Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004) would have been 87 on January 16. To celebrate, we’re republishing a rare interview with her from the March, 1978 edition of High Times, conducted by Victor Bockris.
Among American intellectuals, Susan Sontag is probably the only Harvard-educated philosopher who digs punk rock. Sontag became famous in the Sixties when her series of brilliant essays on politics, pornography and art, including the notorious “Notes on Camps,” were collected in Against Interpretation—a book that defended the intuitive acceptance of art against the superficial, cerebral apprehension of it, then fashionable among a small hand of extremely powerful, rigid intellectuals who, for example, dismissed such American classics as Naked Lunch, Howl, On the Road, Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls, etc., as trash. With the impact of her concise arguments, Sontag was immediately labeled the Queen of the Aesthetes, the philosophical champion of pop art and rock and roll.
Since then she has written many more essays, a second novel, edited the works of Antonin Artaud (founder of the Theater of Cruelty and an early mescaline user), made two films and undergone radical surgery and two years of chemotherapy for a rare and advanced form of cancer. Thus Susan Sontag continues to live on the edge of life and death, an unusual address for an intellectual essayist but essential for anyone who aspires, as she does, to tell the truth about the present.
Her first book in seven years, On Photography, was greeted this winter with the familiar violent controversy. Most reviewers treated it as an uncompromising attack on photography itself—everything from photojournalism to baby pictures— and a complete desertion of her Sixties art-for-art’s-sake position for the lofty ground of analytical moralism. As Sontag makes clear for the first time in this interview, On Photography is not about photography at all, but the way it is put to use by the American system. Thus On Photography remains true to Sontag’s main idea of her task as a writer: to examine the majority opinion and expose it from the opposite point of view, putting emphasis on her “responsibility to the truth.” The method has proved explosive.
Sontag decided to give us an interview instead of attending a Ramones gig at CBGB’s because she thought it would be fun. She spoke intriguingly for hours about famous dopers she’d known (Jean Paul Sartre, a surprise lifelong speed freak, among them), grass, booze, punk rock, art, the Sixties and—always—truth.
High Times: I’ve been told that you don’t give very many interviews.
Sontag: No, I don’t. Sure.
High Times: Why are you giving this one to High Times?
Sontag: Well, I’m giving this one because I haven’t published a proper book in seven years. I’m giving an interview because… because it’s High Times. I was intrigued by that, sure. I thought, well, that’s odd. I hadn’t thought of that. And also because I’m going away, so it’s a little bit hit-and-run. And I suppose in a way I have been hiding.
There is a crisis you go through after a certain amount of work. Some people say after a decade, but when you’ve done a lot of work and you hear a lot about it and discover that it really does exist out there—you can call it being famous—then you think, well, is it any good? And, what do I want to go on doing? And, of course, you can’t shut out people’s reactions, and to a certain extent you do get labeled, and I hate that.
I find now that I am being described as somebody who has moved away from the positions or ideas that I advocated in the Sixties, as if I’ve reneged. I just got tired of hearing my ideas in other people’s mouths. If some of the things that I said stupidly or accurately in the Sixties, which were then minority positions, have become positions that are much more common, well, then again I would like to say something else.
High Times: Do you feel you have any responsibility for the effect of what you have to say on other people?
Sontag: No, I feel I have a responsibility to the truth. I’m not going to say something that I don’t think is true, and I think the truth is always valuable. If the truth makes people uncomfortable or is disturbing, that seems to me a good thing.
I suppose unconsciously I’m always making an estimate when I’m starting some kind of project of what people think. And then I say, well, given that people think this, what can be said in addition to this or what can be said in contradiction to that? There’s always some sense of where people are, so I do in a way think of my essay writing as adversary writing. The selection of subjects doesn’t necessarily represent my most important taste or interests; it has to do with the sense of what’s being neglected or what’s being viewed in a way that seems to exclude other things which are true.
But I find myself absolutely baffled by the question of the effect or influence of what one is doing. If I think of my own work and I question what effect it is having, I have to throw up my hands.
Beyond these baby statements like “I want to tell the truth” or “I want to write well,” I really don’t know. It’s not only that I don’t know, I don’t know how I would know, I don’t know what I would do with it. I’m always amazed at writers who say, “I want to be the conscience of my generation. I want to say the things that’ll change what people feel or think.” I don’t know what that means.
