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:
W. G. Sebald reading from his novel Austerlitz at 92nd Street Y. October 15, 2001, just two months before his death.
He later takes questions (beginning at the 28 minute mark), including a discussion of how he uses photography in his work. Susan Sontag then takes a question in which she addresses “cowboy rhetoric” after 9/11. They then discuss which of their books might be their “favorite.”
(Via prefer-not-to on Twitter).
Novels with cinematic structure:
Hemingway, In Our Time
[Horace] McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Robbe-Grillet, Les Gommes [The Erasers]
[Georges] Bernanos, M. Ouine
V Woolf, Between the Acts
Philip Toynbee, Tea with Mrs. Goodman
des Forêts, Les Mendiants
his first novel—multiple pov [points of view]
Reverzy, Le Passage
[John] Dos Passos
Firbank, Caprice; Vainglory; and [Inclinations] (trilogy)
Jap[anese] writer [Yasunari Kawabata] (N.B. visual sense, suppleness of changing scenes)—Snow Country, etc.
Dickens (cf. Eisenstein)—
There are people who thought with camera eye (a unified p-o-v that displaces itself) before the camera
“new novelists”: Claude Simon, Le Palace
Claude Ollier, La Mis-en-Scène
(all based on organization of a decor (N[orth] Africa)
–From an entry dated 6/26/66 Paris in Susan Sontag’s notebook, published as part of As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. (I’ve maintained the bracketed editorial intrusions of the published text, even with they did not seem necessary).
My fascination with:
Minimum conditions (from Robinson Crusoe to concentration camps)
My voyeuristic attraction to:
Cripples (Trip to Lourdes—they arrive from Germany in sealed trains)
—Notes from Susan Sontag’s notebook dated 8/28/65 Marseilles; published as part of the collection As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh.
Best films (not in order)
- Bresson, Pickpocket
- Kubrick, 2001
- Vidor, The Big Parade
- Visconti, Ossessione
- Kurosawa, High and Low
- Syberberg, Hitler
- Godard, 2 ou 3 Choses . . .
- Rossellini, Louis XIV
- Renoir, La Regle du Jeu
- Ozu, Tokyo Story
- Dreyer, Gertrud
- Eisenstein, Potemkin
- Von Sternberg, The Blue Angel
- Lang, Dr. Mabuse
- Anonioni, L’Eclisse
- Bresson, Un Condamne a Mort . . .
- Grance, Napoleon
- Vertov, The Man with the Movie Camera
- Feuillade, Judex
- Anger, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome
- Godard, Vivre Sa Vie
- Bellocchio, Pugni in Tasca
- Carne, Les Enfants du Pradis
- Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai
- Tati, Playtime
- Truffaut, L’Enfant Savage
- Rivette, L’Amour Fou
- Eisenstein, Strike
- Von Stroheim, Greed
- Straub, . . . Anna Magadalena Bach
- Taviani bros, Padre Padrone
- Renais, Muriel
- Becker, Le Trou
- Cocteau, La Belle et la Bete
- Bergman, Persona
- Fassbinder, . . . Petra von Kant
- Griffith, Intolerance
- Godard, Contempt
- Marker, La Jete
- Conner, Crossroads
- Fassbinder, Chinese Rouleette
- Renoir, La Grande Illusion
- Opuls, The Earrings of Madame de . . .
- Kheifits, The Lady with the Little Dog
- Godard, Les Carabiners
- Bresson, Lancelot du Lac
- Ford, The Searchers
- Bertolucci, Prima della Rivoluzione
- Pasolini, Teorema
- Sagan, Madchen in Uniform
[The list continues up to number 228, where SS abandons it].
—From a 1977 entry in one of Susan Sontag’s notebooks. The list is published as part of As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks, 1964-1980.
I’ve been—I don’t know—strolling through Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks this past week. Collected as As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh and new from Picador, this volume picks up where Reborn left off. I’ll be doing a full write up some time this month—really more about writer notebooks (I love Hawthorne’s in particular). Until then—a sample spread from the summer of ’66:
If I had first encountered Anaïs Nin by reading a quote of hers about love or dreams or fulfilling your potential or massaging your inner child superimposed on an insufferably twee image, I would never have picked up her wonderful remarkably-transgressive books. Perhaps this shows the shortsightedness of my own prejudices but it’s still not a fair or substantial representation of her work. What I want when I encounter Anaïs Nin is Anaïs Nin, not a therapist or a motivational speaker. The same goes for Susan Sontag or Henry Miller or David Foster Wallace or any of the other incandescently brilliant writers whose writing has recently been cherry-picked and repackaged as glorified self-help tracts. The quotes are certainly theirs, being culled from diaries, journals, speeches and interviews (with the double meaning of culled being entirely apt). The sentiments may well be true. Yet it seems to me duplicitous because the quotes have been carefully selected to fit a pre-existing agenda – us. I am a ludicrously solipsistic and selfish person but even I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me. At the risk of impertinence, if I chance upon someone using the currently virulent “there is actually no such thing as atheism” quote by Foster Wallace out of context to bash atheists (ignoring its implicit ‘worship God precisely because He is so ineffectual He can’t harm you’ angle) with no further interest in his writing or life, I’m going to nail a copy of Infinite Jest to their collective forehead.
—From an essay that had me enthusiastically mumbling yes the whole way, “Albert Camus and the ventriloquists” by Darran Anderson. Read it.
Book shelves series #43, forty-third Sunday of 2012
Kind of a hodgepodge shelf—some literary biography, a few now-redundant collections, some literary criticism, art books, etc.
Tracy Daugherty’s Donald Barthelme biography Hiding Man is on the far left; I reviewed it a few years ago, taking note of my favorite part, the so-called postmodernists’ dinner.
Next to it is Susan Sontag’s Reborn, a collection of early journals that I also reviewed.
Next to these two is Sara Davidson’s Loose Change. My aunt gave me a box of books years ago (lots of Asimov and Octavia Butler) and this was in here.
I knew about it because of a long essay in a 2007 issue of The Believer.
I picked up Penguin’s The Essential James Joyce in Jimbocho, an area in Tokyo known for used bookstores.
I recall paying maybe ¥100 for it. It comprises a few selections from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, some of Joyce’s (totally unessential) poetry, and the entirety of Dubliners, Exiles, and Portrait. I’ve kept it because of sentiment (and I like the cover).
From Susan Sontag’s notebooks, collected in Reborn—
so alluring, so cerebral
competent intellectual vulgarity of Aldous Huxley
Yellow Book preciousness
pedantry + lechery
Yesterday, lawyers in Zurich opened four anonymous safety deposit boxes supposedly containing original manuscripts, letters, and drawings by Franz Kafka. The question of who owns the literary cache has turned into something of an international debacle, with lawyers and judges jostling for control.
In appreciation of Kafka (and this whole cosmically-ironic fiasco), we direct you to audio clips of the PEN fellowship’s March 26, 1998 tribute, which featured, among others, E.L. Doctorow, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, and Paul Auster, reading from their own essays on Kafka, or the Czech’s work. The highlight is David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Series of Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Not Enough Has Been Removed.”
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:
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.
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:
so alluring, so cerebral