Susan Sontag: Part Four: “Make Something Better” In this part, the last of four, Sontag considers earlier words of hers about the religion of profitability in the USA and how it underpins all of American society. She talks about the important distinction between imagining a utopian society vs simply working towards something better from the lives of her characters in From America. And she reflects on how hesitant she is to imagine and speak for the country of Canada, a settler nation to use the parlance of the time, in a far less complex and fraught pre-911 world.
Works by Susan Sontag
The Volcano Lover
Tuesday, and After: New Yorker Writers Respond to 9/11 (New Yorker article from Sep 2001)
Regarding the Pain of Others
Debriefing: Collected Stories
Works about Susan Sontag
Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser
Robert Fulford: A Sojourn With Susan Sontag (National Post article from 2012)
Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview
Susan Sontag: A Biography by Daniel Schreiber
Other Related Books or Materials
Theatre of War by Lewis Lapham
About the Host
Novelist Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and principal of St. Michael’s College, where he holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters. He is the author of three novels: Original Prin, Beggar's Feast, and Governor of the Northern Province. His fiction has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2006) and IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize (2012), and named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Selection (2012 and 2019) and Globe and Mail Best Book (2018). He contributes essays, reviews, and opinions to publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, Harper’s, Financial Times (UK), Guardian, New Statesman, Globe and Mail, and National Post, in addition to appearing frequently on CBC Radio. He served as President of PEN Canada from 2015-2017.
Music is by Yuka
From the Archives
Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is the first series associated with the Toronto Public Library’s multi-year digital initiative, From the Archives, which presents curated and digitized audio, video and other content from some of Canada’s biggest cultural institutions and organizations.
Thanks to the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) for allowing TPL access to their archives to feature some of the best-known writers in the world from moments in the past. Thanks as well to Library and Archives Canada for generously allowing TPL access to these archives.
[OPENING MUSIC SEGMENT FADE-IN]
RANDY: Welcome to Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA. This podcast series is a part of a multi-year digital initiative from the Toronto Public Library, From the Archives, which presents curated and recently digitized audio, video and other content from the archives of some of Canada’s most important institutions and organizations. I'm Randy Boyagoda.
RANDY: Today's episode of Writers Off the Page features the final part of four parts with American writer and thinker Susan Sontag. If you haven’t heard the previous parts of this series with Susan Sontag, not to worry. The four episodes that make up this interview can be listened to in any order, but to get the full sense of the scope and scale of this conversation - as well as Sontag’s fire and spark that comes out in the conversation, be sure and bookmark the entire four episode cycle so that you don’t miss any of them.
TEASER excerpt: SS: International capitalism is the new feudal order, the universal churches are the international, multi-national corporations, and then there are these things called governments which are the creators and the stewards of different kinds of myths. I don't think that's false but I don't know. I'm very aware that I'm here in Canada, and I'm kind of a little uncomfortable about generalizing so much about the United States 'cause I'm always asking myself, "Well, to what extent at all, is this true of Canada as well?" Because the United States and Canada, after all do share something in common, which is that we are both, our nations are settler nations. And I think settler nations, nations that are mainly made up of people who immigrated within imaginable memory to the country. That the country was in some sense invented, that all these countries, these settler countries share something in common.
In the first of these Sontag episodes, I confessed that I originally heard of her work in the movie Bull Durham. Now, in 2019, people will definitely engage with Sontag for the first time by way of things like Benjamin Moser’s highly-anticipated new biography, and hopefully this podcast series, and also, you know, thanks to Vogue magazine. Earlier this year, Vogue ran a piece pegged to the latest edition of the Met Gala, whose theme was Camp.
In its own write-ups about is annual major fashion show, fundraiser, and bold face name super-party, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art proudly invokes the writing that first made Susan Sontag famous. Her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” serves as the Met’s inspiration and justification for curating a show around a style and sensibility that’s over-the-top, anti-conventional, and transgressive in ways that are playful and, above all else, confident, just as Sontag was in making a case for Camp in her essay. While her parents, fur exporters who worked for long stretches in China, might have been proud of their daughter being associated with the great fashion houses of the world and getting a mention in Vogue, I’m not as sure how Sontag would feel about it. I’d definitely want to read whatever she decided to write about it.
