The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Ryan Ruby on Susan Sontag

September 12, 2023 The Point Magazine Season 1 Episode 12
Selected Essays | Ryan Ruby on Susan Sontag
The Point Podcast
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The Point Podcast
Selected Essays | Ryan Ruby on Susan Sontag
Sep 12, 2023 Season 1 Episode 12
The Point Magazine

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Ryan Ruby joins us to discuss Susan Sontag’s “Approaching Artaud” and his own essay “Dig It Up Again,” which was written for the 100th anniversary of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and published last year by Poetry magazine.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Ryan Ruby joins us to discuss Susan Sontag’s “Approaching Artaud” and his own essay “Dig It Up Again,” which was written for the 100th anniversary of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and published last year by Poetry magazine.

Jessica Swoboda  00:04

Hey everyone, welcome to Selected Essays, a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read, but probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda. And I'm here with my co-host, Zach Fine.


Zach Fine  00:22

Hey, thanks for joining us. This week we have Ryan Ruby on the show. Ryan is a critic, novelist, poet and translator from Los Angeles. His work has appeared in n+1, the New York Review of Books, the Baffler and The Point. We spoke with Ryan about Susan Sontag's essay "Approaching Artaud," which was published in the New Yorker in 1973, and centers on the French avant-garde playwright, poet and essayist Antonin Artaud. We also talked with Ryan about his essay, "Dig It Up Again," which was written for the 100th anniversary of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, was published last year by Poetry magazine.


Jessica Swoboda  00:55

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any questions, comments, or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you.


Zach Fine  01:21

Hey Ryan, thanks for joining us. 


Ryan Ruby  01:23

Pleasure's mine. Hello. 


Zach Fine  01:26

Can you tell us why you chose this essay by Sontag about Artaud?


Ryan Ruby  01:31

The simple answer is that it's my favorite of Sontag's essays. And I think it's generally under-known. It's sort of a second or maybe even third-tier essay in terms of its popularity. But I think it's one of the most important of her works, although it is less well known. And its position in her career helps us to sort of understand and summarize the early part of Sontag's career and the transition to the to the middle period. In a personal sense, the reason I like it so much, of course, is that the figure of Artaud is important to me. And it brings up a number of important challenges and issues for understanding a number of things that I work on, namely, the history of modernism, as well as the relationship between avant-garde politics and avant-garde aesthetics, of whom Artaud represents a sort of interesting case and cautionary tale, which Sontag really gets to the bottom of, or rather, really gets to the bottom and the issues involved in this particular essay.


Zach Fine  02:57

So the essay was published in the early 1970s, in the New Yorker, originally. Can you tell us a little bit about what was happening in Sontag's life when she wrote this, and anything that you're aware of about its publication history?


