Reborn — Susan Sontag

Books, Reviews

9780312428501

New in trade paperback next week from Picador, Reborn collects the early private writings of Susan Sontag, beginning in 1947 when she was just fourteen. The book begins with the following salvo from 1947: “I believe: (a) That there is no personal god or life after death.” If the phrase seems awfully definitive for such a young person to write, its terse tone is repeatedly undercut in other places in Sontag’s early journals, like when she asks “What does the expression ‘in his cups’ mean?” (he’s drunk, sweetheart). There’s also something almost cute about her entry from 12/19/48: “There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read–Here are just a few.” I feel the same way myself. She goes on to list over 20 authors and titles, including Faulkner’s Sanctuary and Dostoyevsky’s Diary of a Writer. Sontag’s immediate, visceral, and sometimes raw reactions to whatever she’s reading, hearing, and watching, make up a good bulk of Reborn, and there’s something fun, if inessential, to know that she read Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza and James’s Portrait of a Lady in January of 1950.

Don’t expect, of course, to get a definitive sense of who Sontag was, let alone a narrative account of her life here. Subtitled Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, Reborn veers closer to the “notebook” side of things. The book certainly doesn’t feel like its 320 pages, mostly because it’s comprised of lists, notes, half-poems, and half-ideas–with the occasional major insight or life-changing moment thrown in in an almost alarmingly casual tone. Check the following consecutive entries:

11/21/50

Excellently staged performance of Don Giovanni last night (City Center). Today, a wonderful opportunity was offered me–to do some research work for a soc[iology] instructor named Philip Rieff, who is working on, among other things, a reader in the sociology of politics + religion. At last the chance to really involve myself in one area with competent guidance.

12/2/50

Last night, or was it early this (Sat.) morning?–I am engaged to Philip Rieff.

If there’s more to this episode in Sontag’s journal, her son David Rieff, the book’s editor, has chosen to elide it (although he has included that, as early as 12/19/56, if his mother is to be believed, he knew “the difference between a sarcophagus and an esophagus”). In an introduction loaded with much hemming and hawing, Rieff acknowledges the rawness of his mother’s private diaries, noting that they were written only for Sontag herself, who had no intention of publishing them. (Rieff’s decision to publish them is an issue of control: Sontag had sold her all of her writing and papers to UCLA and Rieff felt that assuming an editorial role might protect his mother to some extent). And, as one would expect of the notes of a young college student, nothing here is even remotely polished: like the adolescent who so easily denies an afterlife, many of Sontag’s notes and thoughts come across as callow, or at least not on par with the intellectual who gave us On Photography and Notes on ‘Camp.'” A note from 1/2/58 comes across as painfully emo: “How to make my sadness more than a lament for feeling? How to feel? How to burn? How to make anguish metaphysical?” Not that these are unserious questions, but methinks someone’s been hitting the Kierkegaard a bit too hard. When Sontag the diarist steps in–that is to say, the diarist who reflects honestly, as opposed to the academic pulling philosophical poses–we get brusque honesty full of pathos. In a note from 1960, after briefly discussing how her mother’s conflict-aversion led to “the idea that honesty equaled cruelty,” Sontag drops this shocker: “No matter what I have said, my life, my actions say that I have not loved the truth, that I have not wanted the truth.” While I don’t particularly demand self-reflection, this kind of honesty is both rare and affecting coming from an academic.

But why should we expect Sontag’s private journals to be more than they are? It’s more fun to read Reborn elliptically, picking it up and putting it down, browsing through Sontag’s lists of movies, quotes from Rilke and Blake, and various thought-experiments. From 11/4/57:

“Try whiskey. To find a voice. To speak.

Instead of talking.

[ . . . ]

Are the Jews played out? I am proud of being Jewish. Of what?

[ . . . ]

Orc–imaginary mailed beast, dragon, ogre, named after a sea-monster killed by Orlando, in Ariosto’s Orlando Furious

Whiskey, Jews, Orcs–great stuff.

We’ll conclude with one of our favorite moments in the book, which is simply a list of words. In one of the few contextual notes Rieff concedes, he notes that all her life, “SS made lists of words into which she occasionally inserted a person’s name or a brief observation.” The list is from the fall of 1949:

effete

noctambulus

perfervid

detumescence

disheveled

so alluring, so cerebral

sodden

intriguing

corrupt dignity

lotophagous

elegiac

Meleager

disponibility

pardine

demotic

Harriette Wilson

garbure

satura

succulent

competent intellectual vulgarity of Aldous Huxley

Yellow Book preciousness

secretive

sturdy

pedantry + lechery

spleen

ribaldry

ilex

Klaxon

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