That said, I think Sontag might have rather spent that time on a novel, whether reading or talking about one, or better still, writing one. In this final segment of her conversation with Evan Solomon, Sontag appreciates Solomon’s insightful interest in her fiction, in what she was trying to explore and reveal and make sense of in her novel In America. Like its predecessor, The Volcano Lover, In America is a work of historical fiction that, unsurprisingly, features cerebral characters much given to intense, idea-filled interior lives and conversations. In America is made up of a cast of characters, including most notably a stage actress, who leave old and crowded Poland for wide open brand new nineteenth century California. Settling there, they set up a commune inspired by idealism that inevitably gives way to the messy realities of human persons. Now, as much as she wants to talk about her novel, Sontag can’t help but make incisive and acerbic connections between corrupt contemporary American political culture and the idealism of earlier eras like the one she’s depicting. Indeed, her laments about the increasing dominance of cynicism and shallowness and commercialism and especially the cheap and false rhetorical pose of insisting, as a candidate, that you’re somehow outside the system, retain their potency in our present moment. But if we want to honour Sontag’s ambitions and hopes for her work in their fullness, then forget what she has to say about politics. We get enough of that, everywhere else these days. Instead, think about what she has to say about fiction, about her fiction, and then, when you’ve finished listening, start reading.
This interview was recorded live at the International Festival of Authors, now called TIFA, in October of 2000, when Sontag came to town upon the occasion of the publication of her novel, In America.
ES: Would you say, part of the book is about... And they set out to set up a utopia in Anaheim, and it strikes me that that is a... And I wonder, is that a uniquely American idea, this idea of always... The idea, almost a fantasy of a utopian. I even think in these elections... There's this ability in America this mythological muscle that seems to kick in every so often that the project can be reinvented despite the kind of realities, and we'll believe in this idea that things can get perfect, this utopia. Is that part...
SS: You think there's an utopian element now in America, in these elections?
ES: Yeah, I do. I think there's a sense of... What's interesting about American elections, specifically different from Canadian elections is the ability, is the pomp and the ceremony... I guess Lewis Lapham has this distinction in America, that the corporations, there's the provisional government, and the permanent government. The permanent government is the corporations that do the job but the provisional government is the governments that Americans elect and they're in charge of making myth, the America that people can believe in despite their problems, and people to... The American dream and they're the keepers of the myth.
SS: Well, I guess that's true, I certainly like a lot of what Lewis Lapham writes, and I guess that that's, I suppose that's true, that's what capitalism is. International capitalism is the new feudal order, the universal churches are the international, multi-national corporations, and then there are these things called governments which are the creators and the stewards of different kinds of myths. I don't think that's false but I don't know. I'm very aware that I'm here in Canada, and I'm kind of a little uncomfortable about generalizing so much about the United States 'cause I'm always asking myself, "Well, to what extent at all, is this true of Canada as well?" Because the United States and Canada, after all do share something in common, which is that we are both, our nations are settler nations. And I think settler nations, nations that are mainly made up of people who immigrated within imaginable memory to the country. That the country was in some sense invented, that all these countries, these settler countries share something in common.
SS: The peculiar thing about the United States, besides the unbelievable idiocy of the rhetoric of this election campaign is that people are so attracted in the United States, something I've never understood, by rhetoric in which you pretend not to be the government, you pretend to be running against the government.
SS: So again, you have this idiot, Governor of Texas, who's trying to tell people that he's not involved in this Washington mess. He's gonna go to... Well, he is the son of a former president of the United States, and the Bushes, I don't know if you know are related to The Windsors. It's a very, very prominent family, of the former president. His father is, I don't know, fourth or fifth cousin of the Queen of England. We're not talking about kind of marginal people here.
SS: But he's had to re... Talk about self-reinvention, he's remade himself into a Texas oil man, and then he's got this other guy, who's another Texas oil man, from Wyoming, and they're running together as "against the government". And they're gonna go in and "clean up things". That's what's so crazy to me. Not the utopian thing. But this sort of imbecilic anarchism in the United States.
SS: This constant denunciation of the government, when all these people are on the take with the government. Mr. Cheney would not be the rich man he is without an awful lot of government subsidies for the oil business. So I don't see much utopianism in America now. But I certainly think that 19th century North America was the repository of a lot of dreams of starting over in a virgin continent and creating something that would be free of European compromises and European limitations and so on. I think a lot of that, or most of that is exhausted. Now, that's my reading of it. But you as a Canadian might see it differently.
ES: Because you wrote, I think in AIDS and Its Metaphors, "Society increasingly restricts the scope and credibility of appeals to ethical principle. And it's thought foolish not to subject one's actions to the calculus of self-interest and profitability." And I guess I...
SS: That's more true... Boy, is that more true than ever.
ES: And I just wondered that the, what you write about In America, is the, is the real gift to be able to imagine a society outside of simply self-interest and profitability, a true utopia. Even though I think in the end it's befuddled by its own naivete. But is that a lost American quality?
