Susan Sontag's Journals from the Depths of Erudite Despair

by Nicholas Thomson

12 September 2013

These journals reveal what a comfort writing was to Susan Sontag in the face of her loneliness.
cover art

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh

Susan Sontag

US: Apr 2012

Why do we divide different kinds of writing into categories? One answer is that a label lets the reader know how to read a piece. A writer of fiction is able to publish thoughts too ugly or personal to be read as the truth. Michel Houellebecq writes that Islam is “the stupidest religion” (not without a degree of blowback) and people are up in arms at the fact that he has not yet received the Prix Goncourt.

A philosopher is able to make some claim to objective truth and must invite the reader to join her on that plane, regardless of how mandarin her metaphysical claims may be. Journalism is supposed to document the objective world without the tincture of subjectivity. Diaries are a bit more nebulous. One intuitively reads them as an authentic manifestation of the “inner life” of the author. What they reveal is what a writer sounds like without the armor of formal presentation.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is a collection of Susan Sontag’s diaries from the years 1964-1980. This time marks what can be considered the middle of her life. She has settled into the person she was to become. Her reflections reveal her to be a deep thinker plagued by self doubt. Despite her fame and success, she has not “gotten over” the painful trials attendant to a person whose guiding star is the question, How should one live?

This book is a smorgasbord of erudition and delight. Sontag is always searching for the ethical in oppositions: the body and the mind; being good and being intelligent; the political and the aesthetic; censorship and freedom; religion and atheism. Her journals were a space for her to work on these problems and in many cases she prefers to eschew the binary rather than pick a team.

Traced in these pages is the emergence of Sontag’s homosexual life. Much of the text deals with unrequited love. She’s obsessed with women who “exploit”  their gifts (of beauty, charm) and yet resents her admiration for their flesh. Writing of men, she never describes them as sexually appealing, only as teachers. She believes in the virtues of suffering and loneliness and fears that she, in the words of Dostoevsky, might not live up to her despair.

Indeed, much anxiety is spent over the body, as the title might suggest. It’s in part this anxiety—the tension between indulging in sex or reserving attention for higher, intellectual matters, the feeling of oppression under the male gaze—that drive her into spirals of despair. She quarrels over whether to live like Simone Weil and starve herself to death, never knowing sexual happiness, or like Flaubert. Ever resolute, she finds courage in writing. There is salvation in the project of the self.

The paradox of the writers’s life is in how much one should be in the world. Writing is a solitary pursuit. Those called are drawn to shadows and abstraction- peeping toms observing the world. One worries that in looking so deeply into people, you see through them when you are with them. Sontag writes: “But I’ve experienced my strength (my mind, my eyes, my intellectual passions) as condemning me to perpetual isolation, separation from others. I must become ‘weak’ to get close to them.” She is caught—both her obsession with and desire for connection mandates her participation in the world (not to mention a need of material). Many hacks have been born from solipsism.

Sontag is obsessed with lists. There are long sections where she details films she has seen, places she has been, words she has learned, books she has read and many more morsels she has ravenously devoured. Intellectually starving, she sees life as a giant banquet. These sections can be quite tedious. Yet they speak to the virtue of the life of the mind and inspire those who might be nostalgic for their time in college when they had the wherewithal to sit through the long version of Fanny and Alexander .

Midway through the book are notes from her trip to Vietnam. She finds herself disillusioned of her faith she once had in these revolutionaries. In a fairly ugly section she grapples with the fact that the Vietnamese people’;s physical difference and alien social codes make them seem less human to her. Politically productive or not, honest confessions like these mark what is unique about a diary.

In the end the question that troubles Sontag the most is whether or not she is using people. Someone as thoughtful as she is is bound to wonder about the possibility of an authentic relationship. Is it moral to be intimate or even friends with someone for selfish ends? Is it even possible to be close to someone without the stain of egoism or competition?

What these journals reveal is what a comfort writing is to her in the face of loneliness. She writes: “I don’t really think—just have sensations or broken fragments of ideas, when I am alone without a means to write, or not writing.” Her answer to the anxiety of competition is that in the end, an egoless connection might not be possible. Yet it is one of the few things in the world truly worth fighting for. The battleground for Sontag is the page, her truest friends, thoughts.

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh


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