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Posts Tagged ‘interview’

11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Susan Sontag on How the False Divide Between Pop Culture and “High” Culture Limits Us

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“There are contradictory impulses in everything.”

“If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky,” Susan Sontag wrote in the preface to the 30th-anniversary edition of her cultural classic Against Interpretation, then mischievously asked, “But do I have to choose? … Happenings did not make me care less about Aristotle and Shakespeare. I was — I am — for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture.” This demolition of the false divide between “high” and “low” culture has since had its ample exponents, most recently and convincingly Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus in his fantastic 2013 SVA commencement address. But Sontag remains arguably the greatest patron saint of this “pluralistic, polymorphous” view of culture.

In 1978, Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott interviewed Sontag in twelve hours of conversation, beginning in Paris and continuing in New York, only a third of which was published in the magazine. Now, more than three decades later and almost a decade after Sontag’s death, the full, wide-ranging magnificence of their tête-à-tête, spanning from literature and philosophy to illness and mental health to music and art, is at last released in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library).

Cott marvels at what made the dialogue especially extraordinary:

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.

Susan Sontag on art: Diary excerpts illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

As remarkable as the entire conversation is, however, one of its most rewarding tangents is Sontag’s meditation on the osmosis between intellectualism and pop culture, her resistance to that enduring, toxic divide between the two, and her conviction in expounding the pluralism of culture — something Cott likens to “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.”

But the part that resonates most deeply with me, as a lover of history and of consistently celebrating that fertile intersection of the timeless and the timely, is Sontag’s eloquent insistence upon the value of history as the petri dish of our becoming — something legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli echoed decades later in his meditation on intellectual elegance, where he argued that “a designer without a sense of history is worth nothing,” an insight that can be extrapolated to just about any discipline of creative and intellectual endeavor. Sontag tells Cott:

I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period — and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure. We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular historical moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.

The Histomap by John Sparks, 1931, from 'Cartographies of Time: A Visual History of the Timeline.' Click image for details.

When Cott asks her how she thinks Patti Smith would relate to this notion herself — a remarkable musician celebrated as the Godmother of Punk, who also writes beautiful poetry, is enamored with Virginia Woolf, and reveres William S. Burroughs — Sontag answers:

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, and where we are culturally has these roots. There’s no incompatibility between observing the world and being tuned into this electronic, multimedia, multi-tracked, McLuhanite world and enjoying what can be enjoyed. I love rock and roll. Rock and roll changed my life. . . .

Further in the conversation, while discussing one of her essays, Sontag introduces another dimension:

It seems to be quite convincing to argue that Buddhism is the highest spiritual moment of humanity. It seems clear to me that rock and roll is the greatest movement of popular music that’s ever existed. If somebody asks me if I like rock and roll, I tell them that I love rock and roll. Or if you ask me if Buddhism is an incredible moment of human transcendence and profundity, I would say yes. 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 DeadTexas Chainsaw Massacre sensibility that feeds into that. On the one hand, you’re talking about the cultural situation and the impulses people are getting from it, and on the other, you’re talking about what the thing is. And I don’t feel it’s a contradiction. I’m certainly not going to give up on rock and roll. I’m not going to say that because kids are walking around in their vampire makeup or wearing swastikas therefore this music is no good, which is the square, conservative judgment that’s so much in the ascendant now. That’s easy to say because most people who make those judgments, of course, know nothing about the music, aren’t attracted to it, and have never been moved viscerally or sensually or sexually by it. Any more than I want to give up on my admiration for Buddhism because of what’s happened to it in California or Hawaii. Everything is always abused, and then one is always trying to disentangle things.

Curiously, Sontag’s premise seems to be the opposite of what she argues in Against Interpretation — there is no “high” or “low” culture, no “good” or “bad,” only our interpretations and whatever cultural purpose we extract from them. She seals this notion with one final example:

To take the traditional example, and it’s the one that precedes all the examples we use from contemporary popular culture: Nietzsche. Nietzsche really was an inspiration for Nazism, and there are things in his writings that seem to prefigure and support the Nazi ideology.

But I’m not going to give up on him because of that, though I’m also not going to deny that things could be developed in that way.

[…]

There are contradictory impulses in everything, and you have to keep directing your attention to what is contradictory and try to sort these things out and to purify them.