Ryan Ruby  03:11

So it's kind of an unusual essay in a number of regards. It's published in May 1973. First, in the New Yorker, as you noted, it's the first time Sontag writes for the New Yorker, which is not her usual venue, which is the New York Review of Books and sometimes Partisan Review, famously. But it's the first of of only about a dozen essays that she'll write for the New Yorker over the course of her career. It later becomes the introduction for a sort of selected writings of Artaud, which Sontag edits, and then it gets collected in 1980 in Under the Sign of Saturn, whereupon she's at a very, very different point in her career and her trajectory. The immediate sort of context for the essay—so if you're looking at Sontag in 1972, early 1973, she's… I think the most important thing to note here for what I assume we'll discuss later is, she goes to China in August 1972, and it's the third of these trips that she takes. She goes to northern Vietnam, very famously recorded in her essay “A Trip to Hanoi,” which is extremely controversial, as well as she goes to Cuba and finally to Sweden, where she films two of her three films, Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl. But the reason her visit to China is important is of course, is 1972, we're talking about the period of the Cultural Revolution, and Cultural Revolution, what that means to Sontag, gets discussed in this particular essay. And she publishes a short piece called “Project for a Trip to China.” And she has an uncompleted project called “Notes Toward a Definition of Cultural Revolution,” which she's also writing as she's working on this Artaud piece, and Artaud is someone who's been with her — guess we could discuss that later—from the very beginning of her career as a as an essayist. And, yeah, so that's the sort of political background. The other important things that are going on is that we're looking—and I think this will be important when we discuss Eliot—we're looking at the end of the Bretton Woods system that sort of begins with the Nixon shock in 1971 and ends in March 1973. And by the end of the year, when the Yom Kippur War happens, we're looking at the oil crisis, and therefore the age of stagflation. And that's the sort of political background along with the sort of last gasp of the U.S. counterculture of whom Artaud is sort of important forerunner. The vogue for Maoism among French intellectuals and artists like Godard is happening around that same time. So Artaud is born in 1896 and dies in 1948. And the major sort of points of his career touched on from his early life as a sort of failed poet. He sends and then begins a correspondence with Jacques Riviére at the Nouvelle Revue Francaise in 1923. He then goes on to have a brief career as an actor, and he acts as a film actor and he acts in Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, and Gantz’ Napoleon. He gives up film for the stage and he becomes a theoretician and this is what he's best known for. He's best known as a theoretician of theater. And in his book Theater and Its Double he advances as, as you said, Zach, a specific idea of what the sort of what theater both aesthetically and politically is supposed to do, which he calls the theater of cruelty. In the, I believe in the late Twenties, early Thirties, he directs a number of plays himself all at this small theater called the Théâtre Jarry in Paris, which are uniformly in terms of the number of people who attended them, uniformly failures. He goes in search of he goes to—he's interested in Balinese theatre and Cambodian theatre and non-Western theatre more generally, non-Western art and culture more generally, as well as strange esoteric traditions in Western history and intellectual life. And he goes to Mexico, in the in the Thirties, to go see these peyote cult rituals, as a sort of an attempt to get sort of more ideas, inspirations for his theatrical work. During the Forties, during the war, he is, how do you say, he's not incarcerated in a prison. That is the tendentious way of—excuse me, not incarcerated in a hospital, he's hospitalized for probable schizophrenia, and he spends three years in Rodez in an insane asylum where he's subject to electroshock therapy. He gets released in 1946. And returns to writing ,gives a very famous radio broadcast, which is immediately censored by the French government called to have John Donne with the judgment of God, and he dies of cancer in 1948. So that's the brief precis of Artaud's life. Sontag is interested in something a little—she's interested in all those things, but what she's most interested in is how Artaud becomes a sort of person who has lived through modernism, and has the sort of lived experience of a series of intellectual presumptions that are sort of broader cultural phenomenon. So most importantly, what Sontag’s really interested in, what the essay opens with, and what she wants to talk about, is what happens when you take seriously, or to use Sontag's phrase, when you take with moral seriousness, the erasure of the difference between art and life, that is the sort of classic sort of modernist desiderata, and for Sontag, Artaud is the person who attempts to live through that experience in the most sort of palpable way.


Jessica Swoboda  11:03

So, Ryan, now seems like a good time to turn to the opening passage of Sontag's essay. May I ask you to read that out for us?


Ryan Ruby  11:11

"Approaching Artaud." “The movement to disestablish, the ‘author’ has been at work for over 100 years. From the start, the impetus was as it still is, apocalyptic, vivid with complaint, and jubilation, at the convulsive decay of old social orders, borne up by that worldwide sense of living through a revolutionary moment, which continues to animate most moral and intellectual excellence. The attack on the ‘author’ persists in full vigor, though the revolution either has not taken place, or wherever it did, has quickly stifled literary modernism, gradually becoming, in those countries not recast by a revolution, the dominant tradition of high literary culture instead of its subversion, modernism continues to evolve codes for preserving the new moral energies, while temporizing with them. That the historical imperative which appears to discredit the very practice of literature has lasted so long, a span covering numerous literary generations, does not mean that it was incorrectly understood. Nor does it mean that the malaise of the ‘author’ has now become outmoded or inappropriate, as is sometimes suggested. People tend to become cynical about even the most appealing crisis if it seems to be dragging on failing to come to term. But the longevity of modernism does show what happens when the prophesied revolution of drastic social and psychological anxiety is postponed, what unsuspected capacities for ingenuity and agony, and the domestication of agony may flourish in the interim."


