Susan Sontag’s Journals & Notebooks 1964-1980

Susan Sontag’s Journals & Notebooks 1964-1980 by Nancy Kates

Originally published April 29, 2012 (San Francisco Chronicle)

Susan Sontag  Journals

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.


Flashback: Brother Outsider – Montreal Gazette Review by Richard Burnett

Flashback: Brother Outsider – Montreal Gazette Review by Richard Burnett

Orginally Published August 27, 2013

Bayard Rustin - Montreal Gazette

While America and the world commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, march organizer Bayard Rustin continues to be largely ignored and forgotten because he was an openly gay man at a time when it was not socially acceptable. Rustin was even betrayed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The root of Rustin’s isolation was his arrest in Pasadena, California, the night of January 21, 1953, when Bayard (then 41) was found making out with two hot young studs in the back seat of a car.

Rustin spent 60 days in prison.

Then, while leading the push for a strong civil rights plank at the 1960 Democratic Party convention, Rustin was attacked by – believe it or not – Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. as an “immoral element” in the civil rights movement. Powell demanded Dr. King drop Rustin or he’d tell the press that King (who was straight) and Rustin were lovers (they weren’t).

So King – to whom Rustin had taught non-violent protest at the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott – broke publicly with Rustin in 1960.

“Bayard was more upset, as I remember it, by the personal betrayal,” Rachelle Horowitz, Rustin’s personal assistant for 17 years, recalls in filmmakers Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer’s landmark 2003 documentary film Brother Outsider. “How could King let Adam Clayton Powell do this to him? I think it was one of the worst blows in Bayard’s life.”

Rustin swallowed his pride for the movement and would also continue to privately advise the younger civil rights leader unti King’s assassination in 1968.

But when it came time to organizing the August 28, 1963, March on Washington, there was only one man who could do the job: Rustin, who was appointed deputy-director over the objections of Senator Strom Thurmond, who denounced Rustin as a homosexual on the Senate floor.

“Thurmond was really trying to derail the whole thing,” Bennett told me shortly after his doc Brother Outsider was released. “Everybody thought Rustin was a liability. But [civil rights elder statesman] A. Philip Randolph agreed [to organize the march] only if Rustin could work with him. Other civil rights leaders agreed because they wanted Randolph. Today Rustin is overshadowed by memories of Dr. King and his [I Have a Dream] speech.”

Nearly half a century later, on Aug 8, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama named Bayard Rustin a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours,” Obama said. “This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world. It will be my honour to present them with a token of our nation’s gratitude.”

Sadly, Rustin – who died on August 24, 1987, at the age of 75 – will not be present for the long overdue honour.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place on Aug. 28, 1963, and drew 250,000 marchers to the National Mall in Washington, DC. The march will be re-created on Aug. 28, 2013, when President Obama will address the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the “March for Jobs and Justice.”

Flashback: Their Own Vietnam (Harvard Magazine)

Flashback: Their Own Vietnam (taken from Harvard Magazine interview with Thinh Nguyen)

Filmmaker Kates (right) with Vietnam veteran Linda McClenahan, one of her subjects and the chair of the California Vietnam Memorial Commission.
Filmmaker Kates (right) with Vietnam veteran Linda McClenahan, one of her subjects and the chair of the California Vietnam Memorial Commission.

Vietnam through Women’s Eyes

Nancy Kates ’84 was looking for a subject for her master’s thesis in communication (documentary film and video) at Stanford when she came across an article about women veterans of the Vietnam War. “I was very interested in finding some of these women and getting interviews with them,” says Kates, a former journalist in New York and Boston who had already produced four shorter documentaries.

The resulting 23-minute film, Their Own Vietnam, won the gold medal for documentary at the 1995 Student Academy Awards ceremony held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Past student winners have included Spike Lee, Robert Zemeckis, and Bob Saget.)

“I wanted to make people think about how terrible war can be through the experiences of women who served in America’s first fully televised war,” Kates explains. The documentary profiles five women veterans, including a lesbian couple who met while serving “in country.” Filmed interviews, archival footage, home movies, and stills illustrate the women’s experiences, which range from witnessing the carnage in a military hospital to watching a close friend killed by a land mine.

Interviewing women with such powerful stories to tell was itself a challenge, and finding the right women to include was a long and arduous task. “I probably drove 2,000 miles around Northern California, having lunch with any woman veteran who was willing to talk to me,” Kates recalls. “I did the interviews slowly over a couple of months. I called people all over the place-contacting different veterans groups, including a lesbian veterans organization, and even posting inquiries on the Internet.” She interviewed about 60 women in all before deciding on the five who appeared in the film.

