Diary Of A Literary Icon


One of the pleasures of reading a writer’s journals is seeing how a person we know to be – most of the time – assured and composed appear unassured (i.e. human) in the rough-hewn pages of something intended only as a personal record. Reading Susan Sontag’s 1994 “Art of Fiction” interview with the Paris Review, the 61-year-old Sontag seems to have figured absolutely everything out about herself. Her opinions are fixed, but not impetuously so. She makes fun of her younger self for believing she knew then where she stood. But now (in 1994) she does, and is not forceful about it. It’s just as rewarding to read grownup Sontag, but her first volume of journals, especially for aspiring writers, guide us through those tumultuous years of our teens and twenties when emotional intelligence is trying to grow up alongside the rest of our brain, but can’t seem to keep from falling behind.

Reading Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963 it’s clear Sontag couldn’t have been anything but a writer. By the time she was 18, she had seemingly read more books than many people twice her age. Feeding her young mind with Gide, Mann, Goethe, T.S. Eliot, Dante, Dostoevsky, West, Browning, Joyce, Proust and dozens of others (notably, few of the authors she mentions having read are women, but, well, this was long ago, in the late 1940s), it’s no surprise that she also writes, at the age of 15, like someone twice her age. “Ideas disturb the levelness of life,” she writes in this book’s second entry. Then:

…And what it is to be young in years and suddenly wakened to the anguish, the urgency of life?

It is to be reached one day by the reverberations of those who do not follow, to stumble out of the jungle and fall into an abyss…

And off she goes. An appropriate response to this, the second of 300-plus pages of journal entries, might be Oh boy. But not to fear: it’s only when Sontag was still cloistered at her mother’s home in Los Angeles – and she wouldn’t be for long, as she enrolled at Cal in the fall of her 15th year – that Sontag’s journal gives off the air of Mary Bennet, the bookish, disagreeable middle sister in Pride and Prejudice. All Sontag needed to liven herself up was a love affair or two, and those came almost as soon as she arrived in Berkeley.

These first relationships are with women. Oddly (and perhaps tellingly), Sontag doesn’t even explain to the journal why she suddenly, at the age of 18, marries a man, Philip Rieff, who was 11 years her senior. There are gaps or notes about books and classical music where any explanation (or feelings of love!) might be. It turns out (we learn from other sources) that she married Rieff after dating him for 10 days. The bride, on January 3, 1951, days away from her 18th birthday:

I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.

Yes, well: a woman should be permitted her “will toward self-destructiveness” until at least 25. But this was a different time, and being so precocious, perhaps it’s no wonder that Sontag was married and a mother (to son David, the editor of these journals and plenty of other writing by Sontag) by the age of 19.

Her notes on love and marriage in Reborn are poignant. She describes how the filter between those in a committed relationship tends to break down over time: everything is uttered, everything shared, and this is not necessarily a gift, as it is often portrayed. “The leakage of talk,” she calls it.

She remains as skeptical of marriage once married as she was as a teenager observing her mother and stepfather (her father having died of tuberculosis when she was still a child):

Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution committed to the dulling of feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies.

Quarrels eventually become pointless, unless one is always prepared to act on them – that is, to end the marriage. So, after the first year, one stops “making up” after quarrels – one just relapses into angry silence, which passes into ordinary silence, and then one resumes again.

Later, in a section called “Notes on Marriage”:

Marriage is based on the principle of inertia.

Unloving proximity.

Marriage is all private—no public—behavior.

The glass wall that separates one couple from another.

Rilke thought the only way to keep love in marriage was by perpetual acts of separation-return.

The leakage of talk in marriage.
(My marriage, anyway.)

With real love, the kind of ridiculous “arbitrary” love, she says, “the ground slips from under your feet.” She describes two experiences, in college and with Philip Rieff, when the sensation of love was so strong as to alter her physical reality. At the sight of one “E.L.” one day in college while she was sitting in class, she recalls that “the desk top swerved and plummeted under my elbows.”

But Sontag also betrays her youth here – her emotional youth, anyway. She is convinced that “there is a very limited range of types of people” one can fall in love with, but then says, “For instance, I could never fall in love with someone who was—what?” This seems to be the cry of someone bound for countless more romantic experiences. Soon after, she writes:

In marriage, I have suffered a certain loss of personality—at first the loss was pleasant, easy; not it aches and stirs up my general disposition to be malcontented with a new fierceness.

One has to wonder whether, as when she was 15, the “malcontented” Sontag will subside once she begins to date women again. The short answer is: yes. But her answer, delineated over the final 150 pages of this volume, is more interesting.

Some of her best zingers, on topics including literature and education:

“Joyce is stupid”

“Thomas Mann…is so hollow + bombastic”

“[C]ollege instruction is a brand of popular culture; the universities are poorly run mass media.”

This last foretells her permanent departure, in her late 20s, from academic life. Later, in the Paris Review interview, she will back this up in a way, and echo her contemporary Allen Ginsberg in the process:

PARIS REVIEW: […] [Y]ou taught only through your twenties, and have refused countless invitations to return to university teaching. Is this because you came to feel that being an academic and being a creative writer are incompatible?

SONTAG: Yes. Worse than incompatible. I’ve seen academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.

To pick up where this book leaves off, the second volume of Sontag’s journals, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks, 1964-1980, was released earlier this year.

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image – BBC