Sontag: The Precocious Years


The New York Times
Susan Sontag in 1966.

February 1, 2009

Sontag: The Precocious Years

You might say there are two kinds of writers: those who keep a journal in the hope that its contents might someday be published, and those who do not keep a journal for fear that its contents might someday be published. In other words, no journal-keeping by a writer who harbors any sort of ambition is going to be entirely innocent. The complicated, somewhat voyeuristic thrill the reader might derive from seemingly prying open the author's desk drawer is therefore, to a certain extent, a fiction in which both parties are complicit.

This notion inescapably comes to mind when one reads the entries by the young Susan Sontag collected in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25). Like any author's journal worth reading, it contains items that anticipate prominent themes of her later published work, as well as others that seem terribly private. What's unusual, maybe, is that sometimes the intellectual items sound more naked and the private items more hedged. The situation is far from simple anyway. As Sontag's son, David Rieff, who edited the volume, explains in his very moving preface, she left no instructions as to what should be done with her journals — "she continued to believe until only a few weeks before her death that she was going to survive." For that matter, "at least in her later life, my mother was not in any way a self-revealing person. In particular, she avoided to the extent she could, without denying it, any discussion of her own homosexuality or any acknowledgment of her own ambition." And those two matters constitute by far the largest themes in the book.

In the end, Rieff decided that Sontag's narrative of self-creation trumped any concern for discretion. The oddly evangelical-sounding title comes from an entry made in 1949, when she was 16: "Everything begins from now — I am reborn." She is referring to sexuality, or at least to an acceptance of her physical self and a general feeling of carpe diem, but the sensation pervades the whole book. She was, in Rieff's words, an "ambitious young person from the deep provinces who wants to become a person of significance in the capital," and self-education in all senses of the term apparently occupied her every moment.

Her age is always at the fore. She is a mere 14 in the first entry, a thumping declaration of beliefs (atheism, socialism and "the only difference between human beings is intelligence"), and only 30 at the end, and her blend of sophistication and naïveté is such that she sounds more often like a much older person whose judgment is sometimes questionable than like a youngster in oversize clothing. Still, the sort of youthful zeal that leads her to peremptory judgments and furious imperatives — "Somewhere . . . I confessed a disappointment with the Mann '[Doctor] Faustus.' . . . This was a uniquely undisguised evidence of the quality of my critical sensibility!"; "Read Condillac!" — never left her, in writing or in conversation. (I encountered her on various social occasions but didn't know her well.)

She was always serious to a fault. Even if, later on, she was able to examine and analyze certain aspects of popular culture (as in "Notes on Camp," 1964), she could undertake such a thing only in service to a higher goal — she was immune to subintellectual cultural pleasures. "How to defend the aesthetic experience?" she asks at 16, wanting it to consist of "more than pleasure," although eight years later, in a rare moment of slippage, she confesses to "a kind of foolish pride which comes from dieting on high culture for too long." Even as the narrative of the journals shows her consistently growing, broadening her focus, her dedication to high culture remains severe and unwavering — it is her church, which must be defended from half-measures and backsliding and squalid ease. She dismisses Faulkner's "Light in August" as a type of "vulgar writing" and decides that by comparison to Kafka, "Joyce is so stupid." She did not wait to be asked to become a gatekeeper, but took on the job before she had proper access to the gate.

In pointed contrast to this intellectual assurance, the emotional side of her education is touchingly uncertain and halting. She realizes at 15 that she has "lesbian tendencies," then alternates between giving herself over to them and (in the spirit of the time) attempting to fight them: "I wanted so much to feel a physical attraction for him and prove, at least, that I am bisexual." She remains a model student, for example making detailed lists of gay slang terms and lore, but homosexuality also causes her to engage with the concrete details of life — for instance, in her evocations of gay bars in late 1940s San Francisco — in ways that her high-mindedness curtails in other areas. She is eager and ardent, but self-lacerating, unsure that she deserves love and sex. She falls in love serially, but the tall, merciless H. soon comes to dominate her life — H. first appears in the Bay Area in 1949 and will reappear a decade later in Europe, still treating Sontag badly and trampling on her self-questioning passion.

Then Sontag marries. The sequence of events is breathtakingly abrupt. She moves to attend the University of Chicago on a scholarship in the fall of 1949. In November she writes, "A wonderful opportunity was offered me — to do some research work for a soc[iology] instructor named Philip Rieff." In the next entry, Dec. 2: "I am engaged to Philip Rieff." A few pages later, after a trip to California to interview Thomas Mann, comes the entry of Jan. 3, 1950: "I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness." And then she is on to "War and Peace" and Balzac and lists of works on theology. Her decision to marry Rieff is never explained or examined, and in fact she says nothing more about the matter, barring an ambiguous recounted dream, until she begins fulminating against the institution of marriage in 1956. The intervening years barely exist in the journals — five years dissolve in nine pages. The birth of her son in 1952 goes unrecorded; he makes his first appearance in an aside.

She comes to life again in 1956, or perhaps it is the journal that does, once again brimming with reading lists and self-exhortations and accounts of intellectual conversations. A year later she has accepted a scholarship to Oxford, and she leaves her husband and son. We understand that there are tears and scenes — Rieff had wanted her trip to coincide with an appointment of his own abroad — but are swept up in her exhilaration: she has been sprung from jail. For a while, the pleasures of the journal become almost entirely narrative. She soon leaves Oxford for the greener pastures of Paris, and there she is reawakened, happily tossed in a whirlwind of intellectual, social and sexual activity. She renews with H., which is probably not the best idea in retrospect, but eventually she links with H.'s ex, the playwright Maria Irene Fornes, who is a much better match for her. In 1959 she returns to the United States, to New York City, where she gains custody of her son and begins writing professionally, editing and teaching. We leave her poised on the brink of her great public career.

"Reborn" is in some ways less like a normal book and more like a person — it is consistent in its deepest reaches, but subject to enormous mood swings. Some very large matters are barely glimpsed, whizzing by at terrific speed, while sundry smaller ones are examined in exhaustive detail. Motives often have to be guessed, and important players enter and exit summarily, without introduction. Various opinions and exhortations — or crotchets or tics — are repeated to the point where it takes a great deal of good will or simple affection to tolerate them. But Sontag does successfully elicit the reader's good will and affection. We may never have seen her in quite this light — fully human and as flawed as any of us. We may want to go reread some of her more lapidary work, now appreciating the vulnerable soul that shared a body with that radical will.

Luc Sante's most recent book is "Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005."