Kates worked with a small production crew, but did almost all the research, film editing, and interviews herself. She spent months searching film archives for images and, because of her tight budget (she paid most of the production costs herself), chose not to buy pristine footage owned by television networks, relying instead on film from public domain sources that was scratched, faded, or in some cases, literally falling apart. But, she says, “That gave my archival footage a sense of age and loss and inaccessibility that mirrors the way Americans think about the Vietnam war today.”

The most difficult aspect of making a film, Kates says, can come unexpectedly from a relatively minor incident. “I was preparing the image near the end that shows a wall of statistics for the dead and missing on both sides of the war,” Kates recalls, “when I just broke down and cried. I suddenly felt the enormity of the subject. I realized that, when you delve into a subject like this, there is no way that one filmmaker can capture the whole truth. I wanted this film to have emotional impact on my audience,” she says, “but they have to see it only once. I have to see it over and over again. Like the women in my film, I had to alternate between making myself callous and allowing myself to be emotional.”

Their Own Vietnam has been screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and elsewhere across the country. Kates herself is now working on the production crew of another film. “Working as part of a team is very different from being in charge of a film yourself,” Kates notes. “When you have to plan the whole process yourself there’s so much more that you have to worry about-things you never anticipate. But I’ll do it again.”

~ Thinh Nguyen

Susan Sontag Quote of the Week!

Susan Sontag Quote of the W

We are inaugurating the Susan Sontag quote of the week on Facebook ( and on Twitter (@SontagFilm). Here is the first installment:

“Wisdom is a ruthless business.”

“Debriefing” (short story), from I, Etcetera, 1978

Flashback: Brother Outsider Pulp Review by Shawn Israel

Nancy Kates - Pulp - 03272003

Flashback: Brother Outsider – Pulp Review by Shawn Israel

Originally published March 27, 2003

Flashback: Brother Outsider – Advocate Review by David Ehrenstein

Nancy Kates - Advocate Review

Flashback: Brother Outsider – Advocate Review by David Ehrenstein

Originally published December 24, 2002

Flashback: Brother Outsider – Review by Kate Tuttle

Nancy Kates - Brother Outsider - Africana

Flashback: Brother (now part of HuffPost Multicultural) Review by Kate Tuttle

Originally published in 2003

Flashback: Brother Outsider – TIME Review by Andrew Sullivan

Nancy Kates - TIME magazine - Brother Outsider - 012003

Flashback: Brother Outsider – TIME Review by Andrew Sullivan

Originally published January 20, 2003

Donate to the Regarding Susan Sontag Project!

Nancy Kates - Regarding Susan Sontag

Dear friends—   Greetings from the Sontag project!

We thought we would say hello and send along a project update. The film has made tremendous progress in the past few months, which is very exciting. A 25-minute sample of the film was presented at the IDFA Forum in Amsterdam in late November, sparking interest from a number of European broadcasters.

We have a two-hour rough cut, which we showed to a select group in San Francisco in late October, and an even smaller group at the Sundance Composers and Documentary lab shortly thereafter. It was a great honor to be invited to the lab, and to work with composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, along with lab advisors such as legendary editor Vivien Hillgrove and producer-director Rob Epstein. (Ironically, a number of the advisors for the lab hail from the Bay Area, even if I had to go to Utah to talk with them!).  Several wonderful things came out of the lab: We have signed on to have Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum and her partner Laura Karpman compose our music. Sundance recently made a second grant to the film, to support post-production We got a lot of helpful feedback, much of which we have incorporated into the newest version of the cut. I also had a great experience this past year participating in the Bay Area Video Coalition’s Media Maker Fellowship. The program aims to help independent filmmakers learn about transmedia. I learned a lot, became better versed in the digital world, and enjoyed seeing old and newer colleagues on a regular basis.

Nancy Kates - Regarding Susan Sontag pic

After some six years of work on the film, I’m happy to report that the end is at least distantly in sight—we hope to complete the film by the late spring of 2014. We are hoping you might consider supporting our work with a tax-deductible contribution to the project, which can be done easily by following this link.


One other small request: if you are so moved, please consider “liking” us on Facebook!

We’d like to thank all of our funders, partners and supporters for believing in us and our vision in this project. A list of funders can be found on our website:

Best wishes for 2014!

Nancy Kates, Producer-Director and the Sontag team

Flashback: Brother Outsider – The Wall Street Journal Review by Joshua Muravchik

Nancy Kates - Brother Outsider - The Wall Street Journal - 011703

Flashback: Brother Outsider –  The Wall Street Journal Review by Joshua Muravchik

Originally published January 17, 2003