Magazine article Salmagundi

Women, the Arts, & the Politics of Culture: An Interview with Susan Sontag

Magazine article Salmagundi

Women, the Arts, & the Politics of Culture: An Interview with Susan Sontag

Article excerpt

R.B.: In the mid '60s, when I was coming of age, and you were yourself a very young writer, it seemed the most eagerly anticipated of literary 'events' was the publication of a new essay by Susan Sontag, usually in Partisan Review. The essay didn't have to be as timely as "Notes on Camp" or the piece on science fiction-it might dwell on moral sententiousness in Camus, or on the aspect of disinterestedness involved in an appreciation of style. Those of us who went through those years, awaiting expectantly your new work, are delighted that you are once again writing speculative essays on a more or less regular basis. Word of your return, in this sense, to the intellectual scene, had been circulated for some time, and with the publication of the recent essay on Leni Riefenstahl in The New York Review of Books there can be few serious readers who do not know how important that return can be. Did you anticipate the interest that the Riefenstahl essay would generate?

SONTAG: It's always agreeable to be welcomed back, though I don't think I've been away. What seemed to you like an absence was for me a going on. After the mid '60s, I wrote a second novel (Death Kit), then made two movies; in the last two years I've published five smaller fictions, made a third film (Promised Lands), and been tunneling through a third novel. As for essays, I never stopped writing them but I did decide to write fewer. The ones that have appeared recently in The New York Review are another go at the same problems that I've been stalking for years-the idea of "modernity," the relation between moral and aesthetic ideas-but, maybe because I'm no longer "a very young writer," the problems seem more and more complex. And I'm still only interested in writing about hard cases. Lately I've been using some ideas I've had about the careers of photographed images to get at these problems in another way. The Riefenstahl essay is not part of the photography series (which will come out as a book early next year), although it was her book of photographs, The Last of the Nuba, that supplied me with a pretext for discussing her work as a whole and for reopening the subject of fascist aesthetics. I did expect the essay to matter, because the campaign underway since the '60s to rehabilitate Riefenstahl-minimizing her official connection with the Nazi regime, obfuscating what is explicit in her work-had been so successful.

MJL: In your essay "On Style" written in 1965 and included in Against Interpretation, you state:

"To call Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will and The Olympiad masterpieces is not to gloss over Nazi propaganda with aesthetic lenience. The Nazi propaganda is there. But something else is there, too, which we reject at our loss. Because they project the complex movements of intelligence and grace and sensuousness, these two films of Riefenstahl (unique among works of Nazi artists) transcend the categories of propaganda or even reportage. And we find ourselves-to be sure, rather uncomfortably -seeing ' Hitler ' and not Hitler, the ' 1936 Olympics ' and not the 1936 Olympics. Through Riefenstahl's genius as a filmmaker, the 'content' has-let us even assume, against her intentions-come to play a purely formal role."

And, you continue: "A work of art, so far as it is a work of art, cannotwhatever the artist's personal intention-advocate anything at all."

Yet, in The New York Review in February 1975, you seem to be denying that earlier critical evaluation of Riefenstahl's work, where you refer to Triumph of the Will as "... the most successfully, most purely propagandists film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker's having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda."

I assume, in the context of these very separate approaches to evaluating Riefenstahl, that there has been a change of large dimensions in your approach to criticism. Do you agree with me? Or do you see a continuity between these two essays which you could perhaps clarify here? …

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