Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sontag, a Discovery


Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963

Susan Sontag, essayist, novelist, consummate critic of art and aesthetics, died of lung cancer in 2004. The public would have to wait another four years to read the creed she wrote at the age of fourteen stating her atheism, her opinions on government, the relation of action to happiness, and that “the only difference between humans is intelligence.”

Edited by Sontag’s son David Rieff, a capable writer himself, Reborn is a collection and contraction of Sontag’s personal writings, the first of a trilogy to be published. The volume spans the time from Sontag’s fourteenth year through her early undergraduate experiences at Berkley as a sixteen-year-old, becoming a young writer and academic in New York City, her marriage, migrating to Oxford for a fellowship and abandoning it for Paris.

Neither a work of fiction, nor a book of essays, Reborn reveals the relentless quest for knowledge and experience that Sontag embarked on at a tender age. She writes lists of books to read, innumerable quotes and criticisms, the names of artists and works of art, films she has seen and has yet to see. Her autodidactic interests grasp at psychology, religion, philosophy, literature, visual art, music, and cinema. She is unabashedly Euro-centric, and her battle is against the philistinism of the modern age.

The journal has two veins: the intellectual, in which Sontag strives to educate herself in everything that interests her, and the interpersonal, in which she chronicles her experiences with lovers and friends, and her attempt to understand herself. Discovering quite early that she is attracted to women (“Nothing but humiliation and degradation at the thought of physical relations with a man…”), and having significant love affairs with two women that feature predominately in her journals (H and Irene), we as the reader are floored when Sontag chooses to marry professor Philip Rieff in a matter of days. On 21 November 1949 she writes “Today, a wonderful opportunity was offered me – to do some research work for a soc[iology] instructor named Philip Rieff…” On December 2nd she writes that “I am engaged to Philip Rieff” and on the 3rd of January “I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will towards self-destructiveness.” (Rieff writes in the margin that these dates may not be correct.) She does not explain herself. Sontag is still veiled, even in her most personal notebooks.

But what business is it of ours to read the journals of artists and other notable figures? Is this “type” of reading to be labeled voyeurism? Sontag suggests an answer to this question in her essay the Artist as an exemplary sufferer:

“Why do we read a writer’s journal? Because it illuminates his [or her] books? Often it does not...here we read the writer in the first person; we encounter the ego behind the masks of ego in an artist’s works. No degree of intimacy in a novel can supply this…” (Against Interpretation, 39).


Susan Sontag was a fierce intellectual and an expressive writer. Reading her journals was continually exhausting, disheartening, and worthwhile. Despite feeling she may disapprove of ones level of intelligence, the interest she stirs with her thoughts and her life experiences ennoble one to read books beyond ones immediate comprehension, to seek to expose oneself to works of art and late-night moments that stimulate one’s intellectual and emotional growth.

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