Susan Sontag (1933-2004)
illustration by jpbohannon 2013 (based on painting by Juan Bastos)
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.