High Times: Do you think that the Sixties concept of a new consciousness changing things is rather lightweight?
Sontag: Yes. In a word.
High Times: And yet, drugs are now more a part of our society than they were in the Sixties.
Sontag: Absolutely. There was an article in the New York Times the other day about people smoking pot in public in the major cities, and that being absolutely accepted. That’s a major change. I have a friend who spent three years in jail in Texas for having two joints in his pocket. As he crossed from Mexico into Texas he was arrested by the border police. So these changes are important.
High Times: Do you have any feelings about an increasingly widespread use of drugs?
Sontag: I think marijuana is much better than liquor. I think a society which is addicted to a very destructive and unhealthy drug, namely alcohol, certainly has no right to complain or be sanctimonious or censor the use of a drug which is much less harmful.
If one leaves it on the level of soft drugs, I think the soft drugs are much less harmful. They’re much better and more pleasurable and physically less dangerous than alcohol. And above all, less addictive. So as far as that goes, I think fine. What bothers me is that a lot of people are drifting back to alcohol. What I rather liked in the Sixties about the drug use was the repudiation of alcohol. That was very healthy. And now alcohol has come back.
High Times: Do you think drugs encourage consumers?
Sontag: What I prefer about soft drugs as opposed to alcohol is that it seems to be more pleasurable; maybe it just has to do with my experience. I’m not terribly interested in soft drugs, but I certainly would prefer a joint to a whiskey any day. I think that I rather like the fact that soft drugs tend to make people a little lazier, and they don’t, at least in my experience, encourage aggressive or violent impulses. Of course if you’ve got them, nothing’s going to stop you from acting them out.
But I don’t feel that drugs are any more connected with consumerism. It’s just a historical phenomenon that the drug culture became widespread at a moment when the consumer society was more developed. And, on the contrary, in North Africa, in Morocco, which is a country that I know pretty well, the new thing for the past 20 years among the younger, more Westernized Moroccans is alcohol. They think of hashish as the drug of their parents, their parents being lazy and not interested in consumption and getting ahead and modernizing the country. So the young doctors and lawyers and movers and groovers in Moroccan society tend to prefer alcohol.
High Times: I think it’s interesting that in this society we take drugs a lot, and in other societies they don’t take drugs at all. What’s the difference?
Sontag: I think what interests me now, the little I know about it, is that this is now becoming a mature drug society, in relation to, let’s say, Western Europe. This is because we have enough time that people have been taking drugs in different strata of the society; that we’re getting different kinds of drug cultures and even a kind of naturalization of the drug thing; that it’s not a big deal. Whereas in a country like France or Italy, which I know pretty well, they’re about where we were ten years ago. It’s still a kind of spooky thing, it’s a daring thing, it’s a thing that people use in a rather violent or self-destructive way.
High Times: Do you do any of your writing on grass?
Sontag: I’ve tried, but I find it too relaxing. I use speed to write, which is the opposite of grass. Sometimes when I’m really stuck I will take a very mild form of speed to get going again.
High Times: What does it do?
Sontag: It eliminates the need to eat, sleep or pee or talk to other people. And one can really sit 20 hours in a room and not feel lonely or tired or bored. It gives you terrific powers of concentration. It also makes you loquacious. So if I do any writing on speed, I try to limit it.
First of all, I take very little at a time, and then I try to actually limit it as far as the amount of time that I’ll be working on a given thing on that kind of drug. So that most of the time my mind will be clear, and I can edit down what has perhaps been too easily forthcoming. It makes you a little uncritical and a little too easily satisfied with what you’re doing. But sometimes when you’re stuck it’s very helpful.
I think more writers have worked on speed than have worked on grass. Sartre, for instance, has been on speed all his life, and it really shows. Those endlessly long books are obviously written on speed, a book like Saint Genet. He was asked by Gallimard to write a preface to the collected works of Genet. They decided to bring it out in a series of uniform volumes, and they asked him to write a 50-page preface. He wrote an 800-page book. It’s obviously speed writing. Malraux used to write on speed. You have to be careful. I think one of the interesting things about the nineteenth century is it seems like they had natural speed. Somebody like Balzac…or a Dickens.
