Jonathan Lethem and Phillip Lopate deconstruct Susan Sontag.
“Writer, critic and teacher Phillip Lopate reads from his recent critical essay Notes on Sontag, a revelatory and incisive analysis of the life and writings of critic and icon Susan Sontag. With writer Jonathan Lethem, he engages in a lively and exciting debate about Sontag’s career, contradictions and contributions.”
Phillip Lopate, a writer who is usually described as “remorselessly honest”, has a kind, gentle, and precise way of speaking, and his generously exact analysis of human behavior and motivations are endlessly interesting.
“Lopate says, “for me, to be a good writer is already subversive. It’s subversive against mediocrity. And one of the ways you can be subversive is to resist the canonical subversions which are being put forward as the only kind of subversions that matter.”
In the podcast:
He talks about his favorite kind of writing assignment as sitting, thinking, and “ruminating”.
Sontag’s “pet-dislikes”, the personal, humanism, and psychology.
This hilarious fact that characters in Godard films “never had parents - they never came from anyone because they lived in the present”. That they seemed anti-psychology.
Sontag’s culturally-determined, class-issue position against the memoir, that she wanted to focus on “the new and the cutting-edge”.
Lopate on how he has (and hasn’t) been influenced by Sontag: “I have always been perverse from an early age on in that as a teenager I thought, well I can enlist in the avant-garde or NOT enlist in the avant-garde”; “I went like everybody else in those years…but then I would go back and try to find what was alive for me in tradition, so it wasn’t that I was anti-avant-garde, it was that I wasn’t that interested in finding the next new thing”; “I thought I liked William Burroughs…and it turned out I didn’t. [These avant-garde writers] served a function for [Sontag’s] argument but she kind of hypnotized me into liking them…In a sense it was all coming out of Samuel Beckett - Beckett was the ruling genius….This was exciting, but it wasn’t particularly nourishing to me. I would go to Beckett plays and I would think ‘yes, very good!’, but then I would go back to reading Henry Fielding or Diderot or something like that. I had a kind of anxiety of influence, that’s the way Harold Bloom would call it. I had problems with the enormity of the Jewish-American writers just ahead of me, like Bellow and Roth and Malamud. I felt like they were taking up all the oxygen, I had go somewhere else. And Sontag was another key Jewish-American writer.’
Sontag’s origins from Arizona and focus on reinventing herself as a European intellectual to avoid being “incurably middlebrow”. On ‘the American’, “she condescended to it and didn’t understand it - she thought it shallow.”
Lopate “flinching” at everything written on Sontag, and talking about her writing style “like being translated from another language”, and on European writers and her need “to write in their idiom”.
Sontag’s ”aphoristic style” of writing, her “high rhetoric that really works better at a shorter distance”.