The Intellectual: Susan Sontag Really Did Read Everything There Was to Read

Mark O'Connell in Slate:

SontagIn her journal in the mid-1960s, Susan Sontag vowed “to give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” Sontag’s ongoing investment in the development and definition of herself always seemed less like self-obsession than a kind of existential industriousness. Reading through the odds and ends that have been published since her death almost 10 years ago—the two volumes of her journals, in particular—you get the sense of a person who was always working toward an ideal version of herself. The ideal changed in its particulars over time, but the ideal of change remained constant. She’s often a reassuringly pretentious figure in the early diaries, which are themselves a useful reminder that being a pseudo-intellectual is a necessary stage on the way to being a nonpseudo-intellectual, and that the two classifications aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Being an intellectual is often, after all, a matter of getting away with trying to be seen as one.

In his introduction to Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, Jonathan Cott—whose 1978 interview with Sontag got chopped down by the magazine to one-third of its length—remembers that journal entry, and writes that “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.” The idea of this persuasive fluency of speech as something constructed, something striven for and achieved, reveals the extent to which Sontag’s position as one of the most public of 20th-century public intellectuals was one she had always wanted to arrive at. As brilliant an essayist as she was, talking brilliantly was almost as significant a part of her job. And so the Sontag colloquy shares certain key qualities with the Sontag essay—in particular the magnetic mixture of intellectual self-assurance and relaxed inclusivity. She was a virtuoso of the literary sit-down, working the form into an occasion for informal self-portrait. There’s no one topic that particularly dominates in this 138-page interview, but there are certain themes and preoccupations that assert themselves throughout: the ideal of personal autonomy, the complexities of love and friendship and sexuality, the historical constitution of ideas and behaviors we tend to think of as natural.

More here.