Susan Sontag

For years I have admired the work of Susan Sontag. But I have done so from a distance for the breadth of her erudition is so far beyond me as to be virtually unapproachable. Nevertheless, I was eager to read Volume 1 of her journals, recently published under the title Reborn. They cover the period of her life between 1947-1963, beginning with her adolescence, college experiences, marriage, years abroad in Paris and Oxford, as well as the birth of her son, David Rieff, who has taken on the task of editing the material.

She began writing them as a teenager, a precocious one at least in terms of literature. Her reading appetite was voracious. Soon it became clear that was also true of her sex life. She was a great believer in making lists and the journals abound with them, including one in the beginning which I have condensed slightly:

I believe:
(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.
(d) That the only criterion of an action is its ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy
(e) That is wrong to deprive any man of life
(h) I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state…should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines…

There are countless list of books in Reborn that she has read or would like to read. Here is a partial list of the first:

The Counterfeiters—Gide
Tar—Sherwood Anderson
The Island Within—Ludwig Lewishon
Sanctuary—William Faulkner
Diary of a Writer—Dostoyevsky
Johnny Got His Gun—Dalton Trumbo
The Forsyte Saga—Galsworthy
The Egoist—George Meredith

Sontag was devoted to the cinema. Rieff notes that one of the notebooks from 1961 is simply a list of films seen. He writes: “On no occasion is there a break of more than four days between films seen; most often [she] notes having seen at least one, and not infrequently, two or three films per day.” That was surely the golden era of the cinema, for today we live in an time when we are lucky if we can find one decent film to see during the week.

Perhaps the best way to convey the intensity and range of Sontag’s life during this period is to quote directly some of her entries:

On Journaling: In the journal I do not just express myself more open than I could do to any person; I create myself.

On Needs: All I feel, most immediately, is the most anguished need for physical love and mental companionship.

On Music: Music is the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts—it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure—and the most sensual.

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

On Writing: Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose….I write to define myself—an act of self-creation—part of the process of becoming—In dialogue with myself, with writers I admire living and dead, with ideal readers…

In the introduction to Reborn Reiff wonders whether he should have published his mother’s journals since she never made her wishes known to him. To be sure the journals are frank, intimate, cranky, often little more than sexual bookkeeping and emotional quarreling. Yet simultaneously they depict a life that is dedicated to the arts and literature that, as Rieff notes are matters of life and death for his mother and “where seriousness is the greatest good.” Like a fine film, you are fortunate if you encounter a single such person every now and then.