"What did you see?" I ask.
"Something I've seen many, many times: Der Rosenkavalier. It's the same tired production that's been at the Met for 20 years, but Renée Fleming was singing the part of Marshallin for the first time--making her debut, I think, in that role. And when that sublime trio began at the end, I started to cry, like I always do. But the thing is, I don't think reading should be any different. It should be a big experience, it should be an education in sympathies."
Here, I think, Sontag has finally put her finger on her professional (and who knows, perhaps personal) sea change. Her earlier books dazzled us with their play of ideas, with the author's apparently bottomless erudition and ability to leap cultural hurdles as if they didn't exist--to prove, actually, that they didn't. She was, from the start, an ardent writer. Yet her ardor revolved around abstractions rather than personalities, and her view of human nature was almost Newtonian in its precision, as though she subscribed to Spinoza's famous formula: "I will analyze the actions and appetites of men as if it were a question of lines, of planes, and of solids." In America and its predecessor seem finally to have propelled her into a messier and more emotional view of art and life. Indeed, her comments seem pitched halfway between an apologia and a rousing call to arms.
"Reading should be an education of the heart," she says, correcting and amplifying her initial statement. "Of course a novel can still have plenty of ideas. We need to discard that romantic cliché about the head versus the heart, which is an absurdity. In real life, intellect and passion are never separated that way, so why shouldn't you be moved by a book? Why shouldn't you cry, and be haunted by the characters? Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too."
"Perhaps some people don't want to be taken out of themselves," I suggest.
"Well, reading must seem to some people like an escape," she allows. "But I really do think it's necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you--well, I don't want to say honest, but something that's almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you."
I rise to go. Sontag kindly escorts me to the door, makes some quasi-maternal inquiries, and gives me a friendly wave as the elevator arrives. For some reason I'm suddenly reminded of her description of how she managed to read in Sarajevo despite the constant shelling, sniper fire, and lack of electricity: You read on your back, with a candle on a plate on your chest, and you hold up the book like this. The image is emblematic, somehow, of her view of literature as an absolute necessity, on par with oxygen and sunlight. And it makes you feel a little more optimistic about our civilization: no matter how dark it gets, Susan Sontag will keep on reading--and, one hopes, writing. -- James Marcus
In a slightly different form, this interview originally appeared on Amazon.com in February 2000.