In 1978 Jonathan Cott, a contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine, interviewed Susan Sontag first in Paris and later in New York. Only a third of their twelve hours of discussion made it to print. Now Yale University Press has published a complete transcript of their conversation, accompanied by Cott’s preface and recollections. Sontag’s musings and observations reveal the passionate engagement and breadth of her critical intelligence at a moment when she was at the peak of her powers, and offer a revelatory and indispensable look at the self-described ‘besotted aesthete’ and ‘obsessed moralist’. We pick up their conversation as they discuss her seminal essay about writing.
JC: 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?
SS: I have to answer this in a more personal way. Ever since I began to think, I realized that the way I could understand things theoretically was to see their implications and their underlying metaphor or paradigm – that was a kind of understanding that was natural to me. When I first began to read philosophy when I was fourteen or fifteen, I remember that I’d be very struck by the metaphors, and I’d think, Well, if you had another metaphor, it would come out differently. I’ve always had that kind of agnosticism about metaphors. Long before I had any ideas about it myself, I know that as soon as I found the metaphor, then that was a way of saying, Well, that is the source of the thought, but I could see how one could use another one. I know that there are a lot of theories about this, but I don’t pay much attention to them because I’m much more following my instincts as a writer.
A lot of what interested me in modernist or avant-garde or experimental or what I just think of as good writing is a purification of metaphor. This stripped-down quality is what drew me to Beckett and Kafka. And when at one time I admired, more than I do now, French novelists like Robbe-Grillet, what appealed to me was their project, that idea of not having metaphors.
So when you talk of the purification of metaphors you mean the elimination of them.
In a way, yes, or at least an extreme skepticism towards them. Metaphors are central to thinking, but as you use them, you shouldn’t believe them – you should know that they’re a necessary fiction, or perhaps not a necessary fiction. I can’t imagine any thought that doesn’t have some implicit metaphors, but the fact that it does reveals its limits. And what attracts me is always a discourse that expresses that skepticism and goes beyond metaphors to something that is clean and transparent or that is, to use Barthes’s phrase, zero degree writing. Of course you can also go in the absolute opposite direction, as James Joyce did, and just pack as much as you can into language, but then it isn’t metaphor, you’re just playing with language itself and all the different meanings a word can have, as in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. But I know that when I see a metaphor like, let’s say, “The river went under the arches of a bridge like the fingers of a glove”… how’s that one? [laughing]
Well, when I see one like that I feel – and it’s a primitive and visceral feeling – as if I’ve been grabbed by the throat, I get a kind of short circuit in my head – I’ve got the river and I’ve got the glove, and one is interfering with the other. So I’m really talking about some fundamental kind of temperamental predilection on my part.
When you say, for example, ‘illness is a curse’, I see that as some kind of collapse of thinking – it’s a way of stopping thinking and just freezing people in certain attitudes.”
Now, in a way it sounds as if I’m ruling out all of poetry – look at Shakespeare’s sonnets. It isn’t that I’m against poetry – on the contrary, the two things I read most are poetry and art history. But insofar as there’s something called prose and insofar as there’s something called thinking, I think I go around and around the problem of what is a metaphor. It’s not like a simile: if you say something is like something, well, okay, it’s very clear what the differences are… although sometimes it’s not so clear because poetry can be so compact. But when you say, for example, “illness is a curse”, I see that as some kind of collapse of thinking – it’s a way of stopping thinking and just freezing people in certain attitudes. The intellectual project for me is, in fact, one of criticism – in the profound sense of criticism – in that one is inevitably involved in 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 so that you’re unclogging your thought, letting in air, and opening things out.
There’s a beautiful metaphor I’ve always loved by the Mexican writer Octavio Paz that goes: “In the poem, being and the desire for being come to terms for an instant, like the fruit and the lips.” To make the abstract so sensual is really a remarkable achievement.
Yes, I agree. But maybe the river-and-the-glove metaphor that I spoke about before bothers me because the river going under the bridge is already so sensual.
It’s ironical that the way you talk about metaphors suggests that in some sense they function much as cancers do!
[Laughing] Well, I certainly don’t want to use cancer as a metaphor. But perhaps you could say that a metaphor is an impacted simile. When you say, for example, it is like this, then your cards are on the table.
Look, I’m always thinking about what it is that’s necessary to write. It’s very hard for me to feel that all I want to do is to tell stories because I know too much to just want to do that. You can spend a thousand pages describing an afternoon, but what do you leave out and what do you include? We’re not naïve or bound by the conventions that writers were bound by in the past. So in the stories in I, etcetera, I was trying to do something else, something that would give a kind of necessity to the material. The simplest kind of necessity – it may be even in some ways the most effective – is the form of the fable. A fable is not a metaphor, a fable is a story with a moral…
But perhaps a parable would be another example.
Yes, let’s say a parable instead of a fable. The people I admire are ones who are struggling with the sense that what one writes should in some way be irrefutable. And I find that quality in Beckett, Kafka, Calvino, and Borges, as well as in a wonderful Hungarian writer named György Konrád.
What do you think of Nietzsche’s statement that truth is only the solidification of old metaphors? He was talking about how stereotypes and clichés become the truth of the world.
But that’s the truth in a very ironical sense. This may be my limitation – and it probably is – but I cannot understand the truth except as the negation of falsehood. I always discover what I think to be true by seeing that something else is false: the world is basically full of falsehood, and the truth is something carved out by the rejection of falsehood. In a way, the truth is quite empty, but it’s already a fantastic liberation to be free of falsehood.
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 patriarchal ethos has for centuries posited that women were the negation of men.
Well, inferior – 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.
It always struck me that Cries and Whispers – to use the title of Ingmar Bergman’s film – is, in a sense, the world women have for so long been assigned to, not that of dialectical thinking.
One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling, which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views.”
In our culture they’ve been assigned to the world of feeling, because the world of men is defined as being one of action, strength, executive ability, and a capacity for detachment, and therefore women become the repositories of feeling and sensitivity. The arts in our society are conceived of as basically feminine activities, but certainly they weren’t in the past, and that’s because men didn’t previously 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… and I don’t believe it’s true. 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. I have the impression that thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking.
For instance, what I do results in books or a film, objects that are not me but that are transcriptions of something – they’re words or images or whatever – and one imagines that that is some purely intellectual process. But most everything I do seems to have as much to do with intuition as with reason. It isn’t that love presupposes comprehension, but to love somebody is to be involved in all kinds of thoughts and judgments. That’s what it is – there’s an intellectual structure of physical desire, of lust. But the kind of thinking that makes a distinction between thought and feeling is just one of those forms of demagogy that causes lots of trouble for people by making them suspicious of things that they shouldn’t be suspicious or complacent of.
For people to understand themselves in this way seems to be very destructive, and also very culpabilizing. These stereotypes of thought versus feeling, heart versus head, male versus female were invented at a time when people were convinced that the world was going in a certain direction – that is, toward technocracy, rationalization, science, and so on – but they were all invented as a defense against Romantic values.
From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott, published by Yale University Press. Read more.
Susan Sontag (1933–2004) was the author of numerous works of non-fiction, including the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, On Photography, and Illness as Metaphor, and of four novels including In America, which won the National Book Award.
Jonathan Cott is the author of numerous books, including Days That I’ll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He has been a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine since its inception and has written for publications including the New York Times and The New Yorker. He lives in New York City.