Susan Sontag’s son, David Rieff, says he may never have published his mother’s journals had it been up to him. But Sontag left little of her legacy to chance. She sold her papers to U.C.L.A., and since her death, in 2004, Rieff has excavated and edited them: the diaries of a dead writer who stood, as long as she could, in willful refusal to die.
In “Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963”—published in 2008, as the first of what will be three volumes—we saw a teen-age Sontag entering college, transferring between colleges, getting married, giving birth to a son, going to grad school, turning twenty, moving to Oxford, moving to Paris, becoming entangled with various women, and returning to New York, where she nothing like slowed down. In Rieff’s formulation, “Reborn” carried us to Sontag’s “vigorous, successful adulthood.” “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980,” published earlier this month, shows us the writer between the ages of thirty-one and forty-seven, when she was producing some of her most lauded essays, including “Against Interpretation,” “On Photography,” “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” and “Illness as Metaphor.” If “Reborn” is her precocious coming-to, this sequel finds Sontag there, a somebody, although hardly more secure than she was in adolescence, and hardly less insistent in her continuous self-fashioning.
Considering the contradictions of her character and the assurance of her criticism, it touches and surprises to perceive how deeply Sontag cared about how she was judged. “The desire for reassurance,” she wrote, in August, 1968. “And, equally, to be reassured… ‘Quelle connerie’ [What idiocy],” she disclaimed, with scare quotes. That desire crops up throughout the second volume of the journals.
Ever anxious that she wouldn’t be taken seriously, Sontag clamored to impress, to “self-Europeanize.” She fills her journals with flinty thoughts: essays still to write; passionate, defiant, intellectually decadent, and often incomprehensible quotations; lists of obscure books to read and art-house films to see; words she’d like to use; records of café sittings; manifestations of culture beyond the beyond. She sounds like a rebel student trying to woo her suitor through pure cerebral pluck. From 1965:
My fascination with
Minimum conditions (from Robinson Crusoe to concentration camps)
She describes her “body type,” including in her bulleted list: “Easily tired by standing / Like heights / Enjoy seeing deformed people (voyeuristic).” She contemplates the kind of writer she wants to be, wondering—in a swoop of ambition and possible megalomania—how to be as good as Tolstoy. (“The task,” she assigns herself, “is to be as good as D[ostoevsky]—as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.”) There’s ego and insecurity and the continuous plotting of her own public face (“Best model for interview tone: Robert Lowell”), though she’s not without an inkling of her public function and renown (from 1975: “My role: the intellectual as adversary”). Underneath this churning drive, there were her sexual defeats, her longings, and her unmistakable pain: with María Irene (“I am her Maginot line”), Carlotta (“uproot the feeling, tell her to go to hell— or jouer le jeu[play the game]”), Nicole (“After THE LAST PHONE CALL FROM NICOLE, tonight / Let it hurt, let it hurt”). Happiness, Rieff writes in the preface, “was not a well from which my mother ever was able to drink deeply.”
That tormented Sontag is known to many, but she was not all Dark Lady. It’s impossible to read these journals and not experience the warmer sides of her ambition: her deep admiration for certain artists around her, her animating wish to encourage and promote. Writing about Jasper Johns, she commends his “vigor, vitality,” his “formidable reticence—it’s awe-inspiring.” With men like Johns, or Joseph Brodsky, her wish to pay homage is clear. So is her pleasure in their work.
There are undeniably joyful parts of the diaries, where we see Sontag amazed at her luck: she dines with poets and playwrights at the 1977 Venice Biennale, arriving at the Teatro Ateneo for Brodsky’s poetry reading at nine. “I had shivers when he stood up and declaimed his poems. He chanted, he sobbed; he looked magnificent.” A second dinner, then a walk, and she ends the entry at the Hotel Europa, with a delighted exclamation about a lover: “N’s call!”
