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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”?

Rieff’s notes are helpful but sparing, and he does not much go into his criteria for including or excluding material. It would appear, if only from the lack of moorings, that what we read was not meant for other eyes—at least, as Rieff says, in its current form. But now and again Sontag seems to sense someone peeking over her shoulder. Perhaps it’s herself. Certainly the entries concerning the event of her marriage are so tightly sealed that one would think the author hardly wanted herself to learn of it. On November 21, 1949, she writes:

Excellently staged performance of Don Giovanni last night (City Center.) Today, a wonderful opportunity was offered me—to do some research work for a soc[iology] instructor named Philip Rieff, who is working on, among other things, a reader in the sociology of politics + religion. At last the chance to really involve myself in one area with competent guidance.

The following entry is on December 2:

Last night, or was it early this (Sat.) morning?—I am engaged to Philip Rieff. [ Next to this entry, in the margin, SS notes: Jennie Tourel Das Marienleben.]

The next we hear of Rieff is Sontag’s entry of January 3, which appears in the diary section of 1950, but was, according to her son, written a full year later:

I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.

And that’s all we hear about it for a long time. But by now we have learned about the release and joy that her exuberant sexual experiments with other girls have brought her, and of her intermittent, triumphant embrace of sensual pleasure. In fact, the word “reborn”—which appears on May 31, 1949, “Everything begins from now—I am reborn,” and again on the inside cover of the notebook that runs from May 7, 1949, until that date, “I AM REBORN IN THE TIME RETOLD IN THIS NOTEBOOK”—seems to refer not only generally to the flowering autonomy and self-awareness of the teenage author, but, more specifically, to the flowering of her sexual expression and self-awareness as well.

We have also learned, however, of her attempts to demonstrate to herself that her homosexual yearnings are inessential ones, and of the difficulty of her struggles to reconcile herself in one way or another with her sexuality. So we recognize that the marriage has been undertaken with the rashness of panic, and the despairing finality, the very brevity of the entry, is like the somber tolling of a bell.

What she does write about in the interval between her engagement and her marriage—and this with detailed gusto—is her visit with two school friends to Thomas Mann. God, as she refers to him, obligingly speaks to his young worshipers at some length about his work and about the work of other writers. Sontag records a meticulous-seeming account of his remarks, and Rieff provides this note: ” Above the page setting down the last of these comments by Mann, SS writes: ‘The author’s comments betray his book with their banality.’”

In an entry of a few years later—January 19, 1953—Sontag recounts idly opening a volume of Kafka stories while she waits for Philip in a bookstore and reading a page of “The Metamorphosis”:

It was like a physical blow, the absoluteness of his prose, pure actuality nothing forced or obscure. How I admire him above all other writers! Beside him, Joyce is so stupid, Gide so—yes—sweet, Mann so hollow + bombastic. Only Proust is as interesting—almost. But Kafka has that magic of actuality in even the most dislocated phrase that no other modern has, a kind of shiver + grinding blue ache in your teeth.

Incisive, and splendidly persuasive. And twenty is a far cry from fifteen; it’s inevitable that Sontag will have refined her childish enthusiasms. Still, one can’t suppress a twinge of pity for poor sweet old Gide, mundane Proust, and stupid Joyce—to say nothing of hollow, bombastic God. Was it really necessary that he be sacrificed in order that Kafka might live and prosper in the blaze of her admiration? It’s shattering to imagine what she might have said had she thought to mention that friend of her youth, Hilaire Belloc!

School had the advantage of getting her away from the home she found so oppressively tiresome, and also certainly would have provided the most efficient access to the broad array of intellectual matter she aspired to absorb. But amassing information for its own sake seemed contemptible to Sontag, or pitiable, and like so many young people who hope to lead the life of the mind, she despised what she considered to be the airlessness and rigidity of academic life. And scholarly legitimacy is conferred by the opinions of earlier and, presumably, more powerful thinkers—which can present a dilemma for the person who wishes her writings to be vital and unorthodox as well as impeccably solid. Unhappily, Sontag’s uneasy relationship to academia appears to have corresponded to her feelings about her sexuality.

Here are some fragments about Al, a Berkeley schoolmate of Sontag’s, from an entry of late May 1949. At the time, Sontag was in disarray over a girl named Irene Lyons—who was, interestingly enough, the lover of a girl named H., who soon became Sontag’s first lover.

