JUNE 6, 2012
REBORN (2008), THE FIRST volume of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, took her from precocious teenager to the brink of massive success — her publication of the essay “Notes on Camp” in 1964 — and documented her intellectual and sexual awakenings. There, we meet Sontag in 1947, aged 14, declaring, “I believe that the only difference between human beings is intelligence.” We witness her acute mind develop through traditional education (perfunctorily at North Hollywood High School, more rigorously at UC Berkeley, and, most thrillingly, at the University of Chicago) and through the experiences of a teenager and a young woman willing her life to happen.
That Sontag happens to be bisexual affects her narrative of self-fashioning, but does not determine it. As early as age 15 she confesses to feeling she has “lesbian tendencies,” yet it is an element of her identity rather than its centerpiece: one of the fragments that add up to make the whole person, as important as the many lists she makes of books to be read or films watched. In Reborn we observe a persona developing, but we also read about a person growing up: seething with ambition, falling in and out of love, and making some questionable life choices (like marrying her professor at U of C, Freud scholar Phillip Rieff, at age 17). The volume’s last line, written while on her own with her young son David in New York City, she formulates the equation that sums up what she has learned: “Intellectual ‘wanting’ like sexual wanting.”
Both Reborn and the second volume of Sontag’s journals and notebooks were edited by Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and in the introduction to the former we get the requisite hand-wringing about publishing documents so resolutely personal. Sontag never told Rieff what she wanted to do with the notebooks, but she did sell them to UCLA, along with her other papers, and did not restrict access to them in any way. Rieff, nevertheless, feels guilty unleashing his mother’s secrets and judgments onto the world. “In particular, she avoided to the extent she could, without denying it, any discussion of her own homosexuality or any acknowledgement of her own ambition,” Rieff writes in the introduction to Reborn. Yet these are major themes of the journals, as they were of his mother’s life.
In his introduction to the awkwardly titled As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980, Rieff tells us that Sontag “toyed desultorily with the idea of writing” an autobiography in the early 1990s, which surprised him, given her characteristic skepticism about self-exposure. “To write mainly about myself,” Sontag said in a 1972 interview, “seems to me a rather indirect route to what I have to write about.” Rieff does, however, raise the specter of autobiography (he calls them “first and foremost acts of homage”) in some of Sontag’s more valedictory essays, particularly the ones on Elias Canetti and Walter Benjamin (“Mind as Passion” and “Under the Sign of Saturn,” 1980, respectively, both collected in Under the Sign of Saturn).
This attitude toward autobiography as only an “indirect route” to her true subject captures the spirit of Sontag’s work, though Rieff is onto something when he cites the Canetti and Benjamin essays as being particularly close to Sontag’s own consciousness. (She even notes that she, like Benjamin, is “Saturnine,” that is, literally born under the sign of Saturn, a Capricorn). On a practical level Sontag’s resistance to the direct route of memoir is admirable; for a writer often hard pressed for money, she certainly could have cashed in had she written something more candid, as she knew a torrent of writers, artists, and intellectuals. On a creative level, however, her statement is curious: Why is she convinced that self-revelation would be an indirect route to her subjects, especially when she is writing about cancer in 1978’s Illness as Metaphor or photography in On Photography, both subjects with which she was intimately familiar? Sontag herself had breast cancer in 1976; as for photography, it is hard to think about Sontag without conjuring up one of the indelible images of her: the striking face of the 33-year-old from the back of her 1966 book of essays, Against Interpretation; or the 1975 Peter Hujar photo of her lying peacefully on a bed; or a later portrait, with the trademark gray streak in her black hair, more often solemn than smiling, like the ones by her partner later in life, celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz.
Consciousness is ultimately a very serious book, as it would have to be, as the record of the inner life of a renowned and resolutely serious person. In Reborn Sontag herself writes, “Seriousness is really a virtue for me, one of the few which [I] accept existentially and will emotionally.” It is a story of settling and unsettling, of restlessness and of trying to find a place to rest, of examining the parameters of adulthood, of questioning what it means to be a friend, a lover, a writer, an artist, a mother, a person in the world. “I have a wider range as a human being than as a writer. (With some writers, it’s the opposite.) Only a fraction of me is available to be turned into art,” Sontag writes. If this is the case, then Consciousness is a presentation of the residue of Sontag, the part that is not art. It’s life.
In Consciousness, as in Reborn, Sontag’s family — especially her mother — features prominently, often in the context of her musings about or insights into her psychoanalysis. “I have an awful gift for seeing people’s unhappiness. A talent I developed as a child with my mother,” Sontag writes. “She invited it, of course. It was a way of getting my love, which probably wasn’t, in the circumstances, readily forthcoming.” Her mother’s misery would pique Sontag’s pity, but also made her feel superior, and turn to things “outside,” and to intellectual life, for emotional sustenance. People were disappointing; Sontag was always
faithfully guarding my “real” self as I understood it. I gave up, first of all, my sexuality. I gave up my ability to understand myself as an “ordinary” person; I gave up most of the ordinary range of access to myself, to my feelings.