Ultimately, however, the greatest peril of the false high/low divide is that it robs a writer — a person — of being able to absorb the vibrant wholeness and multiplicity of life with complete awareness, to be fully present with the world and attentive to all of its dimensions. Sontag captures this beautifully, adding to her collected wisdom on writing, when she tells Cott:

Giving full attention to the world, which includes you … that’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world. Because I’m very against this solipsistic notion that you find it all in your head. You don’t, there really is a world that’s there whether you’re in it or not.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is ineffably brilliant in its entirety. Complement it with Sontag on literature and freedom, the four people every writer must be, photography and aesthetic consumerism, writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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16 OCTOBER, 2013

What Makes a Great Interview

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“True storytellers write not because they can but because they have to. There is something they want to say about the world that can only be said in a story.”

Perhaps because it blends the transfixing allure of voyeurism with the intricacy of introspection, the art of the interview is among the most elusive of journalistic feats. In How to Read a Novelist (public library) — a magnificent collection of conversations with 55 literary icons, including David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood — celebrated writer and book critic John Freeman showcases the interview’s most commanding incarnation as he sets out “to describe an encounter, to show to the reader what the writer revealed to me, at their own choosing, over an hour or two or three, sometimes more, of conversation.”

Freeman, who belongs to that generation of “silent” interviewers ushered in by the Paris Review revolution, frames the appeal of literary interviews against the backdrop of a necessary caveat:

It was a breach of everyone’s privacy when a reader turns to a writer, or a writer’s books, for vicariously learned solutions to his own life problems. This is the fallacy behind every interview or biographical sketch, to tether a writer’s life too literally to his work, or to insist that a novel function as a substitute for actually living through the mistakes a person must live through in order to learn how to properly, maybe even happily, survive.

And yet he speaks to the peculiar mesmerism of so breaching a writer’s privacy in particular:

I have always felt there is something electrifying about meeting novelists. It isn’t like running into a celebrity, where your eye readjusts to the true physical contours of someone seen primarily on-screen. It has to do with grasping that the creator of a fictional world, a universe that lives inside you as a reader while also feeling strangely disembodied, is not as interior as that world but alive: flesh and blood.

Freeman, however, is wary of the observer-expectancy effect that inevitably filters into each such conversation as the interviewer, being human and thus an embodiment of Hunter S. Thompson’s contention that “there is no such thing as Objective Journalism,” inevitably bends it through the prism of his own experience:

An interview [is] a form of conversation that has the same relationship to talking as fiction does to life. In order to work, fiction must abide by a set of rules it defines for itself, even if invisibly, and if an interview is to flow like a chat between two people it, too, must follow a set of conventions, some of them quite contradictory to how we are taught to interact naturally. Namely, that the interviewer asks all of the questions, offers pieces of information only for the purpose of stimulating more from the subject, and, primarily, that neither party calls attention to the artificiality of what is happening.

There is, however, a powerful antidote to this peril, one that sets the masterful interviewer apart. One thing Freeman’s fantastic interviews reveal, by virtue of contrast, is the insidiousness of online Q&A masquerading as interviews — those formulaic exchanges, most often conducted via email, that attempt to fit their subject into a template of compulsory questions, portending to reveal something meaningful about the complexity and inner workings of a singular mind while squeezing it into this one-size-fits-all model. The richness of the truly revelatory interview, of course, comes from those unplanned meanderings between planned questions, which unfold through the art of conversation and not though the dutiful adherence to a template.

Indeed, Freeman found himself with a gradually dwindling list of prepared questions as he began to really listen to his subjects, rather than dictating the course of the conversations:

I began arriving at interviews having read the books but without a single question in hand. This forced me to listen to people’s answers, and it meant we could have an actual conversation, with all the unpredictability and freshness of a good one.

In a way, then, a great interview abides by the third of legendary artist Richard Diebenkorn’s 10 rules of painting: “Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.” It is perhaps no coincidence that we find a beautiful symmetry between the art of the interview and the art of fiction — this supremacy of the intuitive over the intentional is also something Freeman finds as a steady undercurrent beneath all of his subjects’ work, the answer to the quintessential question of why writers write. He puts it beautifully:

True storytellers write, I believe, not because they can but because they have to. There is something they want to say about the world that can only be said in a story.

Of course, specific motives and inclinations differ across authors. (Though, arguably, they all comply with Orwell’s model of the four universal motives.) Freeman writes:

For some novelists, like Toni Morrison or Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Louise Erdrich, this task of telling stories about a place has a political dimension; it is about making visible a history, a sensibility, which history has repressed or occluded. For other writers, like David Foster Wallace, the need to write grew from an obsession with language, and further dimensions of their work all developed from that originating fire. Some of these novelists, like Mark Danielewski or Susanna Clarke, were so new to publishing that what haunted them was still developing and they spoke of it warily, revising and thinking aloud. Others were so near the end of their career—such as Philip Roth or Norman Mailer—they had already begun to try to curate how their work was read after they stopped writing or living.

