Do I Have to Choose?

Susan Sontag

susan sontag: highbrow, lowbrow.

Enjoying the impertinent energy and wit of a species of performance called Happenings did not make me care less about Aristotle and Shakespeare. I was—I am—for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture. No hierarchy, then? Certainly there’s a hierarchy. If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then—of course—I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?

— Susan Sontag, “Thirty Years Later…,” 1996

…when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche. …One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling… which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment. We have more or less the same bodies, but very different kinds of thoughts. I believe that we think much more with the instruments provided by our culture than we do with our bodies, and hence the much greater diversity of thought in the world. Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.

— Susan Sontag, in “The Rolling Stone Interview,” 1979

h/t, Steve Wasserman, “Susan Sontag: Critic and Crusader,” The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, Spring 2015

5 thoughts on “Do I Have to Choose?

  1. “Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.”

    This is hardly anything new. In his 1920s essay T.S. Eliot pointed to something like this as a major factor in the writing of the metaphysical poets:

    “what is ordinarily apprehensible only by thought is brought within the grasp of feeling, or that in which what is ordinarily only felt is transformed into thought without ceasing to be feeling.”

    Eliot hypothesized a dissociation of sensibility splitting the mind that created this poetry.

  2. I guess some things that bear repeating, well, bear repeating!

    I think both these quotations ask us to keep thinking (and feeling) about what those two words mean, and how they relate to each other both in over the long reach of human history and in particular contexts and moments.

  3. Sontag certainly joins Eliot in the modernist tradition. It seems to me both turned to popular arts for their thinking (ugh, and their feeling!), but in the end were both in more located in high art atmospheres. Would it be fair to say that Eliot ultimately grew more conservative, even reactionary, by the end of his life. Religion supplanted culture as his key concern. While Sontag tried to keep alive our awareness of the productive interplay between high modernist culture (Thomas Mann, difficult films, etc.) and popular arts (rock, vernacular photography). She didn’t want to collapse those two categories, however, as other thinkers (feelers?) do. Just riffing here on the intriguing notion of pairing up Eliot and Sontag.

  4. the quote is by eliot and really has nothing to do with him as a poet per se other than his critical eye. he is speaking of 17th century poets such as john donne, george herbert, richard crashaw, etc., who were deemed part of school of poetry call metaphysical.

    I pointed it out only to show that what Sontag was talking about had already been accomplished by some poets in the 17th century. as eliot indicated that union of thought and feeling lasted only so long and was torn apart by something he termed a dissociation of sensibility. that development was marked by the rise of milton (reason) and dryden (emotion). the romantics he explained tried to reunite man’s separated halves but failed. there the matter rested until the beats, kesey et al, the early psychedelic bands and Dylan began their work and seemed to be unconsciously trying to reunite those spheres again. and at the same time make poetry an integral part of peoples’ everyday lives again.

    i found eliot’s essay on the metaphysical to be absolutely essential in understanding psychedelic music and to a degree psychedelia in general. The goal must be to reunite to collapse – as you say – man’s twin natures. high and low are immaterial. as the dead sang sometimes you get shown the light in the strangest of places you look at it right.

    never forget that groucho marx and eliot were devoted pen pals for year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *