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Geoffrey Movius speaks with Susan Sontag about photography, writing, and memory.
Geoffrey Movius: In one of your recent essays on photography in The New York Review of Books, you write that “no work of imaginative literature can have the same authenticity as a document,” and that there is “a rancorous suspicion in America of anything that seems literary.” Do you think that imaginative literature is on the way out? Is the printed word on the way out?
Susan Sontag: Fiction writers have been made very nervous by a problem of credibility. Many don’t feel comfortable about doing it straight, and try to give fiction the character of nonfiction. A recent example is Philip Roth’s My Life as a Man, a book consisting of three novellas: the first two are purportedly written by the first-person narrator of the third one. That a document of the writer’s own character and experience seems to have more authority than an invented fiction is perhaps more widespread in this country than elsewhere and reflects the triumph of psychological ways of looking at everything. I have friends who tell me that the only books by writers of fiction that really interest them are their letters and diaries.
Movius: Do you think that is happening because people feel a need to get in touch with the past—their own or other people’s?
Sontag: I think it has more to do with their lack of connection with the past than with being interested in the past. Many people don’t believe that one can give an account of the world, of society, but only of the self—”how I saw it.” They assume that what writers do is testify, if not confess, and a work is about how you see the world and put yourself on the line. Fiction is supposed to be “true.” Like photographs.
Movius: The Benefactor and Death Kit aren’t autobiographical.
Sontag: In my two novels, invented material was more compelling than autobiographical material. Some recent stories, such as “Project for a Trip to China” in the April 1973 Atlantic Monthly, do draw on my own life. But I haven’t meant to suggest that the taste for personal testimony and for confessions, real and fictitious, is the principal one that moves readers and ambitious writers. The taste for futurology, or prophecy, is of at least equal importance. But this taste also confirms the prevailing unreality of the real historical past. Some novels which are situated in the past, like the work of Thomas Pynchon, are really works of science fiction.
Movius: Your contrast between autobiographical writers and the science fiction writers reminds me of a passage in one of the New York Review essays, in which you write that some photographers set themselves up as scientists, others as moralists. The scientists “make an inventory of the world,” whereas the moralists “concentrate on hard cases.” What sort of cases do you think the moralist-photographers should be concentrating on at this point?
Sontag: I’m reluctant to make prescriptive statements about what people ought to be doing, since I hope they will always be doing many different things. The main interest of the photographer as moralist has been war, poverty, natural catastrophes, accidents—disaster and decay. When photojournalists report that “there was nothing to photograph,” what this usually means is that there was nothing terrible to photograph.
Movius: And the scientists?
Sontag: I suppose the main tradition in photography is the one that implies that anything can be interesting if you take a photograph of it. It consists in discovering beauty, a beauty that can exist anywhere but is assumed to reside particularly in the random and the banal. Photography conflates the notions of the “beautiful” and the “interesting.” It’s a way of aestheticizing the whole world.
Movius: Why did you decide to write about photography?
Sontag: Because I’ve had the experience of being obsessed by photographs. And because virtually all the important aesthetic, moral, and political problems—the question of “modernity” itself and of "modernist” taste—are played out in photography’s relatively brief history. William K. Ivins has called the camera the most important invention since the printing press. For the evolution of sensibility, the invention of the camera is perhaps even more important. It is, of course, the uses to which photography is put in our culture, in the consumer society, that make photography so interesting and so potent. In the People’s Republic of China, people don’t see “photographically.” The Chinese take pictures of each other and of famous sites and monuments, as we do. But they’re baffled by the foreigner who will rush to take a picture of an old, battered, peeling farmhouse door. They don’t have our idea of the “picturesque.” They don’t understand photography as a method of appropriating and transforming reality—in pieces—which denies the very existence of inappropriate or unworthy subject matter. As a current ad for the Polaroid SX-70 puts it: “It won’t let you stop. Suddenly you see a picture everywhere you look.”
Movius: How does photography change the world?
Sontag: By giving us an immense amount of experience that “normally” is not our experience. And by making a selection of experience which is very tendentious, ideological. While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important. Malraux’s idea of the museum-without-walls is an idea about the consequences of photography: our way of looking at painting and sculpture is now determined by photographs. Not only do we know the world of art, the history of art, primarily through photographs, we know them in a way that no one could have known them before. When I was in Orvieto for the first time several months ago, I spent hours looking at the facade of the cathedral; but only when I bought a book on the cathedral a week later did I really see it, in the modern sense of seeing. The photographs enabled me to see in a way that my “naked” eye could not possibly see the “real” cathedral.
Movius: This shows how it is possible for photography literally to create an entire way of seeing.
Sontag: Photographs convert works of art into items of information. They do this by making parts and wholes equivalent. When I was in Orvieto, I could see the whole facade by standing back, but then I couldn’t see the details. Then I could move close and see the detail of whatever was not higher than, say, eight feet, but there was no way whereby my eye could blot out the whole. The camera elevates the fragment to a privileged position. As Malraux points out, a photograph can show a piece of sculpture—a head, a hand—which looks superb by itself, and this may be reproduced alongside another object which might be ten times bigger but, in the format of the book, occupies the same amount of space. In this way, photography annihilates our sense of scale.
It also does queer things to our sense of time. Never before in human history did people have any idea of what they looked like as children. The rich commissioned portraits of their children, but the conventions of portraiture from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century were thoroughly determined by ideas about class and didn’t give people a very reliable idea of what they had looked like.
Movius: Sometimes the portrait might consist of somebody else’s body with your head on it.
Sontag: Right. And the vast majority of people, those who could not afford to have a portrait painted, had no record of what they looked like as children. Today, we all have photographs in which we can see ourselves at age six, our faces already intimating what they were to become. We have similar information about our parents and grandparents. And there’s a great poignancy in these photographs; they make you realize that these people really were children once. To be able to see oneself and one’s parents as children is an experience unique to our time. The camera has brought people a new, and essentially pathetic, relation to themselves, to their physical appearance, to aging, to their own mortality. It is a kind of pathos which never existed before.
Movius: But there’s something about what you say which contradicts the idea that photography distances us from historical events. From Anthony Lewis’ column in the New York Times this morning I jotted down this quote by Alexander Woodside, a specialist in Sino-Vietnamese studies at Harvard. He said: “Vietnam is probably one of the contemporary world’s purest examples of a history-dependent, history-obsessed society… The U.S. is probably the contemporary world’s purest example of a society which is perpetually trying to abolish history, to avoid thinking in historical terms, to associate dynamism with premeditated amnesia.” It struck me that, in your essays, you too are asserting about America that we are deracinated—we are not in possession of our past. Perhaps there is a redemptive impulse in our keeping photographic records.
Sontag: The contrast between America and Vietnam couldn’t he more striking. In Trip to Hanoi, the short book I wrote after my first trip to North Vietnam, in 1968, I described how struck I was by the Vietnamese taste for making historical connections and analogies, however crude or simple we might find them. Talking about the American aggression, the Vietnamese would cite something that the French had done, or something that happened during the thousands of years of invasions from China. The Vietnamese situate themselves in an historical continuum. That continuum contains repetitions. Americans, if they ever think about the past, are not interested in repetition. Major events like the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression are treated as unique, extraordinary, and discrete. It’s a different relation to experience: there is no sense of repetition. Americans have a completely linear sense of history—insofar as they have one at all.
Movius: And what would the role of photographs be in all this?
Sontag: The essential American relation to the past is not to carry too much of it. The past impedes action, saps energy. It’s a burden because it modifies or contradicts optimism. If photographs are our connection with the past, it’s a very peculiar, fragile, sentimental connection. You take a photograph before you destroy something. The photograph is its posthumous existence.
Movius: Why do you think Americans feel that the past is a burden?
Sontag: Because, unlike Vietnam, this isn’t a “real” country but a made-up, willed country, a meta-country. Most Americans are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, whose decision to come here had, to begin with, a great deal to do with cutting their losses. If immigrants retained a tie with their country or culture of origin, it was very selective. The main impulse was to forget. I once asked my father’s mother, who died when I was seven, where she came from. She said, “Europe.” Even at six I knew that wasn’t a very good answer. I said, “But where, Grandma?" She repeated, testily, “Europe.” And so to this day, I don’t know from what country my paternal grandparents came. But I have photographs of them, which I cherish, which are like mysterious tokens of all that I don’t know about them.
Movius: You talk about photographs as being strong, manageable, discrete, “neat” slices of time. Do you think that we retain a single frame more fully than we retain moving images?
Movius: Why do you think we remember the single photograph better?
Sontag: I think it has to do with the nature of visual memory. Not only do I remember photographs better than I remember moving images. But what I remember of a movie amounts to an anthology of single shots. I can recall the story, lines of dialogue, the rhythm. But what I remember visually are selected moments that I have, in effect, reduced to stills. It’s the same for one’s own life. Each memory from one’s childhood, or from any period that’s not in the immediate past, is like a still photograph rather than a strip of film. And photography has objectified this way of seeing and remembering.
Movius: Do you see “photographically”?
Sontag: Of course.
Movius: Do you take photographs?
Sontag: I don’t own a camera. I’m photograph junkie, but I don’t want to take them.
Sontag: Perhaps I might really get hooked.
Movius: Would that be bad? Would that mean that one had moved from being a writer to being something else?
Sontag: I do think that the photographer’s orientation to the world is in competition with the writer’s way of seeing.
Movius: How are they different?
Sontag: Writers ask more questions. It’s hard for the writer to work on the assumption that just anything can be interesting. Many people experience their lives as if they had cameras. But while they can see it, they can’t say it. When they report an interesting event, their accounts frequently peter out in the statement, “I wish I had had my camera.” There is a general breakdown in narrative skills, and few people tell stories well anymore.
Movius. Do you think that this breakdown is coincidental with the rise of photography, or do you think there is some direct causal relationship?
Sontag: Narration is linear. Photography is antilinear. People now have a very developed feeling for process and transience, but they don’t understand any more what constitutes a beginning, middle, and end. Endings or conclusions are discredited. Every narrative, like every psychotherapy, seems potentially interminable. So any ending seems arbitrary and becomes self-conscious, and the form of understanding with which we are comfortable is when things are treated as a slice or piece of something larger, potentially infinite. I think this sensibility is related to the lack of a sense of history that we were talking about earlier. I am astonished and disheartened by the very subjective view of the world that most people have, whereby they reduce everything to their own personal concerns and involvements. But perhaps, once again, that’s particularly American.
Movius: All of this also relates to your reluctance to rely principally on your own experience in your fiction.
Sontag: To write mainly about myself seems to me a rather indirect route to what I want to write about. Though my evolution as a writer has been toward more freedom with the “I,” and more use of my private experience, I have never been convinced that my tastes, my fortunes and misfortunes have any particularly exemplary character. My life is my capital, the capital of my imagination. I like to colonize.
Movius: Are you aware of these questions when you’re writing?
Sontag: Not at all when I write. When I talk about writing, yes. Writing is a mysterious activity. One has to be at different stages of conception and execution, in a state of extreme alertness and consciousness and in a state of great naivete and ignorance, Although this is probably true of the practice of any art, it may be more true of writing because the writer—unlike the painter or composer—works in a medium that one employs all the time, throughout one’s waking life. Kafka said: “Conversation takes the importance, the seriousness, the truth out of everything I think.” I would guess that most writers are suspicious of conversation, of what goes out in the ordinary uses of language. People deal with this in different ways. Some hardly talk at all. Others play games of concealment and avowal, as I am, no doubt, playing with you. There is only so much revealing one can do. For every self-revelation, there has to be a self-concealment. A life-long commitment to writing involves a balancing of these incompatible needs. But I do think that the model of writing as self-expression is much too crude. If I thought that what I’m doing when I write is expressing myself, I’d junk my typewriter. It wouldn’t be liveable-with. Writing is a much more complicated activity than that.
Movius: Doesn’t this bring us back to your own ambivalence about photography? You’re fascinated by it but you find it dangerously simple.
Sontag: I don’t think the problem with photography is that it’s too simple but that it’s too imperious a way of seeing. Its balance between being “present” and being “absent” is facile, when generalized as an attitude—which it is now in our culture. But I’m not against simplicity, as such. There is a dialectical exchange between simplicity and complexity, like the one between self-revelation and self-concealment. The first truth is that every situation is extremely complicated and that anything one thinks about thereby becomes more complicated. The main mistake people make when thinking about something, whether an historical event or one in their private lives, is that they don’t see just how complicated it is. The second truth is that one cannot live out all the complexities one perceives, and that to be able to act intelligently, decently, efficiently, and compassionately demands a great deal of simplification. So there are times when one has to forget—repress, transcend—a complex perception that one has.
Originally published in the June 1975 issue of Boston Review
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