Transcript: Susan Sontag on The Crisis in Literary Studies | Jan 29, 2005

Maurice Elliott appears on screen standing in front of a podium speaking into a microphone. Maurice is in his sixties, has short, side-parted, dark gray hair, has glasses, a gray beard and moustache, and wears a gray suit, white pinstriped shirt, and red tie.

Maurice Elliott says WELL, I'VE
GONE ON AND ON.

A caption reads "Maurice Elliot, York University."

The caption changes to "Living Literacies Conference, November 2002."

Maurice Elliot continues ONCE AGAIN ILLUSTRATING Ms.
SONTAG'S FAMOUS PHRASE, THAT
ANALYSIS IS THE REVENGE OF THE
INTELLECT UPON ART.

The audience chuckles.

Maurice Elliott says LET'S SAY
THAT I HAVE FORGOTTEN MYSELF
AND HAVE BEEN IN THE ELSEWHERE
OF A BOOK.
IT DOES OF
COURSE ALLOW ME TO PRESENT YET
ANOTHER INTRODUCTION, THE BEST
KIND, FROM HERSELF.
IN 1996, IN THE LETTER TO THE
SHADE OF BARHEZ, "IF BOOKS
DISAPPEAR, HISTORY WILL
DISAPPEAR AND HUMAN BEINGS WILL
DISAPPEAR.
I'M SURE YOU ARE RIGHT, BOOKS
ARE NOT ONLY THE ARBITRARY SUMS
OF OUR DREAMS, OF MEMORY, THEY
ALSO GIVE US A MODEL OF SELF-
TRANSCENDENCE.
SOME PEOPLE THINK OF READING
ONLY AS A KIND OF ESCAPE, AN
ESCAPE FROM THE REAL EVERYDAY
WORLD TO AN IMAGINARY WORLD--
THE WORLD OF BOOKS.
BOOKS ARE MUCH MORE.
THEY ARE A WAY OF BEING FULLY
HUMAN."
I ASK YOU TO WELCOME SUSAN
SONTAG, HONORABLE INTELLECTUAL,
DISTINGUISHED ARTIST AND PROUD
MOTHER.
[Applause]

Susan Sontag approaches the stage from the audience.

Susan Sontag is in her forties, has shoulder length, side-parted black hair, and wears a red striped sweater.

Susan Sontag says WELL THAT WAS
THE MOST WONDERFUL INTRODUCTION
I'VE EVER HAD IN A LIFETIME OF
BEING INTRODUCED ON A STAGE.
[Applause]

Susan Sontag continues I'M SO
OVERWHELMED THAT I REALLY FEEL
THAT'S ENOUGH.
THAT WAS...

The audience chuckles.

Susan Sontag says I CAN'T LIVE
UP.
NOT ONLY CAN I NOT LIVE UP TO
THE INTRODUCTION, I DON'T EVEN
KNOW THAT I CAN...
I'M ABOUT TO UTTER SENTENCES AS
ELOQUENT AND AS FINELY CRAFTED
AS THE ONES THAT YOU'VE JUST
HEARD.

A caption reads "Susan Sontag, Writer."

The caption changes to "Living Literacies Conference November 2002."

