“[With Ronald] Reagan, Joan Didion wrote, “rhetoric was soon understood to be interchangeable with action.”
As quoted in Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser
Forty years later it has reached its apotheosis.
There is a danger in reading memoirs, diaries, journals. Certainly, there are times when our angels are shown to have feet of clay. Or other instances, when we weigh the turmoils and angst of a particular life with the end product that impelled you to read the memoir in the first place.
But with Sontag it is quite, quite different.
Next to even her young self, I feel so inadequate, so shallow, so wasteful of time.
Here is a young woman–14 years of age when the journals begin–embarking on a intellectual career that would put most of us to shame. Her reading lists, her “to-do” lists, her debates with herself, her analysis of events, readings, concerts and people she meets, her experiences, all are more fervent, more intelligent, more thoughtful in the years between her 14th birthday and her 30th, than mine have been for most of my life.
I teach a group of extremely bright 18-year old boys. They have great intelligence, and some are quite creative. But every so often they need to be reminded that their superior intelligence is frequently measured within the very small pond of our school. Here’s what I read them from Sontag’s journal:
…Yet we do exist, + affirm that. We affirm the life of lust. Yet there is more. One flees not from one’s real nature which is animal, id, to a self-torturing externally imposed conscience, super-ego, as Freud would have it–but the reverse, as Kierkegaard says. Our ethical sensitivity is what is natural to man + we flee from it to the beast…
I ask them to describe the person who would write this in his or her personal journal. And they are always far off…in both gender and age. Sontag wrote this (a snippet of a much larger journal entry) two weeks after she had turned 17! Already her depth of reading and understanding and active thoughtfulness is evident.
Immediately in this first volume of the journals, one meets a brilliant, thoughtful intelligence. She attended Berkeley at the age of 16, transfered to University of Chicago, married Phillip Reiff–a sociology professor–at 17, taught at the University of Connecticut when she was 19, and attended graduate school at Harvard, where she got her degree in philosophy and theology. And throughout these years, she recorded her thoughts and criticisms and interpretations, as well as her fears, her doubts and her insecurities. As her marriage began to falter, she received a fellowship to Oxford and then moved to Paris. When she moved back to New York in 1959 (26 years old), her marriage was dissolved and she had gained custody of her son. Established in New York, she began teaching at various colleges, completed her first novel, The Benefactor, and witnessed her reputation as part of New York’s intelligentsia begin to grow.
These are the years covered in the volume. Aside from the inquisitiveness, interpretation, and analysis of what she reads, sees and watches (she was a rabid film-goer), there is the struggle of understanding who she was. The marriage was unsatisfying, the lovers often hurtful, and in reading the journals we see a young woman trying to discover herself and come to terms with her own individuality, her own bi-sexuality, her own identity. There are times when one feels she is too hard on herself…when one wants to warn her, NO, this is going to end bad, but then again, one can’t.
Beginning when she was 14 and ending when she was 30, the journals are remarkable for their honesty and the peek into her rigorous mind. But at the end, one is moved by the ever-going struggle between her sexuality and her intelligence, by the vulnerabilities and insecurities she reveals in her two major love affairs with Harriet Sohmers Zwerling and Irene Fornés. For her extraordinary mind struggled continually to understand the extraordinary pull of the flesh.
Her last two entries for 1963 read:
The intellectual ecstasy I have had access to since early
childhood. But ecstasy is ecstasy.
Intellectual “wanting” like sexual wanting.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Reborn is the first of a proposed three volumes of journals. The next volume–As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh– covers the years 1963 to 1964, when Sontag develops her reputation, her political activism, and her writing. It is now on my “to-read” list.
I have always been fascinated by Susan Sontag. I envied her seeming crystal-sharp intelligence, her confidence in her opinions, her strength in writing, her omnivorous reading. While I certainly have not read everything of hers, I have read quite a lot. Once as a reader for The Franklin Library’s First Editions, I read the galleys of The Volcano Lover, her historical novel about the triangle between Sir William Hamilton, his wife Emma and Lord Nelson. It was the first piece of fiction of hers I had read. Like all of her writing it was intelligent, sharp and incisive. And it had a truth that can only be found in fiction. Her following novel, In America, was not as satisfying for me–it seemed undone. Or perhaps overdone, might be a better word, for the brilliant characters and storyline are over-examined and over analyzed as if Henry James were writing the screenplays for MadMan. The novel is crushed by the intelligence.
