Apr/May 2012

Greater Expectations

Susan Sontag's journals find her striving for a place in the pantheon

Christine Smallwood


THE TITLE OF THE SECOND VOLUME of Susan Sontag’s private writings is taken from an entry dated May 22, 1965, when Sontag was thirty-two years old. “Novel about thinking—” it begins. “An artist thinking about his work.” In the margins, she adds, “A spiritual project—but tied to making an object (as consciousness is harnessed to flesh).”

It’s a strange and spooky phrase, the richest image in the diary’s five hundred pages. There’s something sad about this emblem of captivity, the spirit being put under reins. There’s also something enabling and empowering—the inanimate being directed, gaining strength, driving forward. Being harnessed to flesh means being flexible enough to move.

The animating force at the heart of everything Sontag wrote—the cultivation of aesthetic and intellectual experience—is not properly speaking an idea; it’s a stance, or an attitude. It is itself a way of moving. There is no magnum opus or theoretical treatise that we can point to as Sontag’s distinct contribution, no “takeaway” we can pierce under glass. So it may not be very surprising that since her death eight years ago, the many provocations of her thinking have drifted out of view to make room for the more obvious fact of her celebrity. Besides, she’s a woman; we make good icons.

As a personality, Sontag just keeps giving—the famous marriage, the semi-closeted sexuality, the reenacted dodging from sniper fire—and so we have been treated to many biographies in miniature, memoirs and readings of her reinventions, her snobbishness, her grandeur, her condescension, her streak. But to focus on the persona instead of the work is to miss the point. They go together. Sontag knew very well that thinking is the person bent into form, the consciousness harnessed to flesh. To hate or love someone’s writing is to hate or love that person’s soul. There is no great life apart from great work. In my mind, that means what matters about Sontag is already in her criticism and her fiction. Her private writings do not expose personal secrets that explain her work; the opposite is true. We need her work to understand her notebooks.

THIS SECOND OF THREE volumes covers Sontag’s years of major thinking on art and politics from age thirty-one to forty-seven. It’s the period of “Notes on ‘Camp,’” “Illness as Metaphor,” “On Style,” “Against Interpretation,” On Photography, the essays on Barthes, Benjamin, Godard, Cioran, Leni Riefenstahl, Artaud. As the years pass, the entries get fewer and farther between, down to a trickle; the first five years take up fully half the volume. There are many long passages picking apart relationships with Irene, Nicole, Eva, and Carlotta; short notes of ideas for fiction; lists of likes and dislikes; and endless quotations, some of which repeat. She analyzes herself—her eating, her neuroses, her habits as a lover—as well as her dislike of her mother and preoccupation with her father. (Her sister, as in the first journal, is distant from her mind at all times.) Sontag records conversations and historical facts and plays with ideas: “Greatest period of modern art in Russia in early 20s, but they were too advanced + too isolated”; “So far as it is really denied, death becomes the most important thing”; “Texas Chainsaw Massacre a new threshhold; most imp[ortant] Am[erican] film of the 70s.”

The preface by David Rieff, her son, casts the diary as a political bildungsroman; the last entry, highlighted, reads: “Great subject / the West falling out of love with Communism. End of a 200-year-passion.” He includes notes from Sontag’s famous trip to Hanoi in 1968, which challenged her own political passion: She struggled with the “simplicity” of the people and their “monochromatic” revolutionary language. “Speaking all the time in simple declarative sentences,” she writes. “All discourse either expository or interrogative.” The notebooks move in and out of romantic ambivalence, political history, fiction, and criticism, but Sontag understands all four registers as radical, passionate, fundamentally linguistic, and changeable.

The eager grasping for experience that marked her twenties here gives way to fears about her place in the canon and the worry that her period of most gem-like burning is at an end. At the ripe age of thirty-two, she wonders, “Have I done all the living I’m going to do?” This most authoritative of writers worries over her tendency to defer to the authority of others, and her habit of masking her aggression and competitiveness. (Either she was a very bad actor, or she was more competitive and aggressive than one can possibly imagine.) It seems that Sontag is the only person who did not buy into the myth that she was “serious”; the notebooks are full of reminders to smile less, to be more serious.

Just as the first volume had slim mention of her eight-year marriage to Philip Rieff in the 1950s, this volume finds almost no mention of her treatments and surgery for breast cancer in the mid-1970s. “Trying to race ahead of my death—to get in front of it, then turn around and face it, let it catch up with me, pass me, and then take my place behind it, walking in the right rhythm, stately, unsurprised” is about the only clue. Instead, she writes about the things she desires, and what she desires above all is greatness.