Susan Sontag continues BUT I WILL,
I'M AFRAID, TAKE MORE OF YOUR
TIME BY RESPONDING A LITTLE BIT
TO THE INTRODUCTION.
UM, THE POINT OF MY WORK IS NOT
TO DRAW ATTENTION TO MYSELF.
AND REMARKS
SUCH AS IN THAT VICIOUS NEW
YORK TIMES PERSONAL ATTACK ON
ME IN THE GUISE OF A REVIEW OF
A RECENT BOOK WAS VERY WOUNDING
TO ME.
I UNDERSTAND OF COURSE IF YOU
ARE OUT THERE IN THE WORLD
DOING THINGS YOU'RE GOING TO
MAKE ENEMIES AND YOU'RE GOING
TO HAVE CRITICS AND I DON'T...
I CAN'T IN PRINCIPLE OBJECT TO
THAT AND I JUST HAVE TO ACCEPT
THAT BECAUSE I KNOW THERE ARE
OTHER PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT MY
WORK AND FIND IT WORTHY.
BUT WHAT DOES DISTURB ME IS ANY
KIND OF IMPUTATION THAT THE
WORK IS SOME WAY OF PRESENTING
MYSELF WHEREAS I FEEL...
DESPITE THE FACT THAT I AM
HERE, IN PERSON PRESENTING SOME
RECENT IDEAS THAT I'VE HAD ON A
SUBJECT RELATED TO THE SUBJECT
OF THIS SYMPOSIUM, I DON'T FEEL
THE WORK IS A WAY OF PRESENTING
MYSELF.
I FEEL ON THE CONTRARY THAT I
AM THE SERVANT OF THE WORK AND
IT REALLY HAS NOTHING TO DO
WITH ME, EXCEPT THAT I'M THE
CARETAKER OF IT, OR I'M THE
PERSON WHO TAKES CARE OF THIS
PERSON WHO WRITES THAT WORK.
IN MANY WAYS IT'S QUITE
DIFFERENT FROM ME PERSONALLY
AND IN SOME WAYS MY WORK IS
MUCH MORE INTELLIGENT THAN I
AM.
AND FOR A VERY
GOOD REASON BY THE WAY.
IT'S NOT JUST A JOKE.
I'M A TREMENDOUS RE-WRITER.
EVERYTHING I WRITE GOES THROUGH
MANY, MANY, MANY DRAFTS.
AND I FEEL THAT I AM MY FIRST
DRAFT BUT THEN I'M A VERY GOOD
RE-WRITER.
AND I'M EXTREMELY TENACIOUS AND
I'M EXTREMELY STUBBORN AND I
KNOW HOW TO IMPROVE--RADICALLY
IMPROVE--
WHAT I GET FIRST ONTO THE PAGE.
SO THAT IN THE END IT'S A LOT
BETTER THAN WHEN I STARTED
BECAUSE I HAVE SOMETHING TO
WORK WITH AND IT GOES THROUGH
MANY STAGES OF THAT SORT.
BUT I'M ACTUALLY NOT AS SMART
AS THE END RESULT.
I JUST KNOW HOW TO TAKE THE
JOURNEY TO MAKE THE WORK
BETTER.
IN MY OWN LIFE I'M NOT
INTERESTED IN SOME OF THE
THINGS I HAVE PARTICULARLY
EMPHASIZED IN MY WORK BUT MORE
IN AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL WAY.
I HAVE PASSIONS AND INTERESTS,
WHICH I HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO
GET INTO THE WORK.
IT'S A LONG, COMPLICATED
JOURNEY BUT IT DOES HAVE TO
DO--
AND I FREELY CONFESS THIS FIRST
OF ALL--
WITH MORAL CONCERNS.
FOR ME LITERATURE AND THE
VOCATION OF BEING A WRITER IS A
MORAL VOCATION.
I WANT TO JUST SAY ONE OTHER
THING BEFORE WE BEGIN A LITTLE
BIT BELATEDLY THE IDEAS THAT I
WANT TO SHARE WITH YOU THIS
MORNING.
I WAS VERY TOUCHED TO HEAR THE
NAME OF NORMAN BETHUNE A FEW
MOMENTS AGO.
NORMAN BETHUNE WAS MY FIRST
CANADIAN.
WHEN I WAS ABOUT EIGHT YEARS
OLD OR NINE YEARS OLD I READ A
BIOGRAPHY OF NORMAN BETHUNE.
AND I WANTED TO BECOME A DOCTOR
THROUGHOUT MY CHILDHOOD AND
ADOLESCENT.
AND MY IDEA WAS TO BECOME A
PHYSICIAN AND GO OFF TO SOME
