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Director Susan Sontag

Three Illuminating (Eccentric) Lists by Susan Sontag


Passionate about list making, Sontag made one of her beliefs, another of rules for the interpretation of texts, and a list on the types of lists to be made...

Few women were more prolific, in the word’s most literal sense, than Susan Sontag. With a deeply lucid mind, she was a philosopher of disease, a social activist, a film director and screenwriter. It’s not well-known that she was also an assiduous writer of lists.

Among the numerous lists written by Sontag (most of them recorded in her journals) we can, in our own turn, list a few. There’s one of gay jargon learned over time, of books she wanted, of admired musical works, of quotations, of her favorite words, her epiphanies, observations, translations, thoughts, faults, metaphors and possible titles for stories, among many others. All these lists, reflections of her collector spirit, allow glimpses of her thoughts, concerns, and preferences as a writer. It’s a discreet look into the most intimate of her thoughts.

Lists —eccentric and a bit maniacal— are both an expression of accumulation and of synthesis. Providing an illusion of control, they are guides for the mind, and mere sets of words inviting order. Making lists, as an act of conjuring, is above all else, rather human.

Below are three of Susan Sontag’s lists:

I believe:

(a) That there is no personal god or life after death

(b) That the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e., Honesty

(c) That the only difference between human beings is intelligence

(d) That the only criterion of an action is its ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy

(e) That it is wrong to deprive any man of life

[Entries ‘f’ and ‘g’ are missing.]

(h) I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state (besides ‘g’) should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines, + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and age[d]. State care of pregnant women with no distinction such as legitimate + illegitimate children.

*      *      *

[On interpretation]

1. Nothing is uninterpreted.

2. To interpret is to determine, restrict; or to exfoliate, read meaning into.

3. Interpretation is the medium by which we justify context.

4. To interpret a word is different from defining it; it means to specify a range of contexts (not equivalents).

*      *      *

[On types of lists]

What you like: your five favorite flowers, spices, films, cars, poems, hotels, names, dogs, inventions, Roman emperors, novels, actors, restaurants, paintings, gems, cities, . . . 
What you’ve done: everyone you’ve gone to bed with, every state you’ve been in, country you’ve visited, house or apartment you’ve lived in, school you’ve attended, car you’ve owned, pet you’ve had, job you’ve held, Shakespeare play you’ve seen . . .
What the world has in it: the names of Mozart’s twenty operas or of the kings and queens of England or of the fifty American state capitals. . .  Even the making of such lists is an expression of desire: the desire to know, to see arranged, to commit to memory.
What you actually have: all your CDs, your bottles of wine, your first editions, the vintage photographs you’ve purchased at auctions—such lists may do no more than ratify the acquiring lust, unless, as it is with the Cavaliere, your purchases are imperiled.


Image: Nika — Flickr

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