john berger and susan sontag on story-telling

In their 1983 Talk to Me (which can be seen here), artist and art critic John Berger and writer, philosopher, essayist and filmmaker Susan Sontag deliberate each other’s, and articulate their own, versions and definitions of the art of story-telling.

Sontag claims that at the ‘very centre of the whole enterprise of story-telling there is the fact that story-telling is an activity that faces in two directions’: truth, on one hand, invention on the other. Berger posits that the story ‘sits somewhere between fiction and truth’ but must, for him, begin as truth.

Berger believes that story-telling is fundamentally a merging of subjectivities, specifically, three subjectivities (of the story-teller, the protagonists, and the reader) in necessary connection and relation to each other.

Sontag disagrees. She claims that, as a writer, she cannot feel the subjectivity of the reader. Perhaps this lends itself to the fact that she believes that there is a distinction between hearing a story and reading one, critiquing the foundation upon which Berger’s story-telling tradition relies.

Berger posits an oral experience in which subjectivity originates and exists, using the analogy of a child listening to a story and experiencing a cooperative subjectivity of being both teller, listener, and participant of the story. Sontag believes that there is a distinction between listener and reader, between literary and oral, modern and primal traditions. Sontag elaborates on her disagreement with Berger’s subjectivities by suggesting that once people began to write stories down, moving beyond oral transmission, they began to write ‘different kinds of stories’ altogether, that there was a ‘radical break with the oral tradition’, that the art of writing is not just an ‘addition of art’ but an ‘expansion’. Writing allows more for the story-teller. To write down is to expand and modify what can be said due to the resources of print. It’s far richer to ‘read with the eyes as opposed to hear with the ears’, she says.

Berger believes that regardless of whether a story is heard or read, the reader makes constant jumps. Like a film or montage, there is a constant process of editing in the art of storytelling. Subjects change from sentence to sentence and we, as reader or listener, are constantly relocated. We are continuously carried elsewhere as the story unfolds. And this exercise from the writer depends on how they believe the reader or listener will react. They make constant assumptions and these assumptions are eventually taken for granted, and a kind of complicity is born between listener and speaker, reader and writer.

For Berger, story-telling is a ‘rescue operation’, or a shelter ‘against that endless terrifying space in which we live’, or as he also calls it, the Absurd. For Sontag, story-telling ‘enlargens our imagination’ instead, and introduces us to the terrifying space, the Absurd, in which we live.

Check out the full conversation here.

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