On Sweden, state power and Susan Sontag
On the evening of June 26, Granta Books celebrated the publication of two new books: Fishing in Utopia by Andrew Brown and Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff. Sigrid Rausing, the publisher of Granta magazine, spoke on what these books mean to her.
You may well wonder what David Rieff’s book about the death of his mother, Susan Sontag, and Andrew Brown’s book about Sweden have in common, other than the fact that they are both published by Granta.
Susan Sontag, of course, had somewhat of a connection to Sweden, since she wrote and directed two films there, in 1969 and 1971. A few years later, Andrew Brown too went to Sweden and lived there for a decade, immersing himself into Swedish working life. There is probably not a person in this room – other than perhaps Andrew – who understands what the connection between these two books is for me. I grew up – again in the ’70s – immersed in Susan Sontag, Foucault, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and the cultural critics of the day. I was unreflectively anti-Social Democrat and concerned about the creeping extension of state power. Rather like in Britain today, that was a common concern between liberals and libertarians.
One of the pivots of that discourse was the idea that the state took excessive numbers of children into care, that at least a part of the state constituted, in effect, a repressive machinery where individual rights were potentially sacrificed to powerful social norms, parallel to the coerced sterilizations of those unfortunate people who were regarded as socially undesirable, which continued into the ’70s.
I still think that point of view is largely true. From this book, however, I learnt that the story of children taken into care was unintentionally internationalized by Andrew himself – his story about one particular case bounced from his piece in the Daily Mail (mothers weeping, soulless bureaucrats), to the Private Eye (jokes about Sweden), to Der Spiegel (‘Swedish children’s Gulag’, based on six cases). Many years later, Andrew did some more research into his original case and came to the conclusion that the state had been right to take this particular boy, ‘child A’, into care, and that the mother, indeed, was a psychopathic fantasist who posed a real danger to the child.
State power is a tricky thing, and the Swedish state was mythologized by right and left alike. We never thought of the state in any terms other than power – it was, to us, the Foucauldian ultimate panopticon, controlling its citizens. When progressive friends in Britain or America eulogized Sweden’s welfare state and freedoms, I quoted sterilization and children taken into care at them. I pointed out that Sweden in the 1980s seriously considered forcible quarantine for its HIV-positive population. Was I right to be so sceptical about Sweden? I don’t know. I think I was. But I now also think – partly because of Andrew’s story of ‘child A’ – that the whirl of myth and rumour surrounded the state much as it surrounds any celebrity – and Sweden in a sense was a celebrity state because it had become globally symbolic of the welfare state, of high taxes, of sexual education and liberation.
Susan Sontag wrote about the pervasiveness of ‘interpretation’ in relation to art: ‘None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did.’ In Sweden, ‘interpretation’ became an incessant drive to understand the social system and culture in which we lived – our entanglement with the state, ultimately, was taken for granted.
Now, as I get older, and as close friends and family battle with the potentially fatal illnesses of our day – cancer, autoimmune disorders, addiction – each with its own complex mythology, I am more interested in her ideas in Illness as Metaphor. She wrote, ‘Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance’; a significance which she thought of as irrelevant or as oppressive static around the real and subterranean processes of the body. David’s book, in a sense, completes her refutation of illness as metaphor, as he describes her refusal, and his own collaboration in that refusal, to be confined by the symbolism of progressive and mortal illness, as well as the cost of that refusal: there was no peace or acceptance, seemingly, and farewells came too late to be fully understood and meaningful. It’s a painful book, but it is also an extraordinary testament to the fact that our discourse, our ideologies and our theories, really do inform, or even constitute, our way of being in the world. That is as true for Sweden as it is for Susan Sontag, as Andrew and David have so eloquently shown.