Under the Sign of Sontag

The intellectual’s greatest project: herself.

If anyone is under the impression that Susan Sontag was, beneath her intellectual brio, just like everyone else, a quick perusal of Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, edited by her son, David Rieff, should put that idea to rest. The extraordinary notebooks begin when she is a teenager, heading off to Berkeley, and carry her through her unhappy marriage to Philip Rieff, to Oxford and Paris, and, finally, back to New York. The diaries are shocking, singular, in both the intimacy of their brisk, notelike form and the astonishing personality they reveal.

Sontag does not expend the energy on being charming, or even comprehensible, that most people paradoxically do in their private journals. Her notes are scattered, aphoristic, sharp. There is a seriousness, an almost preternatural lack of humor, to the entries that is both the amazing power and the curiosity of Sontag’s thought. The imperial voice of Against Interpretation is here aimed at herself. The critic takes her own personality on as a subject and dissects, often unflatteringly, her own weaknesses on the highest and most trivial levels. “I had never realized how bad my posture is,” she writes. “It has always been that way. … [I]t’s not only that my shoulders + back are round, but that my head is thrust forward.” The journals are largely comprised of lists, ways to improve herself, books she should read, chronologies. They give evidence of a fierce and unrelenting campaign to work on herself as an intellectual, as a woman, as a mother. “In the journal,” she writes, “I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.” She was 24 years old.

What is remarkable here is the ferocious will, the conscious and almost unnatural assembly of a persona that rises above and beyond that of ordinary people. The determination she devotes to figuring out who to be, on the most basic and most sophisticated levels, is breathtaking. “Better to know the names of flowers than to confess girlishly that I am ignorant of nature,” Sontag writes. There is, in these pages, no sense of a woman comfortable in the world, a woman at ease. “Don’t smile so much, sit up straight,” she admonishes. “Think about why I bite my nails in the movies.” How is it possible that anyone is this self-conscious? And how is it possible that this degree of self-consciousness could be so fruitful?

In fact, there is no other diary I can think of that makes such liberal use of the imperative mood. Sontag is unremitting in her efforts to transcend her limitations, to imagine a different way of existing. She writes, “Admitting my mistakes, when I have been cheated or taken advantage of—a luxury that should be rarely indulged. People may seem to sympathize, really they despise you a little. Weakness is a contagion, strong people rightly shun the weak.” She seems to harbor a secret image of herself as sloppy, idle, and weak that lies somewhere behind her spectacular efforts; she writes of herself over and over as naturally weak and accommodating to other people. The strength we associate with Sontag is an image, it seems, that she labored on, like an essay. In these strange and admirable journals, she feels at times like an alien from another planet who has settled in our midst and is studying our ways: “Most Americans start making love as if they were jumping out a window with their eyes closed.” One can’t help coming away with a sense of one’s own slack acceptance of a comfortable existence.

In the passages about her romantic life, which are the most conventionally human in the journals, Sontag comes across as surprisingly ardent and vulnerable. By her own account, she has a series of relationships with women in which she loves more than she is loved. “H. thinks she is decadent because she has entered into a relationship which neither physically or emotionally interests her. How decadent then am I, who know how she really feels and still want her?” All of the confidence we associate with Sontag, the opinionated force of her personality, crumbles in these associations with women in a manner almost hard to watch. Her descriptions of her affairs are filled with pain and self-contempt: “I can already envisage H’s brittle demonstrativeness, my own gaucherie—my idiotic attempts to elicit her love.”

The Sontag in these diaries is mesmerizing, brilliant, abrasive, not quite likeable. Rieff mentions that he has not edited extensively and that she never read her journals out loud or intended for other people to read them. This appears to be true. They feel raw, unprocessed, like scribbled notes to herself, which gives them a greater power and immediacy than other, more polished diaries and memoirs that seem to anticipate and cater to their public. They were meant for her, and she did not write and move on: Sontag comments in the margins later, like a professor weighing in judgment, on a former self, never leaving herself alone. There is in an important way no difference between her own experience and a particularly absorbing book she might be reading. One can’t help but admire the intricate mental apparatus at work: She is writing notes on her notes. These private jottings are, like her famous essays, almost entirely abstract and cerebral: She almost never describes the physical world, what the sky looked like, the smell of orange trees in Seville, or what she and her lover ate for breakfast.

Susan Sontag

And yet the innumerable tiny details that preoccupy Sontag over the years, the moments when she does describe her relation to the physical world, are revealing. There are a surprising number of entries in which she resolves to bathe more frequently. “Take a bath every day,” she writes over and over, which somehow one doesn’t imagine reading in the journals of an adult. But bathing is difficult for her; it involves a confrontation with the physical body she finds distressing. She tells us she sometimes falls asleep in her clothes. There is something endearing in this self portrait: the arrogant command of her authorial voice somehow belied by a sweet image of the unworldly woman writer, so uncomfortable with the basic physical demands of life, so flustered by soap and water.

If there was any doubt, the notebooks confirm that the uncompromising intelligence, the unsparing honesty Sontag shows in her work is not a pose or affectation. Her entries give evidence that she is to her core as unrelenting, unironic a critic in life as she is in her work. The harshness and purity and impossibility of her writing carry through into her days. All the weakness she fears in herself, the baroque and excessive self-contempt she feels, is marshaled for the highest cause: She wills herself into a strength of vision and ambition of voice unrivalled in a woman thinker. She writes, “[T]he writer is in love with himself,” and so she labors to create a self she can love, to reflect that perfect, arrogant writer’s confidence, that necessary narcissism. In his rather beautiful and tormented introduction, Rieff wonders whether he should have published these journals at all, as his mother never made her wishes clear before she died. But the reader, at least, is grateful that he did. The notebooks are invaluable for anyone interested in how the serious and flamboyant intellectual dreamed up her greatest project: herself.