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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’

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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28 OCTOBER, 2013

Letter to Borges: Susan Sontag on Books, Self-Transcendence, and Reading in the Age of Screens

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“Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence.”

In October of 1982, 83-year-old Jorge Luis Borges, who at that point had been blind for nearly 30 years, gathered sixty of his closest friends and admirers at a special dinner in New York. Susan Sontag was there. Speaking to a reporter covering the event, she captured the enormity of Borges’s spirit and significance with her signature eloquent precision, saying: “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer … Very few writers of today have not learned from him or imitated him.”

Borges died four years later.

On the 10th anniversary of his death, Sontag revisited her admiration for his work and the enormity of his cultural legacy in a short and beautiful essay titled “Letter to Borges,” penned on June 13, 1996, and included in the altogether fantastic 2001 collection Where the Stress Falls: Essays (public library).

Sontag begins the letter, the proposition of which she deems not “too odd” since Borges’s literature has always been “placed under the sign of eternity,” with a sublime paean to his genius and humility:

You were very much the product of your time, your culture, and yet you knew how to transcend your time, your culture, in ways that seem quite magical. This had something to do with the openness and generosity of your attention. You were the least egocentric, the most transparent of writers, as well as the most artful. It also had something to do with a natural purity of spirit.

She considers him a wizard of time-warping and a masterful, respectful practitioner of the art of remix who brought to the inevitable borrowing of ideas a kind of integrity the opposite of Coleridge’s unapologetic plagiarism and Duke Ellington’s uncredited appropriations:

You had a sense of time that was different from other people’s. The ordinary ideas of past, present, and future seemed banal under your gaze. You liked to say that every moment of time contains the past and the future, quoting (as I remember) the poet Browning, who wrote something like “the present is the instant in which the future crumbles into the past.” That, of course, was part of your modesty: your taste for finding your ideas in the ideas of other writers.

Above all, however, Sontag holds Borges as an essential antidote to the tortured-genius myth of literary success, an antidote which Ray Bradbury also embodied and Charles Bukowski championed in verse. She writes:

The serenity and the transcendence of self that you found are to me exemplary. You showed that it is not necessary to be unhappy, even while one is clear-eyed and undeluded about how terrible everything is. Somewhere you said that a writer — delicately you added: all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. (You were speaking of your blindness.)

But Sontag’s most timeless and soul-stirring meditation transcends Borges himself and extends into the magic of literature itself — a singular yet equally stirring articulation of Carl Sagan’s assertion that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic” and E. B. White’s proclamation that reading possesses “a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.” Sontag ends the essay with a poignant and prescient reflection on just what’s at stake if we turn away from books and reduce reading to a mechanized function of transient technologies:

Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the “real” everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that books are now considered an endangered species. By books, I also mean the conditions of reading that make possible literature and its soul effects. Soon, we are told, we will call up on “bookscreens” any “text” on demand, and will be able to change its appearance, ask questions of it, “interact” with it. When books become “texts” that we “interact” with according to criteria of utility, the written word will have become simply another aspect of our advertising-driven televisual reality. This is the glorious future being created, and promised to us, as something more “democratic.” Of course, it means nothing less than the death of inwardness — and of the book.

Sontag signs off by tying the two — the beauty of Borges and the beauty of books — back together with her signature blend of deeply personal reflection and universally resonant insight:

Dear Borges, please understand that it gives me no satisfaction to complain. But to whom could such complaints about the fate of books— of reading itself— be better addressed than to you? (Borges, it’s ten years!) All I mean to say is that we miss you. I miss you. You continue to make a difference. The era we are entering now, this twenty-first century, will test the soul in new ways. But, you can be sure, some of us are not going to abandon the Great Library. And you will continue to be our patron and our hero.

Complement this double dose of literary timelessness with a parallel reading of Borges on writing and Sontag on writing, then revisit Sontag’s wisdom on why lists appeal to us, literature and freedom, photography and aesthetic consumerism, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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22 OCTOBER, 2013

Susan Sontag on Literature and Freedom

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“Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.”

“The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world,” philosopher Judith Butler proclaimed in her fantastic 2013 commencement address on the value of reading, adding, “How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world?” A decade before Butler, Susan Sontag considered the role of literature — of reading, as well as of writing — in liberating us from our immediate limitations by anchoring us to a larger reality. In 2003, shortly before her death, she was awarded the Friedenspreis — the Peace Prize of the German book trade. In her sublime award acceptance speech, titled Literature and Freedom and published posthumously in the 2007 anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library) — which also gave us Sontag’s timeless wisdom on courage and resistance — she notes that much of her life has been “devoted to trying to demystify ways of thinking that polarize and oppose” and reflects:

One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counterstatements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.

More than that, she argues, the makers of literature — writers — have a certain responsibility in the weaving of the very myths to which we subscribe in seeking to understand the world’s aliveness, and weaving them in such a way that we find ourselves laced together rather than ripped apart:

Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference—for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but countermyths, just as life offers counterexperiences — experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.

Susan Sontag on art. Click image for details.

Echoing E. B. White’s fantastic 1969 meditation on the role and responsibility of the writer to elevate rather than lower down, Sontag gives us her exquisite definition of the ideal writer:

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted — made cynical, superficial — by this understanding.

Literature can tell us what the world is like.

Literature can give standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative.

Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.

Who would we be if we could not sympathize with those who are not us or ours? Who would we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than we are?

Sontag goes on to reflect on her friendship with the German editor and literary critic Fritz Arnold. Drafted into the German army during WWII while studying literature and art history in university, Arnold was captured by the Americans and sent to a prison camp in northern Arizona at the same time that Sontag was growing up in the southern part of the state. While she, an intense and anxious young girl who read constantly, was finding in books refuge and the promise of “escape into a larger reality,” he, a sensitive and literary young man, survived his three years as prisoner of war by “reading and rereading the English and American classics.” Sontag draws from the poetic symmetry the universal power of literature:

To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.

Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.

At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches is easily one of the finest essay anthologies in modern history, a stimulating and stirring read that lodges itself into your consciousness and reverberates across a lifetime. Complement it with Sontag on 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.

Donating = Loving

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