'Sontag: Her Life and Work' by Benjamin Moser



Today I'm very pleased to have as my guest the very brilliant Benjamin Moser who is the author of two biographies of Women Writers The I was a biography of Cou- reese the specter which did a good deal of bringing the Specter a writer who spent a good majority of for life in Brazil to the attention of American readers and the second is the biography of Susan's son tag her life and work which has been a controversial book as if a biography could be controversial but nevertheless this is the way it seems now what do you think of the controversy that seems to have surrounded this book well I think a book about Susan Santa that wasn't controversial would not be a book about Susan's contact I think she's somebody who elicited very heavy very visceral and sometimes violent opinions all through her life and I don't really see this controversial this book I see it more as just I hope it's something starting a conversation about an author that I think is more essential than ever Monsanto was always associated with fashion she was associated with with photography associated with being on the cover of Vanity Fair and the only possible American intellectual who could have been on the cover of Vanity Fair I think the real writers that we actually care about are the ones who go on after their deaths and who have these chances to be reevaluated I can remember the first time I read Susan Sonntags First Book which was against interpret Tation can you remember the first time he read against interpretation yes I can't because I actually hadn't read it until I started working on this book really I know I had read the Auger fi stuff mainly and then I had read essays from against interpretation I think I hadn't read the whole book I'd read notes on Camp I'd read the title essay I'd read some of the film essays but what was really exciting about going back to read it now is that you see a world you see this time which is quite again it feels contemporary but it's all most sixty years old you know against interpretation but you get this whole Panorama of culture and ideas that feels very adding to me I have to tell you it was the first of her books that I read I was astonished by it because Some of the enormity of range of what she's read I mean just when she makes a list of the books that she thinks of you think Oh my you'd already read that in the early sixties choose only in her early thirties to thirty when that book came out before it became fashionable to avert Arto Susan cared about our toll and in fact you know she seems to no that the time she's living in as opposed to the time she died in was a time when p do new things I- slivered out some quotes from Susan let's hear Susan people want to be moved on is a writer want to move people I was very moved cried even a couple of passes that I was riding this one line that made me laugh grimly where I wanna say I say but I don't feel it's me the book says it was a time when knowledge was fashionable Philistinism was unfashionable and I wrote that line with a great deal of Glee and grimness has a time we live in as a time in which knowledge is unfashionable Philipson as it was very fashionable I'm talking to Benjamin Moser son tags biographer that what you just heard was the very first time I sat face to face with Susan from our first conversation and You considered deeply the subject of knowledge and Philistinism and Susan's almost desire to attack the Philistines can you talk to me that I think it's really funny I think it's one of the great American questions I think we're living in a time when Philistinism seems triumphant we don't have to name names but I think we all know who I'm talking about and I think that there's a kind of feeling that we're always being engulfed by the gold escalator and the the all the things in her lifetime worse symbolic of Middle Brow Ism whether it was life magazine in the book of the month club or elevator music all these kind of things Santiago always stood for the opposite of all that crap now you seem to think she becomes as she lives longer and longer harder and harder on the people around her tell me what you mean tell me what that means a lot of it might have had to do the fact that she was physically ill a lot of her life when she was forty two she got stage four breast cancer and it almost killed her and she was subjected to this very gruesome horrifying treatment that did end up saving her life and that's nineteen in seventy five to seventy eight so she's in her mid forties by then and it seemed to me that something did change in her where she got more impatient she got more intolerant of certain people but I think that it's something that's interesting to try to understand what happens but then AH dwell on it too much because what I'm really interested in in Santiago and what I think makes her relevant is her writing and her ideas I think that what we're talking about is a person who wrote in the introduction to against interpretation that we need an erotics of art not a her renewed ix of art and she writes about her fondness for the supremes which at that time you take some on won't take any number of someone's whether it's Irving Hauer Saul bellow they're not listening to the supremes they find it be quite a surprise that a highly thought of intellectual is talking about the supremes by the end of her life she's not talking about the supreme sending more and she's not talking about neurotic criticism no well I think it's very important again to think about how old a lot of this is this is again it's almost it's more than fifty years ago in that time and in that year that was really shocking and it's absolutely really hilarious to see the reactions that she got because the thing about the supreme it's not like she wrote about this frame she said something about how she likes the supremes in one line nobody it followed her the whole life but you point down very well and intelligently and correctly in this book the Cultural Conservatives awesome is has very little to do with political conservatism. Well this is another idea that I think has been forgotten sondheim comes out of a world where out of me education where what she means a small C. conservatism is starting off with Plato and Aristotle and going up to Dante and Shakespeare through the great modern poets and that love that syllabus that Canon that became extremely unfashionable and now I think we're in a world where people aren't reacting against Beethoven you know they don't even know who Beethoven is Dante Shakespeare and so both the people who wanted to modernize that and expand it for example to feminist African American authors those people lost out just as much as the people who wanted it closed for political reasons from the right wing and what happens in that song tag is very perceptive about time and time again it said it all lose out to money it always is out to consumerism and so what happens is you know famous a great painting becomes an expensive painting a great song becomes a song that gets a lot of play on the radio a lot of clicks on the Internet and that's the thing we're in now come talking once again to Benjamin Moser Susan Sonntags biographer in a book from Echo called Sawa tag do you think that you're writing a biography of Susan or in addition a biography of her times well I think both the book is called Sante her life and work and those are two things that are complementary but I'd really there's a lot I'd like people to remember that people don't remember people don't member for example that it was quite common for women to write their husbands books as happened to attack yes fascinated yeah I had no idea will I didn't either I've inhabited this world of the great female intellectuals having done Clarissa Specter before and then Sante it's a world that generation of my grandparents grandmother's generation that I'm familiar with and so about three months ago this piece came out in the Guardian announcing that I had discovered that Sante had actually written the book upon which her husband's career was based book called for the mind with moralist and this piece went viral everybody was talking wrote me and they said are you kidding this happen to everybody nobody wire people so surprised and the reason they're surprise is that I think feminism has made so many gains is that people have forgotten what it was like so when you're talking about a history of her life and times when she applied she's got Souza's very brilliant student and she comes into the World king world and she applies for a job at a magazine and her friend a male friend says well the fact that you're a woman is a real problem but we're going to try to help them get over that and that was a totally normal thing to say to a woman at that time now you would get sued and you know rightly so a lot of the ideas that we think are able in in our culture whether you think about the position of African Americans do you think about the position of women are homosexuals or all these things they've changed really radically and one of the things I think a book like the biographies and Sonic can do is trace the evolution of these ideas so that's the part that I find fascinating because sometimes she's ahead of things and somehow she's behind wind and sometimes she's struggling to understand new ideas as they come into the world it's a fascinating

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