Discussed in this essay:
Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, Susan Sontag. Farrar Straus Giroux. 336pp, $25.00
Early on in the first volume of Susan Sontag’s recently published diaries, it becomes evident that she was a champion list-maker.
This diary opens with a list—a manifesto of sorts:
(a) that there is no personal god or life after death
(b) that the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e. Honesty
(c) that the only difference between human beings is intelligence
And so on. Although for the most part the early entries form a recognizable narrative, once she goes to Berkeley (at age 15), meets the woman known here as H., and has her sexual initiation (culminating in the eponymous entry from May 31, 1949: “Everything begins from now—I am reborn“), narrative gives way to jots and notations. Gay slang she’s learned; books to buy; works of music she admires; quotations; words she likes (“effete, noctambulous, perfervid, detumescence, disheveled’); errant wonderings (“How much of homosexuality is narcissism?”); epiphanies (“Oh, the ecstasy of aloneness!”); observations (“As a child, I was a feverish little Deist”); translations; stray thoughts; titles for stories; her faults; scatological metaphors (“I have diarrhea of the mouth and constipation of the typewriter”; “The emotional life is a complex sewer system. Have to shit every day or it gets blocked up”); resolutions to bathe more often—it’s a veritable carnival for fans of Sontag, and occasionally it shares a little more than we wanted to know. Dashes and ellipses abound, sentences trail off incomplete, Sontag’s musings offer potential for future essays, ideas to explore, join together, or revise. The list is an important form for Sontag; even her most well-known essay, “Notes on Camp,” is organized as a numbered list. It is revelatory, therefore, to find her diaries are essentially one long list. This technique helps her to organize and work out her ideas, like mini-outlines:
1. Nothing is uninterpreted.
2. To interpret is to determine, restrict; or to exfoliate, read meaning into.
3. Interpretation is the medium by which we justify context.
4. To interpret a word is different from defining it; it means to specify a range of contexts (not equivalents).
The sharp-eyed reader will recognize, throughout 1956 and 1957, the germination of what will become the 1966 essay “Against Interpretation.”
The adult—the responsible adult—lives her life in lists. Lists give the illusion that one is in control over one’s destiny. My life is my own because I tell myself to do x, y, and z, and I do them. It is human to make lists. Less common is the practice of list-making after the fact. While most people make “to-do” lists, Sontag makes minutely detailed “what-I’ve-done” lists. For example:
12/27-29/56 New York
left Dec. 27 with David—D wearing Oxford grey pants. Subway to [Boston's] South Station. 8:00 train. . . . In N.Y. 12:15. Took a cab to the Gov. Clinton [Hotel]. Checked in, washed, took cab via Empire State Bldg. to Golden Horn restaurant. Ate shish kebab. Cab to Metropolitan Museum. 3:00 -5:00 the Egyptian exhibits and the Etruscan Warrior. Rosie arrived. Bus back to hotel. Washed and changed. Left at 6:10—David clinging to TV, Rosie about to whisk him across the street to Penn Station + out to Flushing [where Rose McNulty's family lived] for the night. Took cab to Hotel Taft. Herbert & Inge [Marcuse] there, Peter + Frances arrived a few minutes later. Walked to Parisienne restaurant. Rushed, lobster dinner. Walked back to Winter Garden [Theater]. Troilus and Cressida. Afterwards, with Tommy + school chum added, went across the street to the Taft bar for beer. Tommy + chum left, then Peter + Frances to drive back to Waterbury [Connecticut]. Walked with Inge + Herbert to subway at Columbus Circle. Goodnight. Back to hotel. Asleep by 2:00.
Goodnight indeed. The whole trip reads this way, in abbreviations and summaries of meals eaten and people seen. This mania is at its highest peak, predictably, during moments of intense emotional stress, and seems to provide Sontag with some illusion of control. In 1957, during her last few days in Boston, before leaving to go to Oxford for a year, she writes down everything, including what she ate, when the truck came to pick up her library books, and when she went to the bathroom. There is an equally detailed first day in New York, which David Rieff, Sontag’s son and editor of the diaries, tells us he has cut.
Perhaps these are records of how she has spent her time, whose purpose is partly to assuage herself that she has not wasted it. Or perhaps it is a straightforward record of what was done when, should the need ever arise to justify her activities on a particular day. Possibly Sontag was steeling her nerve to leave her husband and child by running over every last detail; the fellowship at Oxford is meant to only be for a year, but we know, and surely Sontag herself knew on some level, that she would never go back to Philip Rieff. But there is something very eccentric about this habit, something manic, frantic. Who writes down when they peed? What possible non-medical purpose could that serve?
Sontag herself wasn’t completely sure why she was keeping the diary. The only answer she could come up with is the same one every writer eventually admits.
12/31/57, “On Keeping a Journal”
Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it. . . . Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say.
And a few days later, on January 2, 1958: “This notebook is not a diary. It is not an aid to memory, so that I can remember that on such and such a date I saw that film of Buñuel, or how unhappy I was over J, or that Cadiz seemed beautiful but Madrid not.” She leaves off without explaining what the notebook is.
It appears that Sontag could no better explain why she kept her diary than we can explain why we want to read it; she felt she could wield some control over who she was becoming, and we do the same. If we are what we read, then reading even Sontag’s jots and scribbles may help us make our own jots and scribbles more Sontagian: we read to learn not only how to be as accomplished as she was but to witness how she wrought accomplishment from disarray.
Twenty years later, in an interview with Jonathan Cott, Sontag explains “I write partly in order to change myself; it’s an instrument I use.” However, if as Sontag says she writes to change herself, then she is writing all of this down not only to record it, not only to seize control over her life but to change herself into the kind of person who can contain all that experience and triumph above it. She writes herself into leaving her husband. She writes herself into surviving H. And she writes herself right into her career.
In his preface, David Rieff explains that his edit of the journals was “informed by my sense that it was the rawness and the unvarnished portrait this material presents of Susan Sontag as a young person, who self-consciously and determinedly went about creating the self she wanted to be,” and that “the fierce and unremitting desire to constantly deepen and expand her education . . . was in a way the materialization of this sense of herself.”
The diary is, then, an instrument of self-change, and an instrument to measure how far one has come. It is also, however, a curiosity cabinet: a place to store all the weird and wondrous things that have surfaced in Sontag’s consciousness.
The hero of Sontag’s 1992 novel The Volcano Lover is an 18th-century collector, mainly of Greek vases, but also of paintings, sculpture, sarcophagi, candelabra, books, manuscripts, and volcanic rocks. Menaced with losing his collection in the fallout from the French Revolution, the Cavaliere resorts to making a complete inventory of his holdings. “This was hardly his first list,” Sontag writes; “collectors are inveterate list-makers, and all people who enjoy making lists are actual or would-be collectors. . . . The list is itself a collection.” The novel contains many similar musings on the impulse to collect. Sontag goes so far as to make a list of the kinds of lists that exist:
What you like: your five favorite flowers, spices, films, cars, poems, hotels, names, dogs, inventions, Roman emperors, novels, actors, restaurants, paintings, gems, cities, . . . What you’ve done: everyone you’ve gone to bed with, every state you’ve been in, country you’ve visited, house or apartment you’ve lived in, school you’ve attended, car you’ve owned, pet you’ve had, job you’ve held, Shakespeare play you’ve seen . . .
What the world has in it: the names of Mozart’s twenty operas or of the kings and queens of England or of the fifty American state capitals. . . . Even the making of such lists is an expression of desire: the desire to know, to see arranged, to commit to memory.
What you actually have: all your CDs, your bottles of wine, your first editions, the vintage photographs you’ve purchased at auctions—such lists may do no more than ratify the acquiring lust, unless, as it is with the Cavaliere, your purchases are imperiled.
This passage could serve as a meta-commentary on the contents of the diaries. The Cavaliere’s inventory is a “rescue mission”; it is for Sontag as well: a rescue mission and an excavation. In January 1957 we are treated to a twenty-page long list of memories from her childhood, presented in no apparent order, entitled “Notes of a Childhood.” An excerpt:
Betting 25 cents on the World Series with Gramp. I for the Yanks, he for the “Bums”? [Brooklyn Dodgers, her son adds in editorial brackets.]
Dreaming I could fly.
Reading Perry Mason novels. (Tucson.)
[My] First Beethoven quartet: Op. 127.
Mr. Shepro. Eating in the teachers’ cafeteria.
Sobbing on Mother’s bony bosom before going to bed. Wanting to be better.
Mother slapped me on the face. (Forest Hills.)
Dr. Berman, the dentist in N.Y. Wait’s Topical Paste.
. . .
Riding on the subway. (N.Y. To Dr. Spain’s)
Gramp said, “Eye-talian.”
Peter + I translating Walpurgisnacht together.
This particular passage goes against the grain of the image of the young Sontag we get from the earliest diary entries as somehow having bypassed childhood, having been born an adult mind. On the contrary, she had a childhood, and from the sound of it her childhood wasn’t much different from any other postwar American suburban childhood. Moreover, for someone who often reminded people that she was an adopted New Yorker, she was essentially a product of New York Jewry; although she grew up in Arizona and California, she was born in New York, and went often to see her family there. It is interesting to see the extent to which she owns up to this in the diaries. Owns up to it, that is, not in so many words but in the persistence of New York‒related ideas in this autobiographical list; a vision of who Sontag privately thought she was emerges.
