Monday, January 12, 2009

Put The Book Back on the Shelf 2

Reborn: Jounals and Notebooks 1947-1963 - Susan Sontag

The period of these notebooks stretches from the time that Susan Sontag was an extraordinarily precocious 14 year old to the time when she is 30 and on the verge of publishing the Against Interpretation essays that would cement her reputation as cultural arbiter. Edited by her son David Rieff, these notebooks are curious in a number of ways. Anyone, like myself, hoping for much by way of literary gossip will be pretty disappointed (beyond finding out that Allan Bloom was "disgusting", which is hardly news in and of itself); the lion's share of these notebooks tend to be little more than books sought, films seen and concerts attended. (The latter, curiously, not so much; music seems to have been an ambiguous pleasure for Sontag. In 1948, when she would have been 15, she writes that "Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts - it is the most abstract, the most pure - and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion embodied in this music." While this is hardly earth-shattering stuff, the profound discomfort with her body - not uncommon in teenagers in general and culturally sensitive queer teenagers in particular - would never entirely leave her. In this context, it occurs to me that I can't think of a single essay in which music appears to have any role whatsoever.)

David Reiff, in his introduction, states that he was determined to make as few editorial intrusions as possible, but in some cases, it might have helped as, during the period recorded in these journals, Sontag goes through a number of significant changes - moves to Berkeley, embarks on a lesbian relationship with "H", moves to Chicago, gets married to Phillip Rieff and helps write/edit his book on Freud, has a son, goes to Oxford on a fellowship, runs a way to Paris, moves back to the UD and works at Commentary, etc.... - to have had some sort of timeline. As we get into the late 50's, early 60's, the only way of knowing what city Sontag is writing in is by guesswork - she is buying books at a shop on Rue Fontaine (Paris), she is sitting in a restaurant on 83rd Steet (New York.)

Perhaps it is this vagueness of context that makes the journals here seem strangely distant, even when Sontag is exploring the emotional treacheries of her romantic relationships. Her marriage with Phillip is, for the most part, couched in aphorisms and abstract reflections on "Marriage" as such. (To be fair, David Rieff does note that the journals for her married years appear to have been destroyed.) We get greater emotional detail in her relationships with "H' and "I", which are at times heart-breaking; the first night she makes love with H, Sontag writes: "Everything that was so tight, that hurt so much in the pit of my stomach, was vanquished in the straining against her, the weight of her body on top of mine, the caress of her mouth and hands." These momentary evocations of happiness are all the more stark given that the remainder of the journal is beset with lacerating descriptions of feelings of sexual inadequacy and hopelessness, the profound fear of being alone and the (self-)disgust inherent in that fear. So while the journals are short on specifics and strangely unrevealing in some ways (no Kafka, she), we get a very clear picture of Sontag's need for self-transcendence, her desire to become the ego-ideal Susan Sontag and how this ego-ideal changed over time, and the wounded, pain-wracked self that it needed to be transcended at all costs.

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