However, I have read much of her non-fiction: Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), On Photography (1977), Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1978 and 1988) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). (The Illness as Metaphor book was revamped in 1988 in order to address the scourge that was AIDS in the 1980’s.) It is this non-fiction, her essays that make her an major figure of the late 20th-century. It is in these essays that the true brilliance shines. Hers is a hard intelligence, but a very clear intelligence. Her Against Interpretation gave readers an argument “against what something means” and for “what something is.” It includes insightful–and new–readings of Sartre, of Beckett, of Bresson, among others. Illness as Metaphor moves us from the tuberculosis and consumption that affected so many of the 19th century’s literary characters and creators to the cancer that became the overriding metaphor of the twentieth. On Photography discusses the relatively new art of photography–only since the mid-19th century– in a way that will change how even the most amateur viewer–myself– views photographs again. And at the beginning of the second Iraq war, I once gave a section of Regarding the Pain of Others to a class of 18-year olds, and it surprised me how well it worked with theml.
A few years ago, I went to the Brooklyn Art Museum to see a photographic exhibit on Sontag by Annie Liebovitz, perhaps America’s most famous and celebrated portraitist at the time. Liebovitz–who had had a decades long romantic relationship with Sontag–captured Sontag’s final years, among family and friends. Many of them were during her final days, during her final battle with cancer. To this day I don’t know if I am more affected by the words Sontag wrote or the images of her that I saw that day. Both, suggest an admirable toughness and wit.
What I also don’t know is why today, the NYTimes decided to publish a sampler of Sontag’s work in the Week in Review section of the Sunday paper. There is no anniversary that I know of. It just appeared. But good, it made for a good read on a Sunday morning, and a good afternoon going through some old books. The excerpts are just that–excerpts–but they show the range, the depth and the honesty of her writing and her mind. The article is below: enjoy it.
Art Is Boring
Schopenhauer ranks boredom with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life. (Pain for have-nots, boredom for haves — it’s a question of affluence.)
People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us. But most of the interesting art of our time is boring.
Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.
Maybe art has to be boring, now. (This doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.) We should not expect art to entertain or divert anymore. At least, not high art. Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye — but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented).
If we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).
I don’t care about someone being intelligent; any situation between people, when they are really human with each other, produces “intelligence.”
Why I Write
There is no one right way to experience what I’ve written.
I write — and talk — in order to find out what I think.
But that doesn’t mean “I” “really” “think” that. It only means that is my-thought-when-writing (or when- talking). If I’d written another day, or in another conversation, “I” might have “thought” differently.
This is what I meant when I said Thursday evening to that offensive twerp who came up after that panel at MoMA to complain about my attack on [the American playwright Edward] Albee: “I don’t claim my opinions are right,” or “just because I have opinions doesn’t mean I’m right.”
Love and Disease
Being in love (l’amour fou) a pathological variant of loving. Being in love = addiction, obsession, exclusion of others, insatiable demand for presence, paralysis of other interests and activities. A disease of love, a fever (therefore exalting). One “falls” in love. But this is one disease which, if one must have it, is better to have often rather than infrequently. It’s less mad to fall in love often (less inaccurate for there are many wonderful people in the world) than only two or three times in one’s life. Or maybe it’s better always to be in love with several people at any given time.
On Licorice, Bach, Jews and Penknives
Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long- haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.
Things I dislike: sleeping in an apartment alone, cold weather, couples, football games, swimming, anchovies, mustaches, cats, umbrellas, being photographed, the taste of licorice, washing my hair (or having it washed), wearing a wristwatch, giving a lecture, cigars, writing letters, taking showers, Robert Frost, German food.
Things I like: ivory, sweaters, architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts, making lists, wagon-lits, paying bills, caves, watching ice-skating, asking questions, taking taxis, Benin art, green apples, office furniture, Jews, eucalyptus trees, penknives, aphorisms, hands.
Things I dislike: television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games, dirty or disorderly apartments, flat pillows, being in the sun, Ezra Pound, freckles, violence in movies, having drops put in my eyes, meatloaf, painted nails, suicide, licking envelopes, ketchup, traversins [“bolsters”], nose drops, Coca-Cola, alcoholics, taking photographs.
This material is excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming book “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980,” by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff. A version of this was originally published in the NEW YORK TIMES, April 1, 2012.
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