Self-Portrait: Susan Sontag’s Early Years

Self-Portrait: Susan Sontag’s Early Years

Tuhus-Dubrow on Susan Sontag’s Early Years

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963
by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008 336 $25

“CONFESSIONS,” WROTE Susan Sontag on New Year’s Eve of 1957, “can be more shallow than actions.” That day, she had peeked into the journal of her lover, a woman she refers to as H, and read something she did not want to believe. According to the journal, H “really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune.”

Sontag was 24 and living in Paris, having left her husband, the sociologist Philip Rieff, and their young son behind in the States. She’d gone abroad to pursue postgraduate study but also to escape a lifeless marriage. In Paris, she had fallen into a bohemian circle and resumed an affair with H, the brash libertine who had initiated her into sex years earlier. Now Sontag was sick with love and lust for her. The passage continues:

God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant and humiliated. We rarely do know what people think of us (or rather, what they think they think of us)…Do I feel guilty about reading what was not intended for my eyes? No. One of the main (social) functions of a journal is precisely to be read furtively by other people, the people (like parents + lovers) about whom one has been cruelly honest only in the journal.

It’s disorienting that Sontag—later known to the world for her severe beauty and intellect, her supreme self-assurance—would find herself in such circumstances. More in keeping with our image of Sontag is her response: a moment of pain serves as an occasion for analysis. Yet the analysis is largely self-serving and not especially coherent. First she proclaims, consolingly, that the contents of a journal have no special claim to truth. But within a few sentences, she acknowledges their uniquely raw honesty.

Her thoughts on the subject are apropos because their source, of course, is Sontag’s own journal, the first installment of three slated for publication. This also explains why they do not meet her usual standards of airtight and rational argument. Diary fodder has a tendency to wrinkle logic, and in private notes there is no need to iron it out.

Why read a stranger’s diary? We can all understand why Sontag would read H’s, but why should we read Sontag’s? It offers some of the same illicit thrill, though muted because the reading is authorized, even if not explicitly by her. As her son, David Rieff, writes in his conflicted introduction, her wishes were ambiguous. Because she clung to the expectation of surviving her lethal blood cancer, she left no instructions for posthumous publications. But she had previously sold all of her papers to the library at UCLA, making the notebooks de facto publicly available. Rieff concluded, “Either I would organize them and present them myself or someone else would.”

Her diaries exert another lure: they expose the humanity behind a persona. Susan Sontag, these entries vividly affirm, endured humiliations just as the rest of us do. And her journals may attract more interest than those of other luminaries. She was inherently intriguing, with her glamorous life and rare status as a celebrity intellectual. That she was, as Rieff writes, “not in any way a self-revealing person,” only adds to her mystique. A diary promises to deliver at least some of what Sontag withheld from her famous essays, which as a rule are polished, impersonal, and rather chilly.

This volume—spanning the ages of 14 through 30—is indeed far from polished and impersonal, although neither is it warm or playful. The notes are a fragmentary hodgepodge, and one shouldn’t read it for a comprehensive account of her life and times. For that, wait for the inevitable biographies (which will presumably improve upon the unauthorized one already published). Sontag seldom used the diary to simply chronicle what happened. When she did, the records sometimes came in spurts, and in mind-numbingly mundane detail, as if to make up for the general lack of them:

Cab to Marguerita’s—A takes David up

Cab home
David to bed
I change into pants.

Nor should one read it for the insights prized in her essays. It was a place to jot nascent thoughts to be developed more fully later: “Interpretation as cultural transportation. When stories from the Scripture can no longer be believed, one interprets them.” Readers are better off turning to the realized version in Against Interpretation, although there is pleasure in seeing the roots, like recognizing a baby picture of an acquaintance.

For Sontag, the diary seems to have played an immediate instrumental role—not to refresh her memory (or share with others) in the future but to work through her thoughts and emotions in the present. Beyond its utility for her writing, it provided a means to reproach and cajole herself into becoming the person she wanted to be. “I am lazy, vain, indiscreet. I laugh when I’m not amused.” She wrote lists of books to read, of words and their definitions, of resolutions concerning her personal behavior: bathe more, gossip less. She also wrote for catharsis, when she had nowhere else to unload her pain.

In the end, her observations inspired by H’s journal, while contradictory, both have some truth to them. The glimpses a diary offers are singularly intimate but partial and therefore distorted (all the more so in an edited version). The therapeutic function, in particular, underscores the point: if used mainly as therapy, a diary will contain all of its author’s sorrow and none of her joy.

Given those caveats, there are themes that emerge from these diaries: Sontag’s ardent yet unsentimental nature and the value she attached to passion of all varieties; relatedly, her intense but often troubled relationships with others. But the real reason to read them is for their embodiment of Sontag’s relationship with herself, an uncommon mix of astringency and indulgence.

FROM THE beginning, Sontag displays the avidity for culture and the writerly inclinations we came to know her by. On September 1, 1948, according to her diary, she spent the afternoon devouring Gide and listening to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “Several arias (such soul-stretching sweetness!) I played over and over again…If I could always hear them, how resolute and serene I would be!”

