• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Becoming Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s presence, in essays, interviews, fiction, film, and theater, wove itself so firmly into our culture that when it vanished upon her death in late 2004, one became abruptly aware of the delicacy of the fabric. She was for many a focal point—someone whom readers and commentators enjoyed revering, dismissing, complaining about, being exasperated, or infuriated, or amused, or electrified by—and she was a focusing consciousness; her stature as a writer and the value of her work have been, and no doubt will continue to be, debated, but what is beyond dispute is that she suggested, monitored, and even, to an extent, determined what was to be under discussion.

She seemed to be at least twice as alive as most of us—to know everything, to do everything, to be inexhaustibly engaged. Her arresting appearance was familiar even to many nonreaders from the photographs that recorded it over several decades and registered the glamour and magnetism—the sheer size—of her personality, and her celebrity was all the more potent and irreversible because the place she occupied was so far outside the usual radius of the spotlight. And also because it was a general combustion of her style, her brain, her concerns, and her looks—rather than any particular attribute or accomplishment—that gave off all that dazzle.

Sontag’s own apparent conviction, sustained until several weeks before she died, was that the laws of mortality would be, if not canceled, at least suspended in her case. And rather than resolving her evident ambivalence about exposing her private writings, she allowed death to bequeath the ambivalence to her son, David Rieff. This we adduce from Rieff’s decorous and deeply moving introduction to Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963, the earliest and first to be published of three volumes, which begins when its author was just shy of fifteen. A late entry in the book indicates that Sontag began to keep a journal at twelve, but whether these earliest entries have been lost or were simply not reproduced is unclear.

Rieff, the book’s editor, as well as the author of a number of nonfiction books, including Swimming in a Sea of Death (2008), a memoir of his mother’s death, writes:

…I tend to believe that, left to my own devices, I would have waited a long time before publishing them, or perhaps never published them at all. There have even been times when I’ve thought that I would burn them. But that was pure fantasy…. While she was still well, my mother had sold her papers to the University of California at Los Angeles library, and…since the contract my mother concluded did not restrict access in any important sense, I soon came to feel that the decision had been made for me. Either I would organize them and present them or someone else would.

Rieff refers to these documents—which were written in notebooks—not as “journals” but as “diaries,” and although the words are etymologically identical, “diary” seems the more apposite choice, suggesting, as it does, something more intimate than “journal”—a little book with a lock.

The diaries contain (among plenty of other sorts of things) passages that concern Sontag’s—largely anguished—love affairs with several women, her abrupt and painful seven-year marriage to the scholar and cultural critic Philip Rieff, and, inevitably, their son. The experience of reading the diaries, even for a disinterested party, is intense as well as anxiously voyeuristic; small wonder that the tone of Rieff’s introduction is sometimes that of someone who has been on hand to witness a terrain-altering meteorological event.

But even from the earliest, less intimate entries, we feel that we’ve broken the lock on the little book. The young author’s assiduous excavations into, and evaluations of, the characteristics, capacities, and potentialities that she finds to be hers put us in almost claustrophobically close proximity to her. It is as though we were watching from behind a screen while someone whose life is clearly to be determined by her appearance tries on clothing in front of a mirror.

Here is the fifth entry, 9/1/48, when she was fifteen years old, in its entirety:

What does the expression “in his cups” mean?

Stone-slung mountain.

Read the [Stephen] Spender translation of [Rilke’s] The Duino Elegies as soon as possible.

Immersing myself in Gide again—what clarity and precision! Truly it is the man himself who is incomparable—all his fiction seems insignificant, while [Mann’s] The Magic Mountain is a book for all of one’s life.

I know that! The Magic Mountain is the finest novel I’ve ever read. The sweetness of renewed and undiminishing acquaintance with this work, the peaceful and meditative pleasure I feel are unparalleled. Yet for sheer emotional impact, for a sense of physical pleasure, an awareness of quick breath and quickly wasted lives—hurrying, hurrying—for the knowledge of life—no, not that—for a knowledge of aliveness—I would choose [Romain Rolland’s] Jean-Christophe—But it should only be read once.

…”When I am dead, I hope it may be said: ‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’”

—Hilaire Belloc

Immersed myself in Gide all afternoon and listened to the [conductor Fritz] Busch (Glyndebourne festival) recording of [Mozart’s] Don Giovanni. Several arias (such soul-stretching sweetness!) I played over and over again (“Mi tradi quell’ alma ingrata” and “Fuggi, crudele, fuggi”). If I could always hear them, how resolute and serene I would be!

Wasted the evening with Nat [ Nathan Sontag, SS’s stepfather ]. He gave me a driving lesson and then I accompanied him and pretended to enjoy a Technicolor blood-and-thunder movie.

