Susan Sontag Tells All
The newly published second volume of the great critic’s journals reveals her transformation from hedonistic revolutionary to elitist enforcer
What makes Against Interpretation Sontag’s most important and powerful book is precisely its unconscious, unresolved ambivalence about seriousness. Ozick, taking Sontag’s words at face value, saw her as launching an assault on seriousness. But if you pay as much attention to the form as to the substance of the book, it is unmistakable that this attack on seriousness was made with every trapping and intention of seriousness. A person who genuinely believes in the senses over the intellect, in erotics over hermeneutics, does not write long, erudite essays in praise of the senses and publish them in Partisan Review. Against Interpretation talks about vices in terms that make them virtues, just as Sontag would later do with pornography.
So great is the disconnect in Against Interpretation between what Sontag is saying and the way she is saying it, and the people she is saying it to, that this disconnect itself represents its lasting source of interest. The ideas and attitudes Sontag advances in her early work now seem utterly period—they couldn’t even keep her interest for long—and the same is true of many of the works she writes about: No one today could feel as reverent toward Godard and Antonioni as Sontag was in 1966. What matters about Sontag now—and this is an evolution typical of many or most critics—is not what she said, but why she said it; not the work, but the person who produced it, and for whom it served certain psychic purposes. Page by page, Sontag’s work has mostly lost its power to thrill. What survives, as Ozick and Paglia intuited, is her image, and the tortuous connections between that image and the woman who projected it.
For that story, the key texts are Sontag’s journals, which contain a human drama more fascinating than anything in her essays or her fiction. The first act of that drama was told in Reborn, the first published volume of the journals, which covered the years 1947 to 1962. Now the publication of the second volume, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1963-1980, takes us through the years of Sontag’s greatest celebrity and accomplishment. When the book opens, she is 31 years old and the author of a single, not particularly well-received novel, The Benefactor. By the time it closes, she has published Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, and other books; directed several films; and become famous on two continents. Here is how Sontag sums up her career standing in 1978:
In every era, there are three teams of writers. The first team: those who have become known, gain “stature,” become reference points for their contemporaries writing in the same language. (e.g. Emil Staiger, Edmund Wilson, V.S. Pritchett). The second team: international—those who become reference points for their contemporaries throughout Europe, the Americas, Japan, etc. (e.g. Benjamin). The third team: those who become reference points for successive generations in many languages (e.g. Kafka). I’m already on the first team, on the verge of being admitted to the second—want only to play on the third.
This entry is noteworthy not only for the guilelessness of its ambition—there is something very American about the notion of literature as a series of farm teams, leading up to the major leagues—but because it is one of the few occasions in the journals where Sontag thinks in such self-conscious terms about her “standing.” For the truth is that Sontag spends very little time, in the diaries as edited by David Rieff at any rate, worrying about her career, or about what the public thinks of her. She is far too intent on her own inner experience, on the creation of her self, to care about her image—something that might have surprised Paglia or Ozick, for whom that image seemed so carefully cultivated. And the utter sincerity of the diaries, the sense that Sontag is always able to speak honestly to and about herself, is what makes them such compelling documents. The contrast with the recently published diaries of Alfred Kazin is striking: Where Kazin is always exhorting and dramatizing himself, Sontag seems genuinely to explore and challenge herself.
The first volume of Sontag’s diaries is more dramatic than the second, because they cover a more dramatic and formative period in her life. Reborn tells the story of a brilliant, enormously ambitious and self-conscious adolescent, who at the age of 15 sets down a hundred-item reading list for herself, and collects obscure vocabulary words (“effete, noctambulous, perfervid”), and vows to live on a large scale: “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!”
The first act of Reborn shows Sontag just about to find herself, thanks to the independence she enjoyed at Berkeley, where she started college, and above all to the lesbian community she experienced for the first time there and in San Francisco. For while she was always hesitant to make it part of her public identity as a writer, the diaries show that Sontag knew she was a lesbian from earliest adolescence, if not before. An important part of the “everything” she wanted to do was sexual, and you can feel the excitement and release in her descriptions of her first sexual encounters: “I have always been full of lust—as I am now—but I have always been placing conceptual obstacles in my own path.”
Then all at once, and with not a word of explanation in the journals, Sontag swerves off this path and gets married, at the age of just 17, to Philip Rieff, her teacher at the University of Chicago, where she transferred for her sophomore year. The ensuing years-long gap in the diaries is a dire signal, suggesting that marriage switched off Sontag’s inner life entirely. When the journals resume, it is with a desperate cynicism about marriage that speaks volumes: “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,” Sontag writes in 1956. Even worse, she imagines showing her journals one day to her great-grandchildren: “To be presented to my great grandchildren, on my golden wedding anniversary. ‘Great Grandma, you had feelings?’ ‘Yeh. It was a disease I acquired in adolescence. But I got over it.’ ”
If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke, it might just be ‘Dayenu,’ the Passover punch line that is never enough