Writers Off the Page: Susan Sontag - Part Two: "The Little Illness Book" The second of four parts, Evan Solomon talks to Sontag about how having breast cancer in 1975 led her to write Illness as Metaphor (which she was told would be her last book) - and then later, AIDS and Its Metaphors - and how re-reading her favourite books is such a pleasurable experience.
Books by Susan Sontag
Illness as Metaphor/AIDS and Its Metaphors
Books about Susan Sontag
Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser
Other Books or Materials Mentioned
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Film: David Lean’s 1946 version of Great Expectations (Criterion Collection)
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
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.
This podcast series is produced by Toronto Public Library, in collaboration with TIFA (Toronto International Festival of Authors) and Library and Archives Canada.
Writers Off the Page: Susan Sontag - Part Two: "The Little Illness Book"
[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 second 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:And you're absolutely right, that, particularly with the two illness essays, the one I wrote at the end of the '70s when I had cancer the first time and I was told I was gonna die and this was gonna be last thing I could ever write. And as a patient, as a full-time patient, I was so struck by all the cliches and mystification surrounding the idea of cancer and the sense in which I discovered my fellow patients, other people who are patients along with me in two cancer hospitals. One in New York City, one in Paris, where I was a patient for two and a half years. And that they were so spooked, they were so freaked out. There were people who hadn't told their families they had cancer. They didn't tell their neighbours, people that they worked with. Because to have cancer wasn't like having an ordinary serious illness, it was a scandal or shame they couldn't even pronounce the word.
Six years after Susan Sontag died, I felt her loss — as a reader suddenly wishing she were still writing. In 2010, Siddhartha Mukherjee published The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I read the book, I read a lot about the book, and I reviewed it. Many times, throughout the time I spent with an ambitious, sprawling, complex account of a relentless disease and our unrelenting efforts, across millennia of human experience, to understand and defeat or at least survive and live with it, I wondered what Sontag would have thought and, more importantly, what she would have written about this so-called biography of cancer. Sontag was diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid-1970s. Following two years of treatment in the United States and France – and of observing how those around her lived and died with cancer — she wrote Illness as Metaphor, a book-length essay whose commanding appeal owe much to the integration of Sontag’s personal experience of cancer and intellectual interrogation of its presence in personal lives and public life alike. Indeed, through this and later work that considered photography, AIDS, and also our ethical and aesthetic relationship to visual representations of suffering, Sontag established herself as both a singular voice of personally-convicted insight, and a master of the essay form. And yet, as you’ll see in this interview with Evan Solomon, for all the pride and remarkable amount of work she put into essays, she ultimately considered novels the better literary forms — as a reader and as a writer — because of the multiplicity of voices and perspectives they bring forth and also because of the enlargements and educations in feeling and understand that that novels make possible. You’ll notice, partway through this segment, a modulation in Sontag’s voice and mood, away from the critical and combative to the appreciative and affirming, even awestruck. Here’s someone who was reading at the age of three, and reading German modernist fiction in ninth grade. You know what she means. You know there’s nothing like that moment you finish reading a great novel and you look up, you look around, and two things happen. First, you remember your surroundings and then realize you’d forgotten them because of how fully immersed you had been in an elsewhere, just moments – pages – ago. Second, if it was a great novel, your surroundings, and the people and things in them, look and sound different/ Whether better or worse doesn’t matter: only, they have a fullness to them that you didn’t notice before reading that novel, regardless of where it was set and where you are. But how do you explain all of that, to someone else? You turn to Susan Sontag, who could describe your experiences better than you can, whether what it means to live with cancer or, as she puts it, to “live with novels.”
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: I mean, I think about your essays, as you say, you have to sponsor a point of view, but there's this very political side, a pointed political point of view in a lot of your essays. And the things that you've done whether you were going to North Vietnam or whether going to Bosnia, and I think about essays have an ethical imperative beneath them. Even when you read the Illness as Metaphor, you think people who are ill, they can have a way of knowing that's different, it can help them. And you told me, you said, "This could help... " And yet, I wonder about novels. Do you ever have a sense that the world may be able to exist without a novel, In America, but sick people may not cope as well without the kind of knowledge of AIDS and its Metaphor or Illness as Metaphor? Is there a sense that you, as a political person, are working in the essay form, and there's another side of you in the novel form?
SS: Yes, you're absolutely right. I don't know if I'd use the word political, but I'd certainly use the word ethical. And I think it's what kept me... What inhibited me for many years from attempting a full-scale return to fiction, having started as a novelist. My first book is a novel, The Benefactor. It was exactly, exactly what you say. I really thought I was, for all my aestheticist palaver in the 1960s. I mean, of course I didn't really, really believe it. I thought I should, it was a position I should maintain.
ES: But are you serious? You don't really, really believe it?
SS: I didn't really, I mean... Let's say I didn't really believe it, it didn't represent everything I felt. It represented a position I thought was a welcome corrective to a lot of Philistine talk that was going down then. But anyway, I feel much more comfortable with the later essays and I was very much... Well, even in the '60s, but certainly in the essays of the '70s and '80s, I was absolutely mobilized and energized by a conscious ethical purpose.