The next paragraph abruptly abandons this enthusiasm. “Wasted the evening with Nat,” her stepfather, who gave her a driving lesson and took her to a Technicolor movie. She continues, “After writing this last sentence, I read it again and consider[ed] erasing it. I should let it stand, though.—It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence…Let me note all my sickening waste of today, that I shall not be easy with myself and compromise my tomorrows.”

This urgency about time is one aspect of her precocity. Another is the rigor of both her critical judgments and her use of language. At age 15, she writes that The Magic Mountain is the “finest novel” she has read—however, “for sheer emotional impact, for a sense of physical pleasure, an awareness of quick breath and quickly wasted lives—hurrying, hurrying—for the knowledge of life—no, not that—for a knowledge of aliveness—I would choose [Romain Rolland’s] Jean-Christophe.” The sentence is not ready for prime time, nor should it be, as a diary entry. But what is striking is her earnest effort to grasp the nebulous material of her impressions and match them with words that are not necessarily the prettiest—a more typical preference of youth—but the most precise.

Although first dominated by entries like these—conveying the remarkable degree of rapture she derives from high art, music and literature—soon another obsession enters the picture. She was, after all, a teenager. This cerebral woman, who often came across as a disembodied brain on the page, was in fact inflammably sensual. Rieff writes in the introduction, “She was as uncomfortable with her body as she was serene about her mind.” His assessment has weight, of course, but the characterization seems incomplete. She submitted freely to erotic desire and joy, although, poignantly, she appears to lose confidence over time in her abilities as a lover.

For Sontag, there was an intimate link between work and sexuality. Most superficially, the marginalization that resulted from her lesbianism galvanized her to succeed. “My desire [SS first wrote “need,” then crossed it out] to write is connected with my homosexuality,” she wrote. “I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.”

But the reverberations of sex also went deeper. After her first sexual encounters, as a sixteen-year-old at UC Berkeley, Sontag is, she writes, “reborn.” “And what am I now, as I write this? Nothing less than an entirely different person… And I was so close to completely negating myself of surrendering altogether.” She had planned an academic career, despite misgivings about academia’s sterility. But now: “I will not teach, or get a master’s after I get my B.A.” Her new knowledge of the possibilities of the body has opened up all of life for her; if she could realize her potential for physical freedom and bliss, then she could brook no less in other realms. Years later, when she has her first orgasm, the language she uses is equally strong: “The coming of the orgasm has changed my life […] The orgasm focuses. I lust to write.”

But if there are parallels between sex and work for Sontag, there are also notable disjunctions. Her will of steel is manifest in these notebooks. This is unsurprising: we have been exposed to her determination before, most saliently in her first reckoning with cancer. She not only survived a death sentence, but used it as inspiration for a brilliant book of cultural criticism about illness. In her romantic relationships, however, nothing is more conspicuous than her lack of command.

Sontag is at the mercy of H, who is cruel and self-absorbed in this account. “H finds my virtues defects. [Originally, SS wrote “vices,” then crossed it out.] (I’m not interesting enough to have vices.)” Sontag does not appear to try, or to want, to control her desire or to extricate herself from these indignities.

In a very different way, she seems to lack will in her relationship with her husband, until finally ending it. Her reasons for marrying him are mysterious. Nearly the only reference to the decision is this extraordinary sentence: “I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.” Married life appears in her diaries as a grim series of claustrophobic quarrels, and her unmet needs haunt her dreams.

In contrast to those relationships, her feelings for her son were evidently tender and free of apprehension. Indeed, she wore motherhood lightly, especially compared with today’s hyper-parents. “I hardly ever dream of David, and don’t think of him much. He has made few inroads on my fantasy-life. When I am with him, I adore him completely and without ambivalence. When I go away, as long as I know he’s well taken-care-of, he dwindles very quickly.” She wrote this in Paris while in thrall to her indifferent lover.

This is not to cast aspersions on her parenting: she fought for custody after the divorce and her diary includes affectionate anecdotes about David. But she does not seem invested in her identity as a mother. The identity she forged so diligently was that of a writer. She never publicly asserted her lesbianism, an identity she did not choose. But her sexuality, along with her intellect, formed, it seems, the core of who she conceived herself to be. Motherhood was subordinated to both, at least in terms of her recorded preoccupations.

While so demanding of herself in many ways, Sontag allowed herself a large degree of selfishness. In fact, the more accurate way to put it is that she demanded it of herself. She repeatedly prods herself to err on the side of more, not less, egotism. “It’s better to hurt people than not to be whole,” she quotes approvingly (source is unclear—probably her lover) in her late twenties (224). “To write, I must love my name. The writer is in love with himself…” (218).

Her attitude touches on a perennial question: is such selfishness a prerequisite for major accomplishment? When a monster creates great art, it seems incongruous, but at least as puzzling is an artist who has the time and energy—the mental space—for intimate and thriving relationships. Deep submersion in one’s own mind necessarily creates distance from other people. “My emotional life: dialectic between craving for privacy and need to submerge myself in a passionate relationship to another,” Sontag wrote. She sought either “the heightening of self which is only won by privacy and loneliness” or “the splendid heroic beautiful loss of self that accompanies passion.” These extremes made for a life of intensity and achievement. They were not a formula for happiness, but happiness doesn’t seem to have interested her very much.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a contributing writer for the Boston Globe Ideas section. Photo: From the cover of Sontag’s first installment of journals, Reborn (FSG)