“Recycling one’s own life with books” |Thirteen Notes on Susan Sontag’s Notebook Collection, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh
1. “In my more extravagant moments,” writes David Rieff in his introduction to Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, ”I sometimes think that my mother’s journals, of which this is the second of three volumes, are not just the autobiography she never got around to writing…but the great autobiographical novel she never cared to write.”
2. In my review of Reborn, the first of the trilogy Rieff alludes to, I wrote, “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.”
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is far closer to the ‘notebook’ side of things too, which I think most readers (or maybe I just mean me here) will appreciate.
3. I mean, this isn’t the autobiographical novel that Rieff suggests it might be (except of course it is).
Consciousness/Flesh offers something better: access to Sontag’s consciousness in its prime, not quite ripe, but full, heavy, bursting with intellectual energy, her mind attuned to (and attuning) the tumult of the time the journals cover, 1964 through 1980.
It’s an autobiography stripped of the pretense of presentation; it’s a novel stripped of the pretense of storytelling.
4. Sontag’s intellect and spirit course through the book’s 500 pages, eliding any distinction between lives personal and professional. “What sex is the ‘I’?” she writes, “Who has the right to say ‘I’?” The journals see her working through (if not resolving, thankfully) such issues.
5. An entry from late 1964, clearly background for Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on Camp” (itself a series of notes), moves through a some thoughts on artists and poets, from Warhol to Breton to Duchamp (“DUCHAMP”) to simply “Style,” which, Rieff’s editorial note tells us, has a box drawn around it. The entry then moves to define
Work of Art
An experiment, a research (solving a “problem”) vs. form of a play
—before turning to a series of notes on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.
6. A page or two later (1965) delivers the kind of gold vein we wish to discover in author’s notebooks:
PLOTS & SITUATIONS
Redemptive friendship (two women)
Novel in letters: the recluse-artist and his dealer a clairvoyant
A voyage to the underworld (Homer, Vergil [sic], Steppenwolf)
A collective hallucination (Story)
A work of art which is really a machine for dominating human beings
The discovery of a lost mss.
Two incestuous sisters
A space ship has landed
An ageing movie actress
A novel about the future. Machines. Each man has his own machine (memory bank, codified decision maker, etc.) You “play the machine. Instant everything.
Smuggling a huge art-work (painting? Sculpture?) out of the country in pieces—called “The Invention of Liberty”
A project: sanctity (based on SW [Simone Weil]—with honesty of Sylvia Plath—only way to solve sex “I” is talk about it
7. The list above—and there’s so much material like it in Consciousness/Flesh—is why I love author’s notebooks, We get to see the raw material here and imagine along with the writer (if we choose), free of the clutter and weight of execution, of prose, of damnable detail.
There’s something joyfully cryptic about Sontag’s notes, like the solitary entry “…Habits of despair” in late July of 1970—or a few months later: “A convention of mutants (Marvel comics).”
If we wish we can puzzle the notes out, treat them as clues or keys that fit to the work she was publishing at the time or to the personal circumstances of her private life. Or (and to be clear, I choose this or) we can let these notes stand as strange figures in an unconventional autobiographical novel.
8. Those looking for more direct material about Sontag’s life (and really, why do you want more and what more do you want?) will likely be disappointed—everything here is oblique (lovely, lovely oblique).
Still, there are moments of intense personal detail, like this 1964 entry where Sontag describes her body:
- Low blood pressure
- Needs lots of sleep
- Sudden craving for pure sugar (but dislike desserts—not a high enough concentration)
- Intolerance for liquor
- Heavy smoking
- Tendency to anemia
- Heavy protein craving
- Very good stomach—no heartburn, constipation, etc.
- Negligible menstrual cramps
- Easily tired by standing
- Like heights
- Enjoy seeing deformed people (voyeuristic)
- Teeth grinding
- Nearsighted, astigmatism
- Frileuse (very sensitive to cold, like hot summers)
- Not very sensitive to noise (high degree of selective auditory focus)
There’s more autobiographical detail in that list than anyone craving a lurid expose could (should) hope for.
9. For many readers (or maybe I just mean me here) Consciousness/Flesh will be most fascinating as a curatorial project.
Sontag offers her list of best films (not in order),her ideal short story collection, and more. The collection often breaks into lists—like the ones we see above—but also into names—films, authors, books, essays, ideas, etc.
