23 February, 2009Issue 8.5LiteratureNorth AmericaWriters

Email This Article Print This Article

The Pain of Susan Sontag

Sam Kahn

sontagSusan Sontag
Reborn: Early Diaries, 1947-1963
Edited by David Rieff
Hamish Hamilton, 2009
336 pages
ISBN 978-0241144312

Times are tough for Susan Sontag. Four years after her death, a critical consensus seems to be emerging that, despite a flurry of accolades and tributes, she won’t quite make posterity’s cut. “Arguably the most important American literary figure or force of the last forty years,” writes Eliot Weinberger in his take down of Sontag’s posthumous reputation, “she may ultimately belong more to literary history than to literature.”

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, the first of three volumes of Sontag’s diaries, makes an intriguing case for why Sontag deserves better than consignment to the footnote.

Sontag’s journals introduce two characters operating in uneasy proximity. There’s Sontag, soon to emerge as America’s leading celebrity critic. She is the sexy, snobbish patron saint of neglected European modernists, standard bearer of the Marxist left, the symbol and lightning rod of New York’s intelligentsia. And then there’s Sontag the artistic purist, at a remove from her own celebrity, writing polemics against critics, urging America’s frivolous literati to regain some sense of literature’s inherent seriousness and suffering crippling anxiety over her own ability to match up to her literary idols. Call it Sontag the essayist, crisp and incisive, and Sontag the novelist, self-conscious and clumsy.

These duelling personas are present from the first entries of Reborn, when the 14-year old author struggles to distance herself from her miserable reality of high school in suburban California. Over the next two decades, the notebooks accumulate evidence of Sontag’s dazzling energy and erudition in the endless lists of books, movies and plays she consumes, in her stringent proscriptions for self-improvement, in repeated declarations of her absolute commitment to the life of the mind. Alongside, there is an anxious, vulnerable Sontag, bitterly critical of her looks, her talents, her acquiescent role in destructive romantic relationships, her lack of social assertiveness. The diaries, as her son David Rieff writes in his earnest preface, “oscillate between … pain and ambition.”

At times Sontag struggles with the purpose of keeping the journals. At age 23, she declares: “From now on I’m going to write every bloody thing that comes into my head.” But she is also critical of herself when she feels she is self-indulgent, when she devotes too much space to discussing her sexual affairs. The desire to be absolutely frank clashes with her vision of a notebook as a writer’s pristine laboratory. “The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself,” she would later write in her essay on Camus.

Occasionally, she achieves a productive synthesis between the competing modes of diary-keeping. In one of the most poignant sections of Reborn, Sontag explores her self-described worst feature, a combination of acquiescence, ingratiation and the tendency to perform socially at the expense of honesty and integrity. Her method in this passage—surrounding her description with personal and literary examples until an aesthetic is discernible—anticipates “Notes on Camp”, probably her most enduring essay.

Sontag’s self-conscious method is also evident in omissions from the diaries, which can be as intriguing as the entries themselves. There is little about politics, and with the exception of her sexual relationships, Sontag rarely discusses her personal or professional life. Of her whirlwind courtship with the 28-year old sociology professor she married at 17, Sontag writes laconically, “Last night, or was it early this morning?—I am engaged to Phillip Rieff.” She says next to nothing about her son, David Rieff, the editor of this collection, whom she raised for the most part as a single mother after her divorce from Phillip, and she barely mentions the teaching career that provided financial support as she worked on her first novel and early literary essays.

In cutting off the first volume of the diaries in 1963, the year before the publication of Sontag’s breakthrough essay collection Against Interpretation, Rieff structures Reborn as a Bildungsroman ending in triumph. He’s right to an extent: the purest pleasure in Reborn is to follow Sontag’s maturation as she sheds the florid writing and intellectual preening of her adolescence and gradually hones the economical, aphoristic style that would mark her professional work. But maturity is only satisfying in retrospect; when Reborn ends, with Sontag in her early thirties, she feels she is still a long way from achieving the literary greatness she expects of herself.

There is a clear through-line between Sontag’s relentless self-analysis in the diaries and her famous hard-assedness as a critic. “Art is a good and good art is endangered” might have been the battle-cry for all her written work. The glib, the ironic and the facetious dominate Anglo-American cultural life, Sontag claims. Art is reduced to commerce, to politically correct sententiousness, and everywhere lacks guts and purpose.

For Sontag, the stakes of art’s redemption could not possibly be higher. Every age needs an active spirituality, a comprehensive system of consciousness. Religion initially filled that purpose; when the Renaissance and Enlightenment cracked religion, various philosophies attempted to pick up the slack, all ultimately collapsing from their own logical absurdities. In the 20th century, art emerged as the leading—if not the only—heir to the grand project. For art to squander its potential, whether through critical over-interpretation, academic suffocation or the cowardice of conventional artists, is a tragic waste that risks the integrity of civilisation itself.

Of course, Sontag’s portrayal of civilisation in perennial Götterdämmerung with art cast as redeeming hero seems curiously dated. Weinberger and the mob squad of critics reining in Sontag’s reputation are surely correct in pointing out that her view of art’s role in modern society, however plausible it might have seemed for a brief moment in the sixties, is fundamentally na√Øve. Add to that the unreadability of much of Sontag’s fiction and a certain tendency to apply a high modernist literary gloss to everything she analyses, and the case for Sontag’s posthumous reputation seems tough to make.

Late in life, Sontag herself acknowledged that many of her critical pronouncements had been misread and her vision for literature remained unfulfilled. “Is literary greatness still possible?” she asks plaintively in her essay on W.G. Sebald. In the end, she concludes that “the devolution of literary ambition” continues unabated. Art matters less than it did in 1963.

While Sontag’s reputation may be headed for a decline, the notebooks reveal something worth preserving: the fierce integrity of an aesthete struggling to meet her own standards and an incisive critic at odds with the passage of time. If Sontag is ultimately relegated to the footnotes, it is unclear if the failing is hers or ours.

Sam Kahn graduated from Yale University in 2008 with a BA in Humanities. He currently lives in New York.