High Times: They must have had something. Perhaps it was alcohol.
Sontag: Well, you know in the nineteenth century a lot of people took opium, which was available in practically any pharmacy as a painkiller.
High Times: Would opium be good to write on?
Sontag: I don’t know, but an awful lot of nineteenth-century writers were addicted to opiates of one kind or another.
High Times: Is that an interesting concept, the relationship between writers and drugs?
Sontag: I don’t think so. I don’t think anything comes out that you haven’t gotten already.
High Times: Then why is there this long history of writers and stimulants?
Sontag: I think it’s because it’s not natural for people to be alone. I think that there is something basically unnatural about writing in a room by yourself, and that it’s quite natural that writers and also painters need something to get through all those hours and hours and hours of being by yourself, digging inside your own intestines. I think it’s probably a defense against anxiety that so many writers have been involved in drugs. It’s true that they have, and whole generations of writers have been alcoholics.
High Times: Is it possible to say what it is that makes someone want to write?
Sontag: I think for me it’s first of all an admiration of other writers. That’s probably the greatest single motivation that I have had. I’ve been so overcome by admiration for a number of writers that I wanted to join that army. And even if I thought that I was just going to be a foot soldier in that army and never one of the captains or majors or generals, I still wanted to do that thing which I admired so intensely. But if I’d never read so many books that I really loved, I’m sure I would not have wanted to be a writer.
High Times: You recently said that artists should be less devoted to creating new forms of hallucination and more devoted to piercing through the hallucinations that nowadays pass for reality. Do you think artists have a responsibility to arrest decay?
Sontag: Artists are no different than anybody else. They are first of all creatures of the society that they live in. I think one of the great illusions that people had—and that I shared to a certain extent—was that modern art could be in some kind of permanent adversary, critical relationship to the culture. But I can just see more and more of a fit between the values of modern art and the values of a consumer society.
I don’t think any of this can be described in the simple way people used to do in the Sixties, talking about being co-opted. It’s a much more organic relationship. It’s not that things start out being critical and get taken up by the establishment. It’s that the values in a great deal of avant-garde or modern art are values that fit perfectly well in a consumer society, where everyone’s supposed to have pluralistic taste and standards are subjective and people really don’t care about the truth.
High Times: Do you see punk as a moral movement?
Sontag: I really don’t know how to answer that. One is so suspicious of what one’s reactions might be because one is ten years older. I remember when I first heard the Rolling Stones. When I went to their very first concert in New York at the Academy of Music, I was absolutely thrilled. But I was ten or twelve years younger than I am now. I haven’t gone to any punk rock concerts, but I have some records. And I find in the lyrics something rather different, a kind of despair that I didn’t feel with the Rolling Stones. I mean, I don’t feel offended, I don’t feel outraged, it’s nothing like that, but I feel a sort of bleakness. I agree that the society that is so nihilistic at its core does not deserve a sanctimonious art which simply covers up the inner bleakness of the society, so in that sense, of course I’m not against…
High Times: It releases a lot of energy when someone suddenly puts their finger on the pulse of the time. I know from being in England in ’62 when the Beatles broke. It simply made everyone feel good.
Sontag: I’d like to believe in the comparison you’re suggesting, and I try to think that way too because I’m horrified by this kind of sanctimonious moralistic reaction to everything, and I remember exactly what you’re describing. I remember saying to myself, to my son and to friends, I’ve never felt so good. I felt a physical energy, a sensual energy, a sexual energy, but above all a feeling in my body…
But you see, I think the Sex Pistols and the other groups would be quite acceptable if they seemed more ironic to people. And I think they are very ironic. But I think they’re not perceived as ironic, and once they are perhaps that will be their form of domestication. Then it will be perfectly all right. You see, listen, I didn’t want to be labeled the Queen of the Aesthetes in the Sixties, and I don’t want to be the Queen of the Moralists in the Seventies. It’s not as simple as that at all.
High Times: I think you’re being forced into that position.
Sontag: Well, I see that now, I see that in everything that I have dared to read about myself that thing comes up. Something that interests me less and less is the narcissism of this society, is the way that people just care about what they’re feeling. And it isn’t that I think there’s something wrong about caring about what you feel, but I think that you have to have some vocabulary or some stretch of the imagination to do it with, and it seems that the means are shrinking.