Al himself, and my relationship to him, really personify all my longing to retreat to the intellect, all my fears and inhibitions concerning life. He is twenty-two, ex–merchant marine…extremely handsome in the classic sense…. He wants to write, but doesn’t dare to because he’s afraid it would be very bad—and it probably would…. On a recent date he confessed to me that he hadn’t eaten all day just to discipline himself. He has, I think, a very capable mind—one of the finest intellects I’ve yet come in contact with—Although it’s absurd to imagine him a virgin, yet I’m sure he is normally wholly continent, and feels tremendously guilty about his rare lapses into sin….

We discussed everything from Bach cantatas to Mann’s Faustus to pragmatism to hyperbolic functions to the Cal Labor School to Einstein’s theory of curved space…. We both talked brilliantly, and everything seemed very clear to me because, at that moment, I had rejected more than I ever had: the totality of wandering and laziness and sun and sex and food and sleep and music…. I felt very confident that my decision to teach was right, that nothing really mattered except acceptable and mentally-digested experiences….

I could win out yet against life—against my own passionateness….

This would be heartrending coming from anyone, but from the coauthor of Gide’s journals and future author of “Notes on Camp” it is exponentially so.

In fact, Sontag was interested in experience, which spills over the confines of most academic categories. And it seems reasonable to say that her real, though not explicitly stated, objective—and eventual achievement—was to develop the ability to synthesize many sorts of information, in order to make the meaningful imaginative leap. But the objects of her zealous contemplation naturally also served as whetstones to sharpen her critical faculties, and she would sometimes measure against one another, brutishly, not only literary giants but also, apparently, friends, elevating and lowering them in her estimation at one another’s expense, and, like the Queen of Hearts, send heads rolling. Sontag was not one to find anything funny either about her ringing pronouncements or about their equally ringing repeal, or to question in any way her self-issued mandate for laying down the law, or indeed whether the law need always be laid down.

And of course, ranking is an adjunct of criticism in any field of art or thought. But for Sontag it seems to have been less an intellectual stance than it was part of a constellation of burdensome characteristics, deeply rooted in her personality—though hardly exclusive to her—which she comes to identify and, for a while at least, to refer to as X. Here are bits about X from entries throughout February 1960 (“I.” is Irene Maria Fornes, Sontag’s lover at the time):

I. thinks “X” is the reason I can’t talk to two people at a time (but always focus on one) and also why I block other people out—even casual intruders like waiters—when I am with someone….

So with each person I betray everyone else. Then after I feel guilty, my accounts are messed up again….

I didn’t feel X toward Philip. Because I was satisfying his demands as well as I could, because I wasn’t discussing him with anyone else, because he was #1.

X” is when you feel yourself an object, not a subject. When you want to please and impress people, either by saying what they want to hear, or by shocking them, or by boasting + name-dropping, or by being very cool.

America a very X-y country….

The tendency to be indiscreet—either about oneself or about others (the two often go together, as in me)—is a classic symptom of X….

How many times have I told people that Pearl Kazin was a major girlfriend of Dylan Thomas? That Norman Mailer has orgies? That [F.O.] Matthiessen was queer? All public knowledge, to be sure, but who the hell am I to go advertising other people’s sexual habits?

How many times have I reviled myself for that, which is only a little less offensive than my habit of name-dropping…. And my habit of criticizing people if other people invite it….

I have always betrayed people to each other. No wonder I’ve been so high-minded and scrupulous about how I use the word “friend”!…

The source of X is: I don’t know my own feelings….

…So I look to other people (the other person) to tell me. Then the other person tells me what he or she would like my feelings to be….

…That’s why I’m so interested in moral philosophy, which tells me (or at least turns me toward) what my feelings ought to be. Why worry about analyzing the crude ore, I reason, if you know how to produce the refined metal directly?…

All the things that I despise in myself are X: being a moral coward, being a liar, being indiscreet about myself + others, being a phony, being passive.

Think of Blake,” she exhorts herself in September 1961; “He didn’t smile for others.” And “No matter what I have said,” she writes in January 1960, “my life, my actions say that I have not loved the truth, that I have not wanted the truth.”