The one recurring theme of psychological drive, however, appears to be the impulse for unity and integration, for “making the disparate parts of the world, and [the writer's] experience, whole.” And so, once again, we arrive at Freeman’s mastery of the interview and insight into the form’s true role:

An interviewer’s job, I found, was not to close that gap — between here and there, between what was broken and what was whole — but to make it more mysterious.

His own role, however, he sees as one of necessary invisibility, made visible only through its steadfast implicit sensibility:

It would have felt grandiose to include much of myself in these pieces. I am there, I suppose, in the questions I ask and in the things I note. I am there in the tack I take through their books, and the quotes I chose to give the narrative of our encounter sail, as all interviewers must do, but the self I live in, the one made by factors accidental and chosen, remains, I hope, discrete. I have done this with the goal of making it easier for readers to step into the frame and imagine themselves there.

In this regard, the great interviewer is a sort of curator* of conversation, both absent and present. (* Suppose, for a moment, the word weren’t made as vacant of meaning by way of misuse and overuse, and still stood for something — stood for what it once used to designate, as in a museum curator who gently guides you along a theme of importance and interest.) This is something that sets apart not only today’s most exceptional interviewers, but also our time’s finest cultural “curators” — take, for instance, Andrew Sullivan, who highlights notable ideas from other publications, yet whose voice and sensibility are very much present and absolutely unmistakable even as his own extensive commentary is absent from most of his selections.

Freeman is also mindful of the novelist’s ever-fluid self — something Anaïs Nin articulated beautifully in 1946 — and this awareness informs his approach:

The only thing an interviewer can do to capture what a novelist truly does is to make them talk and tell stories, and think aloud. These are not meant to be definitive life profiles but rather glimpses spied through a moving window. Writers are always evolving, publishing, and they are also in constant direct or indirect dialogue with another.

(Coincidentally, at the recent New Yorker Festival, Jonathan Franzen affirmed this sentiment by noting, “I should have more conversations like this in public because it actually forces me to organize my thoughts.”)

One of Freeman’s keenest insights touches on the same immutable insecurity that drives writers’ notorious penchant for productivity rituals (“I have a theory [that] if you lead a very repetitious life, your imagination works very well,” Haruki Murakami tells Freeman), the famous writerly self-consciousness which drives even the greatest literary virtuosos to see their completed work as “a kind of miracle”:

Whether they have a Nobel or a Pulitzer, or a first novel ten years in the making, all of these novelists are still shocked, each time they finish, that it gets done at all. Perhaps that is why chance remains, aside from sheer effort, the most cited factor in how they discovered their voices.

Ultimately, however, it is at this interplay between doggedness and serendipity — something successful scientists welcome as “chance-opportunism” — that anchors writers to themselves:

In the end, it becomes impossible to separate the two forces from one another, just as it is so difficult, but necessary, to separate writers from their work. Their bodies are their bodies of work, and even the most prolific of them, like Updike, are driven against a dying of the light.

How to Read a Novelist goes on to employ this intricate art of the interview in unraveling the secrets of the craft and the essence of the writer’s soul, in all its uncontainable, template-resistant complexity. Complement it with the collected wisdom of literary greats.

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30 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Janis Joplin on Creativity and Rejection: Her Lost Final Interview, Rediscovered and Animated

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“You are what you settle for.”

On September 30, 1970, four days before her death, Janis Joplin gave her final interview, a profound conversation about creativity and rejection with Howard Smith of the Village Voice, found in the altogether fantastic The Smith Tapes Box Set — an archive of Smith’s restored interviews with such icons as John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Jane Fonda, James Taylor, Jerry Garcia, and more.

Smith and Joplin had been scheduled to speak in mid-August, but Janis, distraught over an eviscerating piece Rolling Stone had run about her — which included the assessment that her bountiful jewelry made her look like a “Babylonian whore” — canceled. When they eventually did speak, however, what emerged was a portrait of Joplin as a complex person brimming with the sort of inner contradictions that make us human — at once insecure yet full of conviction, opinionated yet concerned about offending, fierce yet tenderhearted.

Now, the fine folks of multimedia nonprofit Blank on Blank — who also gave us David Foster Wallace on ambition and Maurice Sendak on being a kid — have brought this bittersweet final conversation to life in their signature style of visual storytelling.

You are what you settle for. You are only as much as you settle for.

The interview was aired four days after Joplin’s death.

Complement with Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin (public library), the excellent biography of one of our era’s most influential musicians and most tragic cultural icons. Also of note is the memoir-biography Love, Janis (public library) by Joplin’s younger sister, Laura.

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