Lists, like collections, function to save information perceived as somehow valuable from being lost in the abyss of the unconscious. They consist in the things one has found and the things one wants to acquire. But as Sontag makes clear in The Volcano Lover, the idea of collecting is tied to the idea of destruction. To have amassed a collection is to put oneself in danger of losing it. The only way to lose one’s experience is to forget it; if it is to be valuable—for personal purposes, or for literary ones—it must be inscribed somewhere.
To write it all down is also a relief. List-making can be a writing-out; the diary can contain one’s experiences and also purge us of their burden. Disburdenment: a word Sontag uses constantly in her fiction, essays, and interviews. In a 1981 interview with Roger Copeland, Sontag admits that a unifying theme in her writing is “consciousness as a form of acquisition; and the counter-projects of disburdenment and silence—the temptation of silence.” And from the short story “Project for a Trip to China”: “Travel as decipherment. Travel as disburdenment. I am taking one small suitcase, and neither typewriter nor camera nor tape recorder. Hoping to resist the temptation to bring back any Chinese objects, however shapely, or any souvenirs, however evocative. When I already have so many in my head.”
In the same story, travel is also “accumulation . . . the colonialism of the soul.” Accumulation is part of how Sontag relates to the world—not only in terms of her own erudition, actual or projected, but in terms of how she herself has experienced the world, on an ontological and psychological level. The story itself takes the form of a list: all the things she thinks of when she thinks of China, what she will do and where she will go when she gets there. The listing is at once an accumulation and a disburdenment, a list and an exorcism. By free-associating around the idea of China, Sontag tunnels through her feelings about her father’s early death (in China, of tuberculosis, she hints) with her conception in China and with her Arizona upbringing, where she once dug a hole so deep the housekeeper asked if she was digging to China.
This double impulse—to gather and to release—reveals Sontag to be, like the Cavaliere, a collector. Collectors have a divided consciousness,” she writes in The Volcano Lover.
No one is more naturally allied with the forces in nature that preserve and conserve. But every collector is also an accomplice of the ideal of destruction. For the very excessiveness of the collecting passion makes a collector also a self-despiser. Every collector-passion contains within it the fantasy of its own self-abolition. . . . Destruction is only the strongest form of divestment. The collector may be so disappointed with his life that he wants to divest himself of himself, as in the novel about the book-besotted reclusive scholar with a legendary horde of twenty-five thousand necessary, irreplaceable volumes (that dream, that perfect library), who pitches himself into the pyre he makes out of what he has most loved. But should such an angry collector survive his fire or fit, he will probably want to start another collection.
One can surmise the connections between Sontag and the Cavaliere, reading her novel. But the connection does not become explicit until one reads the diaries. “To philosophize, or to be a culture-conserver?” asks 23-year-old Sontag in her diary. “I had never thought of being anything but the latter.”
The novel to which Sontag refers, above, is, of course, Canetti’s Auto-da-fé, and his immolation a “fantas[y] of disburdenment.” As the Cavaliere sells off his pictures, “he felt himself lighter, relieved of a burden.” And what he ends up missing is a worthless piece of cloth that falls off his coach.
David Rieff has said that while his mother never wrote an autobiography, the two essays of hers that come closest to autobiography are the essays on Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti. The former essay explores Benjamin’s saturnine melancholy, which Sontag shared, while the latter establishes, in Sontag’s words, “the terms of a succession.”
In “Mind as Passion,” Sontag explores Canetti’s dedication to the writer Hermann Broch; what Canetti admires in Broch, Sontag writes, lay out what he most aspired to himself. These included “intellectual insatiety,” and a “fastidious . . . sense of the writer’s vocation.” In turn, we can read in Sontag’s admiration for Canetti the standards she has set out for herself. “Incapable of insipidity or satiety, Canetti advances the model of a mind always reacting, registering shocks and trying to outwit them.” She lauds the role of the notebook for Canetti, calling it “the perfect literary form for an eternal student. . . . The notebook holds that ideally impudent, efficient self that one constructs to deal with the world.”
In this essay, Sontag lays out what we can probably take to be the most important means of understanding her diaries:
What Canetti says at the end of this progress of admiration, his homage to Broch, suggests what there is most to admire. The last achievement of the serious admirer is to stop immediately putting to work the energies aroused by, filling up the space opened by, what is admired. Thereby talented admirers give themselves permission to breathe, to breathe more deeply. But for that it is necessary to go beyond avidity; to identify with something beyond achievement, beyond the gathering of power.
Some critics have remarked upon the fact that in the diaries, Sontag says next to nothing about her affair with and marriage to Philip Rieff until the marriage is already in trouble; her son David appears suddenly in an aside, and there is nothing about her pregnancy, his birth, or his early life. The relevant years of the diaries are missing—whether this means they were lost or not kept at all, Rieff says he does not know.
Given this last statement from the Canetti essay, I think we can safely say that the reason Sontag hardly mentions her early marriage and her son’s birth is not because these events were unimportant to her but because they were unproblematic. Any journal keeper will tell you that the journal accumulates most of its entries in times of stress or upheaval. During a particularly domestic period, however, Sontag has allowed herself to “breathe”; not to force these achievements to mean something beyond themselves, but to live them as herself, as the self she was when they occurred, and not as the self she was trying to become. We do not know her emotional state during this period—we cannot say she was happy and untroubled; we can only say that she was willing to let this time serve nothing but itself.
And so Sontag’s silences tell us almost as much as her lists.
Her stay in Paris in 1958 proves to be strengthening and demoralizing at once; locked in a masochistic relationship with “H.,” her ex-girlfriend from Berkeley, Sontag finds, for the first time, the limits of her strength. After reading about herself in H.’s diary, and learning exactly how her lover feels about her (“she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune”), her ego is bruised, and all sorts of self-doubts creep in. We see Sontag doubt herself earlier in the journals, we see her concerted effort to reinforce her self-confidence, but her self-esteem has never fallen as low as we find it during that year in Paris. H. comes across as a monster; the reader wants to shake Sontag by the shoulders and tell her to leave. But Sontag has embarked on a sentimental education, and will not be put off-track.
She knows, however, that her bruised ego must be assuaged if she is to write. “With a little ego-building—such as the fait accompli this journal provides—I shall win through to the confidence that I have something to say,” she says in December 1957. And in November 1959: “I cannot write until I find my ego.”
Back in New York, Sontag gets involved with H.’s ex-girlfriend I. (the playwright Maria Irene Fornes). This relationship proves to be more stable and nourishing, and by early 1960 she is working out the trouble she has with interpersonal relationships. In the beginning, unsure what to call it, she labels it “X,” and in a series of journal entries over the next three years, Sontag elaborates on “X” until she has a better handle on what it is and how it affects her life. X is a “scourge”; X comes about when she has something to prove, when she makes herself “an object, not a subject.” “X is the one-night stand, the inability to say no.”
X is “connected with the sense of shame. X = the compulsion to be what the other person wants.” America, for example, is “a very X-y country,” perhaps because of the “cult of popularity” found there. “The tendency to be indiscreet—either about myself or about others (the two often go together, as in me)—is a classic symptom of X.” “People who have pride [a box is drawn around the word in SS's entry] don’t awaken the X in us. They don’t beg. We can’t worry about hurting them. They rule themselves out of our little game from the beginning. Pride, the secret weapon against X. Pride, the X-cide.” Then, in the same entry, she wonders: “Apart from analysis, mockery, etc., how do I really cure myself of X?”
She comes to realize that she feels X because she doesn’t know her own feelings. This may seem tautological, but it is actually a step forward. By the end of the month (February 1960), in another list (titled “More thoughts on X”) she is more able to put a name to X: “All the things I despise in myself are X: being a moral coward, being a liar, being indiscreet about myself + others, being a phony, being passive.” And, two weeks later: “The way to overcome X is to feel (be) active, not passive. I feel anxious when the phone rings—therefore I don’t answer or I get someone else to. The way to beat that is not to force myself to answer the phone. It is to make the calls myself.”
“Reborn,” Rieff has titled this collection. This has been read to mean both as a lesbian and as an intellectual. But there is a third way to read this. There is a passage in The Volcano Lover when a poet called Goethe comes to visit during a voyage through Italy. Of Goethe, the narrator comments, in what we can now recognize as typical Sontagian syntax: “The poet was always—would always be—in the process of being reborn. Definition of a genius?”
That question mark is for herself. She seems to have had a fair hunch, as early as age fourteen, that she was in an intellectual league of her own. What is it they say about genius—that it is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration? Sontag’s diaries give us a glimpse into the work that went into the second part of that ratio. We end the diaries with an intimate sense of Susan Sontag. And it is comforting to find that, brilliant as she was, she was not born a flawless vessel for transmitting her genius—she had to work at it. These journals contain the struggle.
Lauren Elkin is a writer, literary critic, and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. She writes about books and French culture on her blog, Maîtresse, and lives in Paris.
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