All of this self-abnegation led to a bottoming out of Sontag’s self-esteem. Despite her belief that she was intellectually superior to other people, emotionally they could never meet her needs (and, she feared, she could never meet theirs). “Diana [Kemeny, her psychoanalyst] said a long time ago that ‘facts’ had been ‘toxic’ for me. What did she mean?” Sontag wonders later in a 1967 entry, adding that reading, for her, feels like satisfying a “hunger.” There’s never enough knowledge and culture for her because people do not satisfy her needs, fill her up, see her, want her love, or readily love her. She surrounds herself with film stills in order to populate her world.
Sontag’s pages and pages of ambivalent self-examination about her mother are, indeed, cringeworthy: “One of the things I felt pleased my mother was an erotic admiration. She played at flirting with me, turning me on; I played at being turned on (+ was turned on by her, too). Thereby, I pleased her.” All that Freud study with Phillip Rieff certainly paid off in this bit of analysis. But does it make her any less tough, less intellectual, less serious to have such revelations form part of her oeuvre? This is one of the central questions that Consciousness raises: How does the existence of these intimate writings alter our sense of Sontag as a writer?
As a persona, if not as a person, Sontag was cool; aloof, even. So it is surprising that so much of Consciousness is occupied by romantic lament. Sontag begins and ends several romantic relationships with men and women over the course of the volume, but it is the women who break her heart. Irene, Carlotta, and Nicole mean more to her in their absence than Jasper Johns or Joseph Brodsky, both of whom remain her friends. The longing for Carlotta in this 1976 passage is characteristic:
I must be strong, permissive, unreproachful, capable of joy (independently of her), able to take care of my own needs (but playing down my ability, or wish, to take care of hers). Remember what she said the other day about finding me so different from the way I appeared at first (autonomous, “cool”)? It was that person she was originally attracted to. She must still sense that in me from time to time. I cannot ever show her all my weakness. I must limit my thirst for candor.
The entry goes on like this, with Sontag telling herself what she must do (and not do) in order to win Carlotta’s love and make herself happy; it doesn’t take an analyst to recognize that this pattern of self-denial mirrors the dynamic she played out with her mother. Over and over again Sontag is prepared to sacrifice herself for love, to no avail: “What I have to get over: the idea that the value of love rises as the self dwindles.” It is infuriating to see Susan Sontag in the throes of humiliation, poring over her fear, her loneliness, her suffering. But it is also utterly humanizing.
In 1980, Sontag jotted the following fragment under the heading “Essay(?)”:
The Aphorism. The Fragment — all of these are “notebook thinking”; are produced by the idea of keeping a notebook. One could trace the history of thought/art in relation to the forms of transcription: letter manuscript notebook[.] The notebook has become an art form (Rilke, Lizzie’s book [Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights]), a thought form (Barthes), even a philosophical form (Lichtenberg, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Cioran, Canetti).
Was Sontag musing about her own notebooks when she wrote this? The final thought — “Decline of the letter, the rise of the notebook! One doesn’t write to others anymore, one writes to oneself” — raises the definite possibility that she was. Her notebooks are certainly not conventional journals. Though there are some banal details — a meal here, a trip there — they skip major chunks of her life without explanation. Sontag operates much more at the emotional level, or the intellectual one. Very often the notes are short — perhaps not quite aphoristic, but hardly narrative — and there are occasional strokes of art and philosophy throughout. “Notebook thinking” was obviously something Sontag theorized as well as practiced, whatever her intentions were vis à vis the documents’ eventual publication.
The primary function of the notebooks, for Sontag, is grounding: they serve as a place to put herself, her thoughts, her feelings. She uses them especially when she is unsettled or uncertain: when traveling, heartbroken, in chaos, working out a problem. She is, indeed, writing to herself, for herself, and her style here is strikingly different from the style she adopts when writing for an audience. While her writing for publication is spare and sparse — especially her fiction, where much is often left out — the notebooks offer her a space where problems can be explored in as much depth as she wants or needs them to be.
Sontag also used the notebooks as a site of meta-reflection, a place to write about her other writing. She was critical of her prose but positive about its place in her life. “A problem: the thinness of my writing,” she writes in 1965. “It is meager, sentence by sentence. Too architectural, too discursive.” She castigates herself for the very thing she is renowned for — her style — as well as for what she perceives as a lack of boldness in her work. “Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer,” she declares in 1976. “I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short-circuit the despair.” And, a year earlier, in 1975:
I am an adversary writer, a polemical writer. I write to support what is attacked, to attack what is acclaimed. But thereby I put myself in an uncomfortable position. I don’t, secretly, hope to convince, and can’t help being dismayed when my majority taste (ideas) becomes majority taste (ideas): then I want to attack again. I can’t help but be in an adversary position to my own work.
If the journals are to believed, Sontag’s writing brought her little happiness. “Project: convert my photographer’s eye (mute) into a poet’s eye, which hears-words. I see concretely; I write abstractly. The project: to have access, as a writer, to that concreteness,” she writes in 1977. These projects seem especially directed to her fiction, the writing Sontag agonized over and prized the most and the writing that feels the least, well, concrete (and where she perhaps takes too many risks). Her primary fictional output during this period, the stories of I, Etcetera, are maddeningly abstract, precisely lacking the kind of detail and texture that would distinguish her later, more accomplished novels, The Volcano Lover and In America. And then there’s this classic, which could be from any writer’s notebook: “I feel guilty when I don’t write, and that I don’t write ‘enough.’ Why? What’s this ‘guilt’?” (1977) And yet: “Writing always works for me, even lifts me out of depressions. Because it is in writing that I (most) experience my autonomy, my strength, my not needing other people” (1967). Despite this claim of self-sufficiency, however, Sontag was just as happy talking as she was writing: “I write-and talk-in order to find out what I think” (1965). Ultimately her goal was self-expression, and although there are entries where she chides herself for being too social or talking too much and not writing enough, she more often attacks the way she writes. Monologue and dialogue were interchangeable to Sontag: writing was what counted.
As one would expect, Sontag’s journals and notebooks are full of germs and seeds of her future published work. Among the works glimpsed or mentioned in passing in As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh are Trip to Hanoi; the book-length essay On Photography; the stories in I, Etcetera; and the essays on Benjamin, Roland Barthes, E.M. Cioran, Jean-Luc Godard, fascism, and Canetti. Occasionally she reflects on work already published, which can be quite revealing, as when she imagines an addition to her 1980 collection Under the Sign of Saturn focusing on her own work:
The only review of Under the Sign of Saturn would be the eighth essay — an essay describing me as I have described them. The pathos of intellectual avidity, the collector (mind as every thing), melancholy & history, arbitrating the moral claim versus aestheticism, and so forth. The intellectual as an impossible project.
This last phrase — “the intellectual as an impossible project” — provides as good a summary as any of how Sontag conceived of her life in this period.
The ideas in her essay “Thinking Against Oneself: Reflections on Cioran” (from Styles of Radical Will), are also particularly salient to the themes of Consciousness. In addition to Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, the nominal subject of the piece, “Thinking” draws on the ideas of John Cage, a figure who recurs in the notebooks (often alongside Gertrude Stein) as a beacon for Sontag in her quest to define the meaning of nothing, or the absence of things. In these works and in the essay “Aesthetics of Silence” (also from Styles, and which touches on Cage as well), Sontag reveals a fixation with the void, with post-philosophy, with other aspects of absence she feels dominate the cultural landscape: homesickness, exile, silence, apocalypse. “Cogito ergo boom,” she jokes in “Thinking Against Oneself,” but this collapse of consciousness is, in fact, a serious and pressing theoretical problem for her. It is also, as we saw above, a personal problem: worrying about not being seen, ergo not being loved — about being nothing.
Given her willingness to confront existential and emotional fear, the absence of Sontag’s commentary on her breast cancer in Consciousness is all the more extraordinary. Neither her condition nor her treatment are provided very much space. Even the few notes Rieff includes from November 1976 tend toward the abstract: she starts an entry about death and ends up thinking about writing. The most we get are a few 1978 notes toward the book Illness as Metaphor:
I’m not thrilled anymore by literary criticism as autocritique — the construction of methodologies, the deconstruction of texts. Criticism that is about itself. Illness as Metaphor is an attempt to “do” literary criticism in a new way but for a pre-modern purpose: to criticize the world.
This is precisely what she does in Illness, taking the world to task for its treatment of cancer (and tuberculosis) patients. With this book, she rededicated herself to what she did so astonishingly well before and after surviving cancer. To criticize the world: that would have been a more apt title for As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. At its best, it is Sontag turning her keen intellect onto the world and onto herself, practicing criticism in her architectural, adversarial, serious way. Consciousness contains the raw ingredients for that imagined eighth essay in Saturn that would situate Sontag among her heroes, though they are mixed in with those lists of books and films and various other observations — some banal, some fascinating. There is Sontag on the Sex Pistols; on Henry James and the “meta-lesbianism of mid-19th century, cultivated Boston spinsters”; on bad sex; on The Beatles (“Pop Art is Beatles Art”); on Balzac; on taking LSD (“everything decomposes (blood, cells, wire) — no structure, no situations, no involvement. Everything is physics”); on Gore Vidal; on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (“a new threshold; most imp[ortant] Am[erican] film of the 70s”); and more.
If only Sontag were around to write that eighth essay, to take this notebook thinking and transform it into an elegiac homage, a summa of some sort, about her own work. But maybe that, too, is an impossible project, and we should just be grateful for the dissemination of these notebooks, with their long stretches of self-analysis and their pops of insight. They are Sontag unplugged, pacing her room, reading the New York Times and sleeping alone, Sontag being Saturnine, thinking against herself.