Zach Fine  13:00

When I first read this, I was kind of amazed that that was the opening paragraph for a New Yorker story. It seemed, you know, it presumes a lot of previous knowledge and reading and it's pretty knotted in some ways. Why do you think Sontag starts there? And for this audience, in particular, thinking about the venue?


Ryan Ruby  13:19

Yeah, I was thinking about this as well, because you're exactly right to point that out. I think the reason she does it is because she can get away with it. And that's what's quite miraculous about the entire essay. So in that first paragraph, you hear this very—this tone that we associate with Sontag, the sort of pronouncements, this series of very general pronouncements, the sort of authoritative tone that comes through each sentence, that lovely sort of parenthetical about cynicism. And in fact, she doesn't even get to her subject for another two to three pages, right. So she's laying a lot of groundwork before we even get to Artaud at all. She goes through and she goes on to discuss the relationship between satire and society. And says that of course, satire is a social critique by people who consider themselves members of society, and then goes on to discuss the more extreme cases, in which there is a critique of society that amounts to rupture, a total and failed rupture from society, both in life and in an art of which Artaud then becomes an exemplar. But as to your question about the particular audience, I can only imagine that the New Yorker audience was either familiar with Sontag’s shtick, and therefore liked it. You know, it's 1973. She has been a celebrity, a sort of nationwide if not global celebrity for the better part of ten years at that point—or the New Yorker audience was completely baffled by the kind of thing that they were being presented in this. And it's unrelenting. It does continue on in this vein for more or less sixty pages.


Jessica Swoboda  15:37

So, Sontag writes in this essay, "the link between suffering and writing is one of Artaud's leading themes. One earns the right to speak through having suffered but the necessity of using language is itself the central occasion for suffering." So in what ways does suffering appear in Artaud's writing?


Ryan Ruby  15:59

Artaud is very—as the essay will conclude in saying, Artaud is very difficult to read in more than bits and pieces. And he is, according to Sontag, he is a thoroughgoing materialist, so he believes that all of his thoughts are, in fact, corporeal events. And all of his thoughts are things from which he suffers greatly, right. So his mind is his body, he is possessed of a particularly virulent pessimism. Anyd he experiences that pessimism not as like, for example, Cioran would, as a kind of delight, but rather as a genuine sort of Calvary, or passion—that Sontag uses these, these words. He's a sort of secular Christ figure in this particular way. And he records, for example, in an early work, or let's say, work from the Twenties, like the Nerve Meter, he sort of drastically records the sort of painful rot that his body has become by virtue of carrying this series of increasingly brutal and cruel thoughtsthat he has in his mind. And so that's what makes—and then sort of, for Sontag, that's Artaud ‘scredential. It's not that he has a beautiful prose style. It's not that he—like Joyce gets discussed later in the piece—is creating sort of an intelligible multi language, it is that he is living at a degree of extremity in extremis, that few people, few people do. And it is her aim to sort of track the motions and movements of that kind of thinking, through all of its paradoxes and sort of dialectical reversals, as Artaud goes on to, you know, create, ultimately what's going to be a body of work about the theater.


Zach Fine  18:10

Does the fact that Artaud is unassimilable, according to Sontag, does that have anything to do with how she describes both his work and his life as a failure? She says that Artaud failed. And I was trying to figure out exactly what she was getting at with that line, if that's related at all to what you're talking about.