Between the revelations, outbursts, and retractions, a reader finds her trying on a gamut of stances (1965: “Communism—by definition— rules out the possibility of ‘dépaysement’ [disorientation]. No strangeness. All men are alike, brothers.” 1980: “One must oppose communism: it asks us to lie”). Rarely do we see her puzzle completely through a thought. But a series of entries from the summer of 1972, when Sontag was approaching forty, does feel unequivocally whole, because they are so personal.
She accepts an invitation to travel to China for three weeks, and excitedly begins to conjure the book she will produce. “I can put my whole life into this book,” she writes, in a particularly long entry. It’s “the everything book I’ve been trying to write.” Sontag believed she was conceived in China, in Tientsin, where her father, Jack Rosenblatt, who died when she was five, worked as a fur trader. (Her last name came from Nathan Sontag, whom her mother married when Susan was twelve.) “Recount,” she instructs herself, “the China in my head as a child. The ‘book’ on China for Miss Berken’s 4th grade class that was the first long thing I ever wrote.”
She frames a dedication: “For Jack Rosenblatt (b. New York 1906— d. Tientsin 1938),” though five months later changes her mind (“Dedicate China book to D: For David / Beloved son, friend, comrade”). There’s a sense of substitution at play in the connection she draws between her father and son.
“Daddy”—a set of photographs—a boy, as I think about him
now— an unfinished pain, Death, the Great Disappearance.
My son wears your ring. I don’t know where you are buried.
I weep when I think of you.—You keep getting younger. I
wish I had known you.
Of her father, she writes, “that’s the source of the meditation on death I’ve carried in my heart all my life.” Sontag was never to write the China book (though her story “Project for a Trip to China” was published in the Atlantic Monthly, in April, 1973), but in these diary entries, we see the beginning of Sontag’s interrogation of frailty and sickness: thoughts she will put to the test soon thereafter.
Sontag underwent surgery and treatment for metastatic, stage-four breast cancer between 1974 and 1977, and despite the critical turn in her work toward a consideration of illness—“the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship”—she writes little about this in her journals. Of the doctors who were treating her (although it is only from David’s notes that we learn the context), she writes, “Love affairs with their energy + hope.” Moments later, without naming the bridge between her thoughts—which must have been of the cancer—she contemplates what it is that makes her feel alive: “Who, what do I get a boost from?” She replies, a glimpse of Susan at her most vulnerable. “Language, first of all.”
Language! The words she reads, and, we gather, the ones she writes: endlessly curious prompts to investigate, often through books (“My library is an archive of longings,” she wrote). Rieff begins his moving, often rueful preface by saying that his mother had “toyed desultorily with the idea of writing an autobiography.” But even after undergoing an excruciating chemotherapy regimen, and publishing in The New York Review of Books the essays that were to become “Illness as Metaphor”—the crux of which is her insistence that “the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking”—she offered up surprisingly little of her own direct experience.
“I’ve never fancied the ideology of writing as therapy or self-expression,” she said. Sontag admired John Updike’s “Self-Consciousness,” and though she was particularly self-conscious in monitoring the face she showed, there is a distinct lack of directness in her telling, a denial of the cathartic impulse to shed layers or lighten her own load.
Rieff designates the second volume as his mother’s “political bildungsroman,” the record, as she put it, of “falling out of love with Communism.” Yet he chose to call this volume “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh,” a title pointing to her inner life rather than her political one. It is through this startling image, noted in a margin in May, 1965, that we today see the thirty-two-year-old Sontag awaken to her finitude: her life had to reach an end, just as consciousness is harnessed to flesh. But, then again, perhaps it isn’t: language—which can capture and embody consciousness—lives on, and has its own fleshiness. As Sontag’s hero, Roland Barthes, once wrote, “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” If anyone else’s language trembles that way, as this volume of her journals attests, it is Susan Sontag’s.
Photograph of Sontag, in 1972, by Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum.
By Emily Greenhouse
Originally posted in The New Yorker