When we left off in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963, we saw Sontag struggling to turn herself into the writer she wanted to become. This volume, spanning 1964-1980, witnesses Sontag as a critic in her prime, becoming involved in politics, theater, and film as well as continuing to write fiction and essays. When the journals open, Sontag’s first novel, The Benefactor, has just been published, and all of New York has taken notice. With 1964 comes the publication of “Notes on Camp” in the Partisan Review, which quickly went viral—at least, viral for 1964—though she has yet to publish the book of essays that will cement her reputation, Against Interpretation (1966).
But perhaps surprisingly, Sontag doesn’t write about any of this in her journals: she has more important things on her mind. These years show her becoming involved with woman after woman, charting the impact of heartbreak after heartbreak on her psyche. Understandably, all this drama is exhausting, and leads a jaded Sontag to wonder, in 1965, “Have I done all the living I’m going to do? A spectator now, calming down. . . . I thank God for this relative peace—resignation. Meanwhile the terror underneath grows, consolidates itself. How does anyone love?”
How does anyone love? This is the central question for Sontag during these years. Being with another person in any permanent way seems an impossibility. She has her son, of course, and she writes often about what David means to her; he is her “one whole-hearted experience of love, of generosity, of caring.” Her other relationships—with the playwright Maria Irene Fornes, with an actress called Carlotta, with the actress Nicole Stéphane—are demanding, diminishing, they put her in “a state of conflict,” or they evade equality, shifting her into the role of the student (with Irene) or the parent (with Carlotta). A work/love dialectic weighs on her mind: how does one love, and get work done? In early 1966, she consoles herself with the solace of the workaholic, wondering if wanting someone else isn’t part of what prevents her from greatness:
“Do I resent not being a genius? Am I sad about it? Would I be willing to pay the price for that? I think the price is solitude, [an] inhuman life such as I now lead, hoping it to be temporary. Even now—I know my mind has gone a step forward by virtue of being alone the last 2 1/2 years w[ith]o[ut] I[rene], don’t have to package and dilute my responses because I share them with another person. (Inevitably, with Philip + with I[rene], they were reduced to the common denominator, the consensus.) The impact Jasper has made on me—the new intellectual thing in my life this past year—w[oul]d not have been possible if I were still with I[rene].
It’s interesting to see the way she understands her métier: in order to do the work she feels she must, she thinks she needs to be alone. And yet this entry marks an important recognition for her—she doesn’t have to remake herself or adapt herself to meet someone else’s demands. In order to become the writer she wants to be, she knows she must find her own voice, and her own natural set of responses. She notes here the “impact” Jasper Johns had on her (Joseph Brodsky will have a similar impact in the late ‘70s), and, as they spend time together, Johns’ preoccupations often become her own.
But if Sontag is “not a genius” (and we could have our own debate about this question), she is convinced it is because of her natural limitations and the limitations of her upbringing. It was “too conventional,” she writes; she was “too much infected by the Rosie-Mother-Judith-Nat [SS’s stepfather] drivel; just to hear all that for fifteen years ruined me). I’m not mad enough, not obsessed enough.” It’s fascinating to see her blaming her middle-class roots for stifling her genius, and kind of sweet to see her investing in the idea of the artist as mad solitary genius. Whatever one might think of privileged young women lamenting the limitations placed on them by privilege (cf. just about any article written about Lena Dunham’s new HBO show Girls) there’s no reason not to believe she’s being petulant or falsely humble. And where else but their journals can privileged women safely attempt to take the measure of their privilege?
When Sontag considers what she is capable of, she questions its value: “But why do I want—+ what good is it—to go on pushing my sensibility further + further, honing my mind. Becoming more unique, eccentric.” She applies that sensibility widely, into politics and ethics, theater and film, all the while trying to become a fiction writer. She jots down ideas for images and plots, and she makes greatly detailed character sketches, but still she worries about the “thinness” of her writing. Reading, for Sontag, is “like an awful raging hunger. So that I often try to read two or three books at a time,” always in an effort to add more flesh to the bones of her writing.
This metaphor is one that will be familiar to readers of Sontag’s early journals. In Reborn, it became clear that her understanding of herself as a writer was bound up with the body—with sex, with health, with food, with cleanliness. The freedom she found in homosexual sex (“I am reborn”) was at once permanent and short-lived; she always remained “grateful to women” for giving her “a body,” but she would be haunted by worries that she was doing it wrong. She recognized the flesh as the potential enemy of the spirit, the body as the eventual conqueror of the mind. In Illness as Metaphor she quotes St Jerome: “The one there with his swollen belly is pregnant with his own death,” and so, young Sontag believed, are we all. In her early journals, at the age of 15, she struggled with the contrast between the boundless spirit and its bounded corollary, the body: “I must not think . . . of infinities of space . . .—my whole spirit—all that animates me and is the original and responsive desire that constitutes my ‘self’—all this takes on a definite shape and size—far too large to be contained by the structure I call my body.” She describes this opposition as a “pull[ing]” and “push[ing],” a “yearn[ing]” and “strain[ing]”; she “come[s] closer and closer to bursting this poor shell.” Condemned to this pushing and pulling of the flesh and the mind, Sontag asks, “Where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?”
The flesh and the mind
When the first volume of Susan Sontag’s journals was published in 2008, I was struck by this forceful (and precocious) conceptualization of the mind-body problem, and this investigation continues in the second volume. Sontag’s son, David Rieff, who is editing the journals, did not emphasize this issue in his introduction to previous volume, according more importance to Sontag’s liberating discovery of her sexuality. But in these later journals this preoccupation could no longer be skimmed over.
Rieff lurks in the background of these journals as their editor, a job at which he is exceedingly hands off. We are left to our own devices to discern from Sontag’s notes who exactly are all these people who pass through her life. Rieff will sometimes include, within brackets, a brief description, but most of the time we are given their name and nothing further. Rieff has also cut some entries which he thought were unnecessary, particularly concerning Sontag’s trip to Vietnam in 1968. Of course it’s always questionable when a close family member takes charge of the editing process; Leonard Woolf’s version of Virginia’s diaries was greatly, greatly abridged, and was limited to entries pertaining to her writing. This kind of reticence may work against the diaries as time goes on. They need a stronger editorial hand than, perhaps, a close family member can give. At some point down the line these journals will need to be re-edited, annotated, given a proper timeline, and indexed. These things are crucial tools for researchers and writers attempting to engage with Sontag, and their lack is felt here.
The title Rieff has chosen—As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh—quotes a line from Sontag’s 1965 journal: as she contemplates writing a “novel about thinking,” possibly about an artist, she notes in the margin that such a novel would be “a spiritual project—but tied to making an object (as consciousness is harnessed to flesh).” Art-making is a way of thinking for Sontag, an exercise in thought and a way to fasten thought to something concrete: a novel, a film, a play. This is a question which absorbs her in these journals: how the idea is connected to the work, the mind to the body. “My subject in all the fiction I’ve written, from The Benefactor on: the fiction of thought,” she reflects in 1975. The relation between thinking and power. That is, various forms of oppression and repression and liberation.” Whereas in Reborn she found liberation in the discovery of her body and its pleasures, in As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh she explores these sensitive points of harnessing while also trying to sever those connections, all the while fearing the ultimate separation of consciousness from flesh: death. In other words: Sontag chafes at the flesh, while attempting to inhabit it more fully.
Think of the infamous last line of “Against Interpretation”: “in place of a hermeneutics of art we need an erotics of art.” Leaving aside the meaning of the line within the context of the essay (which has been debated since it was published in 1966), the line makes sense within the context of Sontag’s life and work. As the journals show, she was constantly urging herself from interpretation to erotics, from discourse to intercourse, from thinking to feeling. This partly explains her attraction to the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, on whom she published an essay called “‘Thinking Against Oneself’: Reflections on Cioran” in 1967: “Cioran’s subject: on being a mind, a consciousness tuned to the highest point of refinement.” Elias Canetti, another of Sontag’s favorite writers, forced her to confront this issue: in a journal entry from 1980, she notes “Within [Canetti’s] curious body of work lie—both hidden and exposed—all the problems of consciousness.” Look at the choice of wording here: within Canetti’s body of work are problems of consciousness. With Sontag, it is also true the other way round: her consciousness of work contains problems of the body. The title of her Canetti essay is, most aptly, “Mind as Passion.”
She takes careful notes to trace the functioning of her body. She catalogues the idiosyncratic quirks that define her body (intolerance for liquor, heavy smoking, tendency to anemia, heavy protein craving, asthma). At one point she writes down the sequence of a migraine, that process immediately recognizable to migraineurs but unimaginable to others:
Loss of perspective (flattening out) > ‘fortification phenomena’ (white lines—zooming in from side; one-sided)> nausea and vomiting > acute hemicrania
(holding site is always part of acute pain)
It seems significant that during this period, she is also processing the pain she feels from the break-up with Irene. As if a catalog of the body’s pains could siphon off the pain of the mind, and the heart, she writes, “The incredible pain returns again and again and again.” Then later, “If one could amputate part of one’s consciousness.”
Then an interesting thing happens in August 1966: Sontag goes to London to attend a workshop between Peter Brook’s Royal Shakespeare Company, the experimental Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, and actors from his Laboratory Theatre. Grotowski really gets under her skin, judging from how much she writes about him; crucially, he “has studied Yoga in India for a time.” This exposure to yoga and Buddhism allows Sontag to contemplate alternate states of consciousness and meditation, and being around actors whose bodies are their tools pushes Sontag to think about ways of inhabiting her body.
[T]o become silent, to be one’s body
Then: Writing would be something secret, the vice of words [would] become residual +:
All the more intense. . . .
Imagine an attitude in which one’s total attention is fixed on an other (not just to see one’s own image reflected in the eyes of the other), an attitude in which consciousness of self (though hardly self) is obliterated.
Is this the aim—to abolish consciousness of self.
In order to transcend her body, she must inhabit it; in order to inhabit her body, she must understand herself. This becomes the purpose of the journals: no longer to become an ideal version of herself but to understand the self she has become, and to shift that understanding to the body.
Rieff’s title takes on even more resonance when, in 1974, Sontag is forced to battle cancer. From 1974 to 1976 she receives radical masectomy and the removal of lymph nodes, as well as chemo- and immunotherapy treatments. Again, she is surprisingly quiet about this in the journals: there are only 4 entries for 1974. One, however, confronts death as “both too abstract and too concrete”:
Too abstract: death
Too concrete: me
Thinking about death, she writes—“it is a subject I am getting a little tired of. Not, I think, because I am closer to my own death—but because death has finally become real.” Perhaps this is why her illness receives so little discussion in the journals: it is not a problem to work through so much as a clear and present danger.
“Someone intelligent to talk to”
In 1967 Sontag embarks on a series of self-analyzing entries, writing about her mother, her childhood, her relationships, her view of herself, her interactions with people. Growing up, she was acutely aware of the differences between herself and her family, and she describes “scaling” herself “down to size, so that I could be apprehendable by (lovable by) them. With the unwavering resolution to sacrifice nothing I ‘really’ was in the process.” This led to a kind of splitting: Sontag produced one self for her family and one self for her (her “real,” unchanged self). But in so doing, Sontag reflects, she had to give up certain things:
I gave up, first of all, my sexuality. I gave up my ability to understand myself as an “ordinary” person; I gave up most of the ordinary range of access to myself, to my feelings. I gave up my self-confidence, my self-esteem in personal relations—particularly with men. I gave up being at home in my body.
She wanted, above all, “someone intelligent to talk to.”
Her relationship to her mother was vexed, and she thinks of her physicality as inextricable from her mother’s: “But there’s something more. Hard to describe. Like magical powers which my mother ascribed to me—with the understanding that if I withdrew them, she’d die. I must hang on, feeding her, pumping her up.” She resents in her mother what she fears to be true about herself—her narcissism, her weaknesses; so Sontag reacts by disdaining the things her mother finds important, like “washing, making up, dressing, etc. I feel superior to her because I’m entirely indifferent to these things.”
Sontag’s mother is her perennial Other, and this combative relationship is constitutive of Sontag’s disposition. It’s no secret that she could be difficult to get along with—the Susan Sontag exposé memoir is nearly a literary genre unto itself, and even her son wryly notes in his introduction, “my mother was not exactly known for suffering fools gladly (and her definition of fool was, to say the least, ecumenical).” But she still wanted to be liked: “Au fond [at bottom], I do like myself. I always have. . . . It’s just that I don’t think other people will like me. And I ‘understand’ their point of view. But—if I were other people—I’d like me a lot.”
Sontag refused to compromise her opinions in order to be liked. “Is my ‘look’ always aggressive, [an] act of hostility against the other? No. But it is never ‘less’ than an act of self-affirmation, an active experience of my own strength.” But this strength (which she defines as “my mind, my eyes, my intellectual passions”), she writes, tends to push people away, “condemning me to perpetual isolation.” She sees only two choices: to make herself “weak” to get close to them, or to teach them to “make them stronger.”
She was fully aware that she ruffled feathers on a regular basis, but she also knew that her adversarial attitude was an integral part of her critical sensibility. In 1975, she writes:
I am an adversary writer, a polemical writer. I write to support what is attacked, to attack what is acclaimed. But thereby I put myself in an emotionally uncomfortable position. I don’t, secretly, hope to convince, and can’t help being dismayed when my majority [I think she means minority?] taste (ideas) become majority taste (ideas): then I want to attack again. I can’t help but be in an adversary relationship to my own work.
This is the work of the artist: “The interesting writer is where there is an adversary, a problem.”
In these journals Sontag casts herself as the adversary of her lovers, of her family, of her work, and even of her own mind. This role of adversary calls not simply for a contradictory spirit but a particular kind of consciousness. “The artist is a consciousness trying to be,” Sontag wrote in her introduction to her edition of the writings of Antonin Artaud (1973). “Art becomes a statement of self-awareness—an awareness that presupposes a disharmony between the self of the artist and the community. Indeed, the artist’s effort is measured by the size of its rupture with the collective voice (of [reason’).” Unfortunately, this disharmony often means the artist must stand alone. “‘It’s a question of being alone, in writing,’” she quotes Virginia Woolf in one entry.
Lacking a viable interlocutor, Sontag must become her own in these journals, and in her work. The self-reflexiveness and the polemicism are there for this reason. She responds by trying to more strongly occupy her own body. “It’s all a question of really feeling inside myself,” she writes, “so I don’t always worry that I should get out, go behind, and push.” This extraordinary metaphor of the self as stalled automobile is telling—she’s driver, passenger, and vehicle, all in one.
Finding herself alone with her work, again and again, makes her feel “stronger” when she can write in her journal. Talking to herself makes her feel more lonely, but writing to herself is a consolation. Nevertheless, within the same entry she wonders: “(But is that because I do think it possible that someday someone I love who loves me will read my journals—+ feel even closer to me?)” She never gave up trying to find someone to talk to. On at least one occasion, she showed these journals to someone, and they wrote in the margin: “Please don’t be so afraid!” Midway through, Sontag comes to understand that far from being a distraction or a drain, an interlocutor is crucial to her work—even one that causes her pain. As Sontag moves from relationship to relationship, longing for someone intelligent to talk to, there is her son, David. He is her “safety, refuge; wall; security in being needed, and loved, and necessary, literally and morally. A relationship that needed no justification—self-justifying, fully functional,” yet, of course, “limited.” After the scant mention of him in the early journals, it is humanizing to see Sontag talking about her relationship with him at last.
If she was prickly and truculent and off-putting, as the Sontag caricature so often has it, this was not out of total disdain for others, but the watermark of an imperfect character refusing to sacrifice intellectual rigor to interpersonal connection, however much she may have wanted the latter. This is a shadow of the difficulty she had in reconciling work and love: reconciling work and social niceties. (And who cares if Susan Sontag was “nice”?) Sontag was uninterested in banal social interactions: she needed nothing less than transformative exchange, to be touched, somehow, by the people she respected. In her journals, much more than her essays or novels, Sontag elaborates this philosophy of touch. Touch awakens, touch initiates, touch connects more than body to body: body to world. Touch, Sontag writes, “allow[s] me proof that I have a body—and that there are bodies in the world.” In 1970 she is able to see the anguish of heartbreak as “a breakthrough of intelligence,” connecting mind to world in a joyous, “open-ended discourse” which “makes me know I’m alive and growing.” Pain, almost as much as pleasure, is “a source of vitality . . . I feel once again, and I rejoice, that I’m not busy dying—I’m still busy being born.”
Lauren Elkin is a Paris-based writer and literary critic. She recently obtained her PhD in English literature, and her first novel, Floating Cities, will be published in the fall by Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson. She teaches at New York University in France.
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