It’s difficult to gauge Susan Sontag’s standing both in popular culture today and where, if at all, she is situated in the academy. As an essayist and critic her stance could perhaps be gingerly placed beside New Criticism, which dominated literary studies up until more or less the early ’50s and was then slowly was replaced by Archetype theory, which in turn was pushed aside by the many forms of post-modern theory beginning in the early ‘70s.
Sontag’s apprenticeship as a reader and writer began rather under the old-fashioned principles of doing a close reading of a text and individual response and assessment. Her diaries and journals, 1947 to 1963, show that she ignored a series of isms — Existentialism, Marxism, Freudism, and Structuralism to name a few — that swept through universities on a regular basis. Nor could she be called a literary journalist. Her moral seriousness, her wide reading, and her intelligent insights expressed in crisp, clear writing make her a cut above the average literary critic or obfuscating literary theorist.
Two of her most famous essays — ‘Notes on Camp’ and ‘Against Interpretation’– published in her first collection of essays Against Interpretation in 1966, show us an intellectual who does not filter her views through the prism of theory or use knowledge of any formal theory to discuss the new aesthetic known as ‘camp’ or to show how ‘interpretation’ in her famous aphorism, ‘is the revenge of the intellect on art’. She was, in short, refreshingly free of cant. How did this happen?
We read a writer’s journals and notebooks, in part, to answer this type of question and to learn something about the creative process of the individual artist. We also hope to see or discover how the life and the writing intersect and end up influencing each other. It’s a curious thing that the process of learning to write includes not only learning craft but also often reinventing the self. Sontang’s journals indeed throw light on the learning and the reinventing or perhaps more accurately, the creating of the writer’s self. The use of title ‘reborn’ for these journals and notebooks is apt.
Her journal entries are also often prosaic. She makes lists of books she wants to read, for example, or notes what she had for dinner in a Chinese restaurant and how much she paid. From such quotidian stuff is the soul of the young artist made!
Writers are aware of the public’s voyeurism and often create journals with a self-conscious eye on their future image, but according to David Rieff, Sontag’s son and editor, the diaries “were written only solely for herself, and she produced them steadily from early adolescence to the last years of her life…” It was also his decision to edit and publish them since she left no instructions on her death so presumably what we are getting is an unvarnished (albeit edited) view of Sontag’s young self.
This is the first book of three of her journals which are planned to be culled from over 100 notebooks and miscellaneous sheets. It begins when Sontag is only 14 and ends in late 1963 when she is 30 and on the cusp of bursting on the stage of New York intellectual life.
The journals open with Sontag on her lonely, confused quest to define her sexual identity and interests. They also show her to be a precious reader and a remarkably confident and self-reflective liberal thinker. As a teenager in 1949, for example, she was reading Goethe’s Doctor Faust, Marlow’s Faustus, Hesse’s Demian, the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins and Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Also by the time she is 16 she gives up trying to be bi-sexual and declares a manifesto:
“I intend to do everything…to have one way of evaluating experience-does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful — I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere!”
The first pecks on the shell containing her rebirth are visible in that passage.
Sontag enrolled at the University of California at 16 and soon became passionately involved with a slightly older woman known simply as H. Then suddenly her evenings out with H. are over, her journals oddly do not discuss courtship or the reason(s), and she marries, at the age of 17, a young academic called Philip Reiff. There is a fine biography in the making somewhere explaining her decision and her seven-year marriage.
Within a year of her marriage she notes that quarrels in a marriage are not right; she comments that one should only quarrel with friends. She also more than once begins to jot ‘notes on a marriage’ and observes dryly that only someone with a subtle concept of torture could have designed the institution of marriage.
The ebb and flow as well as the high and lows of her intense relationship with H. picks up again in Paris after separating from Philip when she is 24, and they continue in her relationship with playwright Maria Irene Fornes who also happened to be H.’s former lover. In her love life, Sontag was very private and never publicly denied or acknowledged her homosexuality while she was alive. Nevertheless, young Sontag was searching for some kind of equilibrium with her lovers. Her diaries show she was often tormented with insecurity, jealousy and doubt, and was hurt by both H. and Irene Fornes.
Her turbulent relationships, however, did not diminish her intellectual appetite in any way nor her intellectual ambition. European culture, in particular French novels and films and German literature, were her other great passions. The journals show her as a young woman intensely serious about moral philosophy, religion, and literature, and her reading lists reveal her as someone driven to consume all there was to know about European culture. She was also very much a great filmgoer, sometimes watching two or three films in one day and then noting in her journal the name of the director and actors in each film.
If Sontag was bound and tormented on the rack of love, we find the opposite in her confident intellectual quest and cool, detached, almost breezy assessments such as “ Bohemianism can only exist in certain communities…” Or in another journal entry Sontag insightfully and candidly links her passionate/erotic nature to her development as a writer.
“The orgasm focuses. I lust to write. The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but more the birth of my ego. I cannot write until I find my ego… To write is to spend oneself, to gamble oneself.”
Sontag shows she understood that the writer and the lover are equal in the sense that you cannot create love or art without active desire and that it involves risk. Her days of being the passively inspired genius were over. The insight was yet another step towards rebirth or construction of herself as a writer and critic. Indeed, you could argue that the journals suggest Sontag consciously saw her artistic development as an ongoing work in progress towards becoming a thoughtful, high minded intellectual and writer in the old school European classic style represented by such late modern writers as Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre.
Sontag also frequently exhorted herself in her diaries with little bits of advice: ‘eat less’, ‘bath once a day and wash hair every ten days’, or notes with disdain that ‘nothing prevents me from being a writer except laziness.’ Self-improvement and self- criticism were part of the career package to becoming a writer in Sontag’s mind. Rarely, however, do we find in her journals and notebooks humor, playfulness, or irony about herself or other people except on one occasion she writes in her journal about being home alone masturbating and examining her vagina for an hour when Irene Fornes returned and asked her if she found anything interesting and Sontag replied no.
Sontag’s journals and notebooks are not great literature; the writing at best can be described as rough sketches mixed with the well-observed and thoughtful self-refection, pedestrian detail and habit, and now and again brilliant insight. But reading them does shed light on the mystery of the yearning private self and shows us Sontag taking conscious deliberate steps to be born again as a writer. The journals also suggest that the self is a conditional and transitory creation; elusive and slippery as an artful lover who wants to be a writer.