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Susan Sontag, the Complete Rolling Stone Interview

Jonathan Cott


 In your book you did emphasize the romantic aspect of mad­ness. Yet I have the sense that over the past few years, that particular notion of madness seems to have lost a lot of its glamorous cachet


But don't you think that the ideas of R. D. Laing are basi­cally accepted by a lot of people? That the mad person, after all, knows something that we don't know and has gone to some end of consciousness? There was recently a piece in the New York Review of Books by Nigel Dennis, who's one of the writers I most admire in the world, and he reviewed a book about the treatment of a little girl named Nadia who was about five years old [Nadia: A Case of Ex­traordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child, by Lorna Selfe]. She was a brilliant artist—and that's rare for a talent that is, after all, in the hand—and could draw like Goya. She was from nowhere, she was just this little kid, but she was autistic. And the book was told by one of her psychol­ogists who wrote about how they all discussed what they should do with her, and they realized that if they cured her they would probably wreck her gift. In the end they did cure her, and she can't draw anymore. Nigel Dennis writes about this and —in a way that I will only be able to say less well —makes out a case for letting her be mad and letting her go on drawing. Though no one is saying that it's better to be mad, it's quite obvious that her madness was a func­tion of her autism, and she could only maintain her gift if she were in some way isolated, with the isolation that madness brings. But Dennis asks, Isn't it more important to have a great artist? And she already was a great artist.

 It's what Rilke said: "Don't take away my demons because my angels will depart as well."

 Yes, and that's because the two things come together. This is a case where somebody is autistic and has this gift, and if you take away one, you take away the other. This is not a situation where you believe that her gift comes from her autism, it's simply that if you start tampering, you probably can't just withdraw one and keep the other. In the book, the psychologist said that they thought that it would be bet­ter for Nadia to have the company of her family, because of course her family wasn't able to deal with her at all since she was busy doing thousands of pages of drawings each day. But Nigel Dennis comments that she would have had company—she'd have had the company of artists!—and he makes the case for the fact that the world has very few great artists.

 I suppose it's just that the seventies Zeitgeist tends to he em­barrassed about, or even derogatory toward, the kinds of ideas expressed by Nigel Dennis and by a lot of the notions that flourished a decade ago.

 Let's talk about this decade-mongering, because I feel that there's something terrible about making the fifties and six­ties and seventies into major constructs. They're myths. Now we have to invent some new concept for the eighties, and I'm very curious to find out what people are going to invent. It's so ideological, this decade talk.

The idea is that everything that was hoped for and at­tempted in the sixties basically hasn't worked and couldn't work out. But who says it won't work? Who says there's something wrong with people dropping out? I think the world should be safe for marginal people. One of the pri­mary things that a good society should be about is to allow people to be marginal. What's so awful about countries that call themselves communist is that their point of view does not allow for dropouts or marginal people. I think that, one way or another, there should always be the pos­sibility for people to sit around on the sidewalk, and one of the nice things that happened before was that a lot of peo­ple chose to be marginal and other people didn't seem to mind. I think we have to allow not only for marginal peo­ple and states of consciousness but also for the unusual or the deviant. I'm all for deviants. I also think, of course, that it would be pretty impossible for everybody to be deviant— obviously, most people have to choose some central form of existence. But instead of becoming more and more bu­reaucratic, standardized, oppressive, and authoritarian, why don't we allow more and more people to be free?

 I agree. To me, being in the San Francisco Bay Area during the mid-1960s was what I imagine it must have been like to have lived in Apollinaire's Paris or Mayakovsky's Moscow, and I feel really fortunate to have been able to experience that place and time. But I sometimes think that it's no lon­ger affordable to be marginal, and it somehow seems as if there are now only little out-of-time places around the world such as Banff or Goa or Ibiza where people are still trying to keep that earlier spirit alive.

 Come on, you can still go to the Med [the Caffe Mediter-raneum in Berkeley, California]! There are still people there on Telegraph Avenue, as there are on Rue St.-Andre­des-Arts. I think it's just that you have changed. You're ten years older, you're a freelance person committed to a lot of work, and there's nothing like work to perhaps make that other kind of life seem less attractive.

I myself don't think of myself as marginal because I don't particularly want to sit on the sidewalk and take drugs — I'm too restless and I don't want to calm my restlessness. On the contrary, I'd like to be more restless and have more energy and be more mobile. If I want to be marginal, I want to be marginal in the sense of attempting a great many things, none of which I ever really finish [laughing], but not to be marginal in the sense of not doing things be­cause it's all a rat race. I know it's a rat race, but part of my efforts is to keep myself marginal in the sense of destroying what I've done or trying to do something else. As soon as I see one thing is working, I don't want to do that anymore.

What is essentially different in the seventies is that there isn't the illusion that a lot of people think the same as you do. I mean, one is restored to one's position as a freelance person, but I don't feel that I've changed what I think. All throughout the sixties, I was horrified by the anti-intellectualism of the movement and the hippies and the bright-thinking people whom I stood shoulder to shoulder with in various political situations. I couldn't stand how anti-intellectual they were, and I think people are still very anti-intellectual…