Susan Sontag’s Journals & Notebooks 1964-1980 by Nancy Kates
Originally published April 29, 2012 (San Francisco Chronicle)
Susan Sontag – As Consciousness Is Harnessed to FleshJournals & Notebooks 1964-1980
Edited by David Rieff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 523 pages; $30)
Susan Sontag is having a great afterlife. Not a day goes by without a reference or two; her name can be found so often in the Sunday New York Times that a writer friend jokes about playing “Sontag bingo.” Since her death in 2004, there has been a steady stream of books by and about her: memoirs, analytical volumes, a posthumous collection of essays and speeches, and two volumes of her journals and notebooks, both edited by her son, David Rieff. Together, the recent releases constitute a moveable feast for Sontag fans, and a collective effort to re-examine a life filled with contradictions and complexities.
The second volume of her journals, “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh,” covers the period 1964 to 1980, when Sontag, ages 31 to 47, became the intellectual “It Girl” and later reigning diva of the New York literary world: a striking, accomplished, perceptive, radical and adventurous young writer. During this period, Sontag published eight books, made three films, survived stage IV cancer, traveled the world, became an antiwar activist, fell in and out of love, and lived her life – in New York, Paris and elsewhere – at a seemingly frantic pace.
The great pleasure of this work – and perhaps of any autobiographical writing – is the opportunity to peek under the hood. Reading Sontag’s casual journal entries is the closest any of us will get to being inside her brain. And oh, what a brain it was! The subject of the diary is exactly what its ponderously Sontagian title indicates, “consciousness harnessed to flesh.” Sontag puts it more simply: “There is no one right way to experience what I’ve written. I write – and talk – in order to find out what I think.” Entries range from anguished heartache over love affairs to notes about books she was reading (or intended to), and fleeting observations about this and that thinker, artist, exemplar.
Above all, there are lists. Sontag was a passionate list maker. Her notebooks are crammed with lists of words, books, movies, likes and dislikes. She even lists her faults. In the pre-computer era, the notebooks and journals function as both confessional and laboratory: the repository of her truest feelings, a record of daily life and a place to workshop ideas. A delight of reading these journals is stumbling upon Sontag’s casual notes for the essays that would soon make her famous.
But Sontag’s journals can be difficult to read. These are notes from the top of her head, in sharp contrast to her published work, which she reworked endlessly, rarely mentioning her private life. Here, subjects randomly follow one another, moving briskly from deeply personal comments to more public intellectual concerns. Unfortunately, these journals, like the previous volume, “Reborn,” lack footnotes, which would have helped readers thread through endless lists of names, books, art works and schools of thought.
Though one admires her ferocious curiosity, the Sontag of these journals is hard to love. She obsessively chews the cud of her psyche, to the point that even devoted readers may cringe. (“If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.”) Yes, there is a lot of sex in these diaries. Not to mention a lot of self-analysis, though, tragically, it is not always matched by self-awareness. As Sontag confides, “the ands implore.” So true – possibilities and contradictory impulses implored Sontag, a contrarian writer who sometimes even quibbled with herself.
Although Sontag included the journals with the papers she sold to UCLA, it is unlikely that she wanted them published, as Rieff notes in “Reborn.” Exploring the forbidden is definitely part of the allure here; it feels voyeuristic to read what someone intentionally kept private.
In life, she remained closeted, only begrudgingly admitting to bisexuality shortly before her death. The closet represents the great irony of Sontag’s life, which was full of public courage on political issues, and yet virtually no disclosure when it came to her same-sex relationships.
The diary opens with Sontag’s 1964 breakup with Cuban American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, details the relationship with her friend and sometime lover Eva Kollisch and continues through Sontag’s years with French actress and film producer Nicole Stéphane. Above all is what she once called “the maelstrom of C.” – Sontag’s stormy late ’60s relationship with Italian aristocrat Carlotta Del Pezzo. Sontag did not write frequently about the work of female artists and intellectuals, but clearly she felt great passion for several of them.
Though it can’t be easy to edit his mother’s sexually explicit journals, Rieff bends over backward to demonstrate editorial detachment. (Thus a reference to masturbation in the very first line.) Curiously, while Rieff’s introduction points out his mother’s admiration for numerous male artists and intellectuals and her two serious relationships with men in this era – painter Jasper Johns and poet Joseph Brodsky – it entirely omits the many women Sontag admires, loves, pines for and is heartbroken over for hundreds of pages.
One of the original notebooks, from whence this volume was distilled, contains the entire Morse code, carefully written out on the flyleaf. This is classic Sontag – the lists, one senses, represent her ongoing efforts to decipher a litany of secret codes. That was her role as an essay-writer: a decipherer, interpreter and translator, particularly at the start of her career, when she examined sensibilities, movements and ways of thinking about artistic practice.
“I’m good at understanding things-+ ordering them-+ using them,” she confesses. “But I’m not a genius.” Genius or not, she succeeded brilliantly as an essayist, perhaps, in small part, because of her homosexuality. Queers, like all minorities, traffic in codes, forced to negotiate between the larger culture and their own subjective realities.
Sontag was fully aware of her anomalous role in the culture of her day: a beautiful, super-intelligent woman only begrudgingly admitted to the misogynist boys club of arts and letters. The camera loved Sontag, but the men – at least the straight ones – often hated her. In a statement that could sum up her entire career, she laments: “No image of [a] strong woman who is just strong, + takes the consequences.” Sontag, of course, became that iconic woman for thousands of others, complete with grandiose visions of success.
“At five, I announced … I was going to win the Nobel Prize,” she writes. “I knew I would be recognized. Life was an escalator, not a ladder.” These journals present the opportunity to delve deeply into the soul of Susan Sontag, demonstrating both how ordinary she was and how exceptional. It was quite an escalator ride, and the views along the way were, at times, magnificent.
Nancy D. Kates is a filmmaker and writer in Berkeley. She is the director of “Regarding Susan Sontag,” a documentary currently in post-production. firstname.lastname@example.org