In every era, there are three teams of writers. The first team: those who have become known, gain “stature,” become reference points for their contemporaries writing in the same language. (e.g. Emil Staiger, Edmund Wilson, V.S. Pritchett). The second team: international—those who become reference points for their contemporaries throughout Europe, the Americas, Japan, etc. (e.g. Benjamin). The third team: those who become reference points for successive generations in many languages (e.g. Kafka). I’m already on the first team, on the verge of being admitted to the second—want only to play on the third.

Something more complicated than a lust for fame is at work here, although certainly that lust—that “wanting to play”—is at issue. Being a “reference point” means more than having your face on a tote bag. It means opening up streams of ideas, being a thinker who makes other thinkers possible. It means being generative. Being great also means having great moments—or, I should say, greater moments, greater and greater. Sontag is a comparatist and a ranker of artists as well as ecstasies and anxieties, reactions, postures, and case histories.

The stars like Garbo, Dietrich, and Bogart who adorn her wall, frozen in photographic stills, are gatekeepers, judges, examples, members of the club. “They’re on my team,” she writes, “or rather, I am (hope to be) on theirs. They’re my models. They guard me from despair, from feeling there’s nothing better in the world than what I see, nothing better than me!”

The presence in this volume is a lonely one: Sontag felt too smart for her contemporaries, too quick, too alive. Recognition would provide access to meaning: “To become famous in order to have access to people, not be alone,” she writes in Prague in 1966. She complains that she must either make herself “weak” to get close to others or “pump” them up: “My long series of pedagogic relationships—not to perpetuate the master-pupil relationship but to create a company of peers for myself.” She was a supplicant who felt herself to be more than those around her—she knew more, she wanted more. “I’m not a solipsist,” she explained to herself,

the people are there—and real. But that’s all. They’re all minimal people, almost inert, barely alive or feeling or thinking. I have to teach them how to think + how to live so I’ll have someone to talk to, someone to like, someone to admire. . . . They’re too lazy to do it for themselves. I’m sure they could if they would, if they really tried. But they don’t seem impelled by the kind of vision + energy that impels me.

This is an adolescent fantasy, that no one is like you, no one else’s inner life is as rich as yours, no one else wants and feels and dreams and struggles like you do. Either the world is full of minimal people, or imagining others as minimal is a strategy for survival. Someone else’s capacities are a terrifying possibility—what they could open, what they could overwhelm—and we each have the power to believe in them or not. For Sontag, things only exist when she is looking at them: “Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest).”

This is the meaning of the famous call for an “erotics of art” in “Against Interpretation”—that the viewer receives and completes the work with perfect interest and deep knowledge. One spends one’s whole life preparing for art. And it really doesn’t exist when you’re—when she’s—not there. It’s curious, then, that Sontag, who called in that same essay for “a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of the work of art,” as well as “experiencing the luminousness of the thing itself,” was herself so uninterested in describing things themselves. Her prose itself is dense and abstract; her essays only rarely contain narrative exposition or thick, loving description of a particular work. She herself complains of the “thinness” of her writing, calling it “architectural.” The drama of her sentence is the drama of a grand tour of her learning—summaries of epochal movements, of shifts in historical consciousness, of philosophy. Her inclination is to broad claims, interpretations of methodologies, outlines of practices, explanations of influence. What this means is that while a Sontag essay will go into great detail about what something means, what it brings up for its author, it will almost never explain what something looks like, sounds like, is like. No matter what she claims about loving description, for her there is no “thing” apart from the act of receiving it.

The erotics of Sontag’s criticism is the erotics of pedagogy, of a relationship between a teacher and a student, mentor and mentee, guide and pilgrim, work of art and its most perfect receiver. Her prose smells of the seminar room, packed with quotations, epochal pronouncements, authoritative claims on history, consciousness, art. Sontag is an enthusiast but not, properly speaking, a popularizer; she writes for the initiate, not the na´f. The seduction of her sentences is their hardness and authority; they could never be accused of a light touch. She wears her learning like chain mail.

Funny that such an exhaustive moral authority on the documented sufferings of others could be unbearably oppressed by the most casual assertions of other minds. In conversation once, Walker Percy explained to her that to get to his house, she should “take the Pontchartrain Bridge—26 miles—straight as a string.” Percy’s mind interrupts her own; she wants to be left alone to see what she wants to see: “I’m visualizing the bridge, the plantation house, the bayou, the moss-covered trees. Suddenly there’s this damned string . . .”