SS: Well, I wouldn't put it quite that way. I think... Well, I think the passage you read from, the end of the second Illness essay, which I wrote little over 10 years ago, where I deplored the decay, or decline of ethical idealism, and I must say, I feel that every year more and more strongly, that that's true. I... See, I don't think having ethical principles is naive but it does... It does mean that you have some notion of sacrifice, a very discredited word, of putting a bit maybe of altruism, I think there is no real culture without altruism, and I think that those... I wouldn't make it just a contrast, a very harsh contrast between utopianism and perfection on the one hand, and naked greed and egocentricity on the other. I think this completely commercial culture, this culture which bombards us with 15,000 advertising messages a month, or whatever people have calculated it is, makes it very hard for people to hold out against that overriding message, which is, "make money", "buy", "shop", "protect yourself."
SS: It makes people cynical, and it makes people selfish, and I think it makes people shallow. But how do you offer any kind of counter force to that? I don't think it's by imagining that people are perfect, or could be perfect, or could live together in perfection, but I do think you have to strengthen what is critical in your own feeling. Lots of people know this, but they need to be strengthened by connections with other people, they can't find this simply within themselves. I mean, most people can't make those sorts of sacrifices. And I don't wanna just say ethical idealism is naive. Maybe these Poles, these Polish immigrants... Oh, they just wanna live on a farm, and live communally, and drop out in a certain way. There was in the 19th century quite a few of these colonies that were started, and there was even a word to describe these people, and it's quite comprehensible to us, they were called "simple lifers". People who wanted to go back to the land... After all, there's still a lot of people who feel that way now, dream about dropping out, "Maybe I'll make a little money, I'll drop out, I'll buy a farm, I'll live in the country," and so on.
SS: It's an honourable impulse, but how to re-energize our society so we are activated by more than commercial criteria and entertainment values, values drawn from the entertainment industry, that's a very, very large project. But of course, I like the dissatisfactions of my characters, I like... For instance this Maryna, she's a great actress, and early on in the novel she's still in Poland, and she's being applauded by... There's a tremendous ovation after a performance, it's a Shakespeare play or Schiller or some classic, and her husband is in the wings and he says, "You were magnificent," he mouths, and she goes, "Mpfh." And he says, "Listen to them," meaning the crowd, the shouting crowd, and she says something that I love. I mean, I almost have tears in my eyes when I think of it. Oh, of course, I made it up, but to me...
SS: To me it's as if she exists, and she said it, so I can sort of say, "Oh, isn't she wonderful."
SS: She says to her husband, "What does it matter if they think I'm so great, if they've never seen anybody better than me?" And I love that, I love that, that she says that. I love that she has the idea that there's always something better. Not perfection, not utopia, but something better, that however good you are, you could be better, there's probably something better; that she's a striver, I think that's what I like about her.
SS: So I did want to write a novel somewhere, without knowing I wanted to until I had finished it, which was about a certain destiny of idealism, of a certain kind of idealism. Ultimately, her idealism is for the theatre, and even then, she's rather worn down by a long career, because she has an art but... So in the end, it... She's going up and down North America, performing 300 times a year, as people did in... Those great stars of that period, and of course, she's worn down, at the same time she tries to do her best. And that idea of writing a book about somebody trying to do her best, well that's very unfashionable, because most people want to write books now about people doing their worst, or not doing much of anything, of just feeling rather defeated, and... I don't know, it seems to me there are other stories to tell.
[FADE IN OUTRO MUSIC]
RANDY: Susan Sontag was born in 1933, to parents of Jewish, Lithuanian, and Polish descent. She grew up in Los Angeles, studied in California, Chicago, Cambridge, MA, Paris and Oxford, and lived and wrote for the majority of her life in New York, where she died in 2004. She was survived by her long-time companion, the photographer Annie Liebowitz, and also by the writer David Rieff, her son from her marriage to the sociologist Philip Rieff.
Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, is a year-long podcast series that celebrates 40 years of the Toronto International Festival of Authors. It's produced by the Toronto Public Library. The Executive Producer is Gregory McCormick, and this episode was produced by Danielle McNally and me, Randy Boyagoda, with technical support from George Panayotou, Michelle De Marco, marketing support from Tanya Oleksuik, and research support from Marcella van Run.
Thanks to the Toronto International Festival of Authors for allowing TPL access to their archives to feature some of the best-known writers in the world from moments in the past. Thanks as well to Library and Archives Canada for generously allowing TPL access to these archives.
Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is the first part of a multi-year digital initiative called From the Archives, which features recently digitized audio, video and other content from some of Canada’s most important institutions and organizations. For more about Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, visit tpl.ca/podcasts where you will find links to the books mentioned in each episode and links to other relevant materials in TPL’s collections.
Music is by YUKA.
I'm Randy Boyagoda and we'll be back soon with another episode of Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA.