Interview on April 24, 1984, excerpted from Issue 17
STUDENT: In your essay “The Aesthetics of Silence,” you say that “silence is a precondition of speech.” Would you explain what you’re getting at with that?
SONTAG: When I hear a sentence lifted out of an essay, I’m struck — somewhat unpleasantly — by how assertive it sounds. I know the essay is a form that condemns one to assertion. Still, I don’t really feel I’m asserting anything. Rather, in writing the essays, I feel I’m trying to start a kind of weather going which makes certain notions or experiences or sensitivities or, more specifically, the intense and passionate connection with certain works of art more possible.
The essays are all written to fight for something; they are polemical. Their limitation is that they presume a judgment — I hope a shrewd one — about prevailing winds of sensibility, in order to urge something else. Obviously, when the winds change, the essays take on another meaning. When the ideas in an essay become widely accepted, they interest me less. I see the limitation of the ideas, and I want to move on. All the essays represent the formulation, elaboration, and liquidation of long-standing passions. Writing them reduces my interest in their subjects considerably and frees me to go on to other things.
The sentence about silence being a precondition of speech came out of my quarrel with the kind of art that is often described by that wretched word “realism.” In that period I was trying to initiate a choreography of ideas that would allow more elliptical, mysterious kinds of art. I wanted to promote not only certain works of art that mattered to me, but a way of being. Without a great deal of silence, true silence — not silence as privation — one’s speech has no depth.
I’m loyal to silence. And I’m fascinated by the mad verbosity of Gertrude Stein — about whom my friend on my right [William Gass] has written so brilliantly. The run-on writers like Stein may write long, but also can write short. Another example is beckett, who writes shorter and shorter. But while in Beckett you feel the sucking of silence underneath the writing, in Stein you don’t. Stein is one of the few happy writers I can think of. Almost all the writers I love exhibit what Hegel called the “unhappy consciousness” but Stein seems to be, as the French say, bien dans sa peau; she’s really there in her work. She is primitive in that, like Verdi. I’m always stunned by the access Stein has. Though she can say dark things, “it” is not dark. She has an unforced connection with her work that is very rare for a modern writer. We’re all horribly, sometimes exhibitionistically, tormented by our work and our relation to it: how to make it better, how to meet these impossible standards that are in our heads.
STUDENT: Could you talk about “Project for a Trip to China”?
SONTAG: That story was a turning point for me. It was the first time I ever allowed myself to write autobiographically. I don’t say anything about myself that isn’t true, though there are many other true things I could relate about myself, the opposite of what I tell in the story. That is the nature of art, as Oscar Wilde pointed out. A truth in art is something the opposite of which is also true.
I did get an invitation to go to China and the story blasted its way through my head. I wrote it very quickly. It came out of a very strong emotion and the discovery of a new form. For I’m not at all interested in self-expression; I loathe the idea of self-expression. It was because I found the form that I could risk using autobiographical material. The emotion and the form came almost simultaneously. The form is the thing. I can’t write anything unless I have a form that seems right. I know what the form is before I know anything else. There are voices and they start intersecting in one way rather than another — and I can envisage the story. I am more and more interested in a kind of accelerated prose. I want forms that allow me to have a polyphony of voices and are themselves architecturally interesting.
STUDENT: Could you differentiate between the processes of writing fiction and writing essays?
SONTAG: Well, it feels completely different. It’s harder to write essays. For me, anyway. Bill Gass tells me he thinks it’s easier. Hermann Broch — who, by the way, is the unnamed Austrian Jewish sage in “Project for a Trip to China” — said it’s really the same thing for a certain kind of writer. Like himself. It means having a certain sort of speculative temperament that you have to begin with, strengthened by the fact that you were a philosophy student or became a philosophy teacher. That’s true of Bill Gass, of me, of T.S. Eliot, and BRoch; we were all philosophy students. TO us a certain kind of speculative essay writing and fiction writing came very close together, because we were speculating in fiction and creating structures of sensibility and sensuality in essays. So, ideally of course — though it’s unfashionable to say — they are the same thing. And yet I find that in the actual work they aren’t.
I feel much freer in writing fiction. When I sit down to write an essay, I’m fighting something in my temperament that doesn’t want to be linear and doesn’t want to be so assertive. When I can write an essay that I’m pleased with, it often goes through fifteen or twenty drafts. If the essays didn’t take so long, I would have written much more fiction. The six essays in On Photography took five years. That’s an insane amount of time. But I’m so stubborn that once I start I don’t want to give up.
Recently, however, I had the great pleasure of giving something up. I had been working on an essay of about eighty pages for almost a year and a half, and I gave it up. I’ve never done that in my life. I thought that this essay would take six months. After a year and a half, and some six or seven hundred pages in various drafts, I saw that it was going to take another year. It was a very ambitious essay on the idea of revolution, on the relation of intellectuals and revolution, on the notion of utopia. And I decided I wasn’t going to give another year of my life to this.