and bass lines. So by being in the middle, he could really hear what was going on around him.
That’s so interesting about Bach. I think it’s wonderful. There’s an active notion of neutrality that people don’t understand. Transcendent neutrality isn’t an attitude of ”I won’t take sides,” it’s compassion. Where you do see more than just what separates people or sides.
In your story ”Project for a Trip to China,” you wrote: ”Travel as accumulation. The colonialism of the soul, any soul, however well-intentioned.” And in another story, ”Unguided Tour,” we read: ”I don’t want to know more than I know, don’t want to get more attached to [famous places] more than I already am.” In your essay ”The Aesthetics of Silence,” you said that ”efficacious art work leaves silence in its wake.” And in another essay, ”Against Interpretation,” you wrote: ”To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of ”meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world…. The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.”
I didn’t know this, I must tell you. I had no idea that I’d been saying the same thing since I started writing. It’s amazing, but I almost don’t want to think about it too much because something might happen to the material in my head. Most of what I do is so intuitive and unpremeditated and not at all that kind of cerebral, calculating thing that people imagine it to be. See, I’ve always thought of the essays and the fiction as dealing with very different themes, and I’ve been irritated by carrying what I thought to be a double burden of two very different kinds of activity. It’s only quite recently, because it’s been forced on my attention, that I realized the extent to which the essays and the fiction share the same themes, make the same kinds of assertions or nonassertions. It’s almost frightening to me to discover how unified they are.
Film critic André Bazin believed photography could strip from the world ”that spiritual dust and grime with which our eyes have covered it.” Sure, I talk about that in the fourth essay of On Photography — the notion that photography gives you new eyes, cleanses your vision.
And this connects with the idea of disburdening oneself.
I think that the idea of various notions of disburdenment are probably central to my work, beginning with my novel The Benefactor. I mean, what is it but an ironic, comic story about a kind of Candide who, instead of looking for the best of all possible worlds, searches for some clear state of consciousness, for a way in which he could be properly disburdened. It’s there also in those half-comic, half-straight reflections of this eccentric narrator. And I notice now that there are things about photography, too, in The Benefactor.
In On Photography, you use certain verbs over and over in referring to photography, among them: to package, to appropriate, to aggress, to patronize, to imprison, to consume, to collect, to colonialize.
But a lot of other words too: fascinate, haunt, entrance, inspire, delight. The word aggression, which a lot of people have picked on… for me to say that something is aggressive is, in and of itself, not a bad thing. I thought that was understood, but now I realize this is a word that, quite hypocritically, people have made very pejorative. I say hypocritically because this society is involved in colossal aggressions against nature, against all sorts of orders of being. I mean, to live is an aggression. I think there are particular heightenings of a certain kind of characteristically modern form of aggressiveness that are represented in the use of the camera, as when you go up to someone and say ”stand still” and you take that person’s picture. They see something and they want to take it home, they collect the world. But I don’t want to be understood as suggesting that it’s photography that introduced appropriation, collecting and aggressiveness, or that without it there would be none of these things in the world.
Look, I love photographs. I don’t take them but I love them, I collect them, I’m fascinated by them …— it’s an old and very passionate interest. But I got interested in writing about photography because I saw that it was a central activity; it reflected all the complexities and contradictions and equivocations of this society.
In ”Old Complaints Revisited,” the narrator-protagonist is purposely never defined as being either male or female. In a recent interview, I.B. Singer says: ”If you are going to write, let’s say, a cosmopolitan novel and write just about a human being, you will never succeed. Because there isn’t such a thing as just a human being.”’ Your story, however, seems to disprove Singer’s statement. ”Old Complaints Revisited” plays with the notion that it isn’t so important to be specific because the real specificity lies in the use of multiple references. In the same way, my story ”Baby” plays with the notion that you can have a first-person-plural narrator, and it doesn’t matter which is the mother and which is the father talking to the psychiatrist, because they talk as one. They’re Siamese-twin parents.
What I really would have liked, of course — but grammar locks you into these stereotypes — would have been to refer to the child as ”it” instead of ”he.”
I remember that when David was born, my husband and I used to say, ”The baby, how’s the baby?” Because it wasn’t ”David” yet. I don’t know whether it’s during the third or fourth or sixth month, or maybe when the baby begins to use language, that it becomes appropriate to use the name. But since I decided that the child in my story was supposed to be the child at all ages — babyhood, adolescence, early adulthood — I couldn’t say ”it.” It would have been too odd, and I had to choose. So I made it a ”he,” but I hated doing so. ”Baby” is one of my more autobiographical stories, and it draws on incidents from my own childhood, from my son’s childhood, and the rest is made up. So I could play both the victimized child and the monster parent. I think I’ve been a good parent, but I know that parents are also monsters and are experienced correctly by their children that way. They’re so much bigger; when you’re a small child, your parents are giants! So I had to face up to all those complicated feelings in a nonsimplified way: my feeling of victimization as a child, which every child understands, and my also having been a parent. And then just let those feelings run.
In ”Project for a Trip to China,” you talk of your own ”desert childhood.”
I had a completely rootless childhood. In fact, I lived in many different places when I was a child. There was one place, however, that made the greatest impression on me, and that was southern Arizona. That’s imaginatively my childhood. The rest of my so-called childhood was spent in L.A. I went to North Hollywood high school.
There are all these geographical oppositions that people set up, between California and New York, between Northern and Southern California, between New York and Paris.
But I like that. I like living in two places at once, New York and Paris. That’s the way I’ve tried to lead my life during the past ten years, ever since I’ve had the freedom to.
But you seem to have an affinity with French life and culture.
Sure I do. I did. That’s how I ended up there to begin with. I had an imaginary France in my head that consisted of Valéry and Flaubert and Baudelaire and Gide. I knew that that was the past, but I liked being on the site, in that beautiful architecture where these things had happened, and hearing that language.
People think that I’m a New Yorker, but I only arrived here when I was 26 …— and I came very much in the spirit of Masha finally getting to Moscow. I’d always wanted to live in New York and I found that finally I was going to get to do it. I’m a New Yorker by choice, by election. In terms of this moral geography we’re talking about, I, as I said, prefer New York with, let’s say, access to the Mediterranean or to California. I couldn’t live 12 months or even 10 months a year in New York. This is a totally artificial life. But so what? You have to create your own space which has a lot of silence in it and a lot of books.
This discussion reminds me of the cliché that culture is a function of geography.
People define themselves to an amazing degree by their ideas of place. I met a woman recently in Indiana — a very interesting, intelligent woman who’s lived there for many years — and she decided finally to move east. And she said: ”Well, I think the right city for me would be Boston. It’s east, and it’s got a lot of things, it’s close to Europe, and New York would be too much.”
This is totally on the level of myth. She defines herself as a woman who can make the move from Indiana to Boston, but not from Indiana to Manhattan because that’s a much bigger move. In fact, it’s not.
But I know what she means.
But it’s based on a myth, a myth that’s so alive.
But you yourself, feeling drawn to California and New York, still prefer one over the other and are therefore involved with that myth.
Yes, but I’m involved in it perhaps to a second degree. When I say that I like to live in New York, I mean that I like to live in a place where people have chosen to be. It’s a world capital and the cultural capital of the country. For better or worse, it is. There are more people here doing things than in any other single place.
When I first came to New York, I must tell you that I did feel that New Yorkers were all short, rude, mean. I was very used to Western friendliness, hospitality, kindness. The way I talk, moreover, the way I smile a lot, is very Californian. The way I’m not defensive or guarded or suspicious of people.
Yet in ”Project for a Trip to China,” you wrote: ”Somewhere, some place inside myself, I am detached.”
I don’t identify completely with the voices in the story, but it’s true I’ve been hiding out at different times in my life, fearful of the world because people were going to tell me to stop doing what I was doing with my work. And I didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t even want to be bothered by those cues. Many people ask me, particularly women: ”How come you didn’t get discouraged?” And I feel that I never did because I never listened to that message. But in order not to hear it, I certainly must have had my hearing apparatus turned off in some way. So if detached, detached only in the sense that I instinctively protected myself against things that could have discouraged me.
In ”Unguided Tour,” you wrote: ”How far from the beginning are we? When did we first start to feel the wound? … This staunchless wound, the great longing for another place. To make this place another.” This suggests, in microcosm, a lot of what we’ve been talking about.
That’s why that story is the end of I, etcetera.
But I want to connect it to the beginning of that book. In the first story, you wrote: ”To be good one must be simpler. Simpler, as in a return to origins.” The Austrian critic Karl Kraus wrote, ”Origin is our goal.” Is it yours?
I don’t want to return to my origins. I think my origins are just a starting point. My sense of things is that I’ve come very far. And it’s the distance I have from my origins that pleases me. That’s because I have this rootless childhood and an extremely fragmented family. I don’t have anything to go back to. I can’t imagine what I’d find.
I think of myself as self-created — that’s my working illusion. I never was anybody’s disciple or protégé, it wasn’t because I was somebody’s lover or wife or daughter that I ”made my career.” I don’t think it’s awful to accept help. If you can get help, fine. But I like the fact that I did it myself. It excited me.
In fact, I have a persistent fantasy of stopping writing, disappearing and then starting all over again under a pseudonym, who no one would know was Susan Sontag. It would be wonderful to start again and not have the burden of the work that’s already done. I think I’d probably do things a little differently … and maybe not. Maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe if I’d publish something under the name of … whatever, everyone would roar with laughter and say that’s obviously Susan Sontag, because I can’t write in any way that would not be easily recognizable. But I just want to say that my notion is very much that of going further and further, of new beginnings and of not going back to origins.
Rolling Stone, October 4, 1979