Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1964 by Susan Sontag

Sontag's journals suggest that the self is a conditional and transitory creation; elusive and slippery as an artful lover who wants to be a writer.


Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Subtitle: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1964
Contributors: David Rieff, editor
Author: Susan Sontag
Price: $25.00
Length: 336
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780374100742
US publication date: 2008-12

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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