SS: And you're absolutely right, that, particularly with the two illness essays, the one I wrote at the end of the '70s when I had cancer the first time and I was told I was gonna die and this was gonna be last thing I could ever write. And as a patient, as a full-time patient, I was so struck by all the cliches and mystification surrounding the idea of cancer and the sense in which I discovered my fellow patients, other people who are patients along with me in two cancer hospitals. One in New York City, one in Paris, where I was a patient for two and a half years. And that they were so spooked, they were so freaked out. There were people who hadn't told their families they had cancer. They didn't tell their neighbours, people that they worked with. Because to have cancer wasn't like having an ordinary serious illness, it was a scandal or shame they couldn't even pronounce the word. These were very common attitudes 20-25 years ago.
SS: And so I decided, being a bit of a crusader always, that my last essay would be attacking these myths or mystifications about cancer. And I gained a lot of experience and even some medical knowledge being being a full-time cancer patient. And then I didn't think I would... I did to the astonishment of my doctors recover, I was cured. And then time went on, and the '80s the AIDS pandemic struck and a number of friends of mine died, and I began to hear in the cliches about AIDS, a lot of very extraordinary stereotypes, which made me feel that perhaps a sequel to this could be written that would be helpful to people and consoling to people, and also encouraging people to seek better treatment.
SS: 'Cause that's part of the story. People are afraid to go to the doctor to be diagnosed, they're afraid to be good advocates on their own behalf, when they're seriously ill. And these the two little illness books that are now published as one Illness as Metaphor, AIDS and Its Metaphors are used a lot in medical schools and nursing schools. And many, many, many, many...hundreds of people actually have written me or contacted me in one way or another, and said, that it was really helpful to them in some cases, life-saving to read these essays and get better treatment or whatever.
SS: So I was very exalted and by understanding that I could be useful that I could do good and indeed exactly what you say. I started to feel, "Well, how could I go back to fiction? Who needs novels?" I had become a kind of [unint.] from starting out as sort of Oscar Wilde, I had turned into some sort of extraordinary moralist who it really was an amazing evolution though both sides of me were always there. In which, unless it fulfilled a very high moral purpose, I wasn't gonna allow something to be published.
SS: And that was a further evolution in which I had to sort of rediscover the great purpose of fiction, which I think is, now I'm really gonna sound old fashioned, which is the education of the feelings, the enlargement and education of feeling. Because I began, I began to reconnect with what fiction has always meant to me. I don't think I would be the person I am without having read Dostoevsky. I've been educated humanly by the great novels and by great poetry, and other forms of art and so I was...
SS: So the good that art can do or fiction can do specifically isn't just something as concrete as this as these illness essays there is a larger moral purpose or a larger necessity. But that of course has made me a rather strict writer, strict with myself and even strict as a reader. I don't just wanna write novels that I don't think have any necessity. I think comprehensibility and ambition in theme and necessity, that a book should have some necessity that you should precisely feel what you... Exactly what you say that this should have been written. It was worth doing. It's not just another entertainment.
ES: But what does that mean, "and just another entertainment"? I think specifically about how we value books that give us pleasure. Is there a way in your mind to then measure good books from bad books, not just on technique but on education of the feelings how well they articulate the human condition? Or even it's a moral thing?
SS: Well, I think that if our feelings are educated, it's through the creation of character and we are moved by characters in fiction and we are moved by who they are and what they express, we're reminded of the possibilities of being human. I'm not bored by... When I say the education of feelings, it sounds like some kind of dutiful task, "Eat your spinach or something." I'm intensely amused or entertained or enthralled. I read for pleasure, just the way I go to movies for pleasure, I listen to music for pleasure, I go to the opera for pleasure, dance performances. It's pure pleasure, but I feel nourished by it. Well, let me just use... I'm on the edge of a food metaphor, so let me follow it.
SS: I enjoy eating, but it's nourishing. One thing is not... Doesn't exclude the other. I reread a lot. And the next to last novel I read, which was a novel I reread, the last novel I read which that's another story, was Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which I just read in the last two weeks or so. But before that, the novel I read before that was Great Expectations. And these are novels I've read several times, and of course the great pleasure if you live with novels, is your 100 favorite novels to read them again every five years, seven years, whatever. And I, this time I didn't remember it in the past when I read Great Expectations. I remember that Miss Havisham of course, and her cake and the rats and Pip and a stroll and so on, and this time I was very struck by Joe Gargery, Pip's brother-in-law. And it's Dickens' attempt to portray a good person, a genuinely kind person, a generous person. And he succeeds, I think, very well, much better with his male character than he does with some of his more saccharine portraits of female goodness.
SS: But Joe Gargery's a wonderful person. And I was very moved by this character, and reading the book, which I have read several times, and I've seen the wonderful David Lean movie of many years ago. I felt nourished by this book, I felt inspired by it. This is a very well-known classic and it's not... I'd say this book gives me something, it gives me... It stretches me a little bit. And I'm not talking about Dostoevsky, Kafka, Proust here. I'm talking about a book that most people would say has not very much ethical content, but I think anything that stretches us and shows us the range of human behavior and something about the human heart, and consciousness, and feeling, and people dealing with complexity, and sadness, and fear of death, and so on. These things give pleasure and they give a greater sense of mastery in our own lives. So when I say "education of the heart", that may be Homer or it may be certain poets, but I think this is a necessary purpose.
SS: I don't want to say art is simply useful, but it is useful. It is useful to us. It's useful to us like food.
[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.
Stay tuned for part three of this four-part series.
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.
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.