PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.2 (2005) 1-9
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Art and Consciousness
Susan Sontag interviewed by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta
I remember very well the day we taped this interview with Susan Sontag. Gautam Dasgupta and I were already waiting in her apartment at 106th Street when she arrived and, smiling, said "I'm all yours" before settling down for our conversation. She had just returned from a chemotherapy treatment. She was wearing brown slacks and a brown sweater, with a gold silk Indian scarf, folded at her neck. It was February 1977. Susan Sontag was forty-four years old. We were planning the interview for the fifth issue of PAJ, which was published the fall of that year.
It was perfectly natural to include Sontag in an issue whose other pages featured a special section on experimental theatre, with contributions by Sam Shepard, Megan Terry, Carolee Schneemann, Stanley Kauffmann; articles on contemporary dance, text-sound art, Fassbinder, and European festivals; a new Edward Bond play. Unusual for American intellectuals who have largely ignored the non-literary arts, Sontag had a far-ranging knowledge of world theatre, opera, and dance, in addition to film and painting. She was a passionate theatregoer, sometime playwright and director, who could be seen frequently at BAM or Lincoln Center or in downtown spaces. While her literary work is widely known and celebrated, it is perhaps less evident how much she cared for and wrote about and supported the world of performance over four decades.
I am grateful for the encouragement she always gave to PAJ. Like any young person in the downtown scene at the time, I wanted Sontag to acknowledge our publication. She always understood the new, the avant-garde. She appreciated work outside the mainstream. She valued independent small presses. Mainly, she cared about what you were doing if she respected your endeavors. She had critical perceptions that went in complicated directions and yet made fine historical distinctions. In this interview she demonstrates her knowledge of the then new theatre of artists such as Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman, linking many of the concerns of the seventies, such as perception, consciousness, and imagery, to the modernist legacy. (I was already preoccupied with these issues in The Theatre of Images, which was published a few months after our interview.) No matter what the era, Sontag was always our contemporary. It was the rare writer, performer, [End Page 1] filmmaker, or artist who didn't want to be noticed by her luxurious mind and discerning eye. The intellectual landscape of New York is forever changed at her death. Who remains to distinguish the ecology of images?
Sontag was always supportive of our publishing activities, not only the journal from its early stages, but in the next decade when we started to publish fiction and other non-theatre titles. I can recall a long afternoon at her place, by now she had moved downtown, during which she pulled out from her bookshelves several foreign-language editions, suggesting possible projects for us to consider. One of them that comes to mind is the untranslated autobiographical writings of Robert Musil. We sent her every journal we ever published and most of the books. (Could they be hardback copies?—OK, sure.) It gives me great pleasure to know that so many PAJ publications are in her beloved book collection.
In the last conversation we had just over a year ago, by telephone, I made some remarks congratulating her on Regarding the Pain of Others, then launched into a discussion of several older artists I knew who were doing such good work. But, when I lamented that it was a struggle for them in this culture, how hard it was to keep going, Sontag wasn't interested in such complaints. Did I think Goya didn't struggle? (Your're right. You're right.) I could find no defense against her steadfast belief in the exemplary. She respected struggle.
I had seen examples of that up close. One summer evening, in 1999...