Becoming Susan Sontag

An author's diaries are where the will to write is forged. Scott McLemee sneaks a guilty peek.

December 17, 2008

In the early 1960s, Susan Sontag lived in that liminal condition known as ABD. She was in her late 20s. While working on her fiction and criticism, she held brief appointments in philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and at City College in New York, followed by a few years teaching in the religion department at Columbia University. Something of her attitude towards academic life perhaps comes through in the novel Sontag was writing at the time, The Benefactor (1963). Its narrator says he made his reputation with a scholarly article presenting “important ideas on a topic of no great importance.”

This sounds less like a Wildean epigram than something muttered under the breath about a visiting lecturer. In Sontag’s case, the weariness ran much deeper; it was colored with both distaste and uncertainty about the texture and direction of her own life. So one gathers from Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, the selection of personal writings edited by her son David Rieff and published, like all of Sontag's books, by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

In a third-person account of her life written in 1958 (shortly before her 25th birthday) Sontag complains about “the tense careerism of the academic world, the talkativeness of it. She felt sick of talk, of books, of intellectual industry, of the inhibited gate of the professor.” This passage stands out by contrast with the rest of her journal – filled with lists of books to buy, words to learn, ideas to analyze. The final lines of the Reborn refer to “the intellectual ecstasy I’ve had access to since early childhood... Intellectual ‘wanting’ like sexual wanting.”

But passion is not always good for you. Another entry mentions her realization that reading could be an addiction: “I was like an alcoholic who nevertheless experiences a bad hangover after each binge. After an hour or two browsing in a bookstore, I felt numb, restless, depressed. But I didn’t know why. And I couldn’t keep away from the stuff.” She would go on benders, reading in a “greedy way” until she passed out – keeping “several books beside the bed at night, in order to fall asleep.”

Her cinephilia was dipsomaniacal as well: it takes Sontag four pages to list all the films she saw over two weeks in the spring of 1961. The desire to become a writer was there, inside her. But it had to fight to get out, and that struggle involved overcoming the temptations all around her: academic ambition, the distraction of bookstores, the pleasure of sitting in front of the screen and its secondhand dreams.

In one of her earliest essays -- a discussion of the then newly published diaries of the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese, published in 1962 -- Sontag describes the “peculiarly modern literary genre” embodied in the writer’s notebook or journal. “Here we read the writer in the first person,” she says; “we encounter the ego behind the masks of ego in an author’s works. No degree of intimacy in a novel can supply this, even when the author writes in the first person or uses a third person which transparently points to himself.”

She returned to the topic the following year in another essay, this time on Albert Camus. “The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer [for] himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself.... Solitariness is the indispensable metaphor of the modern writer’s consciousness, not only to self-declared emotional misfits like Pavese, but even to as sociable and socially conscientious a man as Camus.”

These passages apply to Sontag’s own notebooks at least as much as they do those of the authors she is ostensibly discussing. They are a workshop in which she fashions a sense of identity. Passages about love and will abound.

At the age of 17, she met and married Philip Rieff, a professor 10 years her senior – this being a matter of will, one quickly surmises, for her erotic preference was for other women. The seven years of her life as faculty spouse roll through the pages of Sontag’s journal like a gray fog, clammy with resentment. A fellowship takes her to Oxford during the fall of 1957 – away from Rieff and their son. By the start of the next year, Sontag is in Paris, where she crosses paths with an old girlfriend; the renewal of their affair has a catalytic effect. “The thought of going back to me old life,” she writes, “it hardly seems like a dilemma any more.... I’m already on the other side from which it’s impossible to return.”

This is not quite the tale of self-creation through self-acceptance it may warm the liberal heart to imagine. The women Sontag then falls in love with prove to be neurotic and abusive (physically so, in one case) and she remains in the closet to some of her closest academic colleagues. Absorbing the “all-out assault on my personality” conducted by one of her lovers, she comes to identify with the aggressor. The degree of critical self-consciousness grows. Analysis of her experience begins to display an edge. The complaints she once directed at her spouse now become reflexive. "I have grown complacent in the years with Philip,” she writes. “I grew accustomed to his flabby adulation, I ceased to be tough with myself, and accepted my defects as loveable since they were loved.... Perhaps it was necessary, this turning inward and deadening of my sensibility, my acuteness. Otherwise I should not have survived. To remain sane, I became a little stolid. Now I must begin to risk my sanity, to re-open my nerves.”

No coincidence, then, that Hyppolite, the narrator of her first novel, would complain about professors who “raised problems only in order to solve them, and brought their lectures to a conclusion with maddening punctuality.” Instead, he goes to excesses that leave him half insane. For all her interest in the avant garde, Sontag never pursued any course quite so dramatic as that. Perhaps the stolidity won out in the end. She ended up, in her later years, much closer to Philip Rieff’s perspective on culture than either of them might have admitted.

“To write,” notes Sontag in 1961, “you have to allow yourself to be the person you don’t want to be (of all the people you are).” Self-creation, like self-consciousness itself, leads to all sorts of paradoxes. Reborn gives readers a glimpse of this process as it unfolded at the start of Sontag’s career. Two forthcoming volumes will carry the story to the close of her life. (David Rieff’s recent book on her final days, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir, offers a sort of preface to this body of posthumous writings by his mother.)

Having read this selection from her journals three times over the past couple of weeks, let me close on a note of impatient enthusiasm. And also, come to think of it, a passage from that essay on Camus, published when Sontag was 30:

"Great writers are either husbands or lovers. Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness. Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover—moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality—that they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling. In the same way, readers put up with unintelligibility, obsessiveness, painful truths, lies, bad grammar — if, in compensation, the writer allows them to savor rare emotions and dangerous sensations. And, as in life, so in art both are necessary, husbands and lovers. It's a great pity when one is forced to choose between them."

This seems more complex, and less amusing, than it did on last reading.


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