Ryan Ruby  18:29

Yeah, I think there's a sense in which his work is a necessary failure. Which is to say that the ambitions created for the work as a total work of art, I think she says, in an early passage, the idea is that in the sense of Mallarme we have the book, right the book that contains all books, compared to which all forms of art, or all forms of writing, are themselves fragmentary, and incomplete. And in the sense that in each of various phases of Artaud's, career, each of them is—fails towards this standard of the attempt to create a total work of art and remains so. It gets indigestible work.


Zach Fine  19:18

We asked you to choose a second passage from the essay. Can we turn there now? And have you read it for us?


Ryan Ruby  19:24

This is the passage. You know, as they say, online, I think about this all the time. And this is the passage that I think about all the time. Because I think it lays out a series of positions and represents a sort of great conceptual challenge that you know, I don't think that I'm finished thinking through, but when one reads something like this—and I hope you will feel the same way—but when one reads something like this, one feels, I believe, confronted by an immense intellectual and conceptual challenge that seems to face us all. So I will read it and you may judge for yourselves: “One result of the aspiration to a total art, which follows from denying the gap between art and life, has been to encourage the notion of art as an instrument of revolution. The other result has been the identification of both art and life with disinterested, pure playfulness. For every Vertov or Breton, there is a Cage or a Duchamp or Rauschenberg. Although Artaud is close to Vertov and Breton in that he considers his activities to be part of a larger revolution, as a self-proclaimed revolutionary in the arts. He actually stands between two camps—not interested in satisfying either the political or the ludic impulse. Dismayed when Breton attempted to link the Surrealist program with Marxism, Artaud broke with the Surrealists for what he considered to be their betrayal, into the hands of politics, of an essentially “spiritual” revolution. He was anti-bourgeois almost by reflex (like nearly all artists in the modernist tradition), but the prospect of transferring power from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat never tempted him. From his avowed “absolute” viewpoint, a change in social structure would not change anything. The revolution to which Artaud subscribes has nothing to do with politics but is conceived explicitly as an effort to redirect culture. Not only does Artaud share the widespread (and mistaken) belief in the possibility of a cultural revolution unconnected with political change, but he implies that the only genuine cultural revolution is one having nothing to do with politics. 


“Artaud’s call to cultural revolution suggests a program of heroic regression similar to that formulated by every great anti-political moralist of our time. The banner of cultural revolution is hardly a monopoly of the Marxist or Maoist left. On the contrary, it appeals particularly to apolitical thinkers and artists (like Nietzsche, Spengler, Pirandello, Marinetti, D.H. Lawrence, Pound) who more commonly become right-wing enthusiasts. On the political left, there are few advocates of cultural revolution. (Tatlin, Gramsci, and Godard are among those who come to mind.) A radicalism that is purely ‘cultural’ is either illusory or, finally, conservative in its implications. Artaud’s plans for subverting and revitalizing culture, his longing for a new type of human personality, illustrate the limits of all thinking about revolution which is anti-political. Cultural revolution that refuses to be political has nowhere to go but toward a theology of culture—and a soteriology.”


Jessica Swoboda  23:13

So I'm curious about how art is being discussed not just in this passage, but in the essay as a whole. So earlier in the essay, in the first half, Sontag describes Artaud as seeing art “as an action and therefore a passion of the mind,” and writes that he has “an inveterate taste for spiritual and physical effort for our as order.” And then in this passage, you just read, she mentions total art, which “follows from denying the gap between art and life to encourage the notion of art as an instrument of revolution.” And so can you talk about what art is for Artaud? And how if at all, that conception is different from what total art is being defined as here?


