Saturday, February 22, 2014


Susan Sontag, 1933-2004

"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.""

– from Jonathan Cott's preface to the new Yale University Press edition of his 1978 interview with Susan Sontag. About one-third of this text was originally published as a Rolling Stone interview, but the complete transcript has never been published before. 

Henry James, 1843-1916

It was not so much that Sontag shaped my own taste as a  young person. She couldn't do that. My aversion to outside influence in basic matters of taste was always very strong (even neurotically strong). What she did seem to authorize – when I began reading her as a teenager  was a level of serious, informed passion about the arts that was otherwise absent from pop culture, then as now.  

What follows here appears further along in the body of the printed interview  

"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 ten years, the views that 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 held 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 actually have to defend Schönberg or Joyce or Merce Cunningham."

"There's a mean-spiritedness regarding high-modern art now that's so discouraging that I don't even feel like entering the fray in essay form. I really had the feeling that by the end of the sixties the battle had been won, but it was a very transient victory. When I hear someone telling me that they don't like Dostoevsky because he's so chaotic, I say, Wait a minute! You could say that the reason for this is that people have had enough, that they need to rest for awhile. But I wonder, I wonder:  Why should they be allowed to rest?"

Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1821-1881