When Jonathan Cott, a writer at Rolling Stone, interviewed Susan Sontag in 1978, the Dark Lady of American letters was at the very height of her strange and confounding fame: her collection of essays Against Interpretation and the monograph On Photography were already available in all hip bookshops, the publication of Illness as Metaphor was imminent. Sontag had travelled to Hanoi, just like Jane Fonda; she had been married to one intellectual (Philip Rieff, father of her son) and had lived in Paris with another (the avant-garde playwright Maria Irene Fornés); among her associates were Woody Allen and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Her “mystique” (Cott’s word) was, then, well-established: as potent as a white truffle, as enlightening as thick fog, as irritating (to some) as fleas.
Cott, though, wasn’t about to demystify her. As he makes clear in his introduction to this unexpurgated version of his interview, he was too much of a swooning acolyte for that. No sooner had he switched on his tape recorder than he was struck by the “munificence and fluency” of her conversation. Three hours later, when she’d finally finished – “I like the interview form … a lot of my thinking is the product of conversation” – he was still eager for more. Five months later, he was summoned to her New York penthouse for another worshipful session, this time in her library, an “archive of longing” comprising some 8,000 books. “And in that consecrated spot, she and I sat and talked until late in the evening,” he writes, as if he were some spoony undergraduate who had been desperately hoping to get off with her.
By rights, Cott’s breathless introduction should prepare the reader for what lies ahead. Except that nothing could. Sontag’s verbosity, I was expecting; ditto her passion for obfuscatory theory, her narcissism and pomposity. But the way that Cott invites them is just too much. Those rare questions that don’t start with praise inevitably begin with him quoting her work sombrely back at her, as if it were written on tablets of stone. On the sole occasion that he ruffles her feathers – she dislikes his use of “mystique” – he doesn’t stick to his guns but rephrases his question, ever so humbly. The reader imagines him wringing his hands as he does so, Uriah Heep in a black polo neck.
What of Sontag? The discussion is wide-ranging, taking in such matters as her breast cancer (she was frightened but illness gave her moments of great clarity), Wilhelm Reich (bang on, she thinks, when it comes to emotions and the way they’re stored in the body as “anti-sexuality”) and Chuck Berry (like listening to The Bacchae). But it’s also painfully one-note; Sontag doesn’t do jokes or even irony. Occasionally, she will make the effort not to seem too clever, too grand, but this always backfires for the simple reason that her self-regard is ineffable. “I’m much more ignorant than most people think,” she tells Cott laughingly, when he asks if it’s true she reads a book a day. Her flirting is no less inept. “Don’t you think you’d write differently if you were all naked and wrapped in velvet?” she asks him. Clearly panicked, Cott responds by telling her that Haydn wore a ceremonial wig when he was composing.
What does the reader take away from this mind-numbing, self-referential encounter? Not a lot. It would not have been published in book form at all if the cult of Sontag didn’t continue to thrive on US campuses. And why, I wonder, does it? Even at her best, she is mostly muddle-headed, opaque, drunk on words whose meaning she seems not wholly to have considered. At her worst, a whiff of the charlatan rises from the page. All I can do is refer you elsewhere. The best thing I’ve read on Sontag is “Desperately Seeking Susan”, a 2005 essay by Terry Castle. Castle, who knew Sontag and was on the receiving end of some of her more graceless behaviour, certainly takes the piss. But she is also able to articulate Sontag’s “symbolic weight”. I wasn’t there, so it’s hard to imagine. But Castle is too shrewd to be wrong. “All those years ago one evolved a hallucination about what mental life could be and she was it,” she writes.
For now, I am going to accept this judgement. Cott’s highly polished apple, on the other hand, I will now leave to rot in the cardboard box destined for Oxfam.
Susan Sontag: the Complete Rolling Stone Interview
Yale University Press, 176pp, £15.99