But solitude, of course, is almost impossible to bear. In 1964 she writes,

Death = being completely inside one’s own head
Life = the world

And one year later:

I think, truly think, in only two situations:
at the typewriter or when writing in these notebooks (monologue)
talking to someone else (dialogue)

Reading and moviegoing are nowhere on this list. Neither are walking, eating, dreaming, watching, standing in the shower, looking at the wall, staring out the window, listening to music—it’s all prelude, waiting, stasis, death. This is a far cry from the Arendtian thinking-is-the-thing-I-do-by-myself; for Sontag, thinking is writing or it is talking, but it’s never just being with oneself. (Recall her tendency to compose her published work while on amphetamines.) Sigrid Nunez’s memoir Sempre Susan is especially rich on this point of Sontag’s intense need to be around and surrounded by others: She followed Nunez around the apartment, chatting at her; she was the last one at the party. Her social creations were necessary after all.

But to need others is a terrible thing, on par with all other needs; to create a person worthy to speak with you is not a triumph but an act of degradation. Sontag criticized her “habit of trading information for human warmth,” comparing it to dropping a coin in a parking meter. “Hence,” she continued, “my ancient wish to be mute—because I know what most of my speech is for, and I’m humiliated by that.” Many things humiliated Sontag: psychoanalysis, taking the subway, her own feelings. She had them, but were they the right ones? Did they rise to the occasion that was her being?

CONTEMPT, not indignation

“There is only one thing I dread; not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

—Dostoyevsky

“There is only one thing I dread; that my sufferings will not be worthy of me.”

—Sontag

AT AGE TWENTY-SEVEN, Sontag vowed to “destroy the will.” The problem with will, we learn here, is that it can’t get you the things that really matter. It can’t open all doors.

I also knew—as the years went on—that I wasn’t smart enough to be Schopenhauer or Nietzsche or Wittgenstein or Sartre or Simone Weil. I aimed to be in their company, as a disciple; to work on their level. I had, I knew—I have—a good mind, even a powerful one. I’m good at understanding things— + ordering them—and using them. (My cartographic mind.) But I’m not a genius. I’ve always known that.

Her obsession was never “high culture” and “pop culture”; it was greatness and her own distance from it. She obsesses over her female lovers—she especially prizes a kind of naturalness of feeling and being in one’s body, an unanxious self-acceptance and risk taking—and her male heroes. With very few exceptions—Weil, Virginia Woolf, the enigmatic Laura Riding—her journals and her essays form a record of male genius, of ValÚry and Walser; Beckett, Benjamin, and Barthes; Jasper Johns, Joseph Brodsky, John Cage, and Jerzy Grotowski; Kierkegaard and Kafka. A female intellectual adjacent to the community of second-wave feminism, she fetishizes exile, loss, and wandering, the fragment and the incomplete, the aphorists and the composers of silence.

What does it mean to be not a genius? It’s a question that most of us must answer. For Sontag, not being a genius meant being a cartographer, an orderer of the world. It meant being a student and a promiscuous reader. It meant trying harder, writing more, thinking more, pushing on. It meant criticism as an act of homage. We tend to think of geniuses as lonely, but I think, for Sontag, geniuses are bound by importance; they have the company of each other. They play together on the same “team.” Sontag, on the other hand, writes alone. “Decline of the letter, the rise of the notebook!” she exhorts in 1980. “One doesn’t write to others anymore; one writes to oneself.” “The free intellectual: professors without students, priests without congregations, sages without communities,” she wrote in 1975. That sounds like hell to me, but Sontag calls it freedom.

Christine Smallwood is a doctoral candidate in English at Columbia University.

Pulseguy

April 3, 2012
9:16 pm

An intense need to be around others, and to be surrounded by others, but they, for the most part are insignificant.

She always came across to me as being pretty pathetic, but reading this makes me think I vastly underrated the horror of her personality.

I can't imagine living like that.

Kenneth Conway

April 4, 2012
9:08 am

Well, I believe a good laugh is in order.

May I therefore recommend perhaps the funniest essay ever published in a literary journal? I'm of course referring to Terry Castle's "Desperately Seeking Susan":

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n06/terry-castle/desperately-seeking-susan

Rokellinger

April 7, 2012
4:25 pm

How sadly neurotic. I would like to know more about what made her that way. And how our culture of idolatry did not help at all. And how our culture of celebrities glosses over their pain.

roseypink

April 17, 2012
12:09 pm

Susan lacked a sense of humor...she did not understand the absurd, the ridiculous, the slapstick of life and love. That streak in her hair was a road to nowhere and she was on it. When she wrote about HOME MOVIES in Against Interpretation she was at a loss.

four0928

August 28, 2013
9:48 am

Hi, friends.
I am a Chinese. I am trying to translate this essay to Chinese, but I have some trouble with understanding " no “takeaway” we can pierce under glass".
If it is possible, can you explain them to me, thanks a lot.
My name is Lingling.
And this is my email: four0928@163.com

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