Young Susan Sontag reveals in her early diary the most intimate thoughts on education, writing, sexuality and marriage

Susan Sontag, Reborn. Early diaries 1947 – 1964

Published 2009 by Penguin, 320p

 

The first volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, edited by David Rieff, her son, and published after the author’s death is a fascinating reading on the mind of a great intellectual, a self-portrait of a sensitive woman in continuous development.

In 1947 she was only 14 but extremely precocious, a curious teenager, eager to know everything. She used to make lists of books, crossing out the ones that she had bought, found pleasure in arranging them and re-read the ones that had moved her. Along with reading, music and films were her other passions.

Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts – it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure – and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in the music (1948).             

Writing was for Sontag a necessity, her meaning in life.

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather – in many cases – offers an alternative to it.

She was often frustrated, angry, depressed but never accepted mediocrity. Sexuality was one of her major anxieties; by 15 she already had lesbian tendencies. At 16 she became a student at University of California and finding only humiliation and degradation at the thought of physical relations with a man she felt the need to resurrect. She passionately experienced sexual relations with women and enjoyed the intellectual bonding with them. After a semester at Berkley, Sontag transferred to the University of Chicago where she began to work for Philip Rieff, a sociologist. In 1950 she married him but was never happy so in 1963 they divorced.

I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness (1950).

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. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies (1956).

Rilke thought the only way to keep love in marriage was by perpetual acts of separation-return (1956).

Sontag had only one son, David, whom she left when she went to study at Oxford and involved herself in several relations with women. The diary includes two intense affairs that Sontag had those years – with I (playwright Maria Irene Fornes) and H. The years spent in Europe, away from her husband brought Sontag the freedom she longed for.

Affection and communication were essential for Sontag in a relation; the indifference of her lovers brought her loss of the personality. Furthermore she had always felt vulnerable because of her sexuality:

My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me. It doesn’t justify my homosexuality. But it would give me – I feel – a license. I am just becoming aware of how guilty I feel being queer. (1959)

A good writer, she said, must be four persons:

  • The nut, the obsédé
  • The moron
  • The stylist
  • The critic

1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence

A great writer has all 4 – but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important. (1961)

No matter how deep her anxiety or depression, Sontag would find resources in books, films, museums and writing. The complexity of her personality comes from her constant effort and intensity of her self-education. The biographical information in the diary is put in the shade by all the references she created – not only book titles but things to do and say, things not to do and say, new words and expressions in English and French.

There is much pain, contradiction and desperation in the book but the effects are not destructive yet resourceful and cathartic.

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