Of course, many people who are fastidiously devoted to honesty and courage are people to whom those qualities don’t necessarily come easily. And Sontag is to be very much respected, in my view, for confronting in herself some of the very characteristics to which she had the greatest aversion.

She was under a great deal of pressure to do so, as her erotic and emotional life was, during the later years of this volume, chasteningly unsatisfactory: both I. and I.’s predecessor H., with whom Sontag continued an affair in Paris, seemed to find it unavoidable (in Sontag’s account, anyhow) to heap humiliations upon her in the form of repeated withdrawal of affection and approval, rebukes concerning her character and her lack of psychological acuity, and criticisms of her lovemaking. Still, pressure alone will not make us take an exacting look at ourselves—courage is indispensable to the effort.

Just as we see her courage in these passages, we see the lack of it in her entries about her sorrowful marriage, whose difficulties she blames—backing herself up with a goon squad of geniuses that included Tillich and Rilke—on the institution itself, rather than on the predictable consequence of her self-deception. Though perhaps it wasn’t entirely self-deception; on February 20, 1958, she writes, about H.:

The torment of lying, sleepless, beside the body one uniquely desires, and not being able to break through, to command desire in return…. Awful awful feeling of ‘déja été,’ for I did desire Philip tremendously during the first year.

Sontag berates herself in these years not only for her falseness and her moral cowardice, but for obtuseness, sexual inadequacies, compulsive seductiveness, failure to live as she believes she ought to be living, boasting, and failure to bathe with sufficient frequency. What a contrast the private woman in her mid-twenties, plagued by uncertainties and shame, presents to the other Susan Sontags—the girl we first meet in the pages of her journal, the author of the published work, and the public personality, all of whom are serenely, enviably decisive, utterly secure in their swift and severe—and blithely disjunctive—judgments, glitteringly charming, irrepressibly curious, bracingly diligent, fearlessly provocative, and immensely appetitive, to use a word which shows up now and again in her work, lustrous with her approval.

While she’d been busy ministering to the intellect she was more or less wholly pleased with, her character had gone largely unobserved. The obstructions it had been placing in her path were by now evident and highly inconvenient, and she was helpless to dislodge them. But no matter how accurate her grim tally of her faults may have been, it is a fact that the “real”—as distinguished from self-portrayed—person demonstrated inarguable honesty and moral as well as physical courage in her visit to Hanoi during the Vietnam War and her famous residency in Sarajevo during the siege. It has probably been said, cynically, that such ventures kept her in the limelight and that she believed herself, narcissistically, to be invulnerable—but it would be ridiculous to discount the difficulty and even danger she put herself in, and the very real unpopularity in many prominent circles of her convictions at those and other times.

No doubt everyone is an amalgam of inassimilable and contradictory tendencies, but in Sontag—who used more cubic area of her being than most people—the conflicts were perhaps enacted with unusual vigor, and perhaps the paradoxes are unusually conspicuous. Moreover, a journal is under no obligation to be consistent either in its form or purposes. We cannot know what it is that a journal actually reflects, generally or at any given moment—how transient or deep the author’s impulse, how exact, how distorted…what function the enterprise is serving. Obviously a journal mirrors no one but its author, but a mirror reflects largely what we instruct it to.

Here, from December 31, 1957, is what Sontag herself says on the subject:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today…in H.’s journal about me—that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant and humiliated. We rarely do know what people think of us (or, rather, think they think of us)…. Do I feel guilty about reading what was not intended for my eyes? No. One of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people, the people (like parents + lovers) about whom one has been cruelly honest only in the journal. Will H. ever read this?

We will see in the two ensuing volumes whether there will be any alteration of the profound unhappiness Sontag describes—whether she manages to surmount it or at least to expand other, countervailing, areas of emotional experience. We know from her writing and her public persona that elements of X endure throughout her life, but perhaps she manages to turn them to more benign effect, privately, than she does in the years recorded here.

Pain” is a word that Rieff uses in his introduction, and it is the right one—there is so much pain here! And the dream of disclosure and revenge that is pain’s index. We have been dared to read. Sontag did not destroy her journals nor did she restrict them. The wound feels fresh, though the author—still amply capable of inflicting pain, herself—is beyond comfort.

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