Ryan Ruby  23:59

So I think there's a sort of a chain of articulations that we should talk about, right? The first is between though as a sort of ideal phenomenon, and mind or rather, brain, body. Artaud collapses those two things, right. So for him, thoughts are—and this is sort of a congenial notion for us—thoughts are actions of the brain and mind. So that’s one collapse, right? So he's a proper materialist in that sense. Then he comes across the sort of next collapse, which is in the production of art, and especially in art which is antagonistic to sort of currently existing social forms, there becomes a collapse between art and life. So it's not only enough to produce art objects, but one is creating an experience, which other people will then experience as material beings, as sort of actions that are done to them, right. And this brings, this is why Artaud becomes a person who works in the theater, because theater is the artistic form that sort of gobbles up—and in this sense, he has a sort of Wagnerian conception of theatre, right—that gobbles up all the other forms and quote unquote, genres of art expression. Artaud’s against genre as a sort of socially illegitimate form of distinction between kinds of arts, but he wants to put them all together and enact them, the sort of thoughts of the individual mind on a grander scale to the audience, at a theater, right. And once you get to that point, what you're looking at, the audience of the theater, is a sort of proto-society. And so Artaud then conceives of the theater as in turn a way of collapsing not just the individuals’ thoughts, and art productions and life, but also that of the individual and the society which that person takes part in and belongs.


Zach Fine  26:18

Sontag, in the essay is partially showing her hands here, but I'm curious how you would describe when she pushes back on Artaud's Cultural Revolution as being anti-political, what is she implicitly advocating for? What is her vision of what a political art would look like that would be successful?


Ryan Ruby  26:40

Well, this is the great question, right? So this is precisely you've gone exactly to the crux of the point. So as you rightly noted, Sontag is being critical of Artaud here. And this is another way of describing Artaud, to your previous question, another way in which Artaud is a failure. So Artaud has a—I forget if maybe I left this out—but has a very famous falling out, with the Surrealists, with Breton, over the Surrealists joining themselves to the Communist Party, the French Communist Party. And Artaud wants to go his own way, as it were, and thinks that the mere restructuring of what we think of classically as revolution, the restructuring of the social, political and economic order, is insufficient, because ultimately, this will leave us with the same sort of metaphysical problems that we have. And another group, let's say—and she associates this with Cocteau—sort of pulls into a sort of disinterested—ludic is the word she uses—art for art's sake, in which there is no social purpose whatsoever. And Artaud sort of stands between these two things, and ultimately, what his failure is, in this regard, is that he fails—he would like to achieve a cultural revolution solely through culture. And the problem there is that that cannot be done, because culture is not simply the production of, in this case, plays, or art objects. It is the ordering of a society in which those works of art become intelligible and experienceable. And that, you know, and of course, that particular society is going to be extremely complex, full of different sorts of power centers, interests, the most prominent of which is going to be what kind of economy does it have. And as long as those things are untouched, they result in the ultimate impotence and failure of good-faith effort to change the culture itself. So the culture cannot be changed by culture alone.


Jessica Swoboda  29:02

We asked you to pair one of your own essays with Artaud's and you selected "Dig It Up Again," which is about T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land on its one-hundred-year anniversary. Can you tell us a bit about your essay and how Sontag's essay on Artaud's influenced it?


Ryan Ruby  29:21

Sure, yeah. So I was I was looking through my work and Sontag pops up in a lot of places by name. So I wrote a piece on Wittgenstein, and she pops up her discussion, her essay on aesthetics of silence pops up. I wrote a piece on Peter Weiss for The Point and of course, she pops up there—incidentally, that essay is called “Marat, Sade, Artaud.” And so she sees Peter Weiss as a sort of synthesis of Brecht and Artaud. And then I wrote about her again, of course, with my essay on Sebald, who she was very influential and important in introducing to English-speaking audiences. But when I was thinking about which essay to pair “Approaching Artaud” with, it seemed to me that the one that I should pick was, you know—influence is best detected when not mentioned directly, you know, which is to say that the sort of animating concerns that I think that are happening in the Artaud essays are the same animating concerns or that essay is in dialogue with them in a way that is much more strongly and so strong in fact that Sontag's name as a sort of precursor cannot be mentioned in it. Whereas it was sort of more superficial in all the other cases. And so, what the Waste Land essay does… It tries to do five different things, one for each section of The Waste Land. The overlap, I think, exists mostly in its last section, which addresses some of the questions that Sontag is raising about the nature of modernism. And from a period of further remove. There's another part of the Artaud essay, which is sort of in dialogue with it. And that's Artaud's interest, or Sontag’s reading of Artaud a sort of gnostic figure. And Gnosticism is a very strange heretical sect that first appears in the sort of early centuries of the Common Era. And it's a sort of fundamentally dualistic religion: matter is evil, the ways around it are extreme asceticism or libertinism. And the world is a sort of fallen world. And the only way to get out of it is a purification of the soul, as it were. And Sontag reads Artaud as this kind of figure, but Gnosticism itself, right, is a recurring tendency, throughout the history of Europe. And so in a way, my sort of theory of what a modernism is derives from Sontag's idea of what a Gnosticism is.