“How are you feeling?”
“Oh, well, I’m feeling fine. I’m very laid back, er wow, terrific.”
What is being said about feelings is less and less. It’s awfully primitive. You do your thing and I’ll do my thing. That kind of attitude seems very shallow. It seems as if an awful lot of complexity has been lost. If one can keep the debate going between the aesthetic way of looking at things and the moralist way of looking at things, that already gives more structure, more density to the situation.
If I seemed to be championing the aesthete’s way of looking at things it’s because I thought the moralists really did have it all their way at the time I started writing in the Sixties. If I seem to be championing a moralistic way of looking at things it’s because there seems to be a very shallow aestheticism that’s taken over. It’s certainly not the aestheticism that I was associating myself with.
Oscar Wilde remains one of my idols. I haven’t changed. I don’t repudiate what I said then, but I hear echoes of a kind of superficial nihilism that seems associated with an aesthetic position that drives me up the wall. It seems that people have become so passive. When you mentioned the word energy, of course if I can see punk rock in that way I can feel it, and of course it’s not possible to get it by playing a couple of records on this inadequate stereo; you have to be in an audience. I remember the Academy of Music in 1964. What it was like to be in that audience that day was incredible.
High Times: You should go down to CBGB’s, that club on the Bowery.
Sontag: Yeah, I wanted to go down and see the Ramones.
High Times: You’ve said that what you’re personally looking for is art that would make you behave differently.
Sontag: Yeah, I’m looking for things that will change my life, right? And that of course will give me energy. And I don’t mean moral lessons in this dry sense, but something that would give me energy, that would also not simply provide me with this kind of fantasy alternative but would be an alternative that could be lived out, that would make my way of seeing things perhaps more complicated rather than less complicated.
See, I think a lot of what we get most pleasure out of is essentially simplifying. First of all, most of art in the last hundred years has been saying everything is terrible, and then it says the only thing one can do is resist the temptation of suicide, if that, or forget it, lie back, go with it, enjoy it, it doesn’t matter. It seems to me that one should be able to go beyond those alternatives. I don’t know how exactly.
High Times: How do you feel about the future of the planet?
High Times: But people say that: “Terrified.” But I mean do you live in a state of fear?
Sontag: No, I don’t live in a state of fear, but I live in a state of desperate concern. I lead a life which is incredibly privileged. We were talking earlier about why I don’t make much money, but still just by virtue of being an American, by virtue of doing work that I want to do, that I would do whether I’m paid for it or not, by virtue of being white. I am in a tiny minority of people on this planet. So I don’t live in a state of terror; it would be presumptuous of me to be terrified, since I’m always so infinitely privileged just by being: one, American: two, white; and three, someone who’s not a wage slave. But how can one not be full of dread?
Just consider the demographic figure that India is adding 14,000,000 every year. That is to say, a hundred million people every six years. That’s when you subtract the deaths from the birth rates. More and more people go to bed hungry every night. More and more people are born than should be born. The environment is becoming more and more polluted, more and more carcinogenic. All kinds of systems of order are breaking down. Lousy as they may be, it’s not very likely that one’s going to replace them with a better one.
One of the few ideas that I formulated in a very simple way is that however bad things are, they can always get worse. Well, I got very tired in the Sixties with people who were saying that things couldn’t be any worse. The repression of the State, fascist America….Things were terrible, the Vietnam War was an abomination; but all kinds of terrible things have happened in this country, and things can always get worse. It’s wrong to say that things can’t get any worse. They can.
I think there are long-range ecological and demographic factors that don’t seem to be reversible, so that one thinks there will just be a series of catastrophes of one kind or another—world-wide famines or breakdowns of social systems, increasing amounts of political repression. That, I think, is the fate of most people in the world. I think the United States is in a very special position. I don’t think the breakdown of this system is imminent at all. But at what a cost to the rest of the world! I mean, the United States has 6 percent of the population of the world, and we’re using 60 percent of the resources and creating 60 percent of the garbage.
High Times: Does it annoy you?
Sontag: No, it doesn’t annoy me, it outrages me.
