David Rieff Remembers His Mother’s Avidity

The author describes the insatiable curiosity his mother, Susan Sontag, maintained throughout her life.
  • Transcript


Question: Did your mother’s “avidity” help her confront death?

Rieff:    I mean, the world divides… There are many artificial and perhaps even a few natural ways of dividing people in the world.  But one way to differentiate people is if you like the people who do a certain thing and don’t have enormous curiosity about the things they don’t do and those who are curious about everything.  One version of that, of course if you want to put it in terms of the history of ideas, is… as [a real] distinction between the hedgehog and the fox, which using the… a fragment of our [calcitics], says the hedgehog knows many things but the fox knows one big implicit.  My mother was very much someone was interested in everything and… whose curiosity didn’t abate with the years.  I mean, many appetites abate with age in that.  But in her case, curiosity, avidity for intellectual and cultural and aesthetic and sensual experience didn’t diminish.  Isaac Babel, the great Russian short-story writer, said, “You must know everything.”  I think, my mother… I believe I said this in the book, in “Swimming in a Sea of Death,” that my mother was very much of that view.  And that didn’t change.  And you could argue, I think, that if you… if you’re interested in everything, if you’re curious about everything, it’s a lot harder to die.  I think that I felt very strongly with her death and that everyone has, if they’re lucky enough, the right to die the death they want to die.  Lots of people don’t have that luck.  And so, if she wanted to believe in the idea that she would beat the odds once more, as she done twice in the past with cancer, it wasn’t for me to stand in the way of that or to gain, say, to use an old verb, that I was… I was there to help.  That’s the way I construed my role.  What I thought was irrelevant.  In the instance, of course, it’s relevant, now that it’s… she’s dead and all these things have taken place.  But at the time, I just thought I’m there to support her and if I can be of help, whatever I may think privately.  What I think privately isn’t all that important one way or the other.