Happy birthday, Susan Sontag! Here are some quotes from the writer:
“Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.”
“Intelligence…is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”
“Literature is freedom.”
“A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted—made cynical, superficial—by this understanding.”
“Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference—for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences—experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.”
“To me, literature is a calling, even a kind of salvation. It connects me with an enterprise that is over 2,000 years old. What do we have from the past? Art and thought. That’s what lasts. That’s what continues to feed people and give them an idea of something better. A better state of one’s feelings or simply the idea of a silence in one’s self that allows one to think or to feel. Which to me is the same.”
“Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.”
“If within the last century art conceived as an autonomous activity has come to be invested with an unprecedented stature—the nearest thing to a sacramental human activity acknowledged by secular society—it is because one of the tasks art has assumed is making forays into and taking up positions on the frontiers of consciousness (often very dangerous to the artist as a person) and reporting back what’s there.”
“Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility.”
“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.”
“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”
“Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.”
“None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practices.
This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.”
“Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.”
“We live in a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.”
“The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean Algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.”
“The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.”
“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”
“I envy paranoids; they actually feel people are paying attention to them.”
“I don’t want to express alienation. It isn’t what I feel. I’m interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says be serious, be passionate, wake up.”
“One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling…which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment. We have more or less the same bodies, but very different kinds of thoughts. I believe that we think much more with the instruments provided by our culture than we do with our bodies, and hence the much greater diversity of thought in the world. Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.”
“A curious word, wanderlust. I’m ready to go.
I’ve already gone. Regretfully, exultantly. A prouder lyricism. It’s not Paradise that’s lost.
Advice. Move along, let’s get cracking, don’t hold me down, he travels fastest who travels alone. Let’s get the show on the road. Get up, slugabed. I’m clearing out of here. Get your ass in gear. Sleep faster, we need the pillow.
She’s racing, he’s stalling.
If I go this fast, I won’t see anything. If I slow down—
Everything.—then I won’t have seen everything before it disappears.
Everywhere. I’ve been everywhere. I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.
Land’s end. But there’s water, O my heart. And salt on my tongue.
The end of the world. This is not the end of the world.”
“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People don’t become inured to what they are shown—if that’s the right way to describe what happens—because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.”
“War is a culture, bellicosity is addictive, defeat for a community that imagines itself to be history’s eternal victim can be as intoxicating as victory.”
“Authoritarian political ideologies have a vested interest in promoting fear, a sense of the imminence of takeover by aliens—and real diseases are useful material. Epidemic diseases usually elicit a call to ban the entry of foreigners, immigrants. And xenophobic propaganda has always depicted immigrants as bearers of disease (in the late nineteenth century: cholera, yellow fever, typhoid fever, tuberculosis)…Such is the extraordinary potency and efficacy of the plague metaphor: it allows a disease to be regarded both as something incurred by vulnerable ‘others’ and as (potentially) everyone’s disease.”
“The destiny of photography has taken it far beyond the role to which it was originally thought to be limited: to give more accurate reports on reality (including works of art). Photography is the reality; the real object is often experienced as a letdown.”
“Reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras. It is common now for people to insist upon their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up—a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing—that ‘it seemed like a movie.’ This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was. While many people in non-industrialized countries still feel apprehensive when being photographed, divining it to be some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture, people in industrialized countries seek to have their photographs taken—feel that they are images, and are made real by photographs.”
“The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
“Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering—rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.”
“I believe that courage is morally neutral. I can well imagine wicked people being brave and good people being timid or afraid. I don’t consider it a moral virtue.”
“We are told we must choose—the old or the new. In fact, we must choose both. What is a life if not a series of negotiations between the old and the new? It seems to me that one should always be seeking to talk oneself out of these stark oppositions.”
“I guess I think I’m writing for people who are smarter than I am, because then I’ll be doing something that’s worth their time. I’d be very afraid to write from a position where I consciously thought I was smarter than most of my readers.”
“Let me rather speak first of all as a writer, as a champion of the enterprise of literature, for therein lies the only authority I have.
The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the ‘intellectual ambassador,’ the human rights activist —those roles which are mentioned in the citation for this prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self-doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.
One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.
Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference—for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences—experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.
A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted—made cynical, superficial—by this understanding.
Literature can tell us what the world is like.
Literature can give standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative.
Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.
Who would we be if we could not sympathize with those who are not us or ours? Who would we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than we are?”
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.