A humanizing interview with the late cultural icon, who was often perceived as a fiercely aggressive and polarizing intellect.
In 1978, Rolling Stone contributing editor Cott (Days that I'll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 2012, etc.) conducted this interview with the woman he had known as a professor when he was a student, and RS published it the following year. It is reminiscent of a time when popular magazines would commit what now seems an unthinkable number of pages to the profile of a serious author. Though it ran long in the magazine, it runs much longer here, offering a conversational warmth that some might find more inviting than Sontag’s published work. Though she says, “I’m not really a polemicist,” she maintains that the writer’s mission is “to be in an aggressive and adversarial relationship to falsehoods of all kinds.” What she perceived as falsehoods were often controversial, but her interviewer never offers a hint of challenge. Cott is more like an acolyte, occasionally fawning, asking questions that reflect his own erudition. This interview ran a quarter-century before Sontag’s death, but it captured her at the peak of her cultural prominence, discussing Illness as Metaphor and On Photography, showing how slack metaphors and reductive interpretation misrepresent the essence of reality. Most illuminating is the personal detail—e.g., how she started reading seriously at 3 and “was writing up a storm by the time I was eight or nine years old.” What made her perfect for that magazine at that time was her pivotal role in the bridging of high and popular culture: “When I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.” Or, as she had previously written, “If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then—of course—I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?”
Another side of a significant 20th-century writer, preserved from the archives.