Sontag at 16: “I intend to do everything”

by on December 11, 2008  •  In Uncategorized

Liu_Susan Sontag “… I killed the afternoon at a badly-done student production of three one-acts at Cal Hall, and then came by the bookstore at 5:30. We walked over to her room  [where I read the first few chapters of Steppenwolf]…[at 4 a.m.:] “My concept of sexuality is so altered—Thank god!—bisexuality as the expression of fullness of an individual—and an honest rejection of the—yes—perversion which limits sexual experience, attempts to de-physicalize it, in such concepts as the idealization of chastity until the ‘right person’ comes along—the whole ban on pure physical sensation without love, on promiscuity. …

“I don’t intend to let my intellect dominate me, and the last thing I want to do is worship knowledge. … I intend to do everything … to have one way of evaluating experience—does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful—I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere. I shall involve myself wholly … everything matters! The only thing I resign is the power to resign, to retreat: the acceptance of sameness and the intellect. I am alive … I am beautiful … what else is there?” —

– Written in May 1949

More, from Jonathan Liu's review of Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947–1963, the first of three volumes of Susan Sontag's journals, in the New York Observer:

* * * The lasting impression on the reader * * * is of Sontag’s prodigious self-awareness. The rest of us, in comparison, barely know who we are. Whether it’s the teenage provincial attempting Rilke and Gide for the first time (“Look back on the 16 years. … Could be better: more erudition, perhaps, but it’s unreasonable to expect much more emotional maturity than I have at this point”) or the semi-prominent 29-year-old divorcée aphorizing personal failures (“Premature pliability, agreeableness, so that the underlying stubbornness is never touched, accounts for 80% of my notorious flirtatiousness, seductiveness”), Sontag’s ability to blueprint the analytic and affective machinery turning in her own mind is brilliant in the strict gemological sense—all bottomless clarity and refracting facets.

But despite the cross-eyed intensity of its inward gaze, each page sopping with the intimacy of preternatural self-knowledge, Reborn is resolutely not autobiography, of either the personal or intellectual sort. The most perilous decision of Sontag’s early adulthood—to marry the sociologist Philip Rieff after a 10-day courtship at the age of 17—occasions a yawning narrative lacuna: One moment, the reader is wrapped around tumultuous romances with fiery women; the next, “I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.” Soon her son is born (David Rieff, editor of these journals), and Sontag begins raging artfully against the confines of a marriage that’s never explained.

THE LATER SECTIONS OF Reborn are studded with professional updates—1/15/57 offers “Ongoing projects: / ‘Notes on Marriage’ / ‘Notes on Interpretation’ / Essay: ‘On Self-Consciousness as an Ethical Ideal’”—but every direct engagement with a specific thinker or text reads like a self-contained prose poem. On Halloween in 1956, Sontag wrote, “The three philosophers I admire most Plato Nietzsche Wittgenstein, were avowedly anti-systemizers. Could it be shown that the arch-systemizer—the philosopher who thrust his own noble spirit hardest down on the Procrustean bed—I mean Spinoza—is best understood if his system is unraveled and interpreted aphoristically?” The question floats portentously, and must surely have animated at least the “Interpretation” piece, ongoing three months later and soon to become an iconic rejection of “elaborate systems of hermeneutics.” But, as violently lucid as individual entries are, the path from here to there—the gradual maturation and piecemeal refinement of a single idea—goes untraced. These journals do not reveal the extended, strenuous working-through of problems. Sontag never leaves notes of the “ —> always already edited” variety.

Is that to say that the material gathered in Reborn was indeed always already edited? Was it from the beginning an aestheticized, non-mimetic fashioning of a personality? David Rieff suggests not: “These diaries were written solely for herself,” he reports. “She had never permitted a line from them to be published.” (Mr. Rieff struggled with the decision to make his mother’s private pages public, especially given the “sexual frankness” of much of the material. But though Sontag never published her journals, she did sell them along with the rest of her papers to UCLA before she died; her son could therefore be certain that every last salacious secret would eventually be exposed by scholars.)

Best to think of Reborn as a multimedia collage—Susan Sontag’s coming-of-age blog, its “straight” entries spliced by quotations and reading lists and, yes, transcribed marginalia, all rendered with bravura tossed-off stylishness: “I note with amusement my entrance into the anarchist-aesthete phase of my youth”; or, “Sophism is the only true philosophy, if philosophy is to mean something different from common sense.” Though this particular lonelygirl (1/14/47: “Am I myself alone?”) may bring to it uncommon skill, the genre’s charge remains: the ideal self summoned within a constructed web of affections and affiliations, reflections and repudiations. Unlike all but the most hermetically sealed of bloggers, however, Sontag radicalizes this construction into the productive basis of identity itself; no audience, imagined or otherwise, is necessary. * * *

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