Zach Fine  32:46

When we were corresponding before this episode, you said that part of the reason why you wanted to talk about the Artaud essay was because it was a quote masterclass, and a single-author essay treatment. And Jess and I were both reading your Eliot essay, and really admired it a great deal and felt like it'd be a thing that you could teach the students or share with people who might not know a lot about Eliot, that it was a wonderful single-author treatment. And so we're kind of curious about what you think the necessary ingredients are of a great single-author essay as you conceive of it, and how one might write one.


Ryan Ruby  33:24

Yes, so as I said, at the outset, that this one turns the sort of traditional idea about what that means on its head. What's kind of amazing about it is, is it's the kind of thing that if you wanted to take, if you want to know about Artaud, you would be satisfied, you would have the entire breadth of his life and work delivered to you. And you would begin to see it. She quotes from Artaud very, you know, not at length, but very selectively and very sparingly. And does so in a way that actually takes this very chaotic, very hard to assimilate, very hard to wrap your head around oeuvre when considered as a sort of merely literary oeuvre, and really brings it all together into a kind of coherence that shows that the life itself has a kind of coherence. And that coherence is both in motion, right? She very closely tracks the sort of paradoxes that are opened up by Artaud’s ideas, and how those paradoxes dialectically unfold, flip back on their heads, engage further, enact further paradoxes. And it has a sort of conceptual rigor that takes this author, who's so difficult to write about, and gives that author a kind of coherence tthat it would be hard to detect from the work themselves without the kind of broader philosophical, metaphysical, cultural-historical contextualizations that Sontag brings through it. And one gets the impression from finishing the entirety of the essay of an immense comprehensiveness, an immense totality and enclosure, and you get to see how you could take this author and then use them or apply them and the ideas involved either in one's own work or in one's own reading. And I should have probably, now that I think about it, I should have just read you some Artaud. And I think that the experience—and I recommend readers just sit down, pick anything, pick “The Nerve Meter,” pick “To Have Done with the Judgment of God”… And I think the impression you would take away from that if you were encountering, and that the Selected Works, that is around 700 pages. If you were to come and have 700 pages of this, you would think that these are the writings of a raving lunatic. But Sontag makes it a whole, coherent, gives us the reasons we should take it seriously, and provides it back to us as a sort of intellectual, cultural, spiritual challenge that Artaud really was and represented. And that's hard to see or detect from the writings themselves.


Jessica Swoboda  36:43

Well, thank you so much, Ryan, for joining us. It's been really great to talk to you about this essay.


Ryan Ruby  36:50

Thanks, Jess. Thank you, Zach. I had fun too. Thank you for having me.


Jessica Swoboda  37:00

Thanks, everyone for joining us for this episode of selected essays. We'd like to thank Joe Coleman for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy of Hands Habits for contributing the original music. We hope you'll tune into our next episode, where we'll be talking with Lauren Oyler about Elif Batman's "Who Killed Tolstoy? As always, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and if you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. Until next time, listeners.

Why "Approaching Artaud"?
Getting to Know Susan Sontag
The opening passage
Understanding audience
The link between art and suffering
A second passage
What is art?
Political art
Ryan's "Dig It Up Again"
Writing a single-author essay