10. At times, Consciousness/Flesh resembles something close to David Markson’s so-called “notecard” novels (Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel):
Napoleon’s wet, chubby back (Tolstoy).
Wordsworth’s ‘wise passiveness.’
Nabokov talks of minor readers. ‘There must be minor readers because there are minor writers.’
Camus (Notebooks, Vol. II): ‘Is there a tragic dilettante-ism?’”
‘To think is to exaggerate.’ — Valéry.
and so on…
11. Sometimes, the lists Sontag offers—
(offers is not the right verb at all here—these are Sontag’s personal journals and notebooks, her private ideas, material never intended for public consumption, but yes we are greedy, yes; and some of us (or maybe I just mean me here) are greedier than others, far more interested in her private ideas and notes and lists than the essays and stories and novels she generated from them—and so no, she didn’t offer this, my verb is all wrong)
—sometimes Sontag [creates/notes/generates] very personal lists, like “Movies I saw as a child, when they came out” (composed 11/25/65). There’s something tender here, imagining the child Sontag watching Fantasia or Rebecca or Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz in the theater; and then later, the adult Sontag, crafting her own lists, making those connections between past and present.
12. While Reborn showcased the intimate thoughts of a nascent (and at times naïve) intellect, Consciousness/Flesh shows us an assured writer at perhaps her zenith. In September of 1975, Sontag defines herself as a writer:
I am an adversary writer, a polemical writer. I write to support what is attacked, to attack what is acclaimed. But thereby I put myself in an emotionally uncomfortable position. I don’t, secretly, hope to convince, and can’t help being dismayed when my minority taste (ideas) becomes majority taste (ideas): then I want to attack again. I can’t help but be in an adversary relation to my own work.
13. Readers looking for a memoir or biography might be disappointed in Consciousness/Flesh; readers who seek to scrape its contours for “wisdom” (or worse, writing advice) should be castigated.
But As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh will reward those readers who take it on its own terms as an oblique, discursive (and incomplete) record of Sontag’s brilliant mind.
I’ll close this riff with one last note from the book, a fitting encapsulation of the relationship between reader and author—and, most importantly, author-as-reader-and-rereader:
Recycling one’s own life with books.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is new in trade paperback from Picador; you can read excerpts from the book at their site.
So somehow in September, I neglected to write a single book review—not even a riff!—on this blog. Mea culpa, mea culpa. This oversight (not really an oversight) I mayhap blame on the nascent Fall semester. Or perhaps I should pin it on a certain fatigue after working my way through Pynchon’s mammoth beast Against the Day and Bernhard’s caustic Gargoyles at the end of the summer. But I shouldn’t blame the Thomases. No, I’ve been reading too much at once again. Bad habit.
So, what have I been reading?
Thomas Bernhard’s early novel Frost (on my Kindle, in the dark, often not exactly sober). I posted an excerpt of Ben Marcus’s review of the novel earlier, which I think does a nice job of describing Bernhard’s project. I’m really close to the end, but the novel wears me down—I experienced a similar feeling when I doubled up Correction and The Loser—I should’ve taken a break I think. Still, an excellent, funny read.
Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories: I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t own this book. There are a lot of negatives in that sentence; let me reword: Sixty Stories is perfect, a trove, a performance of an author doing stuff that no other author can do. I think I read most of this in college and just sort of went “check” next to it and moved on and I’m certain I didn’t get what he was doing like I do now—just amazing stuff.
I’ve already posted a few excerpts from the latest collection of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. I like this collection more than the last one—there’s almost a curatorial aspect to Sontag, who is perhaps in her intellectual prime near the end of the journals—or, maybe prime is not the right word; rather, it’s like her mind (which we get to access in some sense via her entries) is so finely attuned (and at times perfectly out of tune) with the intellectual milieu of the day. I’ll be posting a full review sometime in the next two weeks.
S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, new from Dalkey Archive, is lovely stuff—and again, it’ll get its own proper review on here once I can muster the strength. Chrostowska does all sorts of things here that shouldn’t work—cite directly from Blanchot, Derrida, et al—but it does work. The novel is Sebaldian, soaked in history and literature, a book about books, writing about writing. Full review forthcoming. Short review: It’s very very good.
I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:
That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.
Here’s his poem about The Purple One:
From David Markson’s 2007 interview in Conjunctions:
Harlin: Incidentally, you wrote your M.A. thesis on Malcolm Lowry, a relatively unknown writer at the time, and became very friendly with him. What was the impulse behind writing him?
Markson: A great percentage of the people in the world haven’t had this experience, but sometimes you read a book, and it’s almost as if it’s been written for you, or you’re the only one who really understands it. The impulse—creatively, artistically, spiritually—was to say, “Be my daddy. Be my father.” It took a letter or two, but obviously I struck a chord. He had done the same thing. As a young boy in England, he’d written to Conrad Aiken, he so admired Aiken’s poetry. I became friendly with Aiken, too, through Lowry. When Malc died, we got back in touch, and when he was in New York he would come to dinner. He kept a cold-water flat—are there still such things?—up on the East Side.
Harlin: You also became friends with Dylan Thomas and Kerouac.
Markson: The Dylan Thomas thing was a fluke. I don’t think I’d ever met a writer. Back then, I was only in correspondence with Lowry. Thomas did a reading, and on impulse I went backstage. You can’t imagine how popular he was or how highly thought-of he was, even though he was a legendary troublemaker. Out of the blue, I said, “How would you like to have a couple of drinks with some graduate students?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll meet you.” One thing led to another, and we had, at most, nine or ten evenings together. Kerouac was sheer chance and non-literary. My next door neighbor at the time, on 11th Street in the Village, was a recording engineer, and he was friendly with Jack. They used to listen to jazz together. In fact, this guy, who’s long-since dead, was one of the first to lug that old-style heavy equipment up to Harlem to record it. Jack loved it, and he’d go with him once in a while. He lived right next-door. Frequently, we’d go from apartment to apartment drinking together. Sometimes, Jack would come to New York, and this fellow, Jerry, would be away, so he’d ring our bell. For about two years—I’m guessing a dozen, fifteen times—the doorbell would ring, never a word in advance, and there he’d be, drunk as hell all the time. Generally he’d stay the night. One time he borrowed a T-shirt. He came back a week later, and we’re sitting in the living room, and I’m recognizing the outer shirt from a week before. I saw this filthy T-shirt and said, “You son of a bitch, is that the shirt of mine that you put on here a week ago?” And he said, “Well, I had a shower.” Then he stopped coming around; I guess he was in Florida. We just lost track of him, and the next thing I knew he was dead.
Harlin: There’s also William Gaddis.
Markson: I thought The Recognitions was—Lowry being English—the great American novel of that period. That’s the only other letter I wrote to a writer, but it was different from the Lowry one. When The Recognitions came out, it was shat on by every reviewer. They said, “How dare he write so long a book? How dare he deliberately try to create a masterpiece?” I wrote this casual letter, saying, “Screw them. Some of us out here know what you did.” When my wife and I went to Mexico for three years, an editor came down there, and Aiken had given him my name. We had him to dinner, and all I did was talk about The Recognitions. And this guy said, “Shut up already. Tell me about Mexico. I’ll read it when I get home.” And he did. The Recognitions came out in 1955, and this would have been about 1961. One day I get a letter there: “Dear David Markson, If I may presume to answer yours of”—whatever it was—”May 16, 1955.” It turned out that this editor, Aaron Asher, had come home, read the book, and decided to resurrect it. There had never been a paperback, and he put it in print, and it brought Gaddis back to life.
Harlin: Anyone else?
Markson: Kurt Vonnegut I’d known for about forty years. We weren’t that intimate, but for the last twenty years, he and I and two other people had dinner twice a year. And Joe Heller. We weren’t buddy-buddy, but I knew him before Catch-22. If you’re writing, who do you know? If you’re a lawyer, you know lawyers. If you’re a dentist, you know dentists. If you’re a writer, you know other writers. Heller was working in public relations. I remember when we came back from Mexico, one of the first people I saw said, “Hey, Joe Heller finished his book, and it’s great.” This all probably sounds very exotic. In fact, a book just came out recently called Sleeping with Bad Boys, by a woman named Alice Denham. She had been a Playboy centerfold, but she was the only Playboy centerfold who was the author of a short story in the same issue. I can say this, because she’s admitted it in her book, but she slept with everybody. She slept with James Jones, with Gaddis, a long list. She and Heller, for some reason, they would just neck or something. And she and I had an affair at one point. In fact, she refers to me as one of her favorite lovers. The Times review reported that she’d slept with this one and that one and then quoted something about each person. After my name, “the novelist David Markson,” was “stud lover boy.” And here I am seventy-nine years old! I still run into Alice; she lives a couple of blocks from me.
(The last page of David Markson’s copy of The Failure of Criticism by Henri Peyre (via) — see the list of rejections of Markson’s own Wittgenstein’s Mistress).
Evan Lavender-Smith is an American writer who has published two books, Avatar and From Old Notebooks.
I really really really like his anti-novel (or whatever you want to call it) From Old Notebooks, which has recently been reissued by the good people at Dzanc Books.
(Here is my review of FON). I still haven’t read Avatar.
Evan talked with me about his writing, his reading, and other stuff over a series of emails. He was generous in his answers and I very much enjoyed talking with him.
Evan lives in New Mexico with his wife, son, and daughter. He has a website. Read his books.
Biblioklept: Do you know that first editions of From Old Notebooks are going for like three hundred dollars on Amazon right now?
ELS: Here at the house I have a whole drawer full of them. That’s how I’m planning to pay for the kids’ college.
Biblioklept: I read that Cormac McCarthy won’t sign his books anymore because he has this reserve of signed editions that are for his son to sell and corner the market on. Or I think I read that.
Speaking of your kids: the parts in From Old Notebooks about them are some of my favorites, perhaps because the moments you describe seem so real to me, or that I relate so strongly to the feelings that you express. (My own kids, a daughter and son, are about the same age as your kids are in the book). Is it weird if I ask how your kids are?
ELS: Glad to hear some of that stuff resonates with you. No, I don’t think it’s weird. I believe the book even sort of self-consciously anticipates a certain reader’s empathetic engagement with it. There’s that passage somewhere, for example, in which we get something like an interview answer, something like “The real Evan Lavender-Smith has never made it past the first section of Ulysses, the real Evan Lavender-Smith has no children,” which I think maybe winks at the possibility of that type of readerly engagement. So no, it’s encouraging to hear that parts of the book seemed to work for you. My kids are great, by the way. Sofia’s at her violin lesson, Jackson’s doing an art project with his mom.
Biblioklept: The faux-interview answers crack me up. I think we’ve all done that in some way—that we go through these little experiments of interviewing ourselves, performing ourselves, imagining how others perceive us. You write your own obituary; at one point we get: ” ‘With my first book I hope to get all the cult of personality stuff out of the way’.” You remark that you don’t put dates on anything as “an act of defiance” against your “literary executors.” Moments like these seem simultaneously ironic and sincere.
I’m curious as to how closely you attended to these disjunctions—From Old Notebooks seems incredibly, I don’t know, organic.
ELS: At a certain point I became very aware that I was performing some version or versions of myself in the book, and I think the book tries to find ways of grappling with problems I perceived as bound up with that performance. One way was to insist on a narrative tone or mode somewhere in between irony and sincerity, or to regularly oscillate between or conflate these competing modes. Something like “I am the greatest writer in the history of the world!” might later be countered by “Gosh, my writing really blows, doesn’t it?”; or “My kids are so beautiful, I love them so much,” might be followed by “I wish those little fuckers were never born.” While the function of this variability is, in From Old Notebooks, probably mostly an apology or a mask for a kind of subjectivity I worry might come off as cliche and naive, that particular representation of the thinking subject — cleaved, inconsistent, heterogeneous — does strike me as truer of human experience and perception than the more streamlined consistency of expression and behavior we tend to associate with the conventional narratological device called “character.” When I try to look deep down inside myself, to really get a handle on my thinking, for example, or on my understanding of truth, I end up facing a real mess of disjunctive, contradictory forces competing for my attention. For me — and likely for the book, as well — the most immediate figure for this condition might be the confluence of sincerity and irony, the compossibility of taking a genuine life-affirming pleasure in, and exhibiting a kind of cynical hostility toward, the fact of my own existence.
