Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview
By Jonathan Cott
Yale University Press
Born in 1933, she was an academic and an academic's wife when she heard "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets on the radio, and changed her life. By the mid 1960s she was the devastatingly beautiful American writer who first brought high culture smarts to popular culture manifestations, and among other things helped give birth to a generation of rock critics like me, and everybody who wrote for Rolling Stone.
So she was a natural for an extensive Rolling Stone interview published in 1979. It's hard to imagine now an analogue to Susan Sontag who would be the subject of such a treatment today. But even with her accomplishments to that date--the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, the equally original On Photography and Illness As A Metaphor, with thoughts and a point of view responding to her own confrontations with cancer and the medical system--many important accomplishments were ahead of her, notably her activities in Sarajevo during the Balkan warfare (where she directed a production of Waiting for Godot with a background of gunfire outside the theatre), her book Regarding the Pain of Others and her novel In America which won the National Book Award in 2000. Revelations about her bisexuality--including her own admission-- also emerged some years after this interview.
Jonathan Cott conducted the interview, in which literary allusions are as likely in the questions as in the answers. About a third of it appeared in Rolling Stone, and though there is conversation in the book that is less interesting, having the whole interview published is certainly worthwhile. Sontag (Cott writes) enjoyed the interview process and the best exchanges show how engaged both participants were.
Sontag remained a champion of modernism and of a 1960s sensibility in the best sense. She battled back against the revisionism and reaction already underway just as the counterrevolution of the 80s began. "The idea is that everything that was hoped for and attempted in the sixties basically hasn't worked out and couldn't work out. But who says it won't work? Who says there's something wrong with people dropping out? I think the world should be safe for marginal people. One of the primary things that a good society should be about is to allow people to be marginal."
Cott also contributes a brief introduction which quotes from Sontag's writing, including this startling gem: "There is no possibility of culture without true altruism." That's what we needed and got from Sontag--bold, against the grain, forthright and well-stated. And that's what we miss.