The Listener; Reflections on darkness

Few modern writers are so well acquainted with suffering as Susan Sontag. In this week's selection from the best of BBC Radio, she looks back on the 20th century in the light of her experiences in Sarajevo, and of her recent treatment for cancer
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Presenter and literary editor of the Toronto Star


Journalist and writer

NOAH RICHLER: In 1972, Susan Sontag wrote of a terrible and mean American resentment toward the writer who does too much. It's a kind of acrimony she might easily have experienced herself - such a versatile writer and, back then, in her thirties, already a critic and a novelist patently seeking to reinvent herself with each new work.

Born in New York in 1933, Sontag started writing, she says, at seven; she finished High School at 15, moved on to University and was married two years later. She published her first novel, The Benefactor, when she was 30. She followed it with a couple more fictions, Death Kit and I, etcetera; and in 1966 with an account of the trip she made to Hanoi during America's war with Vietnam.

Her book on photography appeared after that, and in 1977 a bout with cancer led to perhaps her most widely read essay, "Illness as Metaphor". But you could say that Sontag didn't really come into her own until the publication of her novel The Volcano Lover in 1992. This imagines the life of William Hamilton, his second wife, Emma, and her lover, Admiral Nelson, and explores the chaos and barbarities of the Neapolitan rebellion of 1799, and the inferior position of women, then and now, one of the author's persistent concerns.

The interest in war that is such a part of The Volcano Lover, and her long-held belief in the power of art, led Sontag later that year to Sarajevo, where she directed Waiting for Godot, an astonishing act of normality in a city under siege. Sontag, who has just finished the last draft of a new novel, In America, dedicated to her friends in Sarajevo, divides her time between Bari in Italy and New York, where she is recovering from a second and serious bout with cancer. But even this is not impeding her plans to revisit Sarajevo this coming New Year's Eve. It seemed fitting to ask whether or not the subject of war is a core idea in her work.

SUSAN SONTAG: No I don't think so, but I think if there were I would not be the best person to see it. It's my hope or illusion that each focus is quite different from the one before, but of course you can't step over your own feet, and there certainly must be core themes or obsessions or passions - that I'm sure of. It's hard for me to identify because it would sound so general and obvious. For instance, something I'm very upset or horrified or appalled by is cruelty. So I suppose there is a protest against cruelty or injustice in the fiction and in the essays.

NR: What do you think have been the defining moments for the century?

SS: Certainly the initial defining moment of the century is the First World War and the end of the First World War, and the break-up of the old empires. The Austro-Hungarian empire totally reshaped the century, and the war reshaped the countries that were defeated, notably Germany; and the countries that, so to speak, won - like England and France - were never the same afterwards. Some people, like Eric Hobsbawm, would say that this is a short century, and that is an idea that rather fascinates me: that the 20th century is a short century, running from 1914 to, say, 1989. The 19th century runs from 1815 - from the settlement after the defeat of Napoleon - until 1914. So centuries in a historical or cultural sense don't end on the double- zeros. Our short century, then, would begin with the First World War, and a total catastrophe for Europe, without which the Russian Revolution wouldn't have happened, etcetera. Not to mention Nazism and the destruction of European jewry, and then ending with the suicide of the Soviet Union in 1989. So in a way it makes sense to say we are already living in the 21st century, and that it began in 1989 and continues.

NR: You've written very passionately about Bosnia and Kosovo, and one of the things that has fascinated me about that is that you presage a lot of what you've seen there in The Volcano Lover. In that novel, published in 1992, there is a great preoccupation with the nature of violence, in your portrayal of the Neapolitan rebellion and so on, and some scenes of savagery witnessed. Did you see anything in Bosnia or Kosovo to change or confirm those ideas?

SS: No. Bosnia was my third war, and - living in North America, where wars in that sense do not take place, not within my lifetime at least - I sometimes ask myself why I've managed to turn up without meaning to. I was in Vietnam twice during the war, I was in Israel at the time of the October War in 1973, and made a film there about it. And I was in Bosnia for the best part of three years. I can't explain this tropism to war, except by saying that I am appalled, and want to bear witness. I can say that in a sense I speak out of real knowledge and real feeling. The experience, of course, is always a new experience, but, in Sarajevo, being in a siege taking place in Europe, close to 50 years after the end of the Second World War, in a country where there are now death camps as there have not been in Europe since the Forties, was an extraordinary fact to assimilate, and it reminded one that these things are always possible.

There are other ways in which the siege of Sarajevo was a very special experience. It wasn't simply an experience of war - it was an experience of the continuity of human life. You cannot imagine the degree of deprivation that went on there. Barely any food, no heat, no light, no glass in the windows, no electricity, no mail, no telephone, totally cut off, constant danger. War is noise, tremendous noise, and death around you. And any moment you could have your head blown off, and people were to your right and your left. And yet there is an amazing continuity of behaviour. At every level you would see people continuing with their lives.

In a room where I stayed, there were two metal waste-baskets, one of which I would fill with water which I would painstakingly procure (the pumps were, of course, very dangerous places to go to, because the Serbs were always firing at people in water lines). So in one metal waste-basket there would be water for a bit of token bathing, slapping on of a towel in various places, that is, when you dared to take your clothes off. It was so cold - the same temperature indoors as out.

And the other waste-basket was to be used for the normal purpose, and I realised that the waste-basket was always empty. There was nothing to throw away. I wasn't buying anything; there was nothing to read, no daily newspapers or magazines to throw out; there were no wrappings or packages. The waste-basket stayed empty, and I thought how interesting it was to have this experience of feeling totally stripped-back, just having to stay alive, holding hands with people - there's a lot of holding hands - huddling, and then doing very normal things as you dodge bullets while you cross the street. But absolutely nothing to buy, nothing to acquire, nothing to dispose of. That actually felt quite good.

I don't want to make romance out of the siege, but there is something about being stripped-down that was extraordinary. And I know it might seem easy for me to say that, because I was a foreigner who could come and go. I had UN credentials, I could, with difficulty, get in and out on UN troop planes, and the people there were stuck. But I also heard them say the same thing, that it was sort of nice to be done with a whole lot of nonsense and just to live very simply. It was an odd lesson to learn.

When I was going to Bosnia and I would come back periodically to the States where I was working for Bosnian refugees, people would say, "Why are you doing this?" And what they meant was, "Why are you risking your life?" And I would say, "Can't you imagine risking your life for anything?" Lots of people said no. "No, can't imagine it, can't imagine risking my life for anything that wasn't, you know, my mother being run over by a car, my child or something like that." Not of risking your life out of a sense of moral duty, or out of a sense of solidarity with other people. They didn't actually get it, they didn't understand. They thought I was crazy.

And I'd say, "Well, look at those people in Czechoslovakia." I meant those people, mostly intellectuals and professionals, in Czechoslovakia, who signed those petitions in 1968 after the Russian invasion, every last one of whom lost their job and ended up being a street cleaner or a window cleaner. Their children were denied access to the University, they lost their apartments, and all because they signed a petition. They weren't risking their lives, but they certainly were incurring enormous disadvantages to themselves.

And then there was the handful of Muscovites who went into Red Square in August 1968 with placards, in protest against the invasion by Russia of Czechoslovakia. They were promptly hauled off to jail. And I would ask, "What do you think of those people?" And everyone I know said, "I can't imagine doing that - how could I follow the Czech example? Sign a petition which I know would deprive my children of a university education?"

So I think since the Sixties or early Seventies there's been an erosion of the basis for altruistic action, and of the feeling that it's good to make sacrifices. And if that means sacrificing people around you or people who depend on you, well, they should understand that there is a nobility in that. The notion of self-sacrifice is very eroded. I think most moral values are now conceived of in terms of it being healthy to do such and such.

NR: Do you ever imagine returning to the subjects of "Illness as Metaphor" or "Aids and its metaphors", considering your recent illness?

SS: Well, now that I know I'm in remission again, after being ill for a year and a half, I might, I just might. I always think that writing about illness is for others, not for me. I have no impulse just to tell my story. You know, I learnt I had cancer, I cried, I had this treatment and I suffered, etc, etc - that does not interest me at all. It might interest me one day in a novel to have a cancer patient, but it takes me a very long time to process anything, so that could be years ahead.

But being a patient again after 22 years of perfect health was strange. The diagnosis that I had 22 years ago was that I was in stage four of the cancer, and had six months to live, but I had marvellous treatment. Being a patient now is a different experience. Medicine has changed, has become much more of a business in the United States. And the whole configuration - the relationship between doctor and patient - has changed, in some ways for the better, but in a lot of ways for the worse. I could write something if I thought it would be useful to other people. I've been told by many people that my first two essays on illness were very helpful, and that they saved some people's lives, because they made them change their doctors or go to the doctor when they had been too afraid to.

Essay-writing for me is something that I do to feel that I am doing something good, something that's not for me. Fiction, on the other hand, to which I'm totally committed now, I just write because I think it's a wonderful thing to do.

NR: You explicitly avoid making reference to your personal experience in "Illness as Metaphor" and "Aids and its metaphors" - but don't you think that would be enlightening for some?

SS: Well, I probably would be personal if I wrote something now on illness again. I'm very slowly learning to say "I" in the essay, but it's very hard. I never think it's about me, and I'm not interested in expressing myself. I'm interested in the idea that it's not about me. But I'm getting a little more free in my writing now, especially in the fiction that I've been writing recently. So maybe, if I write essays again, that freedom will show in the essays too...

BBC Radio 3's `Sunday Feature: Viewing the Century' can be heard this evening at 5.45pm