This is it?” I asked myself several times as I made my way through Susan Sontag’s diaries. By the end, I’d stopped carping; in fact, I had the feeling they had exploded in my hands. Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963, edited by Sontag’s son, David Rieff, is the first in a three-volume selection from the writer’s private papers, covering her prefame years, up to the age of thirty. The entries are generally short and frequently trivial (though not uninteresting)—movies seen, books to buy, lists of words and terms to learn, not all of them recondite:
“box” = vagina
“have a box” = eat a woman
(“when you gonna let me have some of that box, honey?”)
Ideas are touched on (as early as 1956, Sontag was already mulling over interpretation) but seldom developed. These early journals served a much rawer purpose.
Anyway, she wasn’t a writer whose life was informed by a few large ideas (except, perhaps, for seriousness, which isn’t an idea but an attitude). She was as promiscuous intellectually as she was with her body; or, more accurately (in both cases), she was serially monogamous. Though she had her cynosures, what always excited her was the new theory or writer or director, which she would wrestle into an essay and then move on. She wasn’t especially loyal to ideas, and late in life she took pleasure in repudiating some of her earlier ones. This serial intensity was what made her a great essayist, though discarded lovers and friends may have had a few other things to say about it.
As you would expect, Sontag was a dead-serious teenager. The volume opens with an eight-item list headed i believe (“no personal god or life after death . . . government control of public utilities”), compiled in 1947, when she was fourteen. Amid the jottings about Gide and Vivaldi, a note recorded shortly before her sixteenth birthday jumps out: “I feel that I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this)—.” Three months later, in March 1949, as a freshman at Berkeley, she recoils from the overtures of a young man (“I tried! I did try”); soon thereafter, she sleeps with “H.”—Rieff leaves her unnamed though she’s been identified elsewhere—and planets collide:
I am alive . . . I am beautiful . . . what else is there?
I know the truth now—I know how good and right it is to love—I have, in some part, been given permission to live—
Everything begins from now—I am reborn.
Meanwhile, she’s been accepted at the University of Chicago, where she arrives in September 1949. There, she marries a sociology instructor named Philip Rieff.
Why did Sontag do it? It doesn’t sound like a case of mad love (“I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness”), and other theories don’t flatter her—though she does note (later, long after the marriage has gone sour) that “I did desire Philip tremendously during the first year.” Whatever her reasons, it was a bad marriage, though with one big reward: David Rieff is the only person mentioned in these pages with consistent affection—or, in fact, with any affection.
Entries from the next few years vary between grim and dull—extracts from the journal of a spiritual corpse. There are no notebooks from 1951 and 1952; whether they’re lost or Sontag was too depressed to keep a record, we don’t know. The next three years offer little more. In 1957, she draws a connection between her husband and George Eliot’s Edward Casaubon that she would reuse, rather meanly, four decades later at the outset of In America (2000). The same year, while working on a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard, she wins a fellowship to Oxford and makes plans to spend a year there un- encumbered by husband and child. Her account of her last day at home is so peculiarly detailed, in comparison with what she usually jots down, that it’s apparent she’s registering the importance of what Rieff notes is, “in reality, the last day of her marriage.” She spends a term at Oxford, splits for Paris, and there takes up again with H., her lover from Berkeley.
The ecstatic sex, the wounding sex! The weeping, the recriminations, the insults, the rage! The self-laceration, the confusion, the desperation—oy gevalt, the drama!
Suffocating not to talk, to make things clear; suicidal to talk, causing her either to lie (what she’s been doing) or to be honest.
Thursday night . . . was a kind of hell such as I’ve rarely been through. I felt myself blindly walking through a forest of pain, my inner eyes clenched shut, trying to keep from weeping.
Oh God, I don’t want to remember! . . . and our rendez-vous at 12:30 at the Deux Magots—so blind + love-sick and gut-torn I could barely stand.
She may be miserable, but after seven lost years, she is wildly, fantastically alive—and feeling and thinking, mining experience that will find its way into her 1962 essay “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer”:
The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering—suffering as the supreme token of seriousness (the paradigm of the Cross). . . . The modern contribution to this Christian sensibility has been to discover the making of works of art and the venture of sexual love as the two most exquisite sources of suffering. It is this that we look for in a writer’s diary.
This passage, incidentally, is what convinces me—despite Rieff’s misgivings about making the diaries public, which he lays out, with tact and intelligence, in his preface—that after Sontag became famous, she fully intended for her journals to be published.
The liaison with H. ends. In 1959, Sontag moves to New York, taking custody of David, and begins an affair with the playwright Maria Irene Fornes. More torture: “I am jealous of everyone she sees, I hurt every minute she goes away from me. . . . [Irene] said this was the first good orgasm she’s had for months, and then I spoiled it. . . . Every conversation is a fresh wound—justification + counter-justification, explanation and counter-explanation.” And on and on. In addition, there’s a growing strain of self-criticism aimed at self-improvement. (“Don’t smile so much, sit up straight, bathe every day”—it’s bizarre how often she admonishes herself to bathe—“and above all Don’t Say It, all those sentences that come ready-to-say on the tickertape at the back of my tongue.”) Yet this isn’t the scheming, image-manipulating Sontag her detractors have envisioned. There are no premonitions of stardom—the woman is a mess. For the literary voyeur, the glimpses behind the regal iciness of her published prose are riveting. “To say that these diaries are self-revelatory,” Rieff writes, “is a drastic understatement.”
So, surprise—she was human. The inverse parabola that Reborn traces—the high of her sexual initiation, the low of her marriage, and her eventual reawakening (her real rebirth)—constitutes a gay-liberation paradigm so obvious it borders on the banal. Except that, as we all know, the story didn’t end so crisply. Sontag came no further out of the closet before the wider public until she was forced to by a pair of hostile biographers in 2000. There’s been endless speculation as to why she remained so tight-lipped. A lot of people have called her a coward.
I don’t think there was anything cowardly about her, though. It was more complicated than that. Her sexuality wasn’t what she wanted the conversation to be about—and she always thought she could control the conversation. If she insisted she was a novelist, then she would be a novelist, and woe to anybody who had the insensitivity to call her a critic. She knew how to wield her wrath. Even on her deathbed, as Rieff has related in his splendid memoir of her final months, Swimming in a Sea of Death (2008), she was determined to control the conversation. She was going to beat death—she couldn’t die—and no one who loved her could suggest otherwise without dire consequences.
And her will was so adamantine that she pretty much did control the conversation. She got treated as the important novelist she thought she was, and long past the era when being gay was considered scandalous or even louche, journalists tiptoed around her sexuality; she gave you to understand that it would be a very low thing to talk about. But her dishonesty did her in, because in the end it was all anybody could talk about—which is why I’m talking about it now, when I’d much rather be talking about her work. Eventually, critics will read these journals the way they ought to be read, mining them for the nuggets that shed light on that work—but only after we have the conversation we couldn’t have when she was alive.
Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News and the author of Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004).