High Times: Yeah. I just find it hard to deal with those kinds of words, like terror and outrage. Because you’re outraged by this and yet, excuse me, but your latest book is—I find it a very interesting book— but it’s about photography.
Sontag: It’s not about photography!
High Times: Ah! Fair enough…
Sontag: (Laughing) Now you’ve got me. I said it, and I didn’t mean to say it. It’s not about photography, it’s about the consumer society, it’s about advanced industrial society. I finally make that clear in the last essay. It’s about photography as the exemplary activity of this society. I didn’t want to say it’s not about photography, but it’s true, and I guess this is the interview where that will finally come out. It isn’t, it’s about photography as this model activity which has everything that’s brilliant and ingenious and poetic and pleasureful in the society, and also everything that is destructive and polluting and manipulative in the society. It’s not, as some people have already said, against photography, it’s not an attack on photography.
High Times: I think you’re a great celebrator of photography.
Sontag: Well, of course it’s been one of the great sources of pleasure in my life, and it seemed to me obvious that that was the origin of the book. It’s about what the implications of photography are. I don’t want to be a photography critic. I’m not a photography critic. I don’t know how to be one.
I have gotten immense pleasure out of photographs. I collect them, cut them out, I’m obsessed by them; to me they’re sort of dream images, magical objects. I go to photography shows, I have hundreds of photography books. This is an interest that antedates not only the books, but it’s part of my whole life. But I think one can’t think about photography. This is a book that’s an attempt to think about what the presence of photography means, about the history of photography, about the implications of photography.
High Times: Do you think we’re going to see any extreme changes in this country within the next ten or fifteen years?
Sontag: I ask myself that all the time. A couple of years ago I would have said yes right away. Around ’73-’74 it seemed that things were changing very rapidly and for the worse. It seemed to me that there was obviously an immense reactionary current in the country, that things were going to be very depressing. One thing I want to disassociate myself from, although I’ve said some things that could contribute to it, is this facile repudiation of the Sixties. I mean the Sixties were a terrific time. It was the most important time in my life. If perhaps in the end we were too busy having a good time and thought things were a little simpler than they turned out to be, it doesn’t mean that most of what we learned isn’t very valuable; and we want to hang onto that and not be seduced by some kind of new simplification or this kind of pervasive demoralization of the Seventies.
I feel very irritated by the way people are so demoralized. What has gotten lost in the past few years is the critical sense. I mean what people finally took from the Sixties was that it was okay to do your own thing, that a lot of what seemed to be political impulse was in fact just some kind of pyschotherapeutic effort, and that what one thought or hoped was the growth of some kind of serious critical political atmosphere in the country proved to be an illusion. And so you have the same people who went to Vietnam demonstrations becoming the slaves of gurus and psychiatric quacks a couple of years later. That was disappointing. But it was on the whole a very positive change, I think.
High Times: Then your answer to the question is that at least at the moment you don’t see anything that suggests that we’ll see extreme changes here in the near future?
Sontag: I think the first thing to say is that this society is immensely powerful and that this regime, this system is immensely powerful, immensely successful, immensely entrenched, is very clever, has tremendous capacity for absorbing criticism and using it, not just silencing it but using it. And that there have to be real structural changes to make a difference, otherwise I think people are going to go on in this consumer way, riding along with things as far as they can, being drugged by consumer goods and averting their eyes to the pending catastrophe.
This country is so rich and so powerful and so privileged. I don’t think the present mood is anything other than transition. What I worry about much more is the growing force of reaction. That’s why I hate to be labeled as a moralist, because I think that an awful lot of bad things are going to happen in the name of moralism, and one has to be very suspicious.
High Times: How do you feel at this point about your future?
Sontag: I want to be a better writer. It seems it would be about getting better. To go on.
High Times: But you must feel that there are totally undiscovered things in front of you?
Sontag: If I didn’t feel that I could discover things that would be very different from what I’m doing, or if I didn’t feel that the work I’m doing is part of an approach to something… but I do feel that it’s always going somewhere. And yet there must be something wrong with that attitude, too. One could go on and on. Say I beat this rare illness and have a long, long life, would I then just go on forever saying I’m getting there, I’m getting there, I’m getting there, until one day my long life would be over?