After writing this last sentence, I read it again and consider[ed] erasing it. I should let it stand, though.—It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence—(There are too few of them anyway!) Let me note all the sickening waste of today, that I shall not be easy with myself and compromise my tomorrows.

It must always be fascinating to observe a child going about unwrapping the package that is herself and starting to inventory the contents. And how much more fascinating it is when the child is able to chronicle the process and the contents themselves are fascinating! Not that Sontag’s rhapsodizing or her disdain are remarkable in a fifteen-year-old, and neither, particularly, are the objects of her rhapsodizing and disdain; this was a period during which it was fashionable among certain adolescents to read serious literature and listen to serious music, and adolescents of many periods have considered their parents to be morons. And Sontag’s intellectual precocity, though striking, is hardly peerless—just think of the age Mozart was when he was writing some of the music she listens to with such discrimination!

Very startling, though, is her unhesitating sense of purpose—the sense that she is an acolyte, engaged in some devotional practice, continuously purifying herself in preparation for a predetermined destiny that she has yet to fully understand. Naturally, we in the future happen to know that the child whose diary we’re reading is to become Susan Sontag, but oddly enough, so, it seems, does she.

All possible time, energy, and work must be invested in nurturing the embryonic adult of whom the child senses herself to be custodian; she is not so arrogant as to feel that she will be equal, merely by sheer dint of her gifts, to the task of locating and assessing all the world’s offerings, nor does she expect to be able just to glide without effort into Susan Sontag’s shoes. The trivial must be rooted out and shunned; ease is to be regarded with suspicion. There’s no time for jokes or for alienated slacker bemusement. Everything must be read, everything! Everything must be learned, be listened to, be looked at, be considered and sifted, and be—despite her powerful memory—reread.

Here is what she has to say on September 10, 1948, after reading the second volume of Gide’s journals:

I finished reading this at 2:30 a.m. of the same day I acquired it—

I should have read it much more slowly and I must re-read it many times—Gide and I have attained such perfect intellectual communion that I experience the appropriate labor pains for every thought he gives birth to! Thus I do not think: “How marvelously lucid this is!”—but: “Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!”

For, I am not only reading this book, but creating it myself, and this unique and enormous experience has purged my mind of much of the confusion and sterility that has clogged it all these horrible months.

The assurance and skill with which she expresses herself is also truly striking. She is already adept at using English, and the unconvincing, dandyish artificiality of her prose moderates within the year; one can recognize, in the earliest entries, the author of her essays, which are remarkable for their clarity, poise, liveliness, unexpectedness, and confidence—to say nothing of the range of facts and references that inform and anchor their arguments.

Over the sixteen years this volume of her journals covers, Sontag grows up. Along the way she enters (at scarcely sixteen) the University of California at Berkeley and the following year transfers with a scholarship to the University of Chicago where she meets and marries Philip Rieff. The notebooks, if there were any, that cover the years 1951 and 1952 are missing, and in 1953 we find Sontag in Cambridge, Massachusetts, apparently doing graduate work at Harvard and living with her husband and small son.

Early in September 1957, she leaves for Oxford to continue her studies, effectively terminating her marriage—as we understand sooner than she does. In Europe, where she continues to travel and study, she has several protracted and generally unhappy love affairs with women, and in 1959 she returns to New York. By the summer of 1963, when this volume leaves us off, Sontag is trying to sort through another difficult love affair or two, is working on fiction, and, as always, is devouring great quantities of philosophy, social theory, music, theater, and, above all, literature.

Among the entries are also lists of books to be read and words to be learned or contemplated, lists of things to be done and things not to be done, mentions of areas of history to become acquainted with, the odd aperçu, general reflections, and whole meadows of quotations. We see rudiments of ideas which years later expand into essays, and we see aspects of the author—and the author’s view of herself—that there certainly would be no other way to see. Though descriptions of the outside world do turn up, Sontag’s forceful attention is largely reflexive. In fact, it’s surprising, especially in view of her eventual activism and global ruminations, how little notice she takes in these diaries of international events.

The narrative often disappears behind a cloud, and we don’t know quite how it comes to reappear where it does: How did this or that relationship come to an end? Where exactly is Sontag now and why, and what exactly is she studying or teaching? What was going on with this child of hers before late 1957, when he pipes up from the pages at the age of four with various metaphysical concerns—about life, Don Giovanni’s death, hell, the soul, Jesus on the cross, and so on, until, come January, she decides to “divert these morbid individualized religious fancies…[and] overwhelm them by the impersonal Homeric bloodbath”?

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print