Susan Sontag’s Paragraphed Interview Answers

In his introduction to Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stones Interview, Jonathan Cott writes:

In one of her journal entries from 1965, Susan avowed: To give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” ….as I listened to her clear, authoritative, and direct responses to my questions, it was obvious that she had attained the conversational goal that she had set for herself many years before.

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed…Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning”…with which she framed and and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings wit h parenthetical remarks and qualifying words…the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours–an inebriation with the spoken word.

I saw Sontag interviewed once, at the 92nd Street YMCA, sometime in 1991 or 1992. Her interviewer was, I think, if memory serves me correctly, the then editor of Vanity Fair Graydon Carter. (The interview was held shortly after the release of her novel The Volcano Lover: A Romance.) My reaction to hearing and seeing her speak–at some length, for the interview was no mere bagatelle–was similar to Cott’s: for years afterwards, whenever I described the interview, I would say, “She doesn’t just speak in complete, well-formed sentences; she speaks in paragraphs.” Sontag clearly had a great deal to call upon and invoke in her answers; her ability to quickly organize her thoughts into the aural form in which she presented them to her listeners was luminously on display.

It was the first time I had seen Sontag speak; I would see her once again, possibly at a book reading of some sort. She signed my copy of AIDS and its Metaphors on that occasion. Then, she did not speak as much so I did not get a chance to revisit my earlier impression of her. But I think it has remained indelible over the years.

I remember one remark in particular, from her 92nd Street Y appearance, one that made me chuckle then, and often still does so: that the right time and place to write an autobiography was after death, from beyond the grave. Everything else was premature, a too-quick reckoning of finality when the possibility for change was still at hand. (Sontag was quite obsessed by reinvention and moving on to newer selves so such a statement should not be too surprising, but it was her manner of framing it that made it distinctive.)

If only she supply us with her authoritative, clear, and direct autobiography now. I bet it’d be an interesting read.

Note: Around that time, as Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign kicked off, a campaign trail reporter for the New York Times made note of how the Arkansas governor was  “that modern rarity, a candidate who spoke in complete sentences.” Clearly, that was a good time for the spoken word.

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