Sontag On Sontag: Journals Record A Writer's Birth

Susan Sontag's 'Reborn,' cover image
Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963
By Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff
Hardcover, 336 pages
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
List price: $25.00

Read an excerpt.

Susan Sontag bio pic

hide captionRaised in Tucson, Ariz., and North Hollywood, Susan Sontag catapulted herself to the center of America's literary establishment by the time she was 30.

Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

By the end of her life in 2004, the novelist and essayist Susan Sontag had turned the most persistent critique of her talent — that her greatest creation was her own daunting persona — to a point of pride. "Good for her! More power to her," she said about Emma Hamilton, the rags-to-riches heroine of her 1992 novel, The Volcano Lover. "I love self-made people."

Sontag was one herself. Born Susan Rosenblatt and raised in Tucson, Ariz., and North Hollywood, she had, by age 30, catapulted herself to the center of America's literary establishment. With the just-published Reborn, the first installment of Sontag's journals — edited by her son, David Rieff — we now have the absorbing story of the inner evolution that made that journey possible.

The strong-willed voice was there from the beginning. In her very first journal entry, the then 14-year-old writer declares there is no afterlife. Among her other beliefs: "that an ideal state ... should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines + transportation."

Her seriousness does not let up. Reborn is full of earnest exhortations to read books (Moll Flanders, another tale of self-creation) and smile less ("Think of Blake. He didn't smile for others"), as well as descriptions of lectures attended and films inhaled, sometimes at the rate of three a day.

Were Reborn merely a diary of such intellectual conquests, it would grow tedious, even to fans. But in passages chronicling the experiences that gouged her, the self-consciousness that dogged her, the marriage that nearly smothered her and the self-discoveries that redefined her, the famously fierce Sontag retreats to a sometimes humble, sometimes confused tone that is a revelation.

"Being queer," she wrote in one diary entry from 1959, "makes me feel more vulnerable." Another, from 1960, records a day: "Awake at 7:00 — rage."

As the journals progress, Sontag's thoughts on love and sexuality and the car-wreck relationships she had with women push from the page her earnest list-making of books to read. It's as if the poles of the private life and the life of the mind are bending toward each other. Finally, on the book's last page, they touch in a sentence fragment: "Intellectual 'wanting' like sexual wanting."

As do all the best critics, Sontag gave us new metaphors for how to read and see. Fabulously, surprisingly, Reborn shows she used that skill to understand her own pell-mell life.

Excerpt: 'Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963'

5/24/49

I do not think it possible to surrender what I know now ... I feared a relapse, but even wedged back into the routine, I still have the answer of which I was so sure in the wake of an ecstasy ... I watch Irene, so obvious in her confusion and avoidance of me ... her mouth is so thin ... It's really sad to realize how incomplete she is, how miserable she'll always be ... It isn't that I've stopped loving her-it's just that she's been completely diminished, eclipsed by the wonderful widening of my world which I owe to H ... I have made so few right decisions, and most of those right for the wrong reasons ... My letter to Irene, for instance, contained much truth though I did not mean the true interpretation of those grand phrases ...

To love one's body and use it well, that's primary ... I can do that, I know, for I am freed now ...

5/25/49

A thought occurred to me today — so obvious, so always obvious! It was absurd to suddenly comprehend it for the first time — I felt rather giddy, a little hysterical: — There is nothing, nothing that stops me from doing anything except myself ... What is to prevent me from just picking up and taking off? Just the self-enforced pressures of my environment, but which have always seemed so omnipotent that I never dared to contemplate a violation of them ... But actually, what stops me? A fear of my family-Mother, especially? A clinging to security and material possessions? Yes, it is both of those, but only those realities that keep me ... What is college? I can learn nothing, for that which I want to know I can accumulate, and have done so, on my own, and the rest will always be drudgery ... College is safety, because it is the easy, secure thing to do ... As for Mother, I honestly don't care — I just don't want to see her-The love of possessions — books and records — those are two oppressions which have been very powerful in the last few years, yet what, what bars me from putting my papers, notebooks, and a couple of books in a small box, sending them to a storage company in another city, getting into a couple of shirts and my levis, stuffing another pair of socks and a couple of bucks in my coat pocket, walking out of the house-after leaving an appropriately Byronesque note to the world-and taking a bus-anywhere? — Of course, I'd be caught by the police the first time and sent back to the bosom of my distraught family, but when I walked out the day after I was sent home, and did the same if I were returned again, they would leave me alone-I can do anything! Let me make a bargain with myself then — if I am not accepted in Chicago, I will leave in exactly this manner this summer. If I am accepted, then I will go for this next year, and if I am in any way dissatisfied — if in any sense I feel that most of me isn't being used there, then I'll take off — God, living is enormous!

5/26/49

With my new eyes I re-survey the life around me. Most particularly I become frightened to realize how close I came to letting myself slide into the academic life. It would have been effortless ... just keep on making good grades — (I probably would have stayed in English — I just don't have the math ability for Philosophy) — stayed for a master's and a teaching assistantship, wrote a couple of papers on obscure subjects that nobody cares about, and, at the age of sixty, be ugly and respected and a full professor. Why, I was looking through the English Dept. publications in the library today — long (hundreds of pages) monographs on such subjects as: The Use of "Tu" and "Vous" in Voltaire; The Social Criticism of Fenimore Cooper; A Bibliography of the Writings of Bret Harte in the Magazines + Newspapers of California (1859-1891) ...

Jesus Christ! What did I almost submit to?!?

5/27/49

Some regression-confusion-today, but that I can recognize [that] it is good, at least ... fear, fear ... It was Irene, of course: how childish she is, but how inexcusably immature I am! Everything was fine as long as I felt she had completely rejected me ... Then, last night, just before I left for a philosophy lecture, she walked up to me and said she had decided (!) that she's like to get to know me some day ...

Excerpted from Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag. Copyright © 2008 by The Estate of Susan Sontag. Published in December 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Reborn
Reborn

Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963

by Susan Sontag and David Rieff

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