Under the Sign of Sappho

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 BY Susan Sontag. edited by David Rieff. Picador. Hardcover, 336 pages. $24.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 BY Susan Sontag. edited by David Rieff. Picador. Paperback, 544 pages. $20.

The cover of As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

SUSAN SONTAG’S JOURNALS AND NOTEBOOKS, which totaled close to one hundred by the time of her death, at age seventy-one in 2004, were kept in a walk-in closet in her bedroom. Their location is almost too perfect. Although never explicitly acknowledged while she was alive, Sontag’s same-sex relationships were for many years an open secret. The closet door, in other words, had been left ajar; you could enter and exit without too much effort. For even longer, it seems, she had wanted to be found out. And with the publication, in 2008 and 2012, respectively, of the first two (of a planned three) volumes of her journals and notebooks—Reborn, covering 1947–63, and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, spanning 1964–80—she was.

“One of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people, the people (like parents + lovers) about whom one has been cruelly honest only in the journal. Will H ever read this?” Sontag, then twenty-four, wrote in her journal on New Year’s Eve, 1957, while in Paris. “H” is Harriet Sohmers, Sontag’s girlfriend at the time, who had earlier seduced the writer when she was a sixteen-year-old student at Berkeley. After “H,” Sontag would be involved for several years with “I.,” the playwright María Irene Fornés, who, before she was with Sontag, had been Sohmers’s lover, a quasi-incestuous sequence of events not uncommon among the sapphically inclined. The psychic enmeshment deepens after reading syntactically peculiar passages like these, both from 1960: “I. and
I don’t really talk any more”; “Why haven’t I told I. to give up the apartment downtown?” (Do the diary jottings obliquely anticipate the title of Sontag’s 1978 collection of short stories, I, etcetera?)

In 1968, Sontag was still hoping to be exposed, as this entry, composed in Stockholm, makes painfully evident:

Maybe that’s why I write—in a journal. That feels “right.” I know I’m alone, that I’m the only reader of what I write here—but the knowledge isn’t painful, on the contrary I feel stronger for it, stronger each time I write something down. . . . I can’t talk to myself, but I can write to myself.

(But is that because I do think it possible that someday someone I love who loves me will read my journals—+ feel even closer to me?)

I don’t know whether this wish ever came true; in the preface to Reborn, Sontag’s son, David Rieff, the editor of his mother’s journals, notes only that “those close to her knew of their existence.” Those of us who did not know her personally, but who still loved or admired her (or hated her or felt something in between), could not help but feel closer to Sontag after reading either volume of her diaries. They reveal the imperious, valiant public figure at her most defenseless. They reveal a woman often emotionally decimated by other women, a woman consumed by how good or bad she was in bed. But they also a reveal a writer who, in trying to make sense of her frequent personal anguish, applied the same rigor found in her critical essays to scrutinizing her affective life. “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,” Sontag also writes in that New Year’s Eve ’57 entry. For this most redoubtable of thinkers, perhaps her greatest, longest work of criticism was the one she applied to herself.

“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,” Sontag wrote on December 24, 1959, the year she divorced Philip Rieff, whom she married when she was seventeen, in 1950, and whom she identifies in this same entry as her “enemy.” She ends that day’s observations with this: “Being queer makes me feel more vulnerable. It increases my wish to hide, to be invisible—which I’ve always felt anyway.”

A few years later, her critical—public—language began to make visible the invisible, disclosures sometimes marked by anxious disavowals. In “Notes on ‘Camp,’” first published in 1964 and collected in her inaugural collection of criticism, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), Sontag meticulously distills a gay (male) sensibility, only to offer this strange repudiation: “Yet one feels that if homosexuals hadn’t more or less invented Camp, someone else would.” The essay that gives this volume its title, also first appearing in 1964, however, more boldly situates its author as a voluptuary. The famous conclusion to “Against Interpretation”—“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”—might be thought of as a corollary to what Sontag recorded in a 1965 diary entry: “Every art incarnates a sexual fantasy—” This maxim would include, especially, the seventh art; both Reborn and As Consciousness contain prodigious lists of films Sontag had viewed in just a matter of days or weeks. She would worry, decades later, that the ceremonies of the cine-sensualist were near extinction. “No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals—erotic, ruminative—of the darkened theater,” Sontag writes in “The Decay of Cinema,” published in the New York Times in 1996. Erotics, erotic: The terms are the virga of the Sontag word cloud.

Harriet Sohmers and Susan Sontag, 1958. Courtesy Spuyten Duyvil Publishing.
Harriet Sohmers and Susan Sontag, 1958. Courtesy Spuyten Duyvil Publishing.

“SEX IS GETTING A BAD REPUTATION,” Sontag declares in her journal in 1978. She, like most of us, consistently worried about her own standing in this field. As detailed by Sigrid Nunez in her 2011 ménage memoir, Sempre Susan, which recalls the brief time in the mid-’70s when she lived with Sontag and David Rieff, her boyfriend at the time, and which ranks among the best of the corpse-capitalizing volumes that appeared after Sontag’s death, “one of [Sontag’s] own first thoughts when she’d been told she had cancer”—in 1975—“was ‘Did I not have enough sex?’”

The thought plagues Sontag throughout the journals, as do questions regarding her competence as a lover. Initially, though, while a teenage Berkeley student in the full flush of her lesberation, Sontag is supremely self-confident, convinced that her boundless sexual appetite will be sated. “I am infinite—I must never forget it . . . I want sensuality and sensitivity, both . . . I was more alive and satisfied with H than I have ever been with anyone else . . . Let me never deny that . . . I want to err on the side of violence and excess, rather than to underfill my moments . . . ,” Sontag writes on June 13, 1949, after a semester spent frequenting the Paper Doll, Mona’s, the Tin Angel, and other Bay Area homo boîtes. By late summer of that year, Sontag discovers that she is a versatile bottom, her sex scrutiny culminating in mortification: “For after being ‘femme’ to H and ‘butch’ to L, I recall finding greater physical satisfaction in being ‘passive,’ though emotionally I am definitely the lover type, not the beloved . . . (God, how absurd this all is!!)”

The embarrassment and humiliation increase. “She told me to go read a sex manual,” reads one of the entries logged after 9:30 pm on February 19, 1960, following a dustup with Fornés. In 1965, two years after she and Fornés broke up for good, Sontag is merciless in her auto-assessments: “I am left with a complete paralysis of my sexual life—she rejected me because I was no good in bed, I am no good in bed—and a terrible anxiety about taking from people (even cups of coffee) except when it appears to be totally impersonal.” Earlier, Sontag had clinically diagnosed her condition, noting in 1962, “The reason I’m not good in bed (haven’t ‘caught on’ sexually) is that I don’t see myself as someone who can satisfy another person sexually.—I don’t see myself as free.”

ONE PASSAGE IN As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh—a volume that, though spanning the years of Sontag’s greatest intellectual influence, is largely, as Rieff notes in the preface, an “elaboration of romantic loss”—follows a byzantine logic. “Au fond, I do like myself. I always have. . . . It’s just that I don’t think other people will like me. And I ‘understand’ their point of view. But—if I were other people—I’d like me a lot,” Sontag writes in late 1967. It’s a rare moment of self-regard, however torqued, one closer in spirit to her assured public persona and one that recalls a passage from the very first, lengthy entry in As Consciousness, dated May 5, 1964, as Sontag rues the end of her relationship with Fornés: “I don’t really accept the change in Irene. I think I can reverse it—by explaining, by demonstrating that I am good for her.”

The need to prove her worth to an inconstant lover becomes deeply self-abnegating, almost self-annihilating, during Sontag’s relationship with Carlotta del Pezzo, an Italian aristocrat first mentioned in 1970. “I must be strong, permissive, unreproachful, capable of joy (independently of her), able to take care of my own needs (but playing down my ability, or wish, to take care of hers). . . . I cannot ever show her all my weakness. I must limit my thirst for candor,” she admonishes herself, creating emotional mandates that are impossible to follow.

Then again, by the time of the above entry, Sontag, whose second collection of essays, Styles of Radical Will, was published in 1969, had long mastered self-directed appeals. “I wrote as an enthusiast and a partisan—and with, it now seems to me, a certain naiveté. . . . For all my exhortatory tone, I was not trying to lead anyone into the Promised Land except myself,” she declares in the introduction to Against Interpretation. In her journals, she also wrote as an enthusiast and a partisan—of women—while trying to find her way out of the most intimate agony.

Melissa Anderson is the senior film critic for the Village Voice.