Biblioklept: That contest between sincerity and irony seems present in many works of post-postmodern fiction. It’s clearly a conflict that marks a lot of David Foster Wallace’s stuff. You invoke Wallace a number of times in From Old Notebooks, but the style of the book seems in no way beholden to his books. Can you talk about his influence on you as a reader? A writer?
ELS: Wallace hugely influenced the way I think about any number of things. I think his most immediate influence on my writing is this blending of hieratic and demotic modes of language when I’m dealing with pretty much anything that requires the serious application of my writing mind; the hip nerdiness of his language was and still is very empowering to me. He made it seem super cool to geek out on books — “The library, and step on it,” says Hal in Infinite Jest – and back in high school and college that example was so vital for me, as someone entirely too obsessed with being both cool and well read. He served to guide my reading of other writers in a way that only John Barth and Brian Evenson have come close to matching; I poured over his essays for names, then went to the library and checked out and read all the books he mentioned, then reread his essays. His fiction’s most common subject matter — addiction, depression, the yearning for transcendence, the incommensurability of language and lived experience, problems of logic vis-a-vis emotion, metafiction’s values and inadequacies — all of this stuff hit very close to home. To my mind there’s little doubt that Infinite Jest is the best English-language novel published in the last 25 years. His advocacy for David Markson has got to be up there among the greatest literary rescue missions of the 20th century. In “Good Old Neon” he wrote what may be the most haunting long short story since “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” He galvanized young writers everywhere right when the internet was taking off and unwittingly served as a touchstone for emerging online literary communities that thrive today. I think for a lot of young writers, myself included, he was, maybe next to the emergence of the internet, the most important force in the language’s recent history. The list goes on and on. And also he helped me out personally, providing encouragement and advice that was so generous and inspiring. I was extremely troubled by his suicide and wasn’t able to write much or think about much else for quite a while.
With all that said, there are some things he says that bother me a bit. The synthesis of art and entertainment he espouses as it pertains to the role of the writer in the age of television — which I think in many ways corresponds to his striving for a new aesthetic in which the cerebral effects associated with 60s and 70s postmodernist fiction are complemented by or synthesized with the more visceral effects associated with 70s and 80s realist fiction — strikes me now as existing very much in opposition to what I believe in most passionately about writing: that it can and in the most important cases should exist in a state of absolute opposition to our entertainments. I’ve come to better appreciate, years after reading Wallace, the writing of people like Woolf and Beckett and Gaddis, those writers who are uncompromising in their vision of narrative art’s most radical and affecting possibilities and who necessarily, I believe, pay very little attention to any sort of entertainment imperative. The books I love most make me feel things strongly, and think things strongly, but rarely do they entertain me. If I want to be entertained, I know exactly where to go: a room without books. I’ve come to think of certain books as my life’s only source of intellectual solace; when I’m not despairing over the futility of everything under the sun, that unflagging commitment to a truly rigorous and uncompromising art that I perceive in a writer like Beckett seems to me a matter of life and death, just as serious as life can ever get. When Wallace talks that shit about art and entertainment, or about the need to add more heart or greater complexity of character to Pynchon or whatever, it makes me feel like I want to throw up. I heard him say once in an interview that he felt he couldn’t write the unfiltered stuff in his head, that it would be too radical or something, and the admission really upset me; it felt like in some serious way he had allowed his projection of an imaginary target audience’s desire to determine the form of his writing. I often feel something similar in the essays; I find many of them to be merely entertaining. I suppose I often judge the essays in relation to the fictions, which I find far superior in their attempt to overcome the strictures and conventions of language and form. Wallace was always at his best, to my reading, when he was really bearing down — when he was at his most difficult.
But no doubt he’s been monumentally important to me, more so than any other recent fiction writer, and in more ways than I can name. There’s something in From Old Notebooks where the methodical awkwardness and wordiness of so many of his sentences is likened to the affectation of bumping up against the limits of language. That’s probably what I take away from him more than anything: when I sit down at the laptop to face the language, I often feel myself struggling with the words as well as struggling to demonstrate that I’m struggling with the words. That’s pure Wallace: word-by-word, letter-by-letter self-consciousness. (There’s another thing in From Old Notebooks about how I’m always talking shit because I care for him so deeply … which is why the paragraph before this one).