INCREDIBLY POOR PLACE AND
DEVOTE MY LIFE TO SOME KIND OF
SOCIAL WORK IN THE FORM OF
BEING A PHYSICIAN.
AND NORMAN BETHUNE...
IN FACT, I WOULD SAY NORMAN
BETHUNE IS ACTUALLY QUITE
DECISIVE IN THAT VOCATION
BECAUSE ORIGINALLY...
YOU CAN SEE HOW MY LIFE HAS
OPERATED THROUGH BOOKS.
MY VERY EARLIEST IDEA WAS TO
BECOME A CHEMIST, BECAUSE I HAD
READ A BIOGRAPHY OF MADAME
CURIE.
AND THEN I READ A BIOGRAPHY OF
NORMAN BETHUNE AND I DECIDED I
WANTED TO BECOME A DOCTOR.
SO NORMAN BETHUNE WAS ACTUALLY
AND EARLY MODEL FOR ME.
A VERY EARLY MODEL.
I WAS STILL IN A SINGLE DIGIT
NUMBER.
I THINK I WAS EIGHT OR NINE
WHEN I READ THIS BIOGRAPHY OF
NORMAN BETHUNE.
IT WAS AN EARLY MODEL FOR ME OF
MORAL SERIOUSNESS BECAUSE I
THOUGHT OF MEDICINE AS A MORAL
VOCATION.
AND THEN LATER ON IN MY
UNIVERSITY YEARS TWO IMMINENT
CANADIAN THINKERS WERE VERY
IMPORTANT TO ME.
THE FIRST ONE BEING NORTHRUP
FRYE AND THE SECOND
CHRONOLOGICALLY, MARSHALL
McLUHAN.
SO IT WAS LOVELY TO HEAR THOSE
NAMES TODAY THIS MORNING.
I WANT TO TALK
ABOUT A LARGER ISSUE THAT'S
RAISED IN MY MIND BY QUESTION
OF LITERACY AND LITERATURE AND
THE IDEA THAT LITERATURE AND
LITERACY AND READING AND
SERIOUS READERSHIPS ARE ALL IN
DANGER.
WHICH IS OF
COURSE A VERY COMMON VIEW.
MY OWN SENSE ABOUT THIS DEBATE,
WHICH IS CONDUCTED LARGELY BY
WRITERS AND ACADEMICS IS THAT
OF PARTICULARLY IN THE MOUTHS
OF WRITERS IT'S RATHER SELF-
SERVING.
IT'S WRITERS LIKE, SAY JONATHAN
FRANZEN RECENTLY WHO BECAME
FAMOUS BY SAYING, "PEOPLE DON'T
READ NOVELS ANYMORE" AS HE
PRECEDED THEN TO WRITE A MUCH-
TOUTED BEST-SELLING NOVEL AND
SELL IT TO THE MOVIES FOR A
MILLION DOLLARS.
I'M NOT REALLY INTERESTED WHEN
WRITERS, PARTICULARLY VERY
SUCCESSFUL WRITERS, LECTURE US
ABOUT HOW PEOPLE DON'T READ
ANYMORE.
PEOPLE DO READ.
THEY ARE READING.
THE QUESTION IS, WHAT ARE THEY
READING?
WHAT OTHER FORMS OF
ENTERTAINMENT COMPETE WITH
READING.
THIS IS A COMPLICATED ISSUE.
BUT I'M NOT PREPARED TO SAY, TO
JOIN WITH THE CHORUS OF MOANERS
AND WHIMPERERS ABOUT HOW NOBODY
CARES ABOUT LITERATURE ANY
MORE.
I THINK LOTS OF PEOPLE CARE
ABOUT LITERATURE AND IN FACT
WHEN I THINK OF LITERACY I
THINK OF LITERATURE.
I DON'T THINK OF LITERACY
SIMPLY AS A SKILL LIKE DRIVING
A CAR.
Dr. JOHNSON SAYS IN THE PREFACE
TO HIS DICTIONARY THAT THE
CHIEF GLORY OF EVERY PEOPLE
ARISES FROM ITS AUTHORS.
AND I WANT TO SUPPORT THE
DEBATABLE PROPOSITION THAT THIS
IS STILL TRUE, EVEN IN THE ERA
OF ELECTRONIC ENTERTAINMENTS.
THAT IF WE'RE
SPEAKING OF PERMANENT GLORY AND
I WOULD SAY IS THERE ANY OTHER
KIND, THEN THE GREAT WRITERS
WILL LAST AND THE TELEVISION
SHOWS AND THE GAMES AND THE
JUNK MOVIES WILL NOT.

The clip ends and a photograph of Susan from the speech appears on screen with a caption that reads "Susan Sontag, 1933 to 2004."

Watch: